Support conversion not demolition of Bradley Lane

Friday 8th October saw the public release of the planning application for Bradley Lane in Newton Abbot (22/01500/MAJ), writes ACT Wildlife Warden Eloise Rokirilov.  Long pending, starting at 171 documents and growing, the expiry date for comments remains at 4th November. The application calls for wholesale demolition of all the buildings, the burial and diversion of the medieval leat, and the construction of 90 new residential properties.   

Why is Bradley Lane of interest or importance to anybody? 

Of environmental as well as historic and archaeological importance, Bradley Lane is a brownfield site containing a set of attractive mill buildings, and a medieval leat that runs through the valley and into the town, joining the River Lemon underground near the Jolly Farmer. Mills have been sited on or around the area since the 13th century. They were originally built to serve Bradley Manor, the nearby Grade I listed National Trust property.  

The buildings are a testament to the wealth and contribution of the Vicary family, who were key to the industrial prosperity of Newton Abbot. Employing around 700 people at its peak in the 1800’s, the family’s substantial business interests included wool milling, fellmongery (stripping wool from sheepskins) and tanneries. With the increasing use of synthetic rather than natural materials, among other things, the business finally closed in 1972. Bradley Lane cottages were, of course, workers cottages in their time, and there is a WW2 bunker between the mills and the old Benbows buildings.  

Suffering repeat destruction from fire and flood over the centuries, the mills were proudly rebuilt on each occasion. The current buildings display a family plaque, “JV & S Rebuilt 1883”, celebrating its reconstruction in this year before its penultimate catastrophe, there also being a fire in 1921. 

The mill buildings are far from the end of their life, being built of red brick, Devon limestone and local clay brick, some of the strongest material around. Historic England and the government themselves have started shouting more loudly about the need to avoid demolition, and instead retrofit and convert buildings as a way of meeting net zero. In a climate and ecological crisis, this makes sense. Demolition releases substantial carbon and other particles into the atmosphere.  

Purchased by Teignbridge District Council in 2010, the mills continued to be used for commercial purposes. The council profess a long term intention to develop the site, and is proud of championing social housing on a brownfield site. Councillors state the intention is for the proposed development to include 44% affordable housing. However, the Viability Assessment report indicates a flat refusal by the developer to provide affordable housing as it is not financially viable. Instead, the intention is to sell 18 of the 90 units (20%) to the Guinness Trust, which will provide social rent housing. Homes England have offered funding of £2,063,400. 

More crucially for the environment, the Waste Audit Statement shows striking, estimated figures:  

  • 14,000 tonnes of concrete, brick and stone to be demolished, and recycled on site. 
  • 240 tonnes of asbestos to be removed and transported to landfill. 
  • 5 tonnes of greenery to be cut down and recycled off site. 
  • 450 tonnes of tarmac to be recycled on site. 

The present site has young trees on the west side by the River Lemon, and semi mature trees at the base of Hunterswell Road, where the recent bus survey proposed to put a bus lane, but according to this application, will instead have one self build plot on it.  

The Ecological Mitigation report shows thorough work on bat surveys, although it does not mention the leat, which is known to contain European eels, a protected species. However, it has general ‘mitigation’ measures for amphibians and reptiles. There are more details in the 2019 survey report showing that the site is within the South Hams SAC for Greater Horseshoe bats, and located within a Devon Great Crested Newt consultation zone. Also that otters had been recorded within 1km of the survey area. Mitigation will involve staged cutting, in order to allow nature to escape.    

Arsenic is recorded at 15 times the acceptable level and “the results of the risk assessment have shown that the concentration of arsenic within the upper made ground and lower natural soils poses a potentially significant risk of causing harm to end users of the environment”.  The document nonetheless maintains that there are no concerns of contamination, danger or pollution to people or the water course. 

 Newton Abbot & District Civic Society applied to Historic England for listing for the buildings, as well as to TDC’s own Community Asset Register, which would also allow a Community Right to Bid should the owner decide to sell. The latter issued a flat rejection stating, “the buildings do not fulfil the requirements of the Localism Act 2011″. They also failed to meet the listing criteria for Historic England. They were noted for their strong local importance, but did not meet enough national criteria and had suffered too many changes over time. TDC did not respond to requests for  internal viewings of the buildings, so any internal features could not be noted in the application.  

Having evicted their last commercial tenant in March this year, TDC is presumably paying each month for the buildings, which could explain the determination to succeed with the current planning application, in an effort to recoup finance and resolve the future of the site. Of the evicted commercial tenants, at least two returned to Torquay, losing business for Newton Abbot. Benbow Interiors moved to the Brunel estate in 2019 in a deal that saw a new, funded site being built for them.

NADCS had already engaged a national charity, Save Britain’s Heritage, who took the time to visit Newton Abbot with an architect in tow, and were inspired to produce a 32 page report with architectural illustrations showing an entirely different vision for the site. They advised it is possible to accommodate 111 homes by way of conversion and some new build, including 28 affordable homes, which is more than the present application. The architect has worked on some major post-industrial sites including Heartlands in Cornwall and Sarsons Vinegar Factory in London. There are many examples around the country of successful conversions, including Digbeth in Birmingham and Finzels Reach in Bristol to name two more.  

We are in a time of mass development, and a common theme of lack of affordability. Cranbrook in Exeter is currently in the news with another 1,000 houses proposed on 220 hectares of former farmland. The question has to be asked, where does it end?

With a deadline of 4th November, we would urge readers to comment on the planning application, and support conversion instead of demolition.( and search reference 22/01500/MAJ).

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