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Wirral Metropolitan College

Volume 474: debated on Wednesday 2 April 2008

I am delighted to have secured this debate on Carlett Park, which is one of three campuses under the auspices of Wirral Metropolitan college. That is a further education college offering both degree courses and higher-level qualifications. The college has announced that it is to pursue a two-site option, both in the north Wirral area, which would result in the closure of Carlett Park. I told the principal before the decision was taken that I believed that such a decision was flawed and did not take adequate account of the history of Carlett Park or the needs of the people of Eastham or south Wirral. People in Eastham and elsewhere share my disappointment that the site’s future is again in question, and it is for those reasons that I wish to voice my concerns and to urge all those involved to reconsider the decision.

Carlett Park, in one form or another, goes back a long way. The chapel, which is still on-site, was built in 1884 as a family chapel. It is the only remaining part of the original house and is listed in the diocese records as the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. A listed building, it was built originally for family worship by Canon Torr.

The history of Carlett Park as an educational institution goes back to the 1940s, and it has played a key role in south Wirral since then. In 1948, the county authority—we were then part of Cheshire—decided to buy Carlett Park to use it for a further education college serving Bebington, Ellesmere Port and Deeside. The college was known as West Cheshire central college of technology. Courses commenced in 1952, and in the 1950s and ’60s, Carlett was one of the top six colleges training people to the level of graduateship of the Royal Institute of Chemistry, which is a professional qualification equivalent to a university degree.

From October 1964, the college was known as the central college of further education, Carlett Park. Computing became a strong subject there, with lessons beginning in the 1970s. Its reputation for sciences was developed when state-of-the-art science and chemistry laboratories were built in 1978. At its peak in the ’70s, Carlett Park offered a full range of courses, specialising in engineering and the sciences. From the 1960s onwards, a very large number of students came from overseas, from as far away as Iran, Bahrain, Kuwait and elsewhere, to learn skills relevant to, among other things, the oil and aluminium industries. There is a considerable history and a considerable substance to Carlett Park.

In 1982, the central college of further education at Carlett Park amalgamated with Birkenhead technical college and Wallasey college of further education to form Wirral Metropolitan college. By that time, our area had become part of Merseyside rather than part of Cheshire—the local government boundaries had altered—and the official title adopted for all the campuses was Wirral Metropolitan college.

Over Carlett Park’s long history, many Wirralians have been educated there. They include, for example, Ray Stubbs, who is a sports presenter, particularly on football among other things, and has been a crooner in his time; Paul O’Grady, another TV personality; and Brian Fleet, a senior vice-president of Airbus UK. Many others were also educated there. Christian Furr, an artist who studied at Carlett Park relatively recently, became, at 28, the youngest artist officially to paint the Queen.

Despite its success over the years, Carlett Park has not secured a position of stability and permanence, to my regret. It was threatened with closure in 1999, as it was then thought by senior management that the relocation of programmes to other sites would overall increase the number of students. I campaigned against that and presented, among other things, a petition with 7,000 signatures calling on the then Further Education Funding Council to reconsider the decision by the board of the college. The campaign was long and hard. I think that the campaign was the catalyst for the departure of the then principal and the board of governors. I am not hoping or anticipating that the same will be true in this instance, but it does highlight how strongly people feel about the site. Subsequently, the college was given a fresh start with a new board of governors. I had a modest part in all that, and it is frustrating and disappointing to observe that Carlett Park’s future is again in jeopardy. Surely the opposition to its closure both then and now suggests that the site should be allowed to continue.

The site is occupied by various buildings making up the present campus, but part of it was sold in 2001, with outline planning permission, as the location of a housing development to be built by Westbury Homes—an issue to which I shall return later. That helped to alleviate considerably the serious indebtedness of the college at the time, but the housing has, if anything, become a hindrance to development of the site, because once people move in, they tend to resist development next-door. That is the nature of the human condition, and there is some suggestion that it has hindered development on the site. Obviously, the campus is now more compact than it was in the past. None the less, it is still a valuable part of Wirral Met, as we know it.

As well as the housing side, the main administrative functions of the college are at Carlett Park. Various courses are also taught there, including leisure, tourism and travel, occupational studies, public services, sport, computing and IT, entry to employment, music and media, and some health and safety, science and teacher education courses. It is, in a sense, a shadow of its former self, but it is still substantial.

In 2002, Carlett Park’s 50th anniversary was celebrated. The celebrations included an exhibition at the site showing the contribution to education made by the college over the 50 years. Robin Cook came with me to see that exhibition and to visit the site.

