U-turn on South Bucks free school
In an unusual volte-face the government is once again overruling a planning inspectorate’s decision regarding a free school near Slough, which has already previously been taken to the high court.
Greg Clark, the secretary of state for communities and local government (pictured), last week granted Khalsa Secondary Academy permission to remain permanently at its site in Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire.
It is the latest twist in a planning battle that marks a landmark ruling for the government’s unique planning rules built to support the free school programme.
In 2013, Stoke Poges Parish Council and South Bucks District Council both refused the Sikh school’s planning application after a fierce campaign by locals, which led to allegations of racism from the school.
The planning inspectorate upheld the councils’ decisions, only for it to be overturned by the then secretary of state Eric Pickles.
However, last September – a few days before his decision was due to be challenged in the high court – Mr Pickles changed his mind on his decision, admitting it was “ill and misinformed”.
Now the new secretary of state, Greg Clark, has again reviewed the decisions and said the school should again be granted permanent approval.
He said the noise levels caused by the school when at full capacity would be a “moderate rather than serious annoyance”.
A letter to campaigners from the department, sent last week, stated: “The secretary of state therefore considers that … the internal noise levels would not give rise to significant adverse impacts to health and quality of life.”
The report said Mr Pickles had “misinterpreted and misunderstood certain objective evidence and his inspector’s findings as regards predicted noise levels for 840 pupils”.
Campaigners told Schools Week that another high court challenge is now being considered.
Saera Carter, the vice chair of Stoke Poges Parish Council, said: “We are obviously disappointed the government have chosen to ignore the system in place but we are not surprised. We are in contact with our barrister and await his advice.”
The school’s temporary planning application to remain on the Stoke Poges site ran out in July 2014, but no enforcement action has been taken while the legal battle rumbles on.
Nick Kandola, the chair of governors at Slough Sikh Education Trust, said everyone at the school was delighted after the lengthy delay. “This decision and the previous determination by the secretary of state provides confidence to the parents and the school community that the school clearly meets the requirements for prior approval.”
He added: “We would like to thank all of the parents and the school community for the support they have provided.”
Mr Clark also overruled a planning inspectorate’s decision to refuse permission for a 700-pupil free school, Route 39 Academy, on a site in Devon on the same day.
Torridge District Council had previously turned down the plans. Mr Clark’s decision ends a two-and-a-half year legal battle.
Scores of free schools are occupying temporary sites. Schools Week reported in July that more than 50 free schools had postponed opening with many affected by buildings issues.
Christine Bayliss, a former civil servant who helped set up free schools, said she would have been surprised if the government didn’t stick to its guns.
“[The government] would be wary of setting a precedent and bowing to nimbyism, bearing in mind the cast iron guarantee of 500 more free schools.”
Correction: The featured image on this story had pictured Khalsa Science Academy, in Leeds, rather than Khalsa Secondary Academy. This was a mistake and has since been changed to a picture of Greg Clark MP.