CROYDON COMMENTARY: Woodside resident PAULA GOODMAN feels betrayed by her Labour councillors over what she sees as an abuse of the planning procedures to permit the development of a 1,300-pupil Oasis academy next to Croydon Arena
In a meeting with Woodside residents before Labour took control of the council last year, our ward councillor, Paul Scott, advised us that when the proposals to build an Oasis Academy secondary school at Croydon Arena came to the planning committee, we should focus on planning issues such as traffic, highways and congestion. He emphasised that issues relating to school places, the choice of provider and whether there were other available sites were not relevant to planning applications.
Yet when it came to Thursday night’s decisive planning committee meeting at the Town Hall to decide whether the proposals for the large, six-forms-of-entry Oasis Arena Academy were suitable, residents in the public gallery could have been forgiven if they thought they had entered an education strategy meeting by mistake.
The chair of the planning committee was Paul Scott.
From the chair, Scott was loquacious on the issue of a “crisis in Croydon’s school places”. Our two other Labour ward councillors at the meeting – Tony Newman, the leader of the council, and Hamida Ali – warmed to the chairman’s theme, both referring to the need for school places as a major consideration at what was supposed to be a planning meeting.
Ashburton ward’s Labour councillor Stephen Mann, appointed to the planning committee under Newman, dutifully asked whether choosing to defer the Oasis Academy’s planning application would have an impact on those children whose parents had chosen Arena for September 2015 entry.
Yes, Mann was advised, any deferral would have an impact on these children. This response seemed to be one of the deciding factors in Mann’s decision to approve the planning application.
We even had to listen to an account of the recently failed sixth form technology college STEM project, which had been put forward as a use of the former South Norwood police station. This was cited as another reason why it was important to approve the Arena Academy scheme. Those of us in the public gallery who have been following education matters in the borough thought this was odd, since even if our councillors were unaware of it, we had seen Croydon Council officials reassuringly stating that all those who had applied to STEM would be found places elsewhere.
In any case, was this really a proper consideration for a meeting of the planning commitee?
The “crisis in Croydon’s school places” which Scott had told us was irrelevant to this planning application had become a central theme at the meeting chaired by Scott.
Yet objectors to the scheme – mainly residents in the area near the Arena who will have to live with the consequences of Thursday’s night’s planning committee decision for decades to come – were not allowed to respond to the matter of school places. Therefore, we should mention here that STEM pulled out precisely because there was a lack of demand for their proposal. In June 2014, STEM argued they would open with 230 pupils. The reality is that they had just 50 applications for September 2015.
Perhaps the crisis is not one of school places, but simply a lack of confidence in the providers. The Oasis representative assured the planning committee on Thursday night that Oasis Shirley Park was heavily oversubscribed. This is undoubtedly true. But it is also true that only 29 parents have chosen the Oasis Arena Academy as their first choice for their children to start secondary school in September. The “crisis” in school places, at least for the catchment of the Arena Academy, is unproven.
Nevertheless, as it was a planning committee, planning issues ought to have been the only determining factor. In a Cabinet decision as recent as January 19, Croydon Council decided not to expand St Joseph’s Primary by one form of entry for the following reasons:
How interesting that, in this case, the “crisis in school places” in the north of the borough was “balanced” against planning issues over traffic, congestion and parking. In this case, an increase of one form of entry would lead to an “oversupply of pupil places”.
In the case of the Oasis Arena Academy, serious inconsistencies in the planning report that had been highlighted were simply swept aside by Scott from the chair, with his belief that introducing one-way streets was the solution. On Twitter today, @AshburtonLabour (possibly Councillor Mann) continued with the focus on school places as a key consideration:
“to defer = delay. When do you anticipate it next at committee any later kids miss out can’t you see?”
Yes @AshburtonLabour, we do see. The Labour-run council put school places ahead of planning issues at a planning committee meeting. Your planning committee chairman, the very same Paul Scott who told us school places were irrelevant to the planning decision, concentrated the committee on “the crisis in provision”.
It was left to the Tories councillors on the planning committee to address planning considerations. Their motion to defer the decision, so that a more robust answer on traffic, highways and congestion could be delivered made sense. This was, after all, a planning committee, and not an education strategy meeting.
In October 2013, before Hamida Ali had been elected as a councillor for Woodside, she provided a review for Inside Croydon of “a public information meeting” on Oasis Arena, where she reported that Paul Scott “… shared the view of many in the room that there could have been other sites and that the school could have been smaller in size but that the council had clearly made its decision”.
So it was that on Thursday night, the now Councillor Ali, as one of our representatives for the Woodside ward and now sitting on the planning committee, was one of those who failed to adequately scrutinise the plans.
It’s probably irrelevant, but I feel worth stating for the record, I’m historically a Labour voter, locally and nationally. This week’s decision has definitely changed the way I’ll vote locally, and like many others, shocked by the lack of engagement with the planning issues, it’s also raised questions over who to vote for nationally.
- Is it time to park ill-considered plans for the Arena Academy?
- Council presses on with £22m academy that no one wants
- Strong need for our council to be more ‘open’ and ‘fair’
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