East Herts Council
SG13 8EQ 3 March 2020
THE BISHOPS STORTFORD BOYS HIGH SCHOOL (TBSHS)
Your ref: 3/20/0151/OUT – Outline Planning Permission for the erection of 223 dwellings with associated access, parking, landscaping, and vehicular access.
Dear Sir or Madam
- I am writing on behalf of the Bishop’s Stortford Civic Federation to object to this planning application which proposes to erect 223 dwellings on the existing site of TBSHS. Our reasons for objecting follow.
- No planning permission for the site can be exercised or redevelopment of the site take place unless and until the school has relocated to its intended new site which, at its earliest, will still be some years away. There is no pressing need to grant planning permission now, and not granting permission would provide the opportunity to remedy the shortcomings in the application to which we draw attention in the rest of this letter.
- Policy BISH6 I says that the site will only be released for residential development if sufficient secondary school capacity is provided within the Bishop’s Stortford South development or elsewhere within the town. As we explain in the following paragraphs, that condition has not been satisfied.
- The Education Planning Area (EPA) covering Bishop’s Stortford also includes Sawbridgeworth. The recently adopted District Plan for East Herts allocates a minimum of 4426 dwellings to Bishop’s Stortford and 500 to Sawbridgeworth. In the case of Bishop’s Stortford the declared allocation in the Plan is an understatement and the following need to be added to its total
118 dwellings in Southmill Road and South Street which were granted permission and completed during the consideration of the Plan but for some reason were never included in the housing total for the town.
30 dwellings in Rye Street currently under construction.
150 additional dwellings at St Michaels Hurst for which an application has been lodged but as yet no decision made.
c200 dwellings on sites which will become available at Bishop’s Stortford North as a result of the County Council’s decision to serve ASRs 3-5 of the development with a single 3 FE JMI school rather than with two smaller schools. (No applications have been made for these sites yet and so the eventual total may be higher).
73 dwellings in this application in excess of the number included for the site in the District Plan
Therefore, including smaller windfall developments and additions to allocations on other sites, the total of new housing for Bishop’s Stortford can be expected to be a minimum of 5000 dwellings – ie at least 5500 for the area covered by the EPA.
- For purposes of planning secondary school places the County Council uses a metric of 500 new dwellings creating 1 FE of additional demand. The additional demand generated by new development within the EPA can therefore be expected to be at least 11 FE. The County Council, in the application it submitted to itself last year for a new secondary school at Bishop’s Stortford South (BSS) assessed the pupil yield a little higher at 12 FE.
- However, this pupil yield figure relates solely to pupil demand arising from development within the boundary of the EPA. But for many years, because of its location and the quality of the schools within the EPA, about a third of the total demand for secondary school places has arisen from outside the EPA. In 2018 34% and in 2019 31% of admissions came from outside the County and in addition there will have been admissions from within the County of people who live outside the EPA. This share has remained constant with previous increases in school places and there is no reason to suppose that this external demand will tail off in the future. On the contrary, major developments are still taking place in Stansted Mountfitchet and Takeley, and while Uttlesford’s Draft Local Plan has recently been rejected during its Examination in Public, it remains likely that further major development will take place along the A120 corridor.
- Moreover, EHDC’s District Plan includes a major new settlement in Hertfordshire, but outside the EPA, at Harlow North. While in due course this will no doubt include its own education provision, the County Council’s commissioning of new schools in Bishop’s Stortford North gives no grounds for confidence that this will occur in a timely manner. Construction of new homes is well under way and occupation has started, but the County Council has only recently identified a sponsor for the new schools which will have to be built and then take several years to provide education across the full age range. In the meantime, new residents have to send their children to existing schools (if they can find a place) and once they have done so, will no doubt want to send their siblings there too.
- It would therefore be prudent to increase provision of new places by about a third within the EPA to cater for demand arising from outside it. Each school is its own admissions authority, and to refuse to admit children purely because they live in a different administrative area has been found to be unlawful discrimination. So there is little if any scope for massaging down demand by tinkering with admissions policies and the County Council ought therefore to expect to have to meet demand for at least an additional 15 FE of secondary school places within the EPA.
