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Westminster sparks fury as planners back school design

Westminster planners have recommended approval for the controversial Pimlico School pfi project, despite receiving a further welter of objection letters and conceding that the Ellis Williams scheme still does not meet the planning brief for the site. And, the aj has determined, although the planning application is a departure from the council's udp, Westminster failed to advertise it as such, contrary to government planning guidelines.

This week, Westminster released the planning officer's report into the project, which is the subject of a full planning committee meeting tonight at Westminster City Hall. The report, by acting environment and planning director, Peter Rogers, said that the revised proposals 'did not fully meet the intentions of the adopted planning brief' but were 'a substantial improvement over the original submission' in February, and the information accompanying them was better explained and justified the scheme.

In an extraordinary summary, Rogers added that permission should be granted 'given the primary planning objective of providing a new school, recognising the council's ability to safeguard the details of the scheme through planning conditions'.

Another eye-opening passage admits that 'the changes might not go as far as Members might have hoped and that, in its revised form, the proposed effect will still affect significantly the appearance of the adjacent 19th Century townscape. However, so does the existing school'.

Governor Michael Ball branded the report 'mealy-mouthed' and a 'dog's breakfast' adding that much of it relied on the false premise of a background paper prepared by the council's chief executive. 'It is entirely inappropriate for a planning authority to accept unscrutinised the advocacy and assumptions of a party to an application', he said. 'The claims made in the chief executive's report are frequently inaccurate and are disputed by the entire community including the governing body. Nevertheless, the report can only manage a mealy-mouthed recommendation, with a heavy use of conditions which could leave the school eventually in an even worse financial position.'

If ratified tonight, Westminster's actions are sure to prompt a widespread call for a public inquiry into the matter, with many objectors complaining that Westminster should not be able to determine its own inquiry and others, such as the Architectural Association and Twentieth Century Society calling for the building's retention on the grounds of the school's architectural merit.

Others still railed against the loss of 25 mature plane trees, the 'minor' and 'token' alterations made to the original proposals, overdevelopment of the site, and lack of social housing, again contrary to local authority rules.

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