‘What is Plan B for Burgess Hill special school’s new college if ultimatum deadline missed?’

Campaigners have come out fighting after West Sussex County Council issued an ultimatum to the governors of a special school about the building of a new college.

Monday, 1st November 2021, 3:42 pm

A letter was sent to governors of Woodlands Meed, in Burgess Hill, during half-term, giving them until Thursday (November 4) to sign a Development Agreement, which needs to be approved before building work can begin.

And it warned that, if the paperwork was not signed, ‘the proposal to develop a new college on the Woodlands Meed site will be withdrawn and the project will not proceed as planned’.

Members of the Complete Woodlands Meed School Campaign said they would demand a full investigation if the ultimatum should come to pass.

Warning that ‘heads would roll’ if the children were let down again, a spokesman said: “We don’t care about any politics at play. This is about SEN children’s actual lives.

“They need the correct facilities to support them day in day out and a full curriculum to afford equal opportunity to reach their full potential.

“We will never stop this campaign until these most vulnerable pupils get their basic statutory rights delivered and are no longer discriminated against.”

Parents and staff have been among those campaigning for a new college since the lower school was opened in Chanctonbury Road in 2012.

With the money for the college never materialising, older children have been educated in prefabricated buildings, in Birchwood Grove Road, which even the council said were not suitable.

In 2020, the council agreed to use £20m from the capital programme to build a new college – plus £1.66m announced last week – with planning permission given earlier this year.

But governors have raised a number of issues with the plans.

In the spring, they asked the council to make more than 180 corrections to plans and documents.

And while some of the issues – such as increasing the height of a room to make room for a hoist – have been dealt with, others have not, prompting repeated communications between the two.

The campaign spokesman said: “As we have said many times before, [the council] is responsible for sorting out the mess they created over a decade ago.

“So the burning question is, what is their plan B if the governors, for valid reasons, simply cannot sign by November 4?”

County councillors Richard Cherry (Lib Dem, Burgess Hill East) and Kirsty Lord (Lib Dem, Hassocks and Burgess Hill South), are the local representatives for the Woodlands Meed College and School sites respectively. They have expressed their fears that this high-stakes negotiating tactic may leave the families of Woodlands Meed high and dry.

Speaking about the letter, Ms Lord said: “We are seven frustrating months on from the granting of planning permission for the new college and negotiations need to be concluded.

“WSCC have gambled that an ultimatum will break the deadlock, but the problem is that ultimatums require you to have a Plan B. After questioning Cllr Jupp, it is clear to us that WSCC’s Plan B involves keeping Woodlands Meed as is and investing elsewhere. We don’t think that is good enough for the children and their parents. This move, while bringing guaranteed additional funds and a guaranteed start date, is highly risky.”

Mr Cherry added: “The tone of the letter to school governors is intimidating. Though it highlights the hard choice that has to be made to regain the project’s momentum, it makes no attempt to mend the fractious history of the project. I worry that, whatever its immediate impact, it will do nothing to build the constructive relationships with partners necessary to ensure the ultimate success of this project.”

Ms Lord added: “Throughout our campaigning over the last four years, our focus has been on ensuring that the children get the facilities they so sorely deserve and that both sides have agreed are needed.

“We know that the Governing Body has outstanding concerns. We are left hoping that the Governors have been given enough time to consider this offer from WSCC and are comfortable that there are no outstanding showstoppers. Along with parents and campaigners, we nervously await the outcome of the next few days.”

They are now examining the details of the outstanding issues and continue to talk to Cabinet Members, officers, campaigners and governors as the deadline looms.