Sue and I attended a meeting with council officers yesterday, and this is the update on the situation (further information will be available at the meeting with parents tonight):
Legal challenge: Judicial review proceedings have been issued against the Council in relation to the planning permission for Gordonbrock School granted on 21st December 2009. They were issued by an individual with the support of the Brockley Society on 18th March under reference CO/3771/2010. The basis of the claim is essentially that the planning decision is procedurally flawed. Following receipt of a pre-action protocol letter, which is part of the standard procedure in these cases, the Council instructed Leading Counsel, attended a consultation with him, and responded to the pre-action protocol letter. At all times the Council has acted in accordance with the advice of Leading Counsel. It was his advice that the Council could not resist the claim – in other words the Council has accepted that the planning application was procedurally flawed as it was claimed (even if legally correct), and notified the claimant accordingly. The claimant is pursuing the judicial review proceedings in spite of this.
Funding: As notified earlier, the funding for this scheme is less at risk than initially feared as it does not consist of government grants that have to be spent by a certain time. However, there are still financial risks associated with the delay. These are primarily due to the fact that we are close to elections both at national and local level. As the project is far advanced, in spite of the current situation, it seems unlikely that funding would be withdrawn after the general election. However, theoretically this could happen if an incoming government issued a moratorium on spending whilst all funding commitments of the previous government were reviewed. Likewise, at the local level, as financial decisions are made by the mayor, the decision to fund the Gordonbrock scheme could theoretically be reviewed by the incoming administration after the local election on 6th May. In responding to parents Mayor Steve Bullock has stated very clearly that he is fully supporting the part rebuild/part refurbishment of the school as planned. As ward councillors, we are writing to the mayoral candidates to ask for a formal commitment for funding for Gordonbrock school from them should they be elected. All responses will be posted on the blog in due course.
It is worth noting that these risks are less significant than a direct government grant funding scheme would have been but nevertheless they exist and need to be considered in assessing the situation and the impact of the delay on the Gordonbrock project and the overall funding required for it. It is clear now that there will be additional costs in implementing improvements at Gordonbrock and that the council will have to cover them.
Next steps: The Council is committed to the Gordonbrock project as planned and officers continue to work on it in light of the new circumstances and new timeframe. As stated above, the legal challenge is still being pursued. This means that the whole planning process has to be completed again and the decant would be more likely to take place in December/January. If the legal challenge were to be withdrawn (and we are not in a position to assess how likely or unlikely this may be), the decant could probably happen in time for September because different requirements would apply and a shorter timetable would be possible.
The Council's appraisal of Brockley Society's feasibility study will be discussed with Broc Soc representatives at a meeting on Friday in the first instance.
Access to documents: Some parents have written to Council officers requesting access to documents related to the legal challenge. Please note that the Council is not prepared to disclose the documents as they are currently the subject of legal professional privilege as litigation is now in progress (Section 42 FOIA 2000). The Council is also acting in accordance with Leading Counsel's advice with a view to securing that the flaws in the Council decision making are resolved as soon as possible.
The bigger picture: Understandably this may be of no importance to Gordonbrock parents, but the delay also adds pressure on the Council's provision of primary places as Gordonbrock won't be able to go up to 3 form entry from September as would have been possible with the planned decant to Greenvale. This shortage is substantial in the whole borough (and not related locally to the reduction at Lewisham Bridge School) and the Council has to take this into account when planning future provision of primary school places.
As the different issues above show, it is not possible to see just one concern in isolation when assessing the situation and the merits of different proposals for Gordonbrock School. It is rather a jigsaw of different factors that need to be considered together, and ultimately this means in most cases that the outcome is a compromise. The main objective in this case is to improve the learning environment for pupils at Gordonbrock – with the added complications of previous delays, limited funding available, limited space, inevitable disruption for pupils, staff and parents, increased school place requirements and beautiful old but no longer entirely fit for purpose buildings. Noone has probably ever claimed that the plans for Gordonbrock that were passed in December were anything other than a compromise, but we feel they were acceptable in the existing circumstances that should finally enable much needed and long overdue improvements to be made for the benefits of current and future generations of pupils. It is laudable to strive for the perfect solution – it is even more ambitious to aim for the best that is practically possible. We don't think solely pursuing the preservation of the buildings regardless of the consequences, even if this ultimately might mean no changes were made at all, is a responsible position to take.