Paying the price for probe into new Harpenden school site

Farmland bordering Lower Luton Road on which Herts county council is keen to build a new school

Farmland bordering Lower Luton Road on which Herts county council is keen to build a new school - Credit: Archant

There has been criticism of “frivolous” Freedom of Information (FoI) requests in relation to the controversial Green Belt siting of a proposed school in Harpenden which have cost taxpayers thousands of pounds.

Local resident Steve Gledhill asked Herts county council for the total cost of various FoI requests submitted by campaign group Right School Right Place (RSRP) which has objected to plans to build a new secondary school on farmland in Batford.

In response, the council said it had received 63 requests since October 2013 and that the cost was £5,529, based on the number of hours taken by the schools’ planning team, legal services and other officers to reply.

The cost of answering further FoI requests on Harpenden schools by one person - understood to be connected to but not a representative of the group - bumped up the total staff cost to £6,800.

That is in addition to the money spent on a recent independent consultants’ report.

According to the authority’s response to the second part of Steve’s FoI request, the county council spent “just under £300,000” for a site analysis by Vincent and Gorbing.

The consultant’s findings, which pinpointed land north of Lower Luton Road in Batford as their preferred site, were passed onto the Education Funding Agency.

Most Read

The Department for Education has recently given initial approval for the proposed school, but has told the council it is conditional upon the authority funding the site’s purchase.

Steve said: “I am fully in favour of the right of every citizen to campaign for what they believe in. But this campaign against the siting of the new school at Batford has been self-serving and contrary to the public good.

“Ultimately we should all accept the view of unbiased professionals, Vincent and Gorbing, who were retained by the council to study all alternatives and make a recommendation.”

Steve said it was a “waste” of taxpayers’ money to submit so many FoI requests.

A spokeswoman for RSRP said it was not fair to blame the group for the council commissioning a second report from Vincent and Gorbing.

She said issues such as the impact upon local traffic were covered in more detail in the analysis and that the council would have been obliged to engage planning consultants for a full report on possible school sites, before a request for approval was submitted to the funding agency.

She said that campaigners had submitted FoI requests because of difficulty in engaging with the council.

The group believes that council-owned land elsewhere would be preferable, particularly sites closer to pupils in or near south Harpenden.