Arena Academy proposals look like a quart for a pint-sized plot

CROYDON COMMENTARY: Dealing with the borough’s school places shortage is looking to be a particularly difficult problem, especially in finding suitable sites, writes ANDREW PELLING

Croydon Council faces an extraordinarily difficult task in finding sites for new schools to accommodate the growth in pupil numbers.

The local authority has had to work hard to persuade primary schools to expand and is having to create new primaries at inappropriate office building locations.

Entering an uncertain future: new proposals to build a school next to Croydon Arena mean that the track and stand are untouched, but Metropolitan Open Land nearby may still need to be used

Entering an uncertain future: new proposals to build a school next to Croydon Arena mean that the track and stand are untouched, but Metropolitan Open Land nearby may still need to be used

The council’s response to the challenge is being spearheaded by a dynamic education official, Pip Hesketh, who was brought in to try to solve the almost unsolvable. The local authority’s role is further complicated by the government disallowing local councils from opening their own schools, as Michael Gove allows only “free” schools or academies. Nevertheless providing school places is a fundamental role for a council and the school places crisis is another example of a poorly performing council.

The primary school surge has implications for secondary school numbers and the council needs to get on with the task of addressing this matter urgently, as it judges that by the academic year 2015-2016, it will be 375 places short.

This is more than that suggested by the council even just 13 months ago when it felt that it needed 120 to 180 places. These figures were given to the Conservative cabinet on  January 21 2013.

The change in the figures leaves some residents, who oppose school expansions that they feel do not fit on constrained sites in the north of the borough, to say that the council just does not know what it is doing. The increased figures also suggest that the school places crisis is running out of control of the council.

The exhibition of plans for the academy by Croydon Arena on Wednesday was well-presented in its simplicity and generously provided with architects and traffic consultants to aid members of the public looking at the presentation. At times there were almost as many members of the public as exhibitors.

The site is a difficult one to develop as it is at the end of a ladder of narrow and heavily parked residential roads. The former Labour council had a very unhappy experience when it proposed a leisure centre at the site and was non-plussed by resident opposition and Conservative party campaigning against the impractical proposal. The Labour council was obliged to drop the scheme after a long struggle.

There is thus some contradiction in Conservatives who now run the council proposing a large sports and science academy for 11- to 18-year-olds at the two sites of the Arena and the Sandown Road Adult Education Centre – now banished to Thornton Heath, a place not connected to Sandown Road by public transport.

Impractical proposals last year included the academy buildings being draped around the Croydon Arena, with the stand moved to the other side of the ground. Arena users like Croydon FC and Croydon Harriers will have been displaced during construction.

More importantly the proposal would have gobbled up a significant amount of Metropolitan Open Land. The Mayor of London’s stated opposition to using Metropolitan Open Land on which to build schools doomed the proposal before it even went out to a very negative response in local consultation: 70 per cent of consultees opposed this initial scheme.

This was confirmed by Michael Russell, of architects Curl la Tourelle, who said, “The Mayor’s Office weren’t saying that the use of Metropolitan Open Land was an ‘over my dead body’ issue, but they were negative about releasing Metropolitan Open Land if we could not prove that we had done everything to avoid using Metropolitan Open Land.”

The council took up proposals from Arena users that a better fit would be to have Ryelands Primary, which is by the Arena, moved to the Sandown Road site, and so free-up the land by the Arena for the academy. It was this new proposal that was the subject of the exhibition.

The progress that the council has made may not yet deliver their desired extra secondary school places, though. The council recognises the local residents’ analysis that a lot of the demand for secondary school places lies on the other side of the ridge that divides north Croydon. They assert though that travel from north-west Croydon’s A23 corridor to southern South Norwood is one that older secondary school pupils would see as a reasonable prospect.

The proposed site of the Arena Academy is not well-served by bus routes

The site of the Arena Academy is not well-served by bus routes from areas where the pupils are expected to be living

The council’s other secondary school development on the main road to Croydon and more easily reached by public transport at the old General Hospital site at West Croydon is progressing slowly and may be complicated by site contamination and the issues of managing youth crime that is already a major concern in the area.

Thus there is an even more urgent need for the revised scheme for an academy by the Arena. But the area is not served by public transport from the A23 corridor or from Thornton Heath, from where a large part of the student demand is expected. The nearby Portland Road is served by the 197 that goes off to Anerley and the 312 to Norwood Junction and the 130 from New Addington, which is still not getting to Thornton Heath while Spring Lane bridge awaits its very long-delayed strengthening.

The transport planners who were unaware of the lack of bus links to north-west Croydon and Thornton Heath expect 133 additional vehicle movements to the academy in the 8am to 9am rush hour, based on the assumption that 60 per cent of the 1,150 students, teachers and visitors will walk or use public transport, with the local Arena tram stop helping the amount transport use, while the academy will ban sixth formers from driving to the site.

If sixth formers do drive and park this will further burden over parked streets (though Albert Road by the country park is less used).

Residents’ views are coloured by the chaos that ensues when sports days take place at the Arena. One local resident asked “where will the coaches go?” The multi-use games area was suggested as an option by exhibitors, but this might be an abuse of such a facility.

This expected vehicle movement number for the 1,150-strong Academy ought not pass muster at the Mayor’s Office. The exhibition’s assertion that “the school will have a limited demand for parking” may be a difficult one to sustain.

Constructing a nine-metre-high building so close to residences may also be too demanding a requirement.

Arena users will not be so inconvenienced now and a new entrance will be provided to the facility. Some of the Arena site, away from stand and running track, is absorbed by the school plan and a new block provided for Croydon Harriers.

Croydon FC’s club house will now be untouched and they may have missed out on a potential improvement to their facility but escape what might have been a long move away from their home ground which would have lost them so much clubhouse income so as to have compromised the future existence of the club. The football club’s land rights to their location would likely have stymied the council’s plans to bulldoze their clubhouse, in any case.

But the taking of Metropolitan Open Land at the Arena and in the form of a moved car park and multi-use games area might yet block this proposal. The exhibition recognised that Metropolitan Open Land incursion was still an issue by talking of the new proposal as being one that “minimises the impact on Metropolitan Open Land”.

The council has moved the project on a long way but not far enough. It’s still a quart in a pint pot quandary.

  • Andrew Pelling is a former chairman of Croydon’s education committee and was vice-chairman of Croydon FC

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3 Responses to Arena Academy proposals look like a quart for a pint-sized plot

  1. Andrew, an interesting read. Just one point that work on Spring Lane Bridge, thanks to Ashburton Labour, is now underway (the Tories promised it in April 2013 then all went quiet…)

  2. How about controlling immigration? There are 56 languages spoken in the school where my daughter goes to. Surely one cannot expect the council to forecast the number of immigrants coming into this country specially when they all want to come and live in Croydon just like what I have done.

  3. Hi Andrew, Good points raised, thank you. I think that the height of the building will be much taller than 9 metres though. It is 4 storeys, plus roof, the design of which has not yet been decided and was not shown.

    It was difficult for people to gauge the impact of this new build from the stylised drawings and student made model, and I wonder if a private contractor submitted such plans for such an imposing new build on a sensitive site, some of which is on Metropolitan Open Land, and in such a congested, highly parked, area, what the reaction of Croydon Council would be..

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