Free school at centre of Greenwich planning row requires improvement

Janet Downs's picture
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The International Academy of Greenwich, a free school mired in planning difficulties* since it opened, has been judged to require improvement.   

Inspectors said delays in obtaining planning permission for the permanent site at Bowring sports ground, along with ‘changes in senior leadership’ and ‘high staff turnover’, had had a ‘negative impact’ on the free school.  

The local MP Clive Efford raised concerns about IAG’s permanent site before the free school even opened.    Former schools minister Lord Nash (letter**, 8 April 2016) said contracts had been exchanged to purchase the site but completion would be deferred until planning permission was given.   This was confirmed in a later statement by schools minister Nick Gibb.

After an acrimonious meeting in July, Greenwich  planners refused permission for the permanent site.  Senior Principal Planning Office said the proposed location was Metropolitan Open Land and part of the Green Chain.  It was also subject to flooding.

Councillor Fletcher was concerned about correspondence between the Department for Education and the leader of the Council.  It contained points unrelated to planning, he said, which ‘could not be taken into account.’

The Head of Planning for the DfE said he hadn’t drafted the letter ‘but was aware of it’. He added ‘the purpose of the letter was to focus the minds of the Planning Board’ regarding the possible implications of refusing planning permission.  He was also aware that conversations had taken place between senior DfE officials and the Council leader recently.

Councillor Fletcher asked for ‘clarification’ about what the DfE wanted the Leader to do.  There was a perception that the DfE communication ‘was to exert influence on the Planning Board to approve the application’.

The Chair confirmed the application would be considered ‘solely on the merit of the planning proposal’.   She added that, while it wasn’t a factor in planning, the school could move to another permanent site if planning permission were turned down.  ’Further, she objected to the implication that the consequences of the decision should be attributed Royal Borough of Greenwich.’

Earlier, the Chair had said it seemed the DfE had presumed IAG’s permanent school would be built on Metropolitan Open Land and ‘appeared to have opened the school on that basis’.

Taxpayers’ money has been spent on the temporary site, architects’ plans and ongoing legal costs.  Compensation will presumably have to be paid if the DfE doesn’t complete after exchanging contracts (unless, of course, it has completed, in which case it may have to sell at a loss).

Added to that, it appears the DfE was over-confident about planning approval and has leant on planners to approve development.

IAG was transferred to Big Education Trust (BET), formerly School 21, in September 2018.  It’s not known whether BET, which received no transfer fee for taking on IAG, was warned about problems surrounding the planning application for the permanent site.  If it was not, it should have been.

* A detailed critique of the planning issues is here

**I am unable to provide a link.

 

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