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Whitchurch Playing Fields

Volume 577: debated on Tuesday 18 March 2014

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I wish to raise an issue regarding Whitchurch playing fields—which are, as I will describe, unique—and general issues for the Department for Education in the longer run.

The Whitchurch playing fields are very much a beloved local resource in my constituency, being 25 acres of grass land, enclosed by Abercorn road, Old Church lane, Wemborough road and the aptly named Marsh lane in Stanmore. They are a wide open space, with trails for dog walkers and a pavilion, which has been subject to vandalism, graffiti and severe fire damage over recent years.

The fields are used by 35 local schools for sports purposes, including Whitchurch First school, which is on the site itself. They are also used by youth groups, community organisations, religious groups and football clubs on a regular but, unfortunately, informal basis at present.

Just to give some background, the site was originally called the Carreras sports field and was owned by the Carreras cigarette factory as a place for employees to exercise and for general use. It was subject to a compulsory purchase order by what was then Middlesex county council in 1960, to be used specifically as school playing fields. The usage of the playing fields has a long precedent, and that is why residents and local groups are fighting extremely hard to protect them.

It is important to state up front that the issue is not about maintaining a green space for sentimental reasons; this is not nimbyism—far from it. Campaigners are open to appropriate suggestions about the future of the site, but they are wary of shady deals behind closed doors that prevent local groups, particularly local schools, from using the fields as they have done for decades.

The Conservative administration in Harrow between 2006 and 2010 looked at the possibility of using a group of sports clubs or a consortium to run the playing fields, but dropped the idea, owing to a number of concerns raised by residents. In 2010, Harrow council fell under Labour control and then, after an acrimonious split, independent Labour control. That was when all the trouble began.

The Labour-run council decided to progress a private consortium, known as the Whitchurch consortium, made up of Blake Hall Club, Runwood Homes and Cavendish Rowe, which stepped in with proposals to spend millions on rehabilitating the pavilion and building a sports and leisure complex on the site, which they said could be used by local schools. Everything was promised, including the earth and the kitchen sink. We were to expect improvements to the playing fields’ surface; a new sports pavilion with changing rooms and showers; a café and a bar; as well as numerous football and cricket pitches. The nearest school, Whitchurch First, was duped into offering support for the proposal, lured in by the brand-new sports facilities and a clean-up of the dangerous pavilion structure that adjoins the car park on its part of the site.

However, the Labour-run council completely failed in its duty to look past any of the smoke and mirrors and made some very questionable arrangements. For a start, the lease was given at a peppercorn rent, which, after a long battle was fought under freedom of information laws, turned out to be zero—absolutely nothing. Effectively, Harrow council was giving away those 25 acres of communal land to a private consortium for free.

The original bidding process was short lived and resulted in only two bids, one of which was later withdrawn. Even worse, the lease term for the development was changed to 99 years, with no stipulations given to ensure that the site would be used entirely for sports for the benefit of local schools and people.

The numbers do not add up. There is no way the consortium could use their investment in the site as it currently stands. It can be no coincidence that the head of the consortium is a private property developer. The fields are a large site with immense value for housing. Given the 99-year lease, how long after the sports facilities are built will it be before the site is earmarked for residential or business development to get a return on the investment? Beyond those concerns, residents also fear that the bar would be open all hours of the day and night, and that the sports centre would be used for large-scale events, with consequent traffic and noise.

I wrote to the auditor last year about the conduct of Harrow council in its dealings with the consortium. In its reply, the auditor reminded the council that it had to make

“all decisions about this land on a lawful and proper basis and after taking appropriate advice.”

In particular, the council’s attention was drawn to the advisability of

“carrying out a valuation prior to any disposal of the land, and to the need to ensure their tender processes are fair and transparent.”

The profiles of the people leading the consortium are somewhat questionable. One member, Mr Ramesh Nadarajah, is director of two Lancaster Gate-based firms: Cavendish Rowe and Cavendish Investments. Cavendish Rowe is an estate agent, with specific interest in the W2 London postcode. It describes itself as

“prime central London property specialists dealing in investments, sales and acquisitions”,

and says that it is

“fluent in understanding the value of each specific area. Our unique knowledge of London allows us to make fast decisions and act quickly on opportunities offered to us.”

