Could Herts County Council be expected to pick up the bill for new Harpenden secondary school?

Batford Farm in Harpenden

Batford Farm in Harpenden - Credit: Archant

Two months after cancelling one school project, the government has gone cap in hand to the county council asking it to shell out millions more to build a new school in Harpenden.

Lead researcher Alexander Thomas

Lead researcher Alexander Thomas - Credit: Archant

Herts county council has already exchanged contracts for a 42.8 acre farm, its preferred location for Harpenden’s fourth secondary school, with the understanding that its building costs would be met by the government.

But it has now emerged that the project is considered too costly for government coffers - possibly £30 million more than it normally spends on free schools.

On Monday (18), the council’s cabinet went behind closed doors to consider an urgent request to contribute money towards its construction on the corner of Lower Luton Road and Common Lane.

The Education Funding Agency (EFA) has said that the estimated cost of this particular free school is relatively high compared to other free school proposals, and is “concerned over its ability to gain capital approval for the project” according to a council report.

Batford Farm in Harpenden

Batford Farm in Harpenden - Credit: Archant

It is the second unexpected move taken by the government during recent months in relation to local schooling.

In late February, despite five years of hard work by parents, and £2 million of taxpayers’ money being spent, the plug was pulled on the proposed Harperbury Free School in Radlett because of concerns over its size and Green Belt location, at the former Harperbury Hospital grounds.

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A spokeswoman for a Harpenden-based campaign group, Right School Right Place (RSRP), said: “Those following the school project might raise an eyebrow or two at the surprise revelation.”

Both the sudden request for money from the government, and the private debate of it by councillors, has been criticised by RSRP, a group of concerned residents against the location of the institution on Green Belt land in Batford.

The council has been in discussion with the EFA and the school proposer, the Harpenden Secondary Education Trust, about the next steps needed to have it built, including submitting a planning application.

In a vague report to the county’s cabinet on Monday, councillors were told that authorisation was being sought for a ‘capital contribution’ towards its construction.

Although the project was expected “to be delivered by central government, the EFA has requested an additional contribution to be made by the county council to facilitate it gaining approval”.

However the report did not state how much money had already been spent on the site purchase, or how much was being sought by the agency.

In addition, determination of the actual sum to be contributed was to be delegated to the director of resources, in consultation with a Harpenden councillor, David Williams, as executive member for enterprise, education and skills.

The financial implications are being kept secret, as councillors excluded members of the public from hearing them discussing the matter.

The RSRP spokeswoman criticised the authority for “remaining alien to be open with residents. Matters were so urgent that special provisions were needed to rush through a decision … urgency based on an assertion that the EFA wanted an answer by Friday April 22.”

Pointing out that the council published a report 14 months ago, estimating the school would cost about £60-65 million, she added, “this is about £30 million more than the EFA typically provides for such projects.

“Has it taken over 12 months for the EFA penny to drop, that this is an excessively over-priced option?”

Jenny Coles, director of children’s services at the county council, said the authority had now agreed to contribute towards the cost of the development.

She added: “We have been supporting the trust in its bid to provide an additional school in Harpenden. The Department for Education informed us that the estimated cost of building the school and the associated works is higher than normal, and asked us to make a contribution to the costs, in addition to the cost of the land.

“We are now awaiting a decision by the Minister for Education about whether the project can progress to the next phase of its delivery.”

Thomas Parrott, vice-chairman of Harpenden Parents Group, said: “We are concerned there will be more delays because this project is taking a long time, and plans haven’t yet been lodged.”

Harpenden MP Peter Lilley wrote to the Secretary of State before Easter, asking for local schools to take ‘bulge’ classes, with children to be transferred when the new site is ready.

• Alexander Thomas, a second year PhD candidate in archaeology and anthropology at the University of Bristol, has returned to Batford Farm to carry out a ground penetrating radar survey as he is concerned about the impact of the school upon its potential archaeological significance.