A playground wall at a new free school is being surveyed just days before the opening but Cheshire West and Chester Council (CWaC) insists it is 'not immediately dangerous'.
University of Chester Academies Trust will open University Cathedral Free School in Murlain House, on the inner ring road in Union Street next Tuesday (September 1) and is awaiting planning consent on the main building.
But concerns have been raised by a resident about whether the car park wall, which is due to become the playground wall, is unstable because it bows and there is a vertical crack at one end.
A University of Chester spokeswoman said: “We were aware of the comment made by a resident and appropriate steps have already been taken to ensure that the wall is surveyed to secure the safety of the children and other pedestrians.”
CWaC, which is expected to issue planning consent in the next few days, has sent building control inspectors to examine the wall who concluded it is 'not immediately dangerous'.
The free school is moving from its temporary Northgate Street home to the grade II-listed Murlain House, which would become its permanent base for 210 pupils, with an initial 120 children – 60 in the Gatehouse building, which does not require planning consent, and 60 in the west wing of the main building which is a former Edwardian school. Planning and listed building applications for phase two will follow later.
Parents are enthusiastically looking forward to the building reopening as a school but critics are worried about the haste involved with fears around road safety, limited parking and increased congestion on the busy ring road.
Health and safety
Anti-free school campaigner Ray McHale, a former county council planning officer, believes CWaC should consider health and safety issues given there is no fence between the playground and the car park used by residents in the retirement flats, the school mini-bus plus delivery and construction vehicles. The university says pupils will wear fluorescent jackets when crossing the car park and be supervised when using the play area.
Mr McHale, of Great Sutton, said: “I would suggest that the requirement, by planning condition, of a suitable gated fence on this boundary, before the school is occupied, would be a reasonable planning condition.”
Resident Caroline Thomas, of Union Street, wrote in a representation concerning the planning application: “What thought has been given to the effect on existing residents, road safety, access and parking?”
Her neighbour Daniel Jeory wrote: “There is also the issue of the school being overlooked by The Forest House pub with its smoking and drinking balcony directly opposite the school.”
But parents can’t wait to have a permanent school building after the original plan to open in Abbey Square fell through.
Supporter Jonathan Hocking of The Nook, Chester, wrote: “There will understandably be concern from residents as to the impact this proposal may have on traffic. It appears though, that there will very limited parking at the school and parents will therefore appreciate that driving to the school itself will not be an option.”
Claire Blanchard of Greenfields Lane, Malpas, wrote: “I fully support the application of Murlain House to revert back to its original use as a school. As it is a city school not all children will need to be transported to school via car as many will be able to walk there. The conversion back to a school will undoubtedly have a very positive and highly beneficial impact on the local community and the city itself.
“As noted in a recent OFSTED report the school was awarded an ‘outstanding’ for ‘behaviour and safety of pupils’ so there should be no disruptive behaviour.”
Council leader and ward councillor Samantha Dixon has decided not to ‘call in’ the application for a committee decision so it will be decided by officers. However, she told her planning department: “Nevertheless, I wish to flag up that I expect officers to extract very robust commitments from the applicant to ensure that no worsening of the traffic situation in this constrained location will occur.”
Going ahead as planned
University Cathedral Free School principal Gareth Davies has informed parents on Facebook that the new Murlain House site is going ahead next Tuesday as planned – even though planning permission has not yet been granted.
Mr Davies wrote the message after Cheshire West and Chester Council leader and ward councillor Samantha Dixon decided not to ‘call in’ the planning application for a committee decision by elected members. Instead a planning officer will make the decision although this has not yet happened according to the council website.
The principal wrote: “I am pleased to let you know that the move of our school to the new site at Murlain House is going ahead as planned. Yesterday afternoon (Thursday, August 20) the council decided that it would not be necessary for the decision to be made by a council committee.
“There were some requirements that will be met regarding safety and traffic but everything is on track for us to start the new term with all four of our classes transferred to two buildings on the new site. I will send you more information about the beginning of term as soon as I can but I wanted to let you have this good news as soon as possible and to correct any negative reports that you might have seen through the summer.”
News the school is to open on time for the start of the autumn term will come as a huge relief to parents who have been on tenterhooks over the summer break. Parent Julie Hughes wrote: “Such a relief let’s get our children settled and move onwards.” Lynda Ward said: “Fantastic news, best school in Chester.”
Laura Hocking Willis asked about whether the children will enter the school premises from Forest Street or Union street when it open next Tuesday.
Mr Davies responded: “Details about the start of term will be confirmed as soon as possible including drop off/pick up arrangements.”