The government has published a consultation paper on possible changes to planning regulations to make it easier for the promoters of ‘free schools’ to provide lessons in a wide range of premises that are not currently designated for educational use. In both Sweden and America, new schools have sprung up in unconventional surroundings. Sweden, in line with its liberal approach to school providers, has very simple building requirements. There is no central approach to planning and building, unlike the BSF programme in England (on its way out). Beyond general restrictions on fire and basic safety that apply to all public buildings, schools do not have to comply with any regulations. Interestingly, in Sweden, municipalities not only cannot make objections purely on planning grounds, they rarely  in practice want to.

In the States commercial space, residential space, under-used school space – all have been used by providers with limited funds, often in densely populated urban areas with minimal amounts of land. They have been able to do  this through relaxed planning laws and, in New York’s case, determination by politicians to give public land to new schools. The Government has been impressed by the way Charter schools in the United States have  been innovative in their use of property.  Some experts believe that as things stand  here  it is  cheaper to build a new fit-for-purpose building than it is to refurbish something existing. This is not because of integral structural issues with existing premises, but because of the range of regulations and laws which make refits extremely  problematic.  Under Government plans premises could include pubs, cafes, cinemas, shops, and offices — but the line has been drawn at nightclubs. The consultation paper ‘Planning for Schools Development’ can be found here:

It sets out several options, including one that would leave planning regulations as they are.  A second option canvasses support for allowing certain buildings to given permitted development rights to convert to school use. These include:

Shops, including hairdressers and sandwich bars.

Banks, building societies and betting offices.

Business offices.

Hotels and boarding houses.

Young offenders’ institutions and military barracks.

Cinemas, bingo and dance halls (but not nightclubs!).

A third option lists a further range of buildings, including pubs, restaurants, and private homes. A fourth option suggests carte blanche. The consultation is only open for 8 weeks as the government says it is keen to ensure the first ‘free schools’ can open for the 2011-12 academic year. So  there is limited time to respond.


  1. Changing the 1995 Town & Country Planning Act is just another example of why rushing Free School legislation onto the statute book was a bad idea. There is also a lack of guidance on employment law and equal opportunities as well as procurement procedures.

    Going as far as providing loopholes in planning laws is pure ‘tail wagging dog’.

    If we reach the stage where private companies are allowed to make profit from operating schools, won’t this planning loophole give them an unfair advantage in changing use of commercial premises? It’s just a mess.

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