Thursday, 8 September 2011

Planning for free schools

There seems to be some dismay in the independent education sector, particularly among those who wish to promote ‘free schools’, that the planning system could still represent a significant stumbling block in the realisation of their aspirations.

In retrospect it was unwise of the Education Secretary, Gussie Fink-Nottle (who currently operates under the pseudonym of ‘Michael Gove’) to promise last year to “tear up planning laws” to allow his new ‘free’ schools to be built. From recent correspondence I have received, it is clear that some of those who had expected to benefit from the planning relaxation which had been foreshadowed in ministerial statements have still not appreciated the extent of the government’s retreat from its earlier gung-ho approach to these matters.

It seems, in fact, that there are quite a few people who have been seriously misled by the latest ministerial pronouncement into believing that the government has now cleared the way for ‘free schools’ to be built (or to be converted from existing buildings) with the minimum of planning formalities, whereas the government has in fact entirely abandoned its original intention of amending either the Use Classes Order (which was never really a practical idea) or the General Permitted Development Order so as to enable such schools to be set up without the need to apply for express planning permission. ‘Planning’ magazine correctly characterised the latest announcement as a “free schools planning climbdown”, and the Guardian accurately reported the true nature of the government’s retreat in face of an overwhelmingly hostile response to the idea of allowing schools to be established in all sorts of premises without the need to obtain express planning permission for this change of use.

The attempts of ministers to dress up this abject failure of will as in some way demonstrating their determination to forge ahead with free schools is frankly pathetic. It is the worst kind of ‘spin’, and is yet another example of government by press release, to which this government seems to have been addicted ever since it came to power. Eric Pickles has resorted to his favourite mantra of pretending that there will be a ‘presumption in favour’ of the grant of planning permission for such projects, whereas such proposals will in practice have to comply with all the usual planning policies and other material considerations which are always taken into account in the determination of any planning application.

Contrary to what Uncle Eric was trying to imply, appeals against the refusal of planning permission will not simply be waved through. The Planning Inspectorate will no doubt apply the same objective approach to the proposals as they would to any other appeal. If the LPA, who may well be supported by local residents opposed to the scheme, shows that there are sound planning reasons for refusing permission, then such an appeal can be expected to be dismissed. Only if or when local authorities have refused planning permission on other than planning grounds will there be a strong chance of an appeal being allowed, and possibly also an award of costs being made against the LPA.

This should not deter those who wish to promote new schools from applying for planning permission; they must simply realise that they will have to make out a good case in planning terms, taking account of the design of any new buildings in the context of their surroundings, and the suitability of the proposed use in relation to neighbouring land uses, especially in a residential area. The possibility of noise, disturbance and other effects detrimental to residential amenity are bound to be important issues.

I have no strong views on the desirability or otherwise of establishing ‘free schools’ but, from a planning point of view, I am sure the government was right to draw back from the controversial stance which they had originally adopted, even if it makes Gussie Fink-Nottle look a bit of a chump (which, of course, we all knew he was anyway).


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