Councillors demand pause in plans to sell off playing fields for new school

THURROCK scrutiny councillors are demanding a delay in the council’s plans to sell land to be used to build a school after hearing it was a site regularly used by local youngsters to play sport.
Members of the Corporate Overview and Scrutiny Committee have said consultations must be held with Thurrock Rugby Club before any decision is taken over the playing fields adjacent to their clubhouse and main pitches after hearing the club had not been consulted.
Two senior members of the club attended Tuesday’s (5 June) meeting after learning at the eleventh hour of plans for the site regularly used by hundreds of children.
The council – which does own the land – had not contacted the club before the meeting where members were being asked to rubber-stamp a sell-off proposal due to go to cabinet next Wednesday, 13 June, for approval. After that, the final say would belong to directors and the portfolio holder for regeneration.
However, after hearing Ken Laybourn, chairman of Thurrock RUFC’s youth section detail how often the land was used by “up to hundreds” of young people on an almost daily basis, committee members baulked at the plan.
They agreed that no decision be made regarding selling off the land – between the athletics stadium and Stanford Road – until full consultations had been held with the club and the public. They said no decision should be made about selling the land until and if the club agreed the number of pitches which would be made available.
And they agreed the final decision should not be delegated to officers and a portfolio holder, but come back before a committee of the council.
The committee had heard from Detlev Munster, the council’s assistant director property, that the land was “public open space” and the club had “occasional use” of it.
But Mr Laybourn said: “I first heard of this today. I know what the legislation says, but since 1978 the youth and mini sections of our club use those pitches.
“Without that, we haven’t got a rugby club.”
He went on to say between 200 and 300 children on average were there on a Sunday in the season, there are festivals and county representative games on the pitches, and the club maintains the pitches which are used most days of the week.
He said: “The pitches are critical for the club because the youth and mini section are the future of the club.”
All members of the committee were concerned about the lack of consultation with the club, the threat to the club’s future, and the proposal to take the final decision away from councillors.
Summing up, committee chair Cllr Oliver Gerrish said: “We have real concerns over the way the Orsett Heath site has been treated in the process so far.
“It constitutes an alarming loss of amenity to the borough.
“We’re concerned once those facilities are gone there’s no chance of bringing them back on a like-for-like basis. There are some pretty severe concerns about the identification of this site.”
Members also agreed that new schools were needed in the borough and backed a scheme for a smaller secondary free school at Treetops – though officers were instructed to confirm there were not similar issues there.
Recommendations of overview and scrutiny committees are not binding on cabinet or the full council, who could choose to ignore Tuesday’s decision by the the committee.

WHEN A SECRET PRICE WASN’T KEPT A SECRET

AS Thurrock scrutiny councillors stumbled across a lack of consultation about the sell-off of land used by the rugby club, they were also set to be kept in the dark about how much it would be sold for.
However, the figures were briefly in the public domain – and then handed out in a public paper in a second apparent blunder.
When agenda papers were initially distributed for Tuesday’s meeting, they included an ‘appendix two’ which detailed all the potential financial dealings. It suggested the council might net £7 million from sale of the land to an education trust – while the second packet of land at Treetops School would be disposed of for a ‘peppercorn £1’.
However, on Monday, the Thurrock Independent learned the appendix had been ‘withdrawn’ from the meeting.
The paper was told by a council spokesperson that the information was withdrawn because it was ‘commercially sensitive,’ yet despite that, on Tuesday, the appendix was included in papers given out – at the same time as the documents that were supposed to replace it!
In the new document, no reference was made to prices other than “The sites have been independently valued by a registered valuer.”
The sites for two new schools are around a third of a mile apart, are on what is described as “Orsett Heath” a roughly 21 acre site between the athletics stadium at Blackshots, and a smaller site at Treetops School on the former Torells School – or as the council describes it: “Former site of Torrells County Secondary School For Girls”.
The deleted report said the Orsett Heath site had an “existing value” of £1,070,000, with a market value for housing of £20,400,000, an educational use value of £13,847,500, and a proposed “disposal” value of £7,000,000.
The existing value is based on the fact that open and green belt land is currently valued at £50,000 an acre. For the Treetops or Torells site, the existing value is £272,000, the housing land value is £8,160,000, the educational value is put at £4,624,000, and the proposed disposal value is £1.
The valuations were made in May this year.
Tuesday’s meeting also heard that as well as Orsett Heath and Treetops, the government has also approved two other free schools – Thames Park, a 900-place secondary which would be part of the Osborne Trust; and “Reach 2”, a 420-place secondary, initially proposed for Brandon Groves.
However, the report states: “The council is working with ESFA (Education Skills and Funding Agency) to identify a suitable site for this school, as the proposed site for Brandon Groves is both logistically and strategically problematic.”
It adds that as far as “Thames Park” is concerned, a “site is yet to be identified”.
Thurrock Council appeared to have pre-empted any decision by scrutiny councillors on Tuesday by issuing a press release before they met.
In it the council said: “Plans to create 1,340 new school places in Thurrock are expected to take another significant step forward, with sites set to be confirmed for two new schools next week,” adding that the cabinet is expected to give the ‘green light’ to the plan.
The Thurrock Independent asked if the press release would be recalled and the agenda item for Cabinet changed.
The answer was an emphatic “No”.

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