APPROVAL HAS been granted – for the second time – by Oldham Council’s planning committee to build a brand new £19.2million secondary school in Diggle.
The 14-strong committee first gave the green light in February to demolish the existing buildings and listed link bridge at the former WH Shaw pallet works on Huddersfield Road.
This would make way for a new school for 1,500 pupils aged 11-16 and 189 staff to be built by Interserve Construction Ltd, and a highways scheme including a parental drop-off facility.
However, just hours before that meeting a letter was received from objectors raising concerns about the effect of the proposals on the setting of the listed building.
The meeting went ahead but Oldham Council subsequently sought external legal advice and decided to reconsider all four applications at another special meeting on April 13.
Around 30 members of the public gathered at the Council Chambers, including Parish Councillors, school governors and residents, for the second meeting.
Mr Alan Evans, borough solicitor, explained the Council had received a letter from Irwin Mitchell Solicitors on behalf of Save Diggle Action Group claiming there were legal flaws and requesting the applications be refused.
The letter says the Council did not consider harm to heritage assets during site selection, has not applied the tests of the national planning policy framework in respect to the green belt, and raises issues around ecology, particularly bats.
But Mr Evans insisted a full feasibility study showed Diggle is the “most appropriate site” and they had weighed up harm against benefits of the proposal and were legally able to proceed.
Stephen Irvine, head of planning and infrastructure at Oldham Council, gave an overview of the four applications, for which he recommended approval after months of research.
A total of 1,332 objections, including 1,252 copies of a standard letter, had been sent to the Council with concerns including building on green belt, noise, the school’s design and traffic.
There were 26 letters in support of the new school, with benefits highlighted including long-term future, creation of new jobs and the insufficiency of the current school in Uppermill.
In relation to application C to build a new school and associated facilities, Mr Irvine highlighted the benefits and concluded the substantial public gain outweighs harm to heritage assets.
He added the school, which will be in a natural colour and include three distinctive stone sections, is not significantly detrimental to landscape, visual impact or ecology.
But objector Mr Brooks, chair of Diggle Community Association, said: “This application will cause substantial harm to a listed building, numerous surrounding listed buildings, the total loss of a local non-designated heritage asset of medium significance, harm to the views into and out of the Holly Grove Conservation Area and inappropriate development in the green belt.
“There is an alternative site in Uppermill for the new school, which would avoid this harm altogether. These public benefits can be achieved elsewhere.”
However, Matthew Milburn, headmaster of Saddleworth School, highlighted the benefits of the new school for the whole community as he spoke in favour of the application.
“This is going to be so much more than just a building,” he said. “It is a great investment for the community of Saddleworth, not just the children, for generations to come.
“The community has been waiting eight years for a new school. We can not wait any longer.
“We want to be good neighbours and will work with the community to monitor the impact once the school is built.”
The application was approved by the committee – who have all visited the site at least once – with only Cllr Norman Briggs voting against and no abstentions.
In relation to application A to demolish the existing buildings, Mr Irvine admitted there would be a variety of impacts not said they were not enough to outweigh the benefits.
Objector Mr Brooks, said “Recent planning case law requires that if there is a possibility of the school being built on an alternative site, on which this harm can be avoided altogether, then this application must be refused.
“The option to build the school on the existing school playing fields would cause minimal disruption. As a father of two boys at the school, I have no concerns their education will be compromised by building in Uppermill.”
Michael Brown, representing the applicant HNA Architects, insisted: “Most of the original loom works were demolished around 1969.
“The remainder will not provide any understanding of how the original loom works functioned. They will only deteriorate further and are costly to maintain.”
He added the buildings contain health hazards including asbestos roofs and dangerous walls and their demolition could increase viability of future use for the nearby listed building.
Approval was unanimous, as it was also for application B to demolish the steel link bridge, which is a heritage asset as it is attached to the listed office block and clock tower.
Mr Brooks also spoke against the demolition of the link bridge as he said there is insufficient information to determine its significance to enable the consideration of its loss.
But Mr Brown revealed the unsafe bridge is ‘off-limits’ and said: “It was a late addition to the building and is not a unique type of construction.”
He added a complete record of the bridge has been carried out and gave assurances the remaining end will be damp-proofed so the historical building won’t be at risk of any damage.
Cllr Ustaq added: “I walked under it very quickly when we visited the site as it looked like it was going to fall down. It looked very unsafe.”
Finally, the highways application D – which had been recommended for refusal by Saddleworth Parish Council – was approved, with only one vote against by Cllr Briggs.
The plans include a residents’ car park for houses 20-44 and 21-43 on Huddersfield Road, a ‘kiss and drop’ area, traffic signals entering Diggle and wider footpaths to the school site.
Mr Irvine admitted the impacts “are severe” but insisted delays during concentrated periods can be managed and will bring overall benefits to residents of a clear highway.
He confirmed the wall on Huddersfield Road will be rebuilt in stone, rather than timber as planned, after the footpath is widened.
Objector Mr Brooks said: “These highway proposals are mitigation measures for the school development and as such would not be required solely in their own right.
“Therefore, the harm attributed to the demolition and school development should also be attributed to this application. This includes the substantial harm to the listed office building and the cumulative impact of inappropriate development in the green belt.”
But Paul Groves, speaking on behalf of applicant Unity Highways, said: “Our priority is a safe route into school for pupils. But improvements are restricted due to the houses.”
He admitted there will be high demand at peak times and that traffic could back up to the junction with Wool Road, but he reassured Cllr Briggs access for emergency vehicles will not be affected.
He said additional improvements are desirable, such as school safety zones, subject to separate applications.
Cllr John McCann added: “I live on Wool Road and parking is getting worse. A statutory ruling will definitely make things safer.
“There isn’t a great solution but we have come up with the best we can. It will be an inconvenience, for myself included, but the benefit to the education of children is more important.”
Construction of the new Saddleworth School is expected to start in summer, with an opening date of spring 2018.