`Visionary' flawed by incompetence

18th November 1994 at 00:00
Two inquiries into mismanagement set up by the Further Education Funding Council published their reports this week. Nowhere will Wilmorton feel the effects of its disastrous management more than in three ambitious building programmes worth Pounds 570,000.

Converting a city centre nightclub called Oscars into an adult learning centre, and opening a restaurant and a commercial gymnasium were the personal projects of principal Andrew Stromberg, often described by the college as "a man of vision". But Professor Shattock's report exposes the vision as ruined by incompetence, lack of planning and disregard for the college's own rules.

A former Derby County footballer was hired (without the job being advertised) to run the gym, on which Pounds 55,000 was spent. It now averages Pounds 320 income a week during term and is "unlikely" to break even. The restaurant, called Le Dijon and run by college catering staff and students, was converted with an "open-ended" budget which eventually ran to Pounds 170,000. The boyfriend of the principal's daughter, a talented French chef, was hired to work there.

Mr Stromberg told a governors' sub-committee that Oscars could provide a huge range of courses; the price and cost of "modifications" would come from nine organisations, including Europe. But he failed to tell the committee of two damning inspection reports which showed Oscars needed a new roof, was damp, in "extremely poor" condition, and could have been more expensive to renovate than to construct a new building.

Despite the demand by staff governor Brian Bonsall that the project should not go ahead without a full financial analysis, Oscars was bought for Pounds 134,000 without the permission of the FEFC, necessary under college rules for any purchase over Pounds 100,000. Mr Stromberg wanted college construction lecturers to oversee the work, but none volunteered. So without advertising, a project manager was hired for Pounds 18,000 a year plus Pounds 4,000 bonus. Total repairs would cost Pounds 124,767.14. Sixteen months after the principal's "vision" the only money received for Oscars is Pounds 4,800 from a council "face-lift fund" and the only work done has been for damp. The report says. . ."the building remains a wasting capital asset with little chance of any immediate use." Professor Shattock adds: "Put bluntly, the process was a shambles from beginning to end."

The continued costs of the three projects will have to be met by the college in years to come, says the report. Its financial position will "require close attention".

But perhaps most seriously, the report leaves unanswered questions about a Pounds 1 million building contract for essential repairs on Wilmorton's 20-acre site. According to former deputy principal Owen Gray, architects called Montague which had worked for Stuart Webb privately were introduced to the tendering at the last minute at Mr Stromberg's request, and then given more information on the project than the four other competing firms. The ex-principal claims he just took advice from those to whom he had delegated responsibility for building.

Montague won the tender, which was not approved by the governing body. It then became known that Montague planned to use a "management contractor" called Granite Construction, the managing director of whose parent company was a former co-director of Derby County football club with Mr Webb. A Montague partner called Mr Jeff James, a personal friend of the Granite managing director, told the inquiry it had always been the intention to use Granite. Mr Webb denied any knowledge of Granite's involvement which, introduced after tendering, meant the college was paying twice for the same service.

Two months later the contract terms were improved for the MontagueGranite consortium. In breach of financial regulations, Granite then won a Pounds 155,000 contract for repairing a college building, without tendering.

"The late entry of Montague raises questions about the integrity of their appointment," said the report. It adds that Granite's introduction to the work was "not done openly or professionally".

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