‘Seriously flawed’ plans for Portakabin Academy’s new home

GENE BRODIE, education correspondent, on how millions of pounds of public money are being spent to build a school next to a busy road at Thornton Heath which even a Labour council cabinet member thinks will have too many pupils and will again be affected by air pollution

Tomorrow night’s planning committee at our Labour-run Town Hall will see proposals to build an overly large primary school on an inappropriate site that is badly affected by vehicle exhausts. The application has been called in by a Labour councillor.

The Portakabin Academy, after four years being sited at a rugby club, now wants to build a sports-specialist school where the only open play space is on the roof or in the Lidl car park

This will be the third instance recently where such plans for a primary have seen objections raised by Labour ward councillors. And it is the third time that the council’s planning department has recommended approval of the proposals.

One councillor who has looked at the plans for the 630-pupil school has described them as “seriously flawed”.

The application is for the Paxton Academy, which might be better known as the Portakabin Academy, since its pupils have been taught in temporary accommodation sited at a rugby club for the past four years while an agency of the Department for Education, which is picking up the bills for the free school and its buildings, has dithered over finding a suitable site for the primary.

Now they think they have found somewhere, the site of the former Oaks Day Centre on London Road, close to the busy Thornton Heath junction. It is where they want to build a vast four-storey school for a three-form-entry school which would extend from London Road to Grove Road, and would be very handy for the Lidl car park next door.

The school is supposed to be a sports and science specialist academy, yet its new site’s only open space for the children to play will be on its roof overlooking the busy traffic. The planning department’s report states that for sports and games, the school will continue to use the facilities at Streatham and Croydon RFC on Frant Road and the public swimming pool in Thornton Heath.

Previously, applications for large primary schools next to busy roads on the Purley Way and alongside the Croydon Flyover have been waved through by the planning committee, despite objections from ward councillors, parents and residents, and despite admissions in one case that the new building will have to be “hermetically sealed” against noxious air pollution, or at another, that the pupils won’t be allowed outside at the other site on days of dangerous air quality.

On this occasion, the matter has been called before the planning committee by Stuart King, a councillor for West Thornton but also the Labour council’s cabinet member who is responsible for roads. King has let it be known that he is keen for Paxton to get settled into a permanent site as soon as possible, but he is concerned by proposals for an overly large school being shoe-horned into this site next to a busy main road.

Even the planning department’s report grudgingly admits that, probably, what’s being proposed is too large a school for too small a site. “Given the number of pupils and staff that would attend the school, and combined with the site’s constraints and limited size, the proposal could raise some significant issues,” the planning department’s report states.

They admit that the air quality around the site of the school is already well over the legal limits. The matter provides an interesting example of how some planning applicants try to bullshit their way to their desired result.

In February 2016, the Paxton Academy produced its own air quality report for the proposed site using 15 air quality monitors, which stated,  “Of the 15 monitored sites, 11 sites exceeded the annual mean NO2 objective of 40 μg/m3. The closest site (Site 1) to the school perimeter has an annual mean of 54 μg/m3.”

Stuart King: numerous concerns about Paxton Academy proposal

That NO2 “objective” of 40 microgrammes per cubic metre of air is actually the legal limit, under European Union environmental laws, for the levels of exhaust fumes. Even averaged out over a year –  which would include relatively quiet traffic times such as the small hours, Sundays and school holidays – the figures returned in that test just over a year ago were well over the legal limit.

But interestingly, when the Paxton Academy’s latest planning application was submitted, it was accompanied by another air quality assessment, this time from a company called Resource and Environmental Consultants Ltd, and dated November 2016.

Since this proposal was being put forward on behalf of the Education Funding Agency, Resource and Environmental Consultants were effectively working for the taxpayer. And hey presto! As if by magic, barely nine months after the very noxious previous air quality report for the site,  this new report found no such problem. “The location is considered suitable for the proposed end-use without the inclusion of mitigation methods,” they said.

And just as with the previous primary applications on other busy roads in the borough, Croydon’s planning department has not bothered to commission an air quality assessment of its own. But it has recommended creating a “green barrier” between the school and the main road – basically a hedge and some trees – to mitigate the worst of the air pollution.

Councillor King called in the application, meaning that it should be considered by the cross-party committee of councillors, rather than simply going ahead on the say-so of the council planning department.

The report outlines King’s objections, which include:

  • overdevelopment (“Applicant has not demonstrated that the site can accommodate the size of school proposed with sufficient play space and without harm to the highway network and local residents”),
  • air quality (“Given the site is located within an area identified as experiencing elevated pollutant concentrations, green walls should be introduced”),
  • play space (“Insufficient outdoor play space for pupils”),
  • and transport impact (“Significant concerns regarding the proposed development’s impact on the local road network, including parking demand on surrounding roads arising from parent drop-off/pick-up and staff parking, congestion on London Road, lack of mini-bus parking space”).

Paxton’s four years in Portakabins has seen the MP for the area, Steve Reed OBE, lobby the DfE to find an urgent solution to the accommodation issues.

“Everyone agrees that there’s a need to find a permanent building for the school,” King told Inside Croydon. “I am just very concerned that this site is not it.”

Going by the planning committee’s recent form, expect them to give the plans a green light tomorrow night.

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About insidecroydon

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 inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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