Development education planning

From drawing board to build: finding the best sites for new schools

Q2 2019

As councils seek urgent solutions to tackle a shortage of school places, we look at the challenges facing developers searching for appropriate school sites.

David Fletcher

Director, National Development and Planning

+44 (0) 782 694 9603

Strutt & Parker’s National Planning Team is one of the fastest growing planning consultancies in the UK. Amid growing concern about a lack of school places – particularly at secondary level – David Fletcher has been looking at the challenges associated with identifying sites for new schools and bringing these projects to fruition.

Why do we need so many new schools?

The mid-late 2000s saw a baby boom in Britain, with an increase in the average number of children per family from 1.64 in 2001 to 1.97 in 2008. These children have been gradually working their way through the primary school system and are now poised to hit secondary school.

There’s just one problem – there aren’t enough schools for them.

While the primary school population is expected to stabilise in 2019, government figures suggest that the demand for secondary school places will increase to a peak of 3.28 million in 2025. This increased demand could lead to 134,000 children losing out on a secondary school place by 2023/24, unless new schools are created.

This is a national issue, but the impacts are more acute in specific areas. London and other large cities will be hit the hardest, but many smaller towns and villages have seen high levels of migration due to the area becoming more popular.

Capacity isn’t the only challenge that local councils are facing. As well as the shortage of school places, many older school buildings are becoming costly to maintain and unsuitable for modern educational needs.

The challenge of finding the right school site

Although increasing the number of school places is a priority for many councils, building new schools is far from simple. Aside from the funding issues, one of the biggest challenges that councils and the Department for Education are facing is finding suitable sites for development.

The first problem is that schools require space. A new primary school typically requires a minimum 2-hectare site, increasing to 6 hectares for a secondary school. In many cities, planners are looking to build upward to make the most of small sites, but this inevitably means a trade-off with outdoor space.

To reduce pupil travel time and traffic congestion, schools also need to be located in or near the communities they serve, narrowing the search area considerably. Even if there is a suitable site, schools often have to fight off stiff competition from housing developers, particularly in high-value areas.

Geographical challenges can also cause problems. Strutt & Parker’s planning team have been working on the plans for a new secondary school in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire. This town in the Fens is surrounded by flood risk zones which has made finding a suitable site particularly difficult.

Getting new schools through the planning system

Even once a site is found, the obstacles aren’t over. Getting a project through the planning system can be a lengthy process. This isn’t because planning authorities are reluctant to approve plans for new schools – far from it. It’s down to a lack of capacity.

After almost a decade of growth in the private housebuilding industry, pay freezes and local authority cuts, many planners have left local authorities to work in the private sector. The experienced planners who remain are often involved in big masterplan projects, leaving a skills gap for these smaller – though no less important – educational schemes.

The government’s chief planner, Steve Quartermain recently announced that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government was commissioning research to better understand the skills gap, but for now, many councils are turning to external consultants for support.

Why negotiation is essential to securing the best site

It’s rare that a potential new school site can tick all the boxes, making negotiation and teamwork essential, as David Fletcher from Strutt & Parker’s National Planning Team, explains.

“We found a site large enough for both the new secondary school needed in Wisbech and relocation of an existing special educational needs school, which we believe to be the best overall site. However, significant upgrades to the road network would be needed to support the new school which risks making the project unviable.”

This challenge isn’t unique to Wisbech. There may be local or national funding available to help with the build cost of a new school, but this often doesn’t extend to wider transport and infrastructure improvements. Upgrading current provision to accommodate the extra traffic is not only necessary in many cases but can help get local communities on board with the project.

Helping with planning application negotiations is one part of Strutt & Parker’s role in securing and developing new school sites. Having worked on various successful projects, David is positive about overcoming the challenges in Wisbech. “A lot comes down to funding. Having a joined-up approach with the Department for Education or local council, planning officers and highways authorities working together rather than in silos can help progress a project through the planning system quickly and effectively.”

The impact of getting it right

Finding the right school site can have fantastic outcomes for children and local communities. Strutt & Parker helped Glenwood School in Benfleet move from a very poor site to a new campus with excellent facilities. The new school was specifically designed for pupils with special educational needs and now provides specialist resources for over 200 children in Essex aged from 3 to 19.

As for Wisbech and the many other schools waiting to be built, by working together with planning departments and other stakeholders, we can make sure there are school places for all our children, for 2020 and beyond.