BSCF's Formal Objections to Proposed Schools' Relocation and Subsequent Housing Development  Map 

Letter to East Herts Council


Head of Development Control
East Herts Council
Wallfields
Pegs Lane
Hertford
SG13 8EQ
18 August 2008
Your Refs: 3/08/1101/OP, 3/08/1102/OP, 3/08/1103/OP, 3/08/1115/OP, 3/08/1116/OP, 3/08/1117/OP

APPLICATIONS TO BUILD TWO SCHOOLS AT WHITTINGTON WAY BISHOP'S STORTFORD AND HOUSING ON THE SITES TO BE VACATED AT WARWICK ROAD, BELDAMS LANE, LONDON ROAD AND ON THE RESERVE SITE AT HADHAM ROAD

1. I am writing on behalf of the Bishop's Stortford Civic Federation to object to these proposals. The Civic Federation brings together the Civic Society and all the active Community and Residents' Associations in the town into a partnership representing over 6000 households. The remainder of this letter sets out the grounds of our objections.

Planning Policy Context

2. New development proposals are rightly expected to conform with national policies for development control and the relevant provisions of the adopted Regional Spatial Strategy and the adopted Local Plan. The application to relocate two schools from their present sites to Whittington Way provides the catalyst for the housing development applications. If the schools stay where they are, the other applications will automatically fall away. It is therefore sensible to concentrate primarily on the application relating to Whittington Way.

3. The Whittington Way proposed development site falls within a larger area of Green Belt between the Bypass and Bishop's Stortford. It is the most open Green Belt site remaining largely undeveloped within the Bypass. It is therefore important to establish the national, regional and local policies relating to such a site. National policy on the Green Belt is set out in the Planning Policy Guidance note PPG2. This has been supplemented by a circular and direction issued by the then Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in 2005. Relevant extracts from both documents are set out immediately below.

4. Government Green Belt Policy - PPG2  Map 

5. The general presumption against any new development in the Green Belt has been expressed in PPG2 in the strongest and clearest possible terms. The emphasis on openness and permanence taking precedence over other considerations (such as landscape features or the nature of the vegetation) is particularly relevant to this application. It is clear that the proposals would fall within the definition of 'inappropriate development' as set out in PPG2.

6. ODPM Circular 11/2005 - The Town and Country Planning (Green Belt) Direction 2005  Map 

The messages contained in PPG2 are reinforced in this circular and direction as the following extracts show:

  1. the construction of a building or buildings with a floor space of more than 1000 square metres; or
  2. any other development which, by reason of its scale or nature or location, would have a significant impact on the openness of the Green Belt.

Where a local planning authority does not propose to refuse an application for planning permission to which this Direction applies, that planning authority shall first consult the [First] Secretary of State. (paras 3 and 4 of the Direction)

7. The impact of these proposals on the Green Belt would be considerable and irreversible. They would involve the construction of buildings with approximately 31500 m2 of floorspace; 500 car parking spaces; terracing of those parts of the site which are not built on to provide level playing fields in place of the currently gently sloping hillside; sports pitches will be floodlit, and the whole site would be surrounded by a 2 metre high security fence. There can be no doubt that a campus with potentially 3000 students will generate a huge number of traffic movements. This particular Green Belt site is quite narrow and the site as a whole is bordered on three sides by residential development.

8. The clear presumption of both PPG2 and the circular and direction is that permission for this development should be refused. If, nevertheless, the local planning authority believe that the justification advanced by the developers is so exceptional that the normal expectation of permanent Green Belt protection should be set aside, they must refer the application to the Secretary of State for possible call in. Refusal or referral to the Secretary of State are the only two courses of action open to them.

9. Planning Policy Statement 1 - Delivering Sustainable Development

The presumption against the proposed development is reinforced in PPS 1 which in para 5 for example makes the following point:

'Planning should facilitate and promote sustainable and inclusive patterns of urban and rural development by:

'protecting and enhancing the natural and historic environment, the quality and character of the countryside, and existing communities.'

Para 19 stresses:

'Planning policies should seek to protect and enhance the quality, character and amenity value of the countryside and urban areas as a whole. A high level of protection should be given to most valued townscapes and landscapes, wildlife habitats and natural resources. Those with national and international designations should receive the highest level of protection.'

[Our emphasis added]

Green Belts are, by definition, among the most highly valued parts of our countryside, as much for the functions they perform in checking urban sprawl as because of their intrinsic amenity value.

10. Regional Spatial Strategy for the East of England

The version of the East of England Plan which has been approved by the Government was published in May 2008. It identifies some strategic revisions to the Green Belt. In a local context the most important of these is for the area known as 'Harlow North' a few miles to the south of this development proposal. However, apart from the proposed strategic revisions, the policy in SS7 clearly states that

'The broad extent of green belts in the East of England is appropriate and should be maintained.'

Other relevant objectives of the Plan are set out in para 45 of this letter.

11. The East Herts Local Plan Adopted in April 2007

Because its development was so far advanced, the Government agreed that the former procedure for the consideration and adoption of Local Plans should apply to the East Herts Plan and this is therefore the detailed document for the control of development until 2011. At the last stage of public consideration before the adoption of the Plan, EHDC proposed the removal of part of the Whittington Way site from Green Belt protection and its redesignation for educational use (15 ha rather than the 20 ha now proposed, but to provide two schools of the same size as the current proposal). The proposed redesignation was considered in some detail at the Examination in Public into the Local Plan and the Inspector's summing up is set out below.

