The EFA and Harris were driving this new Free School initiative and in this process it would appear that their emphasis at this stage was to engage local residents as potential parents rather than consider the wider planning and other issues which may have been of concern to the wider community. Indeed, no mention was made of the specific site in the consultation document and there was minimal engagement with the Council on this issue and Harris /EFA did not raise any concerns in this regard with the Council at this stage.”

I also got the submission from Harris that I asked for. It contests that, but I will come on to that in a moment.

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“In a time when there is rapid growth in demand for primary places, it is often necessary to act quickly in order to provide additional places to meet the Council’s statutory duty…The EFA were under instruction from central Government not to engage with Local Authorities and therefore any opportunity for local knowledge to correct flaws in the local consultation process was lost.”

In April this year

“DfE ask Bromley to confirm that both Harris Beckenham and Shortlands would be included in offers made to parents for September 2014.”

In April the planning application was submitted, and on 17 July planning permission for the temporary arrangements was refused. Parents were offered Unicorn primary school which agreed to take a bulge class at short notice. I would say to the Minister that Unicorn primary school was able to do that because it is neither an academy nor a free school, but it is what is known as a community school under the direct control of the local education authority. If it had been a free school or academy, it could easily have declined such an invitation, in a way that a community school cannot.

In August this year, the London borough of Bromley was

“in series of discussions/meetings with the EFA to identify a way forward to ensure that there are sufficient primary school places for children in Bromley.”

A couple of days after the refusal of the planning application, the parents were informed that they would not be able to send their children to the school—clearly, as it was not going to exist.

Harris, tells largely the same story, but it has a slightly different emphasis. It states:

“Having been asked by Bromley Council to open the new school, we worked very closely with their education team, planning officers and councillors to establish it. We also worked closely with parents and met regularly with a group of local mothers and fathers who joined our steering group for the new school;

As with all new school buildings, the planning application was prepared and submitted by the Education Funding Agency (EFA). We are conscious that some within the political community in Bromley have questioned the timing of the application, which took place over the summer: however, particularly in London, this timing is normal and other schools opening in September 2014 including within our own Federation received planning permission at the same time of year;

Work on the scheme under the EFA’s Priority Schools Building Programme began in spring 2013 with a multidisciplinary team of architects, planners and building specialists. As you know, planning officers at Bromley had recommended the scheme for approval so the rejection…was not expected and came as a huge blow to parents, the Harris Federation, and, I am sure, many within Bromley Council who had worked with us to help make the new school a reality…

The application was for a school for 60 children plus up to 6 staff. This comprised of a temporary building of about 150 msq, including 2 classrooms for 30 children each…These plans were published to the public through a public consultation process run by the EFA, Bromley and Harris Federation. Through this process a group of neighbours and near-neighbours to the site expressed their concerns about the potential for increased traffic, strains on the site and whether there was a need for places in that locality. These concerns were taken seriously.

Detailed traffic impact assessments were undertaken and…after numerous meetings and correspondence working with the LA’s planning department to respond to their initial concerns, the planners informed the EFA that they fully supported the application and that there were no grounds for refusal. Because of this, at no point did we expect the councillors on the planning committee to overrule the considered advice of their officials, certainly not by six to two and particularly not for a new school that had been instigated by the Council.

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We do not believe the”


“grounds to be substantive and have been advised by EFA’s planning advisors that we have a strong case for appeal.”

I have got a copy of the report that went to the planning sub-committee on 17 July last. The summary says:

“Taking account of the demonstrated need for primary pupil places in the borough for September 2014, the compliance with policy in relation to the designated Urban Open Space, the provision that has been made to accommodate existing and proposed staff parking, the assessment of the impact of additional cars related to the temporary use during the pupil drop off and pick up times, the limited impact of the use on the amenities of local residents and the character and appearance of the Manor Way Conservation Area, it is considered that the proposal is acceptable subject to recommended conditions.”

There are 17 separate conditions; I shall not read them all out. They relate to landscaping, to trees and, in particular, to car parking, parking bays and car park management. There was also a recommendation for a temporary, rather than permanent, permission.

The members of the planning sub-committee refused to grant that planning permission, which they were fully entitled to do, provided that they believed in all conscience that that decision was correct and lawful. I would not have agreed with the decision, had I been there, because I do not think it is valid. The sub-committee was perfectly entitled to take that decision, however, and it did. The Department for Education, the EFA and Harris probably had no counter-argument, because everyone was doing what they were perfectly entitled to do. So how come we have wound up with such a debacle, which has caused such distress and inconvenience to the parents and children involved? Plans are going ahead for the school to open next year. Let us hope that it puts enough time and effort into dealing with the technicalities of the process.

