richard garner
STOKES POGES, 19 JUNE: A Buckinghamshire village is threatening legal action over plans to set up a Sikh secondary school in its midst. Residents of Stoke Poges have warned they will seek a judicial review of the proposal after the Department for Education (DfE) bought an office block in the village for the school for a reputed £4.5m.
If the legal action went ahead, it would be a test case of new government powers allowing free schools to set up in premises such as offices or even former pubs without planning permission.
Most of the pupils for the school, planned by the Slough Sikh Education Trust, would be bussed into the village of 5,000 people every day after being collected from a primary school in neighbouring Slough. The school is scheduled to open in September and could eventually cater for 845 pupils.
Villagers say they have canvassed opinion among parents and only one couple said they would consider sending their child to it — but the child then obtained a place at a local grammar school.
Under sweeping powers introduced this year, the government can commandeer land to accommodate new free schools for 12 months without planning permission. The measure was deemed necessary because many such schools, given the green light by Education Secretary Michael Gove, had to put off their opening dates because they could not find suitable premises.
However, the legislation was invoked in Stoke Poges only after it became clear that the planning authority, South Bucks District Council, was about to refuse planning consent for the school. One of the main grounds was the traffic congestion the proposal would cause in the village. A report to the planning committee said the site was ‘in an unsustainable location poorly served by public transport’.
Villagers now say they have been told that the school may make Pioneer House — the office block purchased for the trust by the DfE for a reported £4.5m — a permanent home or use it for the first year of other free schools planned for Slough, which says it has no room for new school buildings.
County councillor Trevor Egleton told The Independent: "We don’t want a secondary school here. We don’t need a secondary school here. To put a large secondary school with over 1,000 people in it in one of our villages would be an environmental disaster."
Mr Ralph Bagge, chairman of the parish council, added: "It will be quite harmful to the quality of life here. People who have bought a house here want somewhere where it is quiet and peaceful. They know each other. They will socialise together. They don’t want a large secondary school here, no matter what it is called or who is at it."
Villagers say they have been branded as "white middle-class NIMBYs or even racists" as a result of their opposition. However, they add that they will lose the free transport provided by Buckinghamshire County Council to their nearest secondary school because there will be one in the village.
Stoke Poges is now festooned with stickers proclaiming "Say no to new secondary school" and opponents plan to present a 4,000-name petition to Mr David Cameron at Downing Street on June 27.
The story has echoes of the proposal by a primary academy in Brixton, south London, to set up a boarding school for mainly black teenagers in the Sussex countryside, where villagers are also opposing the scheme on environmental grounds.