'All of which bring into question, in my [the Inspector's] view, the planning wisdom of Policy BIS 24 and of the proposal to remove the [Whittington Way schools] site from the Green Belt. This is a long established area of protected land, serving well-defined Green Belt functions. While not taking issue with the educational reasons for locating the two schools in this area, I do not accept that it is necessary to remove land from the Green Belt to enable the secondary school needs of the town to be met. The Green Belt designation should remain; the circumstances of educational need, as well as the impact on the Green Belt could be considered in the context of a planning application. After all there are examples of educational establishments within the Green Belt elsewhere in the District, and the Council is able to exercise the level of control necessary in such locations. On the other hand, removal of the site from the Green Belt, to accommodate the identified need, weakens the Council's position in safeguarding the principle and permanence of the Green Belt. Other pressing needs could just as well prevail on this approach in arguing for further Green Belt releases' My views above lead me to conclude that Policy BIS 24 should be deleted.' (paras 11.48.7 and 9 of the Inspector's conclusions on this issue in her report on the Local Plan)

* Recommendation - Delete Policy BIS24.
                            Modify the Proposals Map by including Site 571 in the Green Belt
                            (paras 11.48.10 and 11 in the Inspector's report on the Local Plan

12. It is unfortunate that the developers have taken one extract out of context from a balanced consideration by the Inspector of the arguments for and against redesignation of part of the site, and decided to proceed with their planning application. In doing so they have ignored her overall judgment that the case had not been made for removing Green Belt protection, and that the boundaries proposed were somewhat arbitrary and did not follow readily recognisable features. As a result, the southern boundary of the site would be questionable and the rest of the site might not be protected from development if that part were to be redesignated. The site as a whole retains its Green Belt status in the now adopted Local Plan in line with the Inspector's conclusions. The full text of the Inspector's assessment of this issue is attached as Appendix 1 to this letter.

13. The Inspector's report on the Local Plan also dealt with the site at Hadham Road which had been acquired by the County Council many years previously for educational purposes. Her conclusion on this was as follows:

* Recommendation - The Reserve Secondary School Site, Hadham Road, as defined on
                            the Proposals Map, is reserved for residential development as a
                            Phase II site and will only be released for development if sufficient
                            additional secondary school capacity is provided elsewhere in the
                            town (para 11.22.7 of the Inspector's report on the local plan)

14. The Inspector's recommendations have been incorporated in the Local Plan adopted by EHDC in April 2007.  It should also be noted here that the Local Plan makes no provision for any alternative use for the two sites currently occupied by the Boys' High School and the Herts and Essex School nor for the use of the separate Herts and Essex School playing field site in Beldams Lane. In addition therefore to the use of the Green Belt site in Whittington Way for educational purposes, any alternative use of the three sites which the schools would vacate as a result would also represent major departures from the recently adopted Local Plan. The incompatibility of these proposals with national, regional and local policies for Green Belt protection, together with the four major departures they would entail from the Local Plan should of themselves be sufficient to refuse permission for these applications - to do otherwise would suggest that any part of the Local Plan could be set aside to suit the convenience of developers. Local Plans are intended to give certainty to local residents and developers as to what sort of development will be permitted and where. To sanction such major departures so soon after the Local Plan had been adopted would bring the whole planning system into disrepute and would certainly be regarded by the Civic Federation as a matter of more than local importance.

Educational Need

15. As this letter will show, the proposals are devoid of merit in planning terms. The developers therefore rely on arguments falling outside the spectrum of development control to support their claims of exceptional justification to override Green Belt protection. Ostensibly, these arguments are all based on educational need, and therefore have to be critically examined. The arguments can be considered under a number of headings.

16. Size and Condition of Schools

Both the Boys' High School and the Herts and Essex School argue that their existing sites are too constrained to permit expansion beyond their current size of 5 FE (forms of entry of 30 pupils). They also claim that their buildings are in poor condition and that the facilities they provide restrict the range of educational opportunity they can offer.

17. As they have pointed out, both schools are popular and oversubscribed. They both have a good academic record - in the case of the Boys' High School achieved only relatively recently without any expansion in intake or significant alteration to buildings. Both schools are foundation schools which have opted out of local authority control. It is therefore the responsibility of their boards of governors to live within the budgets they have been allocated by central government for running costs (including staffing) and maintenance.

18. It would probably be difficult for either school to expand on its present site. It would not be impossible to refurbish or (in the case of the Boys' High School) replace their buildings without moving to a new location, albeit with some transitional inconvenience. The Boys' High School has sufficient adjacent land for temporary accommodation to be erected to allow for the existing buildings to be progressively demolished and replaced. If the Herts and Essex School were to make better use of its playing field in Beldams Lane (for example by building a sports pavilion and changing rooms on the site and laying out different types of sports pitch) there would be sufficient space on its main site to erect temporary buildings while the limited amount of substandard accommodation was being refurbished or replaced without prejudicing physical education.

19. In summary, neither school needs to expand in order to maintain its academic standards. Neither school needs to move in order to replace or refurbish substandard buildings. They are typical in age and condition of the buildings of many secondary schools in the County which have to live within their means. If the boards of governors who have opted out of local control are finding it difficult to live within their means they should not now be looking to the local community to bail them out through the windfall profits which would arise from this development. If the schools were basing their case for exceptional disregard of Green Belt protection purely on their wish to fund new buildings, their planning application would not be entertained for a moment.

20. Viability and School Size

The LEA claim Note 1 that the minimum viable size for a new school is 6 FE (about 1200 pupils in total). Arguably, however, 6 FE ought to be regarded as the maximum viable size of school not the minimum. Hockerill Anglo European College is one of the most successful schools in the country and has just received an outstanding Ofsted report. Its students take the international baccalaureat which requires it to support a broader 6th form curriculum than schools which take A levels. It has only 4 FE, about 750 students, and has resisted calls from the LEA to expand because it believes that the quality of education would suffer.

