Planning for essential new school places

The National Audit Office in March this year said that 250,000 new school places are needed by Autumn 2014, with the need most acute in our major towns and cities. Some 90,000 new places are needed in the London area alone. Schools are going to need to make best use of their built assets if they are to fill this much-needed shortfall.

Measures to achieve new school places might include maximising buildings or land to increase the quantum of floor space and numbers of classrooms by way of redevelopment, acquiring sites for new school premises, and/or releasing existing sites or part of sites that are no longer required, or buildings that are no longer fit for purpose. These measures would help with generating income and capital receipts, which can be used to provide modern facilities or other services.

Whatever route is adopted, school providers will need to understand the planning process and the relevant planning policy matrix for each individual site. First and foremost, the provider will need to consider whether any works it wants to do can be done under permitted development rights; whether planning permission is required and whether redevelopment should include other uses in addition to education facilities. For example, residential, which could enhance the value  of the site and secure additional income for the school provider concerned. 

No need for planning permission

Permitted development rights allow certain types of development to be undertaken without the need for planning permission.

The government is currently undertaking a large-scale review of many types of permitted development rights and introducing new ones. The aim is to make it easier for development to come forward and to help the economy to grow.

At present, schools have several permitted development rights available to them. Planning legislation permits extensions up to 25 per cent of original floor space of the school, or 100 square metres, whichever is the lesser. According to the General Permitted Development Order (1995), local authority run schools are permitted: “any small ancillary building, works or equipment on 
land belonging to or maintained by them required for the purposes of any function exercised by them.”

There are, however, certain caveats to these permitted development rights and providers should check carefully whether they can use the rights or whether a planning application is required before any works go ahead.

School development
Planning permission will be required in order to construct new buildings, to alter or extend existing buildings or to change the use of a building (for example: from office use, which falls within Use Class B1, to educational use, which falls within Use Class D1).

Prior to submitting an application for planning permission, the school provider will need to instruct an architect to design the scheme for which permission is required. Depending on the size of the scheme and its complexity, it may be necessary for other specialist consultants to be instructed to deal with specific issues in relation to the site. These could include issues relating to: ecology, landscape/open space/trees, sunlight and daylight (such as the effect of the new building on the amount of light received by neighbouring occupiers), or transport effects of increasing the size of the school.

School development can sometimes be controversial and a planning application may generate as many objectors as it does supporters. The school provider will need to develop a clear communications strategy to explain the proposals to the local community as well as the benefits of the application.

Pre-application consultation is essential with both the local planning authority and the community to resolve as many issues or
problems as possible before the application is formally submitted.

Meet the communities needs
Documents and reports will need to be prepared in support of the application. The extent of which will depend on the individual requirements of the local planning authority.

A planning statement may be required, explaining how the proposed development complies with the Local Planning Authorities’ (LPAs) policies and national planning policies in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), setting out the overarching policies 
for development in England.

In terms of school development, Paragraph 72 of the NPPF emphasises that the government attaches great importance to ensuring that a sufficient choice of school places are available to meet the needs of existing and new communities. It encourages LPAs to take a proactive, positive and collaborative approach to meeting this requirement, and to development that will widen choice in education. LPAs should therefore give great weight to the need to create, expand or alter schools; and work with  schools promoters to identify and 
resolve key planning issues before any applications are submitted.

Architect drawings and a design and access statement, explaining the principles of the scheme, as well as reports on the results of engagement with the community and how the scheme has been revised (if at all) in response to consultation. Other specialist reports will be required depending on the site, the proposal and its likely effects. For very large schemes or proposals relating to sensitive sites, such as in the green belt, an environmental statement may be required to assess the likely significant effects of the development on the environment, pursuant to the Town and Country Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment)(England) Regulations 2011. The application must be submitted to the local planning authority for determination.

For minor development, the application should be determined within eight weeks, for major development the timetable is 13 weeks, for development requiring an environmental statement it is 16 weeks.

Community Infrastructure Levy
The school provider must also consider whether the development will be liable to the community infrastructure levy (CIL) recently introduced by the Planning Act 2008. This is a new tax on development that local planning authorities may choose to adopt in their area. The purpose is to raise money to pay for the delivery of new infrastructure in the LPA area, which includes school development.

Many LPAs are bringing forward a CIL, with others already up and running. In London, the Mayor of London, the London Borough of Redbridge and the London Borough of Wandsworth all have a CIL in place. CIL is charged by reference to the gross internal area of the new development, and liability for CIL crystallises when planning permission is granted. The LPA can set the particular CIL rate for different geographical areas and uses. The Mayor of London’s CIL is, for example, a flat rate per square metre of development that varies in different boroughs.

It will be important to check whether the proposed development will be liable to a CIL or whether school development is exempt from the LPAs CIL. The Mayor of London’s CIL, for example, specifically excludes development used “wholly or mainly for the provision of education as a school or college.”  

Once planning permission is granted there is a three-month judicial review period, within which an objector may challenge the LPA’s decision to grant permission in the High Court.

This is both a costly and time‑consuming process, and could result in the quashing of the permission. For that reason it is important to avoid or mitigate the risk of judicial review of the planning permission by ensuring that all the relevant procedural steps have been followed in the application process, and all relevant issues have been addressed. The risk of judicial review must be factored into the application process to ensure that all the required procedural steps are properly followed by the LPA.

Consider Other uses

Depending on the size of the site, the school provider may wish to consider whether the development should incorporate other uses in addition to education facilities. For example, should the development incorporate residential dwellings or other commercial or community uses. This may enhance the viability of the development or secure a valuable income stream for the provider.

A development along these lines will require greater input from a range of specialist consultants to ensure that the non-education uses proposed are acceptable in planning terms and in themselves are also policy compliant. It will be necessary to understand whether the relevant LPA involved will accept non-education uses on the site, therefore pre-application discussions will be important.

Where residential dwellings are proposed, the school provider may be required to offer affordable housing and the overall package of Section 106 planning obligations are likely to be significantly greater than if the development comprises solely an education use.

Free Schools
Since the introduction of the “free schools” regime, there has been something of a conflict between the education and the planning systems. This is because it has not been easy for those opening such schools to find suitable premises, which are often not already in existing school/D1 use, and obtain the necessary planning approval.

In recognition of this, the government has recently announced that planning restrictions will be relaxed in relation to free schools to enable these to open sooner, without having to wait for the relevant planning permission to be granted. This is to be achieved by changing “permitted development rights” and simplifying the conversion of empty and under-used buildings into free schools.

It is proposed that a free school will be able to open in almost any building, such as former offices or hotels, without obtaining planning permission during the first year. The free school will then be given extra time to obtain planning permission after the first year has passed. It is expected that these new rights will come into effect in June 2013.

Further information