I wrote to the Secretary of State for Education and to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on 23 July to find out whether the scheme could be called in and to ask the Secretary of State to direct that it be approved. Unfortunately, despite speaking to helpful officials in both Departments, my efforts have been to no avail. I received a letter from Lord Nash, the Under-Secretary of State for Schools, to tell me that that was the case. He expressed his disappointment at the difficult position that my constituents and those of the hon. Member for Beckenham had been placed in as a result of this farrago.

This is an example of a flagship Government policy being implemented by a quintessential Tory council in collaboration with one of the Government’s most favoured and, in fairness, most successful providers of academy schools and ending in a complete farce. This has happened because the Department’s procurement process is fundamentally flawed. Will the Minister give me an assurance that he will undertake to change the process so that nothing like this can ever happen again, either in our part of the world or anywhere else? Will he also, on behalf of the Department and the EFA, which is responsible to the Department, apologise to the parents, to their children and even to Bromley council for the distress and inconvenience that they have been caused by this ham-fisted and defective process?

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2.47 pm

The Minister for Schools (Mr David Laws): I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Jim Dowd) on securing this important debate. I understand why this matter is important to him and his constituents. He has been kind enough to indicate that it is also a matter of keen interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), within whose constituency the free school in question sits.

I will first set out some of the context relating to the pressure on school places in Bromley and across the country, but I promise the hon. Gentleman that I will come directly to the substantive points that he has raised about this particular free school. I will also explain the context around the way in which we plan for free schools across the country.

During the lifetime of this Parliament, we will have invested more than £5 billion to help to create much needed school places across England. As a result, last year there were over 250,000 more school places than there were in 2010. The number of pupils in England is rising rapidly and is set to continue to rise well into the next Parliament. Indeed, the London borough of Bromley anticipates a 13% rise in primary pupil numbers between 2011-12 and 2015-16. We know that London authorities face a particular challenge, given the scale of population growth, the mobility of the population, the challenge of finding suitable sites to expand provision and the high costs of buildings. For the period 2011 to 2015, London has been allocated £1.6 billion of funding by my Department, which is around a third of the total basic need allocation for the whole of England.

Ensuring that every child is able to attend a good or outstanding school in their local area is at the heart of the Government’s comprehensive programme of reform of the school system. To achieve our aims, we have announced the provision of £2.35 billion to help local authorities to plan and create the new school places between 2015 and 2017. That is additional to the £5 billion, and Bromley will receive £62 million of this funding between 2011 and 2017, which compares with Bromley’s funding of just £12.1 million of basic need capital under the last Government between 2007 and 2010-11.

As the hon. Gentleman said, in addition to basic need funding free schools are providing both additional investment in the school estate and additional places. Free schools are making a major contribution to delivering basic need and are delivering good-quality places in areas where those are needed. Seven in 10 open mainstream free schools have been set up in areas where there was need for additional school places. This Government have now funded 174 new free schools in addition to the basic need funding, which is massively increasing resource in areas where it is needed. Some 24,000 pupils are currently attending these free schools, and all open and planned free schools will provide 175,000 new places overall.

We have also made it easier for local authorities to plan and deliver places by extending these basic need allocations to a three-year forward planning period, which gives local authorities more certainty about funding and allows them to plan strategically for the places they need. We have listened to the particular challenges faced by London authorities, including Bromley, and have changed the methodology used to allocate funding

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for 2015 to 2017 so that we take into account the higher costs of building in our capital city by providing a specific uplift for London authorities compared with those in the rest of England. We are also targeting funding more effectively, based on local needs, by using data we have collected from local authorities about the size of schools and forecast pupil projections.

As I have said, I know that along with other authorities Bromley faces challenges with increasing pupil numbers, and we have increased the funding that the local authority is receiving to address that need. The funding for Bromley in particular is on a steep upward trajectory. The London borough of Bromley currently has three open free schools, two of which opened successfully this September—Harris primary academy Shortlands and La Fontaine academy. Hon. Members will probably be aware of those. It was unfortunate that the Harris academy Beckenham free school did not open this September as planned, because of the local planning committee’s decision not to grant planning permission for the school’s intended temporary site. I entirely understand why hon. Members, including the hon. Gentleman, are concerned about that and about the uncertainty for parents.

Bob Stewart: I totally support my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Jim Dowd)—I may call him that—on this matter. In fairness, nobody expected the planning committee to turn this application down, so it came as a shock to all the authorities when that decision was made. Thanks to people such as Councillor Stephen Wells, who had an alternative plan, places in decent schools, such as Unicorn primary school, have somehow been found for most of the pupils. This decision was a shock, and my hon. Friend and I both acknowledge that. But it is wrong that it happened. That is the point he is making, and I support it.

