A TOWN HALL education chief is demanding to know why the Government agreed to pay close to £6m in rent to a company of a vice chairman of the Tory Party for a free school site in Bradford when the council was able to buy land for a larger school in the city at a fraction of the cost.
The Department for Education (DfE) has repeatedly defended the Kings Science Academy land deal which sees £296,000-a-year being paid to the Hartley Group, the company of senior Conservative businessman Alan Lewis, over a 20-year lease for the site in the Lidget Green area of the city.
Mr Lewis is the school’s executive patron and the DfE has said it thought he was the chairman of governors when it agreed the deal but subsequently found out this was not the case. Mr Lewis has consistently denied ever being the school’s chair of governors.
The school’s rental deal and the £10m construction costs of the building have made it one of the most expensive free schools to taxpayers so far, according to the Government’s own figures.
Bradford Council’s executive member for education Coun Ralph Berry has asked why the DfE agreed to rent of close to £6m for a site when the council was able to buy a land for a through-age school for just over £350,000 through a compulsory purchase order. The site for the Appleton Academy, in Wyke a through age school for around 1,400 pupils aged three to 19, cost £362,094.
The school was built in 2012 the same year as the Kings Science Academy.
Coun Berry said: “This is a different site but it gives you an indication of the sort of costs securing a school site in Bradford involves.
“How did finding a piece of land for a free school end up costing taxpayers close to £6m in rent and more when the lease needs to be renegotiated. How does the DfE think this represents value for money ? I have no problem with the choice of site, because we do need places in that area and I have no problem with the building costs - it looks like they have done a good job with the building - but the question is why did the DfE did not use a CPO to buy it?
“At the very least we need an detailed explanation of how this figure was arrived at.
“This isn’t commercially confidential because the cost is already in the public domain.
“What isn’t in the public domain is what on earth was the department was thinking when it agreed this deal.”
The Kings Science Academy opened in 2011 in a temporary base in Manningham and moved to a permanent base in the Lidget Green area of the city.
The rental deal has been questioned previously in Parliament.
In a Westminster Hall debate earlier this year Bradford East David Ward MP called for Ministers to provide evidence that “the near £300,000 per year rent is not far in excess of what Mr Lewis could reasonably have expected to get from the partially tenanted and largely derelict site.”
Mr Ward also submitted a written question asking whether the department had considered buying the site rather than leasing it.
A written answer from minister Edward Timpson said an assessment concluded that a long term lease “represented better value for money” than purchasing the site.
But now Coun Berry is questioning how that can be the case given that a CPO for a school in Bradford cost £362,094 - around fifteen times less than what the DfE will pay for Kings.
Responding to Coun Berry’s comments a DfE spokesman said: “We are paying rent on the Kings Science Academy site because that was the best site available in terms of its cost, suitability, size and location. Independent commercial advice was obtained on the cost of the lease for the Kings Science Academy site. This confirmed the cost was in line with the market value. It was also a lower rate of rent than for previous tenants.”
The DfE is paying £2.27 per sq ft for the Kings site. This is below the rate of £2.77 to £2.88 per sq ft paid by previous tenants.
The rental figure the school is paying is said to be based on the footprint of the internal buildings that were previously on the site. However the school is actually getting use of a much larger piece of land for this figure.
It was also agreed to give the school a 19-month rent free period.
The Kings Science Academy has become engulfed in a separate financial scandal after a DfE audit report alleged that it had submitted fabricated invoices to claim public money.
The matter was passed to West Yorkshire Police last year after allegations were leaked to the media. The school’s former principal Sajid Raza has since been arrested and bailed over allegations of fraud and a file is currently with the Crown Prosecution Service.
When the fraud allegations were first publicised in October last year the school issued a statement which said that there has been no misappropriation of funds and all expenditure has been academy related.
The school is now joining the Dixons Academy Trust and is set to change its name.