The government has announced changes to the planning system which will make it easier to set up new state-funded schools. This precedes the government’s recent announcement on 22 May, that the Department for Education has approved a further 102 free schools, which are due to open in 2014.
Under the new rules it will be possible to change the use of most buildings currently used for business purposes or as hotels, residential institutions or for leisure purposes (such as cinemas or gymnasiums) to state-funded schools without the need for planning permission.
Whilst planning permission is not required for the change of use, it is subject to the approval of the local planning authority regarding transport and highways, noise impacts and contamination. The school must then operate in accordance with those approved details.
The new rules also allow most buildings to be used as a state-funded school for a single academic year without the need for planning permission. This temporary change of use applies to most buildings. Before the temporary change of use can take effect, the Education Minister must first approve the site for use as a school and notify the local planning authority of its proposed opening date. This provision may be useful to schools seeking to set up temporary premises pending completion of new school facilities.
Schools already benefit from permitted several development rights, which allow certain works to be carried out without the need for planning permission. Those rights are subject to conditions and include:
- Construction of a new building (up to 100 square metres) to be used as part of the school or for school purposes; and
- Provision of a hard surface (or its replacement) for school purposes
The new rules will also allow schools to build higher boundary walls or fences of up to 2 metres alongside a highway. This is subject to the condition that the wall or fence does not create an obstruction which is likely to be a danger to highway users.
These new rules came into force on 30 May 2013.
The government appears committed to free schools and academies despite fierce criticism; most notably from the National Association of Head Teachers which recently passed a vote of no confidence in the government’s education policies.
Whilst the changes to the planning system will be welcomed by those wishing to set up new stated-funded schools, they will still have to engage with the planning system. For instance, it is likely that a local planning authority will require those wishing to set up a new state-funded school to submit information relating to transport, noise and/or contamination prior to giving its approval of those matters. This requirement could prove onerous and costly in practice and it will be interesting to see how this works in practice.
These reforms to the planning system have, however, been criticised as they limit the role of local people and others in the creation of free schools and academies under the planning process. By making the change of use to an academy or free school permitted development (subject only to the authority’s prior approval of transport, noise and contamination issues), the views of local people will have a very limited role.
This is particularly interesting given the duty to consult prior to becoming an academy, with the Department for Education suggesting that staff, parents, the local community and parish council should typically be consulted. These very people are then largely excluded from the choice of premises to accommodate the new school.
Those wishing to set up a new state-funded school should also bear in mind that if any external alterations are required to the building to facilitate its use as a school, then a planning application may still be required.
Nevertheless, the reforms do remove an element of uncertainty caused by the planning system in the creation of new free schools and academies. Indeed, there have recently been a number of schools refused planning permission prior to the new rules taking effect. For further education colleges wishing to sponsor academies, these reforms to the planning system will be seen as a welcome development.
James Cark is a solicitor at Thomas Eggar