The history and issues of the planning process for this project are complex. They are thus easily open to misunderstanding, as well as to misrepresentation – not necessarily deliberate, as there is always a danger of simplification and summary in newspaper coverage, whether in editorial or in letters; the attraction of reduction to single issues, for exaggeration, and for the use of colourful language, also has the capacity to distort.
Without being selective, therefore, it is acknowledged that a number of issues have arisen as causes for concern and opposition.
Building an “illegal” structure
This is an accusation levelled at the erection of a service intake building at the rear of the site which borders the gardens of homes in Cassiobury Drive. As it stands, the college has not built an illegal structure. The main campus buildings have planning permission dating back to 2007, and construction is well advanced. The current situation over the service intake building is that it is in breach of planning rather than being an illegal structure: this results from the rejection in February 2010, by the Development Control Committee of Watford Borough Council, of an amended planning application providing more detailed designs than were possible in the original approved application. The refusal focused solely on the boiler flues, which the committee decided would have an adverse visual impact on neighbouring residential properties. This decision has become the subject of an appeal. At the same time, the council’s decision to serve an enforcement notice on the college, requiring the removal of the three flues from the roof of the service intake building, has also been appealed. Decisions will now be taken on these related matters by a government inspector, not the council, and are expected in the summer of 2010. Construction work will continue without interruption pending the resolution of the appeal process.
Why proceed without planning permission?
The college has always worked with the planning process, not against it. The detail of the service intake building has been progressed on a design and build basis as a condition of the main planning permission – as is common with such elements of many large projects.
Council officers were aware of the absence of detail and considered it unnecessary to make it a prior requirement to construction. They appreciated that the building had to house the sub-station for power and distribution boards, the mains water intake, the gas intake as well as the different heating sources. Some of the exact capacities of these elements is not known until detailed design is undertaken, and the size of such buildings can change a little during this process. The costs of delaying construction pending planning approval of this one aspect were extremely high. The cost to the college of holding back construction work while the service intake building was finalised – with the utilities of gas, electricity and water for the whole campus building withheld – would have amounted to £1.75m of taxpayers’ money.
The three flues are needed for heating boilers that were specified from the outset and included in the original planning application (the number of flues was reduced from five on drawings dealing with external finishes submitted to council officers and approved as long ago as February 2008. Based on this approval the college believed the principle of the flues was deemed acceptable). Two of the heating sources are gas boilers, and they meet 90 per cent of demand. A third (with a slightly slimmer flue) serves a wood pellet boiler, which was installed, to meet “green” energy aims, in place of ground source heating which was found to be impractical and four times as costly (and, it is widely argued, is less “green”). They are regarded as an “eyesore” by householders whose gardens end in front of them. They have been painted in jade green, at the request of planning officers, to match the wall of the service intake building facing the boundary, and they can only be seen against the backdrop of the three-storey new college building, so they do not break the skyline. Numerous trees have already been planted by the college, both on its side and where asked on the neighbours’ side of the boundary fence. Further screening, involving additional planting of mature trees, at 8m already taller than the flues, was undertaken in early April. The flues are also accused of causing sore eyes, emitting fumes that are “poisoning” neighbours’ children. The college hopes to be able to reassure neighbours who have expressed such fears by verifying that the emissions are harmless and predominantly water vapour, and intends as soon as possible to have the emissions analysed by independent specialists, and to share their findings.
Why not ground source heating?
For secondary heating (to meet 10 per cent of demand), alternative options including a ground source heat pump were indeed considered but could not be justified on grounds of practicality or costs. The optimum positions for the ground source bore holes were under the existing Lanchester House building and costs exceeded £1.2m compared to the £300k required to install a bio-mass boiler (which for several reasons became the preferred option). In any event, many environmentalists and scientists argue that ground source heating, by requiring electrical power to extract heat, is less carbon-reducing than its proponents claim.
