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Removing Planning Barriers (Schools)

Volume 514: debated on Monday 26 July 2010

Today I am underlining our commitment to supporting the creation of new free schools through the planning system.

The new Government are committed to decentralising power, including over planning. Localism should involve both devolving power down to local councils, and going further by devolving power and opportunity down to community groups, neighbourhoods and individual citizens. Our free schools policy is an example of localism and the big society in action—by empowering individuals to come together to improve the educational choices for their children in their local community.

The Secretary of State for Education outlined his proposals for new free schools on 18 June. Teachers, parents and charities will have much greater freedom to set up schools which respond to local needs. We want to encourage competition and innovation, to address the imbalance of opportunity in education and enable schools to develop their own identity. Our approach will increase choice and drive up standards across the country and provide a real opportunity to transform the lives of disadvantaged children.

We know that many individuals and organisations are passionate about improving standards in education, and they will want to take advantage of the new freedoms. But we do not want to squander the opportunities that they represent, for lack of suitable school premises. Neither do we want to strangle proposals with red tape, by putting them through a lengthy and ponderous planning process. So we want to make it easier for promoters of schools to build new premises, or find and if necessary adapt buildings suitable for the needs of a school.

We are already giving a strong message to local planning authorities that they must be more responsive to the needs of their own area. We are empowering them to take more responsibility for planning decision-making, by removing centralised targets and streamlining national planning policy. We are also encouraging them to take a more proactive and positive, collaborative approach to development at the pre-application stage. The best authorities work with applicants to identify the key issues and how they might be resolved, before the planning application is submitted. In this way, they have the opportunity to work with development promoters, to bring about imaginative, but practical solutions, which will benefit their local community. This is what we would like to see happening with new free schools.

It is important, however, for local planning authorities to have a clear policy framework for the decisions they take locally. Through this statement, therefore, I wish to underline that, in determining planning applications, local authorities should:

attach very significant weight to the desirability of establishing new schools and to enabling local people to do so;

adopt a positive and constructive approach towards applications to create new schools, and seek to mitigate any negative impacts of development through the use of planning conditions or planning obligations, as appropriate; and

only refuse planning permission for a new school if the adverse planning impacts on the local area outweigh the desirability of establishing a school in that area.

Local planning authorities and the Planning Inspectorate should take this statement into account as a material consideration when determining planning applications, where it is relevant to do so.

If a local authority nevertheless refuses permission on this basis, the Government will ask the Planning Inspectorate to deal swiftly with any appeal that is lodged.

We shall shortly be consulting on changes to the use classes order to reduce unnecessary regulation and make it easier for buildings currently in other uses to be converted to schools.

These changes to the planning system will allow school promoters to be confident about moving their proposals forward quickly. We expect them to work collaboratively with local authorities to take advantage of the opportunities to benefit local communities, while ensuring sustainable solutions.

This statement sets out our policy approach to support the establishment of new schools until the proposed new national planning framework is in place.

This statement applies to England only.