Berkhamsted School and Property Development

How a wealthy commercial organisation exploits the Town Planning system for financial gain.

Question: When is a green field site not a green field site?
Answer: When Berkhamsted School can make money out of it.

Berkhamsted School is an independent school formed from the merger of Berkhamsted School, which had educated boys in the town since 1544, and Berkhamsted School for Girls, founded in 1888. The standard of education which it gives to its pupils is well regarded, though high fees put it beyond the reach of most families. Unfortunately the attitude of Berkhamsted School and its predecessors to property development has long deserved much lower marks.

In 2002, the parents of a former pupil accused the school of failing to protect their son from bullying. In a response quoted in the national press, former headmistress Dr. Priscilla Chadwick said that the school, prided itself on its "Christian ethos". The senior management might care to remember the second commandment, "Love thy neighbour as thyself".

Berkhamsted School's neighbours have repeatedly objected to new building on sites owned or formerly owned by the school, and have been repeatedly pushed aside. Perhaps the school should adopt a new motto: "Me first, because I'm rich".

In the early 1970's, the school demolished a row of Mediaeval "Sunken Cottages" in Castle Street. These tiny properties were distinctive because their floors were at a considerably lower level than the adjacent road. An ugly sanatorium was built in their place.

An attractive Victorian school building on the corner of Kings Road and Charles Street was sold for demolition and redevelopment into a high-density residential estate. In its place stands Lincoln Court, which was built in an architectural style mid-way between 1970's trendy and Soviet Communist.

When Berkhamsted School for Girls built its Centenary Hall off Kings Road in 1988, it satisfied the parking requirements of its planning consent by pretending that the netball courts were part of the car park. Needless to say, once the hall was finished, no cars were allowed to park there.

In 1996, the School sold an attractive property in Graemsdyke Road, built in the style of the Arts and Crafts movement and formerly used as a girls' boarding house. It was named Churchill, after a former pupil of the school, Lady Clementine Churchill (nee Hosier), wife of wartime Prime Minister Sir Winston. I thought it worthy of a Grade II listing, but Dacorum Borough Council granted permission for it to be demolished and replaced by a massive block of flats, variously described as looking like a barracks, or a down-market version of a Milton Keynes office block. Neighbours complained that the monstrosity which was built was even higher than the one shown on the plans, but the Borough Council told them that there was nothing they could do about it.

In the same year, Berkhamsted School applied for permission to build a new co-educational preparatory school in Doctors Commons Road. The plan was opposed by local residents on the grounds that large numbers of additional parents on the "School run" would generate extra traffic in a road which was already busy at peak times. Berkhamsted Town Council, where Independent councillors were in the majority at the time, supported the neighbours' objections, but planning permission was granted by Dacorum Borough Council against their wishes.

Conservative Councillor Peter Ginger was then a member of both Dacorum Borough and Berkhamsted Town Councils. When Berkhamsted Town Council discussed the application, Councillor Ginger opposed it. He objected to both the design of the building and to the extra traffic which it would generate. However, when the application was decided by Dacorum Borough Council's Development Control Committee, Councillor Ginger voted in favour of it.

I asked Councillor Ginger on several occasions why he changed his mind. He would only say that it was, "As a result of additional information received". He died in 2006 without ever giving a more detailed explanation.

The building of the new preparatory school achieved its real objective - freeing the site of the former Boys' Preparatory School and another Victorian school building and grounds known as Incent's Lawn for sale to property developers. Both of these are located in Chesham Road. The Dacorum Borough Residential Character study describes the upper part of Chesham Road, where the former preparatory school is located, as "Semi-rural". Incents Lawn, in the lower part of the road, adjoins a row of mainly 19th. Century terraced houses.

Dacorum Borough Council granted permission for the construction of massive blocks of apartments on both sites, contary to the Residential Areas Character Study, the Dacorum Borough Local Plan, neighbours' objections and good planning practice. There were excellent reasons under planning law why both developments should have been refused, particularly the impact of traffic in a narrow one-way street and the overbearing effect of the development at Incents Lawn on the neighbours. A nice couple live next door; they have had to tolerate extensive disruption from building work and now suffer a brick wall about four feet from their kitchen window and a reduction in the value of their home. All for no better reason than to make the rich richer.

