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College plan for The Public to cost millions

Sandwell | News | Published:

A multi-million pound sum would need to be pumped into transforming The Public into a sixth-form college, education chiefs admitted today.

Sandwell College bosses looking to take over the building say it is too early to say exactly how much would need to be spent adapting the iconic arts centre, which was £34 million over budget when it opened.

But they highlighted the £20m cost of converting a school to an academy when pressed for a figure, while pledging their scheme would come in much cheaper than that.

Vice principal Scott Upton said tod-ay: "There is not an open pit of money. Academies can cost £20 million to convert, but we're not looking anywhere near that.

"Obviously, we would need to put classroom space in there, but central student services – finance support, learning support – would be retained in the main Spon Lane college building. We would want to retain the character of the building."

And he added: "These are still just talks, it's not a done deal."

The total planned cost of The Public project when approved by all funding partners in 2001 was £38.3m. But construction costs sent the price spiralling to £72m by 2009. The £77m Sandwell College campus in Spon Lane, West Bromwich, only opened to pupils last year. But already bosses are saying there is not enough room for A-level and AS-level students.

They are in talks with Sandwell Council about transforming The Public in West Bromwich into a sixth form to accommodate 1,000 A-level and AS-level students.

Sandwell College says it currently has capacity for 500 A-level and AS-level students on the sixth floor of its Spon Lane building. The college plans are the latest twist in the long-running saga over the gallery, which has faced public criticism since being built in 2008. The Public opened 12 months after its due date, vastly over budget, and was condemned by the Commons Culture Select Committee as a 'gross waste of public money'.

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The Arts Council contributed £31.8m to the project, up from an original £19m. Sandwell Council took over the centre in 2009 and continues to pump £1.5m a year into the building.

Mr Upton said the look and location of The Public was ideal for the college. "It's a unique design – vibrant and fresh," he said.

Managing director of The Public, Linda Saunders, said spending more money on a building that has already had £72 million invested in it was controversial. "It seems like a strange use of public money," she said.

"Especially when – under these proposals – the building would be used by far fewer people than it is currently.

"I understand Sandwell Council needs to save money from its budget but in terms of the overall public purse, it does not seem like value for money."

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