Free schools a pass to planning in Boris’s London?

Boris Johnson ignored planning concerns late last week to force through a Southwark free school that the community doesn’t need.

Earlier this year, the Mayor took the unusual step of calling in the planning application for a development on Rotherhithe New Road in Southwark. The council had already reviewed the application in detail and intended to reject it, but the Mayor decided that he wanted to make the decision himself.

Calling in planning applications is a rare occurrence – this Mayor has only done it nine times during the five and a half years he’s been in office. Unless there is a compelling reason to exercise this power, the Mayor is usually content to allow the local council to make decisions about developments in their area.

But this application, notable for flats in a 19-storey tower, includes a free school.

339 Rotherhithe Road development from New Kent Road

339 Rotherhithe Road development from New Kent Road

This development will be on a busy road with high levels of air and noise pollution. The school itself will have poor quality play space. In short, it’s really not the location for a school

Southwark hadn’t opposed the proposal because it included a free school. It had intended to reject it on planning grounds: poor architecture and urban design, inadequate levels of affordable housing (only ten affordable units out of 158), negative impact on quality of life. These were legitimate concerns and strong planning grounds to refuse the application.

But the Mayor wasn’t content with this. He called it in, and explained that one of the reasons for doing so was the need to provide more school places.

Nevermind that Southwark doesn’t need places in this particular area. The developer said they had reached out to four local schools but the response was mild at best. There is no clamour amongst the community for this facility.

One of the only few other applications called in this year was for another free school in Hackney. This had also been opposed by the council on legitimate planning grounds, but in a public hearing last month the Mayor forced it through.

The Mayor hadn’t interfered before when Southwark council refused previous proposals for this site. But as soon as a proposal comes along that includes a free school, it appears to be subject to a different test.

Does this mean any development which tacks on a free school – no matter how inappropriate the location or whether it’s even needed – can get planning permission?

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About nickygavron

Former Deputy Mayor for London, London Assembly Member, Chair of Planning Committee, and Labour Spokesperson for Planning
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