On the 18th February 2016 the Secretary of State for (or should that be 'against') Communities and Local Government, Mr Greg Clark, published his decision to overrule local parish councils, Torridge District Council, local residents, the voices of hundreds of concerned people up and down the country who said "no, we do not want a major development on AONB in North Devon", the AONB Partnership, and even overruled his own, very experienced Public Inquiry inspector who advised Mr Clark to dismiss the appeal, and gave R39 the go ahead to build on Steart Farm.
On April 1st, true to the tradition of it being April Fool's Day, and following an extraordinary council meeting, Torridge District Council made the foolish decision to NOT go ahead with a Judicial Review that would challenge the Secretary of State's decision to allow Route 39 to build their permanent school at Steart Farm. To a background of continuous chanting from the Route 39 supporters and away from public scrutiny, the council voted 15 to 11 against the motion due to the financial implications.
The chanting started well before the start of the meeting. With children, parents, grandparents and friends clustered around the Town Hall entrance shouting their mantra, they presented an intimidating presence for anyone trying to quietly enter the building.
So what will be learnt from the events of the evening?
Firstly, the government have evidence that TDC are not prepared to stand up to their Westminster bosses, so North Devon will now be looked on as an easy place to locate any of the government's controversial projects.
Secondly, the pupils of Route 39 have learnt from their parents that raucous, intimidating behaviour is the way to get what they want (are these the sort of lessons prospective parents would want their children to learn?).
And lastly, the public have learnt that the new custodians of Steart Farm are not really concerned about the AONB. As mentioned at the public inquiry, by pursuing their plan to build a major development at Steart Farm Route 39 have proven that self-interest overrules any claimed desire to protect the AONB.
Route 39 have 'respect' as part of their tagline. Will they, one wonders, respect the AONB and their new neighbours? Their behaviour the other evening doesn't bode well
Those opposing the school being built at Steart Farm - local residents, Parish Councils, District Council, MP, AONB supporters nationwide, AONB Partnership, Campaign to Protect Rural England, National Trust, Woodland Trust, the Secretary of State's own inspector... the list goes on and on - won all the battles but finally lost the war to political ideology.
So now they have their site. But will they succeed as a school? A good school will thrive anywhere just as a poor school will fail anywhere, and Route 39 have yet to prove which category they fall into.
To the highest
All your efforts
Turn the lights off,
There's no more to
Count for nothing.
- another nail
in the coffin?
The primary concerns for parents choosing a school for their offspring will surely be a good education, taught by competent teachers, who will ensure their child will reach the highest of standards.
However, despite Route 39 operating at less than a third of its predicted intake (and the 'below average attendance' brings the daily figures down even further), it is unable to offer a 'good' level of education, let alone the promised 'outstanding'.
Mr Bence urges current and prospective parents to read the report in full in the hope that the plus side of the document - basically management, trustee's support and conduct being acceptable - will leave a favourable impression. But are these the qualities that will reassure worried parents?
At the Public Inquiry Mrs Hayes admitted that 'outstanding' education was not dependent on a school building, but on the quality of the deliverance, so the temporary siting of the school is not the reason for the poor performance.
Dress it up any way Mr Bence likes, he cannot get away from the fact that Route 39 is a school that 'requires improvement', and is failing its pupils and parents on a fundamental level.
This failure is reflected in the above average proportion of students who are moving in and out of the school at times other than at the start of the academic year, as noted by the Ofsted inspector.
The next Ofsted inspection is to be held in two years time, assuming, of course, there will be a Route 39 Academy to inspect..
Planning Inquiry Diary
The 9.30am start began with R39's barrister Mr (affectionately known as Rottweiler) Reed trying to get his teeth into TDC's planning expert, Mr Wood. But Mr Wood refused to be shaken to death and stood his ground, calmly contradicting the increasingly frustrated Mr Reed whenever the need arose. Milky Way topics ranged from site access, lighting, sustainability and site ownership. Questions then turned to Steart Farm starting with a lengthy discussion about the interpretation of NPPF clause 116 with the Inspector joining in as well (this clause is to do with permitting development in the AONB under 'exceptional circumstances' and 'in the national interest'). Mr Reed also tackled the local plan, followed by heritage issues. Mr Jackson invited FOR39er's to question Mr Wood, but no one took up the offer. Mr Wadsley then clarified a few points, as did the Inspector.
