Friday 17 August 2012

Wanted--Your Help to Save Your Field

Last March the JEP published my first letter and I published my first Blog expressing my opposition to the application to build a new St Martin’s School on its playing field (327A). Since then the JEP has published a number of my letters and a number from other concerned people. I have also published further Blogs. However no letters have been published in support of the application. Also and very importantly apart from not being represented at my public meeting, no one from Education, Sport and Culture has attempted to defend its application. One may ask why, is it because it is difficult defending the indefensible?

As a result of the publicity the public have become better informed and are becoming aware of the knock on affect it will have not only for St Martin Parishioners but also for residents Island wide if consent is given to build on the field. The Parish will lose its football pitch with no provision made for a replacement. The pupils will lose their cricket pitch although it is proposed to ask the Parish if it will allow Education to install a cricket pitch on its Village Green. The existing school will be transferred to the Parish. To cater for staff parking consent will need to be sought to purchase part of Field 720A on the opposite side of the road, which is a good agricultural field.

These are important matters but none have been subjected to any public consultation yet there is an application before the Minister to build on the existing playing field.

The application is based on the presumption that there is no further capacity on the site to extend the facilities. That is simply untrue; the existing school is standing on a three vergee site which was provided by the parish of St Martin way back in 1897.

It is not disputed that the present school needs major refurbishment for which around £8million has been provided. Other parish schools, such as Trinity, St John and St Peter all built of similar size and around the same period have been re-developed on site and during that period pupils occupied port-a- cabins. Unlike many other schools, St Martin’s stands on a larger footprint and is blessed with having a 7 vergee (about 3 acres) playing field right next to it. The field was acquired in 1947 and has been a valued and focal point ever since.

It should be noted that prior to July last year the playing field was a protected site under the 2002 Island Plan Policy BE8 “Important Open Space.” The purpose of this policy is similar to the “Listed Site Policy” where there is a presumption against development. I say the field was protected because somehow the field was conveniently removed from the list during the Island Plan debate last year when the States (unwittingly) voted for the field to be included in the fields to be “safeguarded for educational use.” Thus by a stroke of the pen the field was thrown open to development and a foot in the door for an application to build on it. However the fact that the field was a "Protected Open Site" was with held from Members.

The playing field had been protected for a number of years and way before late 2009 when by pure co-incidence St Martin’s School is added to the “Sites of Local Interest” list thus by protecting that building it would add weight to the application to build on the field. All clever stuff one may say, however others may see it as a bit of sharp practice.

However there are vital questions which need answers such as if both the field and school were listed, what criteria was adopted to determine which would be the greater loss, a building deemed to be no longer fit for purpose which can be replaced by a modern fit for purpose school or a longstanding recreation field which when built on is lost for ever? Also who took the decision and was it ever recorded? Even more importantly why was the public not consulted and invited to comment and why cannot they be asked for an opinion before the application is considered?

At my public meeting two weeks ago a comment was made that the public should have been aware of what was going on; however when the facts are withheld or couched in such a way as to confuse the public one can hardly blame them for questioning the application once they have been informed of the facts.

On page 4 of Planning’s Supplementary Planning Guidance, Draft Development Brief, which was published as part of the consultation Brief in February this year, the following can be found, The Minister for Education, Sport and Culture made a representation to the 2011 Island Plan review explaining that the existing school was no longer fit for purpose and there was no space on site for expansion and requested that Field 327A be safeguarded for educational use.

The States approved the Island Plan and Field 327A was duly safeguarded in Policy SCO1. Although the Minister has made a compelling case for a new school, the Minister for Planning and Environment will require confirmation that the proposed school is in a sustainable location in respect of its catchment area and expects that confirmation to come out of the consultation process.”

It is apparent that the former Planning Minister must have been reading the Education Minister's application with “Nelson’s blind eye” and was a soft touch because on closer scrutiny the application is without substance and certainly runs foul of a number of Planning’s own policies.

Apart from being the less expensive option, there is ample room on the existing site to allow for redevelopment even if the current school is retained; those buildings which are not listed can easily be demolished. If space is deemed to be tight there is absolutely no reason why a two storey building cannot be built for year 5 and 6 pupils who would enjoy viewing the French coast from across Field 327 which is to the north of the school. Where is the vision, where is the will?

As can be seen above, although there is an application to build on the field which has apparently lost its protected status, it certainly does not mean that the current Minister, who is also Minister for the Environment and certainly not a soft touch will approve Education’s application. The case must be made and the jury is still out. He is mindful of the serious implications of building a new school on its playing field and has wisely extended the time for forwarding comments to 28th August.

