Political fall-out of high school decision

The Duchess's Community High School, Alnwick.
The Duchess's Community High School, Alnwick.

A political storm has blown up following the decision by the county council to loan Alnwick’s high school the extra £1.5million it needs for its rebuild.

Last week, the Gazette reported how the council’s Liberal Democrat executive voted that the Duchess’s Community High School will have to borrow the money to fund ICT equipment and furniture for its rebuild.

However, the council will fund infrastructure and other costs to the tune of around £5million included in the shortfall from the Government’s Priority Schools Building Programme.

The Conservative group leader, Coun Peter Jackson, attempted to amend the recommendations put forward by the executive at last week’s meeting of the full council.

He called for the council to give the three schools set for rebuilding, which includes Bedlingtonshire and Prudhoe, the money in the form of a grant – at a cost of £4million, which would have to be found elsewhere in the schools budget.

The Conservative amendement was voted down by 40 votes to 18.

After the meeting, leader of the council Jeff Reid, said: “This has been a cross-party and non-political process throughout, which is why I am even more astounded and angry at what the Conservatives have tried to do today.

“Thanks to the Conservatives grandstanding and attempting to force the council down a road which would have had huge potential consequences elsewhere, the council has no choice but to loan the money to the schools with no possibility of conversion into grants in the future.

“Had we given this money in grants upfront, it would have taken £4million out of the budget for the rest of the county’s schools.

“We are running a responsible administration here and are working hard to make sure this council remains on a sustainable long-term financial footing.

“Labour and the independents voted with us on these proposals, and it’s a real shame that the Conservatives couldn’t put politicking to one side for once and ensure this continued to have cross-party support.”

But in a letter to the Gazette (see Pages 20 and 21), Coun Jackson accused the administration of ‘saddling Alnwick’s new high school with a mountain of debt, before even the first brick has been put in place’.

He said: “Last week, the Lib Dems agreed to pay for only a portion of these costs, forcing the school to take out a large loan before the building could go ahead. The result is that our new school will start life massively in debt.

“The school will have to pay this debt for years to come, taking money directly out of the education of local children.

“Northumberland Conservatives tabled a council amendment to turn this loan into a grant. Unbelievably, the Lib Dems and Labour voted against this, despite a letter from governors at the school asking them to rethink their policy of loaning the money.

“It is a great shame that they did not support the long-term interests of the communities of Alnwick and the surrounding area. Let us not forget that this is a council that has found £20million for a new leisure centre in Ashington.”

He also pledged that if the Tories control the county council after the local elections in May next year, they will turn this loan into a grant and ‘free Alnwick’s children from a legacy of debt’.

And Alnwick’s Conservative ward member Coun Gordon Castle said: “It boiled down to a refusal to take the money out of revenue, which is under pressure, and among the reasons cited, the main one was that as a consequence of making this a grant, other schools would expect similar treatment.

“This is, of course, a non-sequitur, as only three schools are being rebuilt and the special treatment requested is because these schools are clearly special cases or they would not have qualified under the Government’s dilapidations criteria.”

Coun Castle added that he strongly suspects the vote was motivated by the question of academy status, for which the Aln Community Schools Federation began a consultation in January.