<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>To select appropriate items from the Cabinet agenda for pre-decision scrutiny (cabinet reports enclosed for Scrutiny Members)
The Committee chose to scrutinise the following item on the Cabinet agenda:
Strategic School Improvement Programme - Proposal to Establish an English-Medium 3 - 11 School to Replace Alltwen, Godre'rgraig and Llangiwg Primary Schools
The circulated report provided detail regarding the proposal for a new consultation around the proposal for school reorganisation in the Swansea Valley; the proposal was to establish an English-medium 3-11 school with a specialist learning support centre, in new build premises to accommodate pupils from the current catchment areas of Alltwen Primary, Godre’rgraig Primary and Llangiwg Primary Schools.
It was explained that the Cabinet of the previous administration approved the former decision in relation to this matter; however, the decision had since been challenged and a judicial review took place which saw the decision be overturned. Members were informed that the new administration had committed to reviewing the decision taken in respect of the Swansea Valley School reorganisation proposal, which required the Council to start a new consultation for the proposal.
If Members approved the recommendation detailed in the circulated report, Officers stated that they will be highly encouraging members of the interested communities to take part in the consultation in order to provide their views.
A discussion took place in regards to the involvement of the Education, Skills and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee in this process, and the function of Joint Scrutiny Committees. The Chief Executive indicated that it was for Scrutiny Members to decide how scrutiny carries out its functions; there was a meeting scheduled with Scrutiny Chairs to remind them of their provisions within the Constitution, which include calling Joint Scrutiny Committee meetings in order for other Elected Members to attend specific Committees. It was noted that it would be useful to have a more in depth discussion with the Members of the Education, Skills and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee in regards to this matter, if they felt it was important that they be present when future reports, relating to this proposal, were brought back to Cabinet Scrutiny Committee.
Members queried if public meetings would form part of the consultation process; it was mentioned that the previous administration weren’t able to hold face-to-face public meetings during the initial consultation of this proposal due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Officers explained that they would be following the consultation requirements as necessary, and confirmed that there will be elements of the consultation undertaken face-to-face with the public.
Officers were asked to explain the consequences of any potential changes to the main proposal, if the consultation period was to go ahead and the feedback provided good reason to change that proposal. It was also asked that if a new business case was to be produced for any alternatives that may seem feasible, how long would the process of drawing up the business case take and when would there be another opportunity to submit that business case to Welsh Government for funding. It was noted if Cabinet decided not to progress with the proposal that was being consulted on, at that point it would be assumed that there would be a preferred option to peruse in terms of investment; the £22.5million that was currently available to Neath Port Talbot for the current proposal, would no longer be available. It was confirmed that the Council would need to submit a new business case to Welsh Government that related to Band C schooling; this new process could be started immediately after the current proposals process had been concluded entirely. Officers highlighted that it would take months to write up the new business model as it was a detailed and complex process; once submitted to Welsh Government, they would take a few months to consider the proposal, however there would be no guarantee that they would support it. Mention was also made to the fact that the pupils of Godre’rgraig Primary School would be required to stay in temporary accommodation for a longer period of time.
Officers confirmed that any capital investment through the Sustainable Communities for Learning Programme (formerly known as the 21st Century Schools Programme) would require a robust business case. It was mentioned that the process for submitting business cases, through the HM Treasury 5 Case Business Model, was a strict format and had tests within it that were required to be met.
The Committee discussed the reasons as to why the proposal would need to be consulted on again. The Deputy Leader confirmed that the new administration had committed to review this matter based on the views and responses to the previous consultation, and based on the legal case which had taken place against the decision previously made; if the consultation phase was to be approved, all responses, outcomes and feedback from the new consultation will be considered accordingly, along with advice from Council Officers.
