Thursday, 18 August 2022

No ideal site for free school, residents told

THE perfect site for a new free school in Caversham does not exist, residents have been told.

THE perfect site for a new free school in Caversham does not exist, residents have been told.

More than 200 people attended a public debate on possible locations for the Heights Primary School, which opened at temporary premises off Gosbrook Road in Lower Caversham in September.

The Education Funding Agency is weighing up five possible locations in and and around Caversham Heights.

These are High Ridge in Upper Warren Avenue, Mapledurham playing fields, Albert Road park, Bugs Bottom and Dyson’s Farm, near Kidmore End. The last site is the only one outside Reading borough as it is in South Oxfordshire.

Luke Kennedy, one of the agency’s project directors, told the audience that each location had its benefits and  drawbacks.

“I think everybody here is in favour of a new school but we’re going to have to choose a site that doesn’t fulfil all the ideal criteria,” he said.

“A school could be delivered on any of those sites. As long as it is modern and fit for purpose it will deliver a good education.”

Mr Kennedy was one of 11 official speakers at last week’s event at Rivermead leisure centre, which Reading Borough Council organised as a prelude to a public consultation that began on Monday.

The others included Daniel Pagella, a trustee of the school, Reading East MP Rob Wilson, the council’s lead member for education Counclllor John Ennis and its head of education Kevin McDaniel.

Also taking questions from the audience were representatives of pressure groups opposed to development at each of the sites.

The agency bought High Ridge, the site of a bungalow, last summer and announced it as the school’s permanent home.

However, it agreed to consider alternatives following strong opposition from  residents.

Mr Kennedy said: “It’s fair to say we didn’t anticipate such a strong reaction to the site we bought. We were faced with the decision to either press on or listen to people.

“We decided to review what was being put to us because a number of people were suggesting various other sites which they deemed better and it would have been remiss of us not to.”

Mr Kennedy said the agency took three factors into account when choosing a site: deliverability, its ability to meet the school’s education plans and the cost of building and ongoing maintenance.

“There have been lots of rumours and miscommunications about how we arrived at this point,” he said.

“The free school trustees have worked very hard to get to this point and we owe it to them to deliver the best possible site.

“We have no fixed view and are here to listen to what people think.

“This is not something we have done before. It is quite a rarity for us to go back on a decision we have already taken.”

Mr Kennedy said that, following opposition to High Ridge, the agency undertook a “thorough” review” of the sites it had previously  considered.

It took 12 weeks to decide the next steps as the agency was taking the process “extremely seriously” and wanted to ensure “no stone is left unturned”. He said the agency could not give details of its talks with landowners as these were commercially sensitive and could undermine its ability to get best value on any of the sites.

One resident suggested the agency had bought High Ridge as a “stalking horse” and its true intention had always been to develop Mapledurham fields.

Mr Kennedy replied: “There was never any expectation that we would develop any other site. We often can’t talk publicly about our work for commercial reasons but we simply do not buy one site in order to develop another.”

Each of the protest groups was given two minutes to outline their case.

Julia Branson, of Caversham Residents Against Inappropriate Development, which was formed to fight the proposals for High Ridge, said: “It is far too small and steep and is not safe. It will not be a legacy for the children of Caversham.

“Why was it chosen when it fails to provide enough space for games?” Mr Kennedy replied: “We purchased it because we can deliver a good school there. We can provide all the necessary buildings and my technical team has experience of delivering small schools under similar circumstances.

“Sports would need to be delivered elsewhere but that is the case for a number of free schools and it does not get in the way.”

Robin Bentham, of Warren and District Residents’ Association, which opposes development of the Mapledurham fields, said: “We support preservation of the playing fields for use by all ages.

“When it was proposed to relocate Caversham Primary School there in 2006, only 17 per cent of people supported it following consultation, while 71 per cent were against losing the land.

“We do not want the school to be detrimental to the community as a whole.”

Mr Kennedy said: “We have not yet identified which part of the site we would put the school on but would seek to place it where it had the lowest impact.

“It is very likely that we would be required to replace any facilities if we took them away.”

Mr Pagella said the school felt there was “no community focus or heart” in north-west Caversham and that building at Mapledurham could be the solution.

He said: “We have always said right from the start that Mapledurham would be a fantastic site with lots of opportunity for mutual benefit.

“We are not approaching this with some kind of blood lust to rip up open spaces as we recognise they are for everyone. We do not want to damage their amenity value and would make sure facilities were improved.”

A resident said it would be impossible to replace recreation spaces anywhere nearby because of a shortage of land.

Mr McDaniel said a balance needed to be struck, adding: “If that means having to travel a bit further to walk the dog or play football, maybe it’s something we’ll have to consider.”

Several residents also favoured building at Mapledurham, saying it was an opportunity to invest in the site and improve it.

The land was given to the community in trust for leisure purposes in 1938 and there could be a legal challenge if it was chosen as the school site.

Some said it was wrong to build west of the A4074 as most children live on the opposite side and would have to cross a busy road but others argued new crossings could be built.

Helen Perkins, of Save Albert Road Park, said: “The school should not come at the expense of a well-used park in Reading.

“Every inch provides a separate function for pre-school children to teenagers and generations beyond. Given the recommended size of the school we believe the park would be completely  consumed.”

Andrew Rogers, of Save Bugs Bottom, said: “It is right on the edge of the proposed catchment area and within 1.5 miles of three other primary schools.

“It has bats, badgers and wildflowers and is a protected lowland chalk meadow. Developing it would set a precedent for building on other such sites nationally.”

Mr Kennedy said: The representations we have received suggest that there are ecological implications for all the sites. I am not a planner but I know planning authorities begin with a presumption against developing greenfield land, although they will consider the individual circumstances of the proposal.”

Mark Sands, of Save Farthingworth Green, which is part of Dyson’s Farm, said: “Over the years several planning applications have been submitted for the land and have all had the door slammed in their faces.

“The site is ideal for a power station or a nightclub but not a primary school.”

Several parents asked how long the school could remain in temporary premises.

Mr Kennedy said: “We will ensure that it has accommodation on that site for as long as it needs to be there. We recognise that we will need to provide additional accommodation for a longer stay and will make a further announcement on that in due course.”

Mr Wilson, who arrived late due to parliamentary business, said: “The situation cannot go on and on. It’s wrong for the parents and the children. A lot of work has gone into this so far and we cannot allow that to be frittered away.

“Even on its temporary site the school is doing a fantastic job for its pupils and we need to make sure it has a secure and prosperous future.

“There is a balance to be struck and it is not an easy decision. We do have a shortage of green space but we also have massive pressure on school places. Something has to give.”

Frances Gosling-Thomas, an independent education expert who chaired the meeting, said: “It sounds as though you must find the ‘least worst’ option rather than the absolute best.”

Councillor Ennis said: “We need a school in west Caversham – the numbers stack up because the schools in the east are becoming full. We need the community to have its say on where that is located and I believe that will happen.

“I hope as many of you as possible will get involved in the consultation. We need to make sure it is successful and results in a clear view as to where the school should go.”

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