After lunch it was the turn of R39's planning man, Mr Kevin Hunt from Willmott Dixon, to take centre stage. With the help of Mr (now a pussy cat) Reed he outlined the salient points in the appellant's application. Mr Wadsley's much gentler style of cross-examination nevertheless got Mr Hunt admitting to some uncomfortable contradictions. Initially concentrating on Steart Farm questions covered building design, listed buildings, AONB test, and alternative site cost comparisons. Mr Wadsley queried the wisdom of enrolling pupils into the school before R39 even had a temporary site confirmed. Heritage issues were also covered, before the Inspector asked for questions from the opposers. Jumping at the opportunity to quiz R39, questions were asked about construction traffic, gates and footpath access, and the flawed consultation process. Mr Reed clarified some issues, as did Mr Jackson. At this point we were somewhat thrown by Mr Jackson appearing to suggest some improvements to the proposed building design, heating arrangements, bat mitigation and lighting problems.
After a short break Mr Jackson convened a 'round table' discussion which included everyone present. Papers were handed out which listed the draft conditions R39 have to adhere to when developing at Steart Farm, which are numerous and time consuming. No construction of any kind can begin until these are completed. Anyone could question anything that was unclear. Again, it seemed that the Inspector was minded to recommend approval, but we later learnt that, in cases that are "called in" by the Secretary of State, Planning Inspectors must cover every conceivable mitigation to be sure that they have been considered. Should they then recommend refusal, the Secretary of State cannot say that if this improvement or that improvement was made he would permit the application. Mr Jackson declared he had not yet decided what his recommendation would be, and that he had a deadline of five weeks in which to consider all the evidence and write his report. He had no idea how long the Secretary of State would take to make the final decision as there was a large backlog of appeals due to the election.
Tomorrow is to start at 9.30am again with summing-up statements by, first Mr Wadsley, then Mr Reed, followed by the site visits, part of which may be filmed by the BBC.
After a day of mood swings from hope to despair we staggered home, stiff from sitting so long on uncomfortable chairs.
Revived after a three day break we gathered for day five of the inquiry at 10am. Both sides were so well supported that chairs were being brought in from every corner (bizarrely, the No group always sit behind the R39 team and the FOR39 - emblazoned on their T shirts - sit behind the TDC team). Mr Jackson spoke for a few minutes about procedural matters.
We were expecting the cross-examination of Headteacher, Joss Hayes, but the Inspector instead invited third party statements. First to speak was Mr Stephen Pitcher, Chair of the North Devon AONB Partnership. He gave an elegant speech expressing the partnership's strong objection to the application and was dismissive of R39's intention to manage AONB footpaths as inappropriate, adding that the partnership anyway occasionally worked with local schools from outside the AONB. He was then cross-examined by Mr Reed.
Leader of TDC, Councillor Jane Whittaker, speaking solely from a personal point of view, gave a brief statement about highway concerns, the adverse impact on Bucks Mills and added that all the voting public she had met on her rounds had been against the development at Steart Farm.
At last, the cross-examination of a visibly tense Mrs Hayes. Mr Wadsley pestered the Headteacher on their claim they have a 'need' to be in the AONB when, in fact, all the curriculum could be taught successfully outside the AONB (at the Milky Way, in fact). Mrs Hayes said the pupils had an inalienable right to be in the AONB, and that from the Steart Farm site they could wander into the adjoining woods for lessons at any time without having to use coaches at £66 a visit. Other questions Mr Wadsley posed were on the Duchy College (ironically, not sited in an AONB) partnership, R39's lack of sports facilities and R39's objection to the Milky Way site. Questions from the public followed and included R39's relationship with the AONB Partnership to date and possibly using Hobby Lodge woods. One suggestion that the R39 trustees had chosen Steart Farm and then tailored their vision to fit the choice of site got as near to an applause as permitted. She was also asked which was preferable: Milky Way or closure, if the Secretary of State should refuse the application, she said she would choose the Milky Way. Concern that the lack of fencing to the wooded side of the school site would allow teenagers to sneak into the woods during break was not allayed by Mrs Hayes saying 'they just wouldn't'. Creeping urbanisation as a result of the school was another worry.
Mr McKetney returned to the chair vacated by Mrs Hayes to refute a new letter from DCC highways, Mr Collins, which Mr Reed read out. He was then cross-examined by Mr Wadsley. A question from the floor about whether he personally considered, in general terms, that siting secondary schools on 60 mph roads was a good idea, he said yes. This was followed by numerous questions from The Inspector who wanted clarity on concerns about entering and exiting Steart Farm, the dangerous visibility lines from the proposed lay-bys and the inevitable dropping off of pupils on the old road by stressed parents in a hurry. He painted some likely scenarios and their potentially tragic outcomes.
