Gove dream of free schools in re-used buildings hit by further setbacks

Planners reject free school bid in another disused police station as DfE spends ‘staggering’ £33.5m for single free school site in north London

Michael Gove’s dream of free schools opening in disused buildings has received another high profile setback with a bid to open a school in a former north London police station set to be turned down.

Planning officers at Camden Council have recommended that an application to convert the former Hampstead Police Station into a primary school is rejected.

It is only the latest reverse for a policy, announced by Mr Gove in 2010, of encouraging free schools to open in “pet shops and funeral parlours”.

If Camden councillors follow their officers’ recommendation on Thursday, it will be the second time in almost as many months that a free school bid hoping to open in a disused police station has been rejected by planners.

A similar bid in east London, on the site of the old Clapton Police Station, was vetoed by Hackney Council amid fears the size and scale of the Olive Free School was too big for the location.

According to the Camden New Journal, supporters of the Abacus Free School in Hampstead had hoped to open a school for 420 primary pupils in the Grade II-listed police station.

But the application was recommended for rejection last week due to concerns that it would lead to “unreasonable” traffic congestion.

Hundreds of comments on the plans were received by the Town Hall, including objections from broadcaster Melvyn Bragg and actor Tim Pigott-Smith.

The planning officers’ report states: “Having carefully weighed the public benefit of providing a school against the harm to the listed building, officers consider that the extent of harm to the Grade II-listed building and this part of Hampstead Conservation Area outweighs the public benefit.”

Meanwhile, another free school application in north London has sparked an outcry after it was revealed that the government had paid £33.5m for a site near to two existing high-performing secondary schools.

The Department for Education purchased the office block in December in order to house a 1,000-student secondary school.

The site was bought by developer Pegasus Ltd £25.7m back in March 2015, meaning the company secured a £7.8m profit in just nine months.

But the decision to establish a school near to the outstanding-rated Highbury Grove School, and Highbury Fields, which is judged to be “good”, has provoked serious criticism.

Richard Watts, Labour’s leader of Islington Council described the bid as a “staggering waste of money”.

“This is an area where there is no need for a new secondary school and, given there are areas across London and the rest of the country where there is an acute need for new places, to spend a fortune on this site in Islington seems completely unjustified,” Mr Watts told The Guardian.

“It’s a staggering waste of taxpayers’ money. If a local council had done this, it would be taken to the cleaners by the district auditor. But there is an incredible lack of transparency around these [free school] developments. It seems no one at all is taking responsibility for ensuring that public money is spent efficiently.”

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