Save Woolmer Green (2011)

Interview with a Local Hero


Earlier this year six villages in Hertfordshire were outraged over proposals to build an unnecessary secondary school in Woolmer Green. Rather than sit idly by Mark Castle became an active member of the opposing ‘Save Woolmer Green’ campaign, who claimed: “We DON’T need a school!” He played a crucial part in saving his local community.

Local residents were kept in the dark over a proposal for a secondary school to cater for over 800 students, put forth by the ‘We Need a School’ campaign group. Woolmer Green is a small village surrounded by green belt land. The school would cause huge traffic problems, and put a strain on the area’s infrastructure. The idealistic village life was set to be ruined.

Further outrage arose when the school was revealed to be a Free School, meaning children could be taught by unqualified teachers who did not follow the national curriculum. With the closure of schools in nearby towns, locals could not comprehend any need for a new secondary school.

Mark found out about the plans from a friend in early December 2010. He said: “The proposals would be disastrous for the village of Woolmer Green and the surrounding country side.” Mark, 40, is a resident of Oaklands, one of the villages surrounding Woolmer Green where he grew up. “I felt it was enormously important to preserve the rural identity of the village for future generations,” he said.

Mark hastily created a leaflet which was distributed to around 600 homes. As a result the first meeting presented by ‘We Need a School’ was packed; “The cat was well and truly out of the bag.” The opposition’s message was that secondary schools belonged in towns and not small villages. The proposing group had drastically overlooked the needs of the area where they planned to build the school.

Following this Mark arranged a meeting in the local pub, which he said a number of like-minded people attended. The ‘Save Woolmer Green’ campaign group was formed. Mark described it as consisting of around 10 core committee members with an incredibly valuable, wide ranging skill set, a further group of around 35 volunteers, and over 100 people willing to follow and help the campaign.

The campaign was uplifted using online media. Mark set up a domain name and created a website, blog and mailing list for the committee. He said the website served as a “focal point” helping to keep everyone up to date with their progress. Awareness was successfully raised using the social networking site Facebook, which Mark believes was the best platform to keep younger generations informed.

In January 2011 ‘We Need a School’ received provisional approval for the build. The opposing campaign rose up in full force to ensure that the proposal did not go ahead. The views of local residents were backed by Hertfordshire Council. Councillor Richard Thake said: “We’d be looking to support a Free School only if it’s in the right place, and a school in Knebworth or Woolmer Green is not where the most demand is.”

In February there was another meeting in Woolmer Green. Mark prompted attendance on the campaign’s Facebook page: “Don’t forget the meeting…Please turn up and show your support and voice your opinion…Unfortunately not turning up is akin to saying yes to them [WNAS] and that is what they are banking on. They expect final government approval in April; this will be the only real chance to say no before then.”
There was outstanding support from the local community with around 200 people attending. This far exceeded Mark’s expectations, he said: “At first I had no idea if it would just be me alone, but as time went on and the campaign gathered momentum it became clear that we had majority support of the village.”

In spite of the opposition ‘We Need a School’ continued their fight to build a Free School. The ‘Save Woolmer Green’ committee could not understand why the views of the local area were not being considered. By April their online petition against the school had gained nearly 2,000 signatures. A survey was also conducted by Knebworth Parish Council which echoed the views of the existing campaign. This could not be ignored.

In May 2011 the Free School application was rejected by the Department for Education. Mark received a direct phone call from the government informing him of their decision. After months of hard work Mark and his fellow campaigners had saved the villages and overthrown the proposed build.

In celebration the committee funded a party around the Woolmer Green village pond. Mark said: “We wanted to ensure that everyone knew of the outcome…and to thank the local community for their help and support.” Mark felt very relieved that the campaign had been successful and common sense had prevailed.

‘Save Woolmer Green’ was Mark’s first experience of a campaign and he felt fortunate to have had the help of other volunteers. He reflected on the difficulties faced such as controlling information sent on their behalf, and a split between members over whether to meet with the ‘We Need a School’ group. In spite of any obstacles Mark said: “I really enjoyed working with such a hard working knowledgeable group of people.”
As if this achievement wasn’t enough, Mark continued his commitment by joining the local Parish Council. He felt the campaign had provided him with valuable skills to help the local community in ways that he hadn’t previously considered.

The council are currently undertaking a campaign to ‘Save Welwyn’ from parking charges. Mark said: “We believe that introducing charges in car parks is neither required nor welcome in such difficult times, and we must support the vibrant village along with its businesses.”

Mark promises on-going support for our community. “I’ll continue to serve as a Parish Councillor for as long as possible, and I’m more than happy to get involved in any campaign that I believe is right,” he said.
When asked how it felt to be considered a valuable and heroic member of our community Mark claimed that he is not a hero. He said: “There are a huge amount of people that freely give up their time, expertise and experience to help their communities.” He believes that the ‘real’ heroes were the other members of the committee.

Mark’s modesty and commitment to his local community are undeniably admirable. Not only did he help save our villages from an unwanted secondary school, his support as a member of the Parish Council will continue to benefit the local area. We all know who we can count on in a crisis!
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