Government puts pressure on local planners over sites for free schools

The government is increasingly strong-arming local planning departments to give up sites they have deemed unavailable – or unsuitable – for use as a free school. This is from the Guardian…

In a newly painted classroom at a former infants’ school in Warrington, a group of 11-year-olds is devising radio ads for their new school. “Where’s the best school for education? Is it in Orford?” a girl trills out. “Computer says no,” replies one of the boys, deadpan.

“Is it in Padgate?” “Computer says no.”

“Is it King’s Leadership academy?” This time they all chorus: “Computer says yes! So come to the best school ever!”

If the people of Warrington were confused about their new school’s location, no one could blame them. The man charged with overseeing the project, Sir Iain Hall – a former “super-head” in Manchester – only set foot in this formerly vacant building during the second week of July. “It was horrendous. It was in a very poor condition inside, but we had to be able to see through that. I doubt we would have opened at all if we hadn’t got this site then,” he says.

King’s Leadership academy had a difficult birth. Hall and the parents’ group that approached him to set up this new free school, one of 55 that opened last month, spent the early part of this year embroiled in increasingly bitter negotiations with Warrington borough council over their demands for a site.

They were not alone. Investigations by Education Guardian indicate that, of 68 free schools approved in the “second wave” of applications – most of which were due to open this year – eight have no permanent site. At least two have delayed opening until next year as a result, and nine have had to open in temporary accommodation while conversion or building work is done.

Among those that have secured sites, a number have found themselves in dispute with local authorities over planning. Three want to open in disused offices, one in a job centre, one on a business park and one in a shopping centre. In more than one case, planners have deemed the proposed sites unsuitable.

Ministers have been taking an increasingly robust approach to the problem. In Warrington, the local authority refused to hand over or share the site of Woolston community high school, which closed this summer and whose buildings had been earmarked for a special school. So a specific threat was made: “We must reserve the right to actively pursue the use of the powers … if that is necessary to open the free school this September and thereafter to secure a permanent home for it,” a Department for Education official wrote in an email earlier this year.

The “powers” referred to are held under the 2010 Academies Act. In effect, if a local authority refuses to hand over a vacant education site – usually for a peppercorn rent on a 125-year lease – the government can “scheme” it into its own ownership. Warrington decided to cave in and hand over a chunk of local playing field instead. DfE officials then sat in Warrington town hall – according to both free school and local councillors – searching Google Maps for a building the school could occupy until its new home was built. The lease was finally signed in the nick of time, in late July.

More at: Government flexes muscles over sites for free schools

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