A special needs college could be allowed to stay in New Malden after its year-long lease expires – if councillors can thrash out a deal with officers at Kingston Council.
Orchard Hill College is due to move out of the Beaconsfield Centre in July, after just 12 months and hundreds of thousands of pounds spent on making the building suitable for disabled students.
It was set to make way for some of the borough’s adult education services, which are leaving the North Kingston Centre ahead of a new free school being built there.
But objections from parents, residents and opposition Conservative councillors has led to a rethink.
Councillor David Ryder-Mills, lead member for continuing education, said: “The original proposal was that a suitable, separate site was going to be found [for Orchard Hill] within Kingston College’s portfolio of properties. That deal has fallen through.
“We were asked to find a space for the college in the interim period, but we’re now left with a sitting tenant.
“I’m not going to commit myself [to whether Orchard Hill can stay]. It may well just be a hope.”
Opponents say the move will destabilise vulnerable students, as well as being an inappropriate site for adult education, with poor public transport links and inadequate parking.
The decision has now been delegated to the council’s director of finance Leigh Whitehouse and director of place Roy Thompson.
The directors will meet privately this month with a panel of senior councillors from both the Liberal Democrat and Conservative parties, to see if an alternative site can be found for adult education.
Conservative councillor Julie Pickering, opposition member for adult services, said: “We hope the pressure the Conservatives, parents and residents applied to keep Orchard Hill in our community will be listened to, for them to be allowed to stay longer than a year.”
But Sophie Ugle, whose daughter Rachel attends Orchard Hill, said: “I don’t think it’s the council’s fault in this instance.
“What I didn’t realise was that Orchard Hill signed a one year lease, and never told the parents.
“If you sign a one year lease you can jump up and down all you like but you can only have it for a year.”
Why is the meeting being held in private?
With a matter as important as the future of both Orchard Hill and Kingston’s adult education, some may question why the decision is being made in private.
Councillor David Ryder-Mills said it was simply a question of urgency, as work to build the new free school at the North Kingston Centre needs to begin soon if it is to open in September 2015.
He said: “It is an extremely important decision and it is simply a question of time scale.
“We cannot afford to wait for another policy and resources meeting, which is why the decision has been delegated to appropriate officers, with advice from a working group of members.”
That working group is expected to include Kingston Council leader Liz Green, lead member for continuing education David Ryder-Mills, lead member for finance Rolson Davies, Conservative leader Howard Jones, opposition schools spokesman David Cunningham and opposition member for adult services Julie Pickering.
A date for the meeting is yet to be finalised.