Last week’s meeting of the Cobham Green Belt group, comprising the leading lights of the Conservation & Heritage Trust, the CDRA and the Chamber of Commerce was stated to be an information gathering meeting. They highlighted three controversial potential developments in the local area: the incinerator proposed for Redhill Road, the possible development of Wisley Airfield as a new town and the joint proposal by Cobham Free School and Cala Homes to develop land at Chippings Farm off the Portsmouth Road to build a secondary school and up to 500 new houses. On arrival we were regaled with a rather mawkish, folksy but undeniably tuneful song delivered by a chap with a guitar and an amp. It was about “them” stealing our land. It wasn’t to my taste, but it was pretty well received by those present. In any event, it did rather suggest that only one outcome was likely from this evidence-gathering meeting.
The Village Hall was more than full. It was standing-room only. The chairman, Sir Gerry Acher, handled the meeting with his customary charm and good sense. We were told that the incinerator developers had withdrawn their appeal against refusal of planning permission. Good news to begin with. Next, we discussed the Wisley proposal and heard a helpful presentation from a member of the local group set up to oppose it. There’s no doubt that this plan, if it goes ahead, would transform the Ockham area from rural hamelt into a medium size town, and despite the suggestion that shops would be provided on-site it’s likely that there would be a major impact on traffic flows in Cobham as this town would be the shopping venue of choice for the new development as there are the undoubted attractions of a large Sainsbury’s, and Waitrose here. I can’t see the town’s car parks coping at peak shopping times.
Finally we moved on to the item which most people had come to discuss, as the Free School development is entirely within the boundaries of Cobham itself. Michaela Khatib, the head teacher of the Free School was present, and she must have felt that she was entering the lions’ den. Nevertheless she completely answered all the questions and allegations directed at her by the small but vocal minority at the meeting who are plainly opposed to the Free School. It was suggested that the Free School would not be drawing its pupils from Cobham; not true. All of the most recent intake live within half a kilometre of Cobham town centre. The only non-locals were accepted in last year’s intake, when the uncertainty about whether the school would actually materialise and as to whether planning permission would be granted for its permanent home at the old police station, meant that the school was not filled at the first time of asking. She confirmed that the planned secondary school would have the potential to expand so that it could meet the undoubted demand in Cobham for a local secondary school.
The mood of the meeting was quite easy to read: the overwhelming majority were supportive of the secondary Free School but equally the same number were opposed to the development of up to 500 houses. There was little dissent when Sir Gerry observed that were it only a question of the Free School the mood of the meeting would have been very different. There’s no doubt that this development taken as a whole, which would increase by about 10% the total number of houses in Cobham would represent a major change to the nature of the town. Some people raised concerns about the effect of the influx of people on the doctors’ surgery. Many were worried about the effect on the already very busy Portsmouth Road of the extra cars that would be caused by the new homes and the School. These are reasonable objections. Careful thought will need to be addressed to this.
However there was one issue raised which struck me as being of overwhelming importance. Michaela Khatib explained that the Department of Education (DofE) had commissioned a study to examine possible sites for the secondary school. The study had been unable to find any suitable site on brownfield land. Alastair Mann, who is Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce and also Chair of the Governors of St Andrew’s School informed the meeting that when he and his team had been putting together their own bid for a free secondary school (the Community High School) they had identified some suitable brownfield sites. He was asked to tell the meeting where these sites were, but he felt unable to do in a public meeting. It seems to me that it is overwhelmingly in the public interest for the Free School to explore these alternative sites because if we can have the Free School without the attendant housing development that will be the best possible outcome for the town. I have written to ask Alastair to release this information to the Free School and have posted the same request on the Cobham Green Belt web site: http://www.cobhamgreenbelt.org.uk/
Congratulations are due to the organisers of this important initiative.