Court battle looms over Leeds council’s free school handover row with Government

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LEEDS council bosses are readying themselves for a head-to-head court battle with the Government over an ongoing row about the enforced free handover of a former primary school building.

As reported in the YEP, the Department of Education wants the authority to hand the former Fir Tree Primary School building in Chapeltown over to the new Khalsa Science Academy, a Government-sponsored Sikh ethos free school, for nothing.

But education bosses say the building is a valuable Leeds asset potentially worth almost £1m on the open market to the public purse, and the city should be recompensed for it.

At a meeting of the council’s cabinet, it was revealed the authority is now considering legal action over the matter, after claims that repeated requests for ‘high level’ talks with the Department of Education had proved fruitless.

It is claimed there is no specific law which says the council has to hand the school over for nothing.

The meeting was told the Government is relying on the Academies Act to enforce the transfer, but the law does not refer to free schools.

Legal officers told the panel: “A court will not normally interpret the words of an act beyond their normal literal meaning.

“So if an act says ‘academies’, a court will find that it means academies, not free schools, unless there are some other supporting facts or evidence that would suggest otherwise.

“It’s not rocket science.”

Councillor Richard Lewis, chief cabinet spokesman for the economy and development, told colleagues: “Why should we give away an asset that has a clear value as a housing site at a time we are pushing for housing growth?

“I do not understand why we should be rolling over and doing what the Government wants.

“Sometimes you have to draw a line in the sand that says ‘no, we won’t just take on trust what a Government department or agency is saying’.

“We have to be able to justify to ourselves and to the people out there that we are doing the right thing.

“And the right thing is to explore to the limit [the question of] ‘have they got the powers’?”

Coun Judith Blake, the council’s education lead, said the Department of Education had “still not provided us with the law that says we have to transfer [the building] for nil consideration”.

However opposition councillors say the council is just game playing, and education bosses have only themselves to blame after dragging their heels for two years on the issue.

Coun Andrew Carter, leader of the main opposition Tory group on Leeds council, told the executive board: “If you don’t want to do it, say you don’t want to do it and say so for truthful reasons.

“Don’t dance about around whether the Secretary of State has the power or not.

“I don’t for one minute support this Government or any Government saying we should be able to give away our assets. However if it comes to that with this, it is entirely the fault of Leeds City Council.”

He quoted from a letter from the Department of Education, which said Whitehall civil servants had been in contact with Leeds council almost two years ago over the matter.

Speaking after the meeting, Coun Carter added: “The Khalsa Academy and wider Sikh community have been waiting for almost two years to have their plans approved. It is a point of law that the council can be compelled to give this land to them yet bizarrely they are still refusing to do this believing that legally the Government does not have this right – a view that is plainly wrong.

“The proposal is for a new school that will help to address school place shortages in the area.

“Why on earth is the council continuing to refuse to progress this? They say they are foregoing a capital receipt but how much would it cost to build a school in this area from scratch? It would be millions of pounds. This needs sorting out now before the council ends up in more trouble over what is a proposal that will benefit local people in both Alwoodley and Chapeltown.”

The former Fir Tree site has been vacant for seven years, its only usage being as a temporary decant site for two other Leeds schools, Bankside Primary and Allerton High.

Sarah Champion MP

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