Hackney’s mayor Jules Pipe has been critical of Michael Gove’s free schools policy. But doing anything about it has been another matter.
Government-funded schools continue to open, including two new free schools coming to Hackney in 2016.
Even so, Hackney will face a shortage of 840 primary and 750 secondary school places by 2020. There is no government money for new local authority schools, only free schools and academy conversions.
Over the next year, the borough is looking to save another £35 million due to budget cuts.
The borough has limited options to fund new local authority school places. Unless, says Hackney Downs Councillor Rick Muir, it makes smart use of its property portfolio.
To plug the school places gap without relying on Whitehall, the Council is deploying perhaps the biggest weapon in its arsenal — land value — in an effort to work around national schools policy. The average cost of a home in Hackney is now over half a million pounds.
“In many ways it’s a negative to have higher land values because it leads to higher property prices and higher rent,” says Muir. “But Hackney has the ability to raise money from this land.”
Using its own land zoned for education purposes, the Council can relocate and expand existing schools to create more places, adding to new free school and academy places in the borough.
But, crucially, if school relocations and expansions by the local authority are to be viable, they need to be paid for locally.
To this end, a new set of plans has been proposed for private residential towers to fund directly two new schools — one on Tiger Way in Hackney Downs, and one in Hoxton, to provide 570 new school places.
The plans have been put forward under Hackney Council’s Building Schools for the Future scheme, which is Hackney’s version of the now-defunct central government school building fund of the same name.
Still in their infancy at the pre-planning stage, the joint schemes have already hit a nerve with local residents including Cllr Muir, whose ward includes the Tiger Way site, south of the Nightingale Estate on Hackney Downs.
Muir takes issue with the height of the proposed residences with no on-site affordable housing planned as part of
Muir has asked the Council to “rethink” the height of the towers — a possible 22 storeys in Hoxton and up to 13 high in Hackney Downs.
“When the Nightingale Estate was redeveloped many years ago under a regeneration programme, lots of very tall tower blocks got knocked down… I’m concerned that this scheme to finance school places is coming up with buildings that are taller than residents on the estate want. People don’t want to go back to lots of high-rise blocks again.”
While the plans offer no on-site affordable housing as of yet, Muir hopes the new income will contribute to affordable housing overall, helping the Council get closer to its 50 per cent target for affordable housing on new residential developments, without any government grant to fund it.
The target is ambitious, and in most cases, the Council has admitted, it isn’t being met. But, says Muir, the goal is to “aim as high as you can — in terms of affordable housing, not in terms of height.”
On the issue of school places, Muir recognises the need for pragmatism. If the scheme goes ahead as planned, this may mean surrendering to the prospect of taller buildings to win the battle for new school places.
“The financial pressures are new. But I guess we live in unusual times. The council is having to think in a new way about how it uses the land that it owns,” he says.
The timing may seem off. If the Conservatives lose the General Election, a change in government could mean a change in schools funding.
But the borough can’t wait around, says Muir. “Whoever wins the election, we need more social housing and we need more school places, so we’ve got to get on with that.”
Arguably two of the Town Hall’s top priorities, education and housing, have come face-to-face here. It’s early days but in this case, it seems the need for school places has won out.