John Potter, who represents the Preston West division on Lancashire County Council, claims that a “black hole” has opened up in the Preston, South Ribble and Lancashire City Deal, the £434m infrastructure plan to provide the facilities necessary to support 17,000 new homes and 20,000 jobs across Central Lancashire.
Around a third of the planned properties - 5,500 in total - are expected to be built in North West Preston over a 20-year period up to the mid-2030s. A masterplan was agreed back in 2017 to direct the widespread development proposed for a sprawling area between Cottam and the M55 motorway.
The document declared that the scale of the housebuilding was likely to require two new primary schools - each with two-form intakes - and a secondary school.
The Post has obtained figures showing that 3,442 dwellings had been granted planning permission in the masterplan area as of September 2021, with 1,709 having actually been built - yet not a single brick has been laid on any of the planned schools.
Land is currently earmarked for three school sites within plots approved for housing development. In the masterplan, however, the locations are indicative, rather than fixed, and County Cllr Potter fears that they may never materialise.
“There was a deal between residents and the authorities that these houses would be built, but that the new [arrivals] and existing community would also benefit from new infrastructure - roads, schools and shops.
“I don't think new houses can be built in North West Preston - above what our legal obligations are - if there are not going to be any community assets. If it's just houses, then it's not a community - and we want a community being built," said County Cllr Potter, who is also the Cadley ward councillor on Preston City Council.
The Post understands that a review of the City Deal has been taking place and that its main projects have been prioritised in the meantime. Under the deal, money for infrastructure schemes such as new schools comes from a charge levied on developers - known as the community infrastructure levy - and the government's new homes bonus.
The City Deal pot has come under pressure not least because of the ballooning cost of its biggest road project - the Preston Western Distributor Road, a new dual carriageway that is currently under construction and will connect the A583 with a new junction on the M55 at Bartle.
Designed to serve the many new housing estates springing up in North West Preston, it originally had a price tag of £104m when it was first conceived, but the complexity of the project meant that the cost had almost doubled to £200m by the time ground was broken on the site just over two years ago.
The route is due to open in spring 2023 and the scheme also incorporates a new east-west connection in the area and the Cottam link road.
Meanwhile, the Preston Rural primary school place planning area - which covers the masterplan location - has just been identified in Lancashire County Council’s new school place provision strategy as being a “priority hotspot” for demand, along with nearby Goosnargh and Grimsargh. The Post understands that Preston Rural draws in significant numbers of pupils from beyond its own borders.
The Preston West and Preston North planning areas - also in the vicinity - are regarded as “hotspots” and all of the areas to the north of the city are assessed together for place planning purposes, because of the fluid relationship between them and the impact that the provision of additional places in one location can have on its nearest neighbours.
The Post understands that forecasts show shortfalls in projected primary school pupil numbers in five years’ time of 363 in Goosnargh and Grimsargh and 297 in Preston Rural. However, Preston North is expected to have a single surplus place by 2026, while Preston West is predicted to have 33.
Secondary school capacity assessments are made on a whole-district level - and Preston is once again deemed as a priority hotspot. It is understood that the city is expected to need 1,559 year 7 secondary places in the 2024/25 academic year, against a current admission number of 1,493.
Declining birth rates across Lancashire as a whole mean that any pressure on primary places is coming from new development or inward migration - while secondary capacity is being stretched by children born during times of higher birth rates who are now reaching high school age.
In Preston West, 79 percent of primary pupils were given a place at their first preference school in the latest round of admissions, below the Lancashire average of 86.5 percent across both the primary and secondary phases Ten percent of applicants in that area - 36 children in total - were offered a place at a school that did not feature in their top three preferences.
Preston Rural and Preston North fared marginally better than the Lancashire average, with all pupils being offered a place at one of their trio of preferred options in both areas.
In its role as the local education authority, Lancashire County Council seeks to expand existing, well-performing and popular schools in areas where places are required - either temporarily and permanently - and has recently done so at primary and secondary level in Preston.
Outside of the masterplan area, the authority is able to secure funding from developers for school expansions or entirely new facilities by reaching what is known as “section 106 agreements” as part of the planning process.
Such agreements are not reliant on the community infrastructure levy cash that is pooled to fund all infrastructure schemes in North West Preston - and they can be used to generate new schools close to the masterplan area, such as the primary planned as part of the 1,100-dwelling Bartle Garden Village development.
However, County Cllr Potter says that the present practical difficulties in trying to secure a school place in some parts of Preston show that swift action is now needed. In January 2021, there was just one primary school in the Preston West and Rural areas with places available in every year group - and three that had no spare capacity in any of them.
