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letters A plea to John Prescott about Pimlico School

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The Architects' Journal welcomes your letters, which should preferably be typed double-spaced. Please address them to the editor at 151 Rosebery Avenue, London EC1R 4GB, fax them on 0207 505 6701, or e-mail them to Victorian@ construct.emap.co.uk to arriv

An open letter to the deputy prime minister, John Prescott:

Pimlico School is acknowledged to be one of Westminster's best secondary schools. Opened by prime minister Harold Wilson, it was ilea's (Inner London Education Authority) flagship comprehensive school (with full community use). In 1972, it received the riba London Region Award. It was publicised internationally and visitors from all over the world came to see it (and still do).

Designed for 1725 students (1500 aged 11 to 15; 225 sixth-form), it is to have an eventual roll of 1450. Children come from all walks of life; many have parents from the professions. Several important educational programmes, such as Art and the Environment, subsequently widely adopted in schools throughout the country, had their beginnings at Pimlico. From the outset it has been the home of a special music course for gifted youngsters from all London state schools. Now it continues in its building on a site (50 per cent of the size recommended in dfee Building Bulletin 82: area guidelines for schools) which has been deprived of the most commonplace maintenance by its local education authority, Westminster City Council.

After commissioning several reports on the building, the chief and first of which by Carl Bro outlined costed options ranging from restore to good condition, to demolish and rebuild ('an absolute last resort', Editorial aj 17.9.98), with the choice left to the lea without any recommendation, Westminster selected the latter. Its advertisement in the eu Journal was an invitation for demolition and rebuild with the possibility of part of the site being used for luxury housing.

Convinced this reconstruction did not represent either real 'value for money' or a solution in the best interests of the school, I produced a rehab/ modernisation scheme for the existing building. Renowned consultants Alan Baxter (structure), Max Fordham (solar-heat control/ services), Derek Sugden (acoustics), Robert Rummey (landscape), and Sawyer & Fisher (quantity surveyor). Based on the brief for Westminster's pfi contestants, and with input from the school, this deals with all identified defects and shortcomings and looks forward to the future. Likewise it is capable of realisation by a pfi equivalent in all respects to Westminster's own pfi without sacrifice of any of the site, with far less pain and disruption to pupils, teachers, and local residents, and at a saving of some 11 million to the government. The dfee is fully aware of this situation.

Home secretary Jack Straw has been a parent governor of the school for some years and chair of the governors until late last year. Although invited, he did not attend two teach-in/question and answer sessions I gave for governors (July 98 and April 99). Neither was he present at the meeting of 20 May 1998, when parents, teachers, governors and local residents were first made aware that a feasible alternative to Westminster's proposals was possible (aj 28.5.98).

dfee schools minister Charles Clarke (since reshuffled to the Home Office ) saw David Rock (then president riba) and myself in the last of a series of 'back-to-back' meetings (aj 29.7.99). He had full knowledge of my scheme and its £11 million saving with a pfi. I tabled a timetable for implementation in the current financial year; he said that Pimlico was no longer regarded by the dfee as a 'pathfinder pfi' (aj 12/19 .8.99).

Westminster has now granted planning approval for its pfi scheme. In justification of the disregard of udp density (247-494 habitable rooms/ha) for the site, acting director of environment and planning recommended acceptance of 900 habitable rooms/ha for the housing element as 'any significant reduction in density would comprise the value of the residential land' (aj 18.2.99).

The director of environment and planning, Tony Lear, was on 'extended leave' (aj 3/10.12.98; aj 18.2.98). In a planning brief for pfi contestants, he had praised the civic design qualities and amenity value of the existing school; in a subsequent report he had been critical of excess housing densities, parking and other aspects of the then two contesting pfi schemes.

I was interested to read that you had recently been asked by Westminster to back its planners' rejection of two schemes by developer Fairline Properties in the Baker Street Conservation Area, as being 'too bulky and out of scale' (aj 17.9.98). Immediately north of Oxford Street and east of Regent Street, a very large multi-storey block of luxury flats by Berkeley Homes is in the course of construction. The height of buildings in the surrounding conservation area is some four to five storeys, less than half that of the new intruder.

Berkeley Homes has been identified as the parent company of the housing component of the two competing consortia in the semi-final for the Westminster Pimlico pfi (aj 16.7.98).

Amongst the many objectors to the Westminster pfi planning application and supporters of the present building are eminent architects, the riba council, the Architectural Association, the Twentieth Century Society, English Heritage, the Royal Fine Art Commission, life peers Lord Briggs (historian), Lord Palumbo (connoisseur, former chairman of the Arts Council) and Lord Rogers (Richard Rogers, architect) (aj 10.6.99).

I have been notified of your decision not to call in the case, which of course is a great disappointment to the many of us who want to see a just outcome to this long-running saga. For instance, I am puzzled as to whether Westminster can give itself planning approval for a scheme being executed for itself as lea.

If I can be of any help to you on a 'without prejudice' basis, I would be happy to make myself available to give you any further information.

John Bancroft, Lyoth Couch House, 39 Lewes Road,

Haywards Heath,

Sussex rh17 7sy

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