21. 'Lessons from the Front' published by the Teach First organisation in November 2007 has the following to say about large schools

“[Economies of scale] is an oft cited but potentially misleading argument '. the tendency is for very large organisations such as bureaucracies to find that their size obstructs the delivery of the very outcomes they are created to achieve, as diseconomies of scale begin to emerge. An argument for large schools based purely on cost, then, fails to consider cost-effectiveness, value for money or the cycle of innovation.”

“A school's capability to implement creative initiatives, or respond to sudden problems, can also be impaired as it gets larger '. In many urban complex schools, teachers' time and energy are simply spread too thinly between too many pupils.”

22. There is a growing body of evidence that educational attainment and social behaviour deteriorate in very large schools with the Conservative Party education spokesman claiming ('Guardian' 3/01/08) that nearly three times as many pupils were excluded from large schools as small ones. The then General Secretary of the NUT believed that the optimum size for a secondary school was probably between 800 and 1000 pupils ('Times' 3/01/08). It is reasonable to conclude on the basis of this evidence and of their own academic records that the Herts and Essex and Boys' High Schools have now reached their optimum size of 5 FE. A 60% expansion of both schools contemplated by this proposal with co-location on to a single campus and considerable sharing of facilities seem likely to jeopardise the quality of education and the high reputations which they currently enjoy. It is hard to believe that they will be able to retain their own individual characters as separate schools in these circumstances.

23. Parental Choice

The developers claim that the oversubscription of the two schools shows that there is an unsatisfied demand for single sex education which their proposals would meet.Note 2 The argument is at best unproven and at worst, nonsense. All the schools in Bishop's Stortford are oversubscribed because there is, and has for many years been, a shortage of secondary school places.

24. At present there are on offer 10 FE of single sex places (5 at each of the two foundation schools) and 8 co-educational FE at Birchwood School. Of the other state funded schools in the town, St Mary's provides 5 FE of co-educational places but is a faith school which only the children of Roman Catholics can access. Hockerill Anglo-European College is a part boarding, part international school and so admission to its 4 FE of coeducational places is also restricted. If the developers' proposals were to go ahead the town would ultimately have 16 FE of standard single sex educational places compared with only 8 FE of standard coeducational places shared between three schools of 8 FE each. The alternative (discussed below) of a single new coeducational 6 FE school would achieve a better balance of 10 single sex FE of admission compared with 14 coeducational FE of admission shared across four schools.

25. It should also be noted that the developers' proposals would do nothing to increase parental choice. Enlarging the foundation schools simply offers more of the same, for better or for worse, whereas a fourth new school could offer an alternative range of educational opportunities. The developers' proposals therefore militate against seeking a balance of single sex and coeducational places and militate against parental choice.

26. What the Proposal Would Deliver

Any argument that there is no available site within the existing built up area of the town large enough for a 3000 student campus may be true but is entirely irrelevant. As explained above the two foundation schools are under no compulsion either to expand or move. Moreover they have no duty to provide additional school places to meet the shortfall in Bishop's Stortford. That responsibility rests with the LEA - the County Council. It is therefore surprising that the application to build on Green Belt land is not being led by the LEA.

27. The only argument which might lead to consideration of sacrificing Green Belt protection is that this proposal is the only way in which the shortfall in school places can be met. As presented, it proposes to enlarge the schools by 1 FE each in 2011, with further additions of 1 FE each in 2021 and 2031, bringing both schools up to 8 FE by 2031.Note 3

28. In the view of the Civic Federation, this slow rate of expansion would perpetuate, not cure, the shortfall in secondary places in Bishop's Stortford. There is, moreover a site in County Council ownership at Hadham Road which has been safeguarded for this purpose for many years. At 8.3 ha it is large enough for a 6 FE school (which would have to be coeducational) which the LEA accept is a viable size for a new school. The arguments are set out in more detail below. If they are accepted there would be no justification for sacrificing the Green Belt.

29. The Shortfall in School Places

Appendix 2 to this letter sets out the Civic Federation's analysis of the demand for school places compared with the capacity which the developers are proposing to provide. The clear conclusion to be drawn is that a proposal to provide only 2 additional FE in 2011 will leave the town with a significant amount of unmet demand, if the current rate of house building continues to deliver a projection of 4000 additional houses for Bishop's Stortford by 2021. Because the developers' forecasts look at the total shortfall in school places rather than the shortfall which would occur when parents apply for their children to move to secondary school in year 7, it is not possible to compare the numbers used by the developers (for which no sources have been cited and from which the underlying calculations are absent) with the most recent information published by the LEA about school rolls, demand and capacity in 2007. It seems likely, however, that there would be unmet demand for around 6 FE of places in year 7 by 2011 - the size of a viable new school. While the slow rate of expansion of the schools proposed by the developers may help to maintain the foundation schools' league table standings, it will not satisfy the aspirations of parents of Bishop's Stortford to have their children educated locally. A better solution exists which is to build a new school at the site at Hadham Road which was acquired many years ago by the LEA for just this purpose.

30. The Hadham Road Site

The Hadham Road site is large enough to provide a 6 FE school (a size which the LEA accepts would be viable) without further land acquisition. The undeveloped site has an area of 8.3 ha. The applicants suggest that a 6 FE school requires a site of 8.7 ha - about a sports pitch more than the Hadham Road site.Note 4 The site in Whittington Way is planned eventually to accommodate 16 FE on a site of 20 ha. Even if allowance is made for the space saved by sharing some facilities, a site which is 41% (at 8.3 ha) of the area of the proposed Whittington Way site and which would require much less car parking should be sufficient to accommodate a school which would have only 37.5% (6 FE) of the co-located schools' capacity. If additional playing fields or sports facilities were thought to be needed it might be possible to enter into a partnership agreement with the Bishop's Stortford Rugby Club immediately opposite, who currently use part of the Hadham Road site for training purposes.