The developer at Incents Lawn destroyed a hedge and several preserved trees on the site without permission. Dacorum Borough Council, which is allegedly responsible for enforcing planning law, ordered work on the site to stop for a few days, but as far as I am aware took no effective enforcement action against the developer. The destruction of preserved trees can attract a fine of up to 2000 per tree, plus a requirement to plant a replacement tree of the same species on the same site. No replacement planting has been carried out.

When completed the development was named Dean's Lawn, although the former lawn has now disappeared entirely under tarmac and bricks. One of the first occupants to move in was Liberal Democrat Dacorum Borough and Berkhamsted Town Councillor Stanley Sharpe. A few weeks later he resigned from the Borough Council on health grounds, although he retained his seat on the Town Council until his retirement from local politics in 2003. He claimed that he voted against the development, but he lived in it until his death in 2008. Make of that what you will.

Meanwhile, the preparatory school site was redeveloped by Barratt Homes. One of the new blocks of flats was named Chinneck House, after a former headmaster of the preparatory school, who died not long ago. Mr. Chinneck admitted to being a Mason. The other buildings are named Frost House and Davis House.

The Hertfordshire Masonic Yearbook records that Old Berkhamstedian Lodge number 4903 meets on the school premises on the fourth Saturdays of February, May, June and September.

In 2002, Berkhamsted School applied for planning permission to build a new sports centre on a designated green field site off Kings Road. The Dacorum Borough Local Plan forbids new building on such sites. The school claimed a new sports centre was needed because its sports facilities had been criticised by the Independent Schools Inspectorate. It never explained why it had to build on a new site instead of refurbishing the existing facilities.

The school then claimed that the green field site was not a green field site but an "Air raid shelter site". It produced no evidence to show that there were air raid shelters there. A local woman told me that all that that was left of the air raid shelters was two small humps in the ground, but, as the land is owned by the school and there is no public access, it was impossible for me to check this.

However, I could see from the public road that the site was a field which had green grass on it. I also consulted the Dacorum Borough Plan. This is accompanied by a map which clearly shows the location as a designated green field site.

If it has feathers, webbed feet and quacks like a duck then it is probably a duck. If it is a field, has green grass on it and is designated in the Borough Local Plan as a green field site then it is probably a green field site.

Nevertheless, Berkhamsted Town Council recommended that planning permission be granted, despite numerous objections from the neighbours. The plan had the unanimous support of the majority Liberal Democrat group, with the exception of Councillor Lindy Foster-Weinreb, who subsequently left the Liberal Democrats. Councillors Stanley Sharpe and Garrick Stevens prefaced their speeches in favour with, "I am completely opposed to private education, but ...". They did not appear completely opposed to private education damaging the local environment.

Dacorum Borough Council decided that the application should be referred to the Secretary of State for the Environment. Councillors were keen to point out that this was not the same as granting permission for the development; however, when next we heard, planning permission had been granted. Contractors were on site within a week of the decision. I wonder how Berkhamsted School managed to hire them so quickly? The timing was perfect for work to begin right at the start of the Summer holidays. Being a sloping site, a lot of earth moving was necessary. Most of this noisy work could take place while there were no lessons to be disturbed. How very convenient for the school.

Now completed, it is named the Knox-Johnston Sports Centre, after the yachtsman Sir Robin Knox-Johnston. His brother, Richard, is a high-ranking Mason, being Metropolitan Deputy Grand Director of Ceremonies at the United Grand Lodge of England.

One outrageous breach of planning guidance soon led to another, which revealed the real reason for the construction of the new sports centre on a green field site: money. It allowed the sites of the former sports facilities to be developed. As these are "Brown field" sites (i.e previously built upon), It is easier to obtain planning permission for highly profitable residential development. However, even on brown field sites there is supposed to be a measure of protection for the neighbours.

Planning permission was obtained for a large block of flats on the site of Berkhamsted School's former squash courts. This will tower over the houses in Castle Street, which are in a Conservation Area. Their back rooms and back gardens will receive little natural light. The squash courts were dark and deserted at night, but the flats are to have a rear parking area which is to be brightly lit to accommodate residents' cars coming and going at all hours.

During my six years on Berkhamsted Town Council's Town Planning Committee I formed the impression that there is little protecting neighbours from the property development ambitions of wealthy commercial organisations than the organisations' own goodwill. This is occasionally forthcoming, but not often. Money shouts louder than goodwill.

Old Berkhamstedian Lodge Membership List.
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