By 2009, the National Construction College’s flagship facility in Bircham Newton, west Norfolk, stands a good chance of being shut down. Many industry observers will probably snigger that the construction sector cannot even build and maintain its own training centre. Unfortunately, there’s precious little to smile about.
The closure of the largest construction training centre in Europe would deprive contractors of one of their few reservoirs of skilled labour; universites would lose the country’s foremost venue for offering students site experience; and, with the 681 redundancies that closure would cause, the borough of King’s Lynn and west Norfolk would lose its third biggest employer.
The story revolves around facilities that are well past their use-by date and a planning dispute over a 23 acre plot of land. It incorporates all manner of problems from potential breaches of child protection laws to arguments over bus routes. Although there is nothing comic about the story, it does occasionally border on farce.
Leaky roofs and tree roots
The college site is divided by a road. At 350 acres, the side that comprises the headquarters of CITB-ConstructionSkills and the training facilities is much the larger, and in good working order.
It is the other 100 acres that are causing alarm. There is a swimming pool that is, in the words of CITB-ConstructionSkills chief executive Peter Lobban, “completely shot”, owing to massive cracks, and a roof that could blow off in a heavy wind. Then there’s the gymnasium, held up by makeshift iron girders that are doing little to reduce the probability of the walls collapsing inwards, while rainwater drips down on the worn wooden floor from a leaking roof.
Last but not least is the student accommodation. This is mainly for young trainees trying to gain certificates in courses such as steeplejacking and plant operation. The four H-shaped blocks were first built nearly 80 years ago to house RAF personnel, and the college took them over in 1966.
At that time they were fit for purpose. Now tree roots have burst through the drains and the flat roofs leak. Worse still, there are no ensuite facilities, resulting in up to six people sharing a shower and toilet. Most of the students are aged between 16 and 19. The 16 and 17-year-olds are classed as children, whereas those aged 18 and over are deemed to be adults. The college is liable for the children’s welfare at all times, and mixing children and adults in this way could potentially be against child protection laws.
The CITB’s QC, Andrew Kelly, recently declared: “The NSPCC has confirmed that this is a point of potential risk and needs to be addressed.” And, as Lobban points out, the shared washing facilities make it even more difficult than it already is to attract women into the college and therefore the industry.
In short, new facilities are needed. Investing in the unsound buildings is not an economic option. As it stands, the swimming pool and gym will be unusable within nine months, the accommodation within two years.
Everyone agrees: only new facilities will do. The plan is to build replacement accommodation – a leisure centre, which would include a coffee shop and pool tables, a reception and entrance building and additional car parking on the larger part of the site. It seems that nobody has a problem with this proposal.
The price tag is £15.95m. The CITB has £7.4m available, which it has cobbled together from savings made through not investing in equipment over the next few years, a loan from the main board and the sale of 25 former RAF officers’ houses on the site. The balance is to be made up through the sale of a 23 acre plot of land on the smaller part of the site. To make the necessary cash from this sale, the CITB wants permission to build 250 houses, so as to raise the value to developers. There’s no question that the site would sell: the CITB’s agent, Savilles, asked 18 developers for expressions of interest, and 10 came back with positive answers.
The CITB would expect to get £13m for the land, which, after investment in infrastructure and paying for 75 affordable housing units, would leave just about the £8.55m it’s chasing.
Selling the site looked like the perfect solution until the idea was scuppered by the council. John Legg, the Conservative party councillor who was chairman of the planning committee when permission was refused last year, explains: “It was against policy. It was more-or-less the creation of a village right out in the Countryside with inferior road and transport facilities. The whole area is really badly served by public transport.”
There’s no arguing that Bircham Newton is a rural area that is relatively unspoilt by development. It is certainly badly served by public transport, with no buses going to or from the nearest major urban area, which is King’s Lynn. Also, it is clearly not in one of the three “conurbations” earmarked in the local plan for development, which are King’s Lynn, Downham Market and Hunstanton.
On the face of it, then, refusal was understandable.
