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Feedback Received

... & Countered

Feedback to the campaign's fourth business plan was produced in a document dated February, 2012 and which was received by Dr Tatton on 9th March 2012 covered by a letter from Dr Knight, Assistant Director - Enterprise and Skills at Stoke-on-Trent City Council, acknowledging that the campaign had “contacted the City Council requesting a meeting with officers a few days prior to the full council”.

The campaign group had sought dialogue during January as advised by Tristram Hunt MP and wrote at that time to Councillors Pervez and Meredith. After submitting version 4 of the business plan at the beginning of February we requested that Julie Obada arrange a meeting prior to 9th February as deadlines were tight . The group received no invitation to dialogue as a result of either request, which were sent well before full council met on February 23rd.

The first communication in respect of our request was received on 27th February in a letter dated 24th February from Dr Knight. Our request for a meeting with officers was considered “not appropriate” given “our members' decision”, which was made the day before the letter was written.

The feedback said:

Wedgwood Memorial College Working Group (WMCWG) have submitted a business plan, version 4, having previously received feedback on versions 1, 2 and 3 of their business plans.

We respond:

There has been no written feedback to the group on versions 1 and 2 of the business plan. Versions 1, 2 and 3 were submitted as one business plan At a meeting with the Assistant Director , prior to the submission of version 3, the group were advised to try and “make the plan more robust” by including a Cash Flow and Risk Analysis. At this date the City would still not commit to which part or parts of the College were to be available leaving the group in the untenable position of producing proposals for an undetermined asset. The first written feedback by the group was received after the rejection of version 3 in November 2011.

The comments on version 4 are set out below:

The feedback said:

Community and local stakeholder consultation has improved with the SAVEWMC action group being formed and interested parties, such as the parish council being involved. However the College’s community is primarily a community of interest, adult education, not geographic.

We respond:

The College’s community of interest is diverse including schools, young people, family education and local charity organizations. Stoke on Trent is a linear City - geographically the communities of Longton, Dresden, Blurton, Meir, Newstead and Trentham are right on its doorstep.

The feedback said:

The plan talks about removing the barriers to City residents, but the key barrier is its location and that is something that cannot be changed.

We respond:

That location is a key barrier is an unsubstantiated assertion. Clearly the location is not a deterrent for a number of City schools and academies and local third sector groups who have continued to make bookings right up to the proposed closure date. We continue to maintain that the location is a positive draw in many respects for example horticulture courses accessible to City residents are possible only because of the College's location and arboretum. The location has been the same for over 60 successful years! A residential college by its nature offers facilities and opportunities locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. Geographically, the College is well placed to serve City (and County) tourism, and it has done so for decades.

Market demand and marketing

The feedback said:

There are many assumptions about market demand for residential courses, but no evidence to support this demand. The general aims/targets in the WMCWGs offer are not supported with evidence from market mapping or needs analysis.

We respond:

Evidence is presented of successful market strategies, meeting needs, at several other residential colleges and across contemporary adult education.

The feedback said:

There is a question of capacity, physical and personnel. The number of residential courses proposed appears to be triple weekend residential and double day classes. Mid-week residentials would also be doubled, with an expected 80% uptake of residential places or day course.

We respond:

One reason for stressing maximum occupancy as a prerequisite for success of the plan is that there are considerable economies of scale associated with hospitality and catering. The capacity physical and personnel is not directly proportional to the number of students resident at the College. Also, lighting, heating and other utilities do not increase proportionately.

The feedback said:

There is no breakdown of types and number of visitors across the College’s proposed product offer. This makes it impossible to assess the proposed increase in turnover.

We respond:

Estimates are given on numbers of courses and participants. Particular attention was given to the draft calendar maximizing occupancy wherever possible and listing courses together which complement available teaching space and students likely to book. Real time elasticity was built into the programme so that bookings could be increased for more successful courses should less popular ones fail.

The feedback said:

Section 7 outlines evaluation and monitoring with a focus on customer satisfaction surveys. However, other business targets should be included, such as, quality standards – education/Investors in People (IIP), income generation, fund raising, volunteer hours, staffing, cost savings, environmental initiatives etc.

