The Knutsford and District War Memorial Cottage Hospital was built by the community as a war memorial following World War I, opening in 1922. The funds to build the hospital were raised by community subscriptions, it was built on land donated by Cuthbert Leicester Warren and was operated as a community hospital. The land was conveyed to the hospital trustees in 1937 with a covenant that it remains a hospital. Following the passage of the National Health Service Act 1946, ownership of the hospital was transferred to the Government. The community continued to support the hospital through the League of Hospital Friends.
In 1994 the health authority declared the hospital was surplus to requirements. Consultation was undertaken and it is understood the community supported the British Red Cross using the hospital for its services. The Town Council supported this on the basis that if the British Red Cross ever vacated the site it would return to the government; such a clause was not included.
The health authority was keen to get rid of the building and loaned the British Red Cross the £275,000 purchase price; creating a charge on the building that if it was sold this would be repaid, like an outstanding mortgage. The land which benefited from the covenant created in 1937 was now owned by Manchester University which agreed to vary the covenant to allow the British Red Cross to sue the hospital. It is now the Crown Estate which holds the benefit of the covenant.
In April 2016, when the proposed disposal of the War Memorial Cottage Hospital by the Red Cross became clear, the Town Council established a working group led by Cllr Stewart Gardiner to investigate matters further. The working group comprised councillors and residents.
The working group researched all documents related to the history, management and disposal of the memorial to compile a background information paper. This included looking at the land registry documents, minutes of the League of Hospital Friends, Town Council minutes, regional/local health authority documents, newspaper archives and records held in the Cheshire Records Office.
The Town Council applied to have the memorial registered as an Asset of Community Value in June 2016. This was under the Community Right to Bid legislation which required a strict definition of community use. This application was rejected by Cheshire East Council as they felt the evidence was not strong enough to demonstrate the current use of the building furthered the social wellbeing of the local community as defined by the Localism Act.
In August 2016 the Town Council submitted an application to Historic England for the building to be ‘listed’ as a building of special architectural or historic interest. This was rejected by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on the grounds that the building is not of sufficient special interest in a national context.
Whilst there is a national campaign to list war memorials (such as the Cross Town War Memorial which was listed at Grade II in 2016) when the memorial is a building it assessed on the historical/architectural interest of the building first and foremost.
From its investigations the Town Council is confident that:
- The British Red Cross are the lawful owners of the freehold of the War Memorial Cottage Hospital, having bought it from the NHS in 1994
- The covenant which restricts the use of the land can be varied by mutual agreement between the British Red Cross and the Crown Estate
- The hospital’s designation as a War Memorial does not afford it any protection and no legal definition of a war memorial exists.
It was concluded that whilst there remains a strong moral case that the hospital belongs to the community which paid for it there does not appear to be a legal basis for this which could prevent the sale of the building. It is understood that the sale price is around £2,500,000.
As it became apparent that efforts to protect the building were limited the Town Council sought an Article IV Direction by Cheshire East Council which prevents the building from being demolished without planning consent.
The Town Council held meetings with the British Red Cross and sought to secure a share of the proceeds from the sale for the community; either to be placed into a Community Trust to benefit the health and wellbeing of the Knutsford community or to fund new community facilities. This was rejected by the British Red Cross which stated they were duty bound to return the profits to the Charity.
The Town Council, and then MP George Osborne, wrote to the Crown Estate who stand to share in the profits from the sale again to seek a share of the proceeds to be invested into the community. This was rejected by the Crown Estate which stated it was duty bound to return its profits to the Treasury.
The Town Council has written to NHS England, which it understands will also share in the profits from the sale, to seek its proceeds being invested in new health facilities in Knutsford. No response has been received and the Town Council has requested support from Esther McVey MP to press the NHS for a commitment.
The Town Council is aware of rumours that it has sought to profit from the sale of the building; it has only ever sought to get the best possible outcome for the Knutsford community considering that the prevention of its sale is unlikely.
The Town Council was informed in August 2017 that the Red Cross proposed to sell the memorial to McCarthy and Stone and the working group met with them in September and October to understand their plans which, it transpired, involved the demolition of the hospital. McCarthy and Stone attended the Town Council meeting in November 2017 where it formally outlined its plans, stated it was not viable to retain the hospital building and promised the building would not be demolished in 2018.
The working group considered that with the protection of the building highly unlikely it was in the community’s best interests to work with McCarthy and Stone to influence proposals. The working group met with McCarthy and Stone in December 2017 and January 2018 where it was confirmed that the building would not be demolished in 2018, that a memorial garden would be incorporated with the working group providing input into its design and including recognition of the hospital through interpretation boards or similar and that the new building would be named to reflect the former use of the site. The two oak panels which list the fallen will be relocated into public view, potentially in a memorial room in the Town Council offices. The Town Council is disappointed that its request that one of the apartments be placed into a community trust was rejected.
In February 2018 the Town Council considered the planning application submitted to Cheshire East Council. The Town Council raised no objections to the application on the grounds that it could not determine suitable planning grounds to justify a recommendation to refuse the application. Cheshire East Council’s Northern Planning Committee will be considering the application at its March or April meeting. The decision must be taken on planning grounds (as set by Government) and strength of objection from the community or concern over ownership are not planning grounds for refusal.
We set out to prevent a sale and to protect Knutsford’s war memorial, attempting numerous avenues to do so. We investigated the ownership, sought statutory protection and its registration as a community asset.
We are as frustrated as the wider community that it appears that protecting the War Memorial is not possible. We have now, reluctantly, taken an approach that if we cannot stop this from happening, we must do something to ensure the community does not lose out completely and that the history of this site is remembered.
– Cllr Stewart Gardiner, lead member for the working group