'Masterpiece' demolition row

Parents want Jack Straw to save his son's school, writes Ben Russell

Ben Russell
Saturday 22 October 2011 23:59
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TAKE plans for a luxury housing development in one of London's most exclusive neighbourhoods, a 1960s' school hailed as a modernist masterpiece which leaks when it rains and bakes in the summer, add a board of governors chaired by a Cabinet minister, and you have a feud of gripping proportions.

For two years, parents, teachers, well-heeled residents, council leaders and developers have been locked in a bitter row over the future of the Pimlico comprehensive in Westminster.

Now Home Secretary Jack Straw and the Pimlico board of governors of which he is chairman have to decide whether to throw their lot in with a developer, see the school rebuilt over four years - and lose some of the grounds for a pounds 50m luxury apartment block - or have the existing building renovated.

Hiving off part of the site for upmarket flats would turn the school into a flagship example of public-private partnerships and is central to the project.

One consortium, the St George's Partnership, plans 140 flats on the site while the other, McAlpine Osborne, plans 216 flats. In an area where a three-bedroom flat can cost up to pounds 400,000, the commercial potential of both developments is great.

The pioneering school, just a short walk from the Tate Gallery and the Thames, is a concrete and glass structure which was opened by Labour prime minister Harold Wilson in 1970. Enthusiasts for modern architecture feel it should be saved for the nation.

Developers, however, propose demolishing architect John Bancroft's buildings and replacing them with a new school. Westminster City Council would lease the building back under a 25-year deal, at a cost of pounds 32m, as against pounds 36m for restoring it. These figures are disputed by protesters. In return, the council would hand over around a quarter of the four-and-a-half-acre site for the flats development. Members of the Pimlico School Parent School Association have condemned the scheme, accusing the Conservative-run council, once notorious for the homes-for-votes scandal, of pushing through an unnecessary scheme for political ends in an atmosphere of secrecy.

They say their children's education will be severely damaged by being taught for up to five years on a building site.

The council, on the other hand, says the private finance initiative is the only way of replacing a school which is out of date and inadequate for a 21st century education.

At stake, say teachers, is the healthy future of the 1,450 pupil school, which is well regarded as the second best performing state school in the borough.

They say the school will lose staff and pupils because of the disruption, and they warn that the inner-city comprehensive cannot afford to lose an inch of valuable space to high-cost housing.

Stephen Barlow, a science teacher at the school, and a local National Union of Teachers representative, said: "There are a number of staff who say they will leave. There are a number of parents who say they will withdraw their children."

Leading figures from the world of architecture have been on the attack, arguing the building has a viable future and should be preserved.

Governors, who have signed confidentiality clauses barring them from speaking about the private finance initiative project, are said to be split over the project. Without their approval it will not go ahead.

Conflict looms even if governors and Westminster Council approve the rebuilding plans. Residents of the stuccoed terraces which surround the school have vowed to fight for a public inquiry or even a judicial review of the council's handling of the project.

Chartered surveyor Edward Reeve is chairman of the residents association representing people living in the streets closest to the school. He said: "It's a horribly ugly building, but over the years we have got used to it."

What residents objected to, he said, was the prospect of four years' building work and a huge residential development on their doorstep.

He added: "We feel the city council has written off the option of refurbishment because it does not want to spend the money."

He criticised Mr Straw, claiming he has done too little to lead the school in the interests of its pupils. "He should do his job properly or he should not have taken it." Fellow governors, however, insisted the Home Secretary had been even-handed over the project.

Jenny Bianco, chair of Westminster's education committee, insisted the decision to redevelop was not politically motivated. "It's not ideological," she said. "We do not have the money to put into Pimlico school, full stop. I understand the fondness some people have for the school, but I don't think it functions as a school. I don't think it's fulfilling the needs of the children."

On Tuesday week, Mr Bancroft, the building's original architect, will try to persuade the governors to keep his building. He has drawn up a pounds 10m "rehabilitation" plan for the site which he says will solve the building's problems and bring it up to the standards of the 1990s.

Jazz guitarist Michael Ball, chairman of the Pimlico Parent School Association, said: "Pimlico School has become a guinea pig. What has been missing is education. This is something which is all about money and buildings and not about the school."

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