Senior ministers have promised to urgently examine the way free schools have been asked to pay section 106 planning payments following complaints from headteachers and MPs.
Communities secretary Eric Pickles, education secretary Michael Gove and planning minister Nick Boles are all investigating the way local authorities have required free schools to fund improvements to services such as transport in exchange for planning approval for new school buildings.
One local authority emroiled in the row has defended its stance, arguing that commercial educational ventures should pay for necessary improvements like any other business.
The row centres on Cuckoo Hall Academies Trust which runs three schools in north London and has paid £110,000 in relation to the opening on a primary academy in Enfield LBC last year and is set to pay around £50,000 for the opening of a second primary academy. The latest ‘section 106 payment’, a regulation which allows councils to charge planning applicants for improvements to the area, relates to traffic improvements, a school travel plan, employment measures and landscaping, according to the trust.
Matthew Laban, headteacher of the Kingfisher primary which is due to open next year and is currently going through the planning process, said he had raised the issue in person with Mr Pickles, Mr Gove and Mr Boles at various events in recent months.
“Michael Gove is extremely sympathetic. He thinks that education money should go towards education not towards traffic and transport issues,” Mr Laban said. “I think it is about the Department for Education and Department for Communities & Local Government working together to find a solution.”
Mr Laban said he hoped free schools and academies would be made exempt from section 106 agreements. “The section 106 is a tax on free schools and on the children’s education,” he said. “Things have had to be sacrificed in order to fund the £50,000 - we were going to have two nursery classrooms and now we are only having one.”
But Ayfer Orhan (Lab), cabinet member for children and young people, said: “Any new development in Enfield such as a supermarket would be expected to put in traffic lights, an extra lane for traffic and build nice landscaped car parks.
“As a private commercial concern it would be only right for the organisation to take some responsibility in this way.
“So why should a school, not funded by the local council, but with a huge sum of money from government, be any different?
“The council is not thrilled that it is forced to pass power over education to unelected, unaccountable commercial bodies, so why should it be faced with a bill for paying for the impact of the new schools?”
Enfield North MP Nick de Bois (Con) has backed the school in its objections and raise the issue with minsters a second time. “I am hopeful that they will address this matter with some urgency and we will no longer see councils hiving off money which is meant for children’s education.”
During an exchange in parliament, Mr Pickles said Mr de Bois made “a reasonable point” about the use of funding for education in section 106 agreements and said he, Mr Gove and Mr Boles were “looking into it as a matter of urgency”.