Chris Whitehouse is Chairman of The Whitehouse Consultancy and Secretary of the Conservative Group on the Isle of Wight Council
At a design and construction cost of £35 million, the new Cowes Enterprise College on the Isle of Wight was supposed to be a beacon of quality and to demonstrate the last Labour Government’s determination to build state of the art schools for the future. Begun in 2010 and plagued with delays and contractors who went bust, today, only months after the students and staff moved in, the building is acknowledged to be a great white elephant, half empty, with a leaking roof and design flaws that will impose burdens on the Island’s schools budget for decades to come.
So bad is the situation that the Island Council has spent tens of thousands of pounds just to get the problems assessed and has just committed another £350,000 to have the remedial work managed by a different local authority (Hampshire County Council). And the Council is now being asked to commit a further £9 million to make the building usable.
This is a sorry tale of incompetence, vanity, lack of professionalism, and potentially much worse, which makes the project the biggest public procurement scandal in the history of the Island. Such is public concern that a major public meeting has been organised to investigate the events that led to the commissioning of a school that probably wasn’t even needed as the Island has 3,000 surplus places in its high schools. The new building, which is simply not fit for purpose, stands as a very public monument to the vanity of those who commissioned it.
Lest you feel I am scoring party political points, I am embarrassed to admit that the project was commissioned and (eventually) delivered under a Conservative Administration. The situation is toxic for the Party on the Island and hardly reflects well on us nationally either, not least because the Chairman of the Island’s Conservative Association was until recently Chairman of Governors at the College.
The Leader of the Council who was in office during the construction phase lost his seat and control of the Council last May; the council’s Chief Executive has gone; the senior Directors responsible for oversight have moved to other authorities; and the officers directly responsible were initially suspended but then left with generous pay-offs about which current councillors, myself included, who were not even on the Council at the time, are unable to ask questions publicly because of gagging orders signed by the current Administration to negotiate a way out of litigation. Attempts by the local media to get to the bottom of the affair through the Information Commissioner have been blocked.
Both the former Leader of the Council and the former Chief Executive declined to attend the public meeting; with the former commenting to the local media that he is no longer accountable for decisions taken on his watch – as it happens, he is wrong on that point, he can still be held to account for decisions taken whilst in office.
The whole sorry saga is a case study in just how not to commission and deliver capital projects, but because of the secrecy to which all involved are now sworn, and because so many individuals have moved on or are refusing to answer questions, it is almost impossible for the Island to learn the lessons properly and so be confident that it can avoid their repetition in future.
You just couldn’t make it up.