Meg Hillier has used a former police station in Hackney Central, bought by the government for £7.2 million to be converted into a school, as a prime example of the wastage of public money.
It stands lifeless on Lower Clapton Road, with planning permission denied and taxpayers’ cash tied up in the bricks and mortar. Squatters settled just months after the building was purchased in 2014 .
The site was touted as a potential new home for the Olive School – an Islamic faith school, currently in temporary accommodation.
But despite the sale being approved and signed off by government officials, Hackney Council refused planning permission on the conversion of the property after receiving 81 objections by local residents. Civil servants have appealed against the decision and there will be a six-month hearing in June.
It was revealed this week that the property was valued at just £3m six months before it was purchased, meaning the government drastically overpaid for the former police station in 2014.
— De Beauvoir Labour? (@LoveDeBeauvoir) March 13, 2017
A systemic problem
This week, Meg Hillier, MP for Shoreditch and South Hackney and chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said that the problem was systemic and that the Education Funding Agency, which oversees purchases had paid over the market value in more than half of purchases.
She called the former Hackney Central Police Station the epitome of government waste – with the government paying 60 per cent over the odds for a school that cannot be built. This has called into question the integrity of officials, but a Department for Education representative said: “Hackney Police Station represented the best value option to meet the school’s needs at the time of purchase.
“The site had been marketed openly, and the competition for it was such that the vendor received offers in excess of the original valuation. In this context, we believed we secured this site for the best price possible.”
Despite this, in April 2014, squatters and their dogs occupied boarded-up police station – and were even seen unloaded the contents of a truck into the site. They have since been moved on.
The MP for Shoreditch and Hackney South put the blame squarely at the government’s feet. “The Education Funding Agency is one of the biggest purchasers of land in the country – and it keeps paying over the odds.
“It is a real worry and not getting value for money for the taxpayer.”
Good question from Meg Hillier: how many extra school places do you need for parents to exercise choice? #schoolbuildings
— Martin George (@geomr) March 13, 2017
The children of the Olive School are also missing out. “We are disappointed by the decision, particularly as the application received significant support from parents and local people,” said a spokesman for the Olive School in June 2016, when the planning was refused.
Ms Hillier added: “There is a real concern about whether Olive School will ever open.
“Children are being taught at a temporary site – it is not good for pupils.”
Locals expressed their anger and dismay at the local council, with one man saying: “There were so many in favour yet the council overlooked it. Shame on Hackney Council.”
A parent, Simon, said: “Too many people crammed into a small site below OFSTED minimum space requirement without adequate outside play area is not a good move.”
The waiting game will continue for at least another 3 months for a final decision to be made.