College testing insolvency regime seeks speedy buyer for park and unfinished mining museum

Scandal-hit Hadlow College has confirmed it is looking to sell its £40 million visitor and business park, following the college’s application for insolvency.

FE Week revealed on Friday the education secretary Damian Hinds had applied to the High Court to put the college into education administration.

While this does not affect any of the college’s subsidiaries, or its sister college West Kent and Ashford (WKAC), a college spokesperson has said Hadlow is “currently in discussion with a range of potentially interested parties” about selling its subsidiary business Betteshanger Sustainable Parks.

This is due to the “financial challenges” faced by the college, which has required huge government bailouts to survive.

The college is looking to find a new owner for the 422-acre site by 31 July, but the spokesperson stressed the park will stay open, adding: “The key project funders and community partners remain committed to the delivery of the project and are all working to secure a successful future for the parks.”

Betteshanger Sustainable Parks, which has around 25 staff, is made up of two sites – the business park and the country park – and is built on what was a colliery.

Despite being owned by a college, none of its provision takes place at the park.

The college’s disgraced ex-deputy principal Mark Lumsdon-Taylor previously said the project was “personal” to him, as he grew up in Sunderland and saw the effect closing mines and shipyards had on the area.

Hadlow College previously attempted to sell the business park for £4 million; however, this fell through.

On the country park site, known as Betteshanger Park, the college is constructing the Kent Mining Museum with the Kent Mining Heritage Foundation, which was once chaired by Mark Lumsdon-Taylor.

The museum has received at least £1.8 million in charitable donations to fund its development, including a £1.3 million grant from the National Lottery.

The museum will be based inside a £9.5 million visitor centre, which was embarked upon in 2014 and was due to open in March 2019.

But that was delayed following several resignations from the college’s board, including that of the principal, Paul Hannan, Mark Lumsdon-Taylor, as well as the chairs of both WKAC’s board, Paul Dubrow, and Hadlow’s board, Theresa Bruton.

Their resignations came after the FE Commissioner’s team and the ESFA intervened at Hadlow and WKAC, following allegations of financial irregularities.

Hadlow College was landed with an extra £1.2 million bill for the Betteshanger visitor centre, because it had to replace the foundations it installed on the basis of incorrect advice.

The trustee board of the Kent Mining Heritage Foundation has been contacted, but declined to comment at this time.

Betteshanger Park’s MP, Charlie Elphicke, has asked the FE Commissioner to hand over the Kent Mining Museum to East Kent College, as it is “85 per cent complete” and: “We need to get this project back on track. Handing it over to East Kent College could be the answer. This facility would be great for our community, celebrating its mining heritage alongside a range of activities for families to enjoy,” according to a statement on his website.

A three-acre open-air amphitheatre is also being built at the park, with a price tag of around £70,000.

A Dover District Council spokesperson said: “We are seeking clarity on the situation with Hadlow College and the Betteshanger Sustainable Parks project.  Betteshanger is an important regeneration site in the Dover district and we are keen to see its full potential realised.

“We are in dialogue with Hadlow and other partners, but it is too soon to comment on specifics.”

This is the second of Hadlow College’s new buildings that it is looking to sell off: FE Week reported last week East Kent College is looking to take over WKAC’s Ashford campus, which was completed in 2017.

This is part of work being undertaken by the financial advisory firm BDO to oversee the potential sale or transfer of assets within the Hadlow Group – which includes Hadlow College and WKAC – to neighbouring colleges, such as East Kent.

East Kent College has been asked whether it is taking over any part of the Hadlow Group, which includes Hadlow College and WKAC as well as Betteshanger, but has yet to comment.

The High Court is expected to hear the application to put Hadlow College into administration on May 22.