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Torys and Labour clash at Medway Council meeting over £25m special school in Gillingham

By Dean Kilpatrick, local democracy reporter

Opposition councillors on Medway Council have been accused of trying to delay the construction of a new £25 million independent school in Gillingham for children with autism.

The facility in Cornwallis Avenue would cater for 210 young people aged between seven and 19 who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and challenging behaviour.

Most of the concerns from Labour revolve around the involvement of Medway Commercial Group (MCG) – the council’s own trading company – while the group also has issues with financing and location.

The special school is due to open in Cornwallis Avenue, Gillingham
The special school is due to open in Cornwallis Avenue, Gillingham

Conservative members of the children and young people overview and scrutiny committee rejected a request for the decision to be sent back to cabinet for more information last night (November 12).

Referring to the target opening date of 2020, Cllr Barry Kemp (Con) said: “All the call-in will do is constitute a massive delay and I don’t think we have that luxury.

“If we have an unprecedented increase in the number of children in desperate need for this facility, can we really look at ourselves in the bathroom mirror if we delay and prevent them from getting this excellent provision?”

Cllr Les Wicks (Con) claimed Labour had made a “gross political error”, while Cllr Gloria Opara (Con) added: “I understand some of the concerns around the suitability of MCG, but I feel very reassured tonight.”

Medway Council’s director of people Ian Sutherland admitted a successful call-in bid would “make what is already a challenging task more so”, but stopped short of saying it would “jeopardise” the project timetable.

Cllr Clive Johnson said he was not sure MCG was capable of the "quantum leap" running the project would require
Cllr Clive Johnson said he was not sure MCG was capable of the "quantum leap" running the project would require

Cllr Clive Johnson (Lab) said he was not convinced MCG is capable of the “quantum leap” to manage the project, with the list of services it currently provides including CCTV, school HR and governance, and social alarms.

He added: “All of those are important services but nothing like a major capital building project.

“We’re not opposed to the principal of the provision, but we do have some real concerns about the technical aspects of the proposal.”

"In our experience no other council project of this size and importance has been rubber stamped with quite as little detail and quite as much uncertainty." — Cllr Vince Maple

Councillors were told MCG is acting as the project manager, enlisting the support of specialists including Gleeds, Guy Holloway Architects, BAN and Jane Simpson Consulting.

Head of education David Watkins said: “MCG’s role was to work with those professionals to bring those expertise together and report to the programme board that we’ve established so we could provide some initial figures.

“MCG has delivered everything we’ve asked them to do.”

But this failed to convince Labour committee members, who questioned what value MCG is adding to the project.

Cllr Alex Paterson (Lab) added: “I don’t think it cuts it to say ‘I know a man that can’. Would the council be happy to give me some money towards a project to put a man in space?

“I don’t know how to do it myself, but I could probably put a call in to Richard Branson and he could maybe make some connections. Is that really the way we’re doing business?”

Labour has now vowed to further scrutinise the decision to put MCG in charge of the project.

Speaking after the meeting Labour leader Cllr Vince Maple said:"We called-in this decision because all evidence suggests MCG lack the expertise and capacity to deliver a project of this scale. There is currently no income stream or re-payment plan in place for this project; even the cabinet report supporting the decision highlights at least £25m capital funding still needs to be secured.

"In our experience no other council project of this size and importance has been rubber stamped with quite as little detail and quite as much uncertainty, which is a major concern for us. Most of the questions we asked at the recent special meeting went unanswered so the Labour Group will be writing to the Director of People at Medway Council, in his capacity as a senior council officer and the project sponsor, to get proper answers to these important questions."

The party's spokesman for children and young people Cllr Clive Johnson added: "We welcome the improved SEN provision for Medway and have been advocating the principle of spend to save whilst the Tories have been dragging their feet on the promised SEN review, but the Tory administration are ignoring vital questions. Why were MCG chosen? What makes the council believe MCG can deliver this project? Where is the money coming from? Yet again the Tories are sticking their heads in the sand when they should be standing up for Medway residents."

Councillor for Twydall Cllr Dorte Gilry said: "I’m concerned about the suitability of the site itself, the roads around Cornwallis Avenue are congested and unsafe and the roundabout is especially dangerous.

"Existing infrastructure is not sufficient to support a school of this size; there are currently no plans to improve the existing infrastructure, and there have been no discussion on how this will impact residents, road users, and future pupils."

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