On Friday 1st March, Hillingdon Council called an emergency planning meeting for just 4 days later to push through their plans for construction of a new school on the green belt at Lake Farm Country Park.
Regular visitors to this site will have seen how the council’s plans have been progressed on this issue in what can only be described as an ‘irregular’ manner, from the initial decision that there was an ‘overwhelming need’ for a new school overriding the green belt status of the site, through test coring being seen by local residents prior to any planning permission being given, through to the decision to slip the planning application through at the end of the last planning meeting before Christmas with an 8th January deadline for objections(Maybe in the hope that we wouldn’t notice over the festive season?)
After the December submission of the plans, UKIP Hillingdon activists went door to door in the area with details of the proposal and where to put your complaint in to, whilst John McDonnell MP took another march through Hayes Town to raise awareness. On top of the petitions already submitted, this must have made the council very aware of the strength of local feeling against use of this land for the new school and may well explain why they convened the March 5th Planning Committee on such short notice to try and force it through.
Central & South Planning Committee Meeting
Arriving at the Civic Centre straight from work for the 7pm start, I could see that a large part of the council chamber was taken up with familiar faces from the meetings and protest marches that I had participated in throughout the year.
Taking my seat, I picked up the public document pack and planning drawings that were provided and listened to the presentation being made by the planning team at the front of the hall.
The statistics presented pointed out that there would need to be an 18% increase in primary school places between 2012 and 2020 and that the three wards surrounding Lake Farm (Botwell,Pinkwell and Townfield) had all shown an above average increase in need for these places of 21% between 2001 and 2011 based on census data – This compared with a 13% increase across Hillingdon as a whole in the same period.
The reasons for these increases were explained to be immigration,increased birthrate and new housing that had been built in the area increasing the local population.
It was pointed out that after the construction of the new school, 87 % of the country park would be left intact and that various ‘landscaping’ features have been built in to the proposal to limit the impact on the surrounding environment.
Also wheeled out at this point on a slide (Which was not in the provided information pack) was a graph of surplus vs shortfall of school places based on ECS SRP 2012 figures that was supposed to back up the council stance on the construction of a 4 form of entry school. This created a stir in the room as John McDonnell forcibly made the point that this information had been withheld in all the previous submissions and seemed to be a ‘smoking gun’ put in to the room for the express purpose of directing towards building of the school without the chance of the figures being checked before a decision was to be made. Chairman of the meeting Cllr John Hensley threatened to remove the MP from the meeting at this point if he did not calm down.
Once order was restored, Mr McDonnell put his case that the proposal was flawed and that the council should be looking at 3 forms of entry in total, not 3 forms of entry in one school.Indeed, it was put to the committee at this point that government education officials were meeting with Guru Nanak school in Hayes within 24 hours to discuss 4 new forms of entry there which would render the need for 3 new forms at any of the sites unnecessary.
It was also pointed out that there are ongoing discussions about an additional form of entry being added at Rosedale school.
Unfortunately, the planning committee decided that these additional places could not be taken in to account as there were no concrete plans in place – A request to delay decision on Lake Farm until a report back on the expansion of Guru Nanak was flatly ruled out, despite the delay needed being just a few weeks.
Representations were then put forward by a number of local people who had petitioned against the development.
First up was Scott Dick who put the case from the local dog walkers perspective, followed by Peter MacDonald who pointed out that if this was allowed to go ahead and over 10% of the park goes then the council would be back at a later date for more as had been seen down the years in other developments.
Linda Chapman then put the case for the walkers,joggers and exercisers whilst the final presentation came in the form of a particularly eloquent speech about traffic and air pollution issues from David Mackie.
Local councillors followed putting their points forward – Janet Duncan asked why there was a need to build a school so big and what the council termed as the ‘special circumstances’ that led to the proposal whilst touching on safety issues (Please see note at the end of this post), Phoday Jarjussey spoke of additional congestion and Mo Khursheed brought up the original use of section 106 money from Stockley Park development that led to the creation of the country park.
This final point I found particularly interesting, namely that in order to build what at the time was called ‘The Trident Site’ at Stockley Park that money paid to the council by the developers under Section 106 rules was used to replace green areas lost in that construction and the money was used to cultivate Lake Farm Country Park. Effectively, the council had ruled previously that the green areas needed to be replaced and had used taxpayers money to do it – Now they were saying that they were prepared to ignore that need and ‘write off’ that investment. The planning officer dismissed this by saying that under ‘special circumstances’ this use of section 106 money was not relevant, but despite pressing from both Cllr Khursheed and Cllr Duncan refused once again to give a definition of ‘special circumstances’.
