School scrapped due to ‘lack of need for places’: FoI response to Harpenden group

The proposed site for Harperbury free school

The proposed site for Harperbury free school - Credit: Archant

The government’s sudden, contentious decision to cancel a new free school it had supposedly been championing was due to there being enough school places in the area, it has been revealed.

A Freedom of Information (FoI) response in relation to the canned Harperbury Free School proposed for Radlett has prompted questions over the pursuit of a new secondary school in Harpenden’s Green Belt.

In February this year, Schools Minister Lord Nash cancelled the free school project planned for the former Harperbury Hospital site in Radlett, saying he was ‘not convinced’ the district council would agree to its construction.

His decision came as a blow to the school’s proposers, and was a U-turn for the government as the Department for Education approved the school in 2013, and the Education Funding Agency (EFA) took over responsibility for negotiating on the site and evaluating other potential locations.

It emerged that the project was cancelled because the four-acre site within the hospital grounds was considered too small.

But its canning prompted Harpenden-based campaign group, Right School Right Place (RSRP), to ask the EFA why a planning application was not submitted to the council.

The group has been fighting another Green Belt school scheme, for Harpenden’s fourth secondary school on farmland on the corner of Lower Luton Road and Common Lane.

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In response to the FoI request, Anita Hathaway, on behalf of the EFA, said that Herts county council “has been clear throughout that there is no need for the places that would have been created by Harperbury Free School.

“More recently it has gone even further by confirming that any additional need for places will be met by expanding existing schools.

“This was a major factor as the local planning authority would need to be convinced that the need for a free school outweighed the negative impact on the Green Belt.”

This has prompted RSRP to question the implications for Harpenden’s scheme from a planning perspective.

A spokesman for the county council said that planning forecasts at the time the Harperbury project was being promoted “indicated there was not a basic need for the places in the planning areas the school intended to serve by the time it planned to open.

“The decision whether or not to proceed with the school was a matter for the Department for Education.

“In Harpenden a significant shortfall of places has been identified since 2010, which cannot be met by other schools in the locality.”

Asked why it was acceptable to build on Green Belt in Harpenden but not Radlett, he said that no other suitable sites had been found.

He said a planning application for the free school should be lodged in autumn/winter this year.

He added that in the meantime, there were enough school places for 2016/17 in neighbouring areas, principally St Albans, with Sandringham School offering an additional 30 places for 2017/18 – prioritising children from the Harpenden area.