Coalition braced for court challenge on schools

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The coalition will this week face the first significant High Court challenge to its spending decisions as six councils fight its controversial decision to axe a £55bn school building programme.

Michael Gove, education secretary, in July halted the Building Schools for the Future programme, which was aimed at rebuilding or substantially refurbishing secondary schools in England by 2020.

Announcing the cancellation, Mr Gove said that the scheme, which has already spent £5bn, was “characterised by massive overspends, tragic delays, botched
construction projects and needless bureaucracy”.

He cancelled 735 scheduled school refittings, but spared 601 projects. He later suffered embarrassment when it emerged the first official list of halted projects contained errors.

This week, Waltham Forest Borough Council, Kent County Council, Luton Borough Council, the London Borough of Newham, Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council and Nottingham City Council will go to the High Court in an attempt to overturn this decision.

Waltham Forest Borough Council claims in its written legal arguments that the government’s decision “represented a dramatic reversal of policy” and claims it has lost more than £11m after investing in land and paying fees for design and a public consultation.

The legal challenge is being closely watched by other public bodies and
lawyers who believe that a number of controversial government spending decisions could be tested in the courts.

Applications for permission for judicial review are the first stage in the process by which people can challenge the way decisions are made by local and central government.

The increase in such applications has been steady. In 1981 there were 785 applications, which rose to 6,458 by 2006. By 2009 that had jumped to 9,100.

The bulk still relate to individuals taking action on their own immigration or housing cases but a growing number are against government decisions.

The coalition government suffered an upset from a judicial review last month when its immigration policy was thrown into disarray.

A review brought by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants led to a ruling that Theresa May, home secretary, had acted unlawfully when imposing an interim cap in numbers and that Ms May had “sidestepped” rules on parliamentary scrutiny when proposing new curbs.

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