Coronavirus should rule out Abacus Belsize school move into former Hampstead police station, inquiry told

The former Hampstead Police Station, in Rosslyn Hill, which Abacus Belsize Primary School want to turn into a school.

The former Hampstead Police Station, in Rosslyn Hill, which Abacus Belsize Primary School want to turn into a school. Picture: Harry Taylor - Credit: Archant

Changes in behaviour due to the coronavirus pandemic mean that Abacus Belsize Primary School should not move into the former Hampstead police station, a lawyer has told a planning inquiry.

Speaking at the opening day of the six-day hearing, Esther Drabkin-Reiter on behalf of Hampstead Community for Responsible Development said changes in transport use and home working are likely to increase the school’s impact.

A planning committee turned down the proposal for a second time last year, citing concerns over increased traffic, noise and air pollution, as well as the impact to the Grade-II listed building’s heritage from construction work.

“The impact of changes in behaviour resulting from the coronavirus pandemic is likely to worsen the effects of the proposed development on the transport network,” said Ms Drabkin-Reiter.

“Reductions in bus capacity as well as concerns about infection risk on public transport will make it both harder and less attractive for children and parents to rely on public buses as a means of travelling to school.”

She said increased home working and hot summers means people living near the proposed school site in Rosslyn Hill would need their windows open for longer, negating any possible mitigation in the plans on noise from children playing outside.

Finishing her submission to planning inspector Paul Jackson, she said: “It is clear that the harms outweigh the benefits. If anything, this conclusion is strengthened when the likely behavioural and societal changes resulting from the coronavirus pandemic are taken into account.”

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The opening session heard that the “outstanding” rated school’s current stay in Camley Street has been extended up until 2024, as uncertainty has grown around its long-term home. Abacus opened in 2013, and was originally based at WAC Arts in the old Hampstead Town Hall. It then moved to King’s Cross when the Department for Education bought the former police station in 2013, eyeing it up as a permanent home.

Since then a long-running battle has been fought over the school’s permanent location. An initial application to move into Rosslyn Hill was refused in 2016 because of the scale of the project, before a pared back version was also turned down by councillors last year. The renewed plans include seven classrooms, a library, two halls and 214 square metres of rentable business space.

In a lengthy opening, Reuben Taylor QC, on behalf of the Anthem academy trust, said the inquiry was not one into the “rights and wrongs of free schools”.

Governors and parents at other schools are due to address the inquiry this week. Many are set to raise concerns about falling school rolls across Camden and the impact Abacus’ move may have on their viability.

He said: “The outcome of this inquiry will determine whether 210 primary school children get to have a school within their own community, whether they have to continue to bussed half way across north London every day.

“It will determine whether a school created in 2013 will finally have a new permanent home which is fit for purpose and connected to the community it serves. It will also determine whether a listed building will be brought back into viable use securing its future within the community.”

In response, Morag Ellis QC, representing Camden Council warned Mr Taylor against “rhetoric,” saying: “‘Bussed halfway across London’ - that’s rhetoric. It’s about 3km away from the edge of the catchment area.”

She is expected to argue that the police station’s vacation since 2013 means it qualifies for “abandonment”, with regards to how any increase in traffic would be judged if the plan was given the go-ahead. However Mr Taylor said that seven years is not long enough for it to qualify, with legal precedent showing that 30 years of disuse has not been enough for a property to be considered “abandoned”.

The inquiry is being held online due to coronavirus and is set to run until Wednesday next week.