Michael Gove and the lack of transparency over playing field sales

Yet more drama on, or rather about, the playing fields of the UK’s schools.

It has emerged that five times in the last fifteen months, Michael Gove has overruled the advice of School Playing Fields Advisory Panel to approve playing field sell-offs. This panel must, by law, give a recommendation on all sales before ministers make their final decision. The number of total sales since May 2010 is also higher than Gove previously announced – 30 rather than 21.

Before we get into any squabbles about the rights and wrongs of selling school playing fields, I’d like to direct you to Alan White’s excellent blog on the subject for the NS - as he points out, despite all the party-political howling about relative numbers of sales under different governments, there are only very tentative ways of determining the net figure, since we always talk about sales and don’t include the numbers of new fields.

That controversy aside, there are still two very worrying aspects of these latest revelations. Firstly, that Gove is getting basic figures wrong again. Remember the mistakes on the Building Schools for the Future list in July 2010, where 25 mistakes on the published version lead to the education secretary having to apologise in writing to the Commons. He’s apologised again this time, “saying he had been given incorrect information by his officials”.

Secondly, and perhaps of greater concern, is the lack of transparency surrounding the independent advisory panel that Gove has overruled. There are five members, but their identities are secret, and their findings are never published, so we can’t access the same information that education ministers had when choosing to ignore the panel’s advice on these five occasions. Given the small numbers of fields which have been sold, the panel has been disregarded on a not insignificant proportion of them. As more schools receive academy status and wield greater autonomy, the lack of transparency around this panel begins to call into the question the purpose of having it at all, if ministers are content to overrule it.

David Simmonds, Tory chairman of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board is quoted by the Telegraph as saying:

“We are concerned that ministers seem to be increasingly disregarding the advice of the independent School Playing Fields Advisory Panel. We are also concerned that this is likely to become more of a problem in years to come as we see more and more schools taking on academy status and becoming exempt from the guidance that applies to other schools. However, the sad reality is that some schools may feel selling their outside space is the only viable option open to them.”

Update 10:50 17/08/2012:

Alan White has just sent me the following thoughts about today's story, which I quote in full:

Since I wrote my blog on this subject, two stories have emerged. The most recent is about the government ignoring the School Playing Fields Advisory Panel, the second is about the government relaxing the restrictions on sales. The first story raises some questions: of the five playing fields named where advice has been ignored, there only appear to be complaints locally about one: Elliott School, which has yet to be approved. The reasons for the others  are outlined here. I also wonder why Fields in Trust, which is the pressure group for this issue, didn't raise it sooner - or give a statement when the story broke? It has a representative on the Panel, and its chief executive did a round of media interviews only a few days ago. She concentrated on the laws governing free schools and academies - on which I think there clearly is a case to answer. And I think there's a further case for Gove to answer on the reduction of regulations surrounding field sales. Schools do need to expand and often have other sports facilities open to them - but the government needs to win the argument, not sneak out a change a week before the Olympics.

 

Michael Gove has admitted that the number of total sales since May 2010 is also higher than previously announced. Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.