Another of the groups involved in the consortium is Runwood Homes, a residential care service provider with no link to the Harrow area. The company has courted controversy, with some of its homes failing to meet adequate standards of care for service users while delivering seven-figure dividends to director George Sanders and his family. In 2009, Mr Sanders was involved in a case with Castle Point borough council, regarding his close friendship with a member of the council, Bill Sharp, and subsequent improper influence of planning officers by Councillor Sharp when dealing with an application made in 2007 by Runwood Homes plc, which resulted in Councillor Sharp’s suspension from the council.

The final company in the consortium, Blake Hall Club, is now referred to as Wanstead Sports Club LLP. The club was fined in 2012 for breach of its licence conditions, failing to prevent excessive noise and antisocial behaviour. The local licensing sub-committee in that area was critical of the club in a further report as recently as last year.

I am yet to be made aware of any connection linking that sports club, or any of the developers, with Whitchurch playing fields, let alone the wider Harrow area. That hardly suggests a group of stakeholders with a clear commitment to community ventures in Harrow.

Whitchurch residents discovered only by chance that the playing fields had been signed over to development, without even the slightest attempt at consultation, in 2011. Local residents Melanie and Stephen Lewis put in an application to have the site recognised as a village green, which I supported; even if it failed, it would delay things enough for the proposals by the consortium to receive far greater scrutiny. As it happens, the village green bid was rejected by Harrow council’s licensing committee at the end of last year, leaving the fate of the fields open for debate once again.

The deal that was struck was a bad one for local schools and community groups, which have always used the fields on an as-need basis, and there has yet to be an issue. The consortium proposed to allow only 1,000 hours’ use a year, 9 am to 5 pm weekdays in term time, with no word on whether that would be collectively or per school. The changing rooms would be made available free of charge only to a small number of schools in the local area—Stanburn and Whitchurch—and only community schools, so any academies would not be allowed access. Indeed, if those schools applied to become academies, they would be barred as well. All other local schools would have to pay for use—half price up to 200 hours a year but full price after that. Again, academy status would render them all ineligible for discounts.

Community groups would also be hard done by. Stanmore Baptist church, which adjoins the site, would have to cancel all but one event a year, and Age UK Harrow restricted to a mere 100 hours a year before having to pay its way.

It is true that something has to be done on the site. Some 60,000 square metres of the fields are on a flood plain—hence the name of the road, Marsh lane. The site provides necessary drainage—estimated as equivalent to 28 Olympic swimming pools—and any overdevelopment could damage existing properties in the surrounding area. The pavilion is a material consideration as well, as it will cost money to remove or save. The playing fields need more maintenance than they are currently receiving, so some strategy would be welcome.

I believe that the answer is now in evidence. The Avanti Schools Trust has identified the playing fields as a potential site for the desperately needed Avanti House secondary school. The existing Avanti House school is the only state-funded Hindu school in the country, offering all-through education, with both primary and secondary provision. The primary school, operating under the name Krishna Avanti primary school, is based on Camrose avenue in Edgware, on a site developed by the Conservative administration of the council.

The school, however, has had several difficulties during its formative years. The secondary school has struggled to settle at a permanent site. Having been transferred from the Teachers’ Centre in Harrow, it is now in Stanmore on the site of a former private school, which cannot be expanded any further. The fields are less than two miles from that main school site, so they are perfectly placed for the school’s expansion to accommodate 1,260 students at full capacity. That is a popular solution, which I praise the current Conservative administration for identifying and pursuing. Local residents back the idea as a means to provide more school places locally, which are desperately needed in the area.

If allowed, that alternative development would preserve the use of the fields for school sports for many years to come, not only for the immediate schools, but for all local schools, and it would provide an alternative green space. Currently, the schools have to face an over-strict booking system and the prospect of paying through the nose to use fields that should be free by right.

Other areas have used funding from a private consortium to create sports complexes for use by schools, but this is a unique position. Nowhere else in the country has the sheer number of schools needing to use an open space like this. There is simply no way that a booking system will be able to accommodate them all. It is a fundamental reality that provision for school sports locally would be harmed by the consortium’s proposals, and there is no way around that.

Crucially, when the application for village green status was being considered, papers were discovered that listed the site as school playing fields and therefore protected them from any redevelopment. The Department for Education’s permission is therefore required for any proposal that would have an impact on school sports locally.

I have secured this debate because it is vital that the playing fields are preserved for the use of all the schools that need them. I also believe that the site should be put into the hands of the Avanti Schools Trust, on the condition that the majority of the fields continue to be used, as they are now, for local sports, schools and local communities.

