Sunday, 17 March 2019

The coveting of Warlingham Village School

A long, off-topic post, but one I think offers some insight. I should make clear these are personal observations based on information in the public domain, conversations I’ve been exposed to and stuff I learned during my time in local politics. I have no dog in this fight beyond my former associations, that and a shit outcome will be a daily inconvenience. 

About six months ago Surrey County Council (SCC) floated the idea of demolishing a local primary school, Warlingham Village School. Rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted and a bedrock of the community for over a century, generations of locals have sent their kids there, so predictably a backlash ensued.

The rationale is that the school is oversubscribed and the current site is difficult to redevelop. SCC would ‘relocate’ it to a new build on the opposite side of the village. The proposed site being a recreation ground on Limpsfield Road currently designated green belt. This would deliver the new school places SCC claim are needed to meet future local demand. It took about thirty seconds for locals to notice some glaring problems with this narrative. 

Firstly, the claim about local demand for places is dubious. The existing school is oversubscribed, but SCC have failed to demonstrate this is a significant issue as there are at least five other primary schools within two miles. So, there’s little evidence of an overall shortage of places in the local vicinity. In fact, another primary school, Hamsey Green, on the side of the village SCC is proposing to relocate to, has confirmed it is currently undersubscribed. 

The claim the current school site cannot be redeveloped has also not been proven. Nobody is claiming it would be easy, but how much effort has been put into assessing it? Besides, Hamsey Green School has confirmed it is able to expand its intake without difficulty, there just isn’t sufficient demand for the places it already has. 

So where is SCC seeing this demand? Probably not in Warlingham! Other parts of Tandridge District may have shortages, particularly the southern parts on the other side of the M25. But, this proposal is of little benefit to those areas. My understanding is that the oversubscription at Warlingham Village primarily affects applications from outside the local area. The school at Hamsey Green, being on the London border, actually takes a lot of pupils from the neighbouring London Borough of Croydon, and the new site is likely to be similar given it’s geographically more accessible to Croydon than other parts of Surrey. 

Which brings us to another problem; traffic. Unless Hamsey Green gets the chop (which would make the whole exercise pointless), filling the additional surplus means places means transporting kids in to the village via its busiest road. The geography means public transport links to Croydon are far better than to neighbouring parts of Surrey, suggesting more cars entering the village on the school run each day if SCC really wants to address real shortages. 

A reasonable summary of affairs is that SCC wants to demolish a much loved, successful, local school, to generate what appears to be a massive oversupply of school places. Whilst the location of the proposed site means it will probably benefit kids from Croydon rather than resolving issues in other parts of Surrey! 

Why would anybody from SCC’s education department come up with such a plan? Obviously, they didn’t! The whole thing is euphemistically referred to as ‘a developer led initiative’, and is driven by opportunities in the local political landscape. 

Firstly, SCC is skint, really, really, skint and although Warlingham Village School is operated by the GLF academy chain, the land it sits on is owned by SCC and it would be worth a small fortune developed as housing. Parents opposing the scheme also believe the developers have designs on a big parcel of green belt land right behind it which would be worth even more, if weren’t for a pesky school in the way. 

Secondly, now is the best chance in years for developers to rip the Limpsfield Road recreation ground out of the green belt, and reap the windfall profits that would bring. Tandridge District Council (TDC), the local planning authority, is in the final stages of adopting a new local plan. It’s pretty much accepted that some green belt, which covers around 94% of the district, will be sacrificed to government pressure to pour concrete. (I could write pages about the Conservative Party’s sleazy relations with developers, about the wheezes used to force overdevelopment, about the economics of externalised costs and windfall profits, and about local plans and nimbys, but this post is already too long!) What matters is that releasing land from the green belt equals massive windfall profits to the lucky developer. 

