St Albans’ Beaumont School fights rejection over plan knockback

SUPPORTERS of a school’s bid to improve facilities and build a safer students’ access have labelled an eleventh-hour decision to turn down its planning application as a “shambles”.

The over-subscribed Beaumont School in Oakwood Drive, St Albans, is expected to appeal to the Secretary of State over a St Albans council planning committee’s decision to reject its revised development application.

Confusion reigned among 40 members of the public attending the committee’s meeting on Tuesday night as some councillors who initially appeared to support the school’s revised application during protracted debate suddenly turned around and voted against it.

Despite the tone of the debate, when the plan was put to the vote, councillors were told by their officers that for it to be approved they would need to supply reasons to overturn the recommended refusal because it would be contrary to the council’s planning policy.

The secondary school’s facilities manager, Ed Jones, said the school was “bitterly disappointed” and “frustrated” that council staff and some councillors had “shifted the goalpost” despite the school addressing concerns which resulted in the refusal of its initial application in 2008.

The owner of the current school site, Herts County Council, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which owns the adjoining field to the east, were looking for the go-ahead to create new sports pitches on 5.7ha of land behind Wynches Farm, build a new sports hall, classroom block and car park and allow a residential development over an area of 2.47ha for up to 75 homes to be built on part of current playing fields.

A pedestrian route was proposed through woodland between the planned residential site and the existing Wynches Farm Drive development. The plan included a new vehicular access from Hatfield Road to serve both the school and housing development.

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The latter part of the proposal proved to be one of several stumbling blocks for some councillors and planners, who voiced concerns about building on Green Belt land and the impact of redirected school traffic and additional vehicles from 75 new homes on Hatfield Road.

These concerns were shared by Peter Trevelyan for St Albans Civic Society, who told councillors it was an “inappropriate development on Green Belt”.

But faced with a school bursting at the seams, headteacher Elizabeth Hitch told the committee that when the school was founded in 1938 it had just 400 students and twice as much land.

She said: “The small and poor quality playing field we now have is inadequate for the PE curriculum.The two narrow entrances [on Oakwood Drive] are entirely unsuitable for 1,200 students and over 150 staff. Large delivery and emergency vehicles have difficulty entering the site causing further health and safety issues.

“Local residents complain frequently about congestion and parking problems caused by parents’ cars and by coaches used for offsite events. We have directed coaches to Central Drive for loading and unloading and to Morrisons’ car park or the Quadrant [in Marshalswick] for our larger trips.”

Cllr Geoff Harrison, who had three children attend Beaumont, sympathised, saying that parents could be “inconsiderate” when driving children to and from schools.

But he predicted “absolute mayhem”, if the proposed new access went ahead. Cllr Aislinn Lee called on fellow committee members to overturn council officers’ recommendation to refuse the plan saying she had been “shocked” during a site visit to see pupils sharing narrow access routes with vehicles at the school’s Oakwood Drive entrance.

After the meeting, a spokeswoman for the county council said “We are very disappointed that this joint application… has been turned down.

“We will be discussing the situation with the school and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to consider submitting an appeal.”

Cllr Lee said she was “devastated” at the decision and Nick Bather, planning director of Barton Willmore, planning consultants for the application, said it was a “great pity that the opportunity to transform the school’s facilities to the benefit of the wider community has fallen victim to a doctrinaire application of Green Belt policy by the council.”

Members of the public later labelled the meeting a “shambles.” Cllr Julie Bell refused to comment to the Herts Advertiser, recommending its reporter “watch the webcast” of the meeting and walking away.