Secondary School Places (London Borough of Sutton)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 4th November 2015.

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Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Conservative, Sutton and Cheam 11:00 am, 4th November 2015

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered secondary school places in the London Borough of Sutton.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. Some years ago, school place planning around London dictated that a number of schools, especially across Sutton, should contract in size. Across London, though, it was quickly discovered that the plans were horrendously wrong, and that in fact the exact opposite was required: there were more people moving into the borough, there was a higher birth rate than was originally predicted, and during the economic downturn fewer parents sent their children to nearby independent schools.

The London Borough of Sutton moved to expand primary schools across the area. Bulge classes and permanent new buildings sprang up in every school. Despite a number of people asking about secondary education, the council seemed to forget that children have a funny habit of growing up and needing secondary school places. We were assured that the council could cope.

Secondary schools have been through the same process as primaries. New buildings and classes have popped up. Stanley Park high school in Carshalton has moved to a new location and expanded considerably as a result. I was on the project board for that school when it was built; it was one of the last Building Schools for the Future projects. It was built on a former hospital site after more than a year of wrangling between two public bodies: the council and the NHS. Between them, about £1 million of taxpayers’ money was spent on legal fees. From that experience, I know about the difficulties and inertia when working with the public sector.

In subsequent years, the private sector, which on the whole is far more nimble, started to look at Sutton after development opportunities in surrounding boroughs were exhausted. Many of the plots of land that might have made a good school site were snapped up for residential, retail and other mixed development. Now, we are scratching around to find sites that can deliver the infrastructure improvements required to support an expanding population.

Sutton has a particular environment when it comes to schooling. It regularly features at the top of the list of local education authorities for results, which is one of the biggest attractions for families coming to Sutton. At the centre of that excellence are its five grammar schools. Those selective schools have deservedly excellent reputations. However, their existence means that Sutton is a net importer of children, with students coming not only from neighbouring Croydon and Merton, but from central London and even the south coast. Pressure is therefore more acute in Sutton than in many other parts of London. If Wallington County grammar school applies for and opens an annexe in Croydon, as has been reported, that may help to alleviate the situation regarding school places in the east of the borough by keeping children in Croydon closer to home, but there is still a long way to go to secure enough secondary school places in the coming years to satisfy predicted demand.

I will quickly share the chronology of events that has led us to an impasse in trying to secure the school places that we so desperately need. In November 2012, Sutton council acknowledged that a new secondary school might have to be built in Sutton as early as 2015. Early reports showed that the predicted shortfall in places would be most acutely felt in the centre and to the north of Sutton town centre. In June 2013, Sutton council’s education committee instructed officers to investigate sites for a new secondary school. That October, the same committee noted that a new secondary school would probably be required in 2017 or 2018. In the following January, the council confirmed that a new 10-form-entry secondary school would be required in 2017. That was the advice from the secondary schools partnership—a body made up of senior representatives from all the local secondary schools. The reference to 10-form entry was later changed to eight-form entry, which remains the estimate today. However, it was reported that the council did not have sufficient resources to build that school.

In December 2013, the then MPs came out in public as supporting part of the soon-to-be redundant Sutton hospital site as their favoured location for a new school opening in 2017. That site is in the south of the borough, close to the Surrey border.

In March 2014, the council’s secondary school expansion plan acknowledged the difficulty of identifying suitable sites for new schools:

“Due to the difficulty in acquiring even one suitable site, any new school should be as large as possible…to take greatest advantage of such a site.”

In June 2014, the council’s education committee was told that a site for a new secondary school would have to be acquired

“in the very near future”,

and there was a lead-in time of two to three and a half years for getting the new school open. Therefore any site would have to be sorted as early as 2016 for even a 2019 opening.

At that time, the council was refusing to share with the public the long list of sites that it was looking at, so I starting looking myself and noticed an overgrown, derelict, full-size artificial football pitch at the back of a park in Rosehill, just to the north of Sutton town centre, where demand is most acute. At the time, that was out to tender for a five-a-side football pitch arrangement after years of being left unused and locked up. The council already owned that land, so it would clearly save money. I spoke to the owners of Sutton Sports Village, a world-class tennis academy immediately adjacent to the site. They were supportive of a school being located there and expressed an interest in sparking up a partnership when it eventually opened.

In November 2014, Sutton Council announced that it had identified two sites for a new secondary school: part of the Sutton hospital site and Rosehill all-weather pitch, my preferred site. It commissioned feasibility studies for both sites, despite the fact that the Education Funding Agency, which is ultimately responsible for choosing the plot, would conduct its own. Before the council’s studies were complete, the council spent about £8 million buying land on the Sutton hospital site from the NHS. That parcel of land was not the same as the one first envisaged as suitable for a school. In fact, the council’s own feasibility study, when it was completed, showed that it was only 20% of the recommended size for an eight-form-entry secondary school. There would be no playing fields, no recreational area. In reality, to fulfil demand, any school on that plot would have to be in the order of four storeys high, built close to the street line, and just 2 metres from the closest family home. It would be totally out of keeping with the area, and as someone who served on Sutton’s planning committee as a councillor for four years, I cannot envisage how such a proposal would ever get planning permission from anyone with an independent eye.

In June 2015, the EFA confirmed that the Sutton hospital site was too small, but cleared the Rosehill site to proceed, leaving it as Sutton’s only viable new school site. The council and the EFA continued talks over the summer, leading the EFA to believe that heads of terms would soon be agreed when I met the person in charge of negotiations on 16 September. However, just two days later, Sutton council’s political administration pulled the plug on that site, saying that they would not release the land at Rosehill and insisting that the school could be built only on the land at Sutton hospital.