The campus has been upgraded relatively recently and money has been spent on refurbishment, with a view, it is said, to a new focus on equipping students with the skills to enter local business and industry. Again, I shall return to that. In January 2007, planning permission was granted for phase 1 of the construction of a purpose-built sports hall. I think that I am right in saying that construction commenced at the end of March 2007, but the project was shelved due to lack of funding. In its place, a temporary fitness studio was installed at the same location.

In addition to the proposed sports hall, there has been the possibility of a long-term phased replacement of the current facilities with new buildings. Therefore, the potential for Carlett Park’s continued development has recently been, and is currently, evident to senior management at Wirral Met. That makes the sudden closure decision all the more surprising. In my view, it is misguided. I should stress that this is the only campus in south Wirral. In the borough of Wirral, the next nearest is in Birkenhead. Carlett Park has, in that respect, what one might call a captive market, if it is allowed to be accessed. The reasons for the proposed closure are shrouded in a degree of unnecessary mystery. We have a press release on the plans to close Carlett Park, which says:

“The Board of Governors had commissioned analysis on exploring the range of options and, following analysis of educational needs and demands, they agreed that the college should now proceed to explore a two-site option in the north Wirral area and develop a business case for maintaining a presence in the south Wirral area.”

Words mean what they say. When the board says that it will develop a business case, it does not mean that it will make use of that case. The case will also only be developed with a view to maintaining a presence in the south Wirral area, and a presence is not necessarily a campus.

The college says that the analysis cannot be made available either to me or to the general public for reasons of confidentiality. The only information that I have is from a recent meeting with senior management at the college at which I was told that other options included refurbishment of all the sites, a complete rebuild of Carlett Park, replacing Carlett Park with a new site—possibly in the south of the borough—and the building of a super-site college on a single site serving the whole of Wirral.

The board decided to go for the two-site option. I maintain that the research commissioned by the board to inform its decision should have been made available so that we could understand and analyse the reasons behind the proposed closure. Understandably, the board is not keen to duplicate facilities between campuses, but Carlett Park is the only campus in the south. It cannot be right for the college to be based only in the north. In the press release it states that the college is

“aware of the educational needs and potential opportunities for those who live in the more deprived parts of Wirral.”

It continues:

“We understand that the Government has made a significant amount of money available to help FE colleges improve their buildings.”

That is very welcome.

“To get a share of this money for Wirral, the college would have to show that it meets the needs of the whole Wirral community.”

How can that be achieved if the south is left out?

I believe that there are numerous ways in which Carlett Park’s resourcing facilities could be made to meet the needs of the whole Wirral community. More importantly, there are strong arguments regarding maintaining the current location of such resources.

According to Wirral Met’s Ofsted inspection report from May 2007, the college has been effective at reaching its goal of enrolling a high number of students who were previously not in education, employment or training, otherwise known as NEET learners. The college has also increased the percentage of learners from wards with high widening participation factors—from 27 per cent. in 1998 to 1999, to 48 per cent. in 2006 to 2007. In order to further those goals, the new principal—he took up position in 2006 with a proactive agenda to address local community learning needs—is working on those issues. To maintain such an increase in learning participation, it is imperative that Carlett Park remains open and available as an option to all those who wish to enter further education.

We are now told that only some 2,300 students study at Carlett Park. That is a large number, but admittedly small in relation to those in the north. However, it has, to a large extent, become a self-fulfilling prophecy and there have been sins of commission as well as omission. Relatively few courses are now taught at Carlett Park. Opportunities to serve business needs have been tragically ignored. The science laboratories and engineering departments that once made Carlett Park a thriving college have long been taken away.

According to Wirral, South’s indices of mass deprivation 2004, in which Wirral’s super output areas are ranked against each other, most of Eastham—the ward in which Carlett Park is located—and neighbouring Clatterbridge and Bromborough are ranked highly. That relative deprivation is not always identified on broader-scale deprivation rankings. The current opportunity to develop skills and employability that Carlett Park affords should not be taken away from the people of south Wirral, who generally feel that they are treated with scant attention compared with those in the north of the borough.

Child poverty statistics for Wirral, South from 2007 also demonstrate that some children living in wards adjacent to that in which Carlett Park is based are ranked higher than average. It does not make sense that Carlett Park, which caters for local students who are evidently in need of opportunities to learn a variety of skills and optimise their chance of success in life, should close.

