Dispute over closed college site goes to court

Legal battle raised in parliament by furious MP

Legal battle raised in parliament by furious MP

A college group is taking a council to court over its refusal to lift a legally binding agreement that means a closed college site can only be sold for educational purposes.

The covenant placed on Malvern Hills College by Malvern Hills District Council significantly suppresses the sale price of the property for the Warwickshire College Group (WCG).

WCG took over Malvern Hills College, which has delivered courses to adults since 1886, in 2016. But the group shut the college’s doors last year in the face of strong local opposition after falling student numbers made it unviable.

Malvern Hills District Council is part of a consortium that has put together a £1.2 million bid to buy the college site for a newly formed company called Malvern Hills Arts and Community College, which plans to continue the offer of adult education courses.

Back in 2008 the council placed a legal restriction on the Malvern Hills College site through the government’s Learning and Skills Council (LSC), which protects it for further and higher education provision.

The covenant can only be lifted if the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) – as successor to the LSC – determines that there is no “functional need” for a college in Malvern and Malvern Hills District Council is satisfied with that determination.

The ESFA could, however, only review the need for the 16 to 19 provision it funded at the college, not the self-funded leisure courses for adults that the college mainly provided.

Following a “comprehensive review” of Malvern and the neighbouring areas, the ESFA concluded in June 2021 that there was no “functional need” for Malvern Hills College site to deliver ESFA funded 16-to-19 provision.

It is on this basis that WCG is pleading with Malvern Hills District Council to lift the covenant, which would then allow the college group to sell site for maximum value – likely to be housing.

But the district council has so far refused this request.

WCG has now applied for a declaration from the courts that the covenant should be lifted.

FE Week understands that a date for a hearing to decide the outcome will be set in the first quarter of 2023.

Harriett Baldwin, the MP for West Worcestershire, has protested and marched alongside the Save Malvern Hills College group in an effort to save the college over the past two years.

She raised the issue in parliament last month during a debate to mark this year’s Colleges Week and pleaded with the Department for Education to step in to ensure Malvern Hills College site is “preserved in the heart of Malvern” and “rises like a phoenix” like the “community wants”.

Baldwin hit out at the legal action being taken by WCG, saying: “Unfortunately, so far the board seems to have focused on ensuring that it simply gets maximum value for the site and is able to sell it.”

A WCG spokesperson defended the legal challenge.

“WCG has tried for many years to operate a further education college on the site but it has not proved financially viable to do so,” the spokesperson said.

“Despite Ms Baldwin saying that the Malvern community support the need for a college, the low level of enrolments from that community – despite the marketing efforts of WCG – make a college non-viable.

“Following the decision to close the site, which was publicly announced, WCG has a legal duty as a charity to maximise the value of any unused or surplus assets. It has no choice in that.

“WCG is sympathetic to the residents of Malvern backing a college but the offer made by a current community company is not accompanied by any business plan and thus if it failed, as others have, to run a college in Malvern, it will be left as the owners of a site which it can then sell.”

Malvern Hills Arts and Community College’s £1.2 million bid was made up of a £400,000 contribution from Malvern Hills District Council, another £400,000 from Worcestershire County Council, and another £400,000 from local philanthropist Colin Kinnear of the Bransford Trust.

The ESFA made clear that it is not involved in WCG’s legal claim to lift the covenant on Malvern Hills College and has no power to intervene as WCG is an independent organisation.

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2 Comments

  1. Mary Brittain

    It was quite obvious to all students of the College that WCG had no interest in running it from the very first moment they gained ownership. Courses were not advertised, key staff were sacked and facilities were run down. The Group had already closed down a number of other colleges in Worcestershire and has subsequently made severe cuts to the offer of others. It appears to have more interest in property development than in offering education. It should be held to account by the government for the fact that there is so little provision now in this area for life-long learning – which is surely a key element of the much heralded ‘levelling up’ agenda.

  2. James Barford

    It is obvious from the machinations of Warwickshire College Group senior management and governing body that they are interested in one outcome only and that is the closure and sale of Malvern Hills College location for maximum profit. ( residential developments most likely ) They have and continue to promote highly specious arguments regarding need and support for further education need in Malvern and about the efficacy and viability of alternative provision by a community group with local authority financial support .
    .Having already sold off a further education site in Henley in Arden, and with proposals to drastically reduce the Evesham College provision by offloading their property holdings there as well , those running the Warwickshire Colleges Group at the highest level be challenged as to their decision making processes .