Land of opportunity

Schools can now look to their own land assets as a means of raising much-needed capital, writes Willy Browne-Swinburne

Independent schools, particularly in rural areas are major employers and often, important supporters of local hotels, B&Bs and many other local businesses. They also hold potentially valuable land assets that could be the key to unlocking capital for the longer-term improvement of the school. In the past, planning has always been the major stumbling block to schools’ attempts to raise capital through sensible planning applications and disposals. However, things have changed and there has never been a better time to reconsider this approach.

So what has happened? In March 2012 the government, in response to the housing shortage, published its new planning guidelines in a document called the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). Without going into too much detail, the document turned standard planning policy on its head and actively encouraged a positive approach to development, especially where rural settlements were concerned.

Planning authorities are still struggling, in the face of major cuts, to adopt this new policy change. Providing a site meets the relevant criteria (which are substantially less constraining than in the past), then landowners can challenge ‘old planning thinking’ under the NPPF and make successful applications.

Steve Quartermain, the government’s chief rural planner says: “One of the motivations for new legislation is about stimulating economic growth and re-encouraging the rural economy as a whole. We want to deliver democratic and local control and we expect local authorities to be positive.” At a recent Rural Solutions planning conference, he also identified that landowners probably had a short window of opportunity of perhaps three years. There are even rumours that local authorities may be penalised if they fail to deliver on this. In short it’s open season for rural planning opportunities.

Rural Solutions have been involved in a number of applications for rural schools (including Malsis School in north Yorkshire, see panel) and in one particular case the consent has given the school a completely new lease of life. Duncan Hartley, planning director of Rural Solutions, points out that “for many schools in rural England any notion of planning opportunities on this sort of land was fanciful. Now at least it is worth serious consideration.”

Schools and indeed all rural landowners have a great opportunity, but the key to success is in proving the sustainability and positive impact an application can offer. Schools often suffer from often being located in areas of outstanding natural beauty, conservation areas and heritage landscapes which can make such applications unviable, but even in these cases, there is a much more positive outlook. The local authorities are now obliged to consider these applications in a more positive light. In short – they must try harder!

It is for schools to really look at the land and other property assets they own and see how sensible reallocation, planning and disposal could improve the viability of the business overall for the benefit of pupils, staff and the community.

Case study: Malsis School, north Yorkshire

Celebrating its centenary in 2020, Malsis is an independent school with 100 pupils on its roll aged between 3 and 13. Teaching takes places in an impressive grade II-listed building set in over 40 acres of grounds. In May this year, Craven District Council approved outline planning consent for the second of two housing developments, together totalling around 50 new homes in the grounds of the school. This consent will enable the school to use money ring-fenced from the sale of the land to developers to make urgent repairs to the listed buildings and to upgrade sports facilities, including improvements to the sports hall, provision of three new sports pitches and upgrading of a three kilometre mountain bike track around the grounds.

Willy Browne-Swinburne, Rural Solutions W:

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