- The County Council’s actual plans fall well short of this requirement. For Bishop’s Stortford North, a 6 FE co-educational school is planned which, with the additional housing now in prospect, will be just sufficient to meet the demand generated by development in that area. The County Council has said that it would not be able to expand that school any further. EHDC’s planning permission in respect of BSS includes a developer contribution of nearly £5m to enable the Herts and Essex School for Girls to expand from 6 to 8 FE. Although it will now have sufficient playing fields on a nearby site to support such an expansion, it is far from obvious that the school site itself and the road network surrounding it could support any more growth or that the developer contribution would be sufficient to fund it. To the best of our knowledge the Academy and its Trust have no plans for such an expansion and no feasibility study has been published which shows how the local infrastructure would be able to cope with around 500 more people on their site.
- In the case of TBSHS, relocation of itself creates no new places at all. Indeed, because the site it would vacate would be redeveloped for housing under this application, it would exacerbate the potential shortfall in places. Expanding from its present size to 6 FE would absorb only a small amount of the demand which BSS would generate – and only if you are a boy. If it were to expand to 8 FE then, under the Equalities Act 2010, the Girls School would have to expand to the same size to ensure equal provision for boys and girls. As explained above, we doubt whether such expansion by the Girls School is feasible and it has certainly not been demonstrated.
- Even if both schools were to expand to 8 FE as the County Council wish, the total number of additional places provided would reach 10 FE compared with the pupil yield generated purely by new housing in Bishop’s Stortford and Sawbridgeworth of 12 FE projected by the County Council. If it is accepted that demand from outside the EPA will continue to absorb a third of the extra places, as it has in the past, then the shortfall in places becomes much greater.
- Indeed, realistically, there would be enough demand for a wholly new co-educational school on BSS. We therefore object to the redevelopment of the site for housing and the loss of the existing TBSHS on its present site, since the only site on which a wholly new co-educational school could be provided is the one to which TBSHS propose to move. It is clear therefore that the precondition in the District Plan (BISH6 I) that sufficient secondary school places must be provided elsewhere within the town before this site can be released for housing, has not been shown to be satisfied, and for this reason alone, planning permission should be refused.
Quantum of Development
- Policy BISH6 II says that the site will be used to provide around 150 homes. The interested parties (TBSHS and the County Council) had ample opportunity during the Examination in Public of the District Plan to argue for a higher housing total and chose not to do so. The Inspector amended the wording qualifying the number from ‘at least’ to ‘around’ at the last stage of the process before adoption of the District Plan to make it absolutely clear that the number was indicative of the actual amount to be provided on the site – not the figure to be treated by developers as a floor from which the number could be bid upwards to the most that they could cram in.
- We understand that the County Council have chosen to commission a 3FE JMI school on BSS in preference to building a smaller school there and expanding Thorley Hill JMI school by 1FE. As a result, TBSHS now propose to develop the whole of their existing playing field for housing. This seems objectionable to us for a number of reasons. Firstly, instead of providing extra JMI places in the neighbouring area to where people live (including those in this proposed development), many children will be forced to travel a longer distance and cross Whittington Way to get to their nearest available school and many will no doubt travel by car as a result. Secondly, Policy BISH6 IV (d) explicitly requires retention and enhancement of part of the outdoor playing pitches in the western parcel of the site as public open space for community purposes, commensurate with the amount of residential development and providing connections to neighbouring residential areas where possible. In our view, if Thorley Hill JMI school is not to be expanded, then the whole of the playing field should be retained as open space for the benefit of the community. Instead, the applicant proposes to obliterate the whole of that part of the site with housing.
- East Herts Council has more than a 5 year land supply for housing – most of it being provided in Bishop’s Stortford. Bishop’s Stortford is already destined to provide 25% of the housing for the whole of the district over the Plan period, a volume far in excess of the demand arising in the town and surrounding area. No planning argument has been advanced to increase the allocation for Bishop’s Stortford in total or on this site in particular. Specifically:
No additional housing need or demand has been demonstrated
Any past planning history of the site is irrelevant since it has been superseded by the District Plan.
