Concerns have been raised about possible plans to turn a historic old school in Cornwall into flats.

Councillors, a pressure group and local residents are all concerned the former Carclaze Infant School in St Austell – which was hit by a devastating fire in 2020 – could lose its character and that any development could lead to too little affordable housing and traffic problems.

Landowner Cornwall Council has submitted a pre-application to its own planning department seeking advice to keep the remaining façade and create eight open-market residential flats. It is intended to provide four further affordable residential flats on the top playground at the site on Carclaze Road.

Each of the flats would have access to one parking space, with additional visitor spaces.

The imposing building was built in 1878/79 by celebrated Cornish architect Silvanus Trevail. He also designed hotels including the Headland Hotel in Newquay and Carbis Bay Hotel, as well as the library in Truro and the now-demolished St Lawrence’s Hospital in Bodmin.

The school closed in 2010 when a new school opened nearby and the building has remained derelict, attracting antisocial behaviour and vandalism. Two fires, suspected to be arson attacks, risked razing it to the ground in August 2015 and July 2020.

Save The Former Carclaze Infant School is a Facebook page created by a pressure group to rally support from the public and local councillors to retain the façade during any redevelopment work.

Earlier this month, the page posted a statement from Cornwall Council which said options to deliver a 100% affordable housing scheme which retains the façade had been explored with Cornwall Rural Housing Association as well as its own council housing team, and they found schemes were not viable.

The council said: “We note that there is a strong desire to retain the façade of the school building, and to make available parking spaces for use by the adjacent chapel. We have engaged colleagues in legal services to provide advice as to how to ensure appropriate provisions are built into transfer documents to ensure that these aspirations are addressed as part of any sale process.”

A spokesperson for the support group responded: “It will be interesting to see the wording for the façade to be retained in any future developments, but we’re not sure ‘strong desire to retain’ is going to make the blindest bit of difference. We fear that by the time the site is eventually sold and developed/redeveloped, it may well be too late to save any of it.

“This building – our much-loved community asset – could have easily been saved and repurposed. Why has our local council, who are supposed to represent us, allowed this to happen with YET ANOTHER of our important, historic buildings?”

At a meeting of Treverbyn Parish Council this week, clerk David Stevens said it was not usual to comment on pre-apps but both St Austell Town Council and the parish council had decided to make their feelings known because of the protracted planning history of the site which dates back to 2009, a year before the school closed.

In July 2015 Cornwall Council considered selling the site for £300,000 based on it being in good repair. The town and parish councils carried out a feasibility study to see if they could take it on but it was beyond their financial capabilities.

St Austell Town Council decided last week it would send comments objecting to the proposals, if full plans are submitted, due to lack of affordable housing, no provision for parking for the community asking for assurances about the retention of the Trevail façade.

Cornwall councillor for the area Matt Luke said at the parish council meeting last night (Tuesday, January 23): “We’ve got to protect the façade of of the building. I think what Cornwall Council is planning to do now is sell it off, so we’ve got to protect it as much as we can. The last thing we want to see it be knocked down and someone puts a horrible modern building up.”

Cllr Gary Hooper said: “I’m not 100% happy with this but with the length of time this has been going on I’d be minded to support. With the financial situation as it is now I don’t think you’d get anyone else who is willing to retain that façade and spend that kind of money. We hope the council actually does this as I don’t think an open market provider would.

“I would rather something happens now than we drag on for another five years and the façade deteriorates.”

Cornwall councillor Peter Guest added: “I think we need to be rather pragmatic about this – I’d hate for it to drag on forever which it has done already. I’d rather see something affordable than nowt and it falls to rack and ruin, but the parking has to be highlighted as it’s absolute chaos.”

Cllr Lyndon Allen agreed that something needs to be done with the site but stressed that the façade has got to be kept. “There are lessons to be learned. These buildings need to be listed. So many of the buildings in St Austell have been lost from not being listed. We need to be mindful of what we’ve got in our parishes and get things listed before they do get demolished.”

The parish council will send its comments to Cornwall Council’s planning department.