On Carlett Park’s doorstep is the centre of gravity of Wirral’s industry and commerce. It houses the largest concentration of businesses and commerce in that part of Merseyside. Statistics show that 17 per cent. of employees in Wirral, South work in the manufacturing sector, compared with just 11 per cent. nationally. That is not surprising given that Wirral, South is home to organisations such as Unilever, which alone employs nearly 2,000 workers, and the Wirral international business park, which is seen as a strategic site by the Northwest Regional Development Agency. Many thousands of people are employed on that site. It houses, among other things, 15 major international companies.

There is also a major retail site known as the Croft retail park. One employer, Asda, currently employs 540 people—that is not extraordinary for the site or the national picture—and, if it gets planning permission, could recruit a further 80. Vauxhall Motors is located close by. Such organisations and businesses should be considered as a catchment for Carlett Park. Its southern boundary falls into Wirral’s employment corridor, which runs along the Mersey side of the peninsula. The location represents a major economic opportunity for Wirral as a whole, but also exhibits serious deprivation. The so-called employment corridor is identified as the location with the greatest potential for securing European funding. There is also enormous scope for training in skills relating to those areas of industry and commerce.

The college has already capitalised on the construction industry of the north-west, but has failed to serve the needs of local industry to an adequate degree. With the Government’s renewed emphasis on investment in apprenticeships, it seems that Carlett Park could facilitate the transition from a low-income, unskilled work force to one that masters and embraces the skills of contemporary and future industry, thanks to local work experience and partnership opportunities. I think that it is shameful that Carlett Park’s proximity to south Wirral’s industrial and managerial sector has not been exploited. The board and management should hang their heads in that regard.

I am taking up too much time, Mrs. Dean, and I will conclude shortly. On the issue of land and money, the size of Carlett Park previously made it a target for developers, and as I mentioned, some of it was sold off in 2001. Such short-term ways of acquiring money are often a driver in the wrong direction. Perhaps that feature of financing is behind the decision to close Carlett Park. It is good news that the Government, through the authorities, are making a large amount of money available. The college has an opportunity to secure a multi-million pound investment and, in order to do so, it has committed to create a world-class FE college, which does not include Carlett Park. That suggests that the long-term approach for Wirral Met college, in which the vision is to take into account the current and future needs of students across the peninsula, is not being adopted. To some extent, it appears that the college is hastening to pursue a policy of chasing the money that is available. I endorse the idea that the college should seek additional funds and grants, and that it should seek excellence, but it should not be at the cost of sacrificing such a valuable site to satisfy funding criteria. It is an upside-down approach.

It has been recognised by the management that considerable sums of money are needed to refurbish the older buildings on the Carlett Park site. Yet surely that kind of investment should be preferred over knocking down valuable older sites and building new ones, which will eventually also need refurbishment and additional investment.

Eastham is a nice and historic place in which to live. The village is in the Domesday Book, but it is not strong on facilities. Admittedly, it has a golf course, a rugby club and a country park, but it does not have a great deal of employment and facilities. We are in danger of tearing the heart out of it. There is overwhelming evidence that the campus is part of the fabric of Eastham and that it serves a crucial role in the local community; with the right direction, it could play a key role in south Wirral’s future economic development. I urge the college and the Minister to reconsider the proposal. I know that a consultation will take place, and I urge people to participate in it. The most effective way in which to cover the whole area and ensure easy access to further education would be to maintain Carlett Park.

Thank you, Mrs. Dean. I believe that decisions based principally on the availability of money need to be considered especially carefully. I am not sure that that has been the case.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman) on securing the debate. He is a powerful advocate, both publicly and privately, for his constituents. Indeed, he raised this specific issue with me on the Floor of the House at oral questions last week. In the Wirral and throughout the country, we need to face up to the skills challenge and we see our further education colleges as crucial drivers. That is critical.

My hon. Friend referred to the fact that in the recent past, hundreds of thousands in communities throughout England have benefited from the Government’s investment in the college infrastructure. Colleges such as Wirral Metropolitan have taken the opportunity given by our investment of more than £2 billion in the past 10 years to develop world-class learning buildings and facilities. That is in stark contrast to the situation 11 years ago, when there was not one penny of capital funding in the mainstream FE capital budget. In the past 10 years, the Government’s investment of more than £2 billion has ensured that learners have access to the state-of-the-art buildings and facilities that are essential if we are to meet our skills ambitions and the needs of our local communities.

We have recently announced in our “Building Colleges for the Future” capital strategy that a further £2.3 billion will be invested in the college estate in the next three years. I have seen examples up and down the country of the transformation of college buildings, facilities and opportunities. That gives the lie to those who claim that investment and money do not make a difference—manifestly, they do make a difference. That investment will benefit generations of learners to come, help to meet the skills needs of employers and act as a genuine catalyst for community regeneration. Capital investment plays a crucial role in the Government’s implementation of our priorities for young people and adults as set out in the 14-to-19 reform programme and our response to the Leitch review.

