COLLEGE SEEKS EMERGENCY £14.5m LOAN
FIRE SALE OF ASSETS AS FUNDS DRY UP
FEARS OVER RELEASE OF HARMFUL CARBON
SARAH VINE & MARCUS BRIGSTOCKE BACK ‘SAVE WLC CAMPAIGN’
MODERNIST v CLASSIC ARCHITECTURE DEBATE REIGNITED
Bob Giles was inspired by Finish architect Alvar Aalto’s iconic town hall building in Säynätsalo  constructed out of red bricks arranged around a courtyard, and the National Pensions Institute in Helsinki, with its partly stepped profile [1953-57] when he received the brief to design a new seat of vocational learning in west London. There are also comparisons of his modernist red-brick complex with James Stirling’s ‘red trilogy’; Leicester Engineering Building [1961-3]; Cambridge History Faculty [1964-8] and the Florey building for Queen’s College, Oxford [1968-71].
But it was Aalto who was very much in his creative thoughts as he set about designing the new landmark complex that would consolidate three colleges [Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College; 1965-80] as an architect with the Greater London Council’s Architect’s Department. Almost 40 years later he is in the peculiar position of fighting to save the building he masterminded from being flattened. An action he has likened to “heritage vandalism”.
The fate of the brutalist building on the A4 is now in the balance with formidable opponents on either side; the architect of the distinctive ruby red-brick facade that has welcomed commuters and visitors into the heart of London on what was the Great West Road to Bath since the 80s, and the college’s custodians who have declared it “not fit for purpose and convoluted”.
But lovers of modernist architecture disagree and campaigners allege the proposed demolition and sale of the site for redevelopment is fuelled by an abject mismanagement of the college’s finances. An application for a Certificate of Immunity from Listing is one of the first important decisions Baroness Nicky Morgan, the newly ennobled secretary of state for the department of culture, media and sports [DCMS], will be called upon to make.
The 82 year-old former Riba vice-president is now leading a group of campaigners comprising renowned architects, former high profile students, residents and architecture historians battling to save the sprawling complex considered to be one of the finest examples of 20th century buildings in the modernist style, with its signature recessed design, zigzagging steeped steps and landscaped gardens from being pulled down for luxury flats and a redesigned college with a reduced footprint.
In his submission to the secretary of state for the DCMS to reject the college’s application for a Certificate of Immunity from Listing, he argued: “The building has established itself as a national landmark marking the historic Great West Road’s arrival into central London from the west of England. The design respects the heritage of the site by its references to the historic Waterhouse school [St Paul’s School, Hammersmith 1884]. By setting the buildings back from the road and the introduction of large landscaped gardens it maintains, in abbreviated form, the green lung the road has enjoyed since before the advent of the motor car.
“The principal motive for demolishing the building, described by DoCoMoMo as an architectural masterpiece, is the need to fill a short-term hole in the college finances caused by historic mismanagement. This cannot justify heritage vandalism.”
He first got wind of plans to demolish the 250,000sq ft. complex by sheer coincidence as he spent most of the year abroad with family in Florida and Australia. Including the bulk of the summer with his Danish wife in their Danish summer house.
He told WLT in an exclusive interview: “On a rare summer visit to our home in Eastbourne, for a medical appointment in 2018, I received a landline call from Marius Barran, an old architect friend from my time at the GLC, who I hadn’t seen for nearly 40 years. Marius had tracked me down by consulting the membership office at the Riba who could only supply a landline number and postal address. A few days later and I would have been abroad for some months. Marius lives in one of the art-nouveau artist’s houses [St Paul’s Studios] that face the College.
“My first reaction was surprise. Although I have visited the building only a couple of times over the last 20 years, like many people, I have passed it often en-route to Heathrow and the M4. It always looked to be in very good condition with bustling activity at the Baron’s Court entrance and no signs of abandonment or neglect. Later investigation confirmed that indeed the building is in very good condition and fully used.”
