Demolition of the former Groves School is still planned – however no action will take place until a decision has been made on the listing of the building.
The announcement was made at yesterday’s Executive Board meetings – where the future of the Groves School once again was debated by councillors.
The debate came as a result of a ‘Notice of Motion’ which was submitted by members of the opposition parties last month.
The motion was set to be discussed at March’s Full Council Meeting – however just hours before the debate it was announced that an ‘independent review’ was to be carried out to see if the building is suitable to be listed.
In an hour and a half long part of the Executive Board meeting yesterday, representations for both retaining the school and demolishing the site were made – with several impassioned pleas from councillors.
Starting yesterday’s unusually lengthy debate, Cllr Dana Davies stated: “I’ve had representations from numerous members of the public and there appears to be, because of the rush to demolish, an element of distrust, like the council are hiding something.
“The primary concern is that while the building is being considered for listing at the moment, the decision with the board is still to demolish. There are concerns that the day after the decision, the Council could instruct to demolish.
“The purpose of the motion is to reconsider demolition while we are waiting for the listing. If that decision could be taken off the table, which would then renew confidence in Members in the eyes of the public – then we can restart proper consultation for the building and the site.”
However Council Leader Mark Pritchard stated that the decision had not been rushed, with the building standing vacant for 12-14 years with a total of £900,000 being spent on retaining the property so far.
Cllr Pritchard also noted that there were three break-ins at the building at the weekend, with individuals seen running across the roof.
He added: “In the past it was ignored and it has been left standing. On top of that there is pressure for education provision in the town. There is a need and demand for education in the town centre.
“I think it has just become political and it has become a political platform, we have to put education provision on the site.
“We have a building there costing money and there are issues with health and safety. I wish and hope going into the future that we have the right discussions for the right reasons.”
Questions were also asked about the covenant on the site – which as many know, means that the site cannot be used for anything other than education purposes.
Addressing the concerns over covenants and the confusion over the future of the site, Cllr Davies noted that she was ‘concerned’ to come across Full Council reports in 2010 which listed the Penymaes area in the Local Development Plan for housing.
Cllr Davies said: “How can that be put forward when the land has covenants on it?”
However Cllr Pritchard noted that the Council will not move away from the covenants as the people who put them on the site were ‘visionaries who want to cater for education in the town.’
Calls were also made a public consultation to take place, with Cllr Brian Cameron stating: “The feelings you are seeing from public gallery are no different to feelings across the County Borough. I am calling on council to have a full and frank discussion with this because of the nature and controversial manner it has been brought about.
“I am asking board to have a proper frank and open consultation that takes in the need of the future of all educational needs.”
Cllr Pritchard stated that he’d had representation from members of the public who have asked the Council stop ‘wasting public money on a school which is like a sponge’.
He added: “For every person who says save the Groves, I have a lot more asking why their money is being spent on that. On the back of that I’ve had parents make representation saying that they follow a certain faith and they can’t, as a school built for 200 pupils is now taking 400. We have to take everything into consideration.”
Cllr Pritchard also continued onto note that Wrexham Council were considering implementing 24/7 security on the site, following a spate of break-ins and copper wire thefts from the property. It is estimated the cost for the security would cost an additional £100,000 a year.
Calls to launch a public consultation were echoed by Cllr Carole O’Toole, who had previously been one of the driving forces for the call-in over the demolition decision back in February.
Cllr O’Toole said: “I’d ask for a public event to be held in the Memorial Hall and officers and lead members would be able to address the many issues that appear to still be unresolved concerning future plans for the Groves.
“I think if the Board were prepared to consider such an event, it would go some way to perhaps restoring faith and trust in terms of how we operate. The question is are you prepared to reconsider this suggestion?”
Cllr Pritchard said: “We are where we are with this suggestion. If we do it for the Groves we will have to do it for every school building in the future. We have to be consistent in decision making and process.”
However given the historical context of the former Groves School, Cllr O’Toole stated that the building in question is ‘viewed differently from other school buildings’.
Cllr O’Toole said: “I think we are embarking on a process here which is looking at damage limitation to the Council – a half day event to limit the damage. I think the issue has damaged the reputation of the Council.”
The statement was met with a round of applause from the public gallery, the second of the day.
There was also confusion raised about the position of Coleg Cambria, who had previously expressed an interest in taking over the site and converting it into a modern college facility – while retaining some of the facade of the original Groves School.
Back in November Wrexham.com reported that Coleg Cambria had withdrawn their application to take over the site – with the college releasing a statement, saying: “At a meeting of Coleg Cambria Governors on Monday 9th November 2015, Board members noted the decision of Wrexham County Borough Council’s proposal to “withdraw from the negotiations to sell the (Groves) site and to retain it for education use”.
Addressing the confusion, Cllr Malcolm King branded the decision as a ‘mistake of huge proportions’, saying: “Does seem to me, we or you as Lead Member made the decision to use it for something else prematurely rather than continuing with the strategic plan of having that partnership.
“I’m perplexed, as characterised as saying that they didn’t want this site. I don’t recall anywhere in those emails where they say they didn’t want it. It remains a mystery to me that Coleg Cambria may have put out signs they were getting cold feet, but it does seem to be from the correspondence they pulled out following consultation with your colleagues.”
He added: “It sort of breaks my heart as that was the perfect strategic plan for Wrexham. We like every other town centre are struggling with commercial viability. The idea we would miss all those students coming into town and spending their money in town and replace it with a primary school.”
However Cllr Pritchard insisted that Coleg Cambria had ‘made it clear that they weren’t in the position to progress with that site’.
Cllr Pritchard also continued onto say that the debate had been personalised than both he and his family had received ‘threats’ following the decision to demolish the Groves.
He added: “It has been personalised and the has been finger pointed at me. My family have had threats and I have. I haven’t made the decision, it was made by the Executive Board and I believe it as the right one. It was called in at scrutiny and they decided it was the right decision.
“It is a bit unfair when your colleagues keep pointing the finger at me. People target me and my family and I don’t like that either. In future could we all stop personalising it for individuals as there are consequences for individuals.”
Along with comments in support of retaining the Groves, fears were raised by some councillors on the knock on effects funding the building could have on the development / refurbishment of other schools across the County Borough.
Cllr Joan Lowe said: “I am so annoyed and distressed to feel that if it was mothballed further that the money for 21st Century Schools would be in jeopardy. My village school amalgamated eight years ago.
“I cannot understand Cllr King and Cllr Powell, you have new schools going up and you think it’s more important to keep the school and put schools at jeopardy. Don’t our children deserve the benefit of having decent school going into the 21st century? I think this is disgusting.”
Cllr David Griffiths added: “I have no problem with opposition, or with people in gallery. What I am going to say is I have waited patiently for a new school in my ward. Modern teaching today is not appropriate for that school. It will break my heart for it to be demolished, but that school will be better than what it is before.
“If there are new schools going up, I want children in my ward to have best education we can afford. I don’t want to see anything watered down because we have to keep something up.”
However after an hour and a half debate, little regarding the initial decision had changed – with Cllr Pritchard stating at the end of the meeting that if Cadw choose to list the building, the Council will have to reconsider the implications.
He continued onto say that in the interim period they will remove the asbestos and no demolition will take place until a decision is made on the listing of the building.
This recommendation was backed unanimously by all members of the Executive Board.