A Leeds council watchdog committee has been told that the Government acted in an “unprecedented” manner in enforcing the free transfer of a school building worth nearly £1m to a free school group.
Members of Leeds City Council’s internal scrutiny board for resources and council services met this morning (Monday) to analyse the authority’s part in the long wrangle with central Government over the future of the former Fir Tree Primary School site in Alwoodley.
The council was forced to hand over the site - valued at £900,000 - last October free of charge to the Department of Education (DfE), who then transferred it to the Khalsa Education Trust.
The committee heard that on Friday, October 10, that the DfE wrote an email to Leeds City Council “rejecting all offers made” and stating the Secretary of State had authorised the transfer to take place the next working day.
On that following Monday, DfE contractors changed the locks on the school site and took “forced” possession - a move even a senior QC consulted by the council’s legal team had never heard of.
Mark Turnbull, of the council’s legal services department, said: “I had a telephone conversation with a lead counsel on the Friday afternoon after the email.
“I put it to him what if the council refuse to hand over the keys?
“He said there is no way the Government would just force entry into the property. The situation was unheard of. That was a leading QC.”
He added: “I have never seen anything like in 25 plus years’ experience in Leeds local Government.”
Coun Alan Lamb (Conservative, Wetherby) questioned why legal services had proceeded on the ultimately incorrect basis that the law the Government was using applied only to academies and not free schools.
But the committee heard the legal team had made repeated requests to the Government seeking clarification of the law, which were only finally answered in September 2014.
Cath Witham, city solicitor, said: “It was not clear from the legislation that it applied to free schools. Given that, I think it’s quite reasonable as a legal service to seek clarification from the EFA (Education Funding Agency).
“I have some sympathy with the reality of the fact that it did take some time. I wish it hadn’t taken as long as it did. But I think it was right to check out what we were doing in terms of transferring this asset and reassuring ourselves and members that they were doing that under the appropriate powers.”