Planning inspector rejects school’s bid to move into old Hampstead police station
Abacus Belsize has lost its latest bid to move in
17 December, 2020 — By Harry Taylor
A PLANNING inspector has rejected a bid to move a primary school into the former Hampstead police station.
In a long-running saga, Abacus Belsize had been trying to get Camden Council’s refusal to grant planning permission overturned. The station in Rosslyn Hill was sold off during Boris Johnson’s time as Mayor of London and has stood empty for more than half a decade amid split opinions over the idea of turning it into a new school.
The academy trust behind Abacus, Anthem, has battled for several years against Camden Council and residents’ group Hampstead Community for Responsible Development (HCRD) to get the school moved from Camley Street to Hampstead, after starting off life in Hampstead Old Town Hall in Belsize Park.
In refusing the application, inspector Paul Jackson said that concerns over the building’s heritage, impact of noise on the building’s neighbours and exposing children to pollution were too great.
He conceded that moving the school from Camley Street to Hampstead would not see an increase in traffic or air pollution, but said the other factors outweighed this. Mr Jackson said neighbours would see “frequent and very loud and distracting peaks” of noise as a result of children playing in the proposed playground, at the rear of the building. He added: “It would be unreasonable to expect people to need to have to shut windows during play times, especially on warm days when it would be desirable to keep them open.”
The inspector said that children could also suffer from the high levels of pollution from the main road, both in any walk to school and while on the site. “Young children are an especially vulnerable group,” he said. “The building’s location cannot be changed. It will always be next to a main road where there is an increased risk and the potential for harm due to increased levels of air-borne pollutants.”
He also acknowledged that changes to convert the former police station to a school would require “very significant demolition”. He added: “It has not been demonstrated that alterations have only been proposed where absolutely necessary. Even small details have been erased, such as the rounded angles.”
In response to fears that changes to the magistrates’ court would irreparably affect the building’s heritage, Mr Jackson agreed, saying it would amount to “harm to architectural and historic interest”.
The planning inquiry was set up after councillors rejected the bid to move the free school, during a mammoth three-hour planning meeting in autumn 2019.
Abacus headteacher Vicki Briody said: “We are of course devastated by this bitterly disappointing news coming as it does the day before we break for Christmas at the end of this most difficult of years.
“Instead of being able to proceed as we’d always hoped and planned, this decision means a whole community of Belsize families seeking an excellent education for their children within safe walking distance of home will be disappointed, and a noteworthy, listed building will be left unoccupied and decaying.”
She added that the school will look to speak to parents, staff and members of the community about the trust’s next move.
“At the heart of those discussions will be how to make sure that the children can still benefit from the kind of outstanding education that has come to characterise Abacus.”
Andrew Neale, from HCRD said the group felt vindicated, and hoped Abacus would now look at alternative sites in the area.
He said: “We have fought this through two planning applications and it’s been thrown out by Camden. We’ve had the massed ranks and funds of the Department for Education against us, ignoring all the factors that we have raised.
“It has been a monumental effort by all concerned, including the Heath and Hampstead Society, all the residents’ associations, and Hampstead Neighbourhood Forum. It has cost a significant amount of money to get a representations and instruct our barrister, but we feel that it was money well spent.”
Mum of two at the school, Emily McCarron said she was shocked and disappointed by the outcome.
She said: “We thought that the school and the site were absolutely perfect and it was the perfect place for the children. It was our last resort. We thought the needs of the local children would come into consideration against concerns about the heritage and neighbours.
“There is clearly a need for the school. One of the reasons we are so disappointed is that we are worried now about what will happen next. We need a school in the area and there is no alternative for Belsize children, hence the huge number of applications to the school each year.”
Abacus Belsize was set up by campaigners who said that there was a shortage of primary school places for families in the Belsize Park area who wanted an alternative to ‘pray or pay’ – religious or private schools. It has been bussing pupils to a temporary site in King’s Cross while seeking planning consent for works on the police station site.
The move had been opposed by existing primary schools in the area, who say the free school’s arrival would put the squeeze on their numbers. Supporters, however, say the school would answer a long-term need for places.
The Department of Education bought the site but one set of plans – for a larger school and a rooftop playground – had already been rejected. The latest version was recommend for approval by Camden’s own planning department before being rejected by councillors in a vote.
Camden’s education chief Labour councillor Angela Mason had opposed the move, telling the planning meeting: “I think it is outrageous that £17m of public money is to be spent on knocking about a listed site on a main road to provide a primary school with one form of entry, at a time when Camden schools have seen a 25 per cent drop in their real-terms income since 2011. I would question whether such a decision to use so much public money for one small school is a legally reasonable or proportionate response.”
Conservative councillors also spoke at the meeting in opposition, but Liberal Democrat councillors, representing Belsize ward were in support.
Leader of Camden’s Liberal Democrat group Luisa Porritt, who urged the council to allow the school to move in said: “This will come as deeply disappointing news for all the parents, staff and wider community involved with Abacus School, but it is Belsize children who will lose out most.
“Local children deserve to have this outstanding-rated school in a proper permanent home in its local area. It is a great shame, and a waste of public money, that the former Hampstead police station will remain vacant, having already been empty for seven years.”
Hampstead Town councillor Maria Higson, who spoke against the application in both last year’s planning committee and this autumn’s planning inquiry said: “This was not an appropriate location for a school, with high air pollution, existing traffic issues, and limited outdoor space. Abacus deserves better, and the Planning Inspectorate has evidently weighed in the potential disbenefits for the wider community too.
“We now need to come together as a community to find a better site for the school within its catchment area, and a new use for this historic building.”
Camden Council has been contacted for comment.