A Cumbrian peer plans to ask questions in the House of Lords about a legal document drawn up in 2007 to safeguard the delivery of further education provision at the Newton Rigg College site, near Penrith.
The college is under threat after present owners Askham Bryan and the further education commissioner announced it was no longer viable and there had been no successful bidder to take over its running.
Lord Campbell-Savours said the newly-emerged deed, dating from July 31 2007, relates to the transaction between the University of Cumbria and the University of Central Lancashire in which £8,114,998 was paid for the farms and Newton Rigg campus and £893,106 for Low Beckside hill farm, at Mungrisdale.
In the legal agreement, of which he has been made aware, he says there is a restriction on the future use of the whole Newton Rigg site, which states facilities must be maintained for further education provision.
Lord Campbell-Savours says he has been made aware of the document, which states that it is “binding” in nature. binding and endure for the benefit of the successors in title and permitted assigns of each of the parties and references to the parties shall be instructed accordingly.”
And it adds: “Both parties shall treat the contents of this deed confidential and shall not disclose the content to any person, except those having a legitimate need to know.”
Lord Campbell-Savours, who is working with other Cumbrian peers in defence of Newton Rigg, said: “The question we all want answered is how it was that Askham Bryan were able to discard the agreement, which is laid out in the legal document, and walk away with an asset that they were free to sell?”
In August 2011, the transfer took place of Newton Rigg College from the University of Cumbria to York-based Askham Bryan — this included 22 acres of campus, two farms over 1,068 acres, nine residential dwellings, transfer of all staff and purchase of all stock.
This was after an historic agreement was signed in 1992 which created an “associate college agreement”, binding Newton Rigg College with the University of Central Lancashire, ahead of a full merger in 1998. It then passed to the University of Cumbria in 2007.
Lord Campbell-Savours said at that stage the commitment was there to keep it for education in Cumbria. However, when the transaction took place with York-based Askham Bryan, in 2010, “suddenly it disappears”, it has been alleged.
“Somewhere along the line, someone must have removed that restriction. Because if they didn’t remove it legally then Askham Bryan wouldn’t be able to sell it off apart from for educational use,” said Lord Campbell-Savours.
“If it was removed, I want to know when, how, and why? I am tabling questions in Parliament about what happened,” he added.
The Newton Rigg Farm School, which dates from 1896, was one of the earliest of its kind in the country, originally comprising 180 acres.
In 1960, the Low Beckside hill farm at Mungrisdale, was purchased and a forestry department was opened in 1964 before it became known as the Cumbria College of Agriculture and Forestry.
Tim Whitaker, chief executive officer and principal at Askham Bryan College, said: “We understand the strength of feeling for Newton Rigg among our students, staff and the local and wider community and regret the upset that the campus closure and job losses will cause.
“As we have previously confirmed, Newton Rigg staff have been placed at risk. Collective and individual consultation processes are ongoing. No member of Newton Rigg staff has been served with a notice of redundancy to date.
“We are aware of speculation about the purchase of Newton Rigg in 2011 and inaccurate claims that the site was given to Askham Bryan College for £1.
“None of the current executive management team were at the college at that point, however investigation into legal documents held by the college related to Newton Rigg’s acquisition in 2011 has confirmed that the college made no payment of £1.
“The college paid a seven-figure sum of money between 2011 and 2013 related to the acquisition of Newton Rigg. Subsequently, the college has invested over £4.4 million in capital at the site and subsidised a significant annual operating deficit at Newton Rigg.
“The college estimates that this subsidy amounts to up to £7 million between 2011 and 2020. Regarding historical details dating back to 2007, it would not be appropriate for the college to speculate on arrangements that predate its involvement with Newton Rigg.
“Askham Bryan College is one of 11 independent specialist land based colleges in England. In 1992, there were 40.
“Since 1992, four separate organisations, including two universities, have not been able to generate a student cohort or campus of enough critical mass or size to be sustainable.
“Further education colleges are independent institutions. The Further and Higher Education Act 1992 removed colleges from local authority control. The college’s governing body is able to make its own independent decisions.
“Askham Bryan College has appointed professional agents who will manage the process of finding a buyer or multiple buyers for the Newton Rigg site.
“As the college is independent and an exempt charity, the governors, as trustees, also have a legal obligation under the Charities Act to secure the best outcome for the charity. We are supporting our students and staff during this difficult time.”