Elliott School's Refurbishment – There Were, & Still Are, Other Ways To Make It Happen
Save Elliott School Campaign believes thinking outside the box could produce alternatives
Earlier today on our Facebook campaign page (‘The Official Save Elliott School Campaign (Putney, London)’), a concerned parent asked us to throw our weight in favour of the current proposals which will fund the c.£20m refurbishment Elliott School desperately needs but which will mutilate the school grounds, and the entity as a whole, in the process.
Much of what follows is a reply to that parent. And because many of your readers will be equally concerned parents or simply interested – or totally unaware – residents of SW15, it would be good to share with you what we relayed to her.
The crucial point to underline is that many of our supporters, and we ourselves on the campaign committee, have spent a great part of our lives at Elliott – some only left a few years ago; some are still there – and we care about the School just as much as the official bodies who are pushing through the land sell-off (and, possibly, demolition of Grade II-listed buildings). Justine Greening’s description of us, in her published letter, as ‘union-backed by Wandsworth & Battersea TUC and the GMB union and seems to be an existing campaign that has switched from campaigning against a Battersea school investment to ours’ is so shockingly wrong that those who briefed her should be embarrassed. If Greening is a serious politician with the integrity required to hold the State office which she does, she will correct this mistake and apologise for it.
We are the quintessence of the indestructible sense of community which Elliott fostered and was so remarkable that it made the national press. Ed Lattimore, who heads our campaign, spent seven years there: five in the main school and two in the Sixth Form. I did too, before continuing Elliott’s strong tradition in going up to Oxford to read for my first degree. Diane Bindman and John Dodwell – other key supporters of the campaign – taught at Elliott for several decades each. Others served either on the staff or as School Governors.
We all agree with current parents, with Wandsworth, with Mark Phillips, with Justine Greening, and with all those who say that Elliott is in a dreadful state of repair. And we agree as well with the need to refurbish the building as soon as possible. We do not seek to derail the current schedule for refurbishment if at all possible, although it is likely that other more important cultural/heritage stakeholders will inevitably do so.
Our key objection is the way in which Wandsworth has chosen to pay for this refurbishment.
We do not believe that Elliott will benefit by being cut in half. It is not some of the land which will go; it will be over 50% of the school grounds, whichever of the Council’s two options is implemented.
Architecturally, this loss is not sensitive or in keeping with heritage guidelines; it is truly catastrophic! I could write whole paragraphs on this, quoting various sources on the national significance of the buildings and site, but the most telling is a Statement of Significance of Elliott’s architectural heritage commissioned by Wandsworth in 2009. It explicitly states that ‘the buildings and spaces within the site were designed to function together to provide a landscape setting’. But, not just grounds, Grade II-listed buildings are also earmarked for demolition under the most likely option on the pretext – so we understand – that the gyms are, technically, not high enough for badminton... Wandsworth fully know that they are doing something to blight the country’s national heritage and which is, procedurally, quite risky. And, as far as we are aware, they still have no approval either for abandoning these grounds, or de-listing the building, or planning permission for what might possibly go on the site. They have so many high hurdles still to jump. And, we have been informed, at least one architect of national renown will speak out against the proposals next week. Other architects and public bodies will definitely follow as they find out about these plans.
But architecture aside, is it in the best interests of students to lose more than half of Elliott’s land: 20,000sq.m. of green space, tennis courts, football fields, an outdoor stage? Where will current students and the generations of other children who will follow them go at playtime? Will they be crammed into the main building’s corridors like battery chickens? Will hundreds of kids in May next year who want to enjoy the sun have to rely on the small ‘elephant playground’? ‘Pupils aren’t going to pass their GCSEs in these playgrounds,’ said Justine Greening. True – but are we expecting them to play, live and breathe nature in the exam hall? Do we want them to attend a small, shrunken school surrounded by the bricks and concrete of private development or would we rather preserve for them these substantial grounds which will implicitly imbue in those without gardens, without nature in their own private lives, that sense of space and grandeur which will open up their minds and aspirations and enable them to think ‘wow – I can be as amazing as my school!’ Another mother wrote us a poignant e-mail about ‘how vitally important green play areas were to [her children] physically and spiritually. They learnt more about botany in playtime than in any classroom, and forged life-long friendships in the gardens of their school. The first necklace they gave me was made in the playground, a daisy chain.’
