Wednesday, 17 August 2022

New primary school on playing fields set for approval at last

New primary school on playing fields set for approval at last

PLANS for a new primary school in Caversham Heights are finally set to be approved.

Reading Borough Council’s planning committee, which meets on Wednesday, is expected to recommend that planning permission is granted for the Heights Primary School to be built on part of Mapledurham playing fields, off Upper Woodcote Road.

The final decision will be made by the council’s head of planning by May 30, subject to Communities Secretary Sajid Javid “calling in” the application for him to decide.

A decision to grant permission would end years of wrangling over the free school, which opened in temporary premises off Gosbrook Road, Lower Caversham, in September 2014. 

The school says the playing fields land is the best option while nearby residents and campaigners say it is unsuitable.

In a report to the committee, case officer Richard Eatough says: “The principle that a new primary is required is accepted and great weight has been attached to this in the assessment of this planning application.

“This is an area of the borough with an identified deficiency in primary school provision, which is currently causing recognised issues of congestion, unsustainable journeying and disruption in areas beyond the application site and its environs.

“The site offered is considered to be highly accessible and appropriate to the school catchment, fulfilling locational and accessibility objectives to minimise, in particular, car journeys.

“It has been demonstrated to your officers’ satisfaction that the loss of open space involved can be adequately compensated for by an increase in pitch-carrying capacity, although this aspect is still at this time expected subject to referral to the Secretary of State.”

Mr Eatough says there would be were no “significant” effect on residents and the proposal is suitable in terms of traffic impact, road safety and parking.

He adds: “Officers acknowledge that building a school on an open space results in some difficult choices but, taking all factors into consideration with this application, it is considered that the overriding public benefits of providing the school have been demonstrated to outweigh the loss of open space and any residual negative aspects.”

The school was founded by a group of parents to help meet the shortage of primary school places in north Reading.

But the search for a permanent site has caused controversy.

Out of about 40 suggestions, five sites were included in a public consultation exercise carried out by Reading Borough Council before the playing fields emerged as the overwhelming favourite with almost 70 per cent of the vote. The Education Funding Agency, a government body, then offered £1.36million to improve leisure  facilities on the playing fields in return for a lease on 1.2 acres of the 25-acre site for the school.

An alternative proposal called Fit4All was put forward by the Mapledurham Playing Fields Foundation, which doesn’t want the school built there and instead wants to lease the fields for fund-raising purposes.

Reading Borough Council, the trustees of the land, carried out a 10-week public consultation on the choice of the fields.

More than 80 per cent of respondents supported the school’s plans and 84 per cent supported the council in imposing a legal restriction on the remainder of the land to prevent any more development.

Opponents have argued that the playing fields, which were left to the borough in trust by Charles Hewett to be used for recreation, leisure and sport, are not a suitable site for the school.

Meanwhile, the current school is set to be to given a two-year extension on the use of its temporary site by the borough council.

The school is at full capacity and needs to expand in order to accommodate an intake of 100 children over the next two years. It is proposed to locate a temporary modular building on the playing field at St Anne’s School, which is adjacent.

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