RESIDENTS are claiming an early success in their fight to stop a 400-student international academy in Headington.

A city council investigation into claims that a new boarding school in Pullens Lane could breach planning rules has given a major boost to objectors.

It has raised the possibility of teaching being stopped at Cotuit Hall, with a new planning application having to be submitted by the Swiss-based company EF.

Residents claim that EF’s plans for an academy amount to a change of use for the sensitive Cotuit Hall site, previously used as a students’ hostel.

And they say that an email from the council’s senior planner, Matthew Perry, supports their case.

Objectors told the city council that EF’s planning application was based on “the false premise” that existing permission allows the site to be used for teaching. A fresh planning application would be required if a change of use is proven.

The email from the city planner appears to warn that the school could even be at risk from council enforcement action if the boarding school is found to be operating without proper planning permission.

Mr Perry tells residents: “It is the officers’ view at this stage that the existing lawful use of the Cotuit Hall site is as student accommodation with some ancillary teaching accommodation.

“Using the site as they propose in the application would in our view (at present) result in a change of use which would be unauthorised, unless planning permission is granted for a change of use beforehand.”

EF acquired Cotuit Hall from Oxford Brookes University last year for what was believed to be £8m.

The Headington Hill Umbrella Group, formed by local residents’ associations, were jubilant at the response from the planning officer.

Spokesman Prof Graham Upton, the former vice-chancellor of Brookes University, said: “We are delighted to hear that council planning officers support HHUG’s position on the planning status of Cotuit Hall.

“Cotuit has operated for many years as a student hostel with no provision for regular teaching and learning.

“HHUG claimed that the proposal to create a residential school for 408 students on the site was a change of use for which EF should have been required to make application before submitting its present planning application.”

If they were to go ahead now, he warned, there would be a real risk that they would be operating illegally on the site.

He said information was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. The university was unable to find any information recording timetabled teaching carried out at Cotuit Hall.

Prof Upton said EF had already begun to hold classes on the site and from September was proposing to open the new academy, initially with 180 pupils.Residents are unhappy about the scale of the development, which would later see three blocks built in Pullens Lane.

Anna Ireland, Project Manager for EF International Academy, said: “We have been in a close and constructive dialogue with officers of the Oxford city planning department over the past 12 months with regards to our plans for Cotuit Hall.

“We continue to work collaboratively with them.”