The Howard of Effingham School has been part of our village for over 75 years, and I think Effingham residents are pleased the Howard is an outstanding school, and want to be able to support it. I suspect that an application to improve the school facilities on an appropriate site, with some extra houses of a quantity and type to meet the needs of our community, would probably receive significant local support. Unfortunately that wasn’t on offer.
Instead the planning application proposed development across 25 hectares of Green Belt, which is ‘inappropriate’ in planning terms unless there are very special circumstances. The National Planning Policy Framework regards development in the Green Belt as inappropriate with the exception of ‘limited infilling’ in villages, redevelopment of previously developed (brownfield) land and a few other limited types of development.
The new school was planned to expand from 1600 to 2000 pupils and was to be built on the Green Belt gap between Effingham and Little Bookham, on the eastern part of Effingham Lodge Farm. To pay for that, the application proposed 295 new homes, to be built on mostly undeveloped Green Belt at Effingham Lodge Farm and Browns Field, as well as on the existing Howard site. Very special circumstances to justify such destruction of Green Belt land would be if there is an urgent need for a replacement school and an urgent need for an increase in school places.
The Howard failed to make that case. Firstly the school manages to be outstanding in its current buildings and it is not included in the Government’s Priority Schools Building Programme, as it would be if the need was urgent. Secondly there is no evidence of any urgent need for an increase in pupil numbers. The important fact is that the school already takes all first preference pupils from its catchment area and feeder schools, and a few more on top of that.
The proposed ‘enabling development’ of 295 new homes would be an increase of well-over 30% in the number of households in the village. Borough Council officers had serious concerns about Berkeley Homes’ viability appraisal. It seems they had not made a convincing financial case that so many new homes are necessary to pay for the new school. I pointed out to the Planning Committee that only around 28% of those homes would be the smaller two-bedroom and one-bedroom homes the village needs, for young people and older people wanting to downsize. There was no guarantee of any ‘affordable homes’ at all, for Housing Association rent or shared ownership, even though the Council’s viability consultant is quite clear that this could be delivered as well as a new school.
Council officers proposed ten reasons for refusal, including:
The proposal was inappropriate development in the Green Belt, impacting on the openness of the Green Belt and conflicting with the purposes of including land within the Green Belt, and very special circumstances had not been demonstrated. On the Lodge Farm site, the officer’s report pointed out on page 32 that ‘the open undeveloped land on its eastern side acts as a buffer between Effingham and Bookham. Development here would effectively merge the settlements of Effingham and Little Bookham. In the words of the report, ‘the proposal would conflict with the spirit of what the Green Belt seeks to achieve.’
- Damage to the rural character of the village, to the Conservation Area, and to the setting of listed buildings. This was summed up in the report on page 46 ‘Due to the scale of the development, as well as the urban design and layout of the sites, it is considered that Effingham would lose its modest rural character and would become far more urbanised.’
Other reasons for refusal related to the impact on wildlife at Thornet Wood, the lack of a car park at Effingham Common which meant there was no SANG (Suitable Alternative Natural Green Space) to discourage use of the Special Protection Area of Wisley and Ockham Commons, loss of the playing field at Browns Field, and failure to submit legal agreements to provide affordable housing and contributions to improve community facilities.
I felt we needed an additional reason for refusal, relating to traffic and parking. I pointed out to the Planning Committee that Effingham can barely cope with the congestion from school traffic already. Although the application offered some extra car-parking, it was highly doubtful that it would be enough for a 25% larger school, with more staff and visitors as well as more sixth-formers. Then add in the traffic from all the 295 new homes feeding onto the narrow lanes and roads through the heart of the village. I felt that all this extra traffic would result in danger to children and parents walking to the St Lawrence Primary School nearby, and to children walking or cycling to the Howard from either Bookham or the Horsleys. The Browns Field site for 37 houses included fewer car parking spaces than is allowed under current standards, which is not enough in an area like Effingham where cars are a necessity not a luxury. Happily the Planning Committee agreed with me and we added an extra reason for refusal based on 2003 Local Plan policies and NPPF Chapter 4 Promoting Sustainable Transport.
In summary, it seemed clear that the planning harm to our village and our Green Belt clearly outweighed the benefit such a scheme would provide. The Planning Committee agreed to refuse the application almost unanimously, with just one abstention.
I very much hope that the Howard School and Berkeley Homes will think again. I hope they will have a genuine discussion with the community about how to improve facilities at the school and provide some of the homes we need without building on undeveloped Green Belt and without urbanising our village.