Monday, 4 April 2016

Joined Up Thinking

There's already rumbling unrest in the Conservative back benches about the 'Academisation' of schools - but does this bill hide something more insidious?

One of the things that I've levelled at the current administration in the past is their seemingly inability to harmonise their political offerings - or, in other words, it looked as if they were planning everything on the back of a fag packet. Partly, this stemmed from the fact that we had a coalition until 2015, and this stymied some of the Tories' planned legislative shenanigans. However, it also derived from David Cameron's really rather laissez-faire attitude to whatever his minions in the various ministries were up to, an approach so laid-back even his body language needed subtitles.
The PM lets his team get on with things.

We saw this attitude resurface once more when Ian Duncan Smith spectatularly resigned: Cameron's letter had the air of a puzzled headmaster, bemused at the antics of the Lower Sixth, than Prime Ministerial authority. It is very striking how he seems to lack all conviction, apart from that of being born to be PM: He leaves ideology to his ministers, George Osborne in particular.

The Chancellor's announcement about forcing all schools to become academies was surprising, not least because it was Osborne announcing it: Why didn't Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Education, do so?
The Chancellor with his box full of Cunning Plans.

And then there was the announcement of the privatisation of the Land Registry. This was really odd. Here's a publicly held body that is openly democratic and accountable, that more than pays for itself and returns a healthy profit to the Exchequer - it's the very last thing one would expect to be in line to be flogged off.

In fact, there's more linking the two, I suggest, than meets the eye. Let me take you back a bit first.

Have you ever heard of the Infrastructure Act? No? Don't worry, you're not alone. This passed through the Houses last year, and ostensibly it's designed to speed up - you guessed it - infrastructure, in particular housing. The idea is it will be easier to get things put up. That's all good and well - I'm all for more homes, as I outlined in an earlier post - but there is a Dark Side to this. It makes it easier to get a permit to frack for shale gas deposits for one. Worse than this, however, is the fact that, should your local friendly fracking company pootle up to the brownfield site just across the road from you, you would have no legal recourse to prevent them doing so. Or, if a private company decided that they needed to fence in the public right of way next to their new factory extension, guess what? Yep, no recourse to consultation.
The reason for this is that the infrastructure act requires ALL local authorities in England and Wales to hand over areas such as brownfield sites to Eric Pickles' new quango, the Homes and Communities Agency, where just TWO inspectors will control planning decisions.

It gets worse: The Infrastructure Bill contains a clause that will allow ALL public land to be privatised, AND it supercedes previous acts such as the Forestry Act 1967 and the Countryside Rights of Way Act. That's right, pretty much anything public and open, that YOUR taxes paid for, is liable to end up in the hands of the few.

So, I hear you ask, what's that got to do with schools becoming academies?

I'll come to that in a minute. Let's take a quick look at what the Land Registry Act would mean first.

The first effect of privatising the Land Registry would almost certainly be the increase in property prices, as well as increases in how much you have to pay to see who owns what. However, it would also be very easy to justify not releasing information about ownership on the grounds of 'privacy' - and here's the insidious bit: because it would be a privatised organisation, the Land Registry would not be so amenable to Freedom of Information requests. So, we have land returned to a central government quango thanks to the Infrasctructure Act, that land being sold off to whoever, and that data about previously public land hiding behind the firewall of a private company that monitors who owns what.

Let's put the last duck in the row: Academisation.

There's a naughty little clause relating to academies. Basically, it states that whenever a school becomes an Academy, its physical assets, including the school grounds, leave Local Authority control and become the property of - guess who? - central government.

Many schools have a lot of land: For example, my old comprehensive sits in a splendid fifty acres of prime, eminently developable, green stuff. And just look at the price of plots in London.....

And there you have it. The academisation of schools is NOTHING to do with a better education. It's just the latest phase in the biggest land grab this country has seen since the Enclosures. This government, the most venal of the modern parliamentary era, is seeking to ensure that it takes OUR places and puts them in the hands of the very, very few.

There's their joined up thinking.