A 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.
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.