Plans for new Fenland secondary school in turmoil as Department for Education hunts for new site
Plans for a new secondary school in Wisbech are in “tatters” according to Fenland councillors as a search is under-way for a new proposed site.
The Department for Education has decided to look for an alternative site to the proposed Gadds Lane location after Cambridgeshire County Council decided it no longer wanted to be involved in delivering the new school.
In a memo sent out to councillors Michelle Rowe, the council’s democratic services manager, told members the decision to leave building the new school, which was due to be built on a site off Barton Road, in the hands of the Government was made due to funding.
But Fenland councillors are furious by the decision which they say was not discussed at committee level and has been made known to them well over a month after council officers met with Department for Education officials.
However, council leader Lucy Nethsingha said the decision was made on the "very high costs" involved and added it would be hard for the council to justify funding a new secondary school when there are already enough school places available in Wisbech, and there is a deficit in the council's social care budget.
Ms Rowe's memo said the DfE is now delivering the Wisbech school through its own contractor framework.
She said the county council "declined the opportunity to self-deliver the school" as the DfE would not grant fund all known costs and risks including off-site highways works associated with building the school identified by the council's design work and pre-application consultations.
Another twist to the tale is the decision by the DfE to start the search for a new site amid its “concerns” around the county council's chosen location.
The decision to search elsewhere for a suitable site comes just two months after the public was invited to have their say on plans for a new special school on the same location, known as Wisbech Green, which is due to be built as a replacement by Horizons Education Trust for their current school in Algores Way.
It was to be built alongside the proposed new 600-place secondary school with the Brooke Weston Trust, which runs the Thomas Clarkson Academy, as the chosen partner to run the new secondary facility.
Construction work on the new special needs school is expected to start next September and targeted to be ready to open in September 2023.
The memo confirmed: “The work with the sponsor for the 60 place social, emotional and mental health school, which will share the Barton Road site with the proposed secondary school, is progressing well and is still on track to be delivered by September 2023.”
Ms Rowe’s memo explains the DfE is expected to report on its site appraisal work for the new secondary school at the end of this month with county council officers being asked to discuss the findings in six weeks time.
The county council had undertaken its own extensive site search and selection process prior to adopting the site off Barton Road and this has also been shared with the DfE.
The site off Barton Road was chosen not for "technical reasons alone" but for the way it aligned with the Fenland Local Plan and the future development of Wisbech, said Ms Rowe.
Conservative leader and March councillor Steve Count said the current administration’s decision with the added review of the site will have extended the timetable for the new school “considerably”.
While the Conservative spokesperson for children and young people Councillor Sam Hoy, described the move as “outrageous”.
She said: “Plans for the new Wisbech school appears to be in tatters as the new administration has pulled out of delivering it.
“Now the DfE is looking at alternative sites. If they choose a new site then the work will all have to begin again, and that means a delay of I don’t know how long before the new school is built."
However, Councillor Nethsingha explained that because the project will be a 'free school', a decision announced in February, which means it will be funded by the government and not run by the local authority, it is usual for the DfE to deliver the facility.
She said: "To deliver this school would have a very high cost for the council (perhaps around £25 million).
"It would be very hard for the council to justify spending that amount of money on a new school in Wisbech when there is no immediate shortage of school places and the council has a £22million budget deficit (left us by the Conservative budget last year) in trying to deliver the social care and other statutory services, which we need to fund in the next year.
"The Wisbech school project has been taken on by the DfE as it will now be a free school. It is not usual for the county council to fund free schools where there is not an urgent need for places.
"We do however have an urgent priority of funding more SEND (special educational needs and disability) provision, and we need to find the capacity to fund this priority area.
"I believe all of this will be examined in more detail at the next meeting of the children's and young people's committee in November."