Alternative sites were also asked about, as the committee kept insisting that 26 sites had been assessed and found to be unsuitable – After much pressing, they gave the list. I didn’t get them all down, but some were quite laughable (The Woolpack public house on Dawley Road, for example) but they had also written off such viable alternatives as the old Hayes Swimming Pool and the Vinyl Factory on the EMI site. (In view of their decision to build on green belt, it was also ominous to hear that they had considered Minet Country Park, showing that the council have their eyes on a number of previously off limits sites.)
They claimed that the swimming pool was unsuitable because there were a small number of parking spaces on the site that they were contractually obliged to offer to the community centre opposite and that the ground was polluted – The latter assertion was challenged by David Mackie who used to maintain the emergency valves under the pool, but his point was ignored.
They didn’t give an answer on many of the others, including the Vinyl Factory, but reading between the lines it is clear that such sites are earmarked for prestige housing developments which will be out of the reach of local people to afford and will merely compound the school shortages issue by bringing yet more people in to the area.
After around two hours of debate, a vote was taken on the planning committee and the plans were approved with all the Conservative councillors in favour. A fire alarm was then triggered, and we filed out of the front of the building to be confronted by a large sheet suspended between two lampposts as can be seen in the picture below
Short term gain for long term misery
This is not the first time I have been present at a planning meeting where the decision already appears to be made before anyone enters the room.
Back in 2011, the planning committee approved house building on covenant land on the Glenister estate off of Minet Drive. The argument then was that they were just giving planning permission and that for the covenant to be enforced would require legal action, which upon checking with a solicitor I was advised would probably cost in the region of £80,000 to pursue via the courts with no guarantee of success.
Ironically, it is sites such as these that have led to the need for more school places in the south of the borough.
During last year’s hearings in to Hillingdon Council’s local plan, (The blueprint laid down for planning in the borough for the next 15 years), 75% of the borough’s total new housing was planned to be in Uxbridge and the Hayes/West Drayton corridor. We were also advised that our open spaces would not be under threat and green belt would remain protected, yet within 12 months the council has ignored this pledge and is attempting to build on Lake Farm under ‘special circumstances’.
So what are these ‘special circumstances’? If we are talking of a population explosion, that can hardly be called unexpected. Indeed, with the Local plan concentrating development in the south of the borough then the need for additional infrastructure in the way of school places has been guaranteed.
So, why the green belt land that was supposedly not at risk? There are adequate brown field sites available to construct a school, but according to Councillor Dominic Gilham ,who voted in favour of Lake Farm destruction, “We will not educate in disused libraries,bingo halls or cinemas.We are Hillingdon Conservatives we look after are (sic) residents” (Sent to me on Twitter) Actually Dominic, I feel that there are other reasons why you don’t build on brown field sites – Firstly, it is more expensive than just hacking up another swathe of green belt and secondly, those ‘brown field’ sites are already earmarked for selling off to your developer friends, thus creating more overpopulation and even more need for additional school places.
With the impending arrival of Crossrail, development companies are becoming increasingly interested in the real estate around Hayes and I feel that this certainly colours the thinking of planning committees who can see advantages to selling off public land for a quick profit.
Whilst regeneration of Hayes and West Drayton is vitally important to the wellbeing of our community, this is turning in to a double edged sword. For example, the aforementioned Vinyl Factory on the old EMI site is being developed in to what looks like an impressive project, but the downside is the additional strain it will put on existing infrastructure such as transport links, the NHS and schools. Section 106 money paid by the development companies to the council is supposed to be used to prop up such infrastructure, but as seen at the planning meeting with regards to the 106 monies used to build Lake Farm the council have a short term vision for it and are happy to write it off when circumstances require. There is still confusion surrounding where the 106 money for the Glenister Estate has gone!
Moreover, a lot of the developments that are being planned do not fit with the existing needs of the community.
Currently, we have around 9000 people on the waiting list for affordable housing in Hillingdon. Now look at the High Point project in Hayes Town centre that was supposed to be part of the regeneration – Once the social housing aspect was allocated (Most to people from outside of the borough and with no real community links here), half of the buyers for the final ‘Navigation block’ were overseas investors as uncovered by Jack Griffith reporting for the Gazette in March last year.
Such investors subsequently let the properties out privately, which with the shortage of affordable housing in the area then become expensive homes for the low paid in the private sector subsidised by state housing benefit. Meanwhile, those investors see their ‘asset’ appreciate in value as the shortages continue.
This is not just happening in Hillingdon, but across London – The balance between housebuilding to support the community and housebuilding as an ‘investment opportunity’ needs to be balanced far better than we are seeing at the current time, both from a community and a public cost point of view.
Why Lake Farm is the wrong choice
In sitting through the planning committee meeting, there were a number of points put forward that were glossed over or ignored.
Firstly, with a meeting the next day between education officials and Guru Nanak school, plus the proposed Rosedale additional form of entry, why did the committee not grant a small delay of say two weeks to see what other proposals would be put forward? Why the unseemly rush to get this through against the wishes of the local community? With figures brought forward on the night without prior disclosure, what other circumstances behind the application have not been put before the public for scrutiny?
