Thursday, 19 December 2013

The Public - first glimpse at the truth?

On 9th May, Mahboob Hussain, a councillor with Sandwell Council (SMBC) and someone from Sandwell College (SC) called Scott Upton summoned the local media to The Public to announce Grand Theft Sandwell - SC's cynical grab for a second £70M+ trophy building. Or so we have been lead to believe. The Express and Star that day stated, 'College Chiefs (sic) say the New Street centre.......would be a "perfect fit" for a sixth form'. This, if reported correctly was a blatant lie by the mysterious "Chiefs" - now have a look below at the College minutes of 11 days LATER ie 20th May and the concerns that are expressed therein.

SMBC have always said publicly that the College approached them about this dodgy deal but is that true or was it the other way around? It seems that 11 days after the announcement of the perfect marriage the College were not even sure they could get the number of sixth-formers to make the grab viable!

Note also that one "Deputy Principal" (who he/she?) seems to have been driving the issues, against reservations in some quarters. I have also been banging on for months that if there was only "one game in town" SMBC would get "screwed-over". You will note that as far back as May the College were demanding "incentives" and such things as a shorter lease or a lease with a break clause.

Just like SMBC, SC are also apparently lavishing  taxpayer's money on "professional advisors and contractors". I am sure they will hasten to tell us how much.

Here are the hitherto secret minutes (I assume NFP to mean Not For Publication):

Sandwell College
Extract from the Minutes of the Meeting of the Board of Governors
held on Monday 22nd April 2013
Minute Number B13.44
This minute relates to aspects of the College Development Project at the new build, Central Campus, in West Bromwich and the disposal of the College’s Smethwick Campus. It does not relate to the Public.

Extract from the minutes of the meeting of the Board of Governors
held on Monday 20th May 2013
The Public
The Chairman asked that members take time to read the report relating to The Public. The report had been circulated late as the College had been awaiting information from Sandwell MBC.
The Chairman informed members that following the meeting of the Board of Governors held on Monday 22nd April 2013 there had been an exchange of emails that had raised some concerns for the College to address. The Deputy Principal informed members that one of the main points that had been raised was whether there was a need to expand the sixth form. In response to this an analysis of the ‘A’ level market in the areas around the College was presented to members. The analysis provided evidence that learners were seeking high quality sixth form provision. Members were reminded of the limits in terms of physical capacity of Central Sixth.
The development of the Public into a sixth form centre would need to attract an additional 500 learners in order to achieve a breakeven position, subject to the current funding regime remaining the same. Members were reminded that ‘A’ level learners studied at the College for two years.
The Chairman stressed the importance of understanding the risks associated with the expansion of the sixth form into the Public and also the consequences of not moving forward with the initiative.
The Principal informed members of discussions that had taken place with the Skills Funding Agency prior to the completion of the new build with regard to the achievement of learner number targets. Members were informed that Central Campus did not have the facilities to expand the sixth form provision, although other options had been considered e.g. the removal of provision with small class sizes or the use of demountables.
A member raised concerns regarding the requirement to maintain the cultural attraction of the Public, the unusual design of the building, the length and type of lease being proposed and the need for break clauses.
The Chairman reminded members that the requirement to maintain the cultural attraction was linked to the terms of funding from the European Regional Development Fund. There were also implications to consider regarding the funds received from the Arts Council. The Deputy Principal explained the initiatives the College currently undertook that would assist in maintaining the cultural attraction. The Council had indicated that it would pay the College £200,000 per year over five years to maintain this element of the Public.
A detailed discussion then took place with regard to the risks associated with the initiative, the risks to Sandwell MBC and additional incentives the Council could consider providing to the College. The importance of understanding the ability to sustain learner numbers and ensuring affordability was emphasised. The costings associated with the life cycle of the building also needed to be ascertained.
The Deputy Principal explained that the Council was re-considering the proposed 25 year lease as this might be viewed as a disposal of the building. However, a shorter lease would make the proposal more expensive to the College. It was noted that the Council would need to undertake a detailed options appraisal.
In response to a query, members were informed that a decision would need to be made in July 2013 in order for sixth form provision to be available in the Public from September 2014
The Deputy Principal explained issues relating to the procurement process in relation to professional advisors and contractors and outlined the work that had been undertaken in relation to feasibility and costings. Steps were being taken to ensure that the College’s exposure to risk was capped.
In response to a comment the Chairman acknowledged the need for a cautious approach and summarised the additional information he would expect to be presented to the Board of Governors before a decision could be made. The Principal commented that the expansion of the sixth form would be a positive move for the College however, the Executive Team was not prepared to put the College at risk in order to achieve that expansion.
Following a further discussion the Board of Governors asked that members be provided with regular up-dates on developments regarding the Public and discussions with Sandwell MBC.
a) that the Board of Governors note the negotiations that were taking place with Sandwell MBC and the current position with regard to the Public
b) that the Board of Governors be provided with regular updates regarding the Public and discussions with Sandwell MBC.
Extract from the minutes of the special meeting of the Board of Governors
held on Monday 25th June 2013
Any Other Business
1. ...
2. ...
3. The Public
In response to a query, the Chairman updated members on the current situation with regard to The Public. Members noted that discussions with Sandwell MBC were continuing. The Chairman would seek clarification regarding the feasibility study and costs incurred to date.
RESOLVED: that the verbal report be received.