We respond:

At any face-to-face meeting, as we suggested following submission of this Plan, any further modifications and inclusions could be considered, and then submitted as appropriate.

The feedback said:

WMCWG propose that they will make money from the courses due to extra marketing and promotion, yet the costs of this extra marketing activity are not detailed.

We respond:

Not detailed, maybe, but they are included within the Plan. We maintain that new technologies will increase our scope without significant cost. We also maintain that one of the key marketing tools is personal recommendation. As foot fall increases we would expect increases in business as a result at no increased cost to the Trust.

The feedback said:

The plan erroneously states that the website will not cost anything. All websites have a cost implication, particularly one that has a content management system.

We respond:

The planned website would cost next to nothing – there are many free content-management systems available. The savewmc.org website serves as a model - it cost our campaign less than £10 and it is a considerable advance, giving much more information than any previous WMC ‘professional’ websites.

The feedback said:

The comparisons to other institutions are meaningless without a fuller understanding of the comparators, their circumstances and detailed information on finances.

We respond:

They are certainly not ‘meaningless’ - the evidence presented is relevant and focused.

Governance and Staffing

The feedback said:

The basis on which the trust wishes to assume the assets is unclear. They do not say if they want all or part of the asset, nor do they state what type or length of lease is required.

We respond:

In our earlier Business Plan (autumn 2011) we made clear our position that an option could have been moving forward with part of the asset. Our January 2012 Plan assumes all the asset could be run by the new Trust for two years – if then successful, further years by agreement.

The feedback said:

WMCWG would adopt a Charitable Limited Company for their governance arrangements. This would be in keeping with the City Council’s legal requirements.

No actual trustees are named and their skills and experience listed apart from the 3 authors of the business plan. There are a number of potential Trustees mentioned that have links with higher education, politics and culture. These are very well connected, however it is debatable how active they would be in the day to day running and administration of WMC.

We respond:

We agree that well connected professionals of calibre are interested in our proposals. Once a positive dialogue is underway and the City commit to CAT for the College we will be in a better position to consolidate the levels of commitment.

The feedback said:

TUPE issues have not been fully addressed.

We respond:

These could be addressed if and as appropriate. Until the City agree to work toward CAT it would be inappropriate to engage with staff and their Trades Unions. The staffing numbers have been gradually reduced over the past year, continually changing the analysis which needs to be made by the group.

The feedback said:

The information regarding an advisory panel could be an area of confusion and conflict for all stakeholders. Charitable trustees are responsible and liable for all actions of their charity. They should not abdicate Trustees’ responsibility as it could expose them, the Trustees and the charity to unnecessary risk.

We respond:

We do not advocate abdication of Trustee responsibilities and do not recognize the assertion that specialist advisers could create an area of conflict or confusion.

The feedback said:

There are no Job Descriptions for staff or advisors or volunteers. The plan relies on staff covering out of hours work, “several staff live within 5 minutes of the college and could pop down if there’s a problem” – that is not reasonable or acceptable.

We respond:

‘…pop down’ trivializes a serious proposal. These days, with mobile-phone technology, emergency call-out can be organized effectively, as is done in other institutions. Legal liabilities in respect of fire, gas, electrical appliances and water safety will be met and all statutory regulations complied with. Duty of care will be met through a thorough risk management strategy to include evacuation procedures, emergency management plan and personal emergency evacuation plans (PEEPs) as appropriate.

The feedback said:

There is no contingency plan or volunteer policy.

We respond:

We believe there is – but again any issues here could be addressed through a proper consultation process.

Finances

The feedback said:

WMCWG claim that they will remove the financial burden of the College from the City Council. However, the Risk Analysis includes a request for a minimum of the 3 months running costs from the City Council, plus the City Council retaining responsibility for some building maintenance. This would amount to at least £90,000 contribution from the City Council.

We respond:

The suggestion that the City might facilitate a run in period of three months is a suggestion to mitigate risk. At the start of discussions, the College was operational with bookings outstanding and a shut down period could have been avoided. This could have been one way the City could have considered compensating the Trust for the decline in marketing of courses.

The feedback said:

Income is assumed to massively increase from the 2010-11 out turn, with income from the courses set to nearly quadruple from this year.s target of £100,000 to £363,381. The business plan gives no evidence of where that growth will come from, and therefore, the validity of those figures is questionable.

