‘Our Olympics': (2) The National Construction College’s Cathall Rd. facility

The National Construction College’s facility in Cathall Rd., on the Leyton-Leytonstone border, was presented by LBWF as the jewel in the crown of Waltham Forest’s Olympic legacy. Looking like a super IKEA, looming over the surrounding buildings, and hyped by every Labour hack from Cathall Councillor Terry Wheeler to the Leader himself, here was something, the patter ran, that really was going to impact on local people’s lives, and in particular dramatically diminish worklessness.

Today, the Construction Academy is virtually forgotten, and the rumour is that it will soon close. Locals hope that it becomes an actual IKEA, but the likelihood is that it will be replaced by boxy flats.

Anyway, in February 2013, I had a good look at the facility’s birth and history, and I append my rather depressing report beneath. I’ve no reason to think that what has happened in the two intervening years has been any different, but if anybody knows better, I’d be happy to hear.

Incidentally, for non-residents, WFN is the Council’s bi-weekly free newspaper, particularly valued by the 3 per cent of households in the borough that still have an outside toilet.

 

The National Construction College’s Cathall Rd. facility

Background

The London Borough of Waltham Forest (LBWF) has consistently promoted the Construction Training Centre in Cathall Rd. as both a key element in Waltham Forest’s Olympic legacy and a major provider of training and jobs for local people. The following coverage is typical:

‘Leader of Waltham Forest Council, Cllr Chris Robbins, told Waltham Forest News: “This is a fantastic, world-class training facility for local residents and people from across east London….” Links have been made with Worknet, Jobcentre Plus, Connexions and other potential referral agencies to ensure that Waltham Forest residents can benefit from the opportunities that the centre can provide. It is anticipated that over the next four years the Construction Training Centre will provide training for more than 4000 local people’ (WFN, 13 December 2010).

‘The £7.24 million facility in Cathall Road…it is hoped will train 4,000 people over the next four years. Council leader Cllr Chris Robbins said: “This is a fantastic, world-class training facility for local residents and people from across east London”’ (Waltham Forest Guardian, 26 January 2011).

‘Keen to ensure that the Olympics should help jobless local people into work, the Council devised an innovative training programme. Developed by the Council as part of the political ambition for the borough, the £7.24 million Construction Training Centre in Leytonstone has recently opened. To ensure that Waltham Forest residents’ [sic] were the first in line to benefit from training, the Council led the project from start to finish’ (Submission to Municipal Journal awards, 2011).

‘The Construction Training Centre officially opened its doors in January 2011 following a £7.6 million investment. The academy runs courses based on industry demands, giving up to 100 students at any given time the best possible chance of employment. So far, 1147 learners have used the facility including 201 from Waltham Forest funding’ (WFN, 25 July 2012).

‘We’ve also seen the creation of the £7.5million Construction Skills Centre in Leytonstone, which means local people can get the skills they need to enter the building trade’ (WFN, 17 September 2012).

‘The £7.6million Waltham Forest Construction Training Centre opened its doors in January 2011 to help residents take advantage of some of the major infrastructure and development projects underway across the Capital. Funded by the Learning and Skills Council, Waltham Forest Council and the London Development Agency, the centre offers training in specialist construction skills…Today, the centre has up to 150 apprentices at any one time attending courses lasting from one day to up to a year. These include formerly unemployed local residents’ (LBWF, Waltham Forest. An ambitious borough (n.d., but 2012).

Early History

Outline planning permission for Cathall Rd. was granted in May 2008, while construction on the site began in October 2009, and was scheduled to last nine months. However, because of delays, the facility only formally opened for business on 7 December 2010.

Cost and funding

According to a paper presented to Waltham Forest’s Local Strategic Partnership (LSP) in September 2010, the Cathall Rd. facility was projected to cost £7.24m., and was funded by the Learning and Skills Council (£5,944,459), and LBWF, through the LSP and the Local Authority Business Growth Initiative (£1,068,000).

Previously, LBWF had agreed to pay the owner of the site, EDF energy, ‘a peppercorn rent’ to 2017; and committed £250,000 as ‘pump prime grant’.

