One of the leading campaigners for an inquiry into the plan to close Newton Rigg welcomed what it uncovered last Tuesday.
The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee met to discuss land-based education and the future of Newton Rigg, hearing from witnesses including Dr Tim Whitaker, chief executive of Newton Rigg operator Askham Bryan and Lord Inglewood, chairman of Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership.
Cumbrian peer Lord Dale Campbell-Savours said: “The hearing was the product of a lot of hard work and will prove very helpful to all of us in the campaign to Save Newton Rigg. This was the inquiry I wanted and it has delivered a clear message.
“The Askham Bryan case for an asset strip and fire sale of assets at Newton Rigg was destroyed in a cross-party attack on the whole closure programme.
“Our organisation opposed to closure will carry on with our work as we turn our attention to Askham Bryan itself.
“Fortunately we are able to draw on the expertise of a number of top class lawyers who hold strong views on the future of Newton Rigg.”
He added: “My advice to Askham Bryan is to look for your money elsewhere and leave it to us to rebuild our Newton Rigg. I suggest they take it off the ‘for sale’ market.
“We’ll keep pressing for the answers, and we’ll keep working to build Newton Rigg back better.”
The inquiry was also praised by Newton Rigg Ltd — a company which put in a bid to take on the running of the Penrith campus during a strategic review process conducted by the Further Education Commissioner.
A spokesman for the company described it as “disappointing” that Askham Bryan principal Dr Tim Whittaker could not clarify most of the matters raised about the Yorkshire college’s acquisition of Newton Rigg, but added that its directors are looking forward to analysing his written replies.
The spokesman said: “Askham Bryan College witnesses did, however, accept that their corporation is not obliged by charity law to sell Newton Rigg to the highest bidder, nor to realise maximum financial value for these assets.
“They accepted that Askham Bryan could fulfil its charitable obligations by supporting and realising a future for education at Newton Rigg.
“Naturally, some of the witness comments regarding the strategic review process caused frustration for Newton Rigg Ltd, as we have been such serious and determined bidders in the FEC process.
“Having accepted that Askham Bryan could choose to support an educational future at Newton Rigg rather than sell its assets to the highest bidder, its witnesses referred to the strategic review process as proof they had been open to any offer or option from interested parties wishing to preserve education at the site.
“They suggested that no organisation came forward with such an offer. That is incorrect.
“The strategic review required a partner college who would not only take over the Newton Rigg curriculum but also take on all financial liabilities associated with the college, despite a lack of clarity around those liabilities. In addition, the criteria also expected any bidder to meet the Askham Bryan College ‘test’ of realising maximum financial value for the assets.
“So, instead of balancing educational and financial value, bidders were expected not only to pay market value for the assets but also to take on all financial liabilities of the Newton Rigg provision — without all the necessary details related to either considerations.
“Further, any opportunity for some clear offer from Newton Rigg Ltd to be considered was frustrated by the fact that, despite constant requests, little data or clarity was provided to define what was actually ‘for sale’ — only a single open market valuation supported by no detail.
“Therefore, the end of the strategic review must not mark the end of the story in terms of Askham Bryan’s ability to preserve education at Newton Rigg by offering the assets for educational use.
“We are making determined efforts to acquire the Newton Rigg assets in order to build it back better for Cumbria. While we expect the outcome of the inquiry to influence this process, we must not sit back and wait.
“Currently, despite efforts by our investment partners to progress a fall-back bid for properties and land, there remains no schedule of sale that would make progress possible.”
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