Protesters fight 'selfish' site choice for school

By Jay Grenby, April 28, 2011
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One of three Jews leading a campaign to stop a Mill Hill garden centre becoming the Etz Chaim Primary premises has accused the school's promoters of riding roughshod over the interests of residents.

Gaon Hart - who lives close to the proposed site for the school in Daws Lane - claims the garden centre is "the focus of community activity".

Etz Chaim last week submitted a planning application to convert the Wyevale Garden Centre buildings, with minor modifications. The intended opening date is September 2012 and the plan is to eventually accommodate 200 pupils. Barnet Council is expected to give its decision in June.

Barnet will also rule on an application for temporary occupation of neighbouring premises for a nursery class for 26 children and a reception class for 28 pupils to open this September. During the consultation period, the nursery application attracted more than 500 objections with just over 200 expressions of support.

Mr Hart's own three children are eligible for Etz Chaim and he says he fully supports the principle of the school and "congratulates the trustees who successfully obtained free school status".

But he argues that there are other suitable available sites - for example, Copthall - "that only require a year or two to develop and, more importantly, have room for expansion.

"The only reason for the proponents' speed at this stage is that they selfishly wish to ensure their children start immediately, rather than thinking about the potential legacy that other sites could provide for Jewish children in the future. Destroying the garden centre is the end of the focus of the community in this area for all residents."

Opponents of the garden centre site have run a Facebook campaign and attracted a 1,000-plus signature petition. But Etz Chaim governors' chair Adam Dawson believes there are no more than a dozen or so core objectors.

There had been "some absurd claims" over the garden centre "which are far from the truth. During our search for a permanent site for the school, we were approached by the owners of the garden centre who were interested in selling the site.

"We looked at many sites, but only this one and three others came under serious consideration by Partnership for Schools, the government-backed school building agency responsible for helping groups find appropriate sites for free schools. In the end, the garden centre site was the only one they recommended.

"We believe that once we can explain how we hope to involve the local community in our activities, they will understand the advantages of having the site occupied by a primary school for 200 children just part of the day, and for only 190 days a year." The alternative was "a commercial operation which is open 360 days a year and gets heavy trucks regularly making deliveries throughout the day".

Etz Chaim had employed a traffic consultant to consider how to minimise the impact of vehicle use. "We have asked the parents of pupils in our initial intake to pledge, where possible, to walk their children to school. Of the 26 children in our nursery class, 21 have already agreed to do so."

As for the protests against the temporary home for the nursery and reception classes, Mr Dawson could not understand "why people would want to object to small children being taught in what is currently an empty building".

    Last updated: 11:55am, April 28 2011