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EAB News 2011-11-25: An update from EAB Hon. Sec. Tim Owen on Wedgwood Memorial College

Stoke on Trent Council's decision on Wedgwood Memorial College

In the October issue of EAB Update (number 55) I wrote a short article to brief the members on the fate of Wedgwood Memorial College, which houses Esperanto House on one of its two plots of land. I reported that the "steering group" of stakeholders (including EAB, Keele University, Barlaston parish council, the Workers' Education Association and the Friends of WMC) and representatives of Stoke-on-Trent City Council and Staffordshire County Council had determined that the best course of action for WMC was to initiate a "Community Asset Transfer". A CAT is a mechanism by which the local authority agrees to hand over the responsibility for providing a service to a dedicated body. A parallel case is Higham Hall in Cumbria, which was losing money when the local authority ran it but has been running a surplus since control was handed over to a trust. A voluntary trust had submitted a business plan to Stoke for taking over the reins at WMC. This is how things stood at the point of publishing Update 55.

However, the situation has now changed. On Friday, November 18th the members of the steering group received an email from its chairman, Councillor Mark Meredith, from which I now quote:

"At the Steering Group Meeting last week we were unable to advise you of the outcome of the Asset Group's recommendations to Cabinet on the proposed Community Asset Transfer for the college. On Thursday evening the Cabinet met to discuss the proposed budget for 2012/13 and accepted the conclusion of the Asset Group that college should be put forward for closure at the end of this financial year. [...]

Therefore the proposed closure will go into the budget book which will be made available to the general public next week. I want to emphasise that these are proposals and that final recommendations will be made to full council on the 28th February 2012."

Needless to say, that came as a shock to all of us, since we've been set on the course of action of recommending a CAT for the last year. At the meeting of the steering group on October 10th we were introduced to the existence of the aforementioned "assets group" and told that it comprised specialists from several areas (such as the Council's legal team, a surveyor and so on) and judged the cases for transfer, and also that it faced a backlog of proposals that it was keen to move on. This was a surprise to me as I've been attending the meetings under the misapprehension that the steering group would be the ones formulating a recommendation to go to the Councillors.

The asset group not only was "not convinced by the business plan" but also determined that a Community Asset Transfer was "not the best outcome for WMC", to my mind a strange line of thought considering that the alternative presumably involves knocking it down.

Peter Kent-Baguley, the motor of the proposed trust, subsequently met with Alison Knight, Assistant Director - Enterprise and Skills, to discuss the asset group's discussion. He told me that he had managed to extract from her that the assets group reached their recommendation without even mentioning Esperanto House and the fact that there are ninety years still remaining on the lease, even though the chairman of the Steering Group was also present in the assets group.

I immediately sent copies of the lease to our lawyers and set up a meeting with them to be held in the Butler Library on Tuesday, November 29th. I will report on this as soon as I receive their reaction.

Meanwhile, our fellow stakeholders, who have invested so much time attending the meetings of the steering group, are understandably disappointed and are initiating a campaign to foster support from the public, with a view to getting the proposed closure reversed [watch this space:]. This is the third time over the last thirty years that closure has been on the books. Pressure from the public got the proposals struck off very quickly in the previous cases, so there's room for optimism.

Tim Owen, EAB Hon. Sec.

Postscript: The proposed closure date is (currently) March 31st 2012, which means that EAB should be able to run the Ni Festivalu and Drondo events in January 13th to 15th 2012 (subject to sufficent demand). However if you do want to book a place at either of these events, we recommend that you book and pay through the EAB office.

Postscript: Tim gave further details in a letter to members in a letter accompanying EAB Update 2012 Jan-Feb.

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