The playing field has never previously been developed and so no presumption in favour of brownfield development can be claimed.
The affordable housing provision does not reflect current needs – too many flats and not enough houses are proposed.
The application is clearly in conflict with the District Plan, both as regards the number of dwellings proposed (BISH6 II) and the misuse of the playing field (BISH6 IV (d)) and on these grounds too should be refused planning permission.
- Policy BISH6 III in the District Plan which covers the potential redevelopment of the site says
‘A Masterplan will be collaboratively prepared, involving site promoters, landowners, East Herts Council, Bishop’s Stortford Town Council and other key stakeholders.’
So far as the Bishop’s Stortford Civic Federation are concerned, the authors of the masterplan have provided only token observance of this requirement. As a key stakeholder, we were invited to only one meeting of the steering group, where the masterplan preparation was incomplete in all aspects, and learned only by chance that a masterplan was being tabled for approval at a recent specially convened meeting of the full Council.
- Perhaps more surprising, given that traffic impacts have been identified as one of the key concerns about the proposed redevelopment of the site, Herts Highways was only invited to one meeting of the steering group. At that meeting, Herts Highways, with Civic Federation support, asked the applicant’s transport consultants to carry out additional surveys and junction analyses designed in particular to assess impacts on Pig Lane. The work was undertaken but its significance for the Transport Assessment results (see below) was never reported back to the steering group or to Herts Highways before the application was submitted.
- Although we made representations to the Council about shortcomings both in the masterplanning process and the fact that, at the time of the Council meeting, the masterplan was not supported by a Transport Assessment, the Council has nevertheless seen fit to adopt it. Our reservations about the process remain, therefore, and we do not believe that the application submitted complies with policy BISH III or that any weight should attached to the masterplan as adopted by the Council.
Traffic and Transport
- When the County Council submitted an application to itself for planning permission to relocate the school to BSS we noted that it relied chiefly on the Transport Assessment provided by Mayer Brown covering the BSS development as a whole. At that time we pointed out that no planning application had been submitted for housing on the site to be vacated and speculated that when an application was made it would argue that once BSS was approved for development, housing on the site covered by this application would be treated as having only a marginally adverse impact on traffic conditions. We pointed out that salami slicing to avoid having the full impact of development being considered comprehensively in Bishop’s Stortford was a tactic with which we were all too familiar and should not be allowed to go unchallenged. Indeed, this assessment fulfils our worst expectations by claiming that, since Mayer Brown’s assessment allowed for 150 dwellings on the site, the only adverse impact associated with this proposal arise from the increase of 73 in the dwelling total.
- Mayer Brown’s assessment of the traffic impact of the BSS development displayed serious shortcomings, the more obvious of which are the following
The assessment appeared to have been carried out before the adoption of the current local transport plan (LTP4) and of the District Plan and as a result made no reference to the transport policies which are currently in force.
The assessment’s claim that there had been no increase in traffic growth at Hockerill junction over a four year period was either incorrect or predated the opening of an Aldi supermarket close to the junction. Traffic backing up on London Road as a result of congestion in the supermarket car park is a regular occurrence. Hockerill junction has been designated an Air Quality Management Area because of the pollution caused by traffic congestion.
The highway mitigation measures proposed comprised the relocation of a bus stop on London Road and the introduction of parking restrictions on London Road opposite the junction with Thorley Hill. It is hard to believe that this will have any more than a trivial impact on the additional traffic flows which the BSS development will generate.
The BSS developers are also proposing the introduction of bus priority measures (ie allowing buses to trigger favourable aspects on traffic lights). However, such measures are only effective where, as in Harlow, there is land available to create dedicated bus lanes which enable the buses to overtake queueing traffic. The road network from BSS to the train station and town centre has no room for additional bus lanes. Buses will be stuck in the same congestion as other traffic and will gain no advantage from triggering favourable traffic signals. This in turn calls into question the supposed benefits of the other soft transport measures (such as bus passes) which are intended to persuade people to get out of their cars.