31. Although the developers have claimed that an area of woodland on the site reduces the area available for development of a new school to about 7 ha it is a spurious argument.Note 5 The whole site (including an additional part now occupied by the fire station) was acquired by the County Council for educational purposes. Some was let out as an orchard which has now been abandoned and become a 'woodland' as a result, while the remainder was let out for arable cultivation. All of it could now be used for a purpose built new school.

32. Schools in the Community

Schools are meant to play an active role in their local communities. At the Boys High School the sports hall is let on a long lease to a charitable trust and provides a valued community facility. Likewise, the swimming pool at the Herts and Essex school is well used by other groups outside the normal school day. Although these would be replaced at the proposed new schools, sharing of facilities may mean that there is much more pressure for school use and fewer opportunities for the community to benefit. Moreover, the remote location of the site will make it less accessible to local people, a particular loss in the case of the Herts and Essex School which would be moving nearly two miles away.

33. The proposal would also lead to the Bishop's Stortford Rugby Club losing its training ground at Hadham Road. The suggestion that the sports facility at Jobbers Wood could provide an alternative would involve a journey of about three miles from the Rugby Club. On the other hand, building a new school at Hadham Road could enable the Rugby Club to continue to enjoy this facility. New community facilities would be created in a part of the town which currently has none and the geographical spread of schools would maximise the opportunities for community engagement by them.

34. Funding and Timing

It has been argued that the LEA has no budget for a new school at Hadham Road - although it has found a substantial sum to support investigation of the Whittington Way site which will simply be lost to the developers if the scheme does not go ahead. It is unsurprising that the LEA has no budget for something it is not currently planning to do. The funding it is likely to need immediately is probably no more than it has already committed to Whittington Way. New schools are usually built under PFI arrangements which require no capital outlay by the LEA. The LEA already owns the Hadham Road site and there would thus be no call on the LEA's capital budget at any time to build a new school there. The revenue costs of a PFI scheme would only be triggered when it is completed and the school is occupied. Thus the only immediate costs would be those of identifying a private sector partner and negotiating the agreement.

35. The applicants acknowledge this but argue that the LEA would not be likely to gain PFI credits from central government to cover the expenditure before 2014 leading to completion no earlier than 2017.Note 6 Clearly this is a matter of speculation, since the LEA has no scheme at present on which to base an application for those credits. Even if this assessment is right, however, it should not influence the decision on these applications. Buying a few years advantage now should not be allowed to override the decision on where our children will receive their education for the next forty years or more, if the location which delivers earlier is the wrong one.

36. Moreover, the time benefit itself may be slight for two reasons. Not building the 775 houses which the developers propose will reduce the immediate additional pressure on school places that would otherwise arise. And to assume that the two boards of school governors will have the capability to bring this multi-million pound development for which they have not yet obtained permission into use by the autumn of 2011 seems optimistic on their part. The fact that Countryside Properties have asked for outline planning permission for five years rather than the normal three suggests that they share our scepticism about the ability of the boards of governors to have completed the project and relocated by 2011.

37. Finally it should be noted that the commercial terms on which the schools are to acquire the Green Belt site and the developers the vacated school sites have not been disclosed. Indeed such agreements may not yet have been concluded. All the major housebuilders are at present drastically writing down the value of their land banks as a result of the slump in the property market. There is no reason to suppose that the sites under consideration here will be immune from those market pressures. Given that the decline in property values has not yet halted there can be no assurance that the proceeds from the proposed housing developments will in fact be sufficient to pay for the building of two new 6 FE schools or their subsequent expansion.

38. Educational Disruption

Relocating and enlarging the two schools at the same time will be hugely disruptive to the education of a generation of children as staff take their eyes off the ball of teaching while they focus on the preparations for the move and its aftermath. Parents whose children are already at the schools have not been asked whether they wish the moves to happen. They have simply been told by the boards of governors very late in the day that this is what is intended to happen. Had they been aware of these intentions earlier, it might have influenced their choice of school.

39. Clearly, starting from scratch with a new school will have none of these disruptive effects. The LEA might argue that starting a school from the lowest year up is more challenging than grafting on extra places to an existing institution Note 7, but with the amount of new housing destined for the county in the East of England Plan it is a challenge they are going to have to get used to. And it clearly can be done. Yanveh College is a faith school in Borehamwood which opened in 2006. It has an annual admissions number of 150 but it had only 213 pupils on its roll in 2007. It was oversubscribed in both its first two years of admissions (when the numbers admitted were smaller). That pattern of incremental growth is what is needed in a new school in Bishop's Stortford.

40. Conclusions on Educational Need

The case on educational need has not been made. The proposals on offer are a substandard solution.

There is no educational justification for overriding the normal presumption that Green Belt protection should be permanent.

Planning Considerations Affecting the Whittington Way Site

41. Green Belt Status

The site has Green Belt protection. The proposed development is clearly inappropriate within the meaning of PPG 2. The preceding arguments demonstrate that there is a viable alternative way of meeting Bishop's Stortford's need for additional school places. There is thus no exceptional reason for overriding Green Belt protection. The Inspector's report on the Local Plan concluded that the boundaries of the proposed site appeared somewhat arbitrary and lacking in natural features. She though that redesignation of this part of the site would make it difficult to maintain the permanence of the rest of the site as Green Belt. The proposed development should not be granted planning permission. If the planning authority is nevertheless minded to do so it should refer the application to the Secretary of State for determination in accordance with ODPM Circular 11/2005.

