Sunday 13 July 2014

Is Watermeadow Court Suitable For Fulham Boys School?

Following this decision taken by the government on 1st July the search for Fulham Boys School to find a permanent local site has been the key issue.

In the last ten days I have twice met with the head teacher and vice chair of governors, proposed a new permanent site to the DfE, which I am advised by borough officials is “not unrealistic”,  and met with the MP for Chelsea and Fulham, the DfE’s director of Free Schools and the vice chair and head teacher of FBS again. I will report more on this later.

On Wednesday afternoon, I went with the chair of governors, the local MP and H&F Council officials to the DfE to lobby Lord Nash for a reconsideration of his decision.

The attached joint letter (click on the picture to read) formed part of a press release as well as an open, public letter which was emailed to me on Friday. It is from the Rt Hon Greg Hands MP (Con) for Chelsea and Fulham and Cllr. Greg Smith (Con), H&F Council's leader of the opposition. In it they make their suggestion for saving Fulham Boys School (FBS). The background and means of this approach raises serious questions about their seriousness and sincerity which I raise with them in the email below.

Despite that, I immediately checked out the viability of Watermeadow Court with the borough's Executive Director of Housing and Regeneration. He said he believed it had already been transferred to an ill-advised joint venture company which the former Conservative administration had set up in partnership with a developer. It has a variety of legal agreements including how to split the profits from the flats they expected to sell. I called Greg Hands and told him that on Friday lunch time but said I was waiting for more details. Later that day, the executive director wrote and said "The Conditional Land Sale Agreement was duly completed on 28th March 2014 and as such the council is no longer free to dispose of the site for an alternative purpose."

Time is of the essence for the Fulham Boys School. So at the same time as checking about the ownership of the site I also asked the borough's education officials to check out whether this site would be viable from the Department of Education's (DfE) point of view. On Friday afternoon an education official wrote to me to say that the DfE had "just confirmed with me that Watermeadow Court is not a viable option".

The borough's education official also told me "The Mayor is meeting the Secretary of State about GLA site options on Tuesday, so I will find out more after that meeting." I hope that is productive.

I've worked with politicians from other parties on many business issues on many occasions. Every other time there has been an understood etiquette that involves putting aside party politics and focussing on the business at hand. If you have an idea you pick up the phone. You certainly don't go to the media or look for fabricated opportunities to blame the other in public. In this case, that is exactly the etiquette the parents and governors behind the Fulham Boys School are relying on all of us observing.

Looking at today's Twitter it appears that there has been a tremendous amount of guff generated about Watermeadow Court over the weekend - a lot of it from people who should know better. It appears to have come almost exclusively from those that see all of this as some sort of political game and taking advantage of an atmosphere where parents, children and FBS school governors are all in an understandable state of anxiety and stress about the future of FBS and where children will go to school in September.

I will discuss FBS with officials tomorrow morning when they return to work. Meanwhile, this is the email I sent to Messrs Smith and Hands on Friday afternoon:
From: Cllr Cowan Stephen
Sent: 11 July 2014 16:12
To: 'HANDS, Greg'
Cc: Lord Nash; Cllr Smith Greg; Cllr Macmillan Sue; Cllr Cartwright Michael; [others]
Subject: RE: Proposed possible new site for the Fulham Boys School

Dear Greg and Greg

Thank you for this proposal. I found out about it on my way into the Town Hall when a journalist called me. I have since also been asked for a TV interview about it by the BBC and I'm told that many of your friends and colleagues have got themselves into a very excitable state about this on Twitter. I am a bit perplexed why you thought this was a serious way to carry out such important business with me? Greg Hands texted me at 12.55 and I called him back as soon as I saw his message at 13.44. It would have been wiser to call me about this first thing this morning or earlier. Surely you must have written the attached letter and your press release yesterday?

As I mentioned to Greg Hands, I raised this matter with the Borough's Executive Director of Housing and Regeneration who told me that the Watermeadow Court site was sold in the dying days of the former Conservative administration. I had recalled objecting to this and urging a re-think when this item came to the relevant Select Committee. Cllr. Greg Smith was the deputy leader of that administration so I find it hard to believe that he was not aware of this or could not have checked any of this before your press release.

I am troubled that by putting this proposal out in the media before checking out these basic facts you have both caused unnecessary stress and confusion to the parents and founders behind FBS.

The Executive Director of Housing and Regeneration has now written to me to confirm that the former Conservative administration took this matter to the borough's cabinet on 3rd February 2014 where its members approved this recommendation: "That approval be given to the freehold or virtual freehold (999 year leasehold) disposal of Watermeadow Court and Edith Summerskill House to the Joint Venture or respective Special Purpose Vehicle in accordance with the terms of the Conditional Land Sale Agreement (Appendix 6)...". I note from the minutes that Cllr. Smith was in attendance.

