BSCF response to Hertfordshire County Council's planning applications for dwellings at Patmore Close New!
East Herts Council
|16 December 2014|
1. I am writing on behalf of the Bishop's Stortford Civic Federation to let you have our views on these planning applications.
2. The detail of our objections is set out in the remainder of this letter. In summary they are as follows:
- The County Council have underestimated the demand for secondary school places implicit in the most recent version of the draft District Plan. This envisages over 5000 new homes being provided in Bishop's Stortford (including BSN) and Sawbridgeworth. Using the Council’s metric of 1 FE generated per 500 dwellings, the proposed new housing would generate a peak demand of 10 FE not the 8 FE which the Council have assumed in support of this application.
- The County Council have also made the unrealistic assumption that there will be no increase in cross area flows – net movement of pupils to schools in the area from places further afield. A more reasonable assumption – that these will take up about 30% of the extra school places as they have done for many years at our existing schools – would add a further 2-3 FE to the overall demand for places.
- The County Council’s claim that the proposed 6 FE school will be sufficient to meet the long term demand for school places is therefore incorrect, and the Council appear to have no plan to meet the excess in demand above 6 FE. Policies BIS7, saved from the adopted District Plan and BISH5 in the draft District Plan both require that the demand for secondary school places will be satisfied elsewhere before the site can be released. Since the site cannot yet be released, permission must be refused.
- Removal of the proposed Bishop's Stortford South development from the draft District Plan would significantly reduce the demand for school places and might then add some weight to the County Council’s belief that one 6 FE school would be sufficient to meet the long term demand. But the draft District Plan has further stages to complete before the housing numbers in it are finalised, and so such a possibility is speculative and not a sound basis on which to grant planning permission.
- The transport assessment should model not just the final position after completion of all the development, but the intermediate situation, after BSN phase 1, the proposed secondary school and the Patmore Close site have been developed but before a second access point to BSN has been created on the A120. Until the new roundabout is installed, the traffic congestion is likely to be worse than if the Hadham Road site had itself been used for a school.
- Should the Council be minded to ignore its own policies and grant planning permission, the adverse intermediate traffic congestion impacts might be mitigated by attaching a condition that development should not commence until 2021 or the completion of the BSN access roundabout on the A120, whichever is the later.
- But we trust that given the clear incompatibility with current policy, permission will be refused.
- A 3 week consultation period covering the Christmas and New Year public holidays is inadequate. The deadline should be extended to the end of January.
Demand for school places
3. The County Council’s approach to forecasting demand for school places was last subject to rigorous scrutiny in 2011 when it supported an appeal by two Bishop's Stortford Schools to relocate to a Green Belt site on the south side of the town. The appeal was refused and the County Council’s approach to forecasting was subject to some critical examination in the Inspector’s report. The forecast made then comprised four components – data from GP surgeries etc about births, JMI and secondary school population within the Educational Planning Area (EPA), pupil yield from new housing, and cross area flows.
4. The County Council can continue to update its forecasts with recent data from the first two sources. In the case of the third source of demand – new housing – the assumption at the time of the public inquiry was that Bishop's Stortford North (BSN) would deliver 2728 new dwellings, ie rather more than is now proposed at somewhat less than 2600. At that time the implicit assumption (not discussed at the public inquiry) was that the pupil yield from new housing was 1 Form of Entry (FE) of 30 pupils per 1000 dwellings. As a result, the main generator of demand was perceived to arise from the so-called cross area flows – net intake of pupils to Bishop's Stortford and Sawbridgeworth schools from outside the EPA, mainly from Essex.
5. In considering the educational impact of the development actually proposed for BSN (2200 dwellings with one application for fewer than 400 dwellings still outstanding), the County Council appears to have doubled its assumption of the pupil yield from new housing to I FE per 500 dwellings. The only explanation given to the Civic Federation for this change is that the actual dwelling mix is now known. Given that BSN was always intended to be predominantly family housing and that the total number of dwellings has gone down since 2011, it strains credulity to accept this as a sufficient explanation for a change of such magnitude. We are not in a position to form a view as to whether this is a more appropriate metric than the one used by the County Council at the public inquiry 3 years ago since the basis of neither of them has been justified. But we do expect that it should be applied consistently to all the prospective housing envisaged in the draft District Plan. This does not appear to have happened.
6. Para 5.7 of the amended environmental statement has the following to say about the demand for school places in the context of these applications
' Discussions have taken place between the County Council and the developers about meeting the educational needs of the development, which has resulted in the identification of a suitable location for a new secondary school which would be better located to serve that development (ie BSN) as a whole, as well as cater for the wider educational needs of the town. A separate planning application has been submitted for the proposed school. The Hadham Road site would therefore not be required for the provision of a new secondary school and so the County Council Cabinet resolved to dispose of the site on 24 February 2014.'