The assessment appeared to have assumed that traffic demand would be alleviated on the informal bypass of Pig Lane and Haymeads Lane/Beldams Lane as a result of a new link road currently under construction through the station goods yard. However, this assumption overlooks the fact that, on the insistence of Herts Highways, the link road is to be reserved purely for public service vehicles and will not be open to general traffic. Moreover, the impact of the development on the London Road/Pig Lane junction was not modelled by Mayer Brown at all.
- On this occasion, the traffic assessment has been carried out by Pell Frischmann. It too displays some shortcomings. The most obvious is that it relies on Mayer Brown’s assessment of the traffic generative impact of both the BSS and Goods Yard developments, the results of which strain credulity. Secondly, its survey of current evening peak traffic conditions commenced at 16.00 hours ie after the collection period at the end of the school day, which casual observation would suggest leads to more serious congestion than the conventional evening peak of 17.00 to 18.00. Thirdly, it overlooks the existence of the signal controlled junction on London Road giving access to the new link road through the station goods yard. While this road is not in operation yet, the traffic signals are, and significantly affect traffic flows along that part of London Road and at its junction with Hallingbury Road and Crescent Road. Finally the results appear to model the impact on each of the critical junctions on a standalone basis rather than factoring in the cumulative impact of queueing traffic on traffic flow at preceding junctions.
- In spite of these shortcomings, the results modelled do present a more plausible representation of the future than those offered up by Mayer Brown. In particular they show that excessive congestion is likely to occur with normal traffic growth and the BSS and Goods Yard committed developments, with the following junctions operating well above their theoretical capacity
London Road/Pig Lane (which has been modelled on this occasion and shows traffic waiting times of nearly half an hour)
Thorley Hill/London Road
Hallingbury Road/Crescent Road/ London Road
Hockerill cross roads
It would appear from these results that the cumulative delays at these critical junctions will bring the southern part of the road system into the town to a standstill in the morning and evening peaks.
- Para 109 of the National Planning Policy Framework says that development should only be prevented or refused on highways grounds if there would be an unacceptable impact on highway safety, or the residual cumulative impacts on the road network would be severe. This assessment shows that the cumulative residual impacts on the road network will be severe. At the very least therefore, it justifies refusal of permission for this application in its entirety. It also suggests that an independent traffic assessment of the whole of this part of the road network should be commissioned, to see whether any of the parts of the BSS development which have only outline planning permission at the moment should be allowed to proceed in their present form or, indeed at all. Clearly that review should not be carried out by the traffic consultants employed by the developers of either BSS or of this site, since that would be akin to asking them to mark their own homework. Nor, in view of their acquiescence in the results produced by the consultants for the BSS development, should Herts Highways be involved, other than in providing access to the relevant data and modelling software.
- Even compared with the standards which have been applied to major development applications in Bishop’s Stortford in the past, this application displays a particularly blatant disregard of the planning policies applicable to the site in question. In particular it is incompatible with the following:
Policy BISH6 I – provision of sufficient secondary school places elsewhere within the town.
Policy BISH6 II – the number of dwellings to be provided on the site.
Policy BISH6 III – a collaboratively prepared masterplan.
Policy BISH6 IV (d) – retention of the western part of the site as open space for community use.
- In addition, the Transport Assessment provided in support of the application provides conclusive evidence that the road network in the area will be unable to support any development on the site, and thus provides grounds for refusing planning permission in accordance with para 109 of the NPPF. We may have further representations to make on the transport implications before the closing date for comments. The applicants may argue that the problems arise from the permission already granted for BSS, and if that is the case, then it simply points towards a proper re-evaluation of the BSS application as well, to see if the worst of the damage can be averted, if necessary be reducing the extent of development there too.
- One purpose of the Council’s Development Management function is to ensure that the understandable desire of developers to maximise their return on any development is constrained by the requirement to comply with the policies in the District Plan, particularly one adopted as recently as this one.
- This application is so far removed from the applicable policies in the Plan that the only proper course of action is to refuse planning permission for it. To do otherwise would simply bring the District Plan itself into disrepute.