We respond:

Our plan aims to generate an income of over £1k per day. We give just one example to illustrate that this is feasible: uncertainty on the College future led one of our partners, RWF, to book the annual WMC RW weekend in May this year at Wortley Hall Conference Centre, near Sheffield from 9-11 May.

Two months in advance 38 firm 'sign-ups' with deposits and full-fees paid. That will ensure £6,200 (yes over six thousand pounds) income heading for WHall, Sheffield rather than WMC, Barlaston, Stoke-on-Trent, as in previous years. This is maybe exceptional but with other bookings which have continued to be viable right through – despite minimal promotion - to the last week in March this year (including a SoT School Maths residential course last month) our budget projections are arguably modest and they certainly merit serious continued discussion.

The feedback said:

There is no breakdown of the income streams under the Trust.

Financials state that the Advisory Panel will receive Honorariums. However, volunteers do not get paid or receive any personal „financial. gain from volunteering. There are either paid staff or volunteers, no half-way house.

We respond:

Honoraria are a way to bring in skills, without longer-term employment commitments.

The feedback said:

The Cash Flow Sheet V 4 is not a cash flow document, but a list of monthly income and expenditure for one year only. At least 3-5 years should be included.

We respond:

The expectation that proposers should invest in professional accounting services without any indication of a dialogue on CAT with the City is unrealistic. How many City organisations and institutions present cash-flow projections 3-5 years ahead?

The feedback said:

There is an assumption that all monies from bookings post April 1st will be transferred to the new trust. However, there are no bookings post April 1st 2012, due to the proposed closure, and therefore no monies to transfer. This false assumption will impact on cash flow.

We respond:

The fact that no bookings were taken post April 1st indicates that the management had already decided on closure prior to the City’s decision on the future of the College being made?

The feedback said:

It is not clear how the pricing policy has been arrived at.

We respond:

The pricing policy is competitive and comparable with other providers in the sector. As outlined in the plan it is pitched to appeal as a ‘budget course’ provider.

The feedback said:

The WMCWG bond scheme, running at just over £52,000, is not guaranteed, and is insufficient to operate the college. The College should be aiming for turnover of £1,000 per day, which means that these pledges will only cover two months worth of operation.

We respond:

This sum received in Bond pledges is remarkable testimony to the potential (not guaranteed, but almost all likely to be redeemed given examples elsewhere...) support for our Plan. Pledges are still arrivng (£100 from Barlaston resident came through on 13th March !) All this achieved in a short time and without access to the College database of students and tutors.

The Bond scheme is essentially insurance especially for the early months - more than that, it is now clear that this could be used for an investment strategy, addressing some of the physical short-comings referred to elsewhere.

The feedback said:

The College variable costs, e.g. food, utilities, laundry in the business plan are set to increase by just 17% from current levels. This is a completely unrealistic figure given that the use of the College is forecast to double and even triple in some product areas.

We respond:

Only minimal financial information was forthcoming from the College covering utility bills, security, laundry and food and alcohol provisions amounting to £82,632. Salary costs were stated at £294,711 and travel at £2,426. Controllable expenditure for the year was stated at £469,632 which meant that the group had no details for the other significant expenditure of £89,863 included in “premises” and “supplies”.

The feedback said:

There is a false assumption that several City Council senior managers were partly charged to the College budget. No managers other than the Wedgwood College Business Manager were charged to the College.

We respond:

Staffing costs were stated at £294,711 for the year 2010/11. The group were not given a breakdown of the staff covered by this amount. At least one Senior staff member based elsewhere has spent considerable time on College affairs during recent years. Those costs should be included within thc College budget.

The feedback said:

In the case of possible business collapse and cash flow problems, the mitigating response includes bank loans. There is no evidence of what would be the loan security if the business collapses nor evidence that a bank and or stakeholders would make unsecured loans. . The risk analysis probabilities ratings are too optimistic.

We respond:

We’d appreciate dialogue and feedback on this. Please explain why they are too optimistic. We account for the least optimistic scenario ie complete business collapse.

Property

The feedback said:

The college is in need of capital investment and upgrading to meet the same standards as Higham Hall and other adult education colleges, competitor venues. This business plan has no information about any investment plans.

