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Hospital site scrutiny

February 25, 2011

This meeting at the Guildhall last night was probably the fullest examination in public of the issues around the proposal to build a huge primary school on the same site as a new health facility at Surbiton Hospital site.

There were problems in dealing with such an issue in that particular forum as planning issues dominate the debate and yet the Scrutiny Panel is not empowered to discuss them. Problems were further exacerbated by the large volume of information on this issue which the Council is keeping to itself as ‘commercially sensitive’ or ‘confidential’. I think almost everyone in the room, with the possible exception of Cllrs. Parekh and Self, saw this as a device to close down proper public discussion on the part of the Administration and Council Officers, together with Kingston NHS.

The evidence of the Executive Member, Cllr. Green, and most of the supporting officer team was littered with phrases such as ‘I am confident that’  and ‘I believe’, as though their confidence and belief was sufficient evidence in itself to validate their opinion. But assertion isn’t proof and nothing more than assertion was forthcoming. All this sort of thing reveals is the woolly thinking and evasiveness that has characterised the Administration approach to this question ever since Edward Davey first announced his solution to the school place shortage in the summer of 2009.

Graham Goldspring of OADRA led the case for the petitioners with a brilliant exposé of the reasons for the call-in of the Executive decision of January by 119 citizen petitioners. He dwelt particularly on the matter of restrictive covenants and revealed that one of the owners of the restrictive covenants was actually present in the room; this after officers of RBK and NHSK had suggested more than once that they were untraceable. Two Lib Dem councillors and one Conservative (I am very sorry to say) rendered the opinion that the covenants could be safely breached and Cllr. Green repeated the oft-refuted suggestion that the covenants had been breached already by the building of the hospital and rather foolishly suggested that they only applied to setting up private schools because there were no state schools when they were drawn up.  I don’t know whether she thought this one up all by herself or whether it was part of the advice she had received and in which she is so confident, but it was quickly despatched to the boundary by your correspondent.  And this typifies the whole official response – it doesn’t matter how many times one points out the truth to them, they retreat behind their ‘beliefs’ and ‘commercial sensitivity’ or whatever and hope that the problem will go away.

Alan Manchester gave a detailed critique of the ‘consultation’ procedure, looking both at the way it was organised and the low level of responses.  I spoke also, concentrating on the nature of what is on offer to the prospective pupils and their parents. In a nutshell, 461 children, teachers and administrative and support staff crammed onto a site with no amenity space either around it or even near suitable for so many people, except for playing space on the roof! Surely we can do better than this for Surbiton’s children in the 21st century, even if it means having separate Infants and Junior schools.

The Panel, in a rather tortuous resolution, agreed with many of the points the petitioners had made and sympathised with much of the case they put but did not decide to refer the issue to full Council or back to the Executive. As they commented, the real issues must be resolved by Development Control in March.

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