Property battle in London for free school

Belsize Park free school Parents and supporters outside the building they want to open as a free school, now up for sale

Parents wanting to set up a free school in north London have been angered by the council's sale of their planned premises.

Proposals for a primary school in Belsize Park had intended to use empty council-owned hostel buildings.

But Camden council has now put the buildings on sale - before a decision is made about the free school.

The council says it will put the proceeds of the sale towards repairing schools in the borough.

The deadline for bids for the property is 8 July.

But parents supporting the calls to create a free school say this will block the chance of a school which could help address a shortage of primary places in the area.

Going private

They want to use the buildings, reported to be worth around £6m, for a primary school, under the free-school policy, under which parents and community groups can set up their own schools.

"At present the lack of school places in the area causes so much distress to parents trying to get their children into a school," said parent Liz Taylor, who is backing the project.

Start Quote

The sale of these hostels... is a vital part of helping us achieve the £400m we need to remedy the urgent backlog of maintenance requirements ”

End Quote Camden council

"Often people end up having to move, find religion or scrabble together enough to pay for a private school for a year or two until a local school place comes up."

Malcolm Grove, who has been promoting the scheme, says there have been about 900 signatures gathered in support of the free school.

There had been an expectation that a decision on the free school proposal would be made in September - but that was based on using buildings which are now up for sale.

The dispute highlights the local tensions that can arise around free schools.

The supporters of the free school say it would be provide a much-needed school for local families.

Their proposal would mean the government buying the buildings from the council for the school.

But the local authority, which would have no control over the new school, is under pressure to plan for places across the borough.

There is already a free school in the borough which is set to open in September in a converted church hall in Hampstead.

'Surplus to requirement'

It also comes at a time when there are pressures on budgets and a shortage of school places across London.

Camden council says selling the former hostel buildings "is a vital part of helping us achieve the £400m we need to remedy the urgent backlog of maintenance requirements across all our council buildings, including existing schools and children's centres".

Start Quote

I would like to think they're not playing politics”

End Quote Tom Simon Lib Dem councillor

And on the issue of demand for school places, the council says it is meeting to consider this next month.

The council says that the most recent figures show that "all applicants from Belsize ward had been offered a place at a local school".

The estate agent selling the properties describes the buildings as "surplus to requirement by Camden council".

It says they are an "exciting opportunity to create luxury private residential developments in the exclusive area of Belsize Park".

There are also political faultlines.

Supporting the free school is Liberal Democrat councillor, Tom Simon, who wants the Labour-run council to halt the sale of the buildings until the outcome of the free school application is known.

Without these buildings, he says the plans are "back at the drawing board".

"There is a clear need for a new school," says Mr Simon.

"It's difficult to understand why they are being so dogmatic. I would like to think they're not playing politics."

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