Any new college at Woodlands Meed won’t be ready until at least 2023
Governors at Woodlands Meed have suggested West Sussex County Council only plans to ‘patch up’ their old prefabricated buildings rather than build a new college.
Staff and campaigners at the special school, in Burgess Hill, have been fighting for a new college since 2012. There was optimism in February when the council announced £20m would be included in its capital programme.
Now alarm bells have sounded after some carefully chosen words from Nigel Jupp, cabinet member for education, when asked to confirm the earliest date the college could open.
Responding to the question from Labour leader Michael Jones at a meeting of the cabinet, Mr Jupp said ‘the earliest reasonable date to expect any new investment to be open and usable would be probably in the middle to autumn of 2023’.
Marion Wilcock, chairman of governors at Woodlands Meed, queried his choice of words.
She said: “He has constantly referenced sums of ‘up to £20m’ and referred to ‘enhanced facilities’ and ‘any new investment”.
“The governors have interpreted these careful and on occasion self-corrected remarks as signally that [the council] do not propose to carry out a new build but are looking to patch up the current prefabricated building and Portacabins.”
The aim had been to open a new college on the current site in Birchwood Grove Road in September 2021 but Mr Jupp gave a number of reasons for the delay while officers worked on a ‘realistic and prudent programme for all the various issues that have to be overcome’.
The issues were threefold – the need for planning consent, questions about access to the site, and discussions with Sport England about the use of the playing fields.
Another issue was the council’s decision to spend money on a review of the condition of the current college – which had been branded not fit for purpose.
While campaigners and governors felt the review was unnecessary, saying the information needed was already available, Mr Jupp insisted it was necessary to assure the council could ‘acquit ourselves in terms of value for money’.
Leader Paul Marshall assured cabinet members the results of the review were expected by the end of January and would be given to the school to examine.
But Mrs Wilcock said this had not yet happened.
Speaking on January 30, she added: “The governors have been told this morning that in fact the condition survey is still not available, but a meeting is to be set up in the week after next to discuss the survey reports which should then be available.”
Mr Marshall said the council had made a ‘significant commitment’ to Woodlands Meed, adding: “I feel this council has moved significantly – that doesn’t help those people who are directly affected by this – but I think this council has moved significantly to deliver.”