The judicial review gave the Council the right to appeal the decision that was made by the Court; Members queried who made the decision to not go ahead with the appeal process. The Head of Legal and Democratic Services clarified that the decision was lost on a ground one basis, that a Welsh Language Assessment hadn’t been included within the consultation document. It was stated that when dealing with judicial reviews, there was a very tight timescale to lodge an appeal; the Council made the determination whether to lodge the appeal via its Urgency Action process.
The circulated report detailed information regarding the schools organisation code; within this were two different outlines of consultation specifications, one of 42 days and another of 28 days. Members asked if Officers could provide further information on these specifications. It was explained that the 42 days refers to the process of the public consultation phase, which had to last a minimum of 42 days (the recommendation within the circulated report was seeking to embark on this phase). If Cabinet were minded to approve the recommendation, it was noted that the consultation will then take place; following this, a report will be brought back to Committee detailing the feedback of the consultation and Officers response to that feedback. It was highlighted that if the proposal was to progress, Officers would then ask for permission to move onto the next phase which was known as the period for statutory objection; this period had to last 28 days exactly. It was mentioned that if the public wanted their objections to the consultation to be recorded, they would need to comment on this phase in order for their comments to be processed (even if they had previously provided their feedback during the public consultation phase).
The Committee expressed concerns in regards consulting on the previous proposals, before there had been a wider review or evidenced assessment of other alternatives. Members were informed that the code required Officers to consider various options for a business case; once this has been completed, they must then decide on which proposal would be put forward for consultation. It was highlighted that the circulated report contained 14 other options which had been considered, however chosen not to pursue as the preferred option; the consultation phase was focused on exploring all of the options around the delivery of education in the Swansea Valley, therefore the public were encouraged to highlight their views, provide other ideas and/or express their preferred option. Officers confirmed that part of the consultation report, that was required to be brought back to Committee, would identify any comments, ideas and/or issues; this could potentially lead to a change to the proposal. It was mentioned that the consultation phase was a formative stage, and no decision on the proposal would be made during this stage.
Members queried why Rhydyfro Primary School was removed from the original plan; the school had been previously named in the documentation. The Director of Education, Leisure and Lifelong Learning explained the process of submitting an outline business case to Welsh Government; if they approved the outline business case, Officers were then able to commence the detailed work in regards to the proposals. It was noted that when initially working on the proposals for the Swansea Valley Schools, it started as a proposal for a 3-16 school including Cwmtawe; following some initial consultation, prior to the last process, Officers dropped the proposal for the 3-16 school and retained a primary status only. One of the factors that lead to this was highlighted to be the potential size of the school; Officers were required to take a professional view as to what was an optimum size for a school in a certain area, and including the pupils of Rhydyfro Primary School would develop too big a school.
It was asked if there were any restrictions around the start date of the consultation period; the Committee were mindful of the need to gather meaningful data from the consultation, which could be difficult to achieve if carried out over the Christmas period. Officers concerns with delaying the consultation start date, was noted to be that it would have an impact on the implementation date for the school, should the proposal be approved at the end of the process; there was a very tight timescale due to planning processes, more specifically some of the surveys that were required to be undertaken at certain times of the year, and delaying the consultation for a month could have the impact of delaying the school for a whole year.
A further discussion took place in regards to the judicial review, and whether the Welsh Language provision was taken into account at the time of the initial consultation. The Head of Legal and Democratic Services explained that one of the grounds for challenge was that a Welsh Language Impact Assessment document had not been included within the consultation document that was issued in October 2020; there was a provision in the school organisation code which stated that where schools could be affected by a proposal, a Welsh Language Impact Assessment would need to be included as part of the documentation. It was added that when the decision was taken previously, a Welsh Language Impact Assessment was included as part of the decision making process, and was considered along with the main report; however, the judicial review looked at whether that should have been included in the consultation document when it was issued to the public.
The following amendment was proposed and seconded as follows:
That the recommendation be amended to change the consultation period start date from 5th December 2022 to the new start date of 9th January 2023, with the 42 days consultation period following that date.
Following scrutiny, the Committee was supportive of the amended recommendations to be considered by Cabinet.