Free schools will find it easier to convert empty and underused buildings and move more quickly into their preferred site following new measures to remove planning red tape, the government announced today (25 January 2013).
New measures will allow free schools to open in almost any building for a year without needing planning permission, removing concerns that schools cannot open in time.
At the moment, parents, teachers and charities who want to open a free school have to go through a lengthy planning application process to get council permission to move into buildings earmarked for use but that are not already schools. This can take up to a year and causes huge uncertainty for both the free school and parents.
The new permitted development rights will also give free schools extra time to win the permanent planning permission required to remain in their buildings after that first year. It will ensure the best use is made of existing buildings and will give parents and pupils greater certainty that the school will open on time.
In addition, new free schools will also be able to open permanently in a wider range of buildings – such as offices and hotels – with the introduction of an easier, more streamlined approval process. Local planning authorities will have to carry out only a limited assessment that will consider noise and traffic issues.
So far 80 free schools have opened in just 18 months, with around 100 more expected to join them at the start of the next academic year in September.
Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles said:
“It is vital that free schools can plan with confidence to be able to open at the start of the academic year and these new planning measures will provide that certainty for both schools and parents.
“We want to make sure every child has the opportunity to benefit from a good education and by streamlining the planning permission process we can ensure new schools can open, good schools can expand and all state-funded schools can improve their facilities.”
Education Secretary Michael Gove said:
“I want to make it as easy as possible for free school proposers not only to find buildings but move into them.
“So I am delighted that we are cutting the red tape that delays free schools from securing a permanent home.
“Enabling free schools to move into their preferred site more quickly will mean they can concentrate on raising standards and providing parents with an excellent school place for their child.”
Bedford Free School fought a battle with the local council for 8 months before securing its site.
Ian Pryce CBE, chairman of the Bedford Free School Trust, said:
“For most new free schools it is highly unlikely they will be able to identify appropriate sites that come with existing consent for school use.
“So changes to planning rules that put the emphasis on planners having to give strong reasons why a building is not appropriate for a school would have really helped Bedford Free School.
“We were able to develop the school and admit pupils, confident that we would achieve consent but the planning process was very frustrating at times, and these new rules would have helped us move into the building quickly and easily, so we could concentrate on a new school that the community and local parents wanted, with an excellent head, in one of the most deprived parts of our town.”
The changes are part of wider reforms due to come into effect in June after the Growth and Infrastructure Bill is passed.
The process of finding a site for a free school has already been sped up by the drive to cut red tape in the planning system. The following improvements are already in place:
- appeals from schools are treated as a priority
- national planning guidance has been slashed from thousands of pages to just 47
- councils must give priority to the need for new school developments when considering planning applications
The Department for Education has brought forward the application process to open a free school so that successful proposers have more time to find a site before the school is due to open. The Education Funding Agency also has more time to engage planners to pre-empt any issues.
The changes should come into effect in June 2013 and will benefit those who are successful in applying to open a free school during this year’s application round. These free schools will have a better chance of moving into their permanent sites well before they are due to open.
Find surplus government properties online
Separately, a new estate agency-style website listing surplus government properties has been set up to make it easier for people who want to set up a free school to search for and find sites. It launched today and shows more than 600 properties to rent and more than 140 to buy. The list will be updated as more properties become available or are claimed.
Education Secretary Michael Gove said:
“The government estate has a host of disused or underused sites that would be ideal for new free schools. The new website will mean that more government buildings are available and it will be the first port of call for people looking for a suitable property for their school. It will save time and allow free schools groups to concentrate on creating their new school to raise standards and provide more excellent school places.”
Kysten Comley, governor of Wapping High School in London, which opened in September last year, said:
“During our search for premises for a new free school in the centre of London we found it virtually impossible to gain information about potential government-owned sites. The new website will be hugely beneficial to anyone searching for properties for future free schools.”
The Growth and Infrastructure Bill is being taken through Parliament by the Department for Communities and Local Government. The Bill is expected to be passed in May before the regulations come into force in June.
Each building is given a class of use – a classification that denotes what the building can be used for. A list of classes and their uses can be found on the government’s planning portal website.
There remains a list of buildings whose class of use cannot be changed without planning permission, which includes:
- large houses of multiple occupation
- petrol stations
- shops selling motor vehicles
- retail warehouse clubs
- taxi or vehicle hire businesses
- amusement centres
- waste disposal installations
The property search website can be accessed via www.gov.uk/find-government-property.