He later joined forces with John Bridges, a local resident who lived behind the college in a residential estate also designed by the GLC’s Architect’s Department. He described feeling a mixture of anger and hurt at the ”not fit for purpose” mantra being peddled by the college. He said: “I was hurt to discover that the college management was claiming that the design was no longer viable for educational use and the fabric in poor condition. Both are excuses for the redevelopment of the site with upmarket apartments to fill a gap in their finances caused by their own mismanagement.”
But Giles says his emotions have been tempered by the knowledge that such a wide body of eminent architects comprising past and present Riba presidents, academics, architecture critics, local residents, past alumni of the college like comedian Marcus Brigstocke, Times columnist Sarah Vine, Star Trek actor David Ajala have all signed the petition to save the building and support its listing. Although he already has a Grade II-listed building, [Bromley Hall School] he was flattered by the outpouring of support. He adds: “I think the design has demonstrated, in use and landmark recognition, that after 40 years it has very much stood the test of time. I would further contend that its architectural quality has defied initial judgement by the standards of transitory fashion.”
Today, online petitions have replaced tattered banners and placards. The Go Petition campaign has already attracted signatories from as far afield as USA, Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, Norway, Greece, Australia, Ukraine and Finland. College alumni are also making their voices heard. Comedian Brigstocke acknowledged the role of the college in his career success. “Hammersmith and West London College set me on the path to the successful career I’ve had in the arts for 22 years. The education I got there set me on a great path and I’m not alone in that. Don’t assume you can close it and the young people in the borough will somehow find their way. They may well not manage to do so. Keep it. Keep it where it is. It’s well located for thousands of young people who can and will make very good use of it.”
Hollywood star Ajala announced his pride at attending the college. “I hope this message finds you well. I am a proud student of this college and benefited greatly from the support and a nurturing environment. Excellent teachers who pushed us to realise our untapped potential. I have learnt things that have really helped me when navigating my way in Hollywood as an actor. This college deserves to stay in its current location because it gave a city boy like me the audacity to chase my dreams.” Skandium co-founder and architecture author Magnus Englund said: “Britain needs more buildings like this, not less.”
Past students include Oscar-winning film director Steve McQueen, Sociologist Ralph Miliband, Singer Shola Ama, Sculptor Laurence Broderick and music entrepreneur Jamal Edwards.
WATERHOUSE OR STIRLING?
Giles describes his building as the “antithesis of celebrity architecture” and a concept of the “functional tradition” favoured by architects like Aalto and Arne Jacobsen. He explains: “The buildings’ claim to specialness is in the intelligence and logic of the concept. This is best identified by Mike Jenner in his BBC documentary (The Great West Road). The brief required the merger of three colleges while retaining a physical identity for each. This is achieved by the inspired idea of linking the three colleges with a concourse that introduces the subtle but enforced interaction of students from different social and academic backgrounds, as they move from their own college base to the shared/common facilities of library, canteen, common rooms, games hall, gymnasium, etc.
“The logic of the organisation is expressed in the form of the building and the treatment of the elevations. This is the architecture. It is an approach influenced by the Scandinavian, particularly Danish, concept of the functional tradition as promulgated by the Danish architect Kay Fisker. In many ways it is the antithesis of celebrity architecture but plays its part in the evolving development of a neighbourhood or city.
“At the St Paul’s site I sought to pick up where Waterhouse and history left off. As a gateway to the denser urban grain that would follow, the site has been a landmark on the Great West Road, providing a green open space and a setting to the historic Listed Artist’s houses. This required stepping the buildings back so that what at 250,000ft sq. would always be an imposing intervention, would not reach its full height until well back from the road line. This allows for an awareness that there is open space and landscaped gardens within. The red brick, although naively claimed by critics at the time as derivative of James Stirling’s work, is a close copy of the Waterhouse brick colour.”
‘OVERAMBITIOUS’ ESTATES PROJECTS
On a balmy summer’s evening in June 2018 local residents and the public were invited to the customer service centre at the base of the college to glimpse the £500m mixed-use college and luxury apartments design proposals by Atkins, a firm of architects. The sleek presentation was organised by Your Shout, a community engagement company that has staged similar events across London usually for controversial regeneration and building proposals.
