Seashell Trust School
Plans for homes and a school on Green Belt land were approved earlier this year

COMMENT | Seashell Trust decision sets GMSF precedent

Comments (22)

Nick Lee NJL Consulting NEWA landmark, and controversial, decision on appeal for a special needs school in Stockport is notable for demonstrating the high level of scrutiny and evidence required to justify the scheme, writes Nick Lee, managing director of NJL Consulting.

When I started on the Seashell Trust journey, I did not quite expect the process to take some five years from start to finish through the planning system. Finally, last week, the £45m project to build a new, 60,000 sq ft school in Heald Green, supported by 325 homes on Green Belt land near the Handforth Bypass, was approved by the Secretary of State.

All who visit the trust’s current facility are affected by what they see. The children are the most severely challenged in the country, with complex needs. Yet, at the same time, one had to look beyond this while working on the scheme, and really try to focus on the case from a planning perspective. It wasn’t easy.

At every stage, we scrutinised the evidence prepared by the trust to see if we could ensure that it would stand up to full testing. Stockport Council’s planning officers, rightly, asked searching questions and were initially unconvinced. Yet, with further evidence, they were happy to recommend approval.

After two years of hard work and being refused by one vote, my faith in the planning system was sorely tested. Lack of political unanimity was disappointing to see, but not entirely unsurprising. Turning to the appeal process was always going to be a daunting prospect for a case of this magnitude and importance.

We knew that the evidence from the trust would be the basis for the appeal case. Even so, it took a while for it to lodge the appeal, because its leaders also wanted to test the strength of their position. Ultimately, four different barristers were asked about the case, and every single one said: “If this isn’t very special circumstances, then I don’t know what is.”

We lodged more than 170 relevant documents just to submit the appeal. Yet it still took nearly a year to get an appeal date, and we had 13 witnesses. Many worked at cost or for free, and my task of bringing all their evidence into my own planning evidence was sometimes overwhelming. There were many post-midnight finishes with a glass of wine for inspiration!

The appeal itself took over five weeks. Thankfully, us and the council were mainly agreed on significant areas of technical evidence. The focus inevitably was on why the facilities were needed. Winning that argument would win the case and all parties knew that. The trust’s own witnesses were better than most planning witnesses I have seen. Given that some have regularly had to plead in tribunals for a child’s education and care, the whole team had complete faith in them, and it placed even more pressure on us to perform well.

In addition, the trust was entirely transparent over the financial side of the case. Every avenue of alternative funding was sought from the outset and throughout the case. If there had been an alternative to using land for housing, the trust would have taken that route.

As a further act of financial openness, an innovative surplus fund was set up through a legal agreement to ensure that if any additional monies were received from either land sales or cost savings, with clear monitoring in place, it would fund further affordable housing in the area.

The result from the Secretary of State and planning inspector is the right one, and I say that after reflecting on the case overall.

Seashell TRust School 2

We all care about our environment, the judicious use of the Green Belt, and trying to balance social and environmental needs. This case showed that, with a forensic approach to setting out the case, it can be won, but it was also entirely the proper outcome. The educational needs are compelling, there is also a massive shortfall of housing (Stockport has only just over two years’ supply), and a significant lack of affordable housing, and I expect this will not change overnight.

There will inevitably be more thought given to cases involving Green Belt, and yes, cross-funding of schools will be focussed on. I expect that there will be significant interest in such cases, but they do have to be approached at the outset from a position of setting out the genuine needs of the school involved, in a level of detail far beyond the norm.

This is also an important case for the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework as the site forms part of one of the proposed Green Belt releases. I think that not winning the case would have cast some doubt on this.

Inevitably, some people have reacted badly to the news, and I hope those that have will seek to work with the trust and the housebuilder to create a fantastic campus and new homes for Heald Green. Both are essential.

Nick Lee is managing director of NJL Consulting,  planning consultant to Seashell Trust in this project.

Your Comments

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Great work this Nick!! Well done all concerned…I know its been a long road

By Pete Swift

So happy to see this progress. I’m a local resident and fully recognise the greater good this housing development can provide for the Trust and the children it cares for and educates.

By Anonymous

325 houses with creaking infrastructure in the village with doctors and schools overwhelmed before this devastating news.
The A34 bypass has already forced traffic through the village as many cars head to Manchester making it 25 minutes in rush hour to go 2 miles through the village to the A34 Kingsway Road .
Appalling and pure greed driven.

By Traci

Yes Nick Lee a phenomenal success for you and a huge moneymaker too for you!
You fail miserably to mention lack of infrastructure for the people living in Heald Green . Schools doctors dentists and all general healthcare roads to name but a few. We have waited for over 40 years for the Semms road to be completed. The money required for expanding the school is certainly not 45million pounds. We can certainly rely on people like you to destroy our green belt what a legacy you will leave behind. Keep pulling the heart strings, everyone could have benefited from this if it had been done in the right way.

