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School Provision: Christchurch

Volume 606: debated on Wednesday 2 March 2016

[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered planning for school provision in Christchurch.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I am grateful to Mr Speaker for this timely opportunity to discuss a very important issue in my constituency.

I wrote to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on 30 December, requesting that he call in for his own determination the planning application made by Dorset County Council to itself—application 8/15/0665—to develop a site wholly within the green belt for the construction of a new school. The county council has accepted that the proposal is a significant departure from the local plan because it involves development on green-belt land that was reconfirmed as being within the green belt as recently as 2014. It is hardly surprising that the application has generated 688 letters of objection. There was, Mrs Main, an earlier plan to remove the land from the green belt for housing, as part of the core strategy, but following consultation, that proposal—to remove land from the green belt—was abandoned. I am sure that you can imagine the consternation of local people that it is now being revisited after such a short interval. That is creating anger and despair.

In response to my letter and a parliamentary question, my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning, whom I am delighted to see in his place, told me that he would wait to see whether the county council granted itself planning permission before deciding whether to call the matter in. To the surprise of no one, on Thursday 18 February the county council duly granted itself detailed planning permission for a new two form entry primary school at Marsh Lane, Christchurch. I therefore wish to use the opportunity presented by this debate to press the Minister very hard, on behalf of my constituents, to call in the application and have a proper independent examination of the issue and, in particular, whether a suitable alternative site for a primary school is available. I say that because almost all those who have supported the planning application have done so reluctantly and on the basis that extra primary school places are needed in west Christchurch and there is no alternative place to put them. It is the great TINA—there is no alternative. That is why they support putting the new school on the green belt.

In my submission, the county council has failed to consider seriously potential alternative sites. It failed to look at two brownfield sites that are currently vacant and awaiting redevelopment. One is a site for which planning permission was given for a new Asda supermarket. That development is not now proceeding and the developer has sold the site, but no new plans have been drawn up. I am told that the site is available on the open market. The other site, on which I will concentrate, is the Christchurch town centre site variously known as the Bargates site, or the site of the former magistrates court/police station and the Pitside car park.

In the report to the planning committee on 18 February, at appendix 9, consultants engaged by the county council described the Bargates site as

“not big enough for the accommodation required for a two form entry primary school”.

That would have been correct if the site in question was only 2.8 acres, as they asserted in their report; however, the site is 4.74 acres and comprises land currently in the ownership of Dorset County Council, the Dorset police and crime commissioner, the Hospital of St Mary Magdalen Trust and Christchurch Borough Council. Under Department for Education guidelines set out in “Building Bulletin 103” of June 2014, the actual area would be more than sufficient for a two form entry primary school.

As co-owners of the site, the county council and the borough council must have known that the Bargates site is much larger than described in the report. Local people are wondering why they—and, I think, many county councillors and borough councillors—have been kept in the dark. The suspicion is that all the public authorities that own the land would think themselves financially better off if they used the Bargates site for more lucrative development than the provision of primary school education. It is therefore in their financial interests that the school be built on much less expensive green-belt land. As I am sure the Minister will agree, that pattern is repeated up and down the country. The cheapest land available is often the green-belt land, precisely because of its protection. If a local authority is proposing to develop green-belt land where the consequence is that it will save itself money, it is incumbent on my hon. Friend to be even more circumspect in deciding whether to allow that to go through without intervention from the centre.

It has taken some 12 years to assemble this unique town centre site. Plans for the development of the site have not yet been published, let alone been the subject of public consultation, but I understand from a meeting that I had at the beginning of last month that there are proposals for a 3,000-square-metre care home and 1,850 square metres of retail. The remainder of the site would be for housing, but there would be no community use.

Government policy on green belt is designed to encourage the redevelopment of brownfield land. The land at Bargates is exactly that. There are 221 car parking spaces there, on open land; there is a redundant magistrates court and police station; and there is a substantial residential building, currently boarded up, with a big adjoining garden, which certainly until recently was used for the keeping of pigs. That is being released by the Magdalen charity. That is the site, but at the meeting of the planning committee council officers argued that it could not possibly be used for education purposes because it was not mentioned for education in the core strategy. Of course, nowhere was mentioned for education in the core strategy, because the education authority was asserting at that stage that there was no need for any new sites in the borough for schools. Therefore, this site was not mentioned, nor was the green-belt site at Marsh Lane. If the county council had been more up front, the debate about the core strategy could, and indeed would, have included the relative merits of building a new school in the town centre as against building a school on the fringes of the town, on the green belt.

The advantage of building the school in the town centre is that it would form part of a new education cluster. It would be much easier for families with children at both the secondary school and the primary school to do the school run, because the primary school would be very close to the secondary school, Twynham Academy, for which it is the feeder and, indeed, in the grounds of which the primary school is currently housed. It will also be part of the Twynham Learning Federation, which is headed by Twynham Academy but will also include the new Twynham primary from this September. It would be easily accessible by public transport from both east and west Christchurch and it would be close to town centre car parks. The buildings would be available for community use during the evenings, holidays and weekends in a location convenient to the public. The school pupils would be within easy walking distance of town centre amenities such as the library, the Regent Centre, the Priory church and the playing fields and recreation ground on the opposite side of the road. Adequate undeveloped land on the site would be available for play space.

