Plans for primary school students to be housed in temporary blocks in Hackney Downs have been approved by the Town Hall’s planning committee, despite cross-party worries that they would set a precedent for “substandard” schools in the borough.
Pupils at the Olive School are in need of a new home as their temporary stays at Hackney University Technical College (HUTC) and Cazenove Road are coming to an end, with planning conditions at their new premises in the old Hackney Police Station only accommodating 90 students per year in staggered bursts to prevent too great a traffic impact.
However, the new blocks to be built on land formerly owned by BSix Sixth Form College, which was reportedly “browbeaten” into selling it last year by the Department for Education, have become bones of contention during their application, with the Hackney Society arguing that the “poor quality” buildings will not be fit for use.
Cllr Ned Hercock (Lab, Clissold) said: “I was struck by the Hackney Society’s comment that those children who enter in the first year and stay in school, it won’t be temporary, it’ll be their whole experience of primary school.
“I went to school in prefabs and it didn’t do me any harm, but it wasn’t very pleasant. Are we making this problem worse by more deeply establishing the principle of children in Hackney being educated in prefabs?
“Ultimately we don’t have to agree as a local authority that this is an acceptable kind of solution to the pressing need. By agreeing something that’s a bit better, you could be more deeply establishing the principle of children going to a substandard school.”
Cllr Michael Levy (Con, Springfield) added: “I just wonder whether we are in fact inadvertently shortchanging the children here who are having to spend the rest of their education in these modular facilities.”
Planning officers present at the meeting admitted that the plans represent an “unfortunate situation” for students who will be spending the full duration of their primary school life in temporary accommodation
Cllr Hercock’s concerns were responded to by officers pointing out that the temporary nature of the blocks over six years prevented a principle from becoming established, with the issue only arising if a further application were to be made for the blocks to be permanent.
On Cllr Hercock’s worries of setting precedents through their decisions, Cllr Vincent Stops (Lab, Hackney Central), who chairs the planning committee, added: “That’s a discussion to be had in the pub afterwards, I think.
“We’re not here to decide whether the government should be spending more money somewhere else on schools. We’re here to decide the planning application.
“We’ve heard that the school where these kids go to now is substandard, so it seems to me that we’re here to decide on a better facility.”
While the space for classrooms in the new blocks is adequate, officers have admitted that the modular buildings will “fall short” in other ways, including playground layout, learning resources, and areas dedicated to storage, staff and administration.
Objectors at the meeting also raised concerns over pollution levels in the area, which is located adjacent to Lea Bridge roundabout.
One resident said: “I feel compelled to speak up for residents who are absent from the report. In terms of air quality, the report finds that there was no issue with noxious gases and that the pollution levels are fine.
“As I live there, and feel pollution sticking to the back of my throat, I don’t believe that this has been addressed for the children who will be there. The confluence of Lea Bridge roundabout and the Upper Clapton Road add up to a pollution hotspot.”
Representatives on the planning committee appeared to share concerns over pollution levels in the area, with Cllr Stops suggesting that being located near to Lea Bridge roundabout was “far more problematic” in terms of air quality than schools on Stoke Newington Church Street, which have been at the centre of bitter debates around toxic fumes in the borough.
Abigail Evans, who represented the Olive School at the meeting, said: “The Olive School is an outstanding and popular community primary school that is required to find a new temporary premises due to the HUTC needing to take back the space currently given ot the school.
“The Olive School is not able to operate from one of its sites for the required time period. This application is to decant existing pupils from the existing HUTC site to a more accessible location.
“The school is already at capacity. This is not an application for an expansion. The pupils and parents are excited for the move to Brooke Road and are fully engaged in the travel plan.”