The rehabilitation of a notorious Wigan eyesore could well depend on council decisions next door.
It is now 16 years since the corridors and playground of St John the Baptist Junior School in New Springs echoed to the sound of children’s voices.
The premises closed as part of major shake-up of local education and hopes were high that they would soon be pressed into service.
But, occupying a prominent position on Wigan Lane and boasting the blue plaque of film and music hall comedy legend, the red brick building has sat there decaying and overgrown ever since.
For the last eight years it has been in the ownership of local businessman Simon Jones who originally planned to turn it into homes until the recession knocked the bottom out of the market.
Today he reveals that he has had several expressions of interest in a children’s nursery occupying some of the site while he would like to turn the former playground into a carpark and have the old school hall used as some kind of community centre.
But for those plans to be realised and for Mr Jones to avoid making the reluctant decision to flatten the former school and start on something entirely new on the land, he needs better access to the site.
Which is where Wigan Council could come in.
Mr Jones said: “As the premises stand at the moment and with a traffic light junction right outside, there is only limited access to the premises.
“I understand that the council owns the land next door and there have been proposals to build 12 affordable homes there. Barratt Homes also want to build homes at the rear.
“Given this I was hoping that some arrangement might be made where we share the cost of the necessary access road, so that vehicles could not only get to the homes down the right hand side of the old school but also to the ‘car park.’
“I have been put in touch with several council departments and figures so far but don’t seem to have made much progress so far.
“I have redeveloped a lot of properties over the years and have never had to knock one down yet and I really don’t want to knock St John’s School down either. It is not an architectural masterpiece but it is an attractive building of local importance which is worth putting to good use.
“The trouble is that the longer it goes unused the poorer the condition it gets into. I have been carrying out some remedial work on the roof to keep the elements at bay but I don’t want to be spending a fortune on the place if my only options turns out to be demolishing it later. I reckon it might last one more winter if it is lucky.
“Clearly as a businessman I want to make this a commercially viable venture, but it would be good to give something back to New Springs too in the form of a community centre.
“And the rest of the school would make a excellent nursery. I have had a lot of interest in that and, with the population of New Springs growing, such facilities have never been more needed. The same goes for a community hall and I would be delighted to keep the Randle plaque too.
“The former school has the potential to be something tremendous but at the moment it’s horrendous.”
Vicky Bannister, interim chief executive of Wigan and Leigh Homes, said: “We were looking at the site as a potential development for 12 homes but the plans have not yet been able to get planning permission due to a number of issues with the road access. We have met with Mr Jones to look at his proposal and to explain the progress we have made so far and the issues we are facing.
“The former school building has access from the other site of the building which we understand was the access used by the school. This is still used by the allotments and could be utilised by Mr Jones.”
The junior school closed in 2001 with its pupils moving to the infant site. This in turn eventually closed with the establishment of the new Canon Sharples Primary School.
A covenant had stipulated that if the premises ever ceased to be a school or have any other educational purpose then it would revert to the estate of the Earl of Crawford, he of Haigh Hall fame. However it is understood the current Earl, these days based in Scotland, waived this rule and so the Church of England was able to sell it to Mr Jones.