A college group has overturned a covenant that was preventing a defunct campus from being sold for non-educational purposes, following a battle with its local council and campaigners in the High Court.
Judge Simon Gleeson yesterday ordered Malvern Hills District Council to lift the legally binding restriction placed on Malvern Hills College in 2008.
In siding with owner Warwickshire College Group (WCG) which closed the site in 2021 due to a “diminishing customer base”, judge Gleeson said it was “beyond doubt” that there was not a viable option for further education in the area.
WCG had argued that it was clear there was no need for a college in the local area, and that the restrictions on who they could sell the site to significantly suppressed its sale price.
The group welcomed the verdict, with chief executive Angela Joyce saying closing a college site is “always a last resort decision”.
“Nobody who works in further education ever wants to see provision reduced,” she added, but said the college was still “open to offers” and could sell the site to the community. However, the college will be looking at other options such as leasing the site until it has agreed a sale, after “various community bids” fell apart.
The move to sell the site to a non-educational group faced strong opposition from locals and their MP, Harriet Baldwin. In a statement released following the verdict, Baldwin expressed “great sadness” over the “asset-stripping exercise” and threw her support behind the council if it does appeal the decision.
The council meanwhile was part of a consortium that put together a £1.2 million bid to buy the site for a newly formed arts and community college.
Up until it was closed, the college mainly offered self-funded leisure courses for adults but also offered some 16 to 19 provision – which it then transferred to another part of the college following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. In 2021 the Education and Skills Funding Authority ruled that there was “no functional need” for 16 to 19 provision in the area, but was not able to judge on the self-funded adult courses.
On that basis the local council refused to issue a letter to the college which would have allowed it to sell to non-educational groups such as housing. The college then took the local council to court.
No cogent evidence
The council had argued that “poor marketing” by the college was the reason for historically low FE student numbers, and that there was demand for the courses. However, judge Gleeson found there was no “cogent evidence” backing up the implication that the college was “actively harming its own financial interests” and that there was a difference between demand for courses and a local “need” for education in the area.
The council also disputed the ESFA’s decision that there was a lack of local demand, calling it “irrational”. But the judge dismissed that as well.
“Put simply – and brutally – the users of the college had in practice determined that its services were not necessary, since they were not prepared to pay enough for their courses to cover its operating costs,” he said. After the college moved its 16 to 19 provision, he could not see “any conceivable way in which the College could have continued to operate without a very significant annual financial subsidy”.
The council said it was “disappointed” by the ruling, but that it would respect the court’s decision.
“The future of the college is in the hands of Warwickshire College Group and we continue to urge them to find a way forward that supports the long tradition of education on this site.”
Joyce said her college group is “not here to profiteer, but as a charity our governors do have a duty to achieve appropriate value for our assets”.
A WCG spokesperson added that the college group “regrets that the behaviour of a number of key individuals within the community has created unnecessary unpleasantness and considers that the court hearing may well have been prevented if individuals had behaved differently”.
A spokesperson for the Save Malvern Hills College Campaign said it was “devastated” by the decision and accused the college group of “withdrawing marketing materials, introduc[ing] a redundancy programme and ma[king] it difficult to enrol on courses” since it acquired the site.
The spokesperson added: “WCG says that any ‘profits’ from the sale will be reinvested in local education. That may be the case but it won’t be in Malvern. We hope that somehow there is still a positive way forward and remain grateful to all those involved in supporting the campaign.”