New Alnwick high school must find £1.5m

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

Alnwick’s Duchess’s High School will have to find £1.5million for its new campus, but it will have an affordable loan from the county council, which has committed itself to the project.

County executive members this afternoon felt they had gone as far as they dared in helping.

But Alnwick Conservative councillor Gordon Castle said afterwards: “I am extremely disappointed. Frankly, the executive could and should have done better than that.”

The commitment to build a road to the Alnwick school on its new site at Greensfield takes money from the county’s normal road maintenance, which is already depleted by repairs to recent flood damage.

Finance member Coun Andrew Tebbutt warned of a possible impact on other education spending.

“The importance of trying to be even-handed is vital,” he said. “We have to be careful we don’t create a situation that we leave ourselves unable to help other schools when they need assistance.”

They had said no to complete grant funding. “We should be sensible.” The county would make sure roads and other infrastructure were provided and that schools received loans for equipment. “The loans will not be financially penalising – they will be reasonable.”

It is all being done at breakneck speed to meet government deadlines. The timing is ironic since councillors are going out on a limb for a school that is about to sever its connections with the council and become an academy.

Members heard it would probably have converted before the PFI papers had been signed.

Learning and skills director, Robin Casson, reported that this meant “the council would spend some of its money on an academy. Upon academy conversion the council is instructed to cease to maintain the school, but the Department for Education (DfE) have an expectation that existing commitments should be honoured.”

Details were thrashed out in a closed risk-assessment committee which overran by an hour and 20 minutes before being endorsed by the executive.

The three schools – Bedlingtonshire and Prudhoe are also being renewed – will collectively invest up to £4m in the 27-year private finance initiative (PFI) contract.

Coun Richard Dodd, who chairs the family and children’s services scrutiny committee and had asked to attend the executive, said the schools project would be on the scrutiny agenda at every meeting to track progress. “It’s welcome, but we will watch it because it’s obviously a very interesting and controversial programme.”

Director of children’s services, Paul Moffat, said: “It’s a really good news story for Northumberland and I think the officers should be commended for the time in which they have turned things around. It’s the council investing in the educational futures of our children and that’s an important message that should be going out.”

Finance director Steven Mason said the authority had tried to strike a balance, using capital and revenue funding. It had a contigency reserve for such purposes and money in the capital programme would be re-allocated to cover some capital costs. It would make loans to schools for furniture and computer equipment. “We think that strikes the right balance.”

The council must confirm by the end of November it will fund the road if the project is to be in the first batch of PFI schools. The issue goes to the full council on Wednesday.

Members voted for the county to provide captial for the highways works, dilapidation costs, additional accommodation, reinstatement of pitches, asbestos removal, demolition and project support as well as agreeing to make loans available for equipment and furniture. Schools will pay for their legal advice and other costs.

Labour group leader Coun Grant Davey said the PFI project was adding to the county’s mushrooming debts.

“Under this administration we’ve got a double whammy of thousands of jobs scrapped and council debt doubled to £595million. That’s nearly £2,400 for every man, woman and child in the county.”

More reaction in next week’s Gazette.