But the CITB appealed and set out its case in a public inquiry that started in May this year. The proposals had already been knocking around for four years, so there was “a collective groan in the room”, according to one source, when, after just two weeks, the planning inspector announced that he was scheduled to go to another inquiry the following week.
The Bircham Newton inquiry was postponed until earlier this month. Only four more days were required, and this week communities secretary Ruth Kelly will indicate in a letter to the CITB how long she expects it to take her to arrive at a decision. The CITB has tracked similar cases, and believes it will know whether it will get outline planning in the new year.
The case for the defence
The CITB’s QC, Andrew Kelly, argued that the college would bring economic benefits to the borough. He pointed out that the local plan had stated only that “most major development should be located” in King’s Lynn – the word “most” indicated there could be exceptions to the policy: “The circumstances surrounding this appeal can be properly described as exceptional,” he said.
The CITB guaranteed a cost-neutral bus service to and from King’s Lynn to help ensure that the new residents were not overly reliant on the car. The service would also encourage its own staff to swap cars for public transport as 26% of them lived in King’s Lynn. Moreover, the bus service was considered crucial for a college that is teaching courses on sustainability and wanted to lead by example.
Although the council turned down the application, it was unable to come up with an alternative way of raising the money for the rebuild. Given how many people in King’s Lynn are employed at the college, many thought the council was cutting its nose off to spite its face. Even Peter Jermany, the council’s planning policy manager, admits: “We certainly don’t doubt their need to do something to keep the college working.”
He does argue, though, that the CITB hadn’t “fully explored” other sources of funding, and that this had sparked “quite a debate” between the opposing sides.
The CITB has looked at other routes, but little is open to it – it doesn’t meet European Social Fund criteria; it is a training college and hence, bizarrely, exempt from further education funding; and, in a galling catch-22, the Sports Council would only give funding for a pool and gym if planning permission were secured.
As Kelly puts it: “The council will only accept the reality of the risk once the decision to close the NCC East has been taken. That is a thoroughly irresponsible decision.”
A sad end?
If the application is approved, the CITB would have to work to a tight timetable. It would still need to secure detailed planning and sell the land. But with its cash reserves it could soon start building accommodation, decant the trainees into 125 ensuite rooms on the larger half of the campus, which is usually reserved for adults on short residency courses of up to a few weeks – the younger students typically undertake a 40-week course over two years. The first accommodation could then be ready by 2008.
If planning permission is refused, the college will have to close. Then the community will lose an important amenity – children at the local primary school will need to travel nearly 20 miles to the next nearest swimming pool – and the borough will have lost a major, well established employer. And of course, thousands of students, be they on long or short courses, would be lost each year – this year alone, 400 students from seven universities have signed up for the constructionarium course that will give them site experience.
The CITB’s Lobban insists the whole college will have to shut down. The adult and apprenticeship courses are only economically viable if both remain, and there simply wouldn’t be the facilities for the latter. Lobban paints a gloomy future. “We couldn’t buy a new site for everything,” he says. “That would cost an absolute arm and a leg. We would have to be prepared to find some land [for the training] near a budget hotel and from time to time rent out a floor for the students.”
If that is the case, this year’s intake of 388 young students – some live off-campus – could well be the last to grace the halls of Europe’s premier construction training facility.
Even if planning permission is granted, there will have to be a radical shake-up of the National Construction College’s courses. When researching the economic argument to get planning, the CITB discovered that some courses were not stacking up financially.
At a further education college, practical courses tend to be for fairly simple work, such as decorating. That means there only has to be one tutor for as many as 30 people. But when it comes to operating a crane, only three students can be safely supervised at any one time. This adds dramatically to the college’s costs, as does the duty of care for the 16-17 year olds (there is a 24-hour welfare team). “The capital cost is very high as it is all so safety sensitive and there are such low student–staff ratios. We have a duty of care 24/7,” says CITB-ConstructionSkills chief executive Peter Lobban.
The CITB worked out that the costs were much higher than expected. Lobban says the courses will have to be broken up into modules, the time spent in residence will be “rationalised”, and he will discuss with the industry what is the minimum amount of training necessary to bring students up-to-scratch or to NVQ level 2. The 40-week course is likely to be a thing of the past.