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! 

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Goals update five

I've been a little slack with updates lately; other stuff getting in the way. One. I've done some editing work on my most complete script, but I'm disappointed with my own lack of effort. I also took a detour to the 'hobbies event' at the local church hall on Saturday in the hope of making contacts with one of the local drama groups, unfortunately the Operatic Society was the closest thing to what I'm looking for. Two. Recently it's been one or two jogs per week. I've dropped down to the 'week one' programme, which is challenging enough to get my heart pumping. It's sounds like an excuse, but there are only so many slots each week I can fit these runs in, and lately I've been out of routine. Three. This week I weighed in at 114.9kg. It crept up a bit following a trip up north to see the folks over half-term, but I've given up chocolate and sweets for Lent so hopefully that will help get me back on track. Four. Nothing DAX related, but I have been doing more work with Power BI and SQL Server, the latter being a little bit frustrating, partly because I'm used to the Oracle 'dialect' of SQL and the Microsoft version is a little different, and partly because SQL Server seems far less adept at casting and converting between different data types. Still, I'm doing stuff in Azure and it's more interesting than mundane work in Business Objects. Five. I've not done anything on my garage project, but I've had other DIY tasks to keep me busy. I fitted a new flush mechanism to the toilet in the main bathroom, resolving an intermittent fault which would cause it to keep running after being flushed. The problem had been going on for a while, but became more pertinent when we moved to a water meter last year. I was supposed to put together a new storage box for the garden, but the 'heavy duty' box my wife ordered via a Woucher deal turned out to be a flimsy piece of shit that had already begun breaking up in transit (the delivery driver throwing it over didn't help). So she's going through the hassle of getting the company that mis-sold it to come and collect it again. This weekend I'll be getting a real heavy duty box from B&Q. Six. Did a bit of work in Python this week, just a simple script to do some merging, renaming and reorganising of CSV files but it's been quite handy with a project I'm working on. Seven. Not a chance! But, I've got a £10 Waterstones voucher left from Christmas and I'm wondering whether to look for a simple primer I can read over the Easter holidays. I've already picked up a copy of Peter Frankopan's 'The Silk Roads' for this break, so it maybe better to balance that with something a little lighter?

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Goals update four

Nothing much to report. Weighed in at 114.9kg, pretty much as expected. Only managed one run as weather and personal circumstances ate in to my available time. I have some time off over the next couple of weeks, so hopefully will have some progress to report.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Goals update three

One. Nothing to report. Just too busy.
Two. Only one run again. We were hit by snow and ice which made running pretty difficult. I’m going to make a fresh start on the ‘week two’ programme tomorrow.
Three. I weighed in at 114.8kg. I suspect I’ll have gone back up again this week though.
Four. Busy on other projects, but focus should shift back to Power BI in next week or so.
Five. Nothing to report. I’ve got a bunch of jobs to sort this weekend.
Six. Nothing to report.
Seven. Nothing to report.

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Goals update two

One. My acoustic foam looks good, but the fabric cube is a bit too big, so I’ll pick up another one in the next week or so. I haven’t had chance to do any proper testing yet though.
Two. Unfortunately, I only got one run done due to family commitments impinging on my Friday and Sunday slots. I did the first run of the ‘week two’ programme again, and I’ll probably stick to that again tomorrow (provided the snow melts so I can get out). I don’t think moving up to the ‘week three’ programme is viable at this stage.
Three. Weight unchanged, I’ve starting moved towards a new diet, but so far it’s been a case of trying to moderate rather than restrict.
Four. More proof of concept work with Power BI, but nothing DAX related.
Five. Nothing to report. On the DIY front I had to patch up the winter cover on the rabbit hutch after a fox decided to try and get in. Fortunately, the rabbits were unharmed.  
Six. Nothing to report.
Seven. Nothing to report.

