[This announcement appears in the October-December 2011 issue of EAB Update.]
The fate of Wedgwood Memorial College (or Wedgwood College and Conference Centre, as it was rebranded earlier this year) is still ongoing, though appears soon to be determined. This is relevant to us because Esperanto House sits on a plot of land on one of the College's two sites, nine years into a ninety-nine-year lease.
The backdrop is that the College has been running at a large deficit for years (over £200,000 last year), which is unsustainable, particular given that Stoke-on-Trent City Council's budget was cut by £36m this year and will face a further reduction of £20m in 2012-13. The danger to us was that one of the potential solutions open to the Council would be to sell the land (possibly including that on which Esperanto House is based) for development. This wasn't the only option, of course.
After several meetings this year the conclusion seems to be that the Council (and Staffordshire City Council, who have a financial interest in the event of any sale) will set in motion a Community Asset Transfer, which is a mechanism by which it provides some infrastructure (in this case the College) to another body to provide the service (in this case, education in a residential setting) that the Council itself is struggling to do. This has successfully happened elsewhere, notably at Higham Hall, a residential college in the Lake District, where control of operations passed from the local authority to a trust.
A business plan has been drawn up by a group of volunteers to create a trust to take over operations at WMC. An initial draft of it has been presented to the Chief Executive of the City Council. The "Steering Group", a collection of stakeholders (including EAB, the parish council, Friends of WMC, Keele University) and local-authority officers, seems unanimously keen to initiate this Community Asset Transfer.
I attended a meeting with the Director of employment of skills and other stakeholders on September 6th, in which she confirmed that two members of Council staff had been tasked with drawing up procedures for initiating a Community Asset Transfer and opening the College to tender.
I am unable to provide any timescales, since the decision to draw up policies is very recent. It shouldn't be overly long, since the "Business Manager" who was placed to run the College has applied for and received voluntary redundancy in preparation of the Council's pulling-out, scheduled, as far as I'm aware, for December 31st. In the words of the chair of the Steering Group, "We're talking months not years."
The bottom line, the conclusion that I'd like you to take away from this, is that the option of selling the site is not being explored, and that steps are underway for a trust to take over operations at the College.
The next meeting of the Steering Group is scheduled for October 10th.
Tim Owen, EAB Hon. Sec.
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