“In my [county council] division, we’re talking about a couple of [available] places here and there in primary schools - and that’s it. [At secondary level], there may be spaces on the other side of Preston, but that's not good enough.
“You’ll have parents going across the city to drop their kids off - so more people driving, [causing] air pollution. Plus, there is a real risk of siblings being split up.
"You can't build [schools] once a crisis has happened, you have to be ready for [it] - and if we have got no spaces, particularly in Preston West, then we are already at that point and yet the schools might be several years away.
“I have a lot of sympathy for [existing residents], because they have been promised all these community facilities - but imagine also the people who have moved into these new houses. They have spent a lot of money [only] to find out that the schools might not come.
“There is no indication of how we are going to fill this black hole [in the City Deal] - and that's the only revenue source that we've got. At the moment, all I can say [to worried parents] is that I'm not sure where the money is coming from for the schools,” said County Cllr Potter.
Responding to the issues raised about the new schools promised for North West Preston, Aidy Riggott, Lancashire County Council’s cabinet member for economic development and growth, said that there remained ”a strong commitment between local partners to work towards the shared local strategic aspirations, such as those outlined in the North West Preston Masterplan”.
He added: "The City Deal financial model is based on long range income and expenditure forecasting that is influenced by changes in the rate of housing delivery, inflation, infrastructure cost estimates, government policy etcetera and, therefore, fluctuations in the net overall position are to be expected over such a long deal period. The executive monitors these fluctuations closely and directs funding accordingly.
“Lancashire County Council is clear that the provision of school places is one of a number of key priorities and as a statutory function, ensuring that appropriate provision is available is a matter that we are acutely aware of and actively seeking to ensure.
“The position with North West Preston schools is being monitored closely to confirm when plans for additional places need to be actioned. Our new school place planning strategy...includes a commitment to work with major employers in the county to understand their workforce strategies and identify any implications for school places in the area,” County Cllr Riggott said.
David Borrow, cabinet member for planning and regulation at Preston City Council, the authority which grants permission for housebuilding in the city, said: “In terms of North West Preston, the council does not request section 106 developer contributions for education provision as the City Deal is the mechanism for funding this through community infrastructure levy receipts and other payments made into the City Deal. However, developers are required to reserve land for new schools, as set out in the masterplan.
“In terms of sites outside the North West Preston area, for example on the former Ingol golf course and Bartle Village, contributions have been secured through section 106, in line with Lancashire County Council’s education contribution methodology, and at Bartle Village, land has been reserved for a new school at nil cost to the education authority,” Cllr Borrow added.
SEARCHING FOR A SCHOOL
The ambition set out in the North West Preston Masterplan for three new schools was to create two primaries in notional locations in the east and west of the area - one just south of the M55 and the other north of Hoyles Lane - and a centrally-located secondary to the east of Sandy Lane.
Just last month, Preston City Council’s planning committee granted Bloor Homes and Taylor Wimpey outline permission for a 352-dwelling estate east of Sandy Lane and west of Tabley Lane, which included land reserved for a secondary school.
In June this year, outline permission was given for a proposed Redrow development east of Tabley Lane, which it is proposed will incorporate a primary facility.
PRESTON'S 'MISSING' SCHOOL PUPILS
Preston is one of three Lancashire districts seeing some children left without a school place after moving into the city part-way through the academic year and then struggling to secure access to a school outside of the usual annual window for applications.
Defined as “children missing education”, their status is the result of factors including Brexit, “which saw a rapid increase in the movement of people, followed immediately by the pandemic, which has impacted on travel patterns into these areas”, Lancashire County Council's new school place provision strategy states.
At a recent cabinet meeting where the document was approved, members were told that “significant numbers” of school-aged children who are new to the country are settling in Preston, along with Burnley and Pendle, “where the pressure for school places may already be a concern”.
In Burnley, more than 60 percent of the pupils on the children missing education list have not previously attended a UK school, while in Preston and Pendle, the proportion is over a third. The situation means that there is a need for language and other support for families to help them through the school admissions process and any subsequent appeals.
A full council meeting back in October heard that some children in Burnley and Pendle had been out of class for over a year.
Under the new strategy, the county council says that it will try to address the problem by reducing the time it takes to secure a school place once the academic year has begun. A new pupil access system was introduced last month and there are also plans to improve support for families moving into Lancashire, including the development of a physical single point of contact via which they can access a variety of services.
Separately, right across the county, the process of creating new classrooms at schools in parts of Lancashire where there is a shortage of pupil places will be sped up.
