Whoa. I honestly didn’t expect some of the feedback I got on my previous post regarding siting The Heights Primary at Mapledurham Playing Fields (MPF). There was a lot to take in very quickly. But I’d like to tackle a few of the criticisms that have been made of that post, and also point out a few things that seem glaringly obvious but which seem to be being ignored by those seeking to protect MPF.
Firstly, not that it’s any of your business, but no, I do not have a child at The Heights Primary. I will say though that even if I did have a child at the school, free speech is still protected in the UK and it’s certainly not fair to those who do have kids at The Heights Primary to bandy about that fact as if there is a conspiracy or hidden agenda against those who do not want a school built on MPF. Wanting the best possible education for your children is a perfectly rational bias.
Secondly, why now? Why have I waited until now to comment on this? The answer is that I’ve not actually waited until now to comment on this. The difficulty of securing school places for Mapledurham kids has been a hot topic of conversation for years, yes, since even before The Hill Primary thread was created on Reading Forum. I’ve discussed it locally with friends and family a lot over that time.
It is fair to ask why I’ve taken my concerns ‘public’ so to speak. Well, the recent consultation delivered a crystal clear result, but since then all local stakeholders seem to be sat back and waiting for EFA to make a decision.
Why must we wait for the EFA to make a decision in Whitehall somewhere divorced from this community? There is no guarantee that EFA will choose MPF as a site, even though that is what has been mandated by the consultation. I find that outrageous. And so should every other stakeholder in this issue regardless of where they want the site to be. But not every stakeholder has the authority of being the Council Leader, or the local MP, or the local Councillor, or the lead Councillor for Education in Reading.
Our elected representatives, more than any others at this stage in the game, have the power and connections to at least lobby privately to make sure the decision goes the way the community have mandated. On top of that, if they worked together in a concerted effort, I can’t see how the EFA can deny the community its wishes. I see no evidence of that happening.
Thirdly, I do actually care about protecting our green spaces for generations to come. But this is not an either/or choice. It is possible to apportion some small part of the over 24 acres of MPF to build a new school, and still keep the vast majority of the land within the charitable trust. The school has to go somewhere. Siting it at MPF is simply making the best of a bad situation.
Fourthly, I reject the idea that I need to be a legal expert to comment, and that considered disagreement with others means I’ve been misinformed.
I do know that the governing document of the MPF charity can be amended, and has been in the past. I do know that charities can and do sell and lease land all the time. It’s not really rocket science. The fact that EFA put MPF on their own list of possible sites indicates that they believe there are no legal obstacles to building a school on MPF that cannot be overcome.
I have seen comments to the effect that Reading Borough Council has failed in its duty as Trustees of MPF and that this may have some bearing on the issue. That may be so, clearly RBC itself faces a serious conflict of interest here, and that could be another reason why the Labour-led administration has hidden its head in the sand for so long over this issue. It is not an easy problem to face up to. As Trustee of MPF, RBC is duty bound to protect the fields. But it is also duty bound to support the educational needs of the town.
If the worst comes to the worst, perhaps RBC could serve itself as Trustee of MPF with a Compulsory Purchase Order for that part of MPF which the EFA may (or may not!) decide is appropriate for a school. Compulsory purchase of land held by a charity for the purpose of building a school is not without precedent. Aberdeenshire Council wanted to build a primary school on land owned by the British Heart Foundation. The Compulsory Purchase Order proceedings started in September 2014 and by March 2015 the order was served.
Compared to the glacial speed at which this whole process has been going, that kind of timescale is positively light speed.