Why I’m opposing the Kidnappers Lane school planning application today

In a virtual county planning committee meeting today that you can follow live online here, I’m going to be opposing the planning application for a new secondary school in Kidnappers Lane, Leckhampton.

Although I’m not arguing against a school in principle – there is provision made for a school in the area in local plans already – I am sceptical about the need for it. Only a few brief paragraphs of ‘educational rationale’ have been provided to today’s committee and I fear that if the school proves as popular as Balcarras, it may just ‘poach’ admissions from nearby Bournside and parents hoping to close the notorious ‘Leckhampton Corridor’ may still find themselves more than a mile from all local schools and so still unsure of getting their kids into any of them.

The new school will sit within the Bournside priority area and may not close the infamous ‘Leckhampton Corridor’

But my main objections are on grounds of biodiversity loss, landscape impact and the poor design of the school building. I also support Leckhampton with Warden Hill Parish Council’s strong opposition on air quality and traffic grounds.

Last year the county council voted to protect biodiversity in the county in a full council motion. But their own chief ecologist in his report to today’s committee says the application “could be refused on biodiversity grounds alone”. Another expert ecologist report to the committee todays predicts “net loss of habitat units down to -56.69%” even with parallel increases in hedgerows nearby and other mitigation measures without which the habitat loss would have been nearly total (-95%).

Hatherley Brook runs the entire length of the application site but is an important habitat for many species and would be seriously affected, including by floodlighting.

The reports catalogue a huge diversity of species on the site including at least 11 bird species and 10 bat species – both protected from habitat disturbance by law – with 9 trees lost if the application proceeds and 3o more affected, one hedgerow lost completely and others damaged and the important brook habitat that runs the length of the site infiltrated by floodlighting which could disturb hibernating bats when the floodlighting is used in winter, causing them to wake and starve.

The south of the application site and the brookline running its whole length was given the highest possible rating for landscape sensitivity during the recent Joint Core Strategy (JCS) planning process..

Turning to landscape sensitivity, this is something that has been highlighted by successive Planning Inspectors and reports over decades, agreeing to protection for the Leckhampton fields area’s “special historical, landscape and amenity value” and “attractive pastoral character.. linked strongly into the landscape of the AONB”. In 2012 the Gloucester, Cheltenham & Tewkesbury Joint Core Strategy (JCS) landscape report considered the area a “valuable landscape resource” with ”a good brookline and associated tree cover” and gave parts of the application site the highest category of landscape and visual sensitivity. Many local and national planning policies instruct planning authorities to protect valued landscapes but this application and design does not do that, placing a huge “office block’ design into this sensitive local landscape.

The square urban “office block” design of the proposed school building is a major problem with the application, especially in such a highly rated landscape area.

Local plans also specifically protect the views into and out of the neraby Cotswold Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. This site is very prominent in iconic views from within the AONB at Leckhampton Hill and the building proposed would stick out like a sore thumb.

The site (outlined in red) would be extremely prominent in the most iconic views from within the AONB at Leckhampton Hill. Local and national policies instruct councillors to protect such views.

Buildings, even large buildings, can be placed in sensitive locations. Think of how the radical, environmentally-friendly design of Gloucester Services on the M5 blends into the Severn Vale landscape. But this building won’t.

So for all these reasons, I’m opposing the planning application today. You can read my full comment and written objection document online here. Enter reference 19/0058/CHR3MJ.

Leckhampton secondary school & green fields update

There is news on the planned new secondary school at Kidnappers Lane – and it’s a mixed bag for local residents.

First of all, a government inspector, Wendy Burden, has issued her interim advice on the draft Cheltenham Local Plan – one of the key local planning documents for our area. Against the run of previous inspections and the wishes of both the Borough and Parish Councils – she concluded that the 39 hectares proposed by our local councils as protected Local Green Space at Leckhampton might be too “extensive” and not justified. This is very surprising since an enormous amount of evidence has been amassed to justify the protection of the Leckhampton green fields (alongside a substantial amount of new housing next to the Shurdington Road). Under the National Planning Policy Framework, there is no upper size limit on LGS and it should for local communities to determine this but nevertheless the opinions of this experienced inspector carry huge weight in the process and the councils have to pay attention to this or risk the whole draft plan being declared “unsound”. I have been in discussion with Cheltenham planning officers along with fellow parish councillors to see what we can salvage from this situation.

The inspector’s verdict has played right into the hands of the Conservative-led county council who want to grab some of the planned Local Green Space for their controversial new secondary school instead of building it on the land next to Shurdington Road which had been earmarked for development (see my earlier update here). The county presented plans for the Kidnappers Lane site at a recent public meeting:

The site proposed by the county council for the new secondary school between Farm Lane and Kidnappers Lane – with apologies for the poor quality of the image.
Again with apologies for the image quality, a plan of the county’s proposed school building and playing fields.

There are some positives to these plans: it’s noticeable that they retain the extensive and ancient hedgerow around the school site which will be really important in Kidnappers Lane and Farm Lane retaining some of their current charm and rural character and will make an attractive green environment for the school students themselves. The plans also set the school building right at the northern end of the site, closest to planned development and the least intrusive location in respect of the planned protected Local Green Space to the south and east. The playing fields – and in particular the all-weather Astro pitch could be important community assets for local young people, including Leckhampton Rovers Football Club.

A sketch of the proposed new school building including some natural-looking materials but little evidfence of genuinely environmentally freindly features – and the apparently small scale is pretty misleading!

