An ‘iconic’ building in Wrexham could be used to create a state-of-the-art learning centre one political party has claimed ahead of the May 4th elections – but what happened to the previous deal between Wrexham Council and Coleg Cambria?
The Wrexham Labour group have outlined their vision to bring the former Groves School back into use. The school, which has been derelict for several years, has been a proverbial political hot potato since plans to demolish the building were approved by the Executive Board in January 2016 with the subsequent listing, delisting and listing taking place.
However the Labour Group say their ‘ambitious vision’ for the school would involve working with Coleg Cambria and the Welsh Government.
Launching the Labour manifesto earlier this month, Cllr Davies said the Groves, in its current state, ‘is symbolic of the decline of this council’, adding: “While Mark Pritchard and co are desperate to knock it down, we want to use it to help improve people’s lives.”
Cllr Davies said: “The Groves is the perfect example of this failing council’s lack of vision. Mark Pritchard’s administration have gone to great lengths – at great expense to the public purse – in their repeated attempts to demolish the Groves. Just think what that could’ve been spent on.”
The Labour vision for the Groves would see the listed building brought back into use and turned into a centre for further and higher education which specialises in teaching key skills for emerging markets within the technology centre.
Cllr Davies said the Groves project ‘would not be at the expense of new schools’, adding: “There is demand for them, but not here. We have identified sites where we want to build”, although the release does not name the sites.
Wrexham.com was previously invited to view the contents of a chunky ring binder regarding the Groves School by Council Leader Mark Prichard which documented various emails, plans and correspondence over deals with Coleg Cambria.
The hundreds of pages inside indicated that Wrexham Council was looking to progress a project involving Coleg Cambria. The deal fell apart, despite Wrexham Council being haggled down from a leasehold offer, to a undervalue freehold for the site with no development guarantees. It also documents that Wrexham Council at the time were looking to preserve the old building via any leasehold, and were unhappy when Coleg Cambria proposed just retaining the facade.
In 2014 Wrexham Council agreed to sell a long leasehold of the Groves to Coleg Cambria for £350,000, expecting around £8m investment in new sports and teaching facilities. Such an offer was not accepted, and the District Valuer was brought in to advise. They noted a sum of £600,000 for the freehold ‘was more reasonable’ – yet a briefing note we have seen states the college stated a maximum of £350,000 it was prepared to pay. This was based on an estimate of £4m to fit out the former girls school building.
At the time the site itself was valued at £1.2m if used for residential use, and therefore £600k or even £350k would be deemed undervalue if sold.
In 2014 the £350k deal was still being discussed for the leasehold of the site from Wrexham Council to Coleg Cambria, including an obligation to retain the old building on the site. The Council pointed out to agents that 125 year leases are common from Wrexham Council and that had been the discussion context through negotiations when a freehold was queried.
That deal then changed to a resolution which appears in draft minutes of a Coleg Cambria meeting in March 2014 to a leasehold deal, with an additional freehold transfer after completion of ‘Phase 1’ – a £4m building/development work on the the existing buildings and site.
Further negotiations then took place with a ‘straight sale’ for the freehold for £350,000 the preferred option from the college and the offer on the table. By June 2014 the Executive Board had agreed to the principle of that deal for the freehold at the original leasehold price and subsequent Heads of Terms we have seen did not mention any deal requiring the £4m work to take place before the freehold was handed over.
The Executive Board agreed a sale at the new lower £350k price ‘on the basis it secured wider and economic social benefits’. It was noted that Wrexham Council would be protected via an uplift clause, however that as a freehold sale it would mean Wrexham Council ‘would not longer able to obligate the college to retain the former school building’.
Initial discussions saw protection for the building as a whole, however that was also watered down to the Coleg Cambria offer being to retain the facade only, which raised eyebrows from Council Officers.
Further an ongoing bonus appeared to be a £250k ‘in kind’ contribution, that started as a multi year discussion, then a single partnership ‘value add’ via training and the like, and then finally shifting to ‘renting of a classroom’.
By 2015 the deal appeared to be stalling, with a seeming bombshell in July 2015 where a Coleg Cambria board meeting would discuss all options – including ‘not being in a position to proceed as discussed’. In the emails we have seen this is also the time the first mention of Wrexham Council exploring retaining the site appearing, with ‘concerns that the college did not intend to deliver the whole the proposed development as originally envisaged’ attributed to Council Leader Mark Pritchard.
By October 2015 an email notes a ‘change in circumstances’ attributed to ‘Coleg Cambria having to manage a change in funding and priorities and the Council needing the land for eduction’ being the reason that a report would be taken to the November 2015 Executive Board meeting to withdraw from negotiations to sell the site.
In the emails we have seen the issue then descends into a PR farce, with the public nature of council meeting reports clashing with Coleg Cambria meeting timetables – plus neither party wishing to annoy the other, yet also not wanting to be the ones to be seen to be pulling the plug on the deal, or perhaps wanting to get in first. Wrexham Council suggested a joint press release could ‘provide a positive steer on the reporting’, however that was met with various changes which provoked a further clash.
David Jones, the Principal / Chief Executive of Coleg Cambria wrote of the PR and publication discussion and subsequent output in October 2015: “Glad I do not work in local government. I for one am trying, and will continue to champion Wrexham and the wider region along side you and others from the private and public sector. I and others have found events of recent days to be quite unbelievable and hugely disappointing and disillusioning. Dysfunctionality in Wrexham is a major barrier to prosperity. In contrast across the border things are moving…. Rome is burning.”
Exasperation flows the other way with a Wrexham Council Officer pointing out the lack of a joint statement meant the reports and public feeling was ‘that the councils decision to retain the Groves has prevented the college from delivering the comprehensive investment it had planned…. there is no mention of the fact that this was unlikely to happen to the extent presented in 2014 and that the investment by the college in the existing estate is more beneficial.”
To the public we saw the farce in a live meeting (write up here) when the deal fell apart, with Coleg Cambria issuing a statement literally minutes before the meeting baffling some councillors who did not have a copy.
Prior to the meeting item @colegcambria just said they are "withdrawing from its plan to purchase the Groves” after a Governors meeting
— Wrexham.com (@wrexham) November 10, 2015
Coleg Cambria statement referred to is here for any Clrs looking for it! pic.twitter.com/TlkMEVIV27
— Wrexham.com (@wrexham) November 10, 2015
The previous week saw a bat related u-turn, helpfully delaying the deal.
There are proposals that the site could house two new schools, or the above proposal involving a new deal with Coleg Cambria. Over the next couple of weeks the local hot topic will likely be debated on doorsteps across Wrexham, with the new council that you vote for deciding what directions things are taken in – with the Labour v Independent clash rumbling on from 2015
Clr Dana Davies says 'shes in the dark', Clr Pritchard replies 'I dont think we are we have lights on' bit of narkiness between them today!
— Wrexham.com (@wrexham) November 10, 2015
We invited the 155 Wrexham candidates running in the upcoming Council Elections to participate in an online question and answer session – with one question focusing specifically on the Groves.
Find out who your local candidates are and read their responses to our questions – including what they want to see happen to the Groves – via Wrexham.com/Election2017/ .