Big Issue: We must build new Forest campus, or lose it forever
WHO would have thought that attempting to build a new campus in the Forest of Dean would cause such controversy?
Fortunately I have been given the opportunity to explain the College's plans to the Verderer's Court, the West Dean Parish Council Annual meeting and a press conference I hosted last week at our Forest of Dean campus.
Back in 2010, following a strategic options review, Royal Forest of Dean College (RFDC) board concluded the college would not survive on its own and contacted Gloucestershire College, inviting us to undertake a merger.
The merger was approved and RFDC became part of Gloucestershire College last February.
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The merger has progressed extremely smoothly and thanks to the goodwill of the Forest of Dean staff, we have quickly integrated them into Gloucestershire College (GC).
It is important to explain there were no good financial reasons for GC to undertake the merger. RFDC was too small to pay its way and had insufficient funds to invest both in its physical estate and IT infrastructure. The college chose to become involved to secure the long-term provision of further education in the Forest of Dean.
Relatively low student numbers and a campus which requires expensive ongoing maintenance mean it will not cover its costs in the foreseeable future.
The challenge is to create a cost-efficient campus and increase student numbers, something we achieved in both Cheltenham and Gloucester by building excellent facilities.
If we are to succeed in keeping provision in the Forest of Dean, we have to press on with plans to build a new campus in the Northern Quarter of Cinderford. There is no option to stay in the existing buildings as this would result in damaging the excellent financial health of the rest of the college.
We either move to attractive more cost effective premises or close the Forest of Dean campus. The latter option is not acceptable.
In a previous article, I explained I sold the existing campus to the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) for what my professional advisors considered to be an excellent price. We now pay a peppercorn rent to the HCA.
An understandable worry of some residents concerns the leisure facilities, which are controlled under a management agreement between the Forest of Dean District Council, Lakers School and GC.
It was good to hear Patrick Molyneux, leader of the Forest of Dean District Council, explain they will be looking for solutions to this problem.
I have been asked what will happen to the campus in the future. The honest answer is that no one knows yet, but it will be up to the new owners, the HCA, to determine how it uses its investment to regenerate this part of the Forest.
If our plans reach fruition, we will need to build a new campus roughly half the size of the existing Five Acres campus and our leased space in Mitcheldean.
Subject to the judicial review of the Area Action Plan and the availability of funding to build all three sections of the spine road, we intend to appoint a consultancy team by September to complete all feasibility work, and design and cost a zero carbon college by Spring 2013.
If this all goes to plan we will have a new campus for September 2015.
There is a lot at stake here and it is by no means certain that the Forest will keep its campus but if I have anything to do with it, we will create a brilliant new campus in a new regeneration area, which will act as a catalyst for much needed inward investment.