I’m not sure what evidence Elizabeth Mackley has that the proposal by the New College Corporation in relation to Buckhurst Field has been “well received”. Certainly the College management has cultivated support from local football clubs by promises of its use at prices they can afford. However, we don’t know what prices and we were told that their Business Plan would not be ready before the planning application is put in. Mr Taylor told me in an email that the prices will reflect ‘the going competitive rate’ whatever that is. We fear that the football clubs would be mistaken to trust the management of the New College Corporation, especially in the light of its deteriorating financial situation.
The Principal talks a good game about doing something for the benefit of local people. However, he has to say that since without a grant of £300,000 from the FA he would not have the necessary money to proceed. Check out the New College Corporation website and you get a different story to the one he tells. There appears to have been some opposition to the proposal amongst the governors, who were concerned about the commitment in the context of tight budgets. This is what the minutes of the Finance & General Purposes Committee from May 2014 say.
“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)
It is the “very sensible payback” that the college management are interested in, owing to financial pressures. From a position of making a surplus of £304,000 in 2012-13, this declined to £35,000 (0.1% compared to a target of 3.5%) in 2013-14. The Corporation has set a target of a break-even budget by the end of 2015-16 “rather than the usual surplus”. This might, the minutes said, necessitate some redundancies. “The whole college business (wasn’t it a charity?) and modes of operation will be looked at.”
Unfortunately under the current educational system there is a quasi-market for students. The Corporation is worried about the threat of competition from other establishments. Lose students and you lose money. In February of last year it was reported 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. There is also the threat ahead of education funding not increasing in line with inflation. This is the context of the planning application from the Corporation.
So far as the open green space known locally as Buckhurst Field is concerned, local organisations are concerned at the loss of this area. Whilst the planning application is for a football pitch, the fact is it will be lost as an open public space, fenced in and under the control of the Corporation. It is, of course, Council land. So the question arises as to whether or not the Council will provide the 25 year lease which the NCC wants, free or otherwise. That’s not a planning issue but a political decision (small p). Even if the Planning Committee agreed the application in principle it could not go ahead without the agreement of the Council to lease the land.
For these reasons Parks & East Walcot Community Forum will be opposing the planning application together with SWAP. We want the area to remain open public space.
Secretary, Parks & East Walcot Community Forum
A letter to the Swindon Advertiser