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Blocked: Planners refuse to allow Abacus Belsize to move into police station

Camden Council to face appeal over refusal

21 November, 2019 — By Helen Chapman

A FREE school is to appeal against another refusal to allow it to move into a shutdown police station in Hampstead, Abacus Belsize Primary School had planning permission unanimously rejected after a marathon three-hour meeting of planning committee councillors on Thursday evening.

The school, which is currently busing pupils from Belsize Park to a temporary site in King’s Cross, said in a statement afterwards that it was “confident that we can mount a strong challenge to the committee’s decision and will be talking to the professional team and to our legal advisors with a view to appealing the decision in the new year. We will continue to fight until we succeed in securing the new home that Abacus’s children and their families deserve.”

The application had divided the community, creating one of the largest number of letters for and against a single planning application in Camden this year. The move had been opposed by existing primary schools in the area, who say the free school’s arrival would put the squeeze on their numbers. Residents, meanwhile, warned the school would lead to even more congestion on the school run in Hampstead and cause noise for neighbours living nearby. There were also claims that historic fittings would be lost.

Supporters, however, say the school would answer a long-term need for places for families who do not want “pay or pray” options – private education or religious schools. The meeting, the latest step in a saga that has run for six years, came as the council held talks with other schools about falling rolls and the possible closure of Carlton Primary School. Abacus Belsize insist it would not exacerbate this problem by moving in a one form of entry school.

The police station has stood empty since being shut down during Boris Johnson’s time as Mayor of London. The Department of Education bought the site but one set of plans – for a larger school and a rooftop playground – had already been rejected. The latest version was recommend for approval by Camden’s own planning department before being rejected by councillors in Thursday’s vote.

The council’s education chief Labour councillor Angela Mason opposed the move, telling the meeting: “I think it is outrageous that £17m of public money is to be spent on knocking about a listed site on a main road to provide a primary school with one form of entry, at a time when Camden schools have seen a 25 per cent drop in their real-terms income since 2011. I would question whether such a decision to use so much public money for one small school is a legally reasonable or proportionate response.”

Conservative councillors also spoke at the meeting in opposition.

Hampstead town councillor Stephen Stark said children would be taught in classrooms close to the old cells with no light, and that neighbours would be disturbed. “The applicant is simply relying on the timber fence with some vegetation to limit the noise. No tests,” he said. “We all know this is not going to work and these properties will be blighted. All of this shows that the building is not a fit or proper place to house and teach children in 21st century.”

Andrew Neale, co-chair of The Hampstead Committee for Respon­sible Development, said to the meeting: “Two independent heritage specialists have categorised the harm as substantial and you can see that from how the interiors are gutted and the courtroom complex denuded of its significance.”

Liberal Democrat councillors, representing Belsize ward, however, were in support. They said the school had pledged to be car free and that the building could not be left unused. Councillor Luisa Porritt said: “Essentially, we are talking about the sound of children playing Monday to Friday during term time. If this application were to be rejected, what other kind of organisation could eliminate noise impact in this way? “The building will be silent over long school holidays, in the evenings and at weekends, making this particular use of it far less intrusive for local residents than any possible alternatives. Finally, the old Hampstead police station has sat empty for years now.”

The Abacus school statement added: “It was particularly frustrating, after working with the many professional officers of the council and other agencies such as Historic England for the past two years, to have such a strong recommendation to permit our application, backed up by further evidence and defence at the meeting, rejected by councillors.”

Headteacher Vicki Briody said: “We have grown into a close-knit family over the years and that strength will help see us through.”

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