The Minister’s Department has begun a feasibility study into whether the Avanti House secondary school solution is a genuine prospect. If accepted, that would lead to a planning application being submitted soon and a school on the site by 2016. The Avanti Schools Trust is already a strong presence in our area, which has a very significant Hindu community, and it has proved itself trustworthy as a developer and as an excellent provider of quality education.

By contrast, the Whitchurch consortium is now threatening to sue the council if it does not get its way with the site. It claims loss of income and the cost of work carried out, which is ridiculous, given the peppercorn rent that it obtained in the original deal. Frankly, it has no interest whatever in doing what is best for our community. All it wants to do is make a profit, and it will threaten and bully as much as it can to get its end product. Is it any wonder that local residents are concerned?

The Minister was kind enough to attend a meeting with local councillors and campaigners at the end of last year and to elaborate on what would happen with the site. I fully understand that matters related to planning permission, noise pollution and so on do not come into the role of the Department for Education or that of the School Playing Fields Advisory Panel, but there is a duty to ensure that proper consultation takes place before the council can agree to any development on land that has been classified as having school playing fields status. It is very clear that no consultation took place in relation to the consortium’s plans in this case, which should render its application invalid. I call on the Minister to ensure that it is proven that any development would enhance school sports provision locally.

I understand that it is a matter of oversight, and it is not for the Minister to block applications based on local opinion, history, or on other things—even on what I think about the issue. It is about securing the future of the playing fields for their intended purpose. I believe the objections I have raised must cause concern to the Department for Education.

I shall end with a few questions for the Minister, which I hope he will answer in his speech. The feasibility study is currently being carried out for the Department and is likely to lead to the use of only a portion of the site by the Avanti Schools Trust. Will the Minister take steps to ensure protection from further attempts by private groups to land grab the rest of it, given the site’s status as school playing fields? Will the Minister confirm that the Department has not received any other applications to change the status of the fields—from school playing fields to private playing fields or for them to be used in any other ways that I described—from private consortiums, developers or any other interested parties?

Will the Minister offer any advice in relation to the issue of the playing fields being on a flood plain? Will the Department or the Avanti Schools Trust bear any responsibility for its drainage, particularly given the educational status and strategic nature of the site?

Finally, if the consortium were to gain control over any part of the playing fields, what protection can be given for use by schools that have opted for academy status? As I have demonstrated, the plans that the consortium currently envisages distinctly disadvantage those schools from using the land. Thank you for your forbearance in listening to me, Mr Streeter, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing the debate on behalf of his constituents, and thank him for the support he has consistently given to the Avanti House free school, which, as he knows, is one of the largest free schools in England. I have carefully noted the comments he has made about the consortium and the concerns that he and many of his constituents have. We discussed those concerns in the meeting we held at the end of last year. The debate provides us with an opportunity to consider the possibility of building a new school on Whitchurch playing fields in this suburban area of Harrow, and to touch on a number of the other associated issues and concerns that he raised during his speech.

I know how concerned my hon. Friend is about the possible development of the site. It was just over three months ago, in December last year, that I met him and a number of his constituents to discuss those concerns. In that meeting, we looked at the possible development by a consortium and what that would mean for other users of the site, especially the local schools. I understand why he is concerned about some of the potential implications.

Today, we are talking about the site being considered for building a new school. Harrow is one of the many local authorities in London and beyond with pressure on school places, as my hon. Friend well knows. The population of the area is growing and we need to meet the potential future shortage of places in both primary and secondary schools. Harrow predicts that in 2021, it will have a shortfall of 700 places for 11-year-olds, so a large expansion programme of school places is already under way in the area. Avanti House will help significantly in meeting that potential deficit in school places, with 180 places created in each academic year within the school.

As my hon. Friend knows, the school only opened in 2012, but it is already extremely popular with local parents. When it reaches capacity in 2018, it will be providing almost 1,700 much needed new places. Indeed, it will most likely be the second largest free school in England at that point. The local authority supports the school, and its sister school, Krishna Avanti, is very popular, too—so much so that it is doubling in size to provide places to meet the local demand. Naturally, parents wish to send their parents to schools with a strong history of providing a good quality education.

Avanti House school is unique in Harrow, as it is the only secondary school with a Hindu ethos. That borough obviously has a large Asian population, and the arrival of a Hindu school will mean increased choice for the residents and reflect the borough’s existing diversity.

As my hon. Friend knows, it has been hugely challenging to find a suitable site large enough to accommodate the entire school. I know that he has been very constructively engaged in trying to find a solution on behalf of his constituents. The problem is faced by a number of new schools, especially those opening in areas such as Harrow and, indeed, right across London. Buildings and land in our capital city are scarce and, in a growing economy, are being sold for increasing sums of money, so they are also expensive to procure.

