Harriett Baldwin urges the Government to look again at the situation at Malvern Hills College and use its powers to ensure Warwickshire College Group honours the covenant and works with the local community to reopen this wonderful local college as soon as possible.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mrs Murray.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing this important debate. It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), because he outlined what successful colleges can look like. I will hold to that vision as I speak about the situation in my constituency and about the Malvern Hills College situation in particular.
I want to start by thanking the Minister, because on taking post she wrote me an incredibly helpful letter. She has clearly studied the situation at the wonderful Malvern Hills College very closely, but I will reiterate it for the record and for the benefit of colleagues. The college has been in existence in the centre of Malvern for nearly 100 years. In 2016, the trustees entrusted its ownership to what has become Warwickshire College Group, which is obviously headquartered in Warwickshire, the neighbouring county. In their wisdom and prudence, at the time of the transfer the trustees put in place a covenant on this precious building in the heart of Malvern. I will read the covenant into the record. The property cannot be used for anything
“other than a Further Education College and ancillary uses thereto without the prior written confirmation from the Transferor that the Transferor is satisfied…that the Learning and Skills Council (or any successor in function) has properly determined that there is no longer a functional need for a college in Malvern”.
Malvern is a beautiful town of 35,000 people. It is a growing town. Places such as Malvern are exactly where we need to have the precious resource of a good college—I see that colleagues are nodding their heads. With the vision that has been outlined, and stability in our education team, which I hope will endure, I hope that we can focus on the fact that the community very much wishes to retain the site as a college—so much so that, through the Bransford Trust, a local philanthropist is offering a substantial sum to purchase the site so that it can be maintained as a going concern in the heart of Malvern. Our local council, Malvern Hills District Council, has allocated a £400,000 grant to secure the future of the college, and our county council has also very helpfully allocated a £400,000 grant. Between them, there is a substantial—possibly multimillion-pound—offer to keep the site working as a college in the heart of Malvern.
Hon. Members would think that that would satisfy the board and trustees of Warwickshire College Group—that they would remain faithful to the covenant, the district council would not lift it, and the college would rise like a phoenix from the closure that Warwickshire College Group announced under the cloak of the pandemic. 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—presumably, for a housing development.
That is not what the community wants. We have protested; we have marched outside the college. We have also put forward a very valuable offer to take the college from Warwickshire College Group. I look forward to meeting the group’s new chair, Anna Daroy, and its president, Louise Bennett, who are both actually from Worcestershire, to emphasise to them how important it is to find a happy solution.
Unfortunately—I use parliamentary privilege to make these remarks—Warwickshire College Group has chosen to retain lawyers and to sue Malvern Hills District Council. It is using public money to sue my council to get it to lift the covenant, on the pretext that the Learning and Skills Council no longer exists, and its successor body, the Education and Skills Funding Agency, feels that there is sufficient provision in the area. That would mean that we as a community cannot determine the future of the college.
I want a future for our college like the one that the right hon. Member for Exeter outlined for his constituency. We are a thriving town, and we want a college right in the heart of it. That is why I have updated colleagues on what is happening. I hope that, having listened to this tale of woe, the Minister’s very helpful letter to her officials will say, “We do have the power.” The Secretary of State has the power to determine that she wants to see the college preserved in the heart of Malvern.
I assure hon. Members that the people of Malvern almost unanimously wish to see this wonderful college preserved. We have a plan and a business case. While this situation goes on, the site is being left to go to rack and ruin. That is in nobody’s interest. Will the Minister urge her officials to look at this issue one more time? Will she tell them that she has the power to do something here? Power to her elbow.
One of the most upsetting things said to me about Warwickshire College Group’s decision to close Malvern Hills College was that most of the students were older. Surely, that is not the kind of message that we want to be sending out across our land.
I am appalled at that remark—not the hon. Lady’s remark, but that being given as a reason to close down a college. No matter where in the UK we live, lifelong learning is an extremely important tool for every one of us. It will help the economy, but it also gives us more satisfied and better citizens. We can all learn, no matter what age we are; I am a continual reminder of that in my role as disability spokesperson for my group here.