We respond:

The new WMC ‘budget’ pricing policy acknowledges the standards-differential within this sector. .The Bond scheme will help address investment plan issues.

The feedback said:

The SWOT review omits key weaknesses, such as the non-DDA compliance of The Limes and it underestimates the poor facilities offered, e.g. lack of ensuite bedrooms.

We respond:

This is not in our view a major omission but the review can take on these weaknesses.

The feedback said:

There is a lack of awareness of the IT limitations of the current site. The College is not networked to the City Council – to make the relevant IT investment would cost approximately £60,000.

We respond:

Networking of this nature would not be necessary. The WMC website we have already developed could be used to promote all provision.

The feedback said:

The current IT suite uses a regional Adult Learning IT system, due to the City Council being a provider of Adult Learning at the College. If the City Council no longer runs the facility, this IT provision may be withdrawn. No premises or building costs have been identified as stated above. There is no indication from the cash flow that any allowance for backlog or life cycle maintenance has been made.

We respond:

No commitment from the City as to which parts of the site might comprise the asset available for transfer has been given. It is unrealistic for the group to plan for this without such information.

The feedback said:

There is no reference in the business plan V 4 as to the present outstanding tenant’s repairs and maintenance bills or the upkeep of the grounds, which is also a growing cost due to the age of the asset. The WMC buildings and out buildings are Edwardian they will require a high level of on-going day to day maintenance. There is no recognition of this in the business plan.

We respond:

We have indicated awareness of this above.

The feedback said:

No support services costs are identified.

We respond:

The group have had no information on the costs of current support services – these costs are embedded in the undifferentiated “supplies” and “premises” costs of £89,862?

The feedback said:

The testimonials supplied with the business plan are all very worthy. However, the question remains that if the College is of such world renown, why are its courses so poorly attended at present. The authors of this business plan have sat on the College steering group and its predecessors for several years. However, they have not as yet succeeded in securing a more popular programme of activity at the College.

We respond:

We did not use the term ‘world renown’ – the exaggeration is significant. Steering group charity stakeholders promoted and supported residential courses: the RWF annual weekends filled every College bedroom; EAB residential courses (up to four annually); Arnold Bennett wends and WEA bookings continued to be viable. The College organised general programme has withered over each of the last several years. The offer to students has been reduced to an exceptionally low level of bookings which have only survived because many students book their next course at the time of leaving their current one. Marketing and promotion of Wedgwood as an Adult Education provider has been minimal for several years now.

Conclusion

The feedback said:

The business plan Version 4 is not robust, and the core issues remain around market demand, business model, product offer, costs, revenue cash flow, capital and on-going City Council support.

We agree that well connected professionals of calibre are interested in our proposals. Once a positive dialogue is underway and the City commit to CAT for the College we will be in a better position to consolidate the levels of commitment.

Text size

Images of the College (click to enlarge)

The Estoril house. Esperanto House is just around the corner. Photo courtesy of Futurilla on Flickr.
A view of the Limes house from within its grounds. Photo courtesy of Bill Siviter.
A huge, golden leaf dwarfing its less colourful counterparts in the arboretum. Photo courtesy of Dave Joynson, who was Walks Leader for six years of a group who came two to three times a year on residential courses at the College.
A view of the grounds from the dining room. Photo courtesy of Alma Hoogeveen, who visits the College every year from Amsterdam to participate with the group Growing Old Disgracefully.
A sculpture within the beautiful grounds. Photo courtesy of Bill Siviter.
The statue as he is now, symbolically out of commission
The outstanding beauty of Wedgwood Memorial College that the birds see.
Jesper Neergaard's sculpture <em>Sun Song</em>, bequested in honour of the College's links with Esperanto.
A beautiful Magnolia capturing the eye amid Beeches. Photo courtesy of Alma Hoogeveen and provided by Christine Partington, who visits the College regularly from Somerset with the group Growing Old Disgracefully.
WMC's display of mini menhir in spring. Photo courtesy of Judith Taylor of Growing Old Disgracefully.
A jolly <em>putto</em> during autumn. Photo courtesy of Judith Taylor of Growing Old Disgracefully.
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