Last to sit in 'the chair' today was Mr Mark Wood, planning expert for TDC. He read out his statement covering listed buildings, Milky Way costs - demonstrably cheaper to buy and ecologically far less harmful than Steart Farm - and other planning matters. Mr Reed got half way through his cross-examination before suggesting he stopped there for the day as it had turned 5pm. Mr Jackson agreed and it was decided Mr Reed would continue his questioning at 9.30am tomorrow morning.
Humorous remarks thrown in from time to time by Mr Jackson lightened the day and received polite guffaws.
Last full day tomorrow before the official site visit on Thursday.
If this had been a storyline in The Archers one might have thought it was a bit far-fetched. First the Inspector gets caught up in the aftermath of a serious A39 accident close to Steart Farm, then the TDC barrister was late for the 10 am start due to another serious accident on the A39, and now one parish councillor accuses other parish councillors of not correctly following parish procedures.
The day started with comments from the public, the first being an emotional, even tearful, statement from a Route 39 father/governor/parish councillor. Private, round table discussions will be convened to discuss his accusations.
Several opposers made statements on a variety of issues including sewerage in the streams, education, criticisms of some of R39 arguments, deforestation in the valley, loss of tranquility, and pollution of run-off water. Although some of the subjects were similar to yesterday, the contents were from different perspectives and provided additional food for thought.
R39 Headteacher, Mrs Joss Hayes, was then called to give her statement. She talked about the curriculum, and how it was essential to be in the AONB to deliver it. Examples of AONB subjects might include climate change studies, footpath management, creative writing, soil sampling. Yet more last minute documents had been handed in that morning from the appellants' team, this time clarifying Mr Bence's sketchy answers from yesterday (Mr Jackson pleaded 'no more last minute documents, please'). She talked about the partnership with Duchy College (which successfully teaches land-based studies, but does so outside an AONB). She reiterated that the school was close to closure due to the uncertainty of the permanent site. When later asked by a member of the public if R39 was partly responsible for the predicament they were in by not having a plan B, she said, rather uncertainly, that she didn't think they were. She also gave her reasons as to why the Milky Way site was unsuitable, even though it had been for the temporary school.
Mr Wadsley was invited to cross-examine Mrs Hayes but asked if it could be delayed until Tuesday to give him time to study the new documents.
Mrs Hayes was then subjected to a barrage of questions from the public trying to ascertain how R39 was to safely implement eg footpath management, and as to why it was necessary to be IN the AONB. She was reminded of R39's claim that the school was 'born out of the passion of the local community' and was asked if this was still the case. 'Clearly not,' she responded, 'However, 'local' means Bude to Bideford'. Across all subjects her answers were less than convincing. She will return to the witness chair on Tuesday.
Next up was Mr McKetney, R39's highways expert, to give his statement, most of which refuted a letter from DCC highways covering road issues at the Milky Way. He also explained why all the alternative sites, even one just opposite Steart Farm, were far too dangerous in terms of access to and egress from the A39, but that access to Steart Farm from the same 60 mph road is safe.
Mr Jackson said he would re-schedule his site visits from Wednesday to Thursday.
The day closed at about 3.30 and will resume on Tuesday at 10am with questions for Mr McKetney, and Mrs Hayes' cross-examination. Time for a breather.
Day three of the PI began at 9.30am with a cross-examination of Ms Mitchell by TDC barrister, Mr Wadsley. As she had only joined the appellant's team in February she was unable to answer many of the questions Mr Wadsley fired at her.
Public statements followed coming from many parties including a pupil from R39, a mother and a couple of fathers. Opposers focused on land slippage, the flawed consultation process, run off, lighting, highway concerns, and educational issues. (Highway concerns turned out to be especially pertinent as the Inspector had become caught up in the accident at Horns Cross on Wednesday evening, so had first-hand experience of the dangers of the A39)
The next witness for R39 was Mr Rawlings, their heritage expert. He was questionned by Mr Wadsley on his view of the significance of the Steart Farmhouse and curtilege buildings within the social, cultural, environmental and historic contexts (it seems the horse engine is one of very few in the country even though it is derelict).
The Inspector commented that the scale of the school building was disproportionate to the farmhouse, and by the very nature of the building it would no longer look like a farmstead.
