Call me old-fashioned but I do expect a degree of numeracy and literacy among the people taking big decisions in our lives. Sadly, in the rotten borough of Ashford, one rarely finds either. Let us investigate, for example, the ability of Paul Clokie, ABC’s leader, with numbers, and in particular his trumpeting of his authority’s latest whizz bang boom town project, the Ashford Learning Campus. This is one more gem from the same people who brought you the Discovery Centre (failed due to cost over-runs) and Wye Park (stalled due to so many cock-ups it will require an encyclopaedia to recount them all).
Only last night Cllr Clokie was telling the public how this new educational campus near the station will cost £50m. And if you look at the ABC website you will see the place should welcome its first pupil in September 2009, even though no detailed plan has been agreed, or any final decision on total funding made. What will it do? According to Paul Clokie’s council provide facilities for ‘up to 14,000 full time and part time students’ in the town.
You have those two figures in your head now? A cost of £50m. Some 14,000 students, which is an awful lot, in fact almost double the entire undergraduate population of Imperial College itself, and three thousand more students than Oxford has undergrads. Wouldn’t most of us scratch our heads at this point and say, ‘Hang on…’? Not if you are a council leader for whom everything seems to come written on the back of a fag packet from officers whose heads seem just as much in the sky too.
Here’s the truth. The only money that has actually been agreed for the Learning Campus is £5.5m from the government, which leaves Ashford £45m short on Clokie’s own figures. The rest has yet to be found, and presumably would come in part from the sale of existing educational sites in the town were it not for the fact that the place is currently awash with unfilled office accommodation already.
But the best part of all — a joke so ridiculous it truly is worthy of Clokie the Clown — concerns that 14,000 figure. PR fluff numbers like these do not come from Paul Clokie’s head of course. They are a concoction of wishful thinking and PR blather, and even South Kent College itself falls for them sometimes too, since you can read the same forecasts on their website. SK does at least get the true proposed cost of the original Learning Campus correct at £46m; Cllr Clokie throws in that extra £4m for good measure as if it doesn’t really count. But while local politicians may jump up and down and blurt out any figure that happens to enter their heads, some hard numbers do exist, and from qualified, expert statisticians.
Here, for example, is a forecast produced by Kent County Council’s own statistics department on what the age breakdown of the population of Ashford will be over the next ten years.
Do you think Paul Clokie has seen it? You wonder. There are a lot of lines I suppose. But before we go into the detail let’s try another, simpler table to see if that might work. This one comes from the Office of National Statistics, is self explanatory and comes in just two lines.
Getting the message? For all the hype about boom town Ashford, the predicted growth is not among the kiddies (which is why KCC is closing some schools in the area, and very slow off the mark to build new ones for all those new estates it is allowing to be built). According to KCC’s own stats the 15-19 age group will rise by just six hundred teenagers over the next five years. The ONS believes the 16-18 age group will actually remain static between 2011 and 2016. Why? Take a look at the top table. The experts predict that all that population growth will be 40 to 50 year olds, if it happens at all, and the jury must surely be out on that.
So Paul Clokie is talking about spending £50m of public money on an educational facility for youngsters that simply don’t exist. He really appears to believe that this new white elephant of a learning campus will serve up to 14,000 full and part time students. Can we point out this simple problem to him please? On KCC’s own figures the entire population of 15-19 year olds in Ashford won’t be bigger than 7,600 even by 2016, ten years from now. Where are the other seven thousand or so going to come from? Are they going to turn up with their mates from Folkestone or something (which would rather leave the educational facilities of SK there somewhat underused)?
You can read a full report on this subject from the Learning and Skills Council at the foot of this story. It sounds extremely sceptical to me, which is worrying for Cllr Clokie since the LSC would have to come up with much of the money for this turkey. It won’t happen on this scale, of course; what we will probably get is just a new set of college buildings. And do bear in mind it is 15-19 year olds we are talking about, because the budget for adult learning has been ruthlessly stripped of late to prevent public money being ‘wasted’ on teaching new skills to anyone of pensionable age (after all, what economic value do they have to society?)
What does this mean to Wye? A few things. First, we can see once again that you can’t trust any of the numbers these people come up with. Second, one very reasonable solution for the Wye problem would be to expand the presence of existing higher education facilities there from the University of Kent and Christchurch. Paul Burnham of Wye raised this very point with Cllr Clokie at the meeting on the Towards 2010 ‘consultation exercise’ last night. Our leader’s reply? Ashford’s getting a learning campus, UKC will put in part of its activity there, and since the whole thing would cost £50m (it isn’t, at least it’s not supposed to) it’s unlikely any more money would be spent elsewhere.
So an existing, beautiful college campus in Wye goes to waste, and possibly rack and ruin, while Paul Clokie fights to spend vast sums of public money building a white elephant to do half the same job, one based on pie-in-the-sky numbers in Ashford. You have to ask: how did these people manage to avoid getting us the Millennium Dome?