ESFA ‘to blame’ for rescinded school application

ESFA 'to blame' for rescinded school application

The government’s education funding arm “significantly contributed to the failure” of a new secondary school that had its planning permission rescinded just weeks before it was due to offer places, an MP has claimed.

Bob Neill, the MP for Bromley and Chislehurst in London, has accused the Education and Skills Funding Agency of a “pattern of poor handling of planning applications” which has caused “anguish” to parents and children in his constituency.

The Conservative backbencher has written to Damian Hinds, the education secretary, about problems with the proposed Bullers Wood School for Boys, which prompted protests by an estimated 1,000 residents earlier this month after Bromley council withdrew planning permission for the new school.

Permission for the school, which was expected to form a multi-academy trust and share playing fields with the nearby Bullers Wood School for Girls, was originally denied by the council in January 2017 after concerns were raised over the levels of traffic in the area.

Contractors Kier Construction, with the backing of the ESFA, appealed against the decision and submitted a revised planning application. This was granted approval by Bromley council last October, with the school due to open in September this year.

However, rather than withdraw the appeal against the initial refusal of planning permission, the developers and the ESFA were allowed to continue until last December, when the appeal was finally dismissed by the government’s planning inspectorate, which upheld the original concerns about road safety.

This decision caused the council to seek legal advice on the second application and, on January 25, its development control committee made the decision not to ratify the application.

In his letter, Neill accused the ESFA of a “complacent assumption that the appeal was bound to succeed”, whereas any “sensible” developer would have withdrawn the appeal as soon as permission was granted on the second application in October. He said the ESFA “seemed more intent on making a point to the council” than ensuring the school was built on time.

At prime minister’s questions on January 31, the MP also complained that “proposals for much-needed schools have been delayed, in no small measure because of concerns at the way the Education and Skills Funding Agency has handled the planning application process”.

The school’s headteacher designate, Anne Gouldthorpe, said she was “deeply disappointed” by the result, and expected the ESFA to lodge another appeal against the decision.

She described the traffic report as “profoundly flawed”, containing “factual errors” from a visit on a day with “widespread traffic disruption due to multiple emergency road closures”.

Nancy Lengthorn, a local campaigner who has helped organise the protest, backed up this claim, claiming the report had been based on a day of “exceptional circumstances”, including a burst water main and roads shut due to gas works and car accidents.

She said parents had been working with architects to try and identify temporary sites for the school so it can still open in September, and warned that the council would now have to force already oversubscribed schools to take “bulge classes” in order to fit the extra children in.

A spokesperson for Bromley council said the borough was expecting a small surplus in school places in September and was working with ESFA to find an alternative site for the school.

Year 6 pupils will find out which secondary schools they have got into on national offer day on March 1.

A spokesperson for the Department for Education did not respond to Mr Neill’s criticisms, but said: “The ESFA continues to work with Bullers Wood School for Boys to secure a site.”