Noise is a worry
The question of noise abatement is not fully resolved – but it will be. Measures already taken include erection of acoustic fencing, surfacing with low-noise tarmac, and soundproofing the service intake building. The focus of concern is the service intake yard, notably of vehicles reversing. There are statutory noise limits and the college will have to conform to these in practice. Two specialist reports giving noise projections have been made available to the council, but these are not conclusive – unsurprisingly as the area is not yet in operation. To simplify the issue, the college will be withdrawing its application for the discharge of the planning condition and will be making a new application benefiting from a new report to be undertaken by a third specialist. The college will offer to have this contractor selected jointly with all other interested parties, including residents and the council’s environmental health officers. The college itself has a strong interest in keeping noise to a minimum: those closest to the service yard will be students and teachers in classrooms next to it. The number of lorry drop-offs (mostly to the main building goods-in entrance behind the service intake building) will be more like 100 a week, not up to 200 as previously quoted. Lorry visits to the refuse compactor (just beyond the service intake building) will be far less frequent than other delivery drop-offs and pick-ups – the waste contractor has been asked to review its operations to minimise visits. General drops may not need to reverse, while those that do will reverse round a corner, not along the length of the rear access road (built for fire engines).
What about the wildlife?
Naturally, while the site was previously derelict it created favourable conditions for wildlife. Before construction started, a new badger sett was built in a secluded wooded corner at the rear boundary, and the existing badgers were encouraged to move in. They have since thrived, and are taking advantage of a wildlife corridor that gives them a safe route out of the site and into gardens. Trees did have to be felled, but once the disturbance of construction ends, the new planting, including mature trees, will provide alternative habitat for arboreal species. Songbirds and other familiar wildlife will quickly return.
The development budget of £70 million has been found from capital, site disposals, a bank loan and a grant from the Learning & Skills Council (LSC). None of the funding has placed any burden on local taxpayers. Financial considerations have had an impact on how the project has been managed. The cost to the college of holding back construction work while the service intake building was finalised and its slightly varied design (although discussed with planning officers) formally approved – with the utilities of gas, electricity and water for the whole campus building withheld – would have amounted to £1.75m of taxpayers’ money. The pressures on public funding in the further education sector cannot be disregarded. Apart from a mandate on West Herts College to direct spend at core education and learning services there remain the well-documented pressures caused by the recession and unparalleled levels of public debt. Many FE colleges, and the communities they serve, were in 2009 trapped by unexpected cuts in LSC capital spending budgets, which have left many colleges with unfinished projects and, in some instances, incomplete buildings and abandoned building sites. With the support of its stakeholders, West Herts College has successfully circumnavigated these problems, bringing to Watford a state-of-the-art campus development without a penny on any council tax bills.
Why build in a residential area?
The college chose Watford town centre as the venue for its flagship campus as its central location offers the best public transport links, and the spend of students and staff can be of direct benefit to the Watford town centre economy. As one would expect in an area so conveniently close to the town centre, the established usage of land in the area is mixed, and there are commercial and public properties as well as residential. The new and existing campuses sit on land that has for many years been designated for commercial use as part of the civic quarter. The new building enhances the amenity of the area, offering significant public access to the new campus with its food, hairdressing and beauty, performance and exhibition spaces and other facilities; and encouraging community-college integration.
The building work is a nuisance
That is bound to be true – if only in small ways, and for a small number of people, for a comparatively short time. The college does regret the inconvenience it is causing. However, it is creating a resource not only for thousands of students, young and old, but for Watford residents to take advantage of in various ways. The work itself is exceptionally well-managed, by the respected firm of BAM. It is a member of the Considerate Contractors scheme, and subscribes fully to the high standards that implies. Any visitor to the site will observe how organised, safe and efficient the operation is. There have been a handful of complaints, truly very few, and where even fewer of these have been upheld, the college has apologised and acted to prevent repetition: these included one or two instances of out-of-hours working by subcontractors, and lighting at night which was either security lighting or the glow of powerful heaters for drying purposes.
Students’ cars cause congestion and they leave litter
Students and staff no longer park at the Hempstead Road campus. The college actively discourages students from travelling by car, but it is difficult to regulate. The limited provision of parking at the new campus is an issue determined by government policy. Any instances of inconsiderate parking or bad behaviour should be reported to the college for its intervention. Unlawful parking or littering can also be brought to the attention of the police.