College faces cladding bill

College faces cladding bill

HIGHBURY COLLEGE’S 10 storey accommodation tower in Portsmouth failed government fire safety tests due to its aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding.

Portsmouth.co.uk and FE Week reported on the £2.9m bill for removing and replacing combustible ACM cladding on the college’s 65 room tower, which houses students aged between 16 and 18, and which failed the government’s fire safety tests. The ‘cash-strapped’ college is ‘waiting to hear’ whether it will be awarded any funding for the work, with a spokeswoman stating that Hampshrie Fire and Rescue Service had already visited to undertake a safety check.

She added that the service confirmed that there are ‘robust and appropriate’ fire safety measures that ‘mitigate the risks from fire’, and that it ‘declared the building is safe for continued use’. The college’s principal Stella Mbubaegbu has already faced criticism for a £150,000 corporate credit card bill, and warned that the further education sector has seen government cuts of 30% in the last decade, meaning the ‘eye-watering bill will hit the college hard’, says Portsmouth.co.uk.

The college also closed its sixth form this year, and had taken out a £1m loan offering the floors of the tower as collateral, while it is ‘still battling to recoup’ £1.4m. A former student who lived in the block in 2017 and 2018 said students were ‘not told’ about the cladding, adding: ‘It’s really shocking. They have so many young people living in there, you would think for the amount of money they were getting they would have changed it straight away and also prioritise the safety of those who lived there. It’s so careless.’

In response, a Highbury College spokesman stated that planning permission for the work was secured in August, and added: ‘The safety and wellbeing of our students and staff is of upmost importance and we continue to fully engage with the government-wide work, including all relevant agencies, to ensure all of our buildings are safe including the ongoing project to replace the cladding.

‘The project has recently received full planning permission and an appointment of a contractor is expected in December with a start on site soon after. The works are expected to take 12 months. We communicate fully with our students and residence and will continue to do so in the future.’

FE Week meanwhile reported that the college’s chair of governors, Tim Mason, had been asked whether they had been aware of the test failure, and he responded that ‘I don’t know if we were told. I can’t remember’, while another spokesperson ‘declined to comment’ on whether its board or resident students were ‘ever told’.

The college has applied to the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) for up to £5m for the work, with minutes obtained from one of its meetings making it ‘clear’ that its group finance director had told the college board he was confident that the recladding would be ‘100% funded by the ESFA’.

ECD Architects, which was hired to develop the project, commented: ‘The tower which is part of Portsmouth Highbury College is a 10-storey block consisting of education facilities and student accommodation. The tower was constructed in the early 1970s and was re-clad in 2001 by another architecture practice, but recently underwent the BRE cladding screening test and failed. The existing ACM rainscreen cladding is being removed and will be replaced with a new cladding system.’

FE Week also asked the college and the Department for Education (DfE), the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government and BRE (the Building Research Establishment) about when the test took place, but was ‘unable to ascertain’ when this had occurred. A DfE spokeswoman said: ‘The college has made an application to the ESFA for funding for their re-cladding project. The Department for Education will announce the outcome of this application in due course.’

The DfE also ‘would not comment’ on the ‘scale of the funding application nor the likelihood of it being granted’.