42. The precedents referred to by the applicants Note 8" for setting Green Belt protection aside to satisfy educational need do not apply in this case. In the case of Cheshunt secondary schools, the site in question had been zoned for the purpose in the Local Plan. In the case of the Whittington Way application, the Inspector rejected the proposal to remove Green Belt protection from the site in the Bishop's Stortford Local Plan. In both decision letters quoted, the Government Office decided that the applications did not give rise to wider than local issues. In the case of the Whittington Way application, setting aside the recently adopted and up to date Local Plan in so material way would bring the planning system itself into disrepute. Moreover, as this letter has explained, there is a preferable way of meeting the educational need which does not involve sacrificing the Green Belt. Of the other examples for which no details have been given, it is perhaps worth mentioning that a decision taken on the Leventhorpe School some forty years ago does not provide a suitable context for reaching a similar decision on these applications today.

43. Access and Traffic Congestion

Like the evidence on educational need, the transport assessments give a highly selective presentation both of what the developers believe the present situation to be and how it would be affected by their proposals. It is therefore worth beginning this section of our objections, with a few statements of the obvious which somehow seem to have eluded the applicants.

Before discussing site specific considerations, it is important to look at the wider context.

44. National Planning Policy

PPS 1 highlights in para 13 one of the key principles of sustainable development:

'Regional planning bodies and local planning authorities should ensure that development plans contribute to global sustainability by addressing the causes and potential impacts of climate change through policies which reduce energy use, reduce emissions (for example, by encouraging patterns of development which reduce the need to travel by private car...'

PPG 13 which deals with Planning and Transport says in para 38:

'Higher and further education establishments, schools and hospitals are major generators of travel and should be located so as to maximise their accessibility by public transport, walking and cycling.'

45. East of England Plan

The transport assessments refer to only two brief extracts from the Regional Transport Strategy. Here are some extracts in the Plan which they appear to have overlooked.

46. Local Plan Transport Policies

The East Herts Local Plan reflects the Regional Plan's overall objectives in its own aims and objectives and the transport assessments list them. The Local Plan also notes that as the local planning authority it has a major role to play in integrating transport planning objectives with the location, type and design of development.

47. This is reinforced by policies T3 and T4. Policy T3 requires developments that are likely to generate significant movement and travel demand to submit a transport assessment to accompany the planning application. Transport assessments accompany these applications. Policy T4 requires a satisfactory 'travel plan' to accompany such applications. It adds explicitly

No school travel plan accompanies these applications. On the contrary, the transport assessment says that a comprehensive plan will be developed.Note 10 It is moreover hard to see how an application which contemplates providing 500 car parking spaces can be described as one which 'restricts car parking and car access at and around schools'. This application therefore does not meet the requirements of Local Plan Policy T4.

48. General Critique of Transport Assessments

The transport assessments contain a number of shortcomings which mean they cannot be relied upon either to represent accurately the present position or the impact which these proposals might have. Weaknesses which we have identified include the following:

49. Specific Location Issues

There are overwhelming access arguments for keeping the foundation schools where they are.

50. There are equally strong objections on access grounds to relocating the schools to Whittington Way.

The attractions of the Hadham Road site for a new 6 FE school are in many ways the obverse of the objections to the Whittington Way site. In particular

51. Housing

Since 1991 Bishop's Stortford has supplied over 40% of East Herts new housing. At the last census it had 28% of the district's population, but the disproportionate allocation of housing since then will have removed the size and character of the town still further away from other market towns in the district such as Hertford and Ware. Shortage of school places is simply one aspect of the physical and social infrastructure deficit which the town has suffered as a result. The last thing which Bishop's Stortford needs is even more housing than was contemplated in the Local Plan, but that is what would happen under these proposals. Since housing development is not permitted on the Green Belt site (the Local Plan Inspector rejected proposals to do so) the proposals appear to us simply to be a back door way to achieve windfall development on brownfield sites after the housing allocations have been settled in the Local Plan. Our specific objections are

52. Comments on the proposals for individual sites will be provided in letters from the relevant residents' associations.

Environment

53. Landscape

Generally, the developers argue that the sites do not have any significant ecological importance, apart from the loss of green wedges and playing fields if the applications succeed. Equally, there is no expected damage to bird, mammal or reptile populations. However, the Whittington Way site development would have landscape impacts that it is claimed would be of moderate significance and adverse in nature. In the long term it is claimed that this gets better, moving to neutral in nature. We do not accept for one moment that there can be any improvement or neutrality in landscape views given the size and character of the development, including 31500m2 of buildings, 500 car parking spaces, terraced sports pitches and a 2m high perimeter security fence. Artificial lighting with flood lit sports pitches would extend the lit edge of Bishop's Stortford and would be quite different in character from the strips of light along the existing roads. The Local Plan Inspector may have had such considerations in mind in rejecting proposals for redesignation of part of the site.

54. Archaeology

All sites have had both desk and physical studies, including archaeological assessments. The most important conclusions concern archaeological evidence. The west side of the Boys' High School playing fields contains an archaeological area that would have an adverse effect if it were built on. The Whittington Way site is even more important as it contains Bronze Age, Iron Age and Roman remains over much of the site and would require extensive stripping to uncover and analyse the evidence. The assessment concludes that the magnitude of impact is extensive and would be of major significance. Thus the site must be fully excavated and recorded before any development on it could be contemplated. This would be of positive benefit to our understanding of pre Roman history and of the viticultural and agricultural practices within a Roman estate.

55. Noise

The Whittington Way site is close to (in practice sometimes underneath) one of the main take off and landing flight paths for Stansted Airport. Even if the planners do not regard this as a safety issue, the constant noise disturbance makes this an unsuitable site for educational facilities or residential development. PPG 24 which deals with Planning and Noise makes this clear:

'It will be hard to reconcile some land uses, such as housing, hospitals or schools, with other activities which generate high levels of noise, but the planning system should ensure that, wherever practicable, noise-sensitive developments are separated from major sources of noise (such as road, rail and air transport and certain types of industrial development).'

