PLANS for a new specialist school in Bridgwater are moving forward after Somerset County Council’s cabinet voted to appoint its chosen contractor.

The council announced its intention in May 2018 to build a new school at the northern end of Bower Lane, near the town’s community hospital, for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

The new school will accommodate up to 160 pupils from September 2020, with extra capacity being created at the existing Elmwood and Penrose schools in Bridgwater.

Opposition members have welcomed the announcement, but raised concerns about how environmentally friendly the new buildings will be.

The proposals were discussed at a meeting of the council’s cabinet in Taunton on Monday morning (March 11).

The new school will bring pupils from the Elmwood and Penrose schools under one roof, serving children across the Sedgemoor district between the ages of four and 16.

It will include a warm water hydrotherapy pool and “a reasonably-sized hall with sporting capabilities”, allowing the school to cater for children with a wide range of physical and mental health needs.

When the new school opens, Penrose will continue to provide special needs education, but will focus on post-16 provision with an emphasis on “promoting independence and employability skills.”

Elmwood school, meanwhile, will be converted to provide more capacity at Robert Blake school.

The new school will free up around 500 mainstream school places, of which 300 will come from the Elmwood site.

Annette Perrington, the assistant director for inclusion, said it would deliver annual savings of £1.95M in placement costs, and “additional transport savings would also be significant” in light of pupils being educated closer to their homes.

Phil Curd, the council’s strategic manager for access and additional learning needs, said the school would operate on a “local first” basis, with Sedgemoor SEND pupils being sent to the new Bower Lane school and SEND pupils in in and around Taunton being sent to the new Hazelbrook campus.

He added: “There is a statutory entitlement that anyone who lives outside of the statutory walking distance will get transport. Those who live within walking distance will be individually assessed.”

An “acoustic bund” of between 4m and 6m will be constructed on the eastern boundary of the site to reduce noise from the nearby M5 motorway.

Mr Curd also confirmed work would be undertaken to ensure traffic flow on the A39, to the north of the site, would not be disrupted by the new school.

The council indicated in May 2018 that the new school would cost around £18M to build.

Due to commercial sensitivity, neither the precise cost of the school nor the identity of the contractor will be made public for a further two weeks.

The council has confirmed, however, that £4.75M of the cost will come from grant funding, while “the majority” will come from external borrowing.

Mr Curd said the cost of borrowing had been factored into the council’s medium-term financial plan and capital programme, which were both approved by the full council on February 20.

Councillor Faye Purbrick, cabinet member for education and transformation, said this was “a very positive project which will allow more SEND students to access services in their local area.”

Councillor David Hall called it “a great step forward for Bridgwater”, and Councillor Christine Lawrence added: “It’s great to see that so many more children will reach their potential, whatever that potential may be.”

Opposition councillors, while generally supportive of the new school, questioned whether it would be as environmentally friendly as possible.

Councillor Simon Coles said solar panels should be included in the agreed design, with the energy they would generate being used to heat the pool.

Councillor Tessa Munt also called for rainwater collection and ground source heating to be considered, stating: “It’s so easy if you think about it as part of the basics, instead of thinking about it perpetually as an add-on.”

Councillor Alan Wedderkopp added: “Will the portfolio holder and members of the cabinet just start really thinking about the environment, and getting it in at the beginning, not the end?”

Mr Curd said he would be in regular conversation with the chosen contractor to see how much how much sustainable technology could be incorporated without the project cost rising.

He said: “We have got the option to put those sustainable technologies into the project. What we have to be wary of through the design process is the cost doesn’t escalate beyond what is affordable.”

He added that parents, staff and pupils had been consulted on two occasions before the current design stage and were “absolutely delighted with what they are going to be getting.”

Council leader David Fothergill said: “I’m absolutely delighted that this scheme is coming forward.

“This is going to have such a positive impact for children in the Sedgemoor area. This is tremendous work.”

The cabinet voted unanimously to approve the appointment of its chosen contractor, whose name will be made public after the statutory “cooling-off” period of ten working days.

The new school will be operational from September 2020.