I am sorry to also confirm that the Conditional Land Sale Agreement for Watermeadow Court was duly completed by the former Conservative administration on 28th March 2014 and as such the Council is no longer free to dispose of the site for an alternative purpose.

I also asked LBHF's education team to check out this site who have just emailed me to say the EFA has also confirmed that Watermeadow Court is not a viable option for FBS.

I am happy to work with you both on this and many  other issues in the coming years but I think any reasonable by-stander viewing today's events might doubt the sincerity or seriousness of your approach.

Best wishes

Cllr. Stephen Cowan
Labour Councillor for Hammersmith Broadway ward
Leader, the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham
The Town Hall
King Street
W6 9JU

Saturday 12 July 2014

The Grove Neighbourhood Centre Summer Fête: Saturday 19th July

The Grove Neighbourhood Centre is hosting a July summer fête next Saturday 19th July. The stalls and attractions include:
  • The raffle
  • Men's, women's and children fashion stall
  • Home baked goods
  • Jewellery stall
  • Bric-a-brac stall
  • Tombola
  • Spin-n-win
  • Hook-a-duck for the kids
  • Hot and cold food
  • And much more...
There is even a rumour of a Pimm's Tent.
Please pop along to the Grove Neighbourhood Centre, 7 Bradmore Park Road, Hammersmith London W6 0DT. It begins at 1.00pm and finished at 3.00pm.

Sunday 6 July 2014

Fulham Boys School

The Rt Hon Michael Gove MP (Con)
Secretary of State for Education
On Tuesday, 1st July the government wrote to Fulham Boys free school to say they intended to block its opening which until then had been scheduled for this September. This is an extremely disappointing decision and one which leaves 92 boys, some 55 of which are Hammersmith and Fulham residents, in a very difficult position. The head teacher sets out his view here. It’s one I agree with.

I have asked H&F Council officers to do everything possible to support those children and their families and I hope that the government will change its mind and allow Fulham Boys School to open on its temporary site in Gibbs Green.

Cllr. Sue Macmillan (Lab), the council's cabinet member for children and education, and I met with Fulham Boys School's deputy chair of governors and head teacher for just over an hour and a half on Friday afternoon to see what we can do to help.

I should stress that free schools are totally free of their local council – the clue is in the name. To that end this decision is nothing to do with H&F Council. It was made by the
Rt Hon Michael Gove MP (Con), the Secretary of State for Education. It is and has been Mr Gove’s responsibility, via the Education Funding Agency, to ensure that the school can be properly housed and funded. The government wrote to H&F Council on Wednesday, 2nd July (a day after they informed the school) to formally tell us of their decision although by then we had already heard the news.

Fulham Boys School had been given a temporary site in Gibbs Green for 2 years. On Tuesday, after the government had made its decision, a rumour emerged that the government could immediately reverse the decision if the lease on the temporary site on Gibbs Green can be extended from 2 to 3 or even 4 years. The government has since contradicted this and told us that the length of the temporary lease will make no difference to their decision. But I guess it is plausible that different people in government could be giving out different messages.

Sue Macmillian has been trying to get this rumour substantiated since Tuesday as it potentially offers a glimmer of hope that there might still be a chance to get the government to re-think. On Friday evening we were given the name of the Conservative MP who this rumour is alleged to have originated from. I have written to him seeking clarification of whether this is true and asked for an urgent response. At the time of publishing this I am yet to get any reply. I will report back when I have a satisfactory answer.

H&F Council does not own the Gibbs Green site that would have temporarily housed Fulham Boys School. That site was sold off by Hammersmith and Fulham’s former Conservative administration to Capital and Counties Properties Plc (CapCo). The borough’s new Labour administration has been given a clear mandate by local voters to negotiate a number of
important issues with CapCo and I would happily add this issue to that list if the extended use of a temporary site did in fact turn out to be a critical factor in saving Fulham Boys School.

There has been much nonsense put around about this saga mostly by former and current Conservative councillors. So for the record I am happy to clarify that this administration is determined to support all good schools and sees the need for more of them – particularly secondary schools. That includes free schools which are for all intents and purposes the same as academies – an idea developed by the last Labour government. I supported academies/free schools then and still do now. Looking for and choosing good secondary schools is difficult and I’d hope to do everything possible to make that easier during our term of office. Although this free school decision is nothing to do with H&F Council my colleagues and I are happy to do all we can to help.

I appreciate that it may take some time for local Conservatives to come to terms with their resentment that 22,163 local people voted them out of office. They have said some quite frankly crazy things in the weeks since the election most of which has had little effect on anything but in this case I do think it would be much better for all if they put aside their ill-advised mischief making and instead work with us to support the children and families affected and get the government to reverse this decision.