Buckhurst field and the New College Corporation

New College is shortly to put in an application for an all-weather football pitch on Council owned Buckhurst field1 which sits on the edge of Park North and Walcot. The New College management are looking to the Council to give it a 25 year lease. The cost of the pitch would be £600,000 with £300,000 provided by the Wilts FA. The FA fund says that “priority will be given to those that can demonstrate that it draws a significant proportion of its participants from neighbourhood deprived areas”, although we can find no definition of “significant”. The pitch would be fenced, floodlit and open until 10 p.m.

New College held a consultation meeting recently. They had obviously not expected many people to turn up since they chose a small room which was packed out. There were a number of local representatives of football clubs as well as some of us from the Parks & East Walcot Community Forum, from SWAP (Swindon Walcot and Parks Community Group), and some local residents who could be affected by the scheme. A number of football clubs are in favour of it because they have been told it will be a facility they can use at a price which is affordable. Local community groups are opposed to the proposal because they want the area to remain a public open space. (Download a PDF here buckhurst article or read on below)

There is an old maxim: if its sounds too good to be true it probably is. As the New College Principal Mr Taylor tells it, the college, out of the goodness of its heart is proposing to build this facility with a social purpose in mind, for the benefit of local people. It’s a bit difficult to swallow that one. An investigation of the New College website makes his assertion even less plausible.

We were told that the price for hiring the pitch or pitches2 would be ‘competitive’. However, we weren’t told what prices would be charged. Indeed Mr Taylor confirmed that the ‘Business Plan’ would not be finished until after the planning process had been completed. In other words he wants us to trust his promises, and agree to the planning application “in principle”. That, of course, means that if we discover any problems it will be too late to do anything about it since the planning application will have been agreed.

You can see how the application will be played by the College: curmudgeonly locals trying to stop a community facility which will benefit local people, especially young people, in order to preserve a piece of land subject to flooding. In fact SWAP is already raising money for drainage and the installation of five a side pitches for local children in the central section of the area.

In the meeting Mr Taylor responded to me calling the College a private business, by saying “we are a Charity”. However, if you look at the College website you can read the minutes of the “New College Corporation”. It has charity status in order to prevent it being subject to Corporation Tax. Bearing in mind we were told that the pitch was not a commercial venture it’s interesting to read this in the minutes of the Finance & General Purpose Committee (FGPC) of May 13th 2014:

Governors had mixed opinions on the provision of an all-weather pitch given the budget cuts etc., but it is thought generally to be a good commercial facility to have with very sensible payback.” (my emphasis)

This implies a financial motivation rather than just a concern to give their students a decent pitch which will be offered to local clubs.

We also know that Mr Taylor met with Swindon Borough Council’s Director of Property as reported in minutes of February last year.

Matters arising All-weather pitch: noted that the Principal has now met with Rob Richards, Director of Property, Swindon Borough Council who is referring the matter to their Asset Management Group. A further update will be presented to the committee when available.”

Minutes of the Finance and General Purposes committee, Tuesday 4th February 2014

A quasi-market for students

It is no accident that the application for the pitches at Churchfields and for New College are coming in at the same time. What this reflects is the competition for students which is taking place under the current educational system. Money follows the student. Less students for a school or college mean less government grant. Concerns with ‘competitors’ taking students who might otherwise come to New College are shown in these minutes.

The Principal advised that the college has not seen a great take-up of FE advanced learning loans and this follows the national trend. The college promotes its adult courses through its website, brochures (3 times per year), posters, ad stands etc. but as reported earlier recruitment for 19+ courses is not as high as hoped.”

Minutes of the Corporation 9th January 2014

Concerns were raised with regard to the University Technical College (UTC) and the school /academy sixth forms opening in September and the effect that this will have on enrolments for the 2014/15 academic year and beyond.”

Minutes of the Corporation, March 18th 2014

Under the current educational system, especially with the “free school” development we have a quasi-market for students in which collaboration is abandoned for competition, and “free schools”, insofar as they attract students, take money away from existing schools. This is the context of the “free school bid” by New College.

Free school bid”

A bid for a “free school” in North Swindon by New College, reported in the Advertiser, is going ahead despite the misgivings even of some of its own governors.

Concerns were raised that there are current schools within Swindon with spaces and that there appears to be no overall strategic direction for education in Swindon as a whole.”

Minutes of the Corporation meeting January 9th 2014

Concerns were raised as to the need for the school as existing secondary schools within the area are under-subscribed. It was also noted that the existing primary schools within the area are not in favour of the proposed bid.”

Minutes of the Corporation meeting March 18th 2014

Of course, the lack of “strategic direction” is a result of this quasi-market in which schools and colleges compete, meaning there will be winners and losers. The management of New College is concerned not with other schools and Colleges but only with its own ‘success’ even if this is at the expense of other institutions. They are chasing pupils for the grant they bring. The bid for a “free school” is entirely concerned with finance. So how are the finances of the New College?

