Monday, 08 August 2022

'New school mustn’t be built on playing fields'

CAMPAIGNERS could seek a judicial review in their fight to prevent a new free school being

CAMPAIGNERS could seek a judicial review in their fight to prevent a new free school being built on playing fields.

The Education Funding Agency announced this week that the Heights Primary School should be built on Mapledurham playing fields, off Woodcote Road, Caversham.

The site was one of five considered for the school, which opened at temporary premises off Gosbrook Road in Lower Caversham in September.

Opponents say the move is in breach of a covenant put in place when the land was gifted to the community for leisure purposes by Charles Hewett in 1938.

Martin Brommell, chairman of the Mapledurham Playing Fields Action Group, said: “Charles Hewett made an outstandingly generous contribution to leave the playing fields to the benefit of the entire local community. By taking part of the playing fields and using it for education it actually denies other members of the community... access to that area because it’s going to be fenced off as a school.

“This flagrant contravention will set a precedent which will echo for years to come.

“The Charity Commission has to sanction any change of use and it needs to satisfy itself in that whatever is going to be done will further the interests of the objectives of the trust and I don’t see how a school can do that.

“We would hope the commission, which is an independent body, would exercise its right to override the Education Funding Agency. If that appeal fails, we’re then prepared to seek a judicial review.” Mr Brommell called the public consultation on the five sites that took place earlier this year a “sham” and said it “almost pointed the finger” at the playing fields as the best venue.

A bid to build a school there in 2006 was defeated.

Elisa Miles, of Warren and District Residents’ Association, said its members were very upset by the decision.

The group has been raising money for the refurbishment of the pavilion at the playing fields since 2010 and has made about £200,000 so far.

Mrs Miles said: “The council has wanted to build on Mapledurham playing fields for years. This decision is exactly what we expected but we’re not done yet, there’s a long way to go.”

The fields are used by football teams including Caversham Trents, the Westwood Wanderers, from Tilehurst, Grosvenor FC men’s team and the Mapledurham Cavaliers. The other sites were High Ridge in Upper Warren Avenue, Albert Road park, Bugs Bottom and land belonging to Dyson’s Farm, near Kidmore End. The last site was the only one outside Reading borough as it is in South Oxfordshire.

A total of 4,376 responses to the consultation were received and of these, 3,042 were in favour of the playing fields while 1,063 were against, the lowest number of objections for any site.

Luke Kennedy, the agency’s free schools project director, said it had followed people’s wishes.

In a letter to Reading East MP Rob Wilson, Mr Kennedy said: “We have therefore decided to pursue this site for the school and will commence the work necessary to put forward a proposal to the site’s trustees.

“We are aware that the playing fields are a valuable resource used by a variety of people for organised sport and other less formal activities. We remain keen to engage with local people while we develop our plans and hope the final plans will address any concerns to ensure that the development is welcomed.”

Mr Wilson has asked that there is “appropriate compensation” for any space given over to the school.

He said: “Indeed, there should be improvement and investment in the leisure facilities currently available which relevant local sports clubs should be closely involved in scoping.”

Sufficient space should also be provided for a new community pavilion.

Ruth Rosewell, a member of the Heights Primary School Trust, said: “We hope that the agency’s decision to deliver the clear preference from the public consultation will provide an opportunity for the community to come together to create a school that will provide an outstanding learning environment for local children for many years to come, alongside real and tangible benefits for everyone.

“We are keen to understand the timings and milestones for the development to ensure that the school can move to its permanent home by 2017, as planned.”

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