Councillors attempting to ask questions over the future of the Groves school building at the Executive Board meeting today were thwarted by Council Leader Mark Pritchard who deemed them inappropriate.
The questions were directed to Councillor Phil Wynn, the lead member for education, who was presenting a report into the Council’s 21st Century Schools Programme and associated bid to Welsh Government to help fund various projects.
In a previous article we have written we noted that Cllr Wynn explained the report “does not clearly state that we wish to use the Groves structure for educational use at this moment in time” adding that the future of the building was for a future ‘debate’.
At today’s meeting Cllr Dana Davies queried the detail of the £33.6m bid to Welsh Government, bringing the topic of the Groves into the question. Cllr Davies asked: “It does say what projects are, doesn’t say much about where they are sited. In the £36.66m investment, does that include the two schools we are looking to put on the Groves site, have we submitted a bid to take that forward as that was always the intention of the Council?”
Cllr Davies did not the site was mentioned in the report before the meeting but stated it did not give detail.
Citing ‘huge public interest in that site at present’ she went on to point out the next funding opportunity would be in 2024 and therefore wanted assurance the site would be used before that period, and enquired to plans and confirmation that the bid to Welsh Government included taking two schools on the Groves site.
Cllr Wynn said he was ‘quite happy to field the question’, saying: “As it states, the Groves site is documented as you say, it is currently surplus to educational requirements, the building itself. We still as an authority hold aspirations to deliver a modern school on the curtilage of the site. There are obviously challenges with delivering that, but those challenges will be taken head on.”
He continued on to reiterate the position that the building was surplus to requirements, and then spoke about the future: “A wider discussion about the future use of the building itself will have to be had outside of this meeting. It is up to elected members to ask the Executive Board as to what those plans are for that building.”
Cllr Wynn again reiterated the building was surplus to educational needs, but there was a desire to use the land on the site as it was a ‘scarce resource’.
Cllr Davies asked if she could ask a supplementary question, with meeting Cllr Pritchard more than happy to allow, but did point out: “I do not want this discussion to be solely on the Groves, I want to keep on the agenda in front of us and the recommendations.”
Cllr Davies reassured Cllr Pritchard that the question was on topic as it referred to ‘the funding pot’ and therefore were in her view relevant.
Addressing a question back to Cllr Wynn, Cllr Davies part-asked: “From what you are telling me we are not redeveloping the Groves building for a school? I would like some…” before she was cut off.
Cllr Pritchard interrupted: “Dana, can I cut across you? I think you know my position on this and I will Chair it as I think appropriate this morning. I don’t want this discussion to get into a debate over the Groves. This is a fantastic story and the report is an excellent report with the issue surrounding 21st Century Schools.
“We have had phase one, been successful, built and redeveloped new schools – wonderful. This is phase two, funding will be matched funded. Thats the story here today and thats the agenda and I want to keep on the agenda.”
“If you want to speak about the Groves you can speak at Scrutiny, you can call it in, you can speak to the Lead Member. I don’t want this this morning and I won’t allow it, and I should not allow it.”
“The reason we are where we are with the Groves is because it became political and silly, and I do not want it entering this chamber this morning. That is where I am.”
Cllr Davies replied: “The political direction was always to put two schools and this was the funding pot to do that and that is why I am challenging the Executive on that. That is my role to do.
“This was the only avenue of funding from Welsh Government to develop that site and the building according to the covenants into two schools. That was your political direction. I think I am quite within the Constitution to challenge the Executive on that decision.
“The next funding pot will not be available until 2024. You have always said it was the intention of this council to build two schools on that site, and that is what I am asking about. The next step now is how has this decision come about for not redeveloping that building? Has a viability study been done? Are we in the process of challenging the covenant?”
Cllr Davies was again interrupted by Cllr Pritchard: “Can I cut across. Come on. We are here this morning to discuss and debate the reports in front of us. I take on board what you have said, but I am not allowing this to take place in this chamber this morning. I do not think it is appropriate.”
Cllr Pritchard pointed Cllr Davies to the report and recommendations, adding he did ‘not want to lower the tone on a discussion on the Groves’.
Cllr Davies said she took exception to that comment. Due to the microphone system in the Guildhall two speakers cannot both have an active mic, and at that point there was a clash, so Cllr Davies was invited to turn hers off, which she did sarcastically saying there was no point her asking any further questions ‘as it was the detail of the funding I was after’.
Cllr Pritchard then restated his administrations ambitions for the Groves ‘to put one or two schools on that site’.
Cllr Davies said she would be taking up her questions in ‘another forum’.
Cllr Carrie Harper followed to ask questions, one of which was along a similar direction. Cllr Pritchard said as he had stopped Cllr Davies he ‘had no choice’ but to prevent the questions being asked on the same theme by Councillor Harper adding he hoped that no one else would come to the table asking similar.
Clr Pritchard interrupts to decline Q. Member of public storms out & slams door stating ‘I have had enough of this ****’
— Wrexham.com (@wrexham) September 12, 2017
Member of public stands up in public gallery and tries to address meeting. Told to sit down. Cllr Harper moves on stating she is unhappy.
— Wrexham.com (@wrexham) September 12, 2017
After a brief interruption from the public gallery, Cllr Harper said she would move on with her questions to another area, however added: “I am quite concerned we are shutting down debate on this. I am referencing a lot of different points, the Groves is referenced in the report, so if this is not the place to ask these questions I don’t know where is.
“As Dana said, that is our job to do. I am not going to labour the point but if there is work being done on that, as a new member, is can we see the options appraisal and can we see the reasoning behind why we are not looking at that building as either a primary or secondary school. I think that is perfectly reasonable.”
30 councillors did not attend the Executive Board meeting today, and only four councillors presents asked questions on the agenda items – with it notable for the first time that we can remember that 75% of the queries were overwhelmingly from women councillors.
After the meeting we were asked about proceedings regarding the Groves by several members of the public, both regarding the school building and the ongoing homeless camp in the grounds. There were no public questions on either topic, nor any councillor questions on the topic of the homeless encampment.
You can view the 10-15 minute exchange on the agenda item via the Council TV catch up service – the direct link to the section of debate is here, however there are some slight audio crackles.