Locals rally to keep college dreams afloat

24th April 2009 at 01:00
In an area blighted by unemployment, the building of a new FE campus acts as a beacon of hope for people campaigning for regeneration. Joseph Lee reports

Much of what remains of the former MG Rover factory at Longbridge - once the employer for workers from miles around but closed in 2005 - lies derelict with windows shattered.

A corner plot has been cleared, however, and is waiting for its new occupier: Bournville College, which has plans for a Pounds 82 million campus on a 4.2-acre site. "Clearing the way for a brighter future," nearby hoardings read.

Like dozens of other college building projects, it has an uncertain future as staff wait to hear if funding to begin work can be found. Concern is heightened because the college was set to be the cornerstone of a Pounds 750 million redevelopment of the area, expected to provide 10,000 jobs.

Norman Cave, the principal, said he was impressed by the level of local support: as soon as the threat of delay to the project became known, the community mobilised to show their enthusiasm for the new campus. "If this doesn't happen, the whole redevelopment of Longbridge doesn't happen," he said.

It would be a crisis for the college as well if the plans were blocked: it has spent Pounds 4 million on preparatory work, and Mr Cave estimates the overall cost would be Pounds 30 million if it had to remain on its present site, which is in need of refurbishment.

Gemma Cartwright, 29, a hospital worker, organised local campaigns after the plant closure. Her husband, Andrew, lost his job but, with her encouragement, retrained to become a youth worker. She said even with the college based two miles away, it had played a major part in helping redundant workers retrain and was the key to creating future job opportunities.

Placed in the heart of the area, she said it would have a bigger impact. "The relocation of Bournville College to Longbridge is a vital factor in the regeneration of the community," she said.

The response to the MG Rover closure, which meant 6,100 jobs were lost, had been seen as exemplary by the Learning and Skills Council, which helped to co-ordinate the efforts of local colleges. After two years, more than 5,300 people were back in work, with 3,300 having received retraining.

But now the area faces another huge challenge of retraining redundant workers and finding them new jobs, says Richard Burden, the local MP. He said the West Midlands had suffered the sharpest job losses and has the second-highest unemployment in the UK. A fifth of manufacturing companies expect to make job cuts in the next few months.

Moving the college would provide immediate jobs in construction and skills for generations to come, he said.

"It will be a visible catalyst to helping south-west Birmingham not only to win through the current recession, but also to continue its recovery from the huge blow communities received when MG Rover collapsed in 2005," Mr Burden said.

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