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Goals update one

One. I’ve ordered some acoustic foam panels to complete my homemade ‘recording cube’.
Two. I dusted off the Run 5K app and did the three ‘week one’ programme sessions last week, and the first session of ‘week two’ yesterday. The sessions are a mix of walks interspersed with bursts of running (jogging really). It was tough, I hit the wall a few times, especially with the first session of ‘week two’ as the split between walking and running stepped up. I may need to repeat week one again. One thing I did learn quickly was wearing decent footwear is important, the first two sessions I used beat up old trainers and ended up with heel pain, so they went in the bin and I swapped them out with a new pair of running trainers.
Three. My first proper weight-in post-Christmas put me at 116.3kg, then 15.5kg yesterday. That’s pretty good seeing as I haven’t really made much of an effort to diet as I finish off all the leftover chocolates from Christmas. The coming week should be more telling.
Four. I’ve been doing some proof of concept work with Power BI at work, so I watched a few videos relating to DAX but there is surprisingly little available free-to-view. Even the paid for training materials I have access to through work are pretty weak on anything but the most basic DAX. A new edition of the ‘definitive’ guide from Microsoft is published in a few weeks, so I’ll probably just pony up for that.
Five. Nothing to report on the garage, but I did install the new kitchen blind.
Six. Nothing to report.
Seven. Nothing to report.

Monday, 7 January 2019

Personal Goals for 2019

Following my post on New Year’s Eve I've made a list of some things I want to achieve in 2019, these are not resolutions, they are a mixed bag of goals, some with clear personal or professional benefits, others that will make life easier in the long term, and a couple which are vanity projects that I hope will bring a little self-actualisation.
I doubt I will achieve all of them, the top two I really do want to get over the line, but if I make positive progress towards most of them I will be happy; the lower down the list the greater the risk I won’t get the time. Unlike a list of resolutions this set of goals is definitely achievable providing life doesn’t get too crazy; but the reality of a busy family, personal and professional life means there’s usually a spanner or two ready to drop into the works at any moment.
One. Release at least one episode from my podcast project. I’ve been around the edges of this for nearly two years, with one script close to final draft, and several other stories at various stages from concept to rough draft. I have the key equipment and software I need, and have learned the production basics, although I could do with a few inexpensive additions. If needed I’m prepared to drop my desire to get one of the local am-dram groups provide the voices and instead use friends and family.
Two. Run 5K. Over a year ago I downloaded a running app designed to get me from someone who struggles to run any distance to running 5k. I even made some progress, but then my work/life circumstances changed and finding time for a run a couple of evening a week became challenging. I’m going to make an effort to get this back on track.
Three. Get my weight down to 108kg. This kind of follows on from number two. For most of the past year I’ve been around 115kg (Xmas and New Year indulgence have pushed that to 117kg but I think that is a blip), but in late 2017 I was getting as low as 112kg. With sensible eating (no fad diets) and more exercise (see two) I want to get down to 108kg by the end of the year.
Four. Learn DAX (Data Analysis Expressions). The direction of travel in my professional career is towards greater use of Microsoft tools e.g. Power BI and Azure, whereas my comfort zone is Oracle BI and data warehouse. I’m already pretty competent with Excel formulas, so add in my existing SQL skills and I should be able to pick this up without too many headaches.
Five. Replace side door to the garage and run in a basic electrical supply. Nine years ago, when we moved to our current home, I nailed shut side door of the garage. It was rotten and the lock was broken, since then all access has been via the main door, which is a bit of a pain. Also, the archaic power supply had long since been disconnected meaning temporary extension cables from the house whenever I want to use it as a workshop. The plan was to resolve this situation, but there was also a huge list of more significant projects. Now, the big things are largely complete, so there’s a chance I could get around to this. As it happens, in the intervening years, I’ve picked up the tools and DIY skills to make a reasonable stab at this, which wasn’t so likely at the outset. The caveat here is that depending on outstanding quotes, I may need repaint the outside of the house this summer, and there’s a list of smaller jobs which always seems to grow by two tasks for every one removed (install new kitchen blind, replace cracked light switch, fix flush mechanism on main toilet, new loft hatch, slow leak on boiler…)!
Six. Learn Python (or R). I’ve dabbled with the Python programming language for several years, doing the odd piece of work ‘monkey see, monkey do’ without ever properly learning it. I’ve also done a bit of exploration with R too, although without any practical application. I’d like to get to grips properly with one of them, Python probably being the more useful to me, but it’s debatable I’ll have the cognitive bandwidth to do on top of mastering other new tools and technologies that will be more salient in my professional life.  
Seven. Learn Latin. This is a long-term vanity project. I made a start at it a few years ago using the Memrise application, but like lots of other things it got shoved to the side. It’s doubtful I’ll get around to it, but I’ll throw it in anyway.
Over the coming months I’ll add updates about how I get on with these seven goals.