An arson attack that destroyed a former Chester infant school has strengthened a village’s resolve to get the site turned into a community facility.
Campaigners fighting a plan for 28 homes at The Ridings school site in Saughall were initially devastated when fire ripped through the building in the early hours of Saturday morning.
But community leaders say the deliberate blaze has made them more determined than ever to see the building, which is insured, transformed into a beneficial asset for the village.
However, Cheshire West and Chester Council (CWaC) has agreed to sell the site to Morris Homes if planning consent for 28 homes is granted later this month, despite the site being designated for community use and lying in the greenbelt.
Ross Jones, who spearheads The Ridings Project, said: “My initial reaction to the fire was shock and disappointment, but ultimately the community designation and other policies are still in place, and the site should be insured so we still see no reason why CWaC can’t sit down with the community and discuss alternative options for the site.
“This is something their own policies say they have to do, but it has been rather lacking so far.”
He added: “I think the campaign will rumble on, and I'm probably as optimistic as I ever have been that we can get somewhere with it.”
Cheshire Fire & Rescue Service and police are still investigating the suspicious blaze, which saw crews battle flames for almost nine hours through smoke so severe that nearby residents were forced to stay indoors with windows closed.
Parish councillor Rakesh Shukla, who owns Saughall pharmacy, said the fire was ‘very upsetting’ but the community remained steadfast in its campaign to turn the site into a building that will benefit residents of all ages.
“This doesn’t change anything; if there is insurance money why can’t it be used to put something there that will benefit the whole community, somewhere for the elderly to get to easily, or an internet access site for example.
“We shouldn’t give up - the fire doesn’t change the fact that we don’t need extra housing in Saughall, we need a central community base.
“It is upsetting but it just increases our resolve.”
However, ward councillor Brian Crowe said: “I fully respect the opinions of the village but I’ve just not seen any feasible options other than housing of how they’re going to manage a community facility.
“The property has to be bought off the council, run and managed and we’re already in a late stage. I’d be happy to listen to any realistic options but I haven’t yet heard any.”
The Ridings School closed in November 2009 after 35 years, ahead of its amalgamation with Thomas Wedge Infant School to form the brand new Saughall All Saints Primary School, which the local authority now describes as ‘significantly oversubscribed’.
Colin Heyes, Arson Reduction Manager from Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service said: “This was a serious fire which totally destroyed the building. Fire and Rescue Service resources and staff were engaged for several hours fighting the fire and damping down afterwards.
“The cost to the community and the environment is considerable. We believe that the fire was deliberately started and a joint Police Fire investigation is under way.”
Any information about the fire should be passed to DC Helen Tennyson at Cheshire police or by calling Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.