Rugby club school plan wins approval after heated debate

Full and exclusive report

DESPITE strong opposition from some councillors and general sense of concern from others, who  expressed the feeling that they were being forced into a decision they did not really want to support, plans for a new school building on the site of Thurrock Rugby Club have been approved.

At a meeting of Thurrock Council’s planning committee tonight (Thursday, 10 January) there were  several breaches of accepted council protocol and some emotive language as the two ‘sides’ of the debate argued their case.

Assistant planning director Andy Millard was allowed to speak to councillors in the middle of debate, stressing ‘his view’ on why the application was a good thing – something probably unprecedented in the history of debate in the chamber.

In the event the approval was granted by five votes to three, despite the warning from Cllr Gerard Rice that ‘we must be on drugs if we pass this.’

The discussion began with a briefing on the proposal from committee chairman Cllr Tom Kelly who called on Mr Millard and his team to create a future scenario where decisions of the magnitude councillors had to make because of poor planning in the past were not repeated.

“We are under a lot of pressure here this evening over school places,” he said. “How do we stop this and avoid this sort of pressure in the future?”

The new school block

Mr Millard responded by saying: “In the longer term we will need to ensure that infrastructure is provided commensurate with the growth of population level. We can address this and other issues when we adopt the local plan.”

Members were given details of a joint application by the South West Essex Community Education Trust (SWECET), which runs William Edwards School, and Thurrock Rugby Club to site a temporary facility for the planned Orsett Heath Academy on land adjacent to the rugby club building. The building will accommodate 120 pupils in September and rise by another 120 for the following academic year.

Once a main school, described as ‘phase two’ has been built and is operational the ‘temporary’ building will continue to be used by schools within SWECT and by the rugby club for education and sports provision and will be known as ‘Thurrock Institute of Sport’.

The new building will be two storeys to the northern end of the existing rugby club, with students using existing facilities including dining areas in the rugby club.

There has been a lot of debate within the rugby club over whether the plan should be supported and the committee heard that members had drawn up a detailed action plan of 30 points relating to the operation of the new school – which includes such detailed items as tidying away after sports sessions in existing club buildings. The club will hold the right to withdraw from the scheme if the conditions are not adhered to – something which caused concern among councillors who questioned the longevity of the project.

One of its biggest critics was Cllr Gerard Rice who was angry at times as he outlined a number of reasons why the project should not go ahead and he questioned why the council were putting children in an environment close to a new three lane motorway (Lower Thames Crossing) while at the same time planned to move residents from the nearby Gammonfields Way traveller site out of the area because of health-related pollution fears.

Where the new school will be located

He said: “People will be aware the lower Thames crossing goes awfully close to these buildings. If it is that close and it enough to move travellers out of the way, why are we considering a site that is going to pollute our young children’s lungs? I have serious concerns. Why would we even contemplate our children breathing in poisoned air. This cannot be right.”

Cllr Rice also highlighted potential traffic problems, saying: “We are going to screw up the entire system of transport round there. People will have to access via Blackshots Lane and Long Lane. You can see what’s going to happen. We are building up misery here. Mums and dads in their Chelsea tractors will take young kids to school.

“It’s not very clever, I think there is something drastically wrong with this whole application. Why is it not on the existing site where there’s plenty of room?

Locating the new classrooms at William Edwards was a theme Cllr Rice returned to several times during the debate, saying it was the only thing that could be done “because we have had no solutions tonight. If we pass this we must be on drugs.”

Cllr Kelly shared concerns about parents dropping children off, particularly if they elected to do so on Stanford Road or King Edward Drive. Officers told him considerations about traffic had been weighed and measured in the application’s travel plan and were not a concern but he thought consideration should be given to barriers to stop people stopping and accessing the site.

Principal planning officer Jonathan Keen told him fears were misplaced, saying: “It’s not going to be a permanent site for children in that building after a two year period.” That appeared to fly in the face of the report to members which detailed future use of the building under ‘long term legacy use’ which said ‘various education provisions will take place in the building and young players would be able to use the facilities’.

Cllr Graham Hamilton was concerned about access from a narrow lane from Long lane to the club, saying: “My principle objection is the access from the road. When you consider the usage of the site this is unacceptable. If you are going to have a school you have to allow a two lane road.”

Cllr Hamilton was also worried about the terms laid down by the rugby club, adding: “There seems to be 30 minimum requirements the club has stipulated, including community service payback, which means people who are doing community service there will be in close proximity to the school which should not be accepted.”

His concern was later answered by SWECET’s chief executive Steve Munday who said: “It is not an uncommon thing for community payback to integrate with schools.”

Local resident Michael Gamble addressed the meeting to express concerns, saying the project was being viewed not as a planning application, but an educational one. He said: “This should not be viewed as a short term issue solving a problem about school places, but as a two storey building. Would this be considered a suitable building on this premises if it were on its own?”

He too spoke about potential traffic and access issues saying: “Due to its isolated position, a large majority of students will have to be driven there and you are already aware of the problems in the borough around schools. There are already traffic problems in the area relating to Woodside and Treetops schools.”

