Cardiff City Council’s latest proposition to solve the urgent overcrowding problems at Ysgol Treganna Welsh-medium primary school doesn’t look like an urgent response to me. It can too easily be forgotten that this whole story began when the Labour-controlled South Glamorgan Council opened Ysgol Treganna in the mid 1980s. The Chair of Education was Labour Councillor Emyr Currie-Jones and another Labour Councillor Mark Drakeford was the Chair of Governors during the school’s first and formative years. Both were instrumental in bringing Ysgol Treganna into being.
Fast forward almost three decades and following years of overcrowding, and previous flawed proposals to reorganise schools, Councillor Berman, the Council Leader has got his front page story in the South Wales Echo, giving the superficial impression that he’s got a solution. However, he did admit that it would not bring about a solution to Treganna’s overcrowding in less than three years at best.
The minimum of three years delay is explained as follows. If the Council approves the Council leadership proposal, a period of consultation follows. If that goes well, the Council then includes the £9 million total cost, or the residual £6 million the Council says it has not yet found from its own resources, in its bid into the Welsh Government in the capital expenditure programme under the 21st Century schools programme. Cardiff Council already has a large number of bids in and has done well in getting bids approved recently, including the £38 million cost of the new St. Teilo’s Church in Wales Secondary School and upgrading the present St. Teilo’s into the new Welsh-medium secondary school for eastern Cardiff.
In interviews on BBC Radio Wales, Councillor Berman has not made it clear whether the Council is going to change the priorities in its capital programme to get the new Sanatorium Road Welsh primary for Canton higher up the order of priority, because that would take something else down the list. Approval in the capital programme will mean showing why the proposed new school is the best solution to the problem, given the urgency of the overcrowding at Treganna, the surplus places problem elsewhere in the city’s primary school system, and the difficulty the Council would have in finding the total cost from capital receipts.
While the Council Leader does seem to be accepting that the new school goes into the all-Wales capital programme competitive bidding system, taking its chances relative to all the other bids from Cardiff and all other 21 local authorities in Wales, he also seems to have invented a new doctrine. This doctrine states that the Welsh Government owes Cardiff a favour because of the First Minister’s decision to uphold the appeal by Lansdowne School against the Council’s proposal to close it down, to move Treganna into the vacated school. The Berman Doctrine is that there is an ‘onus’ on Carwyn Jones the First Minister to look favourably on an application for £6 million because the First Minister’s decision has frustrated the Council’s intentions. The Berman Doctrine comes straight from Fairyland and nowhere else.
What makes it worse is that the Council seems to want to continue to hold out the possibility of going for Judicial Review of the First Minister’s decision. This is just idle huffing and puffing and is hardly likely to increase the chances of raising the priority to be given to the missing £6 million. Councillor Berman still says they could ‘challenge the decision’. What the City Council must now do is to say whether it does intend to go for Judicial Review or whether it has abandoned that route. All Judicial Review applications must be made within 13 weeks and that deadline went by several weeks ago. It really is not fair on Lansdowne School to leave open this issue of a challenge in the Courts to the Carwyn Jones decision, when the teachers are trying to run a school.
Of course, in theory it is always possible to make a special application for permission to mount a challenge in the courts via Judicial Review at any time after the 13 weeks is up, but only if new information comes to light. If the City Council seriously thought it had a 50 per cent chance of success in a court challenge within the 13 weeks period after the Minister’s decision, that chance has now dropped to less than 1 per cent. If Councillor Berman thinks that saying even at this late hour that the City could mount a challenge in some way acts a threat to the Welsh Government to ‘come up with the £6 million or else’. That is rather infantile playground bully tactics and just will not work.
The demographics of inner city Cardiff are what have changed the ground rules for this whole school reorganisation issue. Five years ago, the demand for English-medium education was falling, the demand for Catholic education was falling. The demand for Church in Wales education was steady and the demand for Welsh-medium was rising. That broadly remains the picture in some outer suburbs now, but the rise in the birth rate in the inner city since 2001 after declining for ten years or more, is what has changed the picture. What is astonishing is that it was Labour politicians – AMs, MPs and Councillors – who had to point out these demographic changes to the Council and urge them to be taken into consideration in their calculations on the surplus places issue in inner city western Cardiff. How is it that these demographic changes were knowable, yet apparently unknown to the Council?
The nursery and infant departments of the inner city English-medium schools are now fit to burst. Severn and Kitchener to the east of Lansdowne and Radnor are classic examples of this. Lansdowne, despite being blighted by the closure threat is seeing a milder version of this resurgence. The Council waking up to demographic changes means that some of the heat has been taken out of the surplus places issue in inner city West Cardiff, even though the surplus places trough is still working its way through the secondary system and the whole of the Catholic education system in the city. The point is that surplus places hasn’t gone away as an issue. It has simply become more patchy. Gone in the inner city, still there in the outer city.
What should happen next? The proposal is for a new Welsh language school to replace Ysgol Treganna to be built on empty land on Sanitorium Road. Once again, it was Labour Councillors who identified the site, despite the fact that the land belongs to the Council. The site will have been there, clear as day, on the Council’s land register, which does make you wonder what other assets or capital receipts they have or haven’t got? It raises the question of how carefully and how imaginatively the set if existing land assets are being considered to turn them into capital receipts, and how much of the residual £6 million needed could be raised from them.
In its consideration of the proposal City Council scrutiny system should now go into overdrive, scoring it on:
1. How quickly it solves Treganna’s overcrowding.
2. What chances the City has of finding the other £6 million from capital receipts?
3. What other school capital projects already submitted for Assembly funding would be lower in priority than the new school, if indeed there are any candidates for lower priority?
We also need to know what the Plans B and C the City Council have and how they score on the same three key tests. Then we can see whether this really is the only possible solution, albeit very slow. At that point, Cardiff could make a strong case out to the Welsh Government’s Capital Programme.
By then, we will know exactly what the cuts in the whole of the Welsh Government’s capital programme are going to be over the next three years following the UK Government Comprehensive Spending Review announcement on 20 October. All we know for sure is that it’s not going to be pretty.
The best estimates are for a 30 per cent cut in the capital spend available for all of Wales’ public services over the next three years. So the chances of slotting in an extra £6 million and getting approval will be getting more and more difficult, by 10 per cent each year from 2011 to 2014. It doesn’t mean no new schools, it just means the chances are going to be 30 per cent worse than they are now.
If there’s no other solution than the new school it stands a chance. However, the City Council better tell the Treganna parents what plan B is as soon as possible after 20 October.