When I gatecrashed the Crediton Hill Residents Association meeting a few weeks ago, it wasn’t just to see how many of the celebs who live on West Hampstead’s poshest road I could spot. It was also a great opportunity to catch up on the proposal to turn part of the cricket club land into a temporary school – temporary being two years. The proposal went before Camden’s Development Control committee last Thursday and was narrowly passed.
South Hampstead High School, a private girls school in Maresfield Gardens in Hampstead, is undergoing an enormous refurbishment/rebuilding program. It had initially hoped that the school could function around these works, but it became increasingly clear this was not viable, so an alternative was needed.
The school is run by an organisation called The Girls’ Day School Trust, which conveniently owns the cricket club land in Lymington Road. So, the proposal is to relocate the majority of the school to the cricket club for two years while work is carried out. Despite owning the land, this isn’t something the school can do without planning permission as it’s a change of use and requires the present day squash courts to be knocked down (and then rebuilt afterwards). All the details are in the document below (the tick marks show the most important pages).
South Hampstead High School Design Access Statement (annotated)
Crediton Hill voices concern
The idea has been discussed for some months now but, although public meetings have been held, judging by the mood at the residents association meeting (held in the bar in the cricket club itself) some local residents remain sceptical. The primary concern is traffic and parking, noise is a secondary concern, and for actor, local resident, and keen cricketer Greg Wise, the risk of girls invading the cricket pitch itself.
The deputation from the school and developers handled the discussion rather well I though – if a little caught on the back foot initially. They argued that today, some 80% of their 500 pupils walk or cycle to school, and that they are working very hard to explain to parents that driving their child to the new site is a bad idea. Maresfield Gardens is about a 10 minute walk away from the sports ground, and depending where you live a child’s new route to school might involve walking down the less than user-friendly Finchley Road. It’s hard to believe that some parents – especially of younger children – won’t be tempted at least initially to run their kids down rather than have them walk further along a busy road. Of course, the reverse also holds true and perhaps some kids will now live nearer and that will make life easier for them.
There is simply no parking along Lymington Road, so a little bit of coordination with Camden council could see revenues from parking tickets soar!
Aside from the traffic, noise is understandably a concern – one resident who works from home, clearly envisages two years of high-pitched screaming ahead of her. The school argued that while, of course, some noise was inevitable at breaktimes and as pupils arrive and leave, the girl at South Hampstead were generally a well-behaved lot and there were so many school activities organized at lunchtimes that they weren’t generally running around the place. Lunch would be held in the large room in the cricket club.
The deputy head also explained that not all the children would be on the site at any one time – most sixth formers and approximately a fifth of the other pupils would be at the Maresfield Gardens site as some lessons will stay there (I think largely for science, so no bunsen burners to burn down the portacabins… temporary modular accommodation. Equally, she was sure that the girls would respect the wicket and although they couldn’t be stopped from walking over the outfield of a lunchtime [here she adopted a slightly steely gaze and politely reminded Mr Wise that the school owned the land], many of the girls were keen on sports and would quite understand.
Some residents were keen to pin the school’s deputation down on exactly how many children, teachers, and other staff would be on site at any one time, but given that the existing site will still be operational, this number seemed hard to come by but around 400 seemed to be the broad consensus.
Over to Camden
On the surface, this might have looked like a fairly simple decision. A school needs land, whether its private or state-owned. The school owns the land, and visually it is not an eyesore. In fact, it turned out to be a rather contentious application. The planning officer’s report, which recommends apprival is below.
Camden Report on SHHS Hampstead CC Application – annotated
There were strong objections here from residents of Alvanley Gardens and from West Hampstead ward councillor Keith Moffitt (who does not sit on the Development Control committee). The objections boil down to three topics: increased risk of flooding, noise and traffic. The flooding issue is hard to understand without diving into the details, but given that hard surface tennis courts are going to be built on I’m certainly not sure what the additional impact is meant to be – it would be different if the units were being built on grass or open land.
Cllr Marshall made the point that it’s hard to consider noise at school breaktimes as a serious planning consideration in an urban area, especially when one factors in that this is weekdays, working hours, and term times only. The planning officer pointed out that noise is a legitimate planning consideration, but far more so for a restaurant open in the evenings than for a school active only during weekdays. Cllr Freeman suggested that it was a sad indictment of our times when the innocent noise of schoolchildren is deemed offensive.
Traffic was unsurprisingly by far the most legitimate consideration. There was some disagreement about the impact on traffic, with the school arguing that it is putting in place all sorts of measures to mitigate the impact on traffic – and from the meeting I went to on this, I believe they really are doing this. At the same time, it’s “a stretch” as Cllr Marshall put it, to believe that parents are going to drop their kids at the Maresfield site and let them walk down.
For Cllr Simpson and others, the traffic plan currently in place was simply too vague. There was a high degree of scepticism that any attempts to dissuade parents from dropping their kids off could be enforced; concern about the girls crossing the Finchley Road; and general worry about a main east/west road being cluttered up with cars at peak morning times. My personal view on this is that the school should be given the benefit of the doubt but that the situation should be very carefully monitored and if traffic and short-term parking levels become unaccpetably high, then further action should be taken.
There was a broader point that the Girls Day School Trust is a wealthy organisation, so although it’s clear that trying to combine the work on the Maresfield site with the running of the school would add substantially to the time taken for the build, and thus the cost, this shouldn’t mean that local residents have to suffer for two years as a result of saving money. I suppose a counter argument is that the pupils deserve a reasonably quiet educational environment with minimal disruption, especially those in exam years – and that is independent of their parents’ ability to afford a private education.
There was also some confusion about the number of pupils on site at any given time. The vote was taken as to whether to grant planning permission conditional on a limit of 500 pupils (which is the size of the school, so not going to be breached, and who’s going to count anyway) and, more importantly, a much stronger travel plan to be submitted ahead of work starting on the site.
On that basis, the decision was approved by six vote to five.
Councillors in favor: Hayward, Apak, Freeman, Marshall, Braithwaite, Nuti.
Councillors against: Simpson, Gimson, Rea, Risso-Gill, Sanders.
The whole webcast of the discussion is available below: