Harpenden Free School future in doubt over planning delays

DELAYS in hearing a planning application have put the future of a free school in jeopardy just days before it was due to welcome parents and children.

Harpenden Free School, which confirmed last week that it would be opening in temporary premises in a 14th-Century tithe barn in Redbourn on September 17, has now learned that its planning application for change of use did not go to an August St Albans council planning committee as was intended.

The governors have now been told that the earliest it will go to committee is September 10 and it may not be decided by councillors until October because Herts Highways wants to do a travel assessment which could take up to three weeks.

That has left the free school – one of two due to open in the district under direct government control and set up in response to parental demand – with nowhere to welcome parents and children from Monday when an induction fortnight begins.

It threatens the whole future of the school because parents who have signed up to go there have until the end of this week to decide whether to accept a place at one of the state schools instead.

The problem has arisen in the same week as Adam Nichols, chairman of Harpenden Free School Trust, told The Times about the difficulties in finding a place where a new school could be set up.

He called on the Government to set up a land bank of sites so anyone applying to set up a new school knew there would be land available.

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The Times discovered that more than a dozen free schools in the country due to open next week had been delayed or beset by planning problems.

Harpenden Free School governor Sue Briggs said yesterday that the school would be contacting all parents who had put their children’s name down for a place and a meeting was due to be held to update them last night.

She said that part of the reason why the application had not gone to the August meeting was that there had been a late objection from a local resident and highways officers.

Sue went on: “There was some delay in putting the planning application in but we stressed that time was of the essence and we had to hit the August meeting. They have known that all the time and as far as we are concerned we gave them all the information.”

The tithe barn, which has passed an Ofsted inspection, is a temporary home for the free school which has signed an agreement to acquire the former Oaklands College building in Victoria Road, Harpenden, as its permanent premises.

That is planned to open in early 2014 but in the meantime a funding agreement has been signed with the Department for Education.

Sue added: “This is a major hiccup and everything is in confusion.”

Laurence Moore, St Albans council’s planning and building control development manager, said: “This is a complicated planning application that requires detailed consideration before a decision is made. Statute specifies that applications of this nature are normally considered within eight weeks, assuming that all the relevant information has been supplied.

“We received the planning application on 4 July and on this basis a decision was due to be made by 30 August, providing all the information was to hand.”

He went on: “However, we have just received two objections to the application which need further investigation – one on consultation and one on transportation. We will try to come to a conclusion as quickly as possible once all the relevant information has been supplied.

“We are working with the applicant to ensure that all the relevant paperwork is in place so a decision can be made as soon as possible.”