Unmissable at the event was the bullish Laurie Morley, the college’s project director and director at Fusion, the consultancy driving the college’s demolition plans under its ‘Hammersmith Gateway’ strategy. He was in his element schmoozing anyone who raised eyebrows over the scale of the redevelopment and the years of misery it would unleash on those who lived in close proximity to the site. A canny operator and veteran of the FE sector, he worked the room waxing lyrical about how the college training restaurant, Taste, would be revamped and welcome residents after the redevelopment was completed. He also stuck to the college’s well-rehearsed line the buildings were no longer fit for purpose while classroom-based learning was outdated.
ALLEGED CONSULTANCY FEES
A constant thread of financial mismanagement, neglect and administrative ineptitude runs through the West London College saga. A spokeswoman for the West London College Action Group, an umbrella campaign comprising local residents to stop the demolition and redevelopment plans voiced concerns over the eye-watering amounts already spent on consultancy fees for heritage advice and other sundry costs related to the Hammersmith Gateway project, the blueprint for the college redevelopment.
She said: “The criticisms of the financial management of the college contained in the government’s FE Commissioner’s report published in November 2018 were very worrying and pretty damning. We noted that the FE Commissioners expressed serious concern in that same report about the “over-ambitious” estates project which had been approved by the college without sufficient grasp of the actual space need, or effect, risks and impact of that decision.
“In recently-published minutes of the college corporation [Governing Board], we were aghast to learn that the college has already spent more than £9.5m of taxpayers’ money on consultancy advice about this over-ambitious project. Meanwhile, further published minutes from the college confirm that they have recently had to accept a government loan of around £8m to keep them afloat. When seen in that light, it is outrageous in our view that more than £9.5m of public monies have been spent on expensive consultants when the college is busily retrenching teaching staff on the Hammersmith site, mothballing potentially important student amenities on that site and allowing the buildings on that site to fall into some disrepair. This is a bad use of taxpayers’ money.”Campaigners also claim the college had repeatedly barred them visiting the complex in the company of an heritage adviser and a case officer from Historic England while extending the same courtesy to the college’s [paid] adviser.
The college’s board resembled the sinking Titanic shortly after the showcase exhibition of its redevelopment plans at the Baron’s Court campus as board members fled like rats from a stricken vessel. CEO Gary Phillips (now deceased) was the first to jump ship as the net of Further Education inspectors began to close in. Several of the college’s top echelon left their posts within months as a result of the fallout.
The team led by Richard Atkins found that “executive leadership of the college in relation to delivering an appropriate property strategy and securing overall financial sustainability has been poor”. They also found the absence of a “well thought out overarching estates strategy, grounded on accommodation needs has been instrumental in allowing a number of over ambitious projects to be approved piecemeal, without sufficient grasp of the actual space need, or effect, risks and impact of those decisions”. They concluded: “It is recommended that, in view of the extent of prevailing risks, the college be placed in Administered Status.”
Speaking at an Association of Colleges’ [AoC] hot-panel discussion Karen Redhead who replaced Phillips lifted the lid on the mess she discovered after a few weeks in the job. “I could see the college was about to run out of money in early October and I was only five minutes into the job at the time so an urgent priority was to apply for exceptional financial support and that could meet our ongoing obligations, the main one being the payroll,” she stated.
The new principal explained that due to the “extent of our financial issues”, there are currently three agencies “that have us in intervention”. The Education and Skills Funding Agency [ESFA], the Transactions Unit which administers bailouts, and the FE Commissioner’s team kept close tabs on the college and its finances.
She also found the college had “no strategic plan, no curriculum plan to speak of, no workforce plan or financial plan that was not fit for purpose, or estates strategy despite having multiple and complex projects on the go”.
The FE Commissioner’s visit had been prompted by the college’s perilous financial position which left it reliant on government bailouts for its survival with stringent conditions attached. Its reserves had evaporated overnight in a rapid downward spiral going from a £5.7m surplus in 2015/16, to an £8m deficit in 2016/17. Phillips, who had been one of the country’s highest paid college heads earning £260,000 claimed he had no inkling things had become so desperate.
