Special report: Peter Prior speaks about Furze Platt Senior School plans

Special report: Peter Prior speaks about Furze Platt Senior School plans

Nicola Hine

Special report: Peter Prior speaks about Furze Platt Senior School plans

New life can be breathed into Maidenhead through visions like moving Furze Platt Senior School to Spencers Farm, according to Summerleaze owner Peter Prior.

The multi-millionaire behind the plans defended his idea to rebuild the school and develop 700 new homes across two sites, in an interview with the Advertiser on Tuesday.

As a born and bred Maidonian he feels it is important 'new vigour' is injected into the town.

"It was a place full of character but it's lost that to a large extent," he said.

"I think doing things like this is giving it something special again."

Below are some of the extracts from Mr Prior's interview.

Click here to see a site map of the planned Spencers Farm development.

On coming up with the idea:

"I became a governor of Furze Platt School about seven years ago I suppose now, and as you get into being a governor, and to begin with everything's very strange, but you gradually get to feel comfortable and understand the school a bit, and it seemed to me that there was a problem with the buildings, which had been built to accommodate 400-odd students and now there were 1,100 students or so.

"It wasn't obvious where the money would come from to replace the buildings. I was on the site and finance committee so I knew how tight money was. And so after a few years you begin to think well it's your job as a governor to think what can you do to improve the offering for the students and the staff.

"It had always seemed to me that the better thing to do was to take the whole place down and build it at Spencers, completely new with no disruption to the students, and that by redeveloping the whole site we could have better developments at both places and it would be wonderful for the community to do that generally.

"I talked about it quietly with my board to see how they would feel about potentially losing quite a lot of the value of Spencers because we'd build a school there. But they're very forward-thinking as well and want to help the community and so with some reservations, because it looked like a highly risky project, they agreed that I could broach the subject with the school. This would have been about two years ago.

"It's a very good school. But I thought that it could be made even better and I'm very pleased that the chair of the governors and the headmistress have thought that too. Rebuilding the school while students were there would be very disruptive to those students, and especially to the staff."

On a timeframe for the development:

"We get planning consent at the end of 2013 and then we need to get on with preparations very quickly, and the concept is that we'd have to come to what's called financial closure, that means that all the money is in place to do everything, and the arrangements for the old school site.

"The secondary school would be built and then the primary [the plans will also need to contain the footprint for a new primary school], so building will take place with no disruption to the existing site, and will be completed in the summer of 2015. We'll have had to get on with preparing football pitches and cricket pitches and hockey pitches and things, but that's not especially difficult to do.

"And then during the summer holidays in 2015, Tanya [White, headteacher of Furze Platt Senior School] will be walking down the street with computers and things in her arms from one place to another - although it would probably be mostly new equipment I suspect - so when they come back for the autumn term in 2015 they're going to the new school."

Mr Prior said house building will have begun at Spencers Farm by this point. The old school buildings in Furze Platt Road will then be demolished, apart from some of the newer facilities like the dance studio, which will be retained on the site for community use. House building is expected to begin at the old site about two years later. In total the entire development across both sites could take up to 10 years.

On his confidence that planning permission will be granted for the scheme:

"There are so many things going for it. When the new homes are built that is more income for the town. How else is a new school going to be funded? This takes away from council the worry about how the buildings are going to be funded. For the sports clubs it's a dream ticket.

"There is so much going for it that really if this sort of scheme doesn't go through then I don't know where the Big Society is. This is the Big Society, it is building communities. What's the point of school buildings and playing fields not being used most of the time when by good planning we can provide excellent school facilities and excellent community facilities. So there are so many things going for this that I'm very confident that it will get planning consent."

On the housing plans:

"We haven't finalised the design of the housing. They'll be family homes obviously, right next to a school they should be family homes really, and I think what a brilliant place to bring up a family. It's just down the road from your primary school and your secondary school. If your kids likes football or wants to play cricket or go sailing he's got all the facilities right there.

"The detail in the housing we'll probably want to work through with a house builder, and whatever we put out would be what we envisage could be built, but as we're not actually building them ourselves I think it’s better that's done when we find a partner."

Mr Prior said Michael Shanly taking on the role is a 'possibility' but that a decision has not yet been made.

On traffic access to the new site, which will come from Cookham Road:

"Our traffic advisors are very happy about that. It's 350 houses, I expect they design accesses for 4,000 house developments.

"They're happy that Blackamoor Lane [the location of Michael Shanly's new Boulters Meadow development containing 448 homes] can take it, so I'm sure that this road can take it."

On the greenbelt issue:

"We have to face that head on.

"It is in the greenbelt and we don't pretend that it isn't. They are looking at other areas which are not in the greenbelt, to put them in instead, and we've put forward an area ourselves.

"We're dedicating the land, we're putting a covenant on the land - if this is approved - that we own, between Maidenhead and Cookham.

"People say well this is just an infringement on the greenbelt, well we're not actually closing the distance between Cookham and Maidenhead at all by this development.

"Quite apart from closing the greenbelt it's safeguarding the greenbelt."