Funding continues to be the biggest risk”

In February of last year it was reported to the FGPC that the College was expecting a funding reduction of £330,000. Funding for “some smaller qualifications is also being stopped” and this would affect the college by £150,000. In addition the government announced that “18 year olds would attract a lower rate of funding” and no funding would be available for those students who are required to undertake an English or Maths qualification but refuse to do so.

In 2012-13 New College made a surplus of £304,000. The following year this was down to £35,000; a 0.1% surplus as compared to their target of 3.5%. At its May 2014 Corporation meeting it was recommended that a break-even budget be set “rather than the usual surplus”. This might necessitate some redundancies. “The whole college business (wasn’t it a charity?) and modes of operation will be looked at.”

They were looking for savings both on pay and non-pay budgets. The redundancy period was reduced on academic contracts, and other conditions of service were eroded such as a reduction of maternity pay to the statutory minimum. Pay as a percentage of income was reduced to 64.5%. “The (ironically named) performance support and management policy, linking with capability, discipline and dismissal policy now has a main emphasis on conduct.” The intrepid management was boldly striving on.

With regard to employee relations, some challenging high profile disciplinary and capability claims were managed boldly and professionally.”

No doubt they came to a ‘successful’ conclusion. At least two members of staff appear to have been shown the door under such circumstances.

Further ‘efficiencies’ involved, amongst other things, “further flexibility within employment contracts to align working hours directly to predicted workloads for further efficiency gains”, and “harmonised pay scales”.

The June 2014 F&GPC had decided to support the second budget option in a confidential report, with a “break-even situation at the end of 2015-16”. The October Corporation meeting confirmed this.

Back to the Pitch

Forgive the detour but to test out Mr Taylor’s assertion that he is proposing to build this pitch out of the goodness of his heart, it is necessary to understand the situation which the college is facing. The perusal of the various minutes helps us to put the proposal into context.

If you were at the meeting we attended you could have been forgiven for thinking that Mr Taylor was going to put the planning application in, having no idea how the Council would receive it. Yet he has been in discussion with Council officers, and probably the political administration, at least since last February. It is hardly likely that he would put in a bid unless he felt that it stood a chance of being favourably received.

Why would the College management, hard pressed financially, even to the extent of putting in a bid for a “free school” in order to expand its empire and increase its income, do something for the benefit of the local community, which some governors at least thought was risky, given the budget cuts the college was faced with? Mr Taylor told us that the pitch wasn’t a commercial project yet the Corporation minutes record that “it is thought generally to be a good commercial facility to have with very sensible payback”. In a response to an email from me Mr Taylor said that prices would reflect “the ‘going competitive rate’ ”.

We believe local football clubs would be making a mistake to trust the promises they have received. One way to judge would be for the college to give us the Business Plan before the planning application is put in. However, he wants the application to be agreed first. Yet even one of the people at the meeting who spoke in favour of the pitch being built agreed that we should see the Business Plan first. You would surely want to know what the prices would be before you supported the proposal, even if you were in favour of it in principle.

The beginning of the end of our public open space?

There is a widely held fear that if this application goes ahead then it could be the beginning of the end of Buckhurst Field as a publicly owned open space. SWAP has been pressing for the area to be declared a ‘village green’ in order to protect it from future ‘development’. Dale Heenan, as responsible Lead Member, told the Advertiser that he was open to discussion. On January 13th 2013 he was said by the paper to be “seeking to offer extra assurances to residents and community groups who fear the possibility of future developments on green space in their area.” The rejection of the SWAP bid was said not to “meet the legal criteria”, but Dale was reported as being prepared to discuss other ways of protecting the land “like the Council voluntarily giving it the status”.

These discussions took place and we were told by the participants that Dale considered that ‘village green’ status would not be necessary because there was already sufficient protection in place. This will now be tested.

Planning and politics

If a planning application comes in then the Planning Committee will have to consider it on its merits. However, we should bear in mind though that this isn’t just a planning issue. It involves a political decision by the Council administration to lease publicly owned land for 25 years, with or without a charge. The Planning Committee can decide in principle whether the application can be accepted; whether or not it would be in contradiction to the Council’s Local Plan. However, it cannot decide whether or not to lease Council owned land to the College. That’s why Parks & East Walcot Forum has written to Council Leader David Renard calling on him not to agree to lease Buckhurst Field. He can stop the proposal in its tracks. If the proposal proceeds then it will be a precedent which may well be used in relation to other public open space.

Martin Wicks

Secretary, Parks & East Walcot Community Forum

February 25th 2015

1The area is known locally as Buckhurst field, but strictly speaking the application relates to the Shrewsbury Rd playing fields which already hosts football pitches.

2It would be a full size eleven a side pitch though it can be turned into two or three five a side pitches.

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