Friday, 15 February 2019

Primary school expansion approved despite protests

PLANS to expand Benson Primary School have been approved despite widespread objections.

The Oxford Road school will build a block of three classrooms on part of its playing field ready for use by the start of the academic year in September 2020.

The new building and a hard play area will take up a quarter of the field, which is in the Benson conservation area.

The school says more space is needed to meet the extra demand for places caused by hundreds of new homes being built and that another three classrooms may be needed by 2024.

Oxfordshire County Council, the education authority, approved its own plans last week despite criticism by South Oxfordshire District Council, the planning authority, which said the scheme should be redesigned.

Benson Parish Council also objected, saying the plans could lead to the rest of the field being built on in the future.

The proposal was also criticised by Mark Gray, who is Benson’s representative on the county council, and Councillor Sue Cooper, who represents the village on the district council, who said the playing field should not be built on and the county council should come up with an alternative plan.

Councillor Gray called the decision to grant planning permission “tremendously short-sighted”.

He said: “I don’t have any issue with the building itself, my issue is with the loss of the playing field and the future. What really concerns me is we’re losing 25 per cent of the school field now and we’re going to lose another chunk in a few years’ time to make the school fully two-form entry.

“I completely understand the school has got an issue in that they get more and more kids referred to them and they need to find space.

“But there’s time and I thought there was time for a proper root and branch look at what could be done.

“They should have looked at a solution that properly integrated the new building into the existing one rather than building a separate self-contained building in the grounds.

“I’m not criticising the school in any way — I wouldn’t dream of doing that — I think the whole planning system needs to be looked at.

“The committee could only look at what was in front of them. They can’t look four or five years into the future and we’re storing up problems for the future.”

Councillor Cooper said: “It’s really sad that the county council are taking such a short-term view of educational provision in Benson.

“The fact that Benson needs more school places is not in dispute. We have got 800 extra houses and that’s supposed to generate 200 children. I would rather we kept Benson as it is at the moment and built a new school so there were two.

“This particular plan is in the wrong place on that site. You don’t dig up the middle of the one remaining green space in the conservation area. I don’t think extending the school is a stupid idea, it just needs to be done rather better.”

Councillor Bill Pattison, who is chairman of the parish council, said: “I’m of the opinion, as are many around the village, that this will work as a short-term fix but in the long term there still won’t be sufficient school space. At some point there will be more expansion.” He said the playing field, which as bought by public subscription in 1945, was gradually disappearing.

Cllr Pattison added: “The neighbourhood plan is supposed to be protection for the village but if it doesn’t suit the requirements of others we’re a bit stuffed to be honest.

“As far as I understand it, any development of 700 houses or more has to include a new junior school but because our developments are fragmented none of the individual sites has to provide any schooling facilities. But that doesn’t diminish the number of houses or the potential school places that are going to be required.”

A report to the county council’s planning and regulation committee said: “It is unfortunate that it was not possible to locate the additional classrooms closer to the existing school building.

“However, the school site would still have open grassed areas at its western end, so although the area of open space would be reduced, a substantial proportion of it would be retained.

“While the concerns raised by the district council and parish council are noted, the expansion of the school is intended to serve the local growth in population through local housing developments.

“The impact on the character and appearance of the conservation area has to be weighed against the strong national policy support for the expansion of schools.”

Helen Crolla, the school’s headteacher, said: “We want to reassure parents that regardless of the expansion, our aim is to maintain the nurturing ethos and values of our school, providing a balanced and rounded curriculum.”

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