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Wrexham Council To Legally Challenge Groves School Listing Decision

NOTE: This content is old - Published: Tuesday, Sep 6th, 2016.

Wrexham Council’s Executive Board have voted to legally challenge the decision to List the Groves School building.

In a unusual emergency Executive Board meeting this morning (the start viewable here via Council TV) it was decided that the recent decision by Cabinet Secretary Ken Skates to List the Groves School be legally challenged.

Wrexham Council had previously decided to knock the building down with the apparent aim of replacing it with modern schools.

Several Councillors queried via hasty points of order the process of the meeting, asking if the meeting could be held in public view, if there was any way of recalling the decision made today and if the meeting ought to be heard by the Full Council rather than the Executive Board.

All points of order raised were given time to be heard and responded to by the relevant Council Officer, with the Chair allowing a query through twice despite it appearing the vote to place the meeting in Part 2 secrecy was already underway.

Wrexham Council Leader Mark Pritchard promised the public and the meeting this morning that his pre-prepared press release ‘would explain it all’. The statement that such a document existed with the decision appearing to be pre decided prompted mutterings in the nine strong public gallery enquiring to the point of the debate.

The meeting has been described (obviously unconfirmed) as containing ‘challenging questions’, ‘bickering’, and one comment after said the future debate ‘could get dirty’ do the controversial nature of the issue.

A preprepared statement released by Wrexham Council after the meeting reads: 

The decision to list the former Groves school building is to be legally challenged, following a decision by Wrexham Council’s Executive Board this morning.

In making their decision members balanced the risks and cost of a challenge against the ongoing expense of maintaining and using the building taking account of both its listed status and the restrictive covenants affecting its use.

The building was listed in August by the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Infrastructure, Ken Skates AM. A listing which the Council strongly resisted. The Council had decided to demolish the building and build one or two primary schools on the site to be funded from the 21st Century Schools Programme post – 2019.

The report outlined the events leading up to the Secretary’s decision and the options available to the Council. Due to the confidential legal advice presented in the report, press and public were excluded from the meeting.

There were a number of relevant issues which needed to be addressed by the Board in reaching its decision such as the likelihood of success of a legal challenge and the cost. The ongoing cost to the Council of maintaining the building – whether in its existing state or as part of a refurbishment/redevelopment opportunity – and the impact on the Council’s future plans for investment in education on this site and the overall education budget.

The confidential legal advice led members to believe the Secretary’s decision was contrary to all the expert evidence, which concluded that the building does not meet the criteria for listing and in the absence of documentary or expert evidence in support of listing the decision was clearly challengeable.

The minimum ongoing cost of maintaining the building is estimated to be £14,500 per annum plus one off repairs following vandalism. £113,609 has already been spent removing asbestos and if 24/7 security is required this will be in excess of £100,000 per annum to come from the Council’s education budget. Recently repairs to the roof cost £4,756 following a break in.

To make the building watertight and repair key features would cost a further £262,000. The site continues to encounter issues with anti-social behaviour and homeless people sleeping rough, which means the police and the Council’s security team are called out to it on a regular basis. The Council’s own mobile control carries out at least five visits a day to the site and significant quantities of rubbish and drug paraphernalia have to be removed from the site.

It is forecasted that increase in the overall population by 2028 will result in pressure on existing school places. Members previously agreed that the Groves site be used for one possibly two new primary schools and to demolish the existing building. Funding for the building is likely to come from the 21st Century Schools Programme post 2019. This would mean the building would be unused for a further four years with the council continuing to incur costs for repairs, maintenance and security.

The report to members also considered using the building as a 21st century primary school, which would need to be designed to enable learners in the Foundation Phase to access the outdoors. This would require doors to be provided where there are currently windows, proper external shading to be installed and appropriate fencing to separate the learning areas and contain and protect pupils. This may not be compatible with the current building.

Modern buildings are also designed to ensure good air and light quality in classrooms and adequate solar shading. Again, the building itself may not be suitable for a conversion that would meet these standards. There is no guarantee that partners involved in developing a replacement school would be happy with the proposals to provide a compromise to the design of a modern primary school.

Cllr Mark Pritchard, Leader of Wrexham Council, said: “The Executive Board has agreed to challenge the decision based on all the advice contained in the report. It is strongly felt that the Cabinet Secretary’s decision is flawed and does not take into account Welsh Government advice and that of experts involved in the process.

“We do not believe it has been listed in the national interest or in accordance with the guidance used to make such decisions.

“I would like to thank everyone concerned with bringing this report to Executive Board today.”

A spokesperson on behalf of Save our Heritage said, in response to WCBC’s decision to challenge the listing of the Groves School:

“Save Our Heritage is extremely disappointed that Wrexham Council’s Executive Board members have made a decision to challenge the Welsh Government’s decision.

“We feel it is disrespectful to the residents of Wrexham to use tens of thousands of public money to challenge the Welsh Government listing decision.”

Lesley Griffiths AM said: “The former Grove Park School is an important site in the centre of Wrexham and from the very beginning of this saga, I have been calling for greater transparency and for an open consultation process to take place.”

“Unfortunately, a number of councillors, relevant stakeholders and the people of Wrexham have been kept in the dark. The Executive Board’s latest decision, which clearly seems to have been agreed upon before yet more secretive discussions took place this morning, makes it extremely difficult to move forward.”

“I will continue to represent my constituents and I also believe local taxpayers would prefer to see their Council spending money on vital public services, rather than making costly legal challenges.”

A Welsh Government spokesperson added: “We will make no further comment whilst this matter is subject to a legal challenge.”

The meeting was held in Part II with press and public excluded from attending because the report presented contained information which falls within the description of exempt information contained in Paragraph 16 of part 4 of Schedule 12A of the Local Government Act 1972 in that it contains information in respect of which a claim to legal professional privilege could be maintained in legal proceedings.

If the legal challenge is successful it is likely Wrexham Council would revert to their previous aim of demolishing the building.

The meeting was held in secret this morning, with our live tweets documenting how things lasted around 15 minutes more than we were expecting:

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