It was a contest billed as Hove versus Gove – and it appears that Michael Gove just blinked.
The Education Secretary has been vilified on the Sussex coast in recent weeks over controversial plans, announced by his department, to concrete over a well-loved playing field in Brighton and Hove, to build a new free school.
However, locals declared victory in their campaign to save the Bhasvic Field, after receiving a letter from the Schools Minister Lord Nash saying that the school would now be built elsewhere.
The 22-acre site on Old Shoreham Road was earmarked by consultants from the Education Funding Agency for the development of the King’s Church of England Free School, which received Mr Gove’s personal approval in September. However, the field is already used by four existing schools for sports and recreation and is regarded by the community as a “village green”.
As reported by The Independent last month, an unlikely alliance of local residents, head teachers, Green councillors and even the local Conservative MP was formed in opposition to the plan. Campaigners calling themselves the Friends of the Field erected banners around the site bearing the slogan: “Hove vs Gove”. Critics said that the episode was just the latest example of Mr Gove’s Department for Education riding roughshod over the interests of local people.
Caroline Lucas, the Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, who raised the issue in Parliament and joined campaigners when they delivered a 5,500-signature petition to 10 Downing Street, said she was delighted that the “misguided” plans had been dropped.
“It’s great news for the Friends of the Field and for all those who fought to protect this much valued land, currently used by more than 4,000 school students,” she said. “The decision today is proof that pressure from local people does make a difference, and that by working together, we can force the Government to listen.”
Three of Brighton and Hove’s Green councillors wrote to Mr Gove last month outlining the council’s opposition to the plan to build on the Bhasvic Field, which is named after one of the local schools – the Brighton, Hove and Sussex Sixth Form College.
Responding on the Secretary of State’s behalf, as the minister responsible for Free Schools, Lord Nash admitted that the playing fields site “would clearly not be ideal” and had only been considered “as a last resort.”
“Given that Brighton and Hove City Council owns the portion of land under consideration, and that you have confirmed your position, this is clearly no longer an option we will be pursuing,” he wrote.
Lou McCurdy, of Friends of the Field, said she did not know what had prompted Lord Nash’s decision but suggested a “killer letter” sent by the campaigners may have helped. “Maybe scary ladies of Hove had something to do with it,” she said. “Bhasvic Field is a vital green space with social and environmental benefits for everyone and the campaign to save it has really united the city.”
A Department for Education spokesman said: “We are continuing to work with the free school proposers and the council to find a suitable site. We remain committed to helping the proposers establish a new school that will raise standards in the area and help to address the pressure on school places.”