Storm at school gates

LEEDS Grammar School resembles a building site. Workmen in hard hats scurry round the huge complex as work to accommodate the hundreds of new arrivals from Leeds Girls' High School continues apace.

The merger of the two schools in September 2008 will increase pupil numbers at the Alwoodley Gates campus from 1,382 to 2,065.

Talk is of making the newly-created Grammar School at Leeds, where parents pay between 5,000 and 8,000 pounds a year in fees, one of the finest schools in the country.

But it is the dread of traffic jams snaking from the school gates that is exercising the minds of residents living near the site off the A61 Harrogate Road.

The issue, which has rumbled on all summer, centres on one controversial condition that was attached when permission for the merger was granted.

To address the congestion problem, the school agreed to spend 3 million on work both outside the school and within its grounds.

But then the Leeds East plans panel ordered the school to create a second entrance 70 metres north of the roundabout outside the school gates – and this second entrance has caused a huge row.

The school's trustees insist the entrance – which could cost an estimated 1.5 million – is unnecessary and have now appealed against the condition on the grounds that it is unlawful.

The stance has left the the school open to criticism from local residents.

Ron Farrar, chairman of Harewood Parish Council, believes the school must stick to the conditions as laid down. "The fact is that there is already a problem with the school the size it is and we can't see that it will be solved by improving the flow in and out of the school."

Dr Mark Bailey, headteacher of Leeds Grammar School, meanwhile, seems a little nonplussed by all the furore. He believes the school has had something of a bad press.

"After two years of working on this merger project as an educationalist I've had my fill of legal advice," he says good-naturedly. "I'm not a planning lawyer, I'm not a planning expert."

What he does know is that the school is happy to build a second entrance – but only if the raft of measures already being implemented fail to address any congestion problems that arise.

These measures include enlarging existing drop-off zones and creating an underpass for pupils heading into the building so they do not hold up traffic by crossing internal roads.

A junction outside the school has been remodelled to increase its capacity and the school must hit strict targets in terms of pupils walking, cycling or catching the bus.

"Leeds City Council's experts and the travel consultants that we employed are agreed that the measures going ahead will be sufficient and the new entrance should only be kept in reserve," says Dr Bailey.

"If we have to build it we will build it, that's not an issue, but 1.5 million is a lot of money and the trustees have to prove they are not spending it unreasonably or unlawfully.

"There is a sense that this is what the community wants – although the technical arguments don't support that – but the trustees are in receipt of legal advice that tells them that they're about to enter into something that is unlawful.

"That is why we submitted the Section 73 planning application which is an application to vary a single condition.

"It's only this single condition. All the other roadworks we think are absolutely necessary, we agree and all the experts agree.

"We are not operating outside the planning laws. We are following our perfectly legal entitlement."

To make matters worse for the grammar school, it also faces a battle on a second front.

This time it revolves around the future of the girls' school site between Hyde Park and Headingley.

The school's trustees have been criticised by local residents' action groups which feel the planning brief they put together did not give sufficient consideration to the surrounding community. Conse-quently, the planning brief has now been scrapped by council bosses.


"When we saw the results of the consultation process it was clear what had to happen," said Coun Andrew Carter, executive member for development. "We were deeply impressed with, not only the number, but the intelligence and depth of the objections to the brief as it stands."

However, the school is puzzled by the reaction, given that the planning brief was drawn up in direct consultation with the council.

It believes it represented a fair deal for the school's neighbours.

"We worked with Leeds City Council's planning officers for over a year at their request because they thought that was the best way to deal with it," says Dr Bailey.

"I think that shows we are keen to get it right for the city to listen to community concerns."

The proposals included handing a community park to the people of Leeds free of charge.

The trustees had also secured a buyer for the sports hall and swimming pool who had agreed to keep it open to the public.

"Nobody else was prepared to take on the sports hall, the city council didn't think it was right for them, and nobody else was prepared to take on a single playing field down there either," says Dr Bailey.

"I think it was a very generous package. It went beyond what we were required to do and to give, it had the support of the planning department who had looked at it for a long time, and we had consulted with the local community.

"I think we do have a moral obligation as a charity within the local community, to listen, to talk, to try and work with the council on a scheme that could help to regenerate part of Headingley.

"By offering a substantial package and working with Leeds City Council I think that absolves us of the moral responsibil-ity. We tried as best we can."

No planning application has yet been made regarding the site, but there is a feeling that the proposals in the planning brief constitute the school's best offer.

There has been further outcry over reports that the Elinor Lupton Centre on Headingley Lane, formerly used for music and drama, has been targeted by pub chain Wetherspoons.

Dr Bailey says bids have been received and are currently being considered by the trustees. "No deal has been done and therefore it would be inappropriate to discuss any further details." A decision should be known in three to four weeks.

Dr Bailey says the legal responsibility of the Morley House Trust, which is acting on behalf of the school's trustees, is to fulfil its charitable objectives in terms of serving the education of children at the school.

"It has an obligation to achieve best value if it is disposing of property. We need to sell that to fund some of the development up here, providing superb facilities. We want to be one of the best schools in the country, as befits Leeds' growing status."

Whichever path Leeds Grammar School takes, the road ahead looks certain to stir up controversy.

For the moment at least, its growing pains look set to continue.

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