But local residents still have deep and – in my view – well-founded worries about the safety and traffic implications of such a large school set amongst what are now rural lanes with already congested roads around them, not least because the county’s shifting of the site will make way for developers to try to put even more housing on the fields next to the Shurdington Road. It’s also disappointing that the building and site so close to a Local Green Space and clearly visible from the AONB seem to boast so little in the way of green features, in stark contrast to exciting low energy new developments like the two Gloucester Services on the M5 which are camouflaged so well as to be nearly invisible from any distance or even the headquarters of Gloucestershire Constabulary in Quedgeley which boasts a fantastic reneweable energy resource in the shape of a large ground-source heat pump.

Unusually the county is applying to itself for planning permission to build the school instead of to the usual planning authority, Cheltenham Borough Council. A further consultation event is planned for 4.30-7pm 27 June at Hatherley & Reddings Cricket Club (on the left of the Shurdington Road outside town down towards Shurdington). Come along and make your views known!

Leckhampton secondary school update Jan 2019

In December 2017, Gloucestershire County Council cabinet decided to establish a new 900 place 11-16 secondary school in Cheltenham, widely regarded as necessary because of a looming crisis in secondary school admissions.  They identified Kidnappers Lane in Leckhampton as their preferred site.  Funding for the school was approved in February 2018 and the school is expected to open to new Year 7s in September 2021. It is being sponsored by outstanding local secondary school Balcarras who bring a welcome reputation for high academic standards and positive engagement with their local community.

The planned Local Green Space where the county council want to build the new secondary school, instead of in the area already agreed for development.

But the site of the new school is causing real concern and controversy and not just because of the likely impact on local traffic through narrow rural lanes.

After more than ten years’ campaigning against the imposition of thousands of new houses all over Leckhampton’s green fields, local campaigners like the Leckhampton Green Land Action Group (LEGLAG) and the Parish Council accepted that the fields immediately next to the A46 Shurdington Road would be built on, principally for new homes.   The remaining fields would be protected as Local Green Space, a new designation for local green spaces important to communities which I initiated when I was MP for Cheltenham and which is now national policy.  After discussions with the county council, Cheltenham Borough Council included the new secondary school in their draft Local Plan on the land to be developed – at the corner of Shurdington Road and Kidnappers Lane.  It was accepted that the school’s playing fields could be within the planned Local Green Space area further up Kidnappers Lane.  This was agreed in writing by Gloucestershire County Council in March 2018 (as explained in these Cheltenham Borough Council minutes – see Question 10).

Then in September 2018 the county council changed its mind and announced that despite all the previous discussions, it wanted to build the school in the area further up Kidnappers Lane everyone expected to be protected Local Green Space.  Why?  To save the county money.  The new site was land they owned and would not have to buy in opposition to the housing developers.

This would be a double whammy for Leckhampton: not only would green fields be lost to the newly built school but more of the land agreed for development would then go to housing as the developer always wanted but this would now be in addition to the new school.  Local Lib Dem councillors, LEGLAG, the Parish Council and Cheltenham Borough Council have all lined up to oppose the loss of green space and likely overdevelopment.

Unfortunately, local Conservative councillor Stephen Cooke has refused to oppose the county’s plan, describing it as the “lesser of two evils” and complaining that no-one had got the agreement of the developers!

Worse, since the county council own the land proposed for the new school, they are allowed to apply to themselves for planning permission to build it instead of to the usual local planning authority, Cheltenham Borough Council.  But this decision will be carefully scrutinised by the plan’s opponents.  In law, the county council must pay proper attention to the traffic problems too much development would cause, as well as to the emerging Cheltenham Local Plan, the previous Cheltenham Local Plan and the emerging Leckhampton Neighbourhood Plan, all of which would rule out the use of the protected green field site.

The county council’s summary of the situation can be found here but it contains fake news!  It suggests that only one site was ever considered (not true, as the Cheltenham minutes show), that the site was previously identified for housing but this was “not taken up” (not true; the land had been earmarked for development until the plan for thousands of houses was ruled out by a government inspector) and that local Lib Dem councillor Iain Dobie supports the plan (not true; Iain welcomes a new school but has vociferously opposed the proposed green field site).

 

Thank you Leckhampton!

Can I say thank you to everyone who voted in Thursday’s Cheltenham Borough Council elections and particular thanks, of course, to those who generously voted for me and placed me top of the poll in Leckhampton. Two seats were being elected here this time and the second went to Conservative Stephen Cooke, just 13 votes behind.  Commiserations to the other candidates, in particular Glenn Andrews, the brilliant Lib Dem candidate who worked his socks off in the ward and has promised to keep working hard for local people, and also sitting councillor Chris Nelson who lost out to his Conservative colleague by just 2 votes.  Thanks to him and retiring independent councillor Ian Bickerton for all their work for Leckhampton.

Across the town it was a great night for the Lib Dems.  Despite already holding nearly three quarters of the Borough Council’s 40 seats, we made three gains and increased our total to 32.  The Conservatives now hold 6 seats and the People Against Bureaucracy 2.

The full result in Leckhampton was:

Martin Horwood, Liberal Democrats   1,082
Stephen Cooke, Conservative                  1,069
Chris Nelson, Conservative                       1,067
Glenn Andrews, Liberal Democrats          834
Green    302
Labour   78
Labour   56

Votes spoiled: 1          Voter turnout: 52%

For the full ward by ward results across town, see Gloucestershire Live here.  And for more comment and coverage of the elections see their site here.

Thanks again.