Farmer faces eviction following land purchase for new Harpenden school

Phil Holt at work on Batford Farm

Phil Holt at work on Batford Farm - Credit: Archant

A second generation farmer is being forced to make a “massive lifestyle change” after the county council exchanged contracts to buy land he farms to build a new school in Harpenden.

Phil Holt at Batford Farm

Phil Holt at Batford Farm - Credit: Archant

The owners of an agricultural site on the corner of Lower Luton Road and Common Lane in Batford have agreed to sell their land for the town’s proposed fourth secondary school.

But yesterday’s announcement has rocked tenant farmer Phil Holt, who warned that it meant further valuable farming land, vital to the district’s agricultural economy, would be concreted over.

He has been given notice to leave Batford Farm, the centre of his pedigree cattle-raising business for the past 15 years, by March 2017.

Phil said: “We will have to restructure our business and staff. My cattle will have to be sold. It’s a massive lifestyle change and I am sad as my cattle are characters.”

Batford Farm

Batford Farm - Credit: Archant

Had the site not been secured through contractual negotiations with the landowners, Herts county council made it clear it was willing to invoke compulsory purchase powers to secure it if needed.

Cllr David Williams, the council’s cabinet member for education, welcomed last Friday’s (15) exchange of contracts, saying, “I know how important this much needed new school is to the area.”

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There has been a growing shortage of secondary school places in the town and for pupils in surrounding villages, but the proposed location of the new school has sparked complaints.

Cllr Williams said no date has been fixed for completion of the purchase, as a condition of the sale was that planning permission was first obtained for the school.

He refused to say how much was being spent to buy the land - 42.8 acres in total – as “I can’t disclose that until completion takes place. But securing the site is an important next step.”

Philip Waters, chairman of the Harpenden Secondary Education Trust, which will run the school, said the current ‘working title’ given to the institution is Harpenden Secondary Free School, but “that will almost certainly change”.

It will be built by the Education Funding Authority (EFA).

The council is holding detailed discussions with the authority and the trust on the next stages – specifically, obtaining planning permission.

Philip said that while the aim was to open as soon as possible on the permanent site, “we may be in temporary accommodation in September 2017, though many significant hurdles remain.”

He admitted it was a ‘relief’ to have the land secured.

The Department for Education approved a new school on condition that the council funded the necessary site acquisition, and led on negotiations for its purchase.

A spokesman for campaign group Right School Right Place (RSRP) criticised the pending land purchase, asking: “Have residents of Wheathampstead or Kimpton been consulted by the council about where they would like to have schooling for their children? Not that RSRP is aware of. Nor have the people of Batford been consulted about hosting a school that is likely to be largely for pupils who will have to travel in to the area, with all the incumbent traffic-related issues.”

Yet the news has been welcomed by Harpenden Parents Group, with chairman Ben Bardsley describing it as a “long overdue development in the process of establishing the new school [but] there is still a long way to go.”

The group is keen for a planning application to be submitted as soon as possible.

A council spokesman said forecasts showed a further rise in demand for school places in 2017/18.

As a contingency arrangement, the council has already agreed with Sandringham School in St Albans that it will offer an additional 30 places for 2017, prioritising children from the Harpenden area.