Mr Bence, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, then took his turn in the witness chair. He gave the already well-known arguments about parental choice and how it was essential to site the school within the AONB in order to deliver a land-based curriculum. When questioned by a member of the public about the school having to be adjacent to a beach - i.e. Bucks Mills beach - and asked if he realised the beach was dangerous due to pollution he said he had no evidence of this (despite the large warning notices on display which the Inspector confirmed were there). When pressed further about the responsibilities of taking pupils there and his 'duty of care' he eventually admitted that perhaps Bucks Mills Beach was unsuitable as a classroom. He was also asked why R39 didn't appeal against the refusal for the Milky Way as a temporary site. Apparently, 'that was an EFA (Educational Funding Agency) decision'.
Mr Jackson asked Mr Bence to clarify as to what exactly the pupils would be doing during AONB lessons. His answers were somewhat wooly and vague, and we learnt very little.
Day three of the inquiry ended at 5.45 and will resume in the morning at 10 am. Hard to believe we are already half way through the timetable!
The day started with Mr Leaver being re-examined by Mr Wadsley to clarify any
points that may have been misunderstood.
The next witness to be called by TDC was Mrs Nichola Burley who is a Heritage Conservation expert. Mrs Burley gave a detailed explanation of the historical importance of the curtilege listed buildings in relation to the farmhouse. Even though they are in various states of disrepair, together they tell the story of the farm's development and use, and taken as a whole are of great significance.
Just as Mr Leaver was subjected to a grilling by Mr Reed yesterday, so was Mrs Burley today, though not for so long. Mr Wadsley then asked a few questions for clarification.
The next witness to take the 'hot seat' was Mr Powell, previously a head teacher and secondary school inspector, and currently advisor to R39 on educational development. Aided by Mr Reed he presented his statement saying that the school needs to be in AONB to deliver their vision of a rural education. He praised the school for performing as well as it does in temporary accommodation. However, when asked by a member of the public if it was imperative that they were in AONB in order to deliver an overall high standard of teaching and school management the answer was no.
Mr Wadsley then cross-examined Mr Powell, before Mr Reed asked a couple of questions to clarified a few points.
The last witness to be called today was Ms Mitchell, Architect and Landscape expert, on behalf of R39. She again described the Steart Farm layout and features. Due to the current useage of the farm, the removal of field definitions and the terracing of the site, she does not consider Steart Farm to be any longer truly 'representative' of AONB. She then gave the reasons the alternative sites were considered unsuitable by the appellants. It is interesting that, according to R39, the proposed school building somehow miraculously 'disappears' if sited at Steart Farm but sticks out like a sore thumb if placed anywhere else!
The day's proceedings closed on time, but will begin 1/2 an hour earlier in the morning. Tomorrow, members of the public will be given the opportunity to speak.
The first day of the Public Inquiry was chaired by Inspector, Paul Jackson, at Northam Town Hall. Despite the cramped venue, insufficient parking and problems with the PA system the Inquiry started on time. Both sides were fairly evenly supported by the public.
The Appellant is R39/Willmott Dixon who are appealing against the refusal of planning permission for the 5950sq m school, additional car parking, and appropriate alterations to the A39 entrance at Steart Farm, which is sited within the AONB and has Grade II listed buildings. Matthew Reed is their barrister.
The Rule 6 Party, led by Woolsery PC chairman, Robin Edmonds, is a joint team of four Parish Councils - Woolsery, Parkham, Abbotsham and Alwington - who are supporting TDC.
Counsel for Torridge District Council is Peter Wadsley
The day started with Mr Jackson outlining the format and proposed timetable for the Inquiry and laying down the ground rules. He then invited the barristers for R39 and TDC to make their opening statements.
Mr Reed spoke first for R39, summarising their planning application and reasons for choosing Steart Farm. They are going to call 7 witnesses.
Mr Wadsley spoke next for TDC. He said the council have withdrawn their objections to highways and sustainability and majored on the AONB status of Steart Farm, the listed buildings and possible alternative sites. He said they supported the school per se, but not at Steart Farm. They will be calling 3 witnesses.
Geoffrey Cox MP made a written representation (not seen by the public).
The first witness to be called was Mr Leaver, Landscape Architect, on behalf of TDC. Together with Mr Wadsley he presented a statement about the importance of AONB status and how the design of the proposed school would be totally out of keeping with the character of the area. He went on to describe the outline proposals for alternative sites - Milky Way, Merry Harriers, Swanton Farm and Seckington Farm - which TDC feel would be more appropriate than Steart Farm.
During the afternoon session Mr Leaver was subjected to a gruelling cross-examination by Mr Reed.
The first day overran by 3/4 of an hour, finishing at 5.45.
As spectators we went home feeling drained, so the participants must have been exhaused. And it's only day one!
Do not let
Take a walk in Bucks Woods
Aged oak leaves
Over stones on
Down to the sea
Here there is quiet
Here there is grace