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Exclusive: DfE is paying 'excessive' free-school rent to ex Tory chief

Tes investigation reveals controversial £6m deal is still in place, as watchdog calls for transparency

The land deal at the Kings Science Academy is still in place, Tes can confirm

The government is still paying close to £300,000 a year in a controversial free-school land deal, Tes can exclusively reveal.

The deal for the former Kings Science Academy site will result in around £6 million being paid to the company of a former Conservative Party vice-chairman for a free-school site in a run-down area of inner-city Bradford.


Quick read: Why did the DfE fail to secure fraud probe?

Background: DfE declines to answer free-school land deal questions

Long read: The unanswered questions about free-school scandal


One local city councillor has condemned the rent for the site as "excessive", pointing out that the Department for Education is paying nearly as much every year as it cost the local authority to buy land for a bigger secondary in the city outright.

The DfE has declined to say whether the Kings site rent is still being paid or what will happen when the 20-year lease expires in 2032, citing commercial confidentiality.

However, Tes has now had a separate confirmation that the deal is still in place today. It means that £295,960 of taxpayers' money is being paid every year to the Hartley Property Group, where former Tory party vice-chairman Alan Lewis is chairman and director.

The news has prompted the chair of Parliament's public spending watchdog to criticise the DfE for entering "bad property deals" and operating with "a lack of transparency."

Free-school land deals 'shrouded in secrecy'

Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said last night: “I am shocked but not surprised that the DfE refuses to say what rent is being paid on the site.  

"It is a long-standing constant concern of this committee that we don’t get enough public information about free-school sites. 

"As soon it gets to central government, there is a shroud of secrecy, whereas if this was a local case we’d know about the deal. There are only very short periods of time when something is commercially sensitive."

The Labour MP added: "It also demonstrates that the government is going into very bad property deals, paying over the odds for buildings and, in this case, a high rent. It is something we are very concerned about. 

"Transparency is absolutely vital. This is taxpayers' money and this is a school providing an education, so there are no grounds to try to keep this secret."

The DfE has twice declined to confirm if the rental deal is still in place. A spokesperson this week told Tes for a second time that this information was commercially sensitive.

After the details of the deal first emerged in 2013, Bradford Council's then cabinet member for education, Ralph Berry, revealed that the annual rent was close to the £362,094 the authority had paid to purchase a site outright for a much larger secondary in the city, built in the same year as the Kings Science Academy.

Earlier this month, Councillor Berry told Tes: "There is no way a local authority would have been able to put together [the Kings] deal. A finance director just would not sign off on it. It wasn’t just excessive. It was an outrage.”

It emerged in 2013 that the money was being paid to Mr Lewis' Hartley Property Group. At the time the deal was agreed, Mr Lewis was a vice-chair of the Tory party, and the DfE had thought he was the chair of governors at the Kings Science Academy.

However, Mr Lewis denied ever being the free school's chair of governors and the DfE subsequently said it had been misinformed by the school and that it appeared that no chair of governors had been in place during the free school’s first year.

Under the terms of the deal revealed in 2013, the site in the deprived Lidget Green area of Bradford will have already cost the DfE at least £1,479,000 by the end of 2018-19.

An initial rent-free period of 19 months was agreed but the deal is still worth almost £6 million over 20 years. The Kings Science Academy moved to a new building on the site in November 2012.

The Kings Science Academy became engulfed in a fraud scandal – not connected to the land deal. The school’s founding principal, Sajid Hussain Raza, and two other members of staff were sentenced to prison in 2016.  

The school was rebrokered into the Dixons Academy chain after the allegations of fraud emerged.  The school, which is still based on the same site in Lidget Green, is now known as Dixons Kings Academy.

Dixons Academies Trust and the Hartley Property Group have been approached for comment about the land deal.

Tes has also revealed this month that the DfE failed to secure a police investigation into the fraud for six months.

The case was not passed to police for criminal investigation until the matter was leaked into the public domain.

 

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