Earlier this year (January 2020), there was consultation, followed by a planning application for substantial new buildings at Kingsmead School. These will replace old buildings that are no longer fit for purpose, with funding from the Government’s Priority School Building Programme.
The new buildings are very welcome and much needed, but the proposal proved controversial as the design lacked sustainability features and was not carbon neutral. This prompted a local campaign, which was covered by The Guardian.
The main new buildings at the school (shown in dark grey above) will be a large teaching, facilities and administration block and an extension off the sports hall to form an activity studio with changing rooms. Old buildings will be demolished and there will also be a new floodlit Multi Use Games Area (MUGA) and a separate netball court.
Campaign gains improvements
Concerns about the proposed design for the new buildings were registered with Somerset West and Taunton Council by 28 local people, the town council, civic society and both Mark Blaker and myself, as ward councillors.
The campaign prompted some rethinking by the school and Bouygues, who are the company funded by the Department of Education to submit the planning application and to design and construct the new buildings. Bouygues issued a sustainability update in May 2020 to summarise the existing sustainability features and two enhancements in the form of a 10 kW array of solar electricity panels and a new rainwater garden, to retain and clean water runoff, while also providing an educational resource.
The new solar panels will be in addition to two existing solar photovoltaic installations on other Kingsmead School roofs, which have a generating potential of 4 kW and 18 kW (the bigger array is on the sports hall).
Other design improvements are to provide two electric vehicle charging points in the car park and induction hobs for cookers in the new kitchen.
I met with the school, a Department for Education representative and the construction company during the planning application consultation period. I urged them to consider improvements that would allow a zero carbon design and, in particular, suggested replacing gas boilers with a ground source heat pump, such as at schools in North Yorkshire, Surrey and Wiltshire.
Council planning decision prevents further progress
Unfortunately, while the campaign and my discussions with the school and contractor were still on-going, Somerset West and Taunton Council officers took their decision on the planning application. Approval was given without referring the application to Planning Committee, as had been expected and would be normal for an application attracting a high level of concern.
The Council’s constitution states decisions should be taken by Planning Committee when the Principal Planner or the Chair of the Planning Committee consider an application to be of “a significant, controversial or sensitive nature”, or “where there are conflicting views (giving clear planning reasons) from a Town/Parish Council or a Ward Member as well as from not less than 4 individuals”.
In my view, both tests were met, although the first is a matter of a judgement by the Principal Officer and Planning Committee Chair, while the second should be a simple judgement on whether “conflicting views” were submitted.
I did not agree with the officer view and made that clear within the Council, but, unfortunately, nothing could be done to change the decision, once made to award planning permission. This situation was very regrettable. It would have been far better if the decision had been taken in public by the Planning Committee, where all interested parties could have had their say and seen that their views were taken into account.
Seeking further improvements
Local discussions continued with the school about further improvements to the new buildings, which was difficult once planning permission had been awarded and building work needed to commence. More panels to generate more solar electricity for school use were suggested and heat pumps to replace old heating systems at the school in future.
UPDATE (28 July 2021): A complaint was made to the council about comments on the new buildings being wrongly assessed, which led to the application not being reported to Planning Committee for decision. It took a long time for the council to address these concerns, but they have been accepted and steps taken so similar problems should not occur again. The planning permission given could not be changed. At least, some improvements were secured and it is good that work on constructing the new school buildings has progressed well. Better climate positive planning guidance has since been adopted by the council. However, to require zero carbon design in future, policies need to be adopted through a new Local Plan. Work on this is delayed due to latest reorganisation to create a new unitary council. All these difficulties and delays are very frustrating, but I will keep pressing for the changes needed as soon as possible.