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Groves Demolition Decision Stands After Scrutiny Review

NOTE: This content is old - Published: Wednesday, Feb 3rd, 2016.

An attempt to revisit the decision to demolish the Groves school buildings failed this afternoon after a vote at a Scrutiny meeting was lost.

Members of the Customers Performance Resources & Governance Scrutiny Committee met this afternoon to debate a ‘call-in’ to challenge the decision to demolish the former Groves School in Wrexham Town Centre. The call-in was announced last week by members of Wrexham’s Liberal Democrats, who called the decision in ‘to make sure there is proper consultation on Wrexham Council’s decision to demolish the former Groves High School’.

The meeting had an unusual start with audio troubles meaning some in the public gallery could not hear what was said, including the fire safety notice at the start. Several interchanges with Councillors, Council Staff and members of the public took place, with some becoming increasingly narked at the inability to hear what was going on. A ‘caretaker’ was called in, who pointed out everything was plugged in and working correctly, so after some rejigging of the furniture the difficulties were overcome with people talking a little bit louder. There was a further interruption when a member of the public asked to see an asbestos report for the Groves, but was told to be quiet and observe or face being removed from the meeting.

Councillor Blackwell raised a point of order saying he was disappointed that it was not possible to webcast the proceedings. Cllr Pritchard took umbrage at this, saying he hoped that Cllr Blackwell and others would be supporting moves to roll out webcasting through all meetings in Wrexham Council, and the associated funding required.

The meeting opened with the Chair Cllr Steve Wilson saying he was exercising his rights to run the meeting as he wanted to, and therefore only those on the Committee, Cllr O’Toole and Cllr Pritchard were able to speak, meaning the ten other Councillors who attended were not able to take part.

Due to the call-in being specifically with regards to recommending a public consultation, members of the committee were asked to keep their questions in line with this topic – rather than debating the demolition and history of the Groves site itself or other topics. Many Councillors managed to stick to that, although a couple of questions were knocked on the head for straying off topic.

Addressing the Committee, Cllr Carole O’Toole said: “My hoped for outcome is clear and simple, that you will vote in favour of referring this decision to demolish the Groves back to the Executive Board to allow for time for meaningful discussion and debate between the people of Wrexham and with the public concerning the building.

“There is public concern regarding the decision making, which did not allow sufficient time for public awareness and participation. Is there sufficient evidence to suggest the public should have been given the chance to have their voices heard? Should sufficient time been made to allow the public know what was going on? This is about the decision itself and the way in which it was taken.

“I begin with amount of time public was given with regards to what was proposed and the time taken – it was six days to decide the fate of an iconic and historic building, part of the landscape of this town for 70 years

Cllr O’Toole added: “Some of you are Wrexham people born and bred and don’t need me to tell you why this building is imprinted on minds of people as being a part of the towns heritage. It plays a significant part in the educational history of this town and in women’s education. It is a building which is steeped in rich cultural memory, a fine iconic building and symbolic of what Wrexham is and what it has been about.

“Are we not duty bound to ensure the public is confident in this council by allowing time to share information about and exchange views and options for the building. The news came like a bolt out of the blue, with some under the impression that Coleg Cambria was buying the building.

“It is travesty of justice. People are enraged and criticism of the council is running at an all time high. Is this the best we can do? Surely not. This council is allegedly is committed to openness and transparency and consulting with public and the heritage. Why deny public the change to debate this? Six days in public domain is not enough to treat the public with respect.”

Reference was also made to an ongoing campaign opposing the demolition of the Groves School, with a petition launched immediately after the proposal to demolish the school was made public.

However Council Leader Mark Pritchard said the decision hadn’t been ‘rushed’ and that the council had followed their statutory and legal duty to publish documents on their website three days before meetings, which has an extra two days if you count weekends.

Cllr Pritchard added: “I am disappointed that I can only comment and discuss issues with the consultation. I had hoped and wished there would be more to explain to general public in what has been going on in this saga for 14 years.

“I am disappointed Carole has mentioned openness and transparency and said there was none. She was wrong. She said it has been rushed, but it hasn’t. For 14 year it has stood there empty and fallen into disrepair.

“Carole mentioned that we had rushed it, we haven’t, we have treated this school as we have with any other property throughout the borough.

This interchange summed up the core arguments, one of history and passion against the ‘call in’ over the process and procedure. The latter even being acknowledged by Cllr O’Toole by the end of the meeting, in her summing up remarks agreeing that there was no requirement to consult, however it was desirable and ‘right’ to do.