And this is where we disagree with all those who argue for the sale of the land to fund refurbishment. These plans to mutilate the school will deprive all those generations of students Elliott will educate over the next decades of something which all of us in this campaign have experienced and know we could not have done without.
What is truly regrettable is Wandsworth’s behaviour in putting forward these proposals. The sorry state of the school buildings is the result of neglect by the responsible local authority for a long, long time as it has sought to tap into others’ funding pots to prevent its own reserves from being depleted.
Wandsworth has the lowest council tax in the country: £687/annum for Band D. It has over £100 million in cash and cash equivalent assets (Balance Sheet, 2010-11). It crows that it has a ‘better credit rating than the United States [meaning] that the council will find it easier and cheaper to raise funds from the money markets if it needs to finance big projects’ (Brightside, Issue 153).
Should Wandsworth not contribute a significant percentage of the costs for which it is actually responsible and would have actually paid if it had duly maintained Elliott over the years?
Let me expand on the very obvious and pretty fair alternative option open to Wandsworth which some have raised and stares the stingy council in the face. Rather than choose to freeze council tax for the fifth year in a row, could the Council not have chosen to charge a levy of 11% on 2012-13 council tax and business rates for the refurbishment of one of its Grade II-listed secondary schools? According to my rapid calculations, that would add £41 to a Band D tax-payer and be in keeping with acceptable inflation (over five years). It would take Band D council tax up to £728, making it the second cheapest council tax (certainly in London, probably the whole country) and still 33% cheaper than Kensington & Chelsea’s which is the third cheapest in London.
A levy is not a wild idea. The Council already charges the Wimbledon and Putney Commons Conservators (WPCC) levy which funds the upkeep of these open spaces and adds £24/annum to Band D council tax. The Elliott levy need not even be compulsory levy; it could be optional.
Wandsworth could have argued a case for its residents to choose to pay the optional levy. In fact, rather than present two options to dispose of more than 50% of Elliott’s land at the public consultation, why not present one option to sell (no burden to the tax payer) and another to save and preserve the land with the costs which that would involve? It would have been just as easy for them to prepare. And giving the people all the facts and letting them choose what is best for their community would have been real democracy.
But is Wandsworth, and are the local MPs, willing to think outside the box at something slightly more complicated than ‘slash and burn’ the green space for lucrative development? A levy could be one part of a bigger plan to fundraiser for the refurbishment of this architecturally significant site: part levy, part School fund-raising, part central government, part lottery money, part English Heritage, part other charitable trusts. This is, again, not a wild plan.
In March this year, the National Gallery acquired Titian’s ‘Diana and Callisto’ for £45 million, £25m of which came from its own reserves but the other 45% came from donations and grants (£15m), the Heritage Lottery Fund (£3m) and the Art Fund (£2m). Titian's ‘Diana and Actaeon’ was purchased three years ago for £50m. In 2007, £5 million was found to save Turner’s Blue Rigi for the nation. When such large sums are not just (rightly) considered valuable cultural investments, cannot a similar sum be found to preserve an iconic 20th century, Grade II-listed building which not only stands passively as a testament of this country’s architectural heritage and the success which can emerge from a period of recession and austerity but actively educates, year after year, new generations of this nation’s citizens?
We cannot support these current plans. To do so would not only condone Wandsworth’s neglect of Elliott, but also compound this neglect with irreversible abuse of its site and its prospects in the future.
We feel that all readers of PutneySW15.com should question Wandsworth about the other options it has explored in funding the refurbishment, and question their MP too. If they, like us, have nothing to hide, then they will explain their rationale as fully as we have ours, or, one hopes, even better, as the publicly-accountable bodies which they are.
on behalf of the Save Elliott School Campaign