Last month, the approved sponsor for the proposed free school, the Greenshaw Learning Trust, said that the land that the council had bought at Sutton hospital was not sufficient for the school that it has approval for, and that it is still looking for a site. The EFA has confirmed that it is helping it in that endeavour. And so we reach the current deadlock.

There are three options for moving this matter on. The EFA can try to buy more land at the Sutton hospital site, which will cost even more money, leave the school in the wrong part of Sutton, and start to eat into land that is earmarked for an ambitious joint venture for a cancer research hub between the council, the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, the Institute of Cancer Research and the Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust. That would be an expensive short-term fix that would hamper strategic plans, and all because of an intransigent approach at this stage. A new provider on the site would not get Department for Education approval for a free school until next summer at the earliest, delaying the project for yet another year. There is also the small matter of the chief executive of the relevant hospital trust making it clear that he has no interest in selling off more of the site.

The second option is that another site could be found. There are examples of free schools across the country that have been built in unconventional styles. Fresh thinking may throw up an interesting use of an as yet unidentified site. I like to think that I am up for a bit of creative thinking, but over the last two years nothing, but nothing, has come to mind.

The third option is the most obvious: to look again at the Rosehill site. The political administration of the council—the senior Liberal Democrat councillors—dismiss that site, as it is classified as metropolitan open land, but that environmental argument is inconsistent for a number of reasons. Sutton council was happy to build an incinerator on metropolitan open land in another part of the borough. It is also planning a primary school on metropolitan open land in Hackbridge. It appears that only metropolitan open land on this site, in the ward represented by the leader of Sutton council, is immune from consideration this side of the 2018 local elections. In fact, the site has not been dismissed as being unavailable for any secondary school that is required by 2020, so we may see a school here anyway—just too late.

Sutton is fortunate to have many parks and open spaces, so I did not easily reach the conclusion that this site was best. As London expands and local residents wonder how their children will be able to afford housing in the area where they grew up, we need to plan to meet that demand and to cope with the resulting pressure on infrastructure. The Rosehill solution addresses that as best it can. That was echoed by a valuer who looked at the site and said that it was the best site for a school that he had seen in years. The footprint of the school building can be contained on the plot of the derelict artificial pitch. Car parking can be limited to an already-concreted area to the north of the site. Not only can the parkland remain, but if it is used as playing fields it can be maintained by the school and shared with the community.

I regularly speak to the Mayor about the need for a Sutton tram extension, which is included in his plan for London. The proposed route for that tram extension runs along the front of Rosehill. A train station is close by, and several buses run along the two roads that surround the site. That is in contrast to the junction at the Sutton hospital site, which would inevitably have to be remodelled to cope with the increased traffic, and which has fewer public transport links.

There are two secondary schools close to the Rosehill site: Greenshaw, which is the original school behind the Greenshaw Learning Trust, and Glenthorne. Both are incredibly popular and successful schools, and they are regularly over-subscribed. There is only one secondary school near Sutton hospital, Overton Grange. That might seem, at first glance, to suggest that there is a shortage of spaces in the south, but I believe that Overton Grange has been less popular than the other schools in recent years, so it has been under-subscribed. The biggest centre of demand appears to be in the roads around Sutton bus garage, to the north of the town centre. Although the Minister represents a seat close to Sutton and Cheam, I would not expect him to know the exact geography of the area, but I am always happy to show him around. Suffice it to say that Sutton bus garage is only five to 10 minutes’ walk from the Rosehill site.

We need immediate action. Residents have been waiting for years to see something at least get started. Just as we thought that was happening, things came to a juddering halt when the matter became politically difficult. It was put off in the lead up to the 2014 local elections, and again before this year’s general election. We cannot have the 2018 local election dictating school place planning policy in Sutton. We need proper reconsideration of the council’s position in a measured and open way. We cannot allow the council to continue with the approach that it has been taking lately, and that has spurred me to bring the matter to the Minister. The first that the EFA and the approved school provider, the Greenshaw Learning Trust, knew about the decision to about-turn and refuse to release the Rosehill site was via a press release that they received indirectly. That is no way to conduct business. Not a lot gets me annoyed, but playing politics with the education of our current cohort of nine-year-olds, who risk not getting a local school place in two years’ time, frankly appals me.

I cannot help thinking that when the Mayor looks at the issue when he is considering whether to invest in the tram extension, when international cancer research companies look at the proposed London cancer hub in the south of Sutton, or when developers look to Sutton for opportunities to build the housing that we so badly need, they will think again. They will wonder whether the time, energy and money spent on early planning might not be wasted, because the rug may be suddenly pulled out from under their feet on a political whim. They will be reluctant to work with a local authority that conducts its discussions via press release.

Sutton council says that it can open a school on the Sutton hospital site, but there is no evidence of any achievable plan. We need a school to accommodate 240 pupils in just two years’ time simply to start meeting demand. We know that a school will take two to three and a half years to build, and we still do not have a site. Securing planning permission for any site will not be straightforward. I am all for local decision making, and I am very much in favour of greater local accountability, but I do not believe that the parents of those nine-year-old children are aware of the totally avoidable crisis that we face as a direct result of the locally elected representatives. I hope that the Minister can help to break the impasse by stepping in and getting the council to take a truly strategic, common-sense view, breaking the deadlock, and securing the school places that the council is failing to provide, and that we so desperately need.