In addition, during the early phase of the project the London Development Agency contributed £250,000.

Procurement of operator

In October 2010, LBWF contracted the CITB-ConstructionSkills’ National Construction College (NCC) to run Cathall Rd. until 31 July 2011, ‘whilst a full tender exercise’ was conducted.

Subsequently, in early 2011, LBWF advertised a seven-year contract at a peppercorn rent; received ten expressions of interest but only two firm bids; and in May 2011 appointed NCC.

Curiously, the Cabinet paper which recommends this decision, though presented two days after the bidders’ interviews, remains without the promised appendix summarising the bid evaluation scores.

Details of contract

In signing this contract, NCC agreed to meet the cost of utilities, repairs and maintenance; fund and deliver training; share any net operating surplus ‘50/50’ with the Council; and take sole responsibility for ‘any losses’. According to NCC, the ‘understanding’ was that any NCC profit would be ‘redeployed in support of the industry’, while any Council profit would be ‘reinvested in training within the Borough, potentially delivered through the centre’.

Targets

Delving beyond the claims made by the Council in public, various apparently more considered appraisals were made of what Cathall Rd. would deliver. In January 2011, NCC provided the following detailed forecast:

‘The centre will offer 160 apprenticeships and 1000 adult training places each year…Over the next six months the centre is aiming to deliver training to 230 people through the entry into employment route, by working with Waltham Forest Worknet service’.

In September 2011, a paper to Cabinet, signed off by portfolio holder Cllr Afzal Akram, included some additions:

‘Waltham Forest’s state of the art Construction Training Centre will provide construction training courses to our unemployed residents and equip them with the skills needed to enter construction:

1. 1000 unemployment [sic] residents will be trained by the Centre per year over the next 7 years.

2. The Centre will work with developers in the borough to secure apprenticeships for young people on their developments.

3. The Centre will deliver a specific program of skills training to target young people and children leaving care in the borough’.

However, in contrast to these confidently asserted projections, the ‘key performance indicators’ (KPIs) in LBWF’s contract with NCC made no mention of Waltham Forest at all, nor specific numbers, sticking instead to generalities:

‘1. Develop a training strategy that consider the Local Regional and National need and maximise the use of the facility;

2. Prepare Annual Work Plans mapping out industry need, skills gaps and the training offer by working with industry to project future skills need driven by committed infrastructure and major building projects and ensure the training offer is adjusted on an annual basis to respond to skills forecasting;

3. Secure funding for training with Public Sector Awarding authorities and Private Sector organisations;

4. Secure employment opportunities for students within industry; and

5. Maintain an overall “Good” Ofsted rating for the duration of the contract’.

Performance (a) people

The number of Cathall Rd. trainees in the three years 2010 to 2012 were, respectively, 42, 1040, and 1461, a total of 2543, which at first sight seems an acceptable level of performance. However, looking at these figures in more detail suggests some serious reservations. First, apprenticeships in the three years totalled only 105, that is 4 per cent of the total, and nothing approaching the 160 per year that NCC had touted. As to the rest, 1473 (58 per cent) obtained various industry qualifications (for example, Construction Industry Scaffolders Record Scheme certification), while 965 (38 per cent) obtained what is described as ‘In House Certification’. Furthermore, many in both these latter two groups took courses that were very brief, with 1159 or 48 per cent in attendance for only one day or less.

As to ‘In House Certification’, the Head of Corporate Governance at CITB-ConstructionSkills told me: ‘Although the in-house certificates…are not nationally-recognised qualifications, all NCC certificates carry the CITB-Construction Skills logo, and NCC is recognised as the national lead for construction training…In-house certification for some of the courses enables the holder to demonstrate their work readiness, and NCC certification is widely recognised within the industry. It is our understanding that many construction companies will deliver this training in-house in the absence of recognised national qualifications’.

Performance (b) finance

Cathall Rd made no surplus in FY 2010-11, and an overall profit of £59,846 in 2011-12, ‘leaving CITB ConstructionSkills with a profit share liability to the London Borough of Waltham Forest of £29,923’.