By Vivienne Pilling

Horrible news for Heald Green but money talks.

By D Nick

I don’t accept your criticism as you are going to be building on Green Belt! What does that say for the rest of the country! Help! But to have 350 house built in this area where there is no public transport , no room in schools and also just one Doctors surgery also wonder how much social housing is included

By Patricia Bruce

Many congratulations, Nick, and all at the Seashell Trust. I look forward to seeing the development of the new school to provide a wonderful new environment where the Trust can continue to help disadvantaged young people flourish and get the most from life.

By Jill Naylor

Reading the detail of the Inspector’s report, it would appear that if the application had not mentioned – or been so heavily reliant on – NJL’s cross-funding strategy, this application would have been granted on pure planning terms anyway.

The Inspector seems convinced this is poor quality land and the development having little impact on existing properties/footpaths etc. Add to that the council’s lack of a 5 year housing land supply it actually seems like this was an open goal?

Going hard on the cross-funding angle opened up several unnecessary fronts and handed both protestors and council the opportunity to challenge the now necessary ‘need’….leading to several quite legitimate rejections.

This cross funding strategy only seems to have dramatically lengthened the timescale – from 2015 to 2020 – and increased the costs for the Charity whilst dragging down their reputation locally and putting the whole process into the middle of the current lockdown with the associated risks to yield.

By However.

Interesting criticism from people presumably in the local community about lack of schools, healthcare, transport ect facilities. I trust they will all now get on board with supporting the wider proposed gmsf site which the version of the policy last year said had to deliver all those things including a new station.

By now

I think its a dreadful decision. What was the point of building the bypass for Heald Green when you will have even more traffic??? Plus all the other builds that are going to be approved in Heald Green. Surely the present school could have been updated. Taking away beautiful greenbelt land is madness.

By Gillian Hollingworth

How can you possibly be objective in your position as consultant to SST? Most objections are not to do with the actual houses but rather the fact that the infrastructure isn’t there. I despair I really do !

By Janet Negus

Absolutely disgusting to see this has been passed. Especially as It has been proven it could be built for a fraction of the price and without our greenbelt being sold from beneath our feet. Nobody denies they do a fantastic job but The lies and bull that the Seashell Mistrust said during the enquiry and before this makes even more ridiculous. Considering that most of the children that attend this school are not local to the village is a kick in the teeth for residents. I know that many residents will no longer be supporting them anymore, but as they got this approved and it’s like winning the lottery they won’t need fundraisers. Shame on you.

By Alice

Not sure this is overall positive for society, but it definitely will be for someone’s pockets. Given the way a lot of local people feel about this decision, you’d have been better not posting this article

By Matt F

It’s a terrible decision for the area. Schools, doctors and dentists are already oversubscribed and the traffic situation is a nightmare. Building nearly 400 new homes with NO plans for how these people are going to access services or how this will affect existing residents is shocking. Nobody doubts that the school needs funds but to get it by ruining the local area is disgusting.

By Lucy F

No infrastructure planning whatsoever in this scheme god help the residents handforth and heald greeñ

By G m slack

Anyone who has followed this project knows the school could have been improved to an excellent standard for the childten without selling off the local green belt and that the money which has been spent in pursuing this project is money that hasn’t been & won’t be spent on the children they support.
Perhaps the profit on selling the green belt over and above what is really needed to improve the school will go towards the local area – the creaking infrastructure & flood defences for example, especially given the SST want to work with the local area.
Out of interest Nick, given it’s a charity, just what was your fee for this project?


Good to see the green belt being converted into a large surface car park…Congratulations. Are there any concessions to the environment being planned in the materials being used such as soakaways, paving that allows rainwater to flow through rather than direct it to sewers etc?

By Allotmentlad

The PNW comment pages would really benefit from a 100% ban on mindless NIMBYs.


These NIMBYs say things like “what about the infrastructure, schools, doctors, road capacity, etc” as if the Council and developer haven’t given any thought to these issues. Planning applications are, by law, supported by a range of technical information and consultations with communities and key stakeholders. All of these issues have been examined in depth by the appropriate bodies. The decision is then based on the planning balance of all of these ‘material considerations’.

It’s very easy to make sweeping statements and rash judgements based on very little knowledge. Maybe give a little credit to the professionals who devote their lives to achieving sustainable development (environmental, social and economic sustainability!) that benefits society as a whole.

By Anonymous

Marvellous, how the planning system brings out the best in everyone on these occasions, isn’t it?

By A horse with no name

I’m confused, does this mean there will be noise or there won’t be noise?

By Alan Partridge

Absolutely disgraceful. Environmental desecration by Carpetbaggers.

By E Lockley