Modernisation of the FE estate is about not only bricks and mortar but creating the best possible learning environments that are accessible to all learners; ensuring that young people are excited by learning, so that they stay on in education and training; creating greater specialisation, so that businesses have access to a wider range of industry-specific skills development opportunities for their current and future employees; and creating community-owned facilities that meet local needs and can provide the important kick start for local regeneration. Ensuring that such facilities are accessible to those who most need them is critical, as my hon. Friend said; it is absolutely necessary if we are to maximise the public benefit of our investment.

Before talking about the specifics of the Wirral Metropolitan college, I should like to talk about the process for capital applications. It is crucial that any investment plans by colleges underpin their core mission of reflecting and responding to the diversity of their local communities, to provide high-quality learning opportunities for people in all parts of society who need to further their knowledge and improve their skills. That is a requirement for all the areas that a college covers, not just some of them. It means that a college must engage with all sections of the community when it is starting to plan any redevelopment project, to take into account the needs of the population that it serves. To be considered for public funding support, colleges are required by the Learning and Skills Council to demonstrate that their proposals will serve the educational needs of people in their local area. That is a genuine test through which local colleges must pass. Colleges must go through a robust, multi-stage process, whereby the educational and business cases are scrutinised. Public consultation is rightly an important part of that process and is required even before the plans can be approved in principle. Further widespread consultation will take place before planning permission can be granted.

On the heart of the argument that my hon. Friend made, Wirral Metropolitan college has begun the journey—it is at the start and not the end of a process. It is a medium-sized general FE college which, currently, as he made clear, occupies three campuses: Conway Park and 12 Quays in Birkenhead, and Carlett Park in Eastham in the south of the borough. In January last year, the college was considering a new sports facility at Carlett Park. In the subsequent months, the thinking of the college management and board broadened, and the college board of governors agreed to defer any decisions until a full range of options for redeveloping the college estate has been considered.

Following considerable research and analysis commissioned by the board of governors, a number of options have been investigated to ensure that there is an educational case to underpin them. As part of that process, the options were discussed with other interested parties such as the local authority director of children services, local councillors, and the principal of Birkenhead sixth form college. On 5 March, the college governors reached their preferred option, which is to consolidate the colleges on the two sites in Birkenhead in north Wirral at the same time as developing the business case for maintaining a presence in south Wirral. The devil, as always, is in the detail, and I acknowledge that, as the consultation process goes forward, it is incumbent on the college and its governing body to explain clearly and precisely, locally, what is meant by “a presence in south Wirral”, which is the very point that my hon. Friend made.

I should be clear that the college is at the earlier stage of the consultation process and no sites have been identified. The college’s three recognised trade unions are supportive of the concentration option, which includes looking at the business case for “a presence in south Wirral”. Since that in-principle decision, the college has begun to consult with current students and stakeholders, contacted Wirral’s MPs, including my hon. Friend, and conducted a meeting with local councillors for Eastham. That is the minimum that needs to happen, and I urge that a fully comprehensive consultation process takes place.

The next stage is for the formal submission of the application in principle in June. It would be considered by the Learning and Skills Council’s national property, local partnership, and regional finance teams. After that, it would require approval by the LSC north-west regional council and the LSC national capital committee. A full proposal is not anticipated until early 2009. I say that to communicate the point that an awful lot of water will flow under the bridge before a fully-fledged proposal comes forward. Within that, there must be genuine opportunities for the local community, local stakeholders and, importantly, local MPs to make their voices heard. The director of the LSC for Greater Merseyside recently said that to be considered for funding support, the college must demonstrate that its proposal provides further education opportunities that meet the needs and demands of the Wirral to support education and training for the next 30 to 40 years.

A comprehensive prospectus for the whole of the Wirral community must be put forward. Clearly, the issue of access will need to be addressed. At the moment, 85 per cent. of learners at Carlett Park travel more than 3 miles in contrast to northern campuses, where more than half of learners live within 3 miles. The issue of access and transport must be addressed.

It is ultimately a matter for local decision and for the governing body of the college as an independent institution. It would be inappropriate for me to intervene directly—I am actually prohibited by legislation from doing so. Nevertheless, I strongly urge my hon. Friend to continue to engage on behalf of his constituents with the college governing body and the LSC to ensure that the college’s plans meet the needs of all learners in the Wirral; in the whole of the community rather than just parts of it. Knowing my hon. Friend, I am sure that he will continue to make the case.

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.