Performance (c) impact on Waltham Forest

A Cabinet paper of 2008 authored by Assistant Director of Development Shifa Mustafa asserted that Cathall Rd. would have ‘a significant impact on all wards in the Borough’, and similar claims – as has been demonstrated – have been often repeated subsequently. Questioned in 2012 about where those attending courses at Cathall Rd resided, both LBWF and NCC stated that compiling such data would exceed the cost limit set by the Freedom of Information Act. However, both organisations did supply ‘post code data for apprentices and funded learners attending Cathall Rd’, which covered respectively 93 and 397 persons.

Analysing this data reveals that apprentices and funded learners coming from post-codes part or entirely in Waltham Forest (E4, E5, E7, E10, E11, E15, E17, E20, IG8, and N17) numbered only 11 and 80, that is 12 per cent and 20 per cent of the two totals, or if taken together a disappointing 19 per cent of the total.

It is worth underlining that such figures are inevitably approximations. NCC points out that ‘programmes may have been booked by the student’s employer or another agency who may not have supplied the home address of the individual’, thus leading to the number of attendees from Waltham Forest being underestimated. On the other hand, because some of the post codes used in the analysis spanned not just Waltham Forest, but one or more other boroughs as well, there could, just as easily, be some degree of overestimation.

Examining the relationship between Cathall Rd. and Worknet, LBWF’s training and employment programme, points to similar downbeats conclusions. Asked in late 2012 ‘how many residents of Waltham Forest have attended courses at the centre as a result of links with Worknet, Jobcentre Plus, Connexions and other potential referral agencies’, the Council’s Interim Divisional Director Business Employment and Skills, Sally Agass, replied: ‘I can confirm that the Council does not hold the information that you requested’.

For its part, NCC publicly promised in January 2011 to deliver training over the next six months to 230 people ‘by working with Waltham Forest Worknet’, but recent questioning has revealed that this project had different start and finish dates to those in NCC’s press release; attracted only 177 attendees (or 77 per cent of the target); and involved those referred by a variety of agencies, and not just Worknet.

The Future

LBWF’s lease from EDF includes a break clause that can be initiated anytime after September 2013. If EDF wants the site back, then it must give twelve months notice, but if the site is needed for Crossrail, then only six months notice is required.

Conclusions

Cathall Rd. has so far cost Waltham Forest council tax payers at least £1.3m, yet earned in return a mere £29,923.

Contrary to LBWF’s many public claims, there is little evidence that Cathall Rd was ever specifically targeted at providing training and jobs for Waltham Forest.

Significantly, the contract between LBWF and NCC makes no mention of KPIs relating to Waltham Forest, let alone KPIs relating to helping Waltham Forest residents back into work.

Turning to the 2,543 trainees who passed through Cathall Rd. between 2010 and 2012, it is notable that only 105 or 4 per cent were registered as on apprenticeships.

Indeed, the typical trainee completed only a very short course, and earned either an industry qualification or (in a third of the cases) ‘In House Certification’, something that, according to CITB-Construction Skills, construction companies usually provide for their workforces anyway – raising the question as to why the public purse should be involved at all.

As to whether Cathall Rd. has, despite the forgoing, aided the unemployed of Waltham Forest, the evidence is fragmentary, but hardly reassuring. NCC and LBWF have supplied post code data that covers 490 apprentices and funded learners, and analysis suggests that only 91, or 19 per cent, of these came from Waltham Forest – with their previous employment history unknown. Moreover, a very specific partnership with Worknet in early 2011 – which by definition might have helped the local unemployed – clearly failed to meet its targets by some margin.

It seems reasonable to conclude that, far from having ‘a significant impact on all wards in the Borough’, as Ms. Mustafa rather incautiously forecast to the Cabinet in 2008, Cathall Road has only marginally impacted on local worklessness, instead mainly benefiting those from elsewhere.

Much of the public comment about Cathall Rd. is therefore revealed as hype, which surely does those concerned little credit.

NT

28/02/13

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