A college fighting for survival has been given the go-ahead by its local council for a major redevelopment needed to repay a £23 million government clawback.
Brooklands College’s plan to refurbish its facilities and redevelop some of its land into homes was handed conditional approval by Elmbridge Borough Council in December, according to its newly published 2023 accounts.
The college told FE Week the approval puts it in a “strong position for the future” after it was embroiled in an apprenticeship subcontracting scandal in 2019 that left it with a £25 million debt owed to the Education and Skills Funding Agency.
The development will deliver a new three-storey college building and sports hall and will convert two buildings into over 300 homes – some of which will be earmarked for affordable housing, as well as providing new green space.
Redevelopment of the Weybridge campus cannot start until the college can guarantee 13 conditions imposed by the council, including the retention of all trees and hedgerows on the 27-hectare site, and a detailed application for a car park for a suitable alternative natural green (SANG) space.
A Brooklands College spokesperson said: “This decision marks a significantly positive moment in the history of Brooklands College and puts us in a strong position for the future.
“Once the final details are agreed the substantial refurbishment of the college will provide a first-class learning environment and experience for our students as well as enabling us to deliver outstanding facilities in our areas of specialism.
“The refurbished and rebuilt college will also provide a great working environment for staff and those within our connected communities.”
The college has been entangled in negotiations with the ESFA over a clawback dispute when officials in 2018 discovered its subcontractor SCL Security Ltd was using apprenticeship funding illegally.
In March last year, the college signed a repayment agreement with the ESFA as a long-term creditor, discounted to £23.1 million.
The new accounts said £5 million has been scheduled for repayment over 25 years with an interest charged at 2.4 per cent per year, while the remainder “will not be called in for two years unless the development of the estate enables this to be repaid sooner”.
‘Almost like blackmail’ to approve
The struggling college’s principal Christine Ricketts admitted to the council at a planning meeting on December 5 that the college would close if the debt was not repaid, as the £45 million development would generate funds to pay back the ESFA.
“If the debt isn’t paid, the college will be financially insolvent,” she told councillors. “Personally, I have no doubt that this will result in Elmbridge losing the college.”
The college has just over 2,000 learners and brought in just £13 million in income for the year ended July 31, 2023, a nudge up from the £11.8 million revenue in 2022.
“A new leadership team has been working with the DfE to develop proposals to repay the debt and deliver a long-term vision that will secure our future. It is vital that a decision be made tonight,” Ricketts said at the meeting.
But councillors argued that they should not be “blackmailed” into greenlighting the project, just because it owes money and the college could close.
“It’s almost like blackmail for this planning committee, isn’t it? If we don’t approve it, it’s going to close, and nobody wants to see the college close,” said councillor Ashley Tilling.
The council did not vote unanimously to conditionally approve the application. Eleven voted in favour and four councillors opposed.
An Elmbridge Borough Council spokesperson told FE Week: “The recommendation to grant is subject to the receipt of a legal agreement to secure planning obligations as set out in the report. Therefore, the planning permission will be issued once the legal agreement is agreed.
“The applicant will need to provide more documents and details to satisfy the planning conditions. Development would need to commence within three years of the date of the permission.”
The development’s residential developer Cala Homes was approached for comment.