7. We take issue with the suggestion that the proposed location for the secondary school would be more suitable than the site at Patmore Close. A copy of our objections to that planning application is enclosed with this letter. However, the suitability of the alternative site is not an issue for these applications. What does need to be tested is whether the proposed 6 FE school on that alternative site would in fact be sufficient to cater for the demand arising from the BSN development and the wider educational needs of the town. If it is not, then, as the applications themselves make clear, this site cannot be released for housing.
8. Previous documents provided by the County Council (including their formal response to theapplication to develop ASR’s 1-4 at BSN) indicate that they have assumed that the housing numbers proposed in the draft district plan (the preferred strategy was published for consultation in May 2014) would generate a peak demand for school places of 8FE, with 5FE arising from BSN and the rest from new housing elsewhere within the EPA. However, this forecast of educational demand was prepared in September 2013 and was based on an earlier version of the draft plan at the time that the planning application for BSN was being considered. At that time the County Council assumed that the plan allowed for only 4078 additional dwellings in the EPA, including BSN (this is consistent with a metric of 1FE per 500 dwellings). The consultation draft of the plan actually provides for 5196 new dwellings within the EPA and so the overall demand for places which the housing numbers in the plan would generate (including BSN) is 10FE, not 8FE, assuming that the County Council’s method of calculating demand is applied consistently.
9. The final element in the County Council’s forecasting methodology is the so-called cross area flow – the net addition to the demand for school places from pupils travelling into Bishop's Stortford from outside the EPA, after offsetting pupils travelling from within the EPA to schools outside it. Because of the location of the EPA and the nature and location of the alternative provision, most of this additional demand comes from Essex with very little compensating outward movement to Essex. The County Council’s own data show that for many years about 30% of the population in secondary schools in the EPA comes from Essex addresses, with a further increment from more distant parts of Hertfordshire.
10. This element of demand, rather than the pupil yield from new housing, formed the main component of the case for expanding school capacity when the schools’ relocation appeal was considered in 2011. But it seems to have been entirely ignored by the County Council in assessing whether one 6 FE school will be sufficient to meet future demand.
11. Nevertheless, there is good reason to suppose that demand from this source will continue to increase as well. The draft district plan for Uttlesford has just been rejected by the Inspector conducting the Examination in Public, partly on the grounds that the housing provision in it needs to be increased by 10%. Among nearby Essex schools, Newport Free Grammar School has limited scope to expand while Forest Hall Academy (formerly Mountfitchet College) was until recently in special measures and has no 6th form. East Herts’ draft District Plan proposes a settlement of 3000 dwellings north of Harlow during the plan period (to 2031) and in the early years of such development, parents are more likely to want to send their children to an established school in the EPA rather than to any new facility on site or to Harlow.
12. However, the County Council’s forecast of demand to 2025 appears to make no allowance for any increase in cross area flows arising from developments outside the EPA in spite of the weight they attached to it at the public inquiry only 3 years ago. This is not something within the County Council’s control. Each school is its own admissions authority and the same will be true of the proposed new school at BSN. Indeed, to achieve critical mass as quickly as possible, any such school would be wise to extend its catchment beyond the EPA and it will be the closest new school to Stansted Mountfitchet, Elsenham and Takeley. If the County Council were adopting a prudent approach to meeting demand, it might anticipate growth in cross area flows commensurate with growth of demand within the EPA, ie 2-3 additional FE.
13. The County Council’s evidence to the Inquiry into the proposed schools relocation was that BSN and cross area flows combined would never generate sufficient demand to justify the building of an additional school, which is why they supported relocation proposals which added only 45 extra places. Since then, their conversion to the view that BSN would generate enough demand by itself for a new school and that a 6 FE school would be sufficient to cater for the wider educational needs of the town are merely assertions, unsupported by any evidence, and contradict the evidence that they gave only three years ago at the public inquiry. East Herts Council, as planning authority, should attach no weight to such unsupported assertions which appear not to be justified by the County Council’s current method of calculating the demand for school places. These applications are therefore incompatible with policy BIS7 in the adopted District Plan and BISH5 in the draft District Plan, both of which prohibit the release of the Patmore Close site for housing unless the demand for secondary school places is being met elsewhere, and planning permission should accordingly be refused.
14. Finally, it should be noted that 1000 of the dwellings in the East Herts Draft District Plan are provided for on Green Belt land south of Bishop's Stortford with start and completion dates falling within the same timescale as the BSN development. There is no reason to suppose that the dwelling mix would be significantly different from BSN – they are not going to be mainly small apartments – and so the demand for school places can be expected to be similar. Since they would be on the opposite side of town from the proposed school in the linked application, the only realistic means of access to the proposed new school site would be by car.
