Parish council launches legal challenge against free school approval

A parish council has launched a legal challenge against the communities secretary Eric Pickles in a bid to overturn his decision to allow a free school to carry on operating in a Buckinghamshire village.

High Court: will hear council's legal challenge
High Court: will hear council's legal challenge

Stoke Poges Parish Council yesterday announced it had issued legal proceedings in the High Court regarding the continued use of a former office block in the village as a Sikh faith school. 

According to the parish council, the Khalsa Secondary School is currently operating on the site, with a limited intake of students, but expects to expand to a full role of over 900 pupils in the coming years. The former office, called Pioneer House, is on green belt.

Under government changes to the general permitted development order, which came into force in May 2013, free schools are allowed to open in any building for up to a year without planning permission.

However, applicants must apply for "prior approval" to convert buildings permanently.

The Department for Education (DfE) applied to South Buckinghamshire District Council for prior approval to convert an existing temporary use of Pioneer House by the school, granted under Class C of the general permitted development order legislation 2013, to a permanent use under Class K.

Planning authority South Buckinghamshire Council refused the application in January on the grounds of noise impacts on local residents, prompting the DfE to appeal. 

Following a two-day hearing before in July, the planning inspector Ava Wood recommended refusal of the appeal, also on noise grounds.

She concluded: "On the balance of considerations, the appeal should be rejected for the severity of impact on local residents from noise generated by the school."

But last month, Pickles overruled the inspector and granted prior approval for the continued use of the school on the site.

His decision letter stated: "Although the increased noise levels experienced by the local residents as a result of the school’s operation need to be given significant weight ... they would not be of such severity over and above those generated by any other beneficial use of the site."

In a statement, the parish council said the decision "is unlawful on a number of grounds, and expects the challenge to be considered by the High Court late this year or early next".

The parish council said it would "not be commenting further until the claim comes to the High Court".

According to the council’s planning report, 343 objections and 13 letters of support were received during a consultation on the application.

The temporary planning permission for the school expired at the end of July. 

A spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said: "It is the government’s stated planning policy to encourage more free schools.

"As the decision letter makes clear, this was a carefully considered judgement taking into account issues such as noise levels and the likely impacts of any other use of the site."

A DfE spokesman said: "We are aware that an appeal has been lodged in the High Court against the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government’s decision to allow Khalsa Secondary Academy to remain in Pioneer House.

"We await the outcome of this with interest."

NOTE: this story was amended at 4pm on Wednesday, October 22, to add a comment by the DfE. It was amended again at 3.45pm on Thursday, October 23, to add a comment by the DCLG.

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