By Bruce Morris
COMMENTARY: Has there been a softening in the attitude of the Ministry of Education to the need for a new school in – or close to – the Unitec development?
Through the murk of civil service language there are some signs that a “let’s look at this again” directive has arrived in the in-files on bureaucratic desks.
Back in mid-September, before the election, the ministry was adamant it had no plans to build either a state secondary or primary school on the Unitec land, or nearby in the inner-west.
At that stage, of course, the Unitec intention was to sell surplus land to private developers – freeing up funds to allow an education precinct to be accommodated in a compact quarter of the 55ha block.
To questions posed by Mt Albert Inc, the ministry revealed then it had earlier looked at relocating Western Springs College to the Unitec land but decided instead to rebuild the school on its existing site.
Further, deputy secretary Katrina Casey said: “I can confirm there are no plans to build any future schools on the land in question.”
The ministry, she added, was “dealing with the associated growth in population projections resulting from Unitec’s proposal … by adding capacity to the existing school network”. The schools she detailed were all to the west of Carrington Rd: Waterview Primary, Avondale Intermediate and Avondale College.
That position was reaffirmed when Gladstone Primary was given authority late last year to remove the Unitec land from its zone (a step since followed by Mt Albert Grammar), with the ministry telling this website the planned private development “could yield up to 500 students over the next 15 years”.
It added: “These students will be in the Waterview School home zone. We will ensure that there is appropriate capacity to deal with the growth over the next 15 years and beyond.” In other words, ‘we’ll stick in extra classrooms to cope’.
Then, in late March, the new Government revealed its grand plan for a state-orchestrated development of between 3000 and 4000 homes on the site – with Housing Minister Phil Twyford later telling us the original Unitec masterplan had planned just 2675 homes.
So, potentially, that’s an extra 1325 homes over the next eight or 10 years. If the ministry’s projections last year decided 500 children would flow in time from 2675 homes, how many might spring from 3500 or 4000 homes? The arithmetic suggests up to 800 children living on the block in, say, 15 years.
Didn’t that change the picture for the ministry, especially when Prime Minister (and local MP) Jacinda Ardern was suggesting a new school might be part of the picture?
Well, no. Apparently not.
When Mt Albert Inc asked the ministry if it stood by its contention there was no need for a new school in the Unitec grounds (or nearby) to handle the offspring of all those future homes, the answer was succinct: “Yes”.
But politics is an interesting game and when the Prime Minister is also the MP for Mt Albert, the local leverage is powerful – even if it’s doubtful there’s enough room to jam in a school on the Government’s 29ha with 3500 homes, say, green space, roads and recreational facilities.
In an interview with Mt Albert Inc, Ms Ardern said there hadn’t been enough planning generally around roll growth in Auckland and the Government was “absolutely asking questions”.
“We know there’s been some argument from the ministry that there is capacity in the west and we need to look at whether that is going to be sufficient. Education is one of the things that I’d say is top of mind for planning and development at Unitec.”
Looking ahead, she said it would surprise her if a new school was not built in the inner west within the next 10 years.
So back we went to the ministry with these questions: has your position changed, is it being reviewed and could there be a new school in the area in the future?
The answer this time was rather less exact.
“We are working with KiwiBuild [the Government’s affordable houses programme that will build 40 per cent of the homes at Unitec] to understand their vision for development at the Unitec site,” said the ministry statement.
“We are investigating options for schooling, taking into account existing roll pressures on local schools.
“Future options will be clarified once the masterplan including yields and typologies for the new development are known.”
And then a spokesman for Education Minister Chris Hipkins chipped in with this: “The minister has been advised that the ministry is continuing to investigate options. He expects an update later this year.”
Read into all that what you will. But the prospect of a new local school is plainly not dead in the water.