The Department for Education (DfE) has finalised the formation of an “arm’s length” private company to buy and develop sites for new free schools.

Schools Week can reveal senior officials at the DfE have signed off  plans to establish the PropCo, which will be called LocatEd.

The company will take over the responsibility from the Education Funding Agency of acquiring and developing land for new free schools, university technical colleges (UTCs) and studio schools.

Recent job adverts for the department have also revealed that relevant staff will be transferred to the firm under TUPE arrangements.

Shares will be issued for the company, although they will be owned by the secretary of state and it is expected to be classified as a “non-departmental public body” – meaning it has a role in national government processes but is operated at arm’s length from ministers.

In February, Schools Week first revealed initial details of the department’s plan, which ministers believe will help them to meet the manifesto commitment to open another 500 new free schools by 2020. It follows our revelations that land issues, particularly in London, were causing scores of schools to delay opening or be scrapped.

The proposed Harperbury free school in north London was cancelled in March over site issues, despite two years of delays and £1.9 million already spent on the project.

A DfE spokesperson said: “Finding sites quickly is often the biggest obstacle to opening new schools, so it’s vital that we have the right people working for us to ensure this can happen, as well as providing best value for the taxpayer.”

The department previously said the company would recruit staff with a commercial property background and position itself as a “credible market player”.

Its “commercial identity” would bring a greater negotiating power and help to secure sites for the best market price, it said.

Formation of the company is being headed by a group of property experts including Elaine Hewitt, chief executive of NHS Property Services, a PropCo set up by the NHS to handle its “surplus” land.

Concerns have previously been raised in parliament that land belonging to academies could also fall under the remit of the group, and that this could eventually be privatised.

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  1. Private Eye (24 June 2016) pointed out that on of the recipients of the Queen’s Birthday Honours gongs (an MBE) was Lara Newman. She was not, as widely reported, a civil servant, but the head of management consultancey at property developer Cleanslate Ltd which has provided property advice for the free schools programme on a consultancy basis for several years. She has also been ‘interim managing director of ‘Shadow PropCo’.
    At the time of writing, Private Eye said no announcements had been given to parliament or anywhere else about EFA plans to hive off its property responsibility into a separate company to acquire and develop sites for free schools UTCs and studio schools although adverts had appeared.
    Private Eye also pointed out that NHS Property Services Limited set up in 2013 to ‘own and manage 3,500 premises for the NHS, including many GP surgeries’ Private Eye had previously reported that the NHS PropCo was losing money and looked ‘prime for privatisation’.