In late 2016 TDC put out a 'call for sites' to owners of green belt who wanted it assessed for potential development under the proposed local plan. Lots of pastures, playing fields and golf courses were submitted; including some land banked precisely in hope of such opportunity. The proposed school site was lucky enough to be selected in 'Category 2: Green Belt Sites within an Area for Further Investigation'. This doesn’t mean the site will be released, it is still green belt, but it made it a much softer target. (And it appears the developer is pretty much treating this particular jackpot as a banker, which could be simple overconfidence or a sign of something more fetid). 

Developing green belt requires 'exceptional circumstances' be demonstrated, a somewhat ambiguous designation in planning law that basically sets the bar above any general merit of a scheme. The opportunity to make windfall profits is not an exceptional circumstance, nor is a general demand for housing. Exceptional circumstances are when there is no other way of delivering a demonstrated need, where all reasonable alternatives have been explored and ruled out. 

A confirmed ‘need’ for more school places is probably as good a stab at ‘exceptional circumstances’ as can be found in this case; ‘somebody needs to think of the children’! That said, to swing it the decision-making process will need to avoid looking too closely at the basis for local need, and then ignore the more obvious alternatives I've already hinted at. However, from previous experience, the ‘presumption in favour of development’ may well bend to routes in planning law that bypass any such ground truth. I’ve also no doubt that some in that process can be incentivised, by one means or another, to turn a blind eye to inconvenient facts (I won't exactly be shocked if local hearsay that the deal has already been stitched up turns out to be true). 

A remit of the new local plan is addressing infrastructure needs, and school places could fall under this. Although I don’t believe there is any specific local requirement identified, nor any prescription that a supply of new places should be located where they are genuinely needed. As far as local authority box ticking is concerned, building a school in an area where it’s not needed, is probably just as good as building one where it really is needed. A new school could be lauded as a great achievement by SCC even as a glut of excess places are filled by kids from Croydon and the problem for Surrey kids remains unresolved (by law SCC cannot bar London kids from taking them). 

For the developer of the Limpsfield Road site the advantages are obvious. Without the school it would probably take much longer to get the site out of the green belt, but once out it can develop the rest of the site for residential use. Outright residential development would probably be more lucrative, and would mitigate the overdevelopment squeeze that comes as standard with such schemes, but the need to fit in a school pretty much makes overdevelopment on the rest of the site inevitable. To make matters worse it’s been suggested it will be given over to yet more of the ‘later living’ retirement hutches that are increasingly scabbing over the village, changing its character for the worse (I could do another post on this disease; its economic drivers and implications for the local community). 

Proper residential development, homes for local families as opposed to retirement communities, would probably the second-best outcome for the local community, the best outcome being retaining the recreation ground. However, a similar site exists close by, the former Shelton Leisure ground. It’s in the same category but is likely to be released for development first. It has the advantage of being land banked several years ago when the business folded, by securing the perimeter and preventing its use, the owners have a much stronger case for claiming it’s redundant as a recreation ground and should be concreted at the first available opportunity. There's a whole schtick now being pushed by developer shills to 'reimagine' these types of sites as 'low grade' green belt or 'scrub land' fit only for concreting (pushing the Overton window in the direction of windfall profits).

For SCC the objective appears to be to cash in the current school site, tap into capital funding sources for new school places, and cut a mutually beneficial deal with the developer of the Limpsfield Road site in return for the ‘exceptional circumstances’ needed to kick start the whole programme. This plan is even more lucrative if the parcel of green belt behind the school is part of the package. (Although, if the green belt behind the school is a viable target for development it begs the question of why the school itself cannot expand on to it?) 

I’m sure over the next few months there will be plenty of charlatans advocating for the SCC and the developer, claiming how demolishing a community asset, concreting green belt and choking the village with additional traffic is just what the community needs, but any credible assessment needs to highlight the distorting incentive of windfall on such claims. Would a developer give over a brownfield site in Warlingham for such a development? Unlikely! Would SCC normally build a new school in an area which already has a surplus of places and much easier alternatives? Not a chance! 

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