Even though Redhead predicted it would take two years for the college to achieve a breakeven position, but the current picture is looking much gloomier despite her initial optimism. In recent board meeting minutes seen from its Finance and General Purposes Committee by WLT the college debt liabilities could balloon to £14.5m as it seeks a consolidated emergency funding loan comprising the existing EFS debt, a £2m potential clawback from an *SLC probe and an additional £4m for operating headroom.
INSOLVENCY RISK & FIRE SALES
West London College’s financial liabilities remain a tangled web of debt charges, high interest payments, debt reprofiling, fire sales and risky debt restructure agreements. In heavily redacted minutes from its recent board meetings property price speculation and asset disposals dominate deliberations. A sale of its entire Southall campus has even been considered with the potential loss of its motor vehicle engineering department. There were concerns that the college could be perceived as a “motivated seller”. Cash flow position “remained extremely challenging” according to minutes from the college board with supplier payments delayed for as long as possible.
EMERGENCY CONSOLIDATED LOAN
The situation is under daily review and the college was forecast to be a “negative cash position by January 2020”. It also warned of a “likely breach of one or both bank covenants”. The EFSA is also seeking to take security against college land and buildings while it already has a charge on the Baron’s Court site. The College has a £18.9m pension liability and long-term debt of £9m.
It has defaulted on the £8.5m EFS loan which has subsequently been rolled over into an Emergency Funding Loan of £14.5m requested by the college comprising new loans to give it additional operating headroom. Campaigners are concerned that the entire Hammersmith site might be offloaded to private developers if the college goes bust with the entire loss of the education establishment. It remains a very ‘sick patient’ under the close observation of the EFSA and the FE Commissioner’s team who have a stocktake visit scheduled for January 2020.
HAMMERSMITH GATEWAY PROJECT
A college spokesperson said in a written statement forwarded to WLT: “The needs of West London College today are very different to those of 40 years ago when the Hammersmith and Fulham site was opened.
“West London College’s plan to redevelop its Hammersmith and Fulham campus, is to provide students with sustainable workshops and classrooms that will allow us to provide outstanding education and skills training that is fit for the 21st century. The new campus will provide facilities including a training restaurant and hair and beauty salons where local residents can access low cost meals and treatments.
“Ergonomic use of design in the new development means that WLC will provide more teaching and learning spaces of improved quality compared to its present accommodation. The energy efficiency and building design of the planned new building will enable the College to make considerable savings in running and maintenance costs enabling it to spend more money on students’ teaching and learning.
STOREYS: HEIGHT OF PROPOSED BLOCKS
“West London College was placed into formal intervention in 2018 for its very weak financial health. We have been working very hard since then to create a sustainable financial future and are making good progress. The Hammersmith campus is a significant financial drain for the college, so this planned redevelopment is fundamental to the College’s future long-term viability.”
Redhead in her first riposte to campaigners was unapologetic in her defence of demolition plans. She described how they were “rattling round in huge building”. She however reassured critics: “We will always be in Hammersmith at that site but with state-of-the-art facilities and resources for our students and staff who deserve nothing less.
“I’ve def [sic] got best interests of the College at heart so work with me. We r [sic] rattling round in huge building, only need 50% of the space, but have to pay to heat and clean it all. Repair, maintenance, energy bills through the roof. Wasting £ that should be spent on students.”
RETROFIT OR NOT FIT FOR PURPOSE?
WLCAG is also concerned about the environmental and wellbeing impact of an extensive demolition and construction phase that it claims could last for a decade with the downgrading of vocational education at a time when education policy is being geared towards technical skills, STEM subjects, adult and lifelong learning to redress perennially low productivity levels in the UK. In the now ‘paused’ redevelopment timescale circulated by the college to residents, demolition would have commenced in the summer of 2020 and continue till the spring of 2021.
