Reg Little on why The Dragon's plans for a new music school are proving contentious

The normally harmonious relations between The Dragon School and its neighbours look like being badly disturbed by proposals for a new music school.

When that other celebrated North Oxford independent school, St Edward’s, announced plans for a 1,000-seat concert hall, along with a music school and rehearsal room, there was widespread rejoicing among the city’s music community.

But if The Dragon had been anticipating that kind of warm response for its own music development from residents, whose homes surround the school, it will be disappointed.

The school has held meetings with residents of Park Town and Norham Road to set out proposals to build a new music school, which could mean the demolition of the school’s Lane House building, dating from the 1920s.

But with a planning application still some way away, the music school already has set alarm bells sounding, with concerns about the prospect of a three-storey building spoiling the appearance of one of North Oxford’s most attractive leafy lanes, Dragon Lane, which still retains a remarkably rural atmosphere.

The greatest concern is being expressed by residents of Park Town, raising the prospect of what is certain to be a highly civilised planning dispute between Oxford’s most famous prep school and residents of the city’s smartest address — with both North Oxford city councillors James Fry and Dr Louise Upton now involved.

Dr Upton said: “The school has held a meeting to show plans to residents and local councillors. Residents in Park Town and Norham Manor are understandably concerned about the possible impact that an extension at The Dragon might have.

“James Fry and I have had a private meeting with the bursar to put residents’ concerns to him. I believe a second public meeting has now been planned at which I hope they will be responding to the issues raised and keeping residents informed of progress.”

While the school said it was still too early to release any details of its proposals to replace the school’s music school, Mr Fry told The Oxford Times: “The proposal would create a new music block at the back of Park Town, between Norham Road and Bardwell Road.

“It could be up to three storeys, providing a rehearsal room and auditorium for about 100 people.

“People living in Park Town are worried about the scale of this development, and in Norham Road they are concerned about the disruption during construction work. “It is a question of whether the school will respond to the concerns.”

One Park Town resident, who asked not to be named, said: “If this plan were to go ahead it would cause great consternation locally.”

She said some residents now feared that the music school might only be the first phase of a far bigger school expansion scheme.

But the possible impact on the little known but much loved Dragon Lane means the repercussions of the scheme could extend far beyond the exclusive North Oxford addresses.

For it has emerged that Oxford Preservation Trust (OPT) also has its eyes on The Dragon’s musical ambitions.

OPT director Debbie Dance said: “Dragon Lane is a very special place, a rural lane that has somehow survived in the middle of the town.

“We are not yet sure of what the school wants to put on the site. But the character of this leafy lane is important and we have asked The Dragon to protect it, whatever they do.”

Founded in the 1870s on land between the River Cherwell and Bardwell Road, the school’s roll call of old boys includes the Labour Party leader Hugh Gaitksell, war hero Leonard Cheshire, broadcaster David Dimbleby, tennis player Tim Henman and the dramatist/ barrister John Mortimer.

Former pupils who have achieved fame in the world of the arts is particularly impressive, with the list including the Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman and actors Hugh Laurie, Derek Nimmo, Tom Hollander and Emma Watson.

Music has continued to be an important part in the life of the school, with the music department presently staffed by six full-time specialists, with over 40 visiting instrumental and singing teachers.

For the more musically able child there are auditioned ensembles and the school orchestra and school choir regularly perform in such prestigious venues as Winchester Cathedral and the Royal Opera House, as well as undertaking foreign tours.

The school’s website says the music school would be part of “a rolling 10-year plan for the development of buildings and facilities” that will be supported by a major fundraising effort.

Sarah Harris, a spokesman for the school, said: “The Dragon takes its relationship with its neighbours very seriously and in that spirit is undertaking a consultation process with local residents’ associations and other stakeholders before making a formal planning application to replace the school’s existing music school.

“We shall be meeting again with our neighbours and the other stakeholders towards the end of April and, in due course, we shall be submitting a planning application.

“In the interim we have no further comment to make at this stage.”