LEADERS at the Billericay School have said controversial permission to build homes in the green belt must be granted to fund urgently needed improvements.

A planning inquiry began yesterday, looking into the school’s appeal for permission to build 51 homes.

The school lodged the appeal after Basildon Council refused permission for the development because it was in the green belt.

But the school said it needed to sell the six-acre plot to developers to fund multimillion-pound improvements at the school.

Outlining the school’s case, Richard Phillips said Essex County Council and Ofsted supported its bid.

He said: “It’s become obvious parents are seeing other schools in the area improve.

“They are seeing this school is falling behind and that’s affecting parental choices on where their children go, which will affect education attainment. There would be significant education benefits from the proposal and for the wider community, through the school’s extended services.”

Mr Phillips said Basildon Council had identified a shortfall of 551 homes in the area over the next five years, which a development on the site would reduce.

But David Lintott, who spoke on behalf of Basildon Council, said the green belt preserved an important open space in Billericay.

He said: “The piece of green belt land forms the view as you travel towards the historic centre of Billericay. It’s a piece of land that’s particuarly special, which would be harmed if this proposal was allowed.”

Mr Lintott said the school had been praised for its performance in a 2004 report, which made no mention of the need for improvements.

The inquiry is set to last three days.