Cllr Pritchard spoke at length reading lists of meetings and other properties that have been knocked down that had been through the same notification and other processes, with his date lists taking minutes to read out. Cllr Pritchard pointed out several times that the process that was used for the Groves has been in place for many years and had not been challenged previously, rather just on this issue.

Cllr O’Toole had said that due to the history and ‘iconic’ nature of the building Wrexham Council should treat it differently to a non-descript building, with Cllr Pritchard disagreeing saying ‘we should treat everything fairly and be consistent with the decision making.’

The debate then opened up to members of the Scrutiny Committee, with Cllr Mike Edwards stating: “In view of the fact you wish you could explain more to the public, do you think at the time you took the decision, you had you had listened sufficiently to the stakeholders and the public?”

Cllr Pritchard said: “I don’t think I made the wrong decision, I think I made the right one. I don’t regret this for one minute, we have a duty of care. We have a building which is sitting empty which we know is broken into on as regular occurrence, with drug use, paraphernalia of drinking and the like. We have a responsibly, a duty of care and can’t allow this building to be damaged and broken into.

“What do we do? Do we sit back and let it deteriorate, do we invest more into security? £100k for 24 hour security all year round? That money would be coming from the education department, it should be spent on children not on mothballing. I am surprised with a lot of the comments.”

“If you take the emotion away, the bluntness is it should have been dealt with and has not.”

However concerns were raised that going ahead with the decision to demolish the Groves could have a serious impact on the public’s perception of the authority.

Cllr Arfon Jones said: “If we turned clock back to a month ago, would you now consult on the demolition?”

Cllr Pritchard replied: “No. We followed the correct procedure on the process and issues the building has, believe I made the right decision in taking the report to the board. I think it is the right decision and we have a duty of care for everyone in Wrexham.”

Cllr Edwards added: “The public out there have views and unless you listen to them, you and the council could be accused of ignoring the will of the public.”

Cllr Dana Davies looked back at previous discussions involving the Groves, as far back as 2008, pointing out that members of the public would be assuming the building was ‘protected’ due to the nature of debates back then. Further criticism was raised with the ‘6 days notice’ for Councillors as well as the public noted, with the 42 Councillors not on the Executive Board ‘unaware’ of plans to knock the Groves down until the reports were released.

Cllr Pritchard disagreed saying ‘I take exception that members were not informed’ citing a meeting on the 24th of September listing a range of people attending, including Cllr Carole O’Toole, however other political groups spoke up noting they were not invited. Cllr Pritchard reiterated, ‘Elected members were fully aware of what was going on here’.

Cllr Arfon Jones had two technical based questions, asking if Wrexham Council’s Executive Board was ‘acting unlawfully’ by not abiding by The Gunning Principles from 1985, a set of guidelines on consultations. Further he enquired if the Council’s own Constitution had not been breached as its 12th article refers to consultations.

Statutory Monitoring Officer Trevor Coxon ‘happily’ explained to the meeting that Gunning was not a set of principles applicable to everything the Council did, adding “The issue here is that we have a dangerous building we are liable for, and appropriate consultation processes such as advertising the Executive Board report has been carried out.” On Cllr Jones’ second query, Mr Coxon noted that local MP Ian Lucas had asked a similar question and replied to both in the same way, that again the requirements were over the publication of agendas and reports, and that was ‘fully complied’ with.

Cllr Arfon Jones was one of a handful of Councillors who contrasted their ‘training sessions’ on consultations to the methods used for the Groves decisions with a comment on ‘we are told one thing in training but act in another’.

Cllr Dana Davies appeared to want to amend what was before the Scrutiny Committee to include a vote to recommend sending the decision to Full Council, however was legally advised as the meeting was not a normal Scrutiny meeting that was not possible and amendments were not possible.

The recommendation to refer the decision back to the Executive Board was voted down, with five councillors voting in favour of the proposals and six voting against. This means the decision taken at the Executive Board stands, and the Groves will be knocked down.

A statement released to the press following this afternoon’s meeting says: “I am very disappointed that our attempt to secure proper consultation with the public on this issue has been defeated,” commented Liberal Democrat Group Leader, Cllr Carole O’Toole whose ward includes the Groves. “There is a great deal of concern throughout Wrexham, not only about the decision to demolish, but also about the undemocratic way in which this decision was made.”

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