56. The issues involved are

57. Construction Traffic

For several years Bishop's Stortford has experienced simultaneous construction on many sites across the town. This has led to severe degradation of the environment on the approach roads and in the town centre itself. Although the town centre enjoys the benefit of a HGV ban, it is almost impossible to enforce on construction traffic because the multiplicity of sites means that it is difficult to tell whether a construction lorry is delivering to a site or simply taking a short cut. The problem is particularly acute along Stansted Road, London Road, Dunmow Road and at Hockerill traffic lights. This problem will be repeated if the existing school sites are redeveloped for housing, since the Herts and Essex site is within the restricted area, and construction may still be continuing at other sites in the town centre at the same time. Since the Hadham Road site is close to the bypass, any mandatory routes for construction traffic would be much easier to enforce, and would cause very little disturbance in the town.

Consultation Process and Results

58. It is worth repeating two statements in PPS 1 which are quoted in the developers' report on the results of consultation.

'The views of local people are an integral part of the planning process and the case for the community's voice to be heard is clear.'

'Community involvement should happen at the point at which people recognise that they have the potential to make a difference.'

59. The contrast with what has actually happened over proposals which have taken many years to bring to this stage is striking. Neither school has consulted parents about how they would like to see the schools develop, even though the project timetable, if achieved would affect all children aged 15 or less. Only one feeder school has been referred to in the stakeholder consultation - presumably because it shares a site with the Boys' High School. So prospective parents have not been consulted either.

60. The public exhibitions earlier this year were principally occasions for the schools to present their case as though the relocation and its housing consequences were settled decisions. In spite of this, a high proportion of attendees completed questionnaires and the results were strikingly at variance with those the applicants might have wished for. For example:

Q2 - does the town need more school places? 492 - yes; 112 - no.
Q3 - is relocation and expansion the best way to do it? 178 - yes; 376 - no.
Q6 - are the sites appropriate for 'much needed' housing in the area? 144 - yes; 429 - no.

61. Q5 was even more slanted than Q6. It read:

'Parental choice is a key feature of educational provision in the town. How important is it that the Boys' High School and the Herts and Essex High School retain their single sex identities as part of the proposals?'

This question thus confuses the issue of parental choice with the different issue of single sex or co-education and further confuses the schools' current single sex identity with what the proposals might deliver in the future. A genuine consultation exercise would have presented the alternatives objectively and, in the words of PPS 1, at a time when people recognise they have the potential to make a difference. In spite of the applicants' best efforts to delay public involvement until the last possible moment and secure a favourable result, respondents have made clear by majorities of between two and three to one that they object to these proposals.

Summary and Conclusions

62. Planning context.

63. Educational Need

64. Local Planning Considerations

65. Environment

66. Noise

67. Consultation

East Herts Council is to be commended for the extended period it has allowed to take delivery of comments on these proposals and the arrangements for considering responses. Unfortunately, that willingness to engage with the public has not been shared by the applicants. In particular:

In short, the approach of the applicants has been a denial of the recommendations in PPS I that people should be involved in such proposals at a time and in a way which enables them to make a difference. In spite of the unwillingness of the applicants to engage with the public in any serious way, the community has expressed its opposition to these proposals in the clearest possible terms, not least in the responses to the exhibition questionnaires. We trust that the local planning authority will support the clearly expressed views of the local population by dismissing these applications.

68. I am copying this letter to Mark Prisk MP, to John Ingham, Clerk to the Town Council with the request that he copies it to all Town Councillors and to the Government Office for the East of England, so that they may have advance notice of the major issues to which these applications would give rise if the Local Planning Authority were minded to approve them. I would also like to record the wish of the Civic Federation to speak at the meeting of the Development Control Committee scheduled for 16 October to consider these proposals.

John Rhodes
Vice Chairman,
Bishop's Stortford Civic Federation

Notes to above letter  Top 

Note 1 See for example para 6.14 of the Supporting Planning Statement for Whittington Way 

Note 2 Ibid Para 8.2

Note 3 Ibid paras 5.9 - 5.16

Note 4 Ibid Para 7.6

Note 5 Ibid Para 6.4

Note 6 Ibid Para 6.8

Note 7 Ibid Paras 6.9 - 6.10

Note 8 Ibid Appendix 2

Note 9 Bishop's Stortford Transport Strategy ' para 2.4

Note 10 Mayer Brown Transport Assessment for Whittington Way Para 12.5. Para 9.8 simply illustrates what might be included.

Note 11 Ibid See for example the tables following Para 6.8

Note 12 SDG report Para 5.1

Note 13 Mayer Brown Op Cit for example Para 4.12

Note 14 Ibid Paras 6.1 and 7.15

Note 15 SDG Op Cit Para 6.3

Note 16 An unpublished draft of the final report noted 'One of the main access roads from the North is Thorley Street which has seen several accidents in recent years including one pedestrian fatality at the junction between Thorley Street and Whittington Way.' The reason for the omission of this from the published version can only be a matter of speculation. The transport assessments supporting these applications on the basis of the same data, conclude that safety is not a problem.


Appendix 1 - The Inspector's Assessment of the Whittington Way Site  Top 

Extract from the East Herts Local Plan, Second Review, 2007  Link 

Issues
  1. Loss of Green Belt land.
  2. Pressure for further Green Belt land take.
  3. Expansion of schools detrimental to quality of education.
  4. Unsustainable location for schools.
  5. Traffic congestion.
  6. Affected by flight path.

