County told it must buy site for new Harpenden free school

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Notebook with grade - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

A Freedom of Information request (FoI) has shown that just two of 49 free schools given the initial go-ahead in a recent announcement by David Cameron require a local authority to buy their site.

They are the proposed Harpenden Secondary Free and Croxley Green Schools.

The Department for Education was asked last month to confirm news broken by the Herts Advertiser that when the town’s fourth school was given approval, it was conditional upon Herts county council (HCC) funding the site’s purchase.

But campaign group Right School Right Place (RSRP) had no formal confirmation about the conditional approval until they submitted the FoI request.

HCC has highlighted a cattle farm north of Lower Luton Road in Batford as an ideal site for the proposed school.

A member of RSRP submitted a FoI request to establish how many successful bids were dependent upon a council buying land.

There has been confusion over the condition, as the council’s cabinet member for education Cllr Chris Hayward has previously said that money for the possible purchase of the school site “would not come from council coffers” and RSRP was unsure whether other free school proposers had received a similar condition.

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The department replied that Harpenden and Croxley Green Schools were approved “with an explicit condition” that the local authority has to buy the site.

It added: “The condition ... reflects statements made in their applications and prior negotiations with the Education Funding Agency, school and local authority before the application was approved.

“In other cases, local authorities have provided or are providing sites for use by free schools.”

A spokeswoman for RSRP said: “One can only wonder how long the county council has known about this condition.”

She added that there was confusion over which local authority would determine the school’s planning application.

The Herts Advertiser understands that if there is an application from the Education Funding Agency it would be submitted to the district council, but a county council bid would be heard by that authority’s development control committee.

A spokesman for HCC said it has yet to have further detailed discussions about the scheme, as it was still working with the Harpenden Secondary Education Trust and funding agency on the next steps.

The trust successfully submitted a bid to the government to establish a free school to serve the town and surrounding areas, with the support of the council.

Trust chairman Philip Waters said consortium and council representatives would shortly meet with the education department to establish the next stages.

Harpenden Secondary Free School has been proposed to meet the urgent need for more school places in future by creating 1,150 places in the secondary school alongside a 250-place sixth form.