Radical reforms mean people wanting to open free schools can bypass traditional planning consent. However, the changes have often met with stiff opposition. Recent High Court decisions may give more encouragement to those seeking to establish free schools. PWA Planning director, Paul Walton, explains more.
Broad ranging planning rules enable free schools to open in virtually any building for 12 months – and potentially permanently – without needing conventional planning permission.
The government’s measures are designed to allow free schools to convert empty or underused buildings and move quickly onto their site.
But this removal of planning red tape has proved controversial, often provoking angry responses from local authorities and residents up and down the country.
Why do free schools fall under permitted development rights?
Before the changes were introduced in 2013, parents, teachers and charities wanting to start a free school had to go through a lengthy planning application process to obtain free school planning permission from local authorities to move into buildings that were not already designated for school use.
This was changed by the government’s introduction of permitted development rights that also give free schools extra time to win permanent planning permission following their first year.
In addition, a more streamlined approval process means new free schools can open permanently in a broad range of buildings, including offices and hotels. As a result, planning authorities are only permitted to carry out a limited assessment that takes into account issues such as noise and traffic.
Why is there uncertainty over the effectiveness of permitted development for free schools?
A number of long-running planning battles over consents given to free schools have been the subject of legal challenges by local authorities. One free school site in Buckinghamshire has recently been the subject of a High Court challenge and a decision was handed down recently. The challenge relates to Khalsa Secondary Academy, a free school, which earlier this year was given permission by the Communities and Local Government Department to remain permanently at its site in Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire.
Permission had been refused by South Buckinghamshire District Council in 2013, and the decision was upheld on appeal by an independent Inspector. The then Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles reversed the decision, but in a highly unusual move last September, subsequently changed his mind. The task of determining the matter was then passed to the new Communities Secretary, Greg Clark, who in February granted permission for the school to stay on its site.
The District Council, supported by the Parish Council challenged the legitimacy of the decision made by the Communities Secretary in the High Court and this challenge was determined earlier this month.
In a move which demonstrates the degree of latitude that the Government has in reaching decisions on these matters, the High Court rejected the legal challenge and confirmed the consent to the benefit of Khalsa Academy.
Earlier this last month, the High Court also dismissed a legal challenge brought by local residents against the London Borough of Hounslow, which had approved consent for a large free school in Isleworth, London.
What does this all mean for the future of free school development?
The recent High Court decisions indicate that the government will not be easily swayed in its efforts to deliver on its commitment to help bring forward hundreds of free schools. The High Court has reaffirmed that the Secretary of State retains significant control and can, where appropriate, overrule its own inspectors.
The importance of such schools and the fact that the permitted development rights are intended to be very permissive of such proposals, weighs very heavily in favour of new proposals. The clear indication is that the government will need to be overwhelmingly convinced that the impacts of such a development are likely to be unacceptable and cannot be mitigated if they are to support the decision to refuse consent. In spite of local authorities and some inspector’s efforts, so far the government has prevailed in its efforts to push through the free school revolution.
What should I do if I want to develop a free school?
The recent decisions are a further encouragement to those looking to establish free schools, who will no doubt take solace from the government’s clear general support for the free school programme and the nitty gritty of ensuring that free schools have premises from which to operate.
Any person or organisation contemplating the development of a free school should seek professional planning advice before committing significant resources to any such development to ensure that there is the best possible chance of securing a suitable planning consent for the proposals.