15. The Bishop's Stortford Civic Federation has objected strongly to the development of the Bishop's Stortford South site which is currently within the Green Belt and which is not supported by any forecasts of population growth other than a wish to relocate inward migration here rather than elsewhere within the district. We do not know whether this development will remain in the version of the plan which East Herts Council chooses to adopt – consultation responses are still being considered. Meanwhile, given that on the evidence of this application the County Council has no plans to meet the demand for secondary school places which, on its own methodology, the Bishop's Stortford South development would generate, it is clear that any major residential development on that site would be educationally unsustainable.
Transport and access
16. We are sceptical about the reliability of the results of the modelling which suggest that the existing junction at Patmore Close can be expected to operate well within capacity without modification following completion of BSN and 250 dwellings on the application site.
17. All the modelling has been based on completion of the proposed new school, of all theresidential development and of the suggested transport improvements. Clearly this is necessary, but we are also concerned about access during intermediate stages. No timescales are given for the start and completion of the proposed school, but we trust that it will be open before the completion of BSN which is expected to take some 10 years. Otherwise intolerable pressure would be put on other Bishop's Stortford secondary schools prior to the opening of the new one. Indeed, earlier opening is implied by the suggestion in the transport assessment for the school application that access to the new school will be from Hadham Road, to the west, until such time as the new roundabout on the A120 is completed.
18. The new roundabout forms part of the second stage of the development (ASRs 3, 4 and 5) and its completion could therefore be many years away. The school will of course attract pupils from beyond BSN – indeed we have suggested earlier that it will actively seek to do so to achieve critical mass as quickly as possible. At the same time, some residents in the first phase of development will want to send their children to one of the already established schools. If the school starts by expanding from year 7 upwards, parents of older children moving to the area will have no choice but to do so.
19. Both we and the Development Management Committee of East Herts Council have expressed considerable doubts about the modelled results for the first stage of development and the impact on Hadham Road. That modelling did not allow for the presence in the first phase of development of a secondary school. Given the proposed access arrangements, the effect can be expected to be the same as if the school were to be built on the Hadham Road site itself. We understand that Herts Highways have expressed concerns about the traffic impacts of locating the school there. Indeed, if the Hadham Road residential development were to be completed before the second phase of BSN started, the congestion effects would be much worse. This is unfortunately all too likely to happen, as it would enable the developers to defer the expense of the new roundabout on the A120. So the intermediate impact of these applications, after they have been completed, together with the proposed school and BSN phase 1 but before completion of BSN phase 2 and the new A120 roundabout, also needs to be modelled.
20. Finally, we note that it is the view of Herts Highways that the junction between Patmore Close and Hadham Road will operate well within capacity following completion of all the development. We would observe in this context that in Bishop's Stortford the modelled results for recent developments appear to bear little relation to reality. In the case of the Aldi development in London Road, Herts Highways accepted the developers’ claim that this would generate no more traffic than the previous use as a car showroom and garage. In fact it has considerably worsened congestion on the most congested spot in town. A little further away at Tanners Wharf on London Road, Herts Highways insisted on a fully signal controlled junction to access a development of 130 apartments and two office blocks (one of them not yet developed). Experience suggests that this is the most unused and irritating set of traffic lights in town. But if it really was needed at Tanners Wharf, Patmore Close deserves at least the same treatment.
21. The County Council has substantially underestimated the demand for secondary school places which, on its own method of calculation, the dwelling numbers in the draft District Plan would generate. It has no plans to meet that excess demand. It would therefore be contrary to the policies in both the adopted and the draft District Plans to release the Patmore Close site for housing, and planning permission for these applications should be refused. If the proposal to develop the Bishop's Stortford South site were to be removed from the draft District Plan, and its Green Belt status were to be re-affirmed, that would materially reduce the excess demand for school places which the Plan would generate. The County Council might then be able to demonstrate how it was going to meet the excess demand for places in such a way as to enable the site to be released for housing development. But that is speculative, and not a basis on which planning permission should be granted.
22. If, in spite of this objection, the Council is minded to ignore its own policies and grant planning permission, the intermediate impact of traffic congestion, after completion of this development, of the proposed new school and of BSN phase 1 has not been modelled and would need to be addressed. One form of mitigation might be to attach a condition to the effect that development of the Patmore Close site should not commence before 2021 (the earliest date envisaged in the Draft District Plan) or the completion of the new roundabout on the A120 serving BSN, whichever is the later.
23. But we trust that, on the basis of the evidence submitted with this application, the Council will agree that the only course open to it is to refuse permission at this time.
24. Finally, I should say that the Civic Federation are surprised that East Herts Council should think that a development of such importance should be the subject of a consultation period lasting only 21 days, much of it overlapping with the Christmas and New Year public holidays. I trust that you will agree, on reflection, to extend the consultation period until the end of January. There is clearly no urgency in the need to determine these applications.
25. I am copying this letter to Chay Dempster at Hertfordshire County Council and to James Parker, Chief Executive of Bishop's Stortford Town Council.