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Labour and Lib Dem councillors are still trying to scupper Bedford Free School

First the good news. On September 6th a fantastic new school is opening in Bedford. 200 pupils will come through the doors of the Bedford Free School. It is starting with 100 places for 11-year-olds and another 100 places for 13-year-olds. For both categories there is already a waiting list.

The bad news is that Labour and Lib Dem councillors are seeking to raise objections to its site. At the Planning Meeting on Monday the recommendation from the Planning Officer was to accept the proposal. Every hoop had been jumped through. The school "will fund an amendment to the existing Traffic Regulation Order"; the school "will fund the time of a traffic enforcement officer"; "the Head Teacher has taken the role of Traffic Plan Coordinator."  The Admissions Policy makes clear that "priority will be given to those who live nearest to the school" and it is clear that this school will result in rather more of the pupils walking to school than if it didn't exist and parents were desperately driving their children long distances to a decent school.

Having adhered to all the bureaucratic demands, the school has then faced the political prejudices of the councillors. Despite the planning officer's professional guidance, Labour and Lib Dem councillors voted against the change of use for the college building to become a free school.  Amidst all the talk of traffic monitoring, comes the suspicion that the real opposition to the school has stemmed from the ideological bigotry of the Labour councillors (Cllr Shan Hunt, Cllr Will Hunt and Cllr Mohammad Yasin) and the Lib Dem councillors (Cllr Anita Gerrard, Cllr Philip Merryman and Cllr Wendy Rider) who sit on the committee. They just don't believe in parental choice.

Nigel Syson, for the Governors of Bedford Free School, said:

"We will be opening in September as planned and I take this opportunity to thank our parents for their magnificent and loyal support.

"We have legal advice which says that the building already has the required planning permission, as granted to leasees Bedford College earlier in the year. We have the approval of the Government department which is funding the school, and the support of parents and pupils.

"We have an appeal against the planning decision scheduled for 25 September and we will win.

"In the meantime we have the important business of a school to open and pupils to welcome."

So the planning committee vote will make a few lawyers a bit richer with an appeal hearing and cause irritation and uncertainty.  But what of the longer term political implications?

Bedford Council, whose schools perform below the national average, has a directly elected Lib Dem Mayor. In terms of the councillors, the politics could hardly be more balanced with the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems each having 12 councillors. The Bedford constituency is a highly marginal one. The Conservative MP Richard Fuller has a majority over Labour of 1,353. So a seat that Labour needs to take in order to see a smiling Ed Miliband arriving in Downing Street as our new Prime Minister in 2015.

Yet is the Labour Party going to be terribly well placed with its pitch to the hundreds of local parents who will be sending their children to this new free school, or hoping to do so?


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