There is only one place in Britain where crane operators are trained: the National Construction College in Norfolk. Now a decision by the local council has thwarted plans to prevent it sliding into dereliction. Sarah Richardson and Angela Monaghan look at what, if anything, can be done to retrieve the situation

The future of the National Construction College (NCC) is the only item on the agenda at the CITB-ConstructionSkills board meeting next month. Last week the NCC’s plan to save its facility in Bircham Newton, west Norfolk, by selling land with planning permission for housing was rejected by the council, and with it went the £8.5m it needed to make £16m of vital improvements. Andy Walder, the director of the college, is now in emergency talks with King’s Lynn and West Norfolk council, and he is considering options as drastic as closing the NCC. But, at a time when the industry is losing sleep over skills and labour shortages, is this the time to contemplate closure of the college? As one senior industry source put it this week: “There has to be a way.” Here are the options:

1. Close down

Peter Lobban, the chief executive of the CITB, told the planning inquiry that without money from the proposed development to fund improvements, the college might have to close by 2009. However, a source close to the training body described the statement as involving “a degree of brinkmanship” and that other funding options could be available (see option 3).

Even so, it is likely that without money generated from the sale of land for housing, at least part of the facility would be forced to close. According to the minutes of the last CITB board meeting, in October 2006, the cost of carrying out even basic remedial maintenance would reach £5m. This still wouldn’t address the outdated washing facilities shared by children and adults – a situation that may breach child protection laws.

If the NCC is closed or its courses scaled down, it would pose a threat to training in the industry, particularly for the plant sector. The CITB is having preliminary discussions with construction federations, such as the Construction Products Association, and employers to discuss alternative arrangements for training should the NCC close, including outsourcing more training to live sites.

However, Stephen Ratcliffe, the Construction Confederation’s chief executive, says that if the CITB were forced down this route, it would threaten the provision of otherwise unavailable training: “The college’s wide range of training, including specialist skills, is not delivered by any other commercial or public sector provider.”

It would particularly jeopardise plant training. Currently, makers of tower cranes and other heavy plant provide the latest equipment – which can be worth up to £500,000 – free of charge to the college.

They do this because it means companies are more likely to buy their equipment for use on site if operatives are being trained on those machines. It would be virtually impossible to strike the same deal for site-based training, as this would mean giving free plant to construction sites. Instead, operatives may have to be trained on equipment up to 10 years old.

2. Submit a revised planning application

The rejection of its planning appeal means that the NCC cannot resubmit its proposal to build 250 homes on college land. However, Walder says the college could submit an application for fewer houses. “There is some suggestion [from the council] that if we put in an application for something smaller, it might be acceptable,” he says.

But this may lead to a longer period of uncertainty and some facilities may have to close before the application has been heard: the CITB says the swimming pool and gym will be unusable within nine months and the accommodation within two years.

However, the delay could be reduced. Emergency talks are taking place between Walder and Ray Harding, chief executive of the council, to assess whether, despite its rejection of the application, the council could provide any assistance to the college – which could include fast-tracking a revised planning application.

Walder said: “We have met with the local council to assess our options following the rejection of our planning appeal. We welcome the discussions with the council, but as yet they have not identified anything that will materially improve the difficult position facing the college or the CITB’s board.

“We are considering all our options and working around the clock to find the support we need. At this stage we are still unable to make any firm announcement about the future of the college.”

Although it rejected the original proposal on the grounds that the rural area was unsuitable for a large development, the council is aware that it risks losing one of west Norfolk’s largest employers. During the inquiry, the NCC’s plans were backed by an 832-signature petition and four local schools.

3. Find other sources of funding

According to Walder, the NCC has exhausted all options for funding. “There is nowhere else we can go,” he says. “We’ve approached our final source and have been rejected.”

However, some senior figures in the council insist that the CITB has not “fully explored” other sources of finance.

Stef Stefanou, founder of the NCC’s Constructionarium training centre, says the CITB should approach the government: “It can’t say that the construction industry needs new people and then block those who provide it – it’s as simple as that. The government should provide the money.”

The DTI said: “We’ve made strong representations highlighting the importance of the NCC, and we hope that in the coming months everybody involved can come up with a way to ensure its work can continue.”

About half of the CITB’s income is made up from the training levy it receives from employers. Although the levy is supposed to be spent only on training, it would be plausible to argue, as one senior source does, that training cannot take place without improved facilities.

The CITB has an income from other commercial activities, such as a charge for health and safety tests on CSCS cards.