Avanti House opened in temporary accommodation, spread over two sites, and the secondary phase has already had to relocate once since opening. The search for a site for Avanti House has been a long one. It started in 2011, and many sites both in Harrow and in neighbouring local authority areas have been considered and surveyed. All have so far proven unworkable, for a variety of reasons. We look at a wide range of land and building options for free schools, from office blocks to jobcentres to warehouses, as well as reusing any spare education facilities. A permanent site has now been secured for the primary phase, but a permanent site for the secondary phase has up until now not been secured.

Naturally, and as my hon. Friend knows, we were encouraged when late last year the leader of Harrow council put forward Whitchurch playing fields as a possible option for the Education Funding Agency to consider. I must stress that the project is currently in the feasibility stage. We are carrying out surveys to see whether it is possible and practicable to locate the school on the site. That work will identify any critical issues that may affect development. Obviously, issues such as the floodplain on part of the site will need to be very carefully considered. The review is not due to be completed until next month, and only then can we be sure whether the site is appropriate, so I must emphasise again that the site is currently under consideration. It is not yet secured or confirmed, as my hon. Friend knows. What I can say, as he has said, is that its location is very well placed for the communities that it would serve and for the school’s sister primary school, Krishna Avanti.

It is acknowledged by the local authority and community users that the Whitchurch site is currently not in the best condition. That was made worse by the pavilion burning down a number of years ago and by the loss of changing facilities. It is poorly lit and needs levelling and better drainage, so that it is of a good standard to play on and safe. Not surprisingly, because of that, the playing fields are used at the moment on a much reduced basis, but there are still users. Local schools make regular use of the area and have done so for a number of years, as my hon. Friend has said.

When we met last time, I was able to explain to my hon. Friend that, because the site had been used in that way, the land had a designation as school playing fields, affording it a level of protection from disposal. He will recall that school playing fields are protected from unjustified disposal by section 77 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. The consent of the Secretary of State is required for any disposal or change of use of school playing field land. The application to dispose to a consortium would have been considered by the School Playing Fields Advisory Panel. However, the new free school proposal, if it goes forward, would not be considered by the advisory panel, because in effect we would be changing the use of playing field land for educational purposes by placing school buildings on part of it, rather than disposing of it altogether. As I understand it, the current proposal is essentially that the whole site would potentially be put in the hands of the Avanti Schools trust. I can also say to him that, in relation to one of the questions he asked at the end of his speech, we are not currently aware of any other applications being submitted for change of use of the site.

Sites such as Whitchurch playing fields are to be valued, cherished and made the most of. Increasing the use of scarce resources must be a priority. Therefore all school facilities should be community facilities, used out of hours by the wider community, too. This is a very significantly sized site, as my hon. Friend will know better than anyone. It is 10.5 hectares, which is possibly easier to visualise if described as 400 tennis courts or 14 football pitches. That gives plenty of scope for any school site—for the redevelopment of buildings on the site and for the ongoing use of land for sports, both for the school and for other schools in the area.

Should the site prove suitable, discussions will be progressed with the local authority, and consultation with the local community will take place. Thanks to the safeguards that we put in place in the Academies Act 2010, academy trusts must consult on the free school proposal and the Secretary of State must consider the impact that the proposal will have on schools and other institutions. All that is of course without considering the statutory consultation that would be required in relation to planning for such a project.

In relation to one of the other questions asked by my hon. Friend, we are acutely aware that a number of other schools, as he said very clearly, have been using these playing fields for sporting purposes over the years. We would want to ensure that that use continued in the future and that those protections and that availability was there for academy schools as well as the maintained schools in the area.

I am pleased that the desire to set up free schools across the country continues apace and that many more young people will have increased opportunities for high-quality education. However, we are also very aware of the challenge of finding sites for development. That is a challenge right across London and across many key parts of the country where we have basic need pressures. Those difficulties have been particularly evident in Harrow.

I again thank my hon. Friend for his tireless work helping with the site search for Avanti House school, and I congratulate and thank the local authority for its very proactive support in searching for a site. I am also grateful to him for raising the concerns of the other local schools and for making clear how much they value the use of Whitchurch playing fields. If this site does prove viable for Avanti House, that will continue to be the case in the future.

Order. Both protagonists for the next debate are with us. We are a few minutes early, which is fine. We will move on to the next debate.