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Wednesday, 18 December 2013

The Public - Odds and Sods

Just a short round-up about The Public. Once again it is fundamental that the College is NOT part of the Council but completely independent of it.

1.   The Jones Lang LaSalle reports have still not been disclosed either in respect of The Public or The Town Hall. The taxpayer paid a mere £50,500 ex vat for these.

2.   SMBC have recently changed the locks on The Public.Cost?

3.   Messrs UKIP put in Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to both Sandwell Council (SMBC) and Sandwell College (SC)  for release of all the redacted (hidden) minutes of the SMBC "Cabinet" and the SC "Board" relating to The Public but at the time of writing I understand there has been no disclosure (indeed SMBC have requested "extra time" to release information which would take literally seconds to disclose). The College has not even published its "Board" minutes from October yet, let alone December. Such is life in the secret state of Sandwell.

4.   Recently the lights have been burning late into the night in the empty building. Very "green" + cost?

5.   The "leader" of SMBC made two very curious tweets in July in response to a tweet from a protected account which I am unable to read. I am sure they cannot be anything to do with The Public (or can they?) No doubt Cooper will hasten to clarify.

     (a) From Cooper 05/07/13, "Backed for the money from other partners. Who'd say no to a £50M investment in 1 of our towns #westbrom Up the Baggies!"

     (b) Again in response to the same "protected" correspondent - From Cooper 05/07/13, "Not Council project Baggie. Was a Council rescue and indeed a waste of money."

      What can all this mean?

6.   Of course, Cooper infamously tweeted this on 10/08/13, "The building can be converted by the college at no cost to the council with an arts and community theme. The best of both". This is what is popularly known as "bollocks".

7.   The whole rationale for the pathetic deal as far as we can tell from SC is that they need extra space for the 6th form (as above, they are spoiled for choice in Sandwell but want to steal a trophy building). There is now a rumour that it is going to be too expensive to remove the theatre from The Public and so the college drama department are going to move in! I stress this is only a rumour and, naturally, no facts are forthcoming from either of the taxpayer-funded bodies involved here. Anyone who has ever been in The Public could tell that to remove the theatre would be very costly. I can't build a sandcastle but noted all this via twitter back in October. This begs the question of what will happen to the purpose-built theatre at the college in their year-old taxpayer-funded £77M building if all this is true? Why couldn't SC simply rent the theatre at The Public (bringing in income and also making it available for shows, comedy etc organised by The Public) and build their crappy "modular classrooms" in the Spon Lane theatre? All this is also indicative of the whole "back of an envelope" planning (sic) behind this attempted theft.

(As an aside here, if this nonsense proceeds and it IS true that the theatre will remain the building costs for the conversion SHOULD be considerably less than the mere £6.67M quoted to date but don't bank on it when this work has not been put out to tender. Also Messrs Arup were involved in all this via Interserve/Sandwell Futures - they were the ones who costed the London Olympics bid at £2.4B and it ended up costing more that £9B!!!!!!)

STOP PRESS 1. Kicking the corpse - not satisfied with the damage he and his cronies have done already, Cooper took to the twittersphere last night in a double-hander from someone who appears to be an employee of SMBC to allege that the visitor figures at The Public were "fiddled".

STOP PRESS 2. Anyone wishing to see The Kremlin's modus operandi should have a look at the agenda for tonight's Asset Management Committee meeting. In a heavily redacted report, apparently cash-rich SMBC intends to facilitate a private developer to build an ice rink in West Brom. Two of three reports are completely secret and the third is heavily redacted. This is the first paragraph of the "public" (sic) version:

         "The Council has been approached by the company xxxxx xxxx, who wish to develop an ice rink within West Bromwich. Officers have had preliminary meetings with company representatives and a mechanism for the delivery has been agreed in principle."

And so it appears any old "developer" can gain easy access to Council officers. The plan is to demolish the Queen Square car park (which even SMBC admit will lead to loss of revenue (!)) and to grant a lease to the developer (no competition, of course). The demolition job will not go out to tender but the Council's "demolition partner" has helpfully provided a secret quote. And SMBC are going to PAY for the demolition to help the development proceed! Cuts? What cuts?

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