Mr Gamble also highlighted flaws in the way the council had refused to allow detailed scrutiny of the proposal for both phases of the SWECET project which was being driven through as a matter of political propaganda rather than facing up to real problems. Previously the council’s ruling Conservative Cabinet had rejected calls by a scrutiny committee for more detailed study of issues.

He said: ““I have concern over the lack of an effective scrutiny process in the provision of the school. This has been rushed through in haste. I find it difficult to believe that the council has put itself into a position where it thinks kids will be left without a school.”

However, in his address to the committee Mr Munday pulled few punches about the state of available secondary school places in the borough.

He said: “If this falls through here, there will be kids without a school. The shortage of secondary school places is very clear and unprecedented. Without it Thurrock will find itself in the middle of an admissions crisis. This is an unthinkable position for us all. This application offers us a solution.

“This is an extraordinary situation that needs an extraordinary solution. This is an ideal school site, and will be a beacon of best practice in the authority. The rugby club and the trust have been completely aligned in our vision.

“This is a very small school, the matter of the main secondary school will come up in the future.”

Mr Munday’s comments did little to sway Cllr Hamilton who did not believe the problem would be solved in two years and doubted the ‘temporary’ nature of the project.

“In two years’ time those places will no longer be there. So what’s going to happen in two years’ time – an urgent need to provide places again?  I am not happy there is a two year cut off.”

However, Mr Munday had an answer, saying: “This is an interim site before the main site is explored, the two year time limit is realistic for the building of the main school.”

Discussion of the main school and the fears that the rugby club might lose its rugby training pitches for young people prompted Cllr Kelly – who had permitted Mr Munday the unusual privilege of addressing direct questions rather than just a three minute address – to raise the pitch issue and he asked if there had been any conversations with the club.

Steve Munday,

Mr Munday was unequivocal in his response, saying: “I am absolutely clear those pitches must and will be protected as part of any development on that site. All schemes include the protection of those rugby pitches when the school goes there. Please be absolutely clear about that.”

The dialogue between club, schools trust and council promoted comment from committee member Steve Taylor who drew comparisons with the relocation of Aveley football club a couple of years ago when the club came back to the council and asked for money back.

Mr Taylor said he could see the rugby club coming back in a similar way, having effectively donated their land to the trust and council. “Who is doing what and to who? I can see exactly what we saw at Aveley FC in the future.

And despite Mr Munday’s assurances to the contrary, the issue of agreement between the trust and rugby club prompted another interjection from Cllr Kelly who said: “My understanding is the rugby club supports this but have reservations and they are deeply concerned over phase two.”  

Cllr Angela Lawrence was supportive of the plan, saying: “I am here for all the mums who are stressed out about where their kids are going. There are concerns but this is a small number of children and I have an awful lot of confidence in William Edwards School, it’s just going to be short term.

“It’s not perfect but for the next two years it gets us by.”

Cllr Steve Liddiard also expressed his support and said he believed fears about access were misplaced, adding that he knew the area well. He said: “Thinking about the access to the school you would be able to go into the swimming pool or any of the roads near the school. There are little pathways and knowing human nature people will use the route that is easiest for them.

“I don’t really have any concerns though it might be a bit of a nuisance for people while live on those roads.”

Cllr Liddiard did have a concern about the mixing of young people and rugby club drinkers, saying: “I am not happy there will be a bar and school. Rugby people use the club quite heavily and I am concerned they will be driving out of there in not the right state.”

Cllr Victoria Holloway returned to the lack of foresight in planning for education provision, saying: “Why wasn’t there planning? This should have been sorted out. How does this come to us in January? I don’t really appreciate having an application in front of me when my arm is being twisted, it’s not the way to make planning decisions.

“It’s upsetting that this is not a very good situation to be in. But it seems the threats have worked because other sites haven’t been considered.”

And Mr Taylor, who does not get a vote on the issue as he is a lay member of the committee representing the Campaign for Rural England, warned that the pledge that the scheme was temporary was one to be wary of. He said: “In Thurrock there are so many things that are temporary – and have been for 40 years! For example Deneholm was a temporary school built after the war and it’s still there.

“When somebody says ‘this is temporary’ I worry it’s going to come out of the closet and be something where we have to deal with same issues in the future.”

Cllr Hamilton concluded his objections by saying: “This is something that I think smacks of desperation and we are being railroaded into somethings that is horrendous.”

Cllr Tom Kelly

Summing up Cllr Kelly raised questions about stage two of the project, and asked Mr Millard to renew dialogue with all concerned, saying: “Can we open a conversation? That we have the right site and there is no possible alternative?”

Going back to the recommendation before councillors he acknowledged the fears that the building might be needed as a school for more than two years, saying: “Whether it is two years is up for debate.

“In normal circumstances we would say this is not a good idea and reject it. If we reject it we will be in an embarrassing situation that we do not have enough school places for our residents.

It’s an incredibly tough one. It’s far from ideal but it can work.”

Members voted 5-3 in favour of the building. Cllrs Kelly, Liddiard, Lawrence, Sue Sammons and Holloway voted for it, Cllrs Rice, Hamilton and David Potter against.

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