The Government has written to Chief Planning Officers to tell them that there should be a "presumption" in favour of allowing state schools to expand. This is a good objective not just for new free schools starting but for allowing existing state schools to expand.
Of course some local councils regard the expansion of good schools, which are oversubscribed, as a threat. Where they are Church schools or Academy schools they are seen as rivals to the Local Authority schools. Even if it is a good LA school expanding that could be seen as most inconvenient because of the prospect of a bad LA school being obliged to close as a result. Incidentally I see no reason why the guidance should be restricted to state schools. Independent schools do a great job – letting them expand would allow reduce the cost to the state, reduce fees so that more parents could afford this option and drive up educational standards.
Eric Pickles believes the measure should allay public concerns that some councils could have a conflict of interest as a local planning authority and a local education authority, or could try to use the planning system to stop new free schools opening.
"Councils need to do more to support the expansion of popular schools, so that school waiting lists are not a barrier to greater equality of opportunity. We also need to avoid councils covertly seeking to use planning red tape to stop the healthy competition of new free schools. These measures will help improve local schooling to the benefit of local communities."
Education Secretary Michael Gove adds:
"We urgently need more good school places. Red tape must not be a barrier.
"These important changes will allow talented teachers, parents, charities and Academy sponsors to set up excellent new schools more quickly, responding to parental demand.
"Free schools will improve choice for parents, give power back to teachers, and give more children access to a first class education that's close to home."
The trouble is the new guidance lacks teeth. It still leaves too much scope for hostile councils to use the planning process to thwart free schools.
In the original proposals there was the prospect of certain buildings being able to have a change of use to a school without needing planning permission – there would be a "permitted development right". Options which this could apply to included hotels, restaurants, factories, offices, houses, concert halls, cinemas..
The consultation said:
Clearly, there will always be some properties which, for different reasons, may be unsuitable for use as a school and we would expect school promoters to eliminate them from their consideration. We do
not believe that we need to prescribe them. The Government also recognises that there are some uses that would be impracticable to be used as a school – for instance a skating rink – without development that would trigger the need to apply for planning permission.
By not requiring planning permission there would have ceased to be a requirement for a Travel Plan.
The document went on:
The creation of a new local school could also reduce the need for travel by car in some cases as pupils are able to attend a school nearer to their home. Secondary pupils who attend schools outside their home local authority area travel an average of 2.9 miles. Allowing schools to open where communities want them will allow some pupils that have previously had to travel a substantial distance (often by car) to walk to school.
Lots of councils and the National Union of Teachers wrote in to object. The proposals have been watered down. I hope what remains will be enough. But I fear that too much power of sabotage remains for the enemies of choice. If councils defy the guidance to stop free schools opening then the Government should revisit some of the more radical options that they earlier floated.