When the Collective Spirit free school opened in Oldham in September 2013, it was on land appropriated by schools minister Lord Nash from Oldham Council. The Council estimates that the loss to Oldham in land value and lost council tax is £4 million.
The Council told the Department for Education (DfE) there were already over a thousand surplus places in Oldham during the consultation for a second free school (Phoenix Free School) when it was at the proposal stage. It also warned that one or possibly two of Oldham’s sponsored academies could become unviable.
Collective Spirit is now open – it has 42 pupils and is being funded for 60.
Now Oldham Council is under pressure again to find land for another free school which has been given the go-ahead: the Phoenix Free School. Remembering what happened last year, the Council has decided to hand over land in Rosary Road in return for a “peppercorn rent” so the DfE won’t seize more valuable development land elsewhere.
It’s not the first time the DfE has used, or threatened to use, its powers under the 2010 Education Act to take over land. The King’s Leadership Academy, Warrington, was established on land which the Council said they had been pressurized to “release”. The free school opened in September 2012 with just 38 pupils. It now has 152 but is funded for 165.
The power provided by law for the DfE to seize land is unacceptable. It removes the ability of local councils to decide how best to use local amenities. If local people don’t like the way a council uses local assets then they can vote the council out. But neither they nor councils have any power to oppose a DfE land grab.
CCORRECTION 1 May 2018: Oldham Council's remark about a thousand surplus places was in the response to the proposal to open a second free school, Phoenix Free School. The opening of Collective Spirit had added to an already-existing surplus. The original article implied Oldham Council was responding to the proposal to open Collective Spirit. It has been amended.