There is a critical need for Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) facilities across the UK. A lack of sustainable investment means that local authority spending continues to exceed funding provision. In 2020, a report by MPs on the Public Accounts Committee identified that many of the 1.3 million pupils in England with SEND do not have access to the support they need which, in turn, is damaging their education, well-being and future life chances. The planning system plays a crucial role in facilitating the delivery of new SEND facilities and must be proactive in addressing rising demand.
Children are increasingly having to travel long distances to access SEND facilities that are often well outside the community in which they live. In 2022, at least 43,000 children in the England with Education and Health Care plans attended schools or other education establishments outside of their home council area .Additionally, a lack of transport provision means that councils must frequently arrange private taxis for single students. Aside from the significant additional expense for local authorities, the extra travel causes undue stress for children with complex needs.
It appears the government is alive to the issue and following consultation on the March 2022 Green Paper , the Department for Education (DfE) published its Improvement Plan for SEND and Alternative Provision in March 2023 . The Plan commits £2.6 billion of funding between 2022–2025 to deliver new places and improve existing provision for children and young people with SEND or those who require alternative provision. The government has also identified local authorities in England where 33 new special schools will be built as part of the free school programme to ease pressure on special school places .
This is promising and is welcome news but how will these new schools be delivered within a planning system that, in our experience, frequently misunderstands the nuances of SEND?
At present there is a lack of differentiation between SEND education requirements and mainstream education requirements in planning policy. Consequently, there is often no specific recognition of the acute need for the provision of SEND facilities and how these facilities should be delivered spatially. This is proving challenging.
At a national level, the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) (2023)  outlines a statutory requirement for Local Planning Authorities (LPA) to provide a sufficient choice of school places to meet local needs (para 95). LPAs must also take a proactive, positive and collaborative approach to meeting these needs in plan making and decision taking. Alongside this, the Planning Practice Guidance (PPG) (Reference ID:53-007-20190722)  requires local plans to allocate land for educational purposes to meet the needs within a local area while also taking account of needs that may cross local authority administrative boundaries. However, this all applies to mainstream education. SEND need is not mentioned.
In our experience, this is much the same at the local level with SEND need and mainstream education need often conflated. For instance, when demonstrating the suitability of an unallocated site for a new SEND school, we are often asked by LPAs to first review and consider sites that are allocated for primary and/or secondary schools. However, these sites are allocated to deliver schools for mainstream education needs and not SEND needs. Rarely does a Local Plan’s evidence base distinguish between mainstream and specialist educational requirements and need, which results in a lack of clarity in policy and subsequent misunderstanding from LPAs. This paves the way for prolonged discussions at the decision-making stage on the need itself, and subsequently more delays to delivering the much-needed new SEND schools.
The London Plan (2021)  acknowledges that there is an increasing need for SEND provision in the capital and advises that both mainstream education places and SEND places should be planned for (Policy S3) by LPAs. It also highlights the importance of accessible design given that some SEND provision will be accommodated in mainstream schools. While the policy is helpful, it is arguably not enough as it does not obligate LPAs to accommodate these places through the provision of specialist schools. There is a risk that LPAs will simply plan for these places to be accommodated in mainstream education schools, which are not appropriate in all cases. This is problematic because SEND schools accommodate students with a range of complex needs that must be considered and addressed through careful planning and design. In particular, as outlined in the DfE’s Guidelines for SEND and Alternative Provision , these schools require more space per pupil than mainstream schools for several reasons:
“pupils are taught in smaller groups, averaging around 8 to 12 and as low as 4 to 6 where pupils need extensive support;
staff to pupil ratios are higher, particularly in a special school where 2 or 3 teaching assistants or support staff work alongside the teacher or give support in a separate space;
multi-agency meetings are common during the school day requiring confidential meeting rooms (these can involve several people in special schools). These areas can also be used for the delivery of individual intervention and therapy sessions.
The following apply in some settings:
pupils using wheelchairs need more space for mobility
disabled pupils need facilities for physiotherapy and specialist changing facilities
pupils who are easily agitated often need more personal space around them
pupils in special schools and AP need individual teaching, counselling and therapy, requiring a range of small spaces
visiting professionals, such as speech and language therapists, need access to a desk space and storage in addition to the teaching areas.” (DfE’s Guidelines for SEND and Alternative Provision)
A good example of a purpose built SEND school is Addington Valley Academy in the London Borough of Croydon, which Lichfields assisted Kier and LB Croydon to deliver. Lichfields advised on planning throughout the project, including on community involvement and justification for the need of the school, loss of a playing field and the impact on Metropolitan Green Belt.
Examples like this demonstrate best practice in delivering SEND schools. However, they do come at a cost. With rising demand for SEND facilities and pressure on local authority funding, the private sector is having to step in to help. The government’s commitment to £2.6 billion of funding over the next four years is promising. However, it is likely that planning policy will be slow to catch-up and address this need. Clearly, something must be done in the interim to relieve this pressure.
Through direct project experience, Lichfields has found that the delivery of new homes could play a part in helping to reduce this pressure. In certain circumstances, new housing-led developments have the potential to cross subsidise the provision of new SEND. Of course, an optimum number of residential units is required to ensure a scheme is viable. However, cross subsidy from residential development on larger sites can offer a genuine, practical solution to addressing the current shortfall in funding by delivering SEND schools as part of mixed-use developments.
So, how does it work? A proportion of the surplus profit generated by housing developments is used to fund a new SEND school on the same site. SEND provision can be cross-subsidised either as a public benefit in lieu of affordable housing or alongside mixed tenure residential development. A key benefit of this approach is that the funding committed in the government’s Improvement Plan can be spent on other things including core school funding (e.g. operational costs) and specialist teacher training. In parallel, the need for SEND provision in a local area can unlock potential sites for mixed-use development and the delivery of much-needed homes. This approach results in considerable social gains for a local area, addressing both the need for housing and SEND provision in a single development, while also establishing new, mixed communities.
At a time when the planning system must be proactive in addressing the rising demand for SEND facilities, identifying sites for mixed-use development offers a practical solution that can work alongside the government’s multi-year financial commitment to improve SEND provision. In our experience, adding the need for new homes into the planning balance argument makes discussions with planning officers easier. We see this as an effective approach to delivering SEND facilities within the existing policy vacuum, and one that can act in the interim while planning policy catches up.
Lichfields has knowledge and experience of navigating SEND projects through the planning process and providing needs assessments to accompany these applications. Please do get in touch if your project would benefit from our insight and experience into the delivery of SEND facilities.