Leeds Civic Hall: a council watchdog says Government forced the local authority to transfer school for free.
The internal scrutiny board for resources and council services at the Leeds City Council has revealed that the council was “compelled” by Government to hand over, for free, a school to a free school group. The school, formerly Fir Tree Primary School, is estimated to be valued at about £1m.
Members of the said board, which is a council watchdog committee, said this during a meeting to discuss the wrangle between the local authority and the Government over the school in Alwoodley. The site was handed over last October at no cost at all. The Department for Education (DfE) in turn transferred the school building to the Khalsa Schools Trust.
According to revelations heard at the council meeting, it is understood that the DfE had written Leeds City Council informing them that the transfer of the property to take place the next working day had already been authorised by the Secretary of State and thus the council was expected to “reject all offers made.” This was on Friday, 10th October 2014. DfE contractors are said to have moved in and changed locks the following Monday.
The council’s legal services department expressed their dismay at such a move, which they described as “unprecedented”.
“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?” explained Mark Turnbull, a member of the council’s legal department.
Mr Turnbull continued, “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. I have never seen anything like in 25 plus years’ experience in Leeds local Government.”
It was also revealed that the local authority’s legal services department had repeatedly requested Government to clarify the law regarding the transfer of learning institutions. The Government is said to have responded in September 2014.
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,” said city solicitor Cath Witham.