Page last updated at 14:36 GMT, Sunday, 7 February 2010

Conservatives plan school powers shift from councils

A school classroom
The Tories say they want to help communities set up schools

Local authorities in England could lose many of their planning powers regarding schools if the Conservatives win the general election.

A draft of the party's planning policy, seen by BBC One's The Politics Show, says their schools secretary would take decisions on building new schools.

The party said building schools should not be stifled by unnecessary red tape.

Labour Schools Minister Vernon Coaker said the plans were "un-costed, unworkable and unfair".

Under the proposals, new schools would, in effect, be treated like major infrastructure projects.

The Conservative policy on planning, to be published later this month, is based on the idea of localism - bringing an end to national targets and giving freedom for local authorities to decide how much housing or commercial development they want in their area.

Unnecessary bureaucracy

But schools will be the exception to the rule, according to the latest draft of the document.

The party has pledged to allow parents and non-profit making organisations to set up new, independent schools wherever they want.

The Conservatives' planning system would remove potential obstacles to the development of new schools by curtailing the power of local authorities in this area, according to the document.

With no planning restrictions schools will be able to open... without the sort of decent facilities all children should have
Schools Minister Vernon Coaker

The leaked planning policy says "for the [education] policy to be successful it is essential that unnecessary bureaucracy is not permitted to stifle the creation of new community schools".

Under the policy, as well as planning decisions on new schools being taken by the secretary of state for children, schools and families, anyone would be able to turn an existing building into a school without the need for planning permission.

And when an existing school closed, that land would not be allowed to be used for any other purpose without the agreement of the schools secretary.

Shadow planning minister Bob Neill told The Politics Show said the party had made it clear it wanted to help parents and communities establish new schools.

'Skin-deep' localism

He said: "That's our national policy and naturally therefore we, within the planning side of things, want to facilitate that approach.

"And then the best thing is to look sensibly at what the details are to be able to help communities and parents who want to do that, to achieve that."

But Schools Minister Vernon Coaker said: "With no planning restrictions schools will be able to open in pre-fabricated buildings and rented office blocks, as they do in Sweden, without the sort of decent facilities all children should have like places to play and do sport outside.

"Tory councillors agree with us, and growing evidence from Sweden, that this policy is not just un-costed, unworkable and unfair, but would also set back the big improvements in school standards we have seen over the last twelve years."

Also responding to the leaked proposals, Liberal Democrat shadow schools secretary, David Laws, said: "This shows that the Conservative commitment to 'localism' is only skin deep.

"David Cameron keeps on pledging an end to the era of 'Whitehall Knows Best Government', but it's now clear that the Tories would simply swap one form of central diktat with another."

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