A secretive attempt by Redbridge Council to take over a former school for autistic children outside the borough has been blocked by another council.

In the summer of 2020, the Anderson School in Chigwell, owned by the National Autistic Society (NAS), shut down after a raft of complaints about “serious behavioural incidents”.

The NAS then entered talks with Redbridge Council to lease them the building for use as a general special needs school, which would require overturning a strict planning condition requiring it solely educate autistic children.

However, Epping Forest District Council and Essex County Council refused to allow this, citing strict rules about the use of buildings on the greenbelt.

The NAS has appealed to the Planning Inspectorate and the case been referred to the minister for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Michael Gove, who is expected to rule on the matter by the end of March.

A Redbridge Council spokesperson said: “Unfortunately, it has not been possible to progress the use of the former Anderson school site for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities.

“This is a result of an intervention by Essex County Council, who preferred to see the education provision on the site run by a private education provider rather than by a local authority school judged outstanding by Ofsted.

“We are actively identifying alternative options to ensure sufficient high-quality provision to meet long-term projections of need.

“We are working with local schools to ensure that needs are met more immediately. For example, in November 2021, Cabinet agreed to plans to expand Newbridge Special School by a further 21 places and for an Autistic Spectrum Disorder Additionally Resourced Provision to be opened at Caterham High School for 28 additional pupils.”

Redbridge is under pressure to create extra spaces for its children with special needs, with corporate director of appeal Adrian Loades Adrian Loades stating that the borough’s capacity was “full” in 2020.

Writing in support of the NAS appeal, he said: “Without this option the children would be educated in mobile classrooms on already highly constrained sites or be placed in schools considerably more distant from Redbridge.”

Controversy over the school’s future has raged since its closure, with former Anderson School governor and south west Hertfordshire MP Garan Mohindra, accusing the NAS of liaising with Redbridge “under a veil of secrecy”.

Speaking in parliament last year, he said: “To put it simply, if the plans of the NAS to enter into a contract with the London Borough of Redbridge are allowed to proceed, the buildings will still bear the name of the Anderson School, but the Anderson School will no longer exist.

“It will have been destroyed by the incompetence and the avarice of the NAS.”

NAS chief executive Caroline Stevens, said: “We want an experienced and respected provider to take over our former school in Chigwell, so local autistic children and young people can use this specially designed school building as soon as possible. And we’re deeply disappointed that it continues to be empty.

“We would like to take this moment to apologise once again to our former students, families, carers for failing to live up to the ambition we had for our own school and for the disruption and uncertainties our decision to close caused.”

Letters from Epping Forest MP Eleanor Laing, made public as part of the planning appeal, questioned the financial motives of the NAS.

According to her calculations, of the £40,000 annual fees paid by local authorities for each child, more than a third went towards head office administration.

She added: “The NAS purchased the building [from The Anderson Foundation] for approximately one third of the true commercial value of £18m, effectively accepting a gift of some £12m.

“This gift was given specifically to provide for the education of academically able autistic children who have the capacity for high achievement, leading to a fulfilled adult life and obtaining meaningful paid employment and careers.”

According to the NAS, the charity has carefully followed its legal requirements. The fees paid to head office covered IT, HR, specialist support and training for the school and its staff.