A report on The Politics Show yesterday highlighted a "contradiction" in the Conservative planning proposals to be published later this month. Generally there will be greater localism – for instance scrapping the housing targets and provide incentives instead. But there is an exception when it comes to new schools where Town Halls will lose power on planning consent. This is hoped to be an important area with the Gove Revolution of new state financed, but independently owned and run schools, being launched on the Swedish model.
A CCHQ briefing makes the following points:
Changing planning law is vital to ensure that groups of parents, charities and other organisations can easily set up new independent state schools. It's these schools that will give all children the kind of education currently only the rich can afford: strong discipline and smaller class sizes where teachers know the names of the children.
The three key things we're going to do are set out below.
i) give an automatic right to change the use of any existing building to educational use as a matter of permitted development i.e. without the need to seek planning permission;
ii) preserve the current stock of land available for new schools by legislating to require that all existing land that is currently used for ‘non-residential institutional purposes’ (Use Class D1) is kept as D1 land, unless the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families agrees to an application for change of use – this will keep the cost of this land down, so allowing new academy providers to take over, should an existing school close; and
iii) require that planning applications to build new schools be assessed following the same system as for non-linear major infrastructure projects i.e. decided by short and focused planning inquiries carried out by the Planning Inspectorate and governed by our new national priorities framework, followed by a decision by the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. This will allow all the interested parties to make representations, while ensuring that applications are considered impartially, based on national planning law.
Technically this might be presented as anti localist. But in reality it is about devolving power down from the Town Hall to the people. The school will run its own affairs rather than being told what t do by the Council. Clusters of parents wanting to start their own school will be able to do so rather being scuppered by bureucrats in County Hall in the next town.
The reality is that some Councils will resist competition for their own schools. Labour Councils, with children trapped in the worst schools in the country, will do so for ideological reasons. I'm afraid even some Conservative Councils might prove awkward. They will find it inconvenient coping with growing surplus places at the bad Council-run schools which they would then face the awkward decision of closing.
Given that most of the schools starting up will be small typically the automatic change of use to an existing building will apply. So it won't be a question of planning permission in Whitehall – planning permission would be needed at all.
This will make a tremendous difference. Robert Whelan of Civitas, which sets up its own schools, has said: "Planning departments put all sorts of obstacles in your way. Their care more about their traffic plans than anything else."
I can see when it comes to new school buildings some safeguards will be wanted against an eyesore. But the process should be positive rather than obstructive. Current planning policies can push up the costs. For instance demanding lots of parking spaces, thus a bigger and more expensive site being needed, or saying we won't allow change of use to a school because it was cause more traffic. For crying our loud. We've got children not learning to read and write and we're fretting about traffic flows. Anyway, it's a zero sum game. The children have to go to school somewhere. If they go to a new school there is less
parking/traffic pressure at some other school.
There has been concern that not allowing new school providers to make a profit could limit the impact of the new policy. These proposals on planning policies offer reassurance that there is determination to make it succeed.