Anger after work starts on school expansion before approval

Plans for extra classrooms at a Bedlington school have been approved, amid neighbours’ concerns and anger that the work has already taken place.

By The Newsroom
Wednesday, 7th October 2020, 10:00 am
St Benet Biscop Catholic Academy, in Bedlington.
St Benet Biscop Catholic Academy, in Bedlington.

Two proposals for St Benet Biscop Catholic Academy were recommended for approval at a meeting of Northumberland County Council’s strategic planning committee.

The application which had sparked concerns – due to its proximity to neighbouring houses – is for the demolition of the swimming-pool building and the construction of a two-storey ‘modular classbase’ building featuring six classrooms plus toilets.

In February, the council’s cabinet approved £2.5million for additional teaching accommodation on the St Benet Biscop site.

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A report explained that the conversion of Meadowdale Middle Academy to a primary school means there are now pressures on Year 7 and 8 places at the secondary level.

But given the urgent need for the extra space, the council’s own education team went ahead with the development before receiving planning permission.

Planning officer Judith Murphy told the meeting: “This is not something we as a planning department condone nor does it change the way in which the application is assessed.

“We were advised by the education department that they were in such a position where they had to commence the works due to the need for the building to be on site and ready for use ahead of the additional pupils starting in September.

“They fully acknowledge this was entirely at their own risk and are absolutely fully aware that it’s not something we support. That said, it’s not something we can physically stop them doing.

“All we can do is advise them of the risks and that works shouldn’t have commenced until planning permission was in their hands.”

She added: “It’s been considered in the same way as any application by any applicant would be and it gains no benefits or any kind of dispensation simply because the building is already there. It will still be assessed from scratch as it were.”

In his submission which was read out at the meeting, objector Ian Billham, on behalf of residents of Ridge Villas, said: “This is a clear breach of the planning regulations, demonstrates a disrespect for all the residents and this committee with a presumption it will be approved.

“There is little doubt or objection to the need for teaching provision, this could have been achieved anywhere within the boundary of the Academy estate, with little or no impact on local residential properties.”

He also raised concerns about the impact on highway and pedestrian safety, and design and visual impact.

A statement from West Bedlington Town Council added: “The town council fully believes the development will overshadow the houses at Ridge Villas and affect residents’ quality of life as well as resale value on their properties.”

However, the applicant’s agent Alistair Flatman pointed out that because it’s a classroom, ‘the building will not be in use in evenings or weekends when residents may be more likely to be using garden areas’.

“In addition, as set out in the officer report, there are no openings in the north elevation while the nearest garden boundary is 12 metres from the proposed classroom.”

Coun Malcolm Robinson initially moved deferral for the director of planning to seek a compromise with the education department, ‘because it’s only the loss of privacy that we’re talking about here and it’s unequivocal in my opinion’.

He added: “There’s two sensible solutions, either single-storey and double the footprint, or obscure the glass/raise the window levels.”

But Coun Trevor Thorne spoke against the deferral, saying that while the retrospective issue was ‘unsatisfactory’, he felt that the planning officer had clearly made the case about there being no direct overlooking.

“I don’t think the planning reasons are there to turn this down or defer it,” he added.

The motion for deferral was voted down by nine votes to one, before Coun Thorne moved approval, subject to an additional condition for obscure glazing on the windows which face the neighbouring properties.

Coun Robinson said: “This is the least I would have been happy with, but at least it’s a compromise solution.”

Committee members voted unanimously, along with a separate bid for a new single-storey extension to the existing academy hall, which had not attracted any objections.