Free school opponents ‘shut out of debate'

'I think they thought: ‘We don’t like free schools so let them blunder ahead with it'

Monday, 17th December 2018 — By Tom Foot


OPPONENTS of a free school’s plan to move into the former Hampstead police station say they are being shut out of the debate.

Residents who believe the proposed location is unsuitable had their request to send a deputation to a council meeting rejected last week.

Abacus Belsize Primary School is bidding to move in after announcing new plans for the building in Rosslyn Hill in the autumn.

Objectors want the council to work with the government to find an alternative site. They say a school on the site will lead to traffic gridlock throughout Hampstead.

Conservatives’ leader Councillor Oliver Cooper said: “The deputation was unfairly and unlawfully turned down. The council is shirking their statutory duty as what happens with Abacus affects school places in Camden and schools in the area.”

Rejection of the deputation had been done for “very opaque reasons”, he said, adding: ““I think they thought: ‘We don’t like free schools so let them blunder ahead with it.’ The council must take a far more objective approach to deputations. The two that were accepted were both from Unison – both were granted.”

The Abacus free school project – launched 10 years ago as a parent campaign for more primary places in Belsize Park – has been bussing children to a temporary building in Camley Street, King’s Cross. The former police station will become its permanent home if it can secure planning permission.

The grade II-listed building was bought by the Education and Skills Funding Authority (ESFA) for £14million in 2014 when Michael Gove was secretary of state. A planning application from Abacus was rejected in 2017 by Camden Council because the school would have had too many pupils. There were also concerns about renovations to the historic building.

The police station was shut in a wave of closures during Boris Johnson’s time as Mayor of London. The school has said it will submit a new application for a smaller school with a no-car-drop-off policy.

Headteacher Vicki Briody said: “Over half of our families don’t even own a car. I want to dispel the myth that there will be 400 cars suddenly driving up the hill. Most parents say it would be daft to drive to the new school. There are no facilities to park or drop off.”

A residents’ group has suggested that the ESFA buy the NHS-owned Hoo building, in Lyndhurst Gardens, which was put up for auction last month, and site the school there instead of Hampstead police station.

“ESFA has opportunity to buy the site for half the cost and with significant outdoor space,” said Todd Berman, co-chairman of Hampstead Committee for Responsible Development.

In a statement of support for campaigners who want the school relocated, Hampstead and Kilburn MP Tulip Siddiq has said she is “very worried that this doesn’t represent the best use of taxpayers’ money.”

A Camden Council spokesman said: “The Mayor turned down this request [for a deputation] as it related to the potential impacts of a possible forthcoming planning application for the conversion of Hampstead Police Station to a school.”

He added: “Should such an application be forthcoming, these comments should be submitted and considered by the planning committee as part of that process. The council cannot give a view on the acceptability of that proposal and has no influence over whether the ESFA choose to pursue a proposal for a free school in the Belsize area.”

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