Inspector's Reasoning and Conclusions

11.48.1 The allocation of a site of nearly 15 ha on land to be removed from the Green Belt, to the south of Whittington Way, stems from a requirement for additional secondary school capacity in the town. The evidence shows that Bishop's Stortford does not have enough secondary school places now to meet a 7½% margin for parental choice and by 2008/09 there will be no places at all. Given that a new secondary school takes about 3 years to plan and build, the matter is of urgent concern. The options for relieving the pressure on existing school places are twofold; a) building a new school, or b) incremental expansion of existing schools.

11.48.2 The evidence reveals insufficient forecast growth to justify a new secondary school of the 6 form entry (FE) size favoured by the Local Education Authority (LEA), even taking into account future housing growth in the town. Anything of a lesser FE size would not, it is argued, offer the range of curriculum nor would it be financially feasible. The second option is regarded as the optimum solution to meeting the town's current and future educational needs. For a range of reasons, including the need to maintain the balance between single sex and co-educational provision, the LEA is looking to resolve the issue through the relocation of two single-sex schools (Herts and Essex and Bishop's Stortford High Schools) to the site south of Whittington Way. In their relocated form the schools would retain their separate identities, comprise separate six FE schools with shared core facilities, with scope for future expansion to 8 FEs each.

11.48.3 It is not for me to speculate on the reasons for the academic success of the two schools. I am also not in a position to either criticise or extol the virtues of single sex education or of enlarged schools. The matter is best decided by the LEA, by parents, governors and other stakeholders. The Council in its role as planning authority has accepted that the secondary school needs of the town are best served by the solution offered by the LEA. Given the lack of other options, EHDC has come to view that the matter is sufficiently pressing to constitute the sort of exceptional circumstance that justifies a change to the Green Belt boundary. My remit is to examine the planning merits of this decision.

11.48.4 My site visits confirmed that there were limited opportunities for the existing schools to expand on their constrained sites. There are certainly advantages to the concept of the combined new campus; not least, the scope to provide new, up to date facilities and to offer opportunities for a wider curriculum which would counter the attraction of sixth form colleges in Cambridge. Wider benefits comprising sports and community facilities would also be forthcoming.

11.48.5 However, the advantages of these proposals have to be balanced against the loss of Green Belt land, and the inevitable subsequent pressure for further loss of land southwards up to the A1184, St James' Way, The extent of the schools site appears somewhat arbitrary and does not follow readily recognisable features. The defensibility and robustness of the southern boundary of the proposed site are questionable, which in turn could undermine the permanence of the Green Belt in this area.

11.48.6 There are also some doubts about the cost of relocating the two schools to the Whittington Way site, and whether the scheme can proceed without an enabling development of new houses. Once the land is removed from the Green Belt for the purpose intended under Policy BIS24, it would be difficult to resist pressure for further changes to the Green Belt, if that is necessary to ultimately finance the relocation and building of the new schools. The objection from Countryside Properties in respect of Site 574 demonstrates that there is interest in a mixed-use development on the land between Whittington Way and the A1184. The arguments for a comprehensive development with well-defined Green Belt boundaries in this location can be very persuasive, given the weakness of the proposed Green Belt boundary and the possible need for enabling development. The Hertfordshire Way traversing the school site is another argument used by objectors for promoting further land take into the Green Belt, in order to avoid its diversion and loss of the avenue of Lime trees.

11.48.7 All of which bring into question. in my view, the planning wisdom of Policy BIS24 and of the proposal to remove the site from the Green Belt. This is a long-established area of protected land, serving well-defined Green Belt functions. White not taking issue with the educational reasons for locating the two schools in this area, I do not accept that it is necessary to remove land from the Green Belt to enable the secondary school needs of the town to be met. The Green Belt designation of the site should remain; the circumstances of educational need, as well as the impact on the Green Belt, could be considered in the context of a planning application. After all, there are examples of educational establishments within the Green Belt elsewhere in the District, and the Council is able to exercise the level of control necessary in such locations. On the other hand, removal of the site from the Green Belt, to accommodate the identified need, weakens the Councils position in safeguarding the principle and permanence of the Green Belt. Other pressing needs could just as well prevail on this approach in arguing for further Green Belt releases.

11.48.8 I can see merit in both sides of the argument with regard to the sustainable credentials of the proposed location and its traffic implications. These issues, and other matters of detail, ought to be fully considered in the context of a specific planning application and I do not wish to pre-empt any future debate by pursuing the matters here.

11.48.9 My views above lead me to conclude that Policy BIS24 should be deleted. This may raise concerns about the delay-In-delivering-additional secondary school places. However, Green Belt protection, now and for the future, are fundamental planning concerns which I feel would be compromised by this policy. It may be that the LEA could pursue other options in the short term; further extensions to the Birch Grove School was mooted as a possible short-term solution. The longer-term needs of the town could be pursued either at Whittington Way or in other locations, should other options arise.

RECOMMENDATION
Delete Policy BIS24.
Modify the Proposals Map by including Site 571 in the Green Belt.

Appendix 2 - The Shortfall in School Places  Top 

1. The most recently published data on school places is contained in 'Moving On 2008' – the LEA's handbook for parents applying for a secondary school place for their child to move to at the start of the 2008 school year. The details of Bishop's Stortford school capacity and demand for year 7 places in 2007 are set out in the table below.

SchoolRollYear 7 PlacesApplications**Allocations
Birchwood 1170 210 525 226
Boys High 1068 155 357 155
Herts and Essex 984 160 427 160
Hockerill* 750 72 619 72
St Mary's 908 155 387 155
Total 4880 752 2315 768

* Approximately a third of Hockerill's pupils are boarders. The total roll of 750 includes the boarders. The remaining columns relate to day pupils only.

