It's not often a planning committee changes government policy. But that's what has just happened following Reading's planning committee decision to ensure that all developers, schools, itself, charities, businesses are treated on a level playing field when it comes to planning.
Following this decision the Reading Labour run cabinet and the chair of planning and with support from a Labour MP (in fact my parent's MP before they moved) have asked the government to look at this issue. As a result now the Department for Education has U-turned and 'reasonable and justified' contributions will be paid by the department.
This is good news for local authorities across the country but it's also a real indictment of the sloppy thinking of this government. That Reading borough council's planning committee could do this when the government had either failed to spot or very cynically hoped to pass costs of their policies on to local councils and communities shows that they just don't know what they are doing. And these are the people running our education system.
When Reading’s Planning Committee considered the application from All Saints Junior School back in November, it was told that Department for Education policy was not to fund S106 contributions for free schools but leave it to local authorities to bear costs of transport or other infrastructure.
The Committee decided not to make an exception for free schools and to require a S106 contribution (which was in fact paid promptly), but a report was made to the Council’s Cabinet, which agreed to raise the matter with Ministers, and Planning Chair Pete Ruhemann also contacted Roberta Blackman-Woods MP, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Planning
Dr Blackman-Woods put down a question in the House of Commons asking the Secretary of State for Education, what assessment he had made of the costs that will be incurred by local authorities as a consequences of his Department’s decision not to pay s106 contributions levied on free schools…and this resulted in the Government disavowing its previous policy.
Education Minister Nick Gibb MP replied: “The Department for Education is funding Free Schools to pay contributions under reasonable and justified section 106 agreements that have been entered into as a condition of planning consent. The Department will continue to fund Free Schools to meet commitments under section 106 agreements where required.”
Pete Ruhemann welcomed the Government’s climb-down. He said: “The Department for Education was trying to bully Reading and many other Councils into letting free schools off an obligation which is accepted by all other developers. Reading’s Labour Council was very clear that we weren’t having it and I am delighted that with Roberta Blackman-Woods’ help we have now got a firm commitment that S106 agreements will now be funded in Reading and across the country.”