Councils decry government's academy schools 'land grab'

Councils opposed to government plans to force all schools to become academies have raised concerns about what has been described by some as a land grab reminiscent of “the dissolution of the monasteries”.

Under current arrangements, when schools become academies they lease the land from local authorities. The new plans, however, will see all school land transferred directly to the education secretary, Nicky Morgan, who will then grant leases to academy trusts.

The government says the controversial change has been made in order to speed up the process of academy conversion by avoiding time-consuming negotiations over land, but critics are concerned it represents a major handover of local authority land worth billions of pounds.

Councillor Angela Mason, the cabinet member for children on Camden council in north London, said: “The government will own all the educational land. I don’t see how they will be able to deal with it all. It’s quite an extraordinary power to take. It reminded me of the dissolution of the monasteries.

“We are very concerned. Land in Camden is extremely valuable. There’s no mechanism by which we can be sure it will not be sold off for whatever reason. Those decisions will be made by the government and unelected trusts.

“I feel quite strongly it’s our land. It’s the people’s land. It’s quite wrong that this enormously valuable asset goes to government and then on to unelected, unaccountable organisations.”

The plans are outlined in the government’s recent white paper, Educational Excellence Everywhere, which says all schools are to be taken out of local authority control and will have to become academies in the next six years in order to raise standards.

On the land exchange, the document says: “The majority of academies currently lease their land from local authorities, typically over a 125-year lease.

“To speed up the process of academy conversion and ensure that land issues do not get in the way of improving schools, when a local authority’s community schools convert to academy status, land held by the authority for those schools will transfer to the secretary of state, who will then grant a lease to the academy trust.

“We will also take steps to ensure that the wider education estate is safeguarded for future provision, and that the existing school estate can be used more easily for new schools and expansions where applicable.”

Roy Perry, a Conservative councillor and chair of the Local Government Association’s children and Young people board said he believed the government was acting with good intentions, but added: “These are assets that have been looked after, protected and at times enhanced with investment by the council tax payers in a particular area. One can question whether it is fair to take those assets away from the people who have invested in them and looked after them for many years.”

There were also concerns about the cost of transferring school land, he said. “I’ve been advised in our council that the legal costs alone of arranging the transfer is something like £15k a go. We’ve got 200 such schools, so that’s quite a lot of money. Whether this is a process to try to do all in one swoop [we don’t know], but transferring land is obviously a complicated process so it certainly won’t be easy and whatever route they chose it could be very expensive ... We seriously question whether they [the government] have actually got the resources.”

The Local Government Association, which represents councils across the country, has said it is opposed to the decision to strip local authorities of the ownership of school land.

Judith Blake, the leader of Leeds city council, said: “I don’t think the public is aware of this. There are many implications following on from this, not least the value of the land which in the city of Leeds could be over the billion mark.

“We are talking significant land holdings. It’s quite eye-watering. It’s taking local assets away from local people, moving them out of democratic control into a central pot. It has all sorts of possible ramifications.

“How would we ensure that local communities would have access to the playing fields which we have joint agreements on? These are all unknowns. We really need to get underneath and ask questions.

“We are talking with other councils across the country. These are the issues we will be looking at, trying to understand the implications of the proposal.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Education responded to concerns by saying: “We have clear safeguards in place that mean academies cannot sell or change the use of publicly funded school land without consent from the secretary of state and these proposals will not change that – it is disingenuous to suggest otherwise.

“The proposals on school land in the white paper are simply about removing obstacles to schools becoming academies, and there are too many cases where negotiations over the use of land delay this process.”

The shadow education secretary, Lucy Powell, said: “This land grab by central government will have local people up in arms. Not content with forcing all primary and secondary schools to become academies, the Tories’ are intent on taking school land from local communities across England in the process.

“Labour will oppose this costly top-down forced reorganisation of all schools which is unwanted and unnecessary.”

Powered by article was written by Sally Weale Education correspondent, and Rebecca Ratcliffe, for The Guardian on Friday 1st April 2016 17.49 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010