WLCAG highlighted fears that important decisions about the proposal were being decided elsewhere without a grasp of local concerns: “So much is at stake for local residents as a result of this gargantuan proposed project: residents’ quality of life and that of their children risks being irreversibly diminished as a result. The construction phase alone – which could last as long as 10 years – will bring misery upon local Hammersmith residents in the form of significant noise, dust, air pollution, congestion and subsidence risk.
“However, what we have observed over the past couple of years since the development was first mooted is that the college does not appear overly-concerned or in touch with the interests of local Hammersmith residents who will be materially impacted by their proposed development. This is because policy, strategy and senior leadership for WLC is being driven from the college’s Ealing site, not from the Hammersmith site. So the college leadership appears quite remote from what is happening on the ground in Hammersmith.”
SIZE OF COMPLEX WITH EMBEDDED CARBON
Giles also echoes sentiments along similar lines expressing his disbelief that demolition was even ever considered at a time when the issue of climate emergency had climbed to the top of the national and global agenda where every action was weighed against its environmental consequences.
He argues in his recent submission to refuse immunity from listing: “After nearly 40 years of useful life the building continues to be a viable educational institution but with potential for alternative uses. Because of the high-quality materials used in its original construction the building’s fabric remains in excellent condition with the external appearance little changed from the day it opened.
“At a time when there is almost universal acceptance of a climate emergency it would irresponsible to permit the release of embedded carbon from the demolition of a 250,000ft sq. structure of such architectural quality that shows potential for surviving another 40 years or more.”
How old does a citadel of learning have to be before its shelf life expires or it loses its cool factor in the estimation of students, tutors and administrators? What makes some buildings more deserving of rarefied, listed status and billion pound refurbishment budgets whilst others are simply condemned to face the wrecking ball? Who signs off on such matters of life and death for the country’s buildings with its ripple effects on the life chances and wellbeing of so many, in this case a vital educational institution?
Historical buildings consultants and advisors to the college, KM Heritage in its recent deposition advocating the demolition of the complex and supporting the college’s application for Certificate of Immunity from Listing stated: “Redevelopment of the site is required because the existing building stock has reached the end of its useful working life. It is excessively costly to run, it is too large for its current and future needs, it has a convoluted, inefficient layout at odds with the delivery of high quality education, and is no longer fit for purpose as a modern further education facility or destination of choice for 16-19 vocational students.”
Giles in his own counter-submissions set out to systematically dismantle the planks of the various arguments one after another describing the claims as “exaggerations” and “untrue”. He wrote: “At this point I would suggest that the exaggerations above could be applied to nearly all university campuses with historic buildings, including much of Oxford and Cambridge, and would justify de-listing the Palace of Westminster. No consideration is given to architectural values, heritage or context.
“Far from reaching its useful working life, externally the building is in immaculate condition and appears as fresh and new as if it were built yesterday. If you travel out to the West via Talgarth Road you may well be familiar with the building and astounded at the suggestion that it is at the end of its working life.”
The college’s new architectural blueprint for the site is the antithesis of Giles’ once lofty plan: A built environment with a human scale constructed to blend with its surroundings comprising imaginative landscaped areas, recessed buildings that respected the low-lying houses in the area. WLC’s Hammersmith Gateway project would supplant Giles’ red bricks with up to 20 storeys of cladded blocks incongruous to its immediate environment. As things stand both parties seem destined for a collision course.
SAVING ST PAUL’S FIELDS … ALL OVER AGAIN
Ten acres of open unspoilt fields, widely regarded as some of the best cricket pitches in the south of England later became the home of West London College, but not without a strong and sustained opposition campaign that lasted over 11 years before the foundations were dug. The story of local activism and roof-top sit-ins began in 1968 after St Paul’s School vacated its Alfred Waterhouse-designed terracotta ‘St Pancras Gothic’ home after 80 years in Hammersmith. Over 11,000 locals and supporters campaigned for over 15 long years to preserve the fields from being built over. The battle for St Paul’s Fields is being reenacted all over again, but this time to save Giles’ unmissable homage to Waterhouse.