DfE property arm eyes hundreds of school sites for housing

LocatEd told by department to assess 316 school sites for potential selloff, with more 'expected'

LocatEd told by department to assess 316 school sites for potential selloff, with more 'expected'


The Department for Education is to review hundreds of school sites in a bid to find land suitable to be sold for housing.

Documents seen by Schools Week show LocatEd, the department’s company set up to buy and develop land for free schools, has “received a commission to review 316 sites” for so-called “underutilised” or “surplus” land, adding that “more are expected”.

A director of the organisation revealed this week that schools in England have surplus land “the size of central London” that could be used for housing and community spaces.

Other suggestions include using school roofs for solar power generation and car parks for electric vehicle charging.

Schools land sales must follow certain rules. If the landowner – which for schools is mostly councils or the church – wants to sell, they must get government approval to get rid of playing fields, and sales of unused land at academies may also need secretary of state sign-off.

But the prime minister has pledged a liberalisation of planning laws in so-called “investment zones”, which could create greater demand for land suitable for housing.

Selling off surplus school land for housing is nothing new. But efforts were ramped up in 2019 and the instruction to review hundreds of sites represents a big escalation.

Approached by Schools Week, LocatEd said it was commissioned to “undertake a desktop exercise exploring opportunities for residential development” as part of the DfE’s “routine work to explore the school estate and its potential to support wider uses”.

“It is for schools and their landowners to decide whether they want to pursue such opportunities to unlock value from their estates.”

The company would not say how many schools had so far been identified as having land suitable for housing, nor whether it would review more than the 316 first set out by the DfE.

Schools have surplus land the ‘size of central London’

Matt Robertson, its associate director of property, told a Westminster Education Forum event on Thursday that more than 22,000 schools sat on land of about 125,000 acres, which was more than the amount of land advised in government “building bulletin” rules.

“Over the total school estate, the approximate amount that is surplus…is pretty much the size of central London,” he said, adding that the land held “a great deal of potential”.

It could generate income for schools, provide housing and “new community spaces and facilities”.

Capital funding from any sale “can be used to address existing condition need, but it can also facilitate any essential works to ensure the longer-term performance of the school estate”.

“Investing capital into these existing buildings, which are less efficient, can be a real operational gain for the school.”

But selling off land for housing isn’t the only way of making the estate more efficient, Robertson said.

He showed an example of a 1960s primary school, where a £30,000 investment in solar panels covering 10 per cent of its flat roof would result in a £6,000 annual reduction in its £21,000 energy costs.

A larger investment, covering the whole roof, would create surplus power, which could be provided to nearby housing or businesses through a private wire agreement.

EV charging in school car parks

But the over-generation “also leads to other opportunities with electric vehicle charging”, Robertson said.

“The school car park is typically used during the day by teachers, by staff, by visitors. There are other opportunities there to provide evening parking for electric vehicle charging.”

He also pointed to LocatEd’s “building up agenda” in urban areas, giving the example of St James Hatcham, a one-storied primary school in south London. It would “really benefit from around £500,000 being spent on it as a minimum”, he said.

“So, in a project with multiple stakeholders in an inflationary world with no money, we asked the question: can we build a brand new, excellent education facility, improve outdoor facilities and do so without costing the taxpayer a single penny? And the answer is yes.”

A proposal in the pre-planning stage would deliver 100 homes and a new school building.

The government’s own “school resource management advisers” has also previously recommended academy trusts sell unused land.

But Robertson warned viability of such schemes was “really tough at the moment”, with the cost of the school elements of the building alone having increased by 30 per cent since April.

“If we can end up with a school and mixed-use facility…it’ll be a great news story. Bringing together lots of stakeholders …that’s one of the agendas we’re working on.”

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