Parish council fails in fight over school redevelopment

London's Court of Appeal has rejected a bid by a Buckinghamshire parish council to overturn a district council's planning approval to allow a former school to be redeveloped into a 200-home development.

Chalfont St Peter Parish Council had hoped to keep the Holy Cross Convent school site in use as a school, and thwart plans to build the new houses and a care home there.

The parish council, which says the development would leave the village short of school provision and lead to unacceptable loss of playing fields, hoped to persuade the Court of Appeal to quash Chiltern District Council's grant of planning permission for the scheme.

It claimed in a July appeal that a better use of the site would be in a "land swap" with the Chalfont St Peter Church of England School, which would enable it to move from its current landlocked and overcrowded campus.

It alleged that the district council made a mistake in its decision and that High Court judge Richard Foster, who dismissed an earlier challenge by the parish council a year ago, "compounded" the error.

However, handing down its written judgment in the case today, the court ruled that the school swap idea was not viable, as no funding was in place to pay for the move. It dismissed the parish council’s appeal, and allowed the planning permission to stand.

At the July hearing, Ian Dove QC, representing the parish council, told the judges that the site has a depth of history reaching back into mediaeval times, with 17th century associations to the Quakers and Judge Jeffreys.

He said that a parent group liaising with the former head-teacher of the school had concluded that the school had a viable future, and carried out discussions with the site owners, the Holy Cross Sisters Incorporated. He added that it remains unclear to the head-teacher why the school was closed in 2006.
He argued that the Chalfont St Peter Church of England School is overcrowded with inadequate facilities including lack of provision for hot food or outdoor play.

As a result, a suggestion was put forward to move the CoE school to the Holy Cross site, but Dove said that the district council responded that education authority Buckinghamshire County Council was not in a position to address the proposal as it was undertaking a countywide review of school places and the Holy Cross Sisters would wish to receive full residential value for the site.

In the wake of that, the dstrict council identified the site for housing in its developing core strategy and ultimately granted planning permission in 2010.

In a double-pronged challenge, the parish council attacked both the December 2010 planning permission and the subsequent adoption of the core strategy in November 2011.

Dove argued that the High Court judge "erred in law" when he found that the council had considered all reasonable alternatives in granting permission.

But, upholding the High Court ruling and dismissing the appeal, the court found that the school swap was not a viable alternative.

Lord Justice Moore-Bick said that it was clear that, no matter the aspirations the parish council may have had for the CofE school, "sufficient funds were unlikely to be made available for it to move to the convent school site".

He continued: "The county council was unwilling to provide funds for the project and the diocese was not offering to make good any shortfall between the sale price of the school’s existing site and the purchase of the more extensive site required for the project.

"The trustees could not be forced to sell part of the convent school site at a price below its development value and it was therefore likely that the purchase of the larger site would give rise to a shortfall of significant proportions. There was no proposal for bridging that gap; the scheme was therefore not viable and did not need to be considered because it could not come to fruition."

The court also rejected claims that the grant of planning permission was based on a "mistake of fact" as to the extent of playing fields that would be lost as a result of the development, which was an issue of concern to national body Sport England.

Lord Justice Beatson said that it was for the council’s planning committee to determine the extent of the playing fields, and that it had reached a decision that was "clearly open to it".

The decision clears the way for the development – which would include a replacement playing field and retention of the convent’s chapel – to proceed.

Chalfont St Peter Parish Council v Chiltern District Council

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