The report that went to the planning committee from the officers said that there would be no room for playing fields. However, in the letter sent to Councillor Jamieson by the principal planning officer, Mr Williams, on 17 February, Mr Williams says that the provision of playing fields would be very expensive. He does not refer to the fact that it would not be possible to provide playing fields on that site. That goes to the core of the issue. It is much cheaper to provide playing fields on open green-belt land adjoining the marsh and the flood plain but that is not what planning policy is, or should be, about.

At the meeting of the planning committee, the report to the committee from the county council officer also said,

“The current buildings would be unsuitable and would have to be demolished and replaced.”

Well, that is accepted. Everybody accepts that the old magistrates court with the cells down below and the police station need to be knocked down, but I do not see that as an objection to building a new school on the site. The county council officer raised other concerns including the one to which I referred earlier—that the site is too small. In other words, the council officers were misleading the councillors who were considering the planning application by providing facts that were not correct.

The officers went on to say that the school is geographically in the wrong location for the community it needs to serve. That is not correct either. The school that is proposed to be built on the green belt is currently temporarily housed at Twynham Academy, which is a few hundred yards down the road from the Bargates site.

Another objection raised by the county council officers is that because the Bargates site is in a town centre location, it is unsuitable for a primary school. Again, that is in defiance of local experience. One of the most popular primary schools in Christchurch is the Priory Church of England Primary School, which is on a small site in the centre of town and has the same catchment as the new school. The new school is already in temporary accommodation right in the centre of the town and there has been no suggestion that parents have been put off by the location. Indeed, many regard it as much more convenient for the school run.

From what I have said, the Minister may agree that the conclusion reached by the responsible officer in paragraph 6.14 of his recommendation is not consistent with the facts. Yet the officer went on to say,

“I am satisfied that there are no other sites of sufficient size to meet the identified development need that are available and should be regarded as preferential alternatives to the application site”.

As I have said, that conclusion was based on false information. That the Bargates site is not available is an extraordinary assertion to make, because the site is still owned by the county council, the borough council and the police authority. If the county council and borough council were prepared to recognise educational needs as a priority, the solution to the development of the site for a school would be in their hands. Public consultation on future uses of the site is not intended to start until May, with a view to a planning application later in the year. That consultation could easily be about using the site for a primary school, with a planning application later in the year to meet the timetable required for the new school.

The other issue worth mentioning is the size of the school. The new Twynham Primary Academy to which the Secretary of State for Education has recently given authority is one form entry. Expressions of interest were invited by Dorset County Council on the basis that,

“The projected pupil numbers have identified an immediate requirement for 1FE with a further growth to 2FE when population figures warrant it and agreed”

by the county council. The statement is reinforced in the county council’s January 2016 paper, “Christchurch pupil place planning strategy 2016-2019”. The paper is marked as a confidential document, but for the purposes of the debate it is important that everybody should know that paragraph 2.1 says,

“For west Christchurch, DCC continues to pursue the establishment of a new 1FE Primary School. The site/building will have capacity to expand to 2FE if required in the future.”

So the county council accepts that there is no immediate need for a two form entry school, which bears upon the issue of the timescale within which the situation should be sorted out properly.

The county council says that the area only needs a one form entry school with the capacity to go to two forms, partly because that would deliver six forms of entry for primary school places in west Christchurch. That takes no account of the new Parkfield School, a primary free school that opens in 2016 with two form entry and is located in the western part of west Christchurch, close to the airport. Yet the county council gave itself permission for a two form entry primary school with the potential to extend to three form entry. Why did it do that? It involves an unwarranted impact on the neighbourhood and intrusion into the green belt that is not justified even by the county council’s own evidence.

The implications are that the proposed design of the school, as approved, has been criticised by the borough council as being intrusive in the landscape. In response, the county council has said that the school needs to be in that position so that the council could make it into a three-form entry school in the future. The borough council’s criticism could have been addressed if the school were to be one form entry with the option of additional buildings to make it two form in the future. A one form entry school with the potential to be two form entry would obviously have much less impact on the green belt, the sites of special scientific interest and local traffic. It would also fit more easily on to the town centre site to which I referred, and on to some of the other sites that the county council said could not accommodate it because it needed a site for a two form entry school.

This is a serious issue. If we have a public inquiry, the inspector could look at the alternative sites to the green belt and could examine the evidence, which is contradictory. The county council is asserting that it needs a two form entry primary school, but the county council officers, in a confidential document, say that it only needs a one form entry school.

Many people have asked why the draft core strategy, which was adopted in 2014, did not envisage the need to propose or allocate a site for a new school. Christchurch county councillors were informed by Mr Williams in a letter on 17 February that,

“Late in the preparation process my understanding is that discussions took place between Planning Officers at Christchurch Borough Council and representatives of the County Council as local Education Authority over the possible need for a new primary school to serve West Christchurch. As the Draft Core Strategy was already at a very advanced stage, a decision was taken not to modify the Strategy to take account of the potential additional development requirement. The planning application proposal has, therefore, fallen to be promoted as a departure from the Development Plan.”

