Thu, 13 Sept 2018
IT’S taken four years of contested negotiations and divided a village - but now a critical step towards a new £8.2m primary school in Theale has been passed.
Theale Parish Council voted on Tuesday to relinquish its lease on land at the North Street playing fields, although it was a close decision.
There were cheers and claps as parish councillors voted six to five to release the lease. But the decision has not been welcomed by all.
Speaking to the NWN after Tuesday’s crunch meeting parish council chairwoman Becky Williams said: “It’s been a long process but it was a complex issue and it needed the attention it deserved.”
Mrs Williams said that the parish council would release a formal statement in due course.
Discussions over the future of the Ofsted-rated outstanding school have been running since 2014. Options to expand the school were quickly dismissed, leaving West Berkshire Council to search for a suitable location to build a replacement school.
Land at the North Street playing fields was chosen as the only viable site due to land availability and cost.
The parish council, and some villagers, raised concerns over the location, which it rents from the Englefield Estate, including children’s safety, highways safety and loss of open space.
West Berkshire Council has repeatedly threatened to pull the plug on the project, because of delays and "stalling tactics" from the parish council.
But on Tuesday the four-year wrangle was decided within 20 minutes.
Mrs Williams said at the meeting that parish councillors had discussed the issue numerous times over the years and now had to make a decision.
She said that it had been “a long running and complex issue” and that certain elements could not be discussed in the public domain; leading to criticism that parish councillors were being dishonest and non-transparent.
“At the end of the day it is the parish council sat here before you who will be responsible for making the final decision and what will be right for the whole village,” she said.
The vote was held in private, as more than two councillors asked for a written ballot, and members of the public were prevented from speaking.
The parish council will surrender its existing lease and take out new ones on land around the school for £1,850 a year.
West Berkshire Council’s member for education Lynne Doherty (Con, Northcroft) said she hoped the school would be open for September 2020.
She said: “I am delighted that Theale Parish Council has voted to release the land needed for a new school.
“Over the next few weeks we will continue working with Theale Parish Council and Englefield Estate to complete and sign the legal agreements and then begin work on the new school.
“It is fantastic that we will be able to realise our ambition of delivering a new school for the village and the prospect of it opening in just two years’ time is very exciting.”
The council had said it would invest in neighbouring schools, notably Calcot, if Theale’s new school did not get built.
When asked whether children in Theale would be able to attend the village school in the interim Mrs Doherty said that discussions needed to be held over pupil forecasts and demand.
West Berkshire Council will meet the Englefield Estate’s and Theale Parish Council’s legal costs. It will also make a £75,000 compensation payment to Theale Parish Council.
When asked about the payment Mrs Doherty said that “we were able to, in our negotiations with the estate, find additional money.
“It won’t come out of the public purse or capital budget for that school.”
Those opposed to building at North Street under the Save Our Village group said: “We are incredibly disappointed in the result of the vote 6-5 in favour of releasing the lease on North Street Playing Field.
“We are shocked that money has been favoured over safety and that they have given away essential green recreational space.
“This decision will not only put children at risk of injury when walking to school but it will also open the floodgates to further development and over development. Theale Village will become a town.
“We are proud of the campaign we have run highlighting all of the issues surrounding this project and uncovering many truths along the way.
“This is a sad day for all residents of Theale, young, old and everyone in between.”
Theale’s district councillor Alan Macro (Lib Dem) said: “I’m very pleased with the outcome for the children of Theale. It’s good news for everybody. It just seems such a shame that it has taken so long.
“None of us want to see the loss of green space but unfortunately there was no other suitable place for the school.”
An under 15’s football pitch to compensate for the loss of a pitch on the school site will be constructed by West Berkshire Council.
The district council will also contribute £6,500 towards repairing floodlights on the playing fields to the south side of Englefield Road.