Plans to convert the University of Greenwich’s Mansion site in Eltham into a “flagship” school for 1,150 boys were passed by Greenwich councillors last night, despite worries about parents’ cars bringing the local area to a standstill.
The historic mansion and adjoining buildings next to Avery Hill Park will be refurbished and turned into a school for the Harris Federation academy chain, with 1960s additions demolished and new facilities built alongside.
Funds from the sale of the site will be used by the university to refurbish the adjacent Winter Garden, which is due to be handed to Greenwich Council after years of neglect. Part of the planning agreement states that the mansion and Winter Garden – the second largest Victorian glasshouse after Kew Gardens – can be hired out together to raise funds for their upkeep, while there will be an open day each term for the public to visit the buildings.
Harris hopes to open the school – which will be opposite the existing Stationers’ Crown Woods Academy – for its first 180 pupils in 2022. The university is currently moving out of the mansion; the plans do not affect its nearby Southwood site.
However, there were doubts over whether the area can take two large secondary schools, where one already has a large number of pupils coming by road. Eltham MP Clive Efford described Crown Woods parents blocking the cycle lane on Bexley Road for hundreds of metres. “I fear we will get similar on the other side of the road with this school,” he said.
Sarah Merrill, the cabinet member for planning, echoed his words when she addressed councillors. Pledging that she would be pursuing the issue herself, she said: “My jaw dropped when I saw all the traffic parked up for several hundred metres.”
Local resident Mehmet Makhir said that the plan would be “an environmental disaster”, and spoke of parents at Crown Woods causing problems on the roads near the planned school.
“My son goes to Beths school [in Bexley] and he can’t get on a 132 bus,” he said. “If things are bad now they’ll be bad going forward.
“It is chaos, we’re adding fuel to the fire, and we’ll then be complaining about children having respiratory problems because the area is polluted.”
Transport for London had objected to the plans, claiming modelling had under-estimated the number of students using public transport. Council planners, however, said the figures were appropriate for an area with relatively poor public transport; an as-yet undecided sum will be handed to TfL over five years to improve local buses.
Local councillor and Conservative leader Nigel Fletcher – who dropped out of the planning committee to represent residents on the proposals – called for “pretty robust” conditions that would see Harris have to come back to the board with its traffic management plans. However, councillors decided that Harris should only submit its plans to council officers and the local ward councillors.
George McMillan, the executive principal of nearby Harris Greenwich, also in Eltham, who will take charge of the new school, said that the school’s timings would be staggered by 30 minutes with Crown Woods to reduce its impact.
“As part of our travel plan the majority of children will cycle and walk to school, particularly because they are boys. Fewer children will need to go out of borough – particularly to Beths Grammar, which is four miles away.” He pledged that children who got dropped off will be “well managed” and “that senior staff will be on hand” to enforce rules laid down with parents.
“It’ll be 2025/6 before we have all pupils on site, so there’ll be plenty of time to iron out any teething problems.”
McMillan said it would be “a flagship school for the Royal Borough of Greenwich and an asset for the whole community to enjoy”.
Mike Sear, of the school’s transport planners MLM, blamed traffic problems in the area on changes made to Bexley Road to make life easier for pedestrians and cyclists, which were “all to the detriment of vehicle capacity”.
“You’ve got to remember when this school opens in September 2022 it will only have 180 pupils. Crown Woods Academy, we’ve been told, has heavy car usage, as opposed to other secondary schools in Greenwich – it’s a large school with 1,600 pupils, and that tends to draw in pupils from further afield, and there’s a lot of school buses due to that as well. Our proposed school would have 30 per cent of the impact,” he said.
McMillan said: “We’ve not just dreamed up these children. They have to go somewhere. Everyone likes windfarms, but not on their patch. We’re a net exporter of children – why are our children going out of borough? Why are our children going to grammar schools in Bexley from that part of town, which is miles away? At Harris Greenwich we beat the grammar schools on progress. We want to build a school that means you don’t have to send your child to a grammar school if you’re so inclined.”
While the Save Avery Hill Campaign had challenged the development, convenor Terry Powley said campaigners had been impressed with the “open-mindedness and receptiveness” of the Harris team, and were now supporting the proposal.
Fletcher said while the school proposal “began as a very bad plan”, he would “give credit to Harris” for engaging with residents and dealing with their concerns, including removing a plan to build a new entrance from Bexley Road.
He added: “It is crucial that the Winter Garden is preserved and saved for the community, and that includes the mansion house, and ensuring that the heritage asset is viable for the future.”
Supporting an agreement that the mansion and Winter Garden could be hired out together, he said: “The Winter Garden has been left to deteriorate and that can’t be allowed to happen again.”
A wild area to the west of the site will be lost to create new sports pitches – resulting in the loss of a plant nursery which employs 20 people, and a BMX track which has been run by its users since the 1990s.
Addressing the meeting, Eltham MP Clive Efford said that while he commended the council and community groups for “trying to get the best” out of the proposal, he wanted to see the nursery kept until next spring. “We don’t want to be the people to force them out of employment,” he said. However, no commitment was made in the meeting.
Efford also called for the BMX track to be relocated as part of the plan. Merlyn Woodhouse of the Avery Hill Riders’ Club told the meeting that losing the track would contravene Greenwich’s planning policy – but no councillors took up his call.
After Charlton councillor Gary Dillon asked why pupils would need new sports pitches on the wild land when Avery Hill Park had sports pitches that were unused on during the week, McMillan said “we need our children within our railings to keep them safe”, adding that it would save time in the school day.
However, Dillon later questioned that remark, pointing out that for a previous planning application – Leigh Academy Blackheath in November 2018 – the school had been content to allow it to use playing fields off the site. “We were told it was okay for children to cross two main roads to use playing fields,” he said.
One councillor, Kidbrooke with Hornfair’s Norman Adams, abstained, saying he was unhappy about the design of the building and encroaching on protected Metropolitan Open Land.
However, his eight colleagues backed the scheme. Former council leader Denise Hyland said it would be good for parents looking for a boys’ school that lived a long way from Woolwich Polytechnic School: “It’s a parental right to choose a single-sex school; without having to travel all the way to Thamesmead. I do understand why local residents would be nervous about having two schools very close by but am reassured by the 30 minutes staggering of times.
“The last thing I would want to see is Avery Hill [mansion] mothballed with squatters and all the rest of it.”
Dillion said that while he was voting in favour, he still had “serious concerns about traffic management”. “I would expect Greenwich to speak to Bexley [council], to speak to both schools and TfL, speak to residents and come up with a robust traffic plan, and maybe reconfigure streets to deal with the issues that have come up tonight.”
A four-hour meeting also saw plans for new council housing on a garage site in Well Hall Road, Eltham, approved by three votes to two against, with one abstention; and unanimously to reject a development next to the Kings Arms pub in Hillreach, Woolwich.
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