Chorley school's inflatable sports dome plan rejected

Councillors in Chorley have burst the idea of installing a giant inflatable sports dome in the grounds of a secondary school in the borough.

Thursday, 15th July 2021, 3:55 pm
Updated Thursday, 15th July 2021, 3:56 pm

Members of Chorley Council’s planning committee rejected a bid to erect the 11 metre-high structure on an existing tennis court at Parklands High School on Southport Road.

A majority voted against a recommendation by the authority’s own planning officers to approve the scheme - and warned that it would have an adverse effect on neighbouring residents and nearby woodland.

However, the man behind the project has blasted the decision, claiming it was based on “politics rather than planning legislation”.

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Image of how the dome could have looked (courtesy of Rhenden Pillay)

Rhenden Pillay says he will be appealing against the committee’s conclusion, suggesting that councillors had failed to appreciate that the proposed site is five metres below the surrounding ground level.

Mr. Pillay is the founder of Athletico Buckshaw Futsal Club and proposed that the airdome would play host to that sport - which is similar to five-a-side football - along with tennis, cricket and netball. His plan was for the school to have use of the facility during the day, with it being made available to the club and wider community between 5pm and 10pm on weekdays and all day until 6pm at the weekend.

He told the planning committee meeting that the futsal club had faced a “continuous struggle” to find suitable a location since it was formed three years ago - and currently has 100 children on the waiting list to join the 150 existing members.

“I see the disappointment week after week in the winter months when matches are called off - 4G pitches [are] frozen, grass pitches flooded - and not to mention young children not enjoying the playing conditions, coming off freezing and wet,” said Mr. Pillay.

Parklands High headteacher Steve Mitchell said that the facility would bring “physical, social and emotional health benefits” and offer the community “something it’s currently missing”.

However, Georgina White - a resident speaking on behalf of over 50 others living nearby, along with the Friends of Astley Park - told committee members that many of her neighbours were “heartbroken” by the proposal for the 57 metre-long, 34 metre-wide structure.

“This dome is more than twice the height of a double decker bus and significantly higher than the nearest house - [it] is white and for five months each year, there will be no leaves on the trees to obscure it any way,” Ms. White said.

“Both the planning process and lack of consultation have been very troubling - only four residents were consulted for what is effectively a commercial leisure centre in a very sensitive location."

Ms. White added that events staged at the school led to “chaotic, dangerous parking scenes” which would encourage parking on the surrounding estate roads.

She also described as “guesswork” a noise assessment which had concluded that neither the playing of sport within the dome nor the ventilation units associated with the facility would

have an adverse impact on surrounding residents - and warned that they would be left “living with the consequences”.

The council’s planning officers concluded that while the dome would be visible from Southport Road, it would not harm "the local environment or visual character of the landscape” - stating that a number of the school buildings would appear higher than the facility because of the difference in levels across the site.

While they acknowledged that the necessary works would encroach into a 15 metre buffer zone to the adjoining Great Wood area within Astley Park, it was considered that tree protection measures would prevent any damage to the ancient woodland area.

However, committee members were split over the issue - and while most expressed support for the concept, several had concerns over the proposed location.

Cllr Alan Whittaker took issue with the conclusion of the council’s planning offices that the structure would not be “overly obtrusive”.

“I’m not sure anybody in this room would want a 40ft building eight metres from their back garden,” he said.

Cllr Aaron Beaver told fellow members who were having difficulty visualising the facility to “imagine something that’s massive, then imagine something bigger”.

He also asked: “When you’re playing football at the end nearest to the houses and...the ref blows its whistle, do we think that’s not going to be heard by the [people in the] houses? When they score a goal and the team goes mad, do we think they’re not going to hear that?”

Proposing that the plan be rejected, Cllr Alex Hilton said that the impact on Great Wood would be “bordering on unacceptable”.

“It would be clearly visible from the footpaths...and I think it would actually sit at a higher level than [them] - it’s quite an imposing feature.

“It would be an incongruous backdrop to an ancient woodland and not really of natural character. It’s a great idea, but it’s not the right area for me,” said Cllr Hilton, who appealed to the applicant to work with the council to find a suitable alternative location in the borough.

However, there was backing for the facility amongst the committee, with Cllr Martin Boardman describing it as a “fantastic proposal”.

“It’s in the grounds of a school, which is already a very noisy environment, [and] on the base of a tennis court.

“I couldn't think of anywhere better to put it. Anything to get children out and about playing sport - and certainly...in the evening, when they’d normally be sitting at Playstations or Xboxes,” Cllr Boardman said.

The scheme had attracted almost 200 representations in support of it, as well as backing from pupil leaders at the school. Over 1,500 people had signed a petition opposing the plan just under 650 of whom, according to the council agenda papers, live in Lancashire.

Lancashire County Council did not raise any objections on highways grounds.

“IT’S BEYOND ME”

Speaking after the meeting, Rhenden Pillay told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that he was “frustrated and extremely disappointed” by the committee’s decision - and said he believed he had strong grounds for the appeal that he was about to launch.

He said that the suggestion he should find another site in the borough was not a plausible option.

“The point is that this is an existing school. Land in England comes at a premium - where are we going to find open space to put a dome up?

“We’ve done four years of extensive research to find the most suitable location. It’s five metres below the ground level, so they were exaggerating the fact that it's 11 metres high - the visual impact is very minimal.

“The officer recommendation was 20 pages long and it answered every single question for the committee. All the points [the councillors made] were just beyond me.

“Considering this is a £500,000 investment into our community - where are we going to find another sort of investment like that for kids to benefit from? I don't think they have actually looked at the whole picture,” Mr. Pillay added.

In a statement, Parklands High headteacher Steve Mitchell thanked Mr. Pillay for considering the school for the airdome.

“The project would have given our students and the local community the most wonderful resource, which would have helped boost morale and improve both mental and physical wellbeing.

“At a time like this such resources are invaluable, so it is disappointing that the project has not been given planning permission. We wish Rhenden the best of luck for the future.”