On flooding:

Environment Agency maps show the proposed sites for the school buildings and housing development at Spencers Farm do not fall within the flood plain. Parts of the sports fields and public open spaces planned have between a 1-in-100 or 1-in-1,000 chance of flooding.

"Yes the sports fields will flood once every 20 years and I'm afraid they'll have a week or two off games, but it's not a major catastrophe in the general scheme of things. The school itself is outside the flooding area so there are no problems like that."

On the sports clubs:

"The sports clubs have been very supportive."

Mr Prior said money from the development is also set to be placed into a trust fund to cover the maintenance of the pitches once they are in use.

"If we set up this trust then I can be sure when I breathe my last that they will be ok, that the trust will be funded there to keep them going, and people will be able to enjoy the sports that I've enjoyed."

On being asked whether the sports clubs actually have a choice in the matter due to the fact they are effectively sponsored by Summerleaze:

"They've got perfect choice. They have leases, they can carry on doing it, but what they see is the advantage. The cricket club likes the idea that kids and the school will come down and use the facilities and perhaps they'll join the club."

On the boundaries between being a governor and a businessman:

"If you are a governor and you go there and you see what needs to be done, and it's quite plain to you, and you have a vision and you don't progress it because you happen to own the land, well how ridiculous is that? It's exactly the opposite of what ought to happen. If people who come from the community into schools can see how they can contribute to those schools and move those schools forward, and provide elements of better education and opportunities for kids, they should do so. It would have been entirely wrong for me not to have proposed something, I mean how ridiculous for me not to have proposed it just because I have been a governor, quite the reverse. I've seen what needed to be done by becoming involved with the school and it would just be absurd for me not to do that."

On the risks involved for Sunmmerleaze:

"The big challenge of course is finding what's effectively £40million [the estimated cost of the scheme] before we've sold a single house. That is a very big risk for my company to take. We're reasonably confident we'll get planning consent, the problem is at that moment when we've built the school, the money is spent, financial closure has been reached, so the money is put into that and then the school is secured and is being built, then the property market could go into substantial decline. So we're taking a very big risk on it but we think it's such a brilliant opportunity. There's no other opportunity like that around here.

"What I'm not confident about is that we'll make any money out of it. I think there is a risk from my company's point of view, from the shareholders' point of view, that the market collapses and that in the end we lose money. I mean we may make a profit, I don't know, but when you take risks like this you have to be rewarded. If it all goes well we will make a bit of money out of it."

On how much profit he could make:

"The biggest loss we could make would be that we could lose £30million. I mean we won't build the houses ourselves, I'm not very good at laying bricks, so I should think it's somewhere between equal loss and profit. We don’t know for certain and you never do when you take these risks.

"Remember it'll be three-and-a-half years until anything is sold, so house prices go up and down and it would be pure speculation to put a figure on it.

"As we get nearer the planning consent the risk will look less as long as the market for houses hasn't completely gone wrong. I think the saving grace from a development point of view is that Crossrail is coming.

"Our risk is whether the prices of houses continue to rise or stay the same or whether they go down, and certainly one of our directors thinks they will go down. It's just a matter of when. I'm of that view too frankly, in the long run houses will probably get cheaper. That's very good because it gives young people the chance to get on the housing ladder.

"There's a definite risk from a developer's point of view that houses don't gain more value, even in Maidenhead."

On why he thinks it is worth taking those risks:

"There are two things really. One is, it so clearly ought to be something that happens, and the other thing is that we just feel confident enough that we will make something out of it. What I see in letters and things is people that in my view have got the idea that I run off with piles of money and bury it in the garden. It doesn't work like that at all, but when you take a risk you have to reward the risk because what am I to say to my shareholders? Well we've done this but actually you're going to lose money? I've had shareholders write to me and say 'won't this affect our dividends?' I have to assure them that if it goes right I will be able to increase their dividends, but there is a risk. I have to make a business case for my shareholders. But what I say is the risk of us losing money is much less than the risk of us making money, that's certainly the case. But what's wrong with making money?

"If people say you shouldn't make a profit they're saying you shouldn't have capitalism, you should have communism, and we all saw what communism did."

On accusations he is purely in this to make money:

"These are not mutually exclusive things. There is an opportunity here for the community to have a first class facility. My shareholders are taking a big risk in investing their funds, we're investing our time, in promoting this project. If the risk goes wrong we will lose money, if the risk goes right we will make money. If we make money it will be taxed and we will be reinvesting it, here or elsewhere. Obviously we hope we will make something, and I don't apologise for it. If you're always going to do things and not make any money out of them, nothing will happen frankly, because there's no reward on taking the risk. It's quite difficult for people to understand that point but I'm not going to apologise for it."

On the opposition to the plans:

"I know there are two-and-a-half thousand signatures, some of them won't have realised quite what is being proposed and how advantageous that is, in fact I don't think any of them will have.

"Obviously people are always unsettled by change, in fact the prospect as always is much worse than the fact, and the fact is much better than the present."

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