MP calls for inquiry into free school land deal

David Ward MP
David Ward MP
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AN MP has called for the Public Accounts Committee to investigate a controversial free school land deal after the latest official figures revealed it is the most expensive to the taxpayer so far.

Tables show that the Kings Science Academy, in Bradford, cost £10,414,516 to build and is costing £296,000-a-year to lease over 20 years.

The combined cost of the build and rent mean that it is the most expensive of 39 free school projects where figures are available.

The DfE will be paying more in rent alone for the school in Lidget Green, Bradford, over a 20-year-lease than it has paid to buy land and build or renovate each of more than 30 of its first free schools.

The new figures on free school costs have reignited the controversy over the land deal which had been questioned in Westminster earlier this year.

The money is being paid to the school’s landlord, the Hartley Group, whose chairman Alan Lewis is a vice chairman of the Conservative Party and is said to be an executive patron of the free school.

In a Westminster Hall debate 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.”

Today he repeated that call and also urged the Public Accounts Committee to examine the way in which the deal was agreed in more detail.

He said: “We already knew this land deal was expensive but now we know it has cost more than any other free school.

“It was raised before in a wide ranging Public Accounts Committee hearing but I think there now needs to an investigation specifically about this deal and whether it represents proper use of public money.”

The school is also the source of a separate controversy over alleged fraud which is currently being investigated by West Yorkshire Police. The school’s former principal Sajid Raza has been arrested and released on bail.

On the issue of the land deal Mr Ward previously asked whether the Department for Education (DfE) had considered buying the land 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.

Now Mr Ward is questioning this given that the deal has been shown to be the mostly costly to taxpayers so far. He has also called on the DfE to publish the options appraisal that was carried out when choosing the site for the school.

A DfE spokeswoman said: “We always seek to secure sites at no or minimal cost. 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. Treasury approval was also sought and obtained on the proposed site.”The school is said to be paying £2.27 per sq ft in rent to Mr Lewis’ company. This is said to be below the rate of £2.77 to £2.88 per square foot paid by the previous tenants.

The spokeswoman added: “The department does not publish options appraisal reports for free schools. To do so could inhibit the free and frank provision of advice and impact on the department’s ability to maintain a strong bargaining position for other free school sites.”

Another controversial element to the deal is that the DfE had believed Mr Lewis was the chairman of governors at the school when officials decided to build the school on his company’s land.

The DfE has previously said that it was told by the Kings Science Academy by email that Mr Lewis took over as chairman on October 1 2011. However it was then told in October 2012 that it had been misinformed. The DfE now says that the school had no chair of governors in place for its first 12 months.

Mr Lewis has consistently denied ever being the school’s chairman of governors.

Previously a spokesman for the Hartley Group said that publicly available records at Companies House prove that Mr Lewis has never been registered as a governor or chairman of governors at the school.

The figures available from the Department for Education show that majority - more than 30 of the first 39 free schools where figures are available - have been set up for less than £5m.

A Public Accounts Committee report earlier this year said free schools had been set up at “relatively low cost.”

A DfE spokeswoman said: “Free Schools offer good value for money and are being delivered at a fraction of the cost of previous programmes – new school buildings are now being built up to 40 per cent cheaper than under the Building Schools for the Future programme.”

The other two free schools in Yorkshire where figures are available are Batley Grammar, which like Kings Science Academy opened in 2011. The DfE spent £177,567 on refurbishment work as the existing school converted from the independent sector.

The figures also show £3,447,127 was spent on building work at the Leeds Jewish Free School which opened last September. The secondary school is attached to the existing Brodetsky Primary in the city. It will have capacity for 175 pupils but opened with just eight in its first year.