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, even at this late stage, 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. The worst aspect was that approval was given without referring the application to Planning Committee, as had been widely 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 appears to be a simple observation on whether “conflicting views” were submitted.
Council officers decided neither test was met and neither Cllr Blaker or myself were consulted, despite there also being a constitution requirement for officers to “always do their best to ensure that Councillors are properly informed of significant issues or events affecting their wards or other areas of responsibility”.
I do not agree with the officer view on this decision and have made that clear within the Council, but, unfortunately, nothing can be done in any case to change the decision made to award planning permission. This situation is 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 meetings have continued and there have been further exchanges with the school to discuss further improvements to the new buildings. This is more difficult now planning permission has been awarded. Also school budgets are very tight, so the school cannot fund additional capital expenditure themselves.
Installing a ground source heat pump would cost significantly more than gas boilers, but over time running costs would be lower and savings would result, especially as during the first seven years, a heat pump would attract an income for the school from Renewable Heat Incentive payments. Despite the benefits, it is now too late to make this change.
Discussions with the school are therefore focusing on whether more solar panels can be installed on their roofs, so generating more solar electricity for school use. These discussions are on-going, and it is hoped will lead to further improvements before the new buildings are completed. It would be good too if heat pumps can be considered when heating systems are replaced in all buildings in future.
Post updated on 8 November 2020