The problem is that as a departure from the development plan is decided by the county council itself, it is not open to the same independent scrutiny and examination as it would have been had it been dealt with as part of the core strategy, which is another reason that it is essential that this—

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that he might want to hear what the Minister has to say on the matter. He has already eaten somewhat considerably into the Minister’s time.

I am familiar with that, Mrs Main. I am using, say, 20 minutes of the 30 minutes available to put my case, because I know, having been a junior planning Minister in the past, that the Minister will not be able to give me a very substantive reply today. I hope he will be able to say that he has listened to what I have had to say, and then to make some other comments about the importance of preserving the green belt. I have not had an opportunity to put all the concerns on the record, and I thought it was important to do so in this debate, which I hope will not cause my hon. Friend, the Minister, any problems.

In conclusion, I hope that, taking all I have said into account, the Minister will call in the application for the Secretary of State’s consideration and will effectively have an independent public inquiry into the issue.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) on securing this debate and on putting so fully his case on behalf of his residents. I appreciate his concerns, particularly on the more general issue of development on green belt, which I know is of considerable importance to him, to communities including the ones he represents, and to other parliamentary colleagues.

As my hon. Friend has outlined, and as he understands, the proposal is currently before the Secretary of State to determine whether call-in is appropriate. As we have also received a request to intervene from my hon. Friend, it would be inappropriate of me to comment on the specific application, as that could prejudice any consideration of these matters. I know he understands that. I will, however, outline a few things more generally, as he rightly guessed I might, to give some background to the present situation.

To put the matter in context, about 475,000 planning applications are made to local authorities every year. Obviously, we have powers to call in some decisions, and the current approach is set out in a written ministerial statement of October 2012. To put it in context, in 2015 just 24 cases were called in by the Planning Inspectorate for inquiry. He will be reassured to know that the officials of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government are currently considering the application on the Secretary of State’s behalf. Their assessment will consider whether the application, or the issues raised by concerned parties, justifies intervention based on the Government’s call-in policy. The Secretary of State or one of the other Ministers will decide whether to intervene.

The national planning policy framework is very clear that the purpose of planning is to deliver sustainable development. I make it clear that it is not development at any cost, nor is it development anywhere. Localism means choosing how best to meet local needs, not whether to meet them. Meeting local need is not just about houses; as my hon. Friend rightly outlined, it is also about the wider needs of the community, including educational needs.

We are committed to improving the education of our younger generation. We have worked hard to encourage efficient use of land and buildings to facilitate the schools we need. We have also ensured that the national planning policy framework makes it clear that local authorities should take a proactive, positive and collaborative approach to meeting educational needs. The framework and accompanying guidance are clear that local planning authorities should work with other providers to assess the quality and capacity of infrastructure, including education infrastructure, as part of their local plan. Such plans are important, and they should set out a positive vision for the area; they should also be realistic about what can be achieved and when, including with regard to infrastructure. In areas where there is both a county council and a district council, it is important that those bodies work together constructively to gather evidence of likely educational needs and to look for the correct and appropriate sites for any new required schools.

I congratulate Christchurch Borough Council on putting in place a core strategy in 2014. An up-to-date local plan, prepared through extensive public consultation, sets the framework in which decisions are and should be taken, whether locally by the planning authority or, I stress, at appeal.

My hon. Friend knows that the Government attach the highest importance, as he does, to protecting our green belt. Our new guidance in 2014 re-emphasised the importance of green belt and adds that the presence of constraints such as green belt can constrain the ability of a planning authority to meet its needs. We make it clear that green-belt boundaries should be established in local plans, which can be altered only in exceptional circumstances using the local plan process of consultation and independent examination. I note that Christchurch Borough Council decided and successfully argued for changes to its green-belt boundaries to allow for new development to go forward, which is why it was a locally led, properly calculated decision.

I understand what must be my hon. Friend’s frustration that, following that review of green-belt boundaries by the council in a proper and appropriate way, proposals are still being made for green-belt land. Our planning system allows people to make proposals for development in areas such as green belt, but most types of new buildings are inappropriate development in the green belt and by definition, therefore, are harmful to it. The national planning policy framework makes it clear that such development should not be approved except in very exceptional, special circumstances. Each planning case obviously has its own unique facts and contexts that have to be determined on their own merits.

When I am out visiting communities and speaking to constituents, I hear widespread support for the provision of more housing, more schools and more hospitals for our growing population, which I know my hon. Friend recognises and supports, but that support is often swiftly followed by concerns about where those homes, hospitals and schools should be built, with appeals to protect our open and green spaces and countryside. It is therefore important that new developments are located in the right place for each local area. We are committed to ensuring that delays in the planning process are kept to a minimum, but I assure him that we will be aiming to issue a decision on whether to call in the proposal as soon as possible. He has made his views clearly known today, and he will be formally notified as soon as that decision has been made.

Question put and agreed to.