In March 2018, Cratus was instructed by Jacobs to support the political engagement and community consultation for a proposed new secondary school in Walton on Thames, Heathside Walton School.
After an extensive review of sites, the proposed site for the new school was a Green Belt site to the North of Walton. Although there was a recognition from most local stakeholders that a new secondary school in the area was needed, Elmbridge Borough Council is regarded as strongly protective of its Green Belt which immediately raised some challenges. Furthermore, there were some concerns around highways access to the School and parking on and around the site. These issues combined with opposition from an Academy Trust with schools in the nearby area, resulted in a protracted campaign to ensure that the School received planning consent.
Cratus worked closely with both Jacobs, the ElmWey Learning Trust, Carter Jonas, the Department for Education and Surrey County Council to ensure that the appropriate level of public consultation took place and that early support for the new school was identified. The first phase of public consultation took place in July 2018 with over 200 attendees attending two public exhibition events one in Walton on Thames and one in Molesey. These exhibitions were attended by a number of councillors including the then Leader of Elmbridge Borough Council (now the Leader of Surrey County Council).
On the back of these events and the launch of a frequently-updated project website, Cratus established a database of around 500 supporters of the new School in advance of the post-submission Council consultation. These supporters received regular updates throughout the application process and clear communication on how they could support the application.
In addition, Cratus arranged meetings with local MP and the current Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab MP, who was supportive of the application. His office was kept regularly briefed throughout the application process and working with him we secured support from the local Conservatives councillors. Moreover, frequent meetings and discussions with ward councillors took place to address any concerns they may have. In addition, we briefed local journalists on the plans which culminated in a positive interview with a representative of the ElmWey Learning Trust in The Surrey Advertiser.
In advance of the submission of the planning application, a second round of public consultation was held in June 2019 which included a public exhibition which was attended by over 100 local residents and councillors. This added further positive momentum to the application and helped in building up a relationship with local opinion formers.
The planning application was submitted in August 2019 and our work in activating our supporter database helped to mobilise support for the application from the local community. In total the Council received 187 positive submissions in support of the application against 152 objections. It is highly unusual for there to be more supportive submissions than objections for the development of a Green Belt site in Surrey.
In advance of the application hearing, we engaged with councillors around specific issues of concern specifically highways issues through dedicated workshops and targeted communications. Furthermore, we broke down the supportive submissions by ward and demonstrated to local ward councillors on the Planning Committee how many of their ward residents had supported the application in the public consultation.
At the Committee hearing on 3 June 2020, the application was approved by Elmbridge Borough Council’s Planning Committee by 9 votes to 7 with one of the Committee members praising the level of consultation which had been undertaken. It was especially satisfying to see councillors representing all three of the political groups in Elmbridge voting in favour of the application.
This project demonstrates that it is possible to overcome issues around Green Belt development even in the most challenging locations if there is a concerted level of consultation and the local community are proven to be largely supportive of the project.