** Every parent is encouraged to list 3 choices when applying for a secondary school place, and the figures in the applications column include all preferences expressed. If all parents actually made three choices just between the schools listed here, and the total number of applications was divided by 3 to reflect that assumption, it would appear that only 4 applicants would have been unable to find a school place in Bishop's Stortford as shown below.

2315 ~ 3 = 772 – 768 = 4

2. But the issue is not quite so simple. St Mary's is a Roman Catholic school and has admitted no non-Catholics during the last three years. So the places they offer are not open to the general population. If both their applications and their allocation are removed from the equation and the reduced number of applications is divided by 3 then the shortfall in places allocated rises to 30 or a whole form of entry as shown below.

768 – 155 = 613 secular places allocated.
2315 – 387 = 1928 secular places applied for.
1928 ~ 3 = 643 – 613 = 30 secular places deficit at year 7.

In effect, removing all the applications to and the allocations by St Mary's from the equation in this way is equivalent to assuming that all the parents who listed St Mary's as one of their preferences included no secular school in Bishop's Stortford in their list of preferences.

3. Although there is a Catholic secondary school in Harlow, the next nearest one in Hertfordshire is in Stevenage. It cannot therefore be assumed that all unsuccessful applicants to St Mary's will have found a place at a Catholic school elsewhere. They may have included other Bishop's Stortford secular schools in their list of preferences. If it is assumed instead that all unsuccessful applicants listed 2 Bishop's Stortford secular schools in their preferences and their number is included in the total number of applications to be divided by 3 then the level of unmet demand at Bishop's Stortford secular schools rises to 107 places or 3.5 FE as shown below.

768 – 155 = 613 secular places allocated.
2315 – 155 = 2160 secular places applied for.
2160 ~ 3 = 720 – 613 = 107 secular places deficit at year 7.

4. The published data in 'Moving On 2008' therefore leads to the conclusion that in year 7, the shortfall in places compared with demand in 2007 was somewhere between 1 and 3.5 FE. The data does not enable a more precise conclusion to be drawn and no information has been published in relation to 2008 applications.

5. The evidence (for which no source has been cited and for which the underlying calculations are absent) presented by the developers in their application looks at the total number of school places rather than year 7 admissions. It describes current school capacity as 4938 places. The discrepancy with the figures in the table at para 1 above is not explained but may partly be accounted for by the expansion of Birchwood from 7 to 8 FE in 2008 and partly by differences between the theoretical capacity of a school and numbers on the roll (for example, the available 6th form places may not all be taken up). When the places at Birchwood are fully taken up across the whole of the age range of pupils at the school, the evidence claims that the capacity of all the schools will rise to 5305 pupils.

6. The application assumes that a further 4000 dwellings will be built in Bishop's Stortford in the period to 2021 and that a further 2700 would be built to 2031. The total demand that will be generated is uplifted by 7.5% to provide a margin for parental choice. On these assumptions the number of places to be provided is claimed to be 5593 in 2011, 5968 in 2021 and 6372 in 2031, compared with a capacity of 5305 places. The evidence concludes by stating that a shortfall of 288 places in 2011 would require an additional 2 FE to be provided by that date.

7. Arithmetically, there is clearly a gap in the argument. A shortfall of 288 places is equivalent to 9.6 FE. The part of the argument which appears to be missing may be an unstated assumption that this shortfall in places would be spread evenly across all the years of attendance at a secondary school and that the shortfall should be further divided by a factor of, say 6, to reflect this.

8. However, the theoretical full schools capacity in 2011 has been overstated. A third of the capacity at Hockerill is occupied by boarders and would not therefore be accessible to Bishop's Stortford residents. The capacity forecast therefore should be reduced by 250 places to reflect this. The restrictions on entry to St Mary's are likely to be the same in 2011 as they are today. This means that non Catholic residents of Bishop's Stortford will not be able to meet the admissions criteria and so the capacity and the demand forecasts need to be further adjusted to reflect that. The following calculations show how the demand and capacity forecasts should be restated.

Capacity in 2011: 5305 – 250 (Hockerill) – 908 (St Mary's) = 4147 secular places
Demand in 2011: 5593 – 908 (Demand met by St Mary's) = 4685 secular demand
Deficit in places: 4685 – 4147 = 538
538 ~ 30 = 17.9 ~ 6 = 3 FE

9. As discussed in para 3 above, some of the unmet demand for St Mary's may spill over into Bishop's Stortford's secular schools rather than into other faith schools. In 2007, this could have amounted to a demand for over 100 additional places for year 7 pupils, and the experience could be repeated in 2011. However, forecasts made of the overall shortfall in school places for all the years of secondary education mean that there is no straightforward way of converting a shortfall in year 7 to a total level of unmet demand. This point highlights the unreality of using an assumed average number of years of secondary education to convert a shortage of school places into forms of entry required.

10. Back in the real world, the adequacy of capacity to meet demand manifests itself chiefly at year 7, ie at the age of 11, when applications are made to move from primary to secondary education. Parents will try not to disrupt their children's education by changing schools later on in their school careers, though of course people moving to or from distant parts of the country may have no choice. Making an assumption that the shortfall in capacity is spread evenly across all the years of secondary education – if that is indeed what has been done – appears to be based more on the convenience of justifying the developers' case than on the shortfall that is likely to occur. If, as a more reasonable reflection of practical experience, it is assumed that half of the shortfall of 538 pupils will manifest itself in year 7, with the rest occurring in later years, then there would be a requirement for 9 FE for children of the age of 11 to meet that demand, or 5 FE if the shortfall were only 288 places as the developers claim.

11. The developers have not provided sufficient information to enable their forecasts to be scrutinised critically. It seems clear that their estimate of the shortage of places in 2011 is significantly understated if it is based on the volume of house building they have assumed and it is likely that the underlying level of demand would be sufficient to support a new 6 FE school.