Planning consent refused for permanent site of Belsize free school stuck for six years

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Abacus Belsize, a one-form entry free school opened six years ago in temporary accommodation, will not be moving into permanent buildings in Belsize.  Planning permission has been refused, Warwick Mansell reports (£).

Abacus Belsize is one of 37 free schools which have been in temporary accommodation for three years or more. 

The proposed site, a disused police station in Hampstead, had already been purchased for £14m.  But, as in the recent case of the International Academy of Greenwich (IAG), planning permission had not been secured before contracts were exchanged.

Abacus Belsize was judged outstanding in May 2015.  At the time of inspection, the school shared accommodation ‘with a range of other users’ but was expecting to move into another temporary location in September 2015.  It was ‘anticipated’ that the ‘recently acquired’ former police station would be ready by September 2017.

That didn’t happen.  The proposed permanent site, as with IAG, became embroiled in a planning row.   

Anthem Schools Trust (formerly CfBT), which runs Abacus Belsize, is to appeal.

The case of Abacus Belsize, and that of IAG, raises questions about the wisdom of allowing schools to open in temporary accommodation when proposed permanent sites are likely to cause problems.  In IAG’s case, the Department for Education had been told about potential planning issues before IAG opened.  The free school is now to be closed causing disruption to pupils and redundancy for staff.

 Last year, Floreat Brentford, a primary free school opened in September 2015 on the ground floor of an eight-story office block also closed after failing to secure a permanent site.

Finding premises for free schools has always been a problem since the first ones opened in 2011.  In the early days, there were accusations of land-grabbing for free schools in Warrington and Oldham.  The free school in the former Lancashire cotton town, Collective Spirit, closed following an inadequate judgement and financial concerns.   

The government has since set up LocatEd, ‘a government-owned property company creating much-needed school places’ to find sites for free schools.   A similar arms-length company, NHS Property Services, provides the same service for hospitals.  But recent losses at the firm and a critical National Audit Office report should act as a ‘warning sign’ for LocateEd, Meg Hillier, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, told Schools Week in June.

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