Are free schools really widening choice?

Parents who want a new local school are offered a free school or nothing.

While many in my party are opposed to free schools in principle, I am reluctant to man the barricades on every occasion one is approved. I am sure many of the schools offer a fine education, with nuanced but important variations from the national curriculum that parents think important and children find stimulating and exciting. Nor do I think Michael Gove is the devil incarnate for introducing them – I suspect he is sincerely trying to improve educational standards in the way he thinks is best, even if I don’t agree with all he is doing (by a long shot).

I do, however, question the assumption that the free school movement is all about parental choice. That’s not how it feels to me.

In my own area, Zac Goldsmith hosted a public meeting a couple of weeks ago to tell local parents that the money promised for a new local education authority school had gone down the plughole with the demise of the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme – and that the only realistic way in which central government funding would be secured to deliver a desperately needed new school would be if a successful bid for a free school was made. Two other choices were mentioned – to cut £25 million from other local services or to add five per cent to council tax. Neither seemed attractive. Thus the choice on offer appears to be: "it’s a free school - take it or leave it".

After I wrote about this, Zac has tweeted to me that the free school funding option offers more parental choice than under BSF. Again, that’s not how I see it. Under the free school movement, there may well be multiple local applications for a new school – but the choice of which type of school will emerge rests not with parents but with the Education Secretary, who will ultimately decide which sort of school is best.

I’m also concerned that the Lib Dems are being slightly complacent about all this.  Nick Clegg told the Social Liberal Forum conference on Saturday that he had stopped Gove putting free schools "everywhere". I promise you, Nick, if you have, it doesn’t feel like it on the ground.

If parental choice was at the centre of this programme, parents would first be asked if they wanted an LEA or centrally-funded school, before then being asked what changes they would like to see on that school’s curriculum from the standard. But currently, as one councillor said publicly the other week, "I have to have a new school and I’m going to do whatever I have to in order to get it built, even if I end up having to call it ‘The Michael Gove Free School’".

Which would actually not be such a bad strategy when you consider who is actually going to end up making the choice …

Education Secretary Michael Gove at The Royal Courts of Justice to give evidence to the Leveson inquiry earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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