Council lets builders turn Arena parkland into a car park

Education correspondent GENE BRODIE avoids saying “we told you so” about what promises to be a disappointing start to life at big school for the bright-eyed new Year 7s at the Oasis Academy alongside Croydon Arena

Parents of children excitedly looking forward to starting in Year 7 of the Oasis Academy Arena might want to spend this weekend adding a couple of other items to their school starters’ shopping list. Alongside the smart new blazer (at least one size too big, to let the little ‘un grow into it) and school tie, we recommend that they also get a pair of steel toe-capped boots and a construction worker’s hard hat.

The scene yesterday outside Oasis Academy Arena: a building site, not a school playing field

The scene yesterday outside Oasis Academy Arena: a building site, not a school playing field

Today, as expected, some families have turned up to “recce” the school chosen for their child. This is supposed to be the school where their children will begin the most significant, possibly the most important time of their educational lives.

The families have been forced to wander around what remains a building site, as they look for the way in. Despite reassurances on the Oasis website, the school looks far from ready.

But like the football fans attending matches at Croydon Arena and club athletes negotiating the building site when they turn up for track training nights, the parents checking out the school have had to ask construction workers how to get in to Oasis Academy Arena.

Look on the Academy’s website for their travel plan, and the best they can offer is “coming soon”. Not soon enough for a school just days from its opening to 180 eager 11-year-olds.

But then, the school’s randomly ordered title – “Oasis Academy Arena” – appears to have been determined by Yoda in Star Wars. And how can anyone rely on much of the rest of the school’s website when it includes spelling errors and exaggerated claims, such as the academy is “part of Croydon’s Olympic legacy”. Yeah. And I’m Seb Coe…

Better late than never: even today, the Oasis Academy Arena does not have a travel plan ready

Better late than never? Even today, the Oasis Academy Arena does not have a travel plan ready

It seems unbelievable that Croydon Council finds this situation acceptable. The teachers start work today, with the first of two inset days. But as at yesterday evening, there was no signage. Just a few pieces of hastily placed turf.

The reality is as was feared and predicted. For two years local residents voiced their objections on the logistics surrounding the construction of such a huge build on such an unsuitable site. The residents always said that the narrow residential roads would not be suitable for construction lorries.

In recent days, residents have watched, part in horror, mainly in disbelief, as a large low-loader has reversed, with the help of a banksman, the entire length of Belmont Road towards Portland Road; only to see it again a short time later, against in reverse, back down Belmont Road towards the Arena.

“All our predictions were correct,” one resident said.

The road surfaces are disintegrating and the entrance to the Arena, referred to by construction firm Willmott Dixon as “the Bell mouth”, has cracked into large sections and become a major trip hazard.

And then there are the bats. There are fewer bats than used to be seen, but they can be seen flying around the trees outside the old Ryeland School’s caretakers house. Bats include several protected species, and any building work near a bats’ roost has to fulfill many demanding conditions.

So why was a proper bat survey of the caretakers’ house not completed prior to any construction work taking place? This, after all, was a condition of planning permission being granted.

Why did it take a resident’s phone call to Croydon Council for the demolition of the caretakers house to come to a sudden halt? For there are bats roosting there.

Willmott Dixon’s excuse was that they were not demolishing the house, merely removing the doors and windows to prevent squatting. Really? The site is secure. No self-respecting squatter is going to want to be locked in on a building site. Especially when it will soon be invaded by up to 180 secondary pupils. No peace there.

Willmott Dixon has assured local residents that they have applied for the relevant licence to allow the destruction of the bats’ habitat. Retrospectively. Naughty, naughty. Hoardings are to be placed around the house until the licence has been obtained. They don’t say what they will do if the licence is refused, though most locals expect it to be granted, just as the building programme appears to have ridden rough-shod over all other considerations, condition and undertakings.

Hardly the most welcoming sight on the first day at a new school, is it?

Hardly the most welcoming sight on the first day at a new school, is it?

At a recent meeting with local residents the issue of car parking was raised, and the matter of the green Metropolitan Open Land beyond the Multi Use Games Area discussed.

It emerged that the constructors have been using this as their everyday car park and sitting-in-car lunch break area.

Croydon Council instructed the builders to use this area as a car park.

“How many times does Croydon Council need to be reminded that MOL is not for parking,” said one angry resident who attended the meeting.

“Willmott Dixon seem to think that this green space is to be an overflow car park for the school. This was exactly what residents always feared: Metropolitan Open Land is a precious resource, subject to the same strict planning rules as Green Belt: no one is allowed to build on it or develop it without some very special permission.

“Croydon Council hasn’t got any planning permission to build on this MOL. They’ve never even sought planning permission for this land. This area is outside the perimeter of the site. It is used a couple of times a year at most, for major Arena sports events only. Doesn’t Croydon have enough car parks already?

“How do these misunderstandings happen? How can we stop a precedent being set? How do we protect our green open spaces in the face of such insidious activity?”

People living in the area around the school feel particularly let down by their ward councillors, who include Paul Scott – an architect by profession and the chairman of the council’s planning committee – and Tony Newman, Labour’s council leader. The Croydon Council planning committee which granted planning consent for the academy, to be run by the Oasis religious and education organisation, was even allowed to include four past or present governors of other Oasis schools, including Scott.

Despite strong reservations from residents, but without support from their elected representatives, the decision was reached to go ahead with the school build on behalf of the private Oasis organisation, at a £22 million cost to the public.

“The councillors have done nothing to protect our interests, or the interests of the borough generally, to help preserve and maintain the Metropolitan Open Land and protect the environment around South Norwood Country Park,” one angry resident said of their elected local councillors.

Frances Fearon is one of the residents who has been actively campaigning to highlight the imbecilities involved in trying to build a 1,000-pupil school in a space suitable only for something half that size.

“We wish the students of Oasis Academy Arena every success,” she said today.

“We do, however, urge families not to bring children to school by car, for there is nowhere to drop off and nowhere to park. Please be aware that the walk from Arena tram stop is very muddy and is an active building site, so please be aware of heavy lorries.

“If you are coming by bus please take care when crossing Portland Road, as there is no crossing point and the local traffic is very heavy. If you are coming by bicycle, at present there is no secure cycle park. Teachers, it seems that there does not appear to be any parking for you. Please do not park on the local roads, for there is not enough parking for those of us who live here.”

Asked whether the school development is as bad as the residents had suggested it might be, Fearon said: “We told you so.”

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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