Mr Laws: My hon. Friend is absolutely right in what he says, and the planning officers would have been taken by surprise by this decision, as I believe they recommended approval—indeed, the application was supported by the education department. I will deal with that issue in a moment.

It is very important that we draw the right conclusions from this. When a new school is opening, be it a free school or any other school, there will always be an uncertainty about planning matters. We must make sure we distinguish between the problems we can avoid and those we cannot. I wish to address those points explicitly now.

The Harris academy Beckenham would have provided places to assist Bromley in addressing basic need pressures and, to that end, the local authority has been engaging with Department officials and the sponsor, as it was previously. I should make it very clear to the hon. Gentleman and to all hon. Members that the Department does not take into account free school places in its basic need allocations until the schools have actually opened. We take that decision precisely in case there are eventualities of this type; in other words, Bromley would not have been debited with the basic need funding for the pupil projections until this school had actually opened. That is one of the safeguards that we put in place to try to deal with uncertainties such as this.

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When it became clear that the school would not open this September, the local authority was quick to respond by implementing back-up offers of places to pupils who had applied to the Harris Beckenham free school, as my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham just said. I am hopeful that the issue of planning permission for a temporary site for the school will be resolved, so that it is able to open in September 2015.

Site availability is a key driver of the school delivery timetable. Finding suitable sites as the free school programme expands is increasingly challenging, particularly within London authorities. That is true for all schools whether or not they are free schools. For all free school projects, the Education Funding Agency seeks to ensure that planning issues are identified early, planning submissions by contractors on behalf of free school trusts are robust and negotiated solutions are found to any concerns that arise.

We have also taken steps within the planning system to support the delivery of state-funded schools. That includes a requirement within the national planning policy framework for great weight to be given to the need to create, expand or alter schools and to the use of permitted development rights. Both have had a significant impact in ensuring that all free schools to date have eventually achieved their planning consent.

The establishment from this September of regional schools commissioners will also help to address any future issues in relation to free school delivery. Regional schools commissioners and their boards are in the process of building relationships with local authorities and local providers. Although no new powers will be given above and beyond the current powers of the Department for Education, regional schools commissioners and their boards of outstanding academy head teachers will instead exercise the powers and decisions currently taken by the Secretary of State.

I apologise to parents in the constituencies of my hon. Friend and of the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge that we have ended up in this situation. It is not something that the local authority, the Government or the sponsor wanted. My hon. Friend has made it clear that planning officials did recommend approval on this particular site.

I think I should point out—this is one of the lessons that we need to learn for the future—that offers of places to children at Beckenham were made by the local authority on national offer day in mid-April. At that stage, as for many other free schools, the funding agreement had not been signed and final confirmation that the school would open had not been made. The offer of places should have been conditional on the school opening. Harris had been keen to work with the local authority and the admissions process and to co-ordinate the offer of places through the local authority managed process. Both the local authority and the sponsor were trying to do what they thought was right in the interests of the parents and children in the area.

We have strengthened and clarified advice for local authorities and free school trusts about offers of places at free schools that are planned to open. When a funding agreement has not yet been signed, conditional offers should be made. They can be firmed up when the funding agreement is in place. I will feed back from this debate the comments that have been made by my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman to ensure that the

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lessons that I believe are being learned by local authorities, the Government and sponsors from this particular incident are there for the future.

My noble Friend Lord Nash leads on free schools in the Department. I know that he will have been concerned by what happened in Bromley and will want to ensure that it is avoided in other places in the future. Local authorities have risen to the challenge of providing for an increasing school population. We have already seen an increase of 260,000 school places between 2010 and 2013, including 212,000 additional primary places. Local authorities have told us that a further 300,000 additional places are in the pipeline for delivery by September 2015.

Bromley local authority has assured the Department for Education that it has good plans in place to ensure that all children requesting a school place will have one. I am pleased that the authority has been able to act swiftly to help those parents and children who have been impacted on by the delayed opening of the free school this year. Bromley has also indicated that it has

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plans to secure sufficient school places in the long term to meet demand given the additional resources being delivered by our Department.

I am glad to have been given the opportunity to update the House on the progress the Government are making to ensure that there are sufficient school places across England and particularly in the constituencies of the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend. We are not complacent about these challenges, but we will give local authorities the resources to meet the increased demand for places. I will feed back the conclusions of the debate to my noble Friend Lord Nash and I hope that the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend will feel free to raise directly with us any further concerns about progress in this free school application if they are worried that it is not on track for next year.

Question put and agreed to.

3 pm

House adjourned.