Although the field is now listed for educational use it does not mean that it should be built on. It has been in educational use for over 60 years and has created opportunities for generations of children to learn about the importance sports participation and social skills. It has also been a valuable environmental and nature classroom. The field is irreplaceable and once lost is lost forever.

People have asked why I have bothered to continue fighting to save the field when many believe that consent is a done deal. I have continued because I do not believe it is a done deal and our environment is worth fighting for.

I have done my bit and I ask that if readers really want to save the field they too can do their bit by submitting their comments to the Planning and Building Services, South Hill, St Helier, JE24US or via THIS WEBSITE , This is the main Application website.

Please click to open and then click onto the Comment on Application section where a pro forma can be found. Your comments need not be lengthy but could help to save the field.

As a guide Readers may wish to submit something like " I am opposed to building on the St Martin's School playing field and any replacement should be constructed on its present site."

Thursday 2 August 2012

Public Meeting (Report)

The meeting hurriedly arranged for last night was well attended and interesting. It was also an opportunity for the Ministers responsible for supporting the application to account for their support and to answer any questions the public might want to ask. Unfortunately for various reasons none were present but there were other States Members present who were eager for the public to hear their views.

As the only person who had taken the trouble to arrange a meeting it was amusing to see how those who should have done so not only took the trouble of attending but did so with prepared lengthy speeches. One wonders why they did not organise their own meeting rather attempt to hi-jack mine.

The whole purpose of the three week period between advertising a planning application and receiving comments is to allow for a consultation process and how better than to call upon those supporting the application to account for it. In some countries it is part of the democratic process but in Jersey it is meddling with it.

However the meeting provided an opportunity to shoot the messenger with politicians taking every opportunity to ridicule any one who did not actually live in the Parish. The fact that the school is being financed by the Island’s taxpayers and 48% of its pupils live outside the catchment seemed to be ignored.

It was certainly sad to hear elected Members questioning the motives of those seeking a re-think because they no longer live in St Martin’s. The current Football Club President although now living in Trinity has devoted 54 years to the Parish football team. He has been an inspiration to thousands of parishioners and without his dedication the parish club would have folded many years ago. The Club pays a fee to the Education Department for the hire of the ground. The goal posts are left in position and there is seldom a day when one does not see people of all ages playing on the pitch. The Club also funds the Trinity Shield competition which is for Jersey born residents living in the Parish. The Parish football is part and parcel of the Parish and to denigrate its President is unworthy.

It was also a case for not letting the truth get in the way of defending an entrenched position. No one is disputing the fact that the present school needs urgent attention but it was stretching it a bit when Senator Francis Le Gresley reported that when it rains it pours into the school and soaks the school books. One wonders why he has not reported the matter to the Education Minister. If the school is such a poor state one wonders why some Parishioners are so keen to take it over.

We also had a statement from Senator Routier who wrongly reported that the Field Challenge Trust would not consider any playing field which was controversial. I don’t know how he could come up with that red herring. The whole purpose of the Field Challenge is to protect playing fields from development. Only the owner can sign the deed that gives protection. Therefore if the authority or in Jersey’s case the Parish or States is opposed to the public’s support for the retention of the playing field the application will be controversial. However it is the public which will have the vote.

By delaying the opportunity for public participation in the Field Challenge the States, by stealth is denying the public the opportunity to nominate the St Martin’s playing field. The fact that I did so on May 1st seems to have been ignored.
It was again alleged that during the States debate of the Island Plan last year, the States Members, myself included, voted to allow the school field to be built on. That is not so, what was voted for was that the field would be safeguarded for educational use. The field has been in educational use for over 65 years and if a sensible approach was taken it could be retained for another 65 years and more.

Unfortunately due to PTT (Politicians Talking Time) which at times was intimidating I felt that many of the public became restrained from commenting. However one very valid point was made by a former pupil who asked what seemed to be the most sensible question of the evening, which was, “If the present site is deemed to be too small why the area required can’t encroach into the playing field which would achieve the best of both worlds. There would be a new building on the old site whereby the pupils and the Parish would retain their cricket and football pitches”

“Elementary my dear Watson” perhaps it is a pun on the former elementary school but it is an appropriate response to a sensible question.

There were two positive matters that arose from the meeting; one is that the public are now better informed and certainly if a vote had been taken to request the Ministers to have a re-think, the vote would have been won. The other was recognition that the public requires more time to comment. To this end the Planning Minister has extended the time for consultation and comment until 28th August.

Hopefully the Ministers will reconsider their decision. However it is for the public, if they wish to retain the field, to take the trouble to submit their comments to the Planning Department before the end of this month.