Congestion issues have not been properly addressed, either. My friend Dean used to live in Goulds Green and would sometimes pick me up for work from Cowley High Street when my car was off the road – This trip would take him the best part of an hour in morning rush hour with the congestion around Merrymans Corner. Indeed, Transport for London have already asked questions concerning disruption to bus services on the Dawley Road based around the Lake Farm proposal, with London Mayor Boris Johnson also raising concerns a couple of months back. We were assured on the night that those concerns had been addressed, but no details were put forward.
With the road being so busy, this also poses real safety issues where young children are concerned – Dawley Road already has some safety issues, and the traffic calming measures that are being proposed to cut back on this will just cause further congestion without taking away the very real threat to the health of the children both by vehicle impact and through pollution caused by queing cars,buses and lorries.
Peter MacDonald also made a very valid point about the council coming back for more green belt land if this was approved. Primary school children become secondary school children, and where will they go once they have completed their primary education? Would we then see more green belt land taken on Lake Farm under ‘exceptional circumstances’ for a secondary school? After all, the committee said that 26 sites had been assessed and found unsuitable, so looking a few years ahead where would they suggest that the secondary school could be sited?
Personally, I found the reasons behind turning down the old Hayes swimming pool quite superficial. The parking spaces that the council are ‘contracted’ to supply could easily be renogotiated and relocated to the site in Pump Lane that is shortly to undergo upgrade work and is rarely full. The ‘contaminated ground’ excuse was pretty clearly disputed by David Mackie from personal experience, but even if it was the case then surely the ground could be treated and this sorted out? My gut feeling is that the council have already decided to sell the land for yet more housing development, despite both the central location of the site and the readily available transport links making it more suitable than the green belt land. Again, such short term thinking will merely fuel yet further need for school places.
Combining a small development at the old pool site with additional extensions at Rosedale, Guru Nank and possibly Hewens College would surely make more sense from a point of view of spreading the load across the infrastructure in Hayes and utilising existing public transport links.
I am sure the council know this, but it would be cheaper for them building on green belt rather than brown field sites, plus they can sell the brown field sites to developers for decent money whilst they are unable to sell green belt land.
Call me cynical, but Hillingdon Council built the old Townmead school on green belt land because of outstanding need – When that need was no longer there, rather than returning it to green belt they put a housing estate on it, an estate they would never have got through had it still had protected status.
John McDonnell MP and protesters outside the Civic Centre after the Lake Farm decision
A local Issue – But a National Problem
With the coalition government desperate to kick start the economy, they have passed measures making it easier for councils to justify destroying our green spaces. Whilst the economy must be a national priority to give us all a better future, the thinking behind this move is flawed from the very outset as seen by various points in this post.
Locally, our council have an atrocious record of ignoring the wishes of the residents when it comes to major decisions about construction in the area. Local people should have the final say when it comes to such issues.
Nationally, this crisis of both affordable housing and school places has been created by the policies of open door mass immigration of the Old Labour government and the failure of the current one to bring the numbers down. The last census results showed that population growth locally was three times the estimate put forward by Hillingdon council in the late nineties (Source – Hillingdon Council website).
The pressure will be further ratcheted up next year when the last of the old Eastern bloc EU countries, Romania and Bulgaria, see all transitional immigration controls removed, allowing free movement of all citizens between those countries and other members of the EU. The figures are unclear, with the government refusing to state how many will come and Foreign Secretary William Hague revealing on the BBC Politics show a fortnight ago that he can’t give a number as ‘We (the government)don’t know’.
Independent think tank Migration Watch say fifty thousand per year, whilst a poll conducted by the Bulgarian National TV channel suggested that 54% of their total population of 7.5 million would like to come here.
Whatever the real figure, with Heathrow Airport in the borough then the initial pressure for housing and services will fall once again on Hillingdon.
Locally, we need to put in place a mechanism via referendum that will allow local residents to have the final say on issues such as Lake Farm, whilst at a national level we need to get a grip on mass immigration to ease the pressure on our creaking infrastructure.
Funnily enough, I know of just one political party that has the policies in place both locally and nationally to achieve these goals – That party is UKIP.
Note re ‘special circumstances’ comment from Cllr Janet Duncan. Cllr Janet Gardiner has contacted me to point out that this objection was raised by her and not Cllr Duncan. Whilst this is not my recollection,I am happy to put this amendment on to my post in case there may be a factual error by myself. It is also gratifying to know that this blog is now regularly followed by local Labour as well as Conservative councillors – First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they attack you, then you win! (Gandhi)
Cliff Dixon is UKIP Hillingdon chairman and will be standing in the 2014 local elections in Hayes