When Oundle Primary School moves to its new site on Cotterstock Road it will face the prospect of losing up to 50% of the existing school playing fields. Proceeds from the proposed sale of the land will fund the change to education provision in East Northamptonshire from a three to two-tier system.
The Northamptonshire County Council’s (NCC) plans, reported to cost £22.1 million, will involve Prince William becoming an 11-18 academy, the closure of Oundle, Kings Cliffe and King John Middle Schools, and all lower schools expanding to become primary schools for Years 5 and 6 pupils.
During the consultation process, it had been made clear that assets from various school sites would have to be sold to fund the council’s plans. However, the proposal to sell a significant portion of the Cotterstock Road playing fields was not originally detailed.
Parent, Jo Trott said: ‘The sale of a significant portion of the school field will reduce the outdoor provision by half.
‘During consultation in 2014, the county council said funding would be available through loans and the sale of the current Oundle Primary School site in Milton Road. This sale was a very late and largely unpublicised addition to the plan.’
At present the fields deliver an outstanding outdoor facility that supplement the education of the children in the area. The fields not only serve the school, but also the wider community, providing facilities for the junior cricket, football and rugby clubs. The proposed sale would likely come at a cost to what these clubs are able to offer, with no alternatives being available in town.
NCC have justified the proposed sale by insisting that the remaining land will be sufficient to meet the needs of the school and community.
A spokesman for the county council said: ‘The transformation from a middle school to a primary school means the current level of outdoor space exceeds that required for the age range and number of pupils attending the primary school.
‘Oundle Primary School will have one of the largest primary school sites in the county and this space will continue to be available for community groups and clubs to hire.’
The proposed sale of the playing fields has provoked strong opposition, with a large, well organised group of parent’s co-ordinating a campaign to oppose the sale.
The 3000 signatures gathered in a petition headed ‘Hands of Our Field’ to protest NCC’s plans are a good indication of the strength of feeling in the town.
The action group, Oundle Community Group is at the centre of the campaign. Expertly lead by chair Julie Grove, the group now has a signed constitution which allows those at the heart of the campaign to speak on behalf of the whole group membership and those who have signed the petition. It has created a campaign video and runs an official Facebook page to report on progress and correspondence, attracting a vocal following.
At a meeting on 21 April, Oundle Town Council voted unanimously to oppose the plans to sell the playing field. Julie Grove made a representation at the meeting for the proposition: ‘That Oundle Town Council supports the opposition to the sale of the playing fields at the new site of Oundle Primary School.’
Grove appealed to Smith to champion their cause and ‘represent the views and hopes for the town.’
Cllr Heather Smith, who represented the views of NCC at the meeting said: ‘The issue is about education and the bigger picture. Schools in the area are currently in the bottom 30% in the country. This should not be about the sale of land, which was a decision made last year. The issue should be about education outcomes.’
Cllr King introduced the council’s discussion and reflected the feeling around the table: ‘I want to assist in any way in improving education in the county but I am concerned about the sale of green space. The OTC has always taken the view that we must preserve as much green space as possible. We must retain what is quite a scarce asset. I cannot support the disposal of the land.’
The group has undoubtedly placed significant pressure on NCC to reconsider their plans. Supported by a tight network of parents, Julie Grove is the public face of the campaign, fearlessly speaking out at meetings and addressing the press. As a mother of two children aged three and seven, the issue is relevant on a personal, as well as a community level. Her husband grew up in Oundle and attended Oundle Middle School and Prince William School.
When she first heard about the sale in March, she said: ‘I couldn’t believe it. That amount of land. We hadn’t been told and it was very shocking. There was no announcement at the meeting, it was just alluded to.
‘To lump wanting improved education standards and the sale of the land together is not fair. The sale of the land will not improve education in the county.’
Cllr Heather Smith has been at the forefront of the NCC’s plans, and there is no doubting the statistics she presents about poor outcomes in the area, and her commitment to improving education.
The two middle schools, which will close under the planned changes to the education system, were both placed by OFSTED in the lowest third in the country. GCSE results for PWS were just over 40% A*- C, in contrast to a school situated in the south of the county with similar demographics to Oundle, which achieved around 80%.
Heather Smith commented: ‘The results for our young people are simply not good enough.
‘The biggest compromise of all would be to leave things as they are and see nearly 60% of our children failing to achieve a key benchmark result that affects career opportunities.’
The land has been valued by an independent assessor at £2m with planning permission. Without planning, it might be worth £200,000.
Cllr Phillip Stearn, who sits on the Development Control Committee of the ENC, said that the plan amounted to a sell-off of the town’s ‘crown jewels’. He pointed out that the NCC needs development permission in order to maximise the sale price, and it is the ENC that decides whether or not to approve development.
Their current plan identifies what development can be allowed until 2021, and the Cotterstock Road site is listed as protected. He emphasised that their planning document had sufficient weight to refuse planning permission at this site.
‘We are not frightened to take tough decisions, and will take them if the public needs them.’
NCC has now commissioned a planning consultant to assess the possibility of planning permission and also the value of the land. Depending on the results there appears to be two possible options for the campaign group.
If they are able to seek planning permission relatively quickly, the sale of the field will proceed.
This will somewhat limit the town’s options. However, there is a possible avenue through newly elected MP Tom Pursglove, who has pledged his support. Pursglove would have to successfully lobby central government to provide enough funds to cover the value of the land.
If planning permission is not possible, then the NCC would be forced to consider other ways to raise the necessary funds, such as offering a long term lease to the Town Council.
It is clear that Oundle is in opposition to the sale. The annual town meeting had the highest turnout of any meeting in the past 30 years. Most came to hear representations from the NCC. Yet these did little to sway the 250 strong audience; in a vote taken to oppose the sale, local residents unanimously raised green cards to mark their opposition to NCC plans.
Following the Annual Town Meeting, Grove wrote on the group’s Facebook page: ‘Common sense would say that with a public so vehemently against the sale, with vocal support from our Oundle Town Council, our District Councillors, our parliamentary candidates and now County Councillors within NCC itself, it would be impossible for the sale of the playing field to go through.
‘However, we cannot bank on common sense prevailing. Sadly we live in a world where we cannot rely on our elected officials who are supposed to represent our voice and interests to champion our cause.’
This debate has a whole lot left to run. The Oundle Community action group will not fade away, they are only gathering momentum. They have ambitious expectations, which might be met.
The NCC, however, remains convinced that the proposed sale of the playing fields is the best solution to plug a funding gap. What is undoubtedly clear, though, is that education in Oundle is at the centre of people’s concerns.
The Oundle Community Group maintains a Facebook page and a
petition at www.playingfields.org.uk.
All consultation documents about the educational changes in the area are available on the NCC’s website.
By Thomas Lambton
In the majority of cases, permission from the Secretary of State is required in order to sell off school playing fields, and local authorities should be fully aware that there should be no expectation that consent will be given. In guidance provided in Section 77 by the Department for Education, the government advises that the sale of playing fields should not become an easy option for schools to fund improvements to facilities. Schools are expected to have explored all other reasonable options before selling off a field. If a local authority wants to sell a school playing field that is also used by local community groups, it must ensure that the community groups have been offered alternative arrangements. However, this guidance is not statutory, and the sale of school playing fields is a national issue. During the Labour years, over 200 playing fields were sold between 1997 and 2008. The trend continues. Official figures show that on average, one school playing field has been sold off every three weeks since the coalition government was formed in 2008, demonstrating the enormity of the land grab. Indeed, the rate of sale continues to increase.
By Thomas Bailey