Councillors sought to reassure the public over the future of Bewerley Park outdoor learning centre as they voted to support a review of its services today.
North Yorkshire County Council’s executive this afternoon amended a proposal to mothball the site near Pateley Bridge with immediate effect, saying it sent a negative message.
Instead, the executive agreed to “protect” the site by installing CCTV and other measures to keep it safe while out of use, following a break-in while it was closed.
However, with no sign of school visits resuming and likely limits to reduce the covid risk in future, the council said it still had to review the service and staffing levels, and bring back a business case for approval later in the year.
Cllr Patrick Mulligan, NYCC’s executive member for education and skills, said:
“We recognise the risk in the short term but, through the review, we are hoping to achieve a service that is sustainable for a long time into the future. This will require a review of all aspects of the service, including but not limited to staffing.
“The review, which will bring all stakeholders together, will evaluate the benefits of the service, taking into account making comparisons with the wider outdoor education market. The resulting business case aims to provide a sustainable operating model, balancing staffing, property and infrastructure costs.”
Before voting, the executive heard from several speakers concerned about a recommendation to review the service and consult on its jobs. Among them were teachers and former pupils who had been to Bewerley Park and East Barnby, who emphasised the value offered by outdoor education and the growing need for it after a year of lockdowns impacting on children’s mental health.
Teacher Ian Bloor, from Eskdale School in Whitby, described the outdoor learning centres as the “jewel in the crown” of North Yorkshire education and said:
“I would like to make a heartfelt plea that any decisions made about the future of the service are made in the full knowledge of just how valuable and valued this service is.”
The meeting also heard from Cllr Stan Lumley, who represents the Pateley Bridge division on NYCC. He urged committee members not to rush into a decision while government support was still available, and with looming local government reorganisation which meant it was not yet clear who would be managing education services from next year.
Finally, Erica Carswell, the manager of Bewerley Park for more than 30 years until 2018, said closing the sites would mean losing the valuable skills and experience of the 42 staff.
It would also remove the option to use them for day visits or respite care for families with special needs in the summer and would discourage schools from booking residential visits for the coming months when covid restrictions would allow. She added:
“It would make better financial sense not to mothball the outdoor centres, but to keep them running at, say, a 50% staffing/capacity. The cost of mothballing is significant and doing so sends out a negative message to the general public and potential clients.”
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Cllr Mulligan told the committee the centres were not set up for day visits and any income would not be sufficient to cover costs, nor to invest in the buildings and facilities which had been needed for many years. He added:
“There’s a misperception that we are looking to close these outdoor education centres. What we are attempting to do is to have a review of them to make them more sustainable.”
The committee heard that, with a projected loss of nearly £1 million in the current financial year, the council had been able to recoup money from government schemes to protect jobs and services, reducing the loss to just over £200,000. However, there was no guarantee the schemes would continue to run beyond their current end dates of March and June.
The outdoor education service had run at a loss of around £50,000 per year for the last five years before the coronavirus crisis, the committee was told.
Cllr Michael Harrison, who represents the Lower Nidderdale and Bishop Monkton division, said the value of the service had to be taken into account as part of the review of its finances:
“Many of the services councils provide, technically, will run at a loss and I prefer to look at it more as an investment…
“Most council leisure centres technically will run at a loss, most libraries will run at a loss, but I view it not so much as a loss but an investment in that service.”
Councillors voted unanimously to support the proposal to introduce short-term protective measures for both Bewerley Park and East Barnby, to review the services and report back later in the year, and to begin consulting with staff over the potential loss of jobs.