It is one of a raft of measures contained in the new strategy, in which the authority has committed to a more “innovative” approach to ensuring that there are enough “high quality, accessible” places for the area's children.
The plan is to use standardised designs for new school premises and modern methods of construction - such as the off-site manufacture of additional accommodation - in order to shorten the time it takes to deliver extra space. That could include temporary facilities to allow for a rapid increase in places, with the buildings able to be removed at a later date if pupil numbers reduce.
It comes as falling birth rates have seen a drop in demand for primary school places in some areas, but increased pressure on secondary school capacity as more pupils move into that phase of their education.
Although the Lancashire birth rate has reduced by 6.5 percent in the last five years, primary places remain at a premium in districts where demand is being fuelled by new housing - specifically, parts of Preston, Wyre, Fylde and Ribble Valley, which have been identified as "hotspots". In South Ribble, however, Leyland, Penwortham, Walton-le-Dale, Bamber Bridge and Samlesbury are all deemed "coldspots", along with 14 other place planning areas - in parts of Fylde, Hyndburn, Lancaster, Pendle, Ribble Valley, West Lancashire and Wyre.
At secondary level, Preston, Chorley, Ribble Valley, Burnley and Pendle are judged “priority hotspots” for new high school places. Hyndburn is a secondary "coldspot" and South Ribble and West Lancashire "priority coldspots", reflecting reduced demand.
While the expansion of existing good-performing and popular school facilities is the preferred method of increasing capacity, County Hall says that it will commission entirely new schools when required. Under government legislation, all new schools must be free school academies - meaning that they will be operated by a sponsor, not maintained by the county council itself.
The three-year provision strategy also commits to expanding pupils intakes across all year groups, rather than just reception and year 7, where demand outstrips forecast pupil numbers.
The document states an intention to seek “appropriate levels of developer contributions” from housebuilders where new estates are creating a need for new places.
However, Labour opposition group leader Azhar Ali said that there was a “real inconsistency” in the existing system for securing developer cash for school expansions as part of the planning process.
“If we get a planning application for 30 homes, we [might] ask for a contribution to school places, [but] there could be an application for 200 homes and we don't ask for anything.
“We have pockets...where we’ve got [a] lack of school places at primary or secondary and some of [the necessary] funding could have been achieved through a proper contribution from developers,” County Cllr Ali said.
His deputy, Lorraine Beavers, added that there was too much focus on the birth rate when forecasting pupil numbers and not enough on “how the population...moves about the area and all the extra housing stock that’s being built”.
Conservative cabinet member for education and skills Jayne Rear said that the authority was considering lobbying the government to have education authorities like the county council defined as statutory consultees on planning applications so that they could make their voices “more widely heard” when it came to demanding developer contributions.
The strategy document also noted that County Hall “heavily relies” on the co-operation of Lancashire’s district councils - which grant permission for housing in the county council area - in order to secure school-related payments.
Children and families cabinet member Cosima Towneley said that the planning system was “rigged against” local authorities, with developers “very well set up to rebut” any funding requests made.
Deputy council leader Alan Vincent added that the way forward was to follow the model being used for the major housing development south of Lancaster and ensure that “large schemes for building houses...have to go hand in glove with a sure-fire scheme to provide [facilities such as] surgeries [and] schools”.
The county council says that it bases its forecasts for pupil numbers on a range of factors including school census information, birth data and the movement of pupils between areas.
Meanwhile, the authority is developing a new website designed to help families make “informed choices” about school applications by providing information on a range of relevant factors, including admissions criteria, which can vary by school type.
Lancashire County Council performs better than the national average in terms of how many children are awarded their first preference school, with 86.5 percent of pupils doing so in September 2021, compared to 82.2 percent nationwide in 2020.
At least one of their first three preferences was offered to 96.7 percent of Lancashire pupils in the current academic year - again above last year’s national average of 95.6 percent.
WHAT'S IN THE PIPELINE?
These are the county council's medium and long-term plans for extra school places in Central Lancashire.
***Two sites requested as part of North West Preston Masterplan and schools secured as part of the Cottam Hall, Whittingham Hospital and Bartle Garden Village housing developments.
***Fulwood Academy - 60 new places possible from September 2024 following a temporary increase of 20 additional year 7 places in September 2022.
***A new secondary site in the North West Preston Masterplan area.
***Sixty new places from September 2022 at location(s) to be confirmed following ongoing discussions with headteachers.
***Site secured as part of the Leyland Test Track housing development and a new site is being sought in the Penwortham area.
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