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

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