'If it's gone, it's gone' - Is it time to halt Holt Hall closure?
- Credit: Archant/NCC/April Haywood
Holt Hall has given Norfolk's young children a place for adventures, friendship building and learning for 70 years - but a cloud now hangs over its future.
Cabinet members from Norfolk County Council - which owns the 75-acre site - are due to debate Holt Hall's fate on Monday, December 7 before voting whether or not to discontinue its outdoor education offering there.
But in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the uncertainty over what facilities will be needed once its over, there are growing calls for the closure to be reconsidered.
The council says that only 6.8pc of residential outdoor learning visits in 2019 were run at Holt Hall, involving just 40 Norfolk schools. Thirteen Norfolk schools made a total of 22 day-trips to the hall in that year, accounting for just 0.55pc of outdoor-focused day trips.
However, the figures were based on pre-Covid conditions, and now question marks remain over whether they should be reassessed.
Councillor John Fisher, cabinet member for children’s services, said Holt Hall had a £270,000 deficit from the last three years and required £600,000 of maintenance over the next decade.
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Mr Fisher said the council's review of the hall concluded it would be better to stop its services there and become an "enabler" of outdoor education, rather than a provider.
He said: “I completely understand that people have fond memories of residential visits at the hall but we have to consider how we can make our limited resources have the greatest impact, as well as protecting services such as children’s social care and support for school improvement.”
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"Our voices aren't really being heard"
April Haywood, 16, is the youth parliament member for West and North Norfolk.
April, who goes to Paston College, said visiting Holt Hall was a “rite of passage” for Norfolk’s youth, and people of all generations would remember making s’mores, drinking nettle tea and building outdoor dens there.
She said now was not the time to close the centre. April said: “We live in a time of such environmental uncertainty, and lots of kids are not able to be in nature as much as they should be. North Norfolk is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty but the people who live here don’t always get to experience it.
"If Holt Hall is gone, it’s gone. This is something that affects young people and our voices aren’t really being heard.”
Duncan Baker, North Norfolk’s MP, said he had attended Holt Hall as a child and in recent years had taken his own children there. Mr Baker said the site’s possible closure was “incredibly sad” although he understood the county council was facing difficult financial decisions.
Mr Baker said he was still hopeful the centre could keep operating if the council could no longer afford to run it.
He said: “The only way there could be a positive outcome is if it could be retained as an education provider with public access. That may well be possible through a different structure, as we’ve seen at other places such as How Hill."
"If they could get an altruistic purchaser and run it along similar lines to How Hill that would be fantastic."
Simon Partridge is director of How Hill Trust, which has run that outdoor education centre since 1984, said it would be sensible to hold off on a decision on Holt Hall’s future until the situation with Covid-19 became clearer.
Mr Partridge said he understood the centre was expensive to run - largely due to staffing costs - but it could be operated successfully along the same lines as How Hill as a not-for-profit site overseen by a trust.
He said: “If they could get an altruistic purchaser and run it along similar lines to How Hill that would be fantastic, or even if the council kept hold of the building and set up a charity to run it. If it were sold on the open market it would give the council a short-term profit, but the real losers would be the children.”
Mark Holroyd, operations manager at Aylmerton Outdoor Education Centre, agreed, saying: “We fund a lot of things as a society and we have to decide if outdoor education is worth subsidising or not.
"It’s difficult to keep something running that’s losing money, but I don’t know whether closure is the right thing here. It would be very sad to see them go - our industry is in crisis at the moment across the board.”
Sarah Butikofer, Lib Dem county councillor for Holt and North Norfolk District Council leader, said the council should consider running Holt Hall as a “financially independent” centre.
“Norfolk does not have the capacity to lose an outdoor learning site of this magnitude,” she said.
And Mike Smith-Clare, Labour’s children's services lead on the council, added: “With schools unable to undertake overseas study visits then Norfolk’s outdoor learning centres are in the best possible position to meet this need.
“If effective alternatives already exist on our doorstep - then why remove them?”
What are the options being considered for Holt Hall?
Norfolk County Council’s report on Holt Hall has outlined three options for its future, and one will be decided upon at next week’s meeting.
Option 1 is that the council continue operating Holt Hall as an outdoor education centre. Although this has the advantage of offering “continuity” for schools, the council does not consider it viable because the deficit the centre runs - they decided in 2010 outdoor learning services should see “full cost recovery”.
The report added that the council’s role as a competitive provider of outdoor learning, as well as having oversight of health and safety at privately-run centres, caused tension and “compromises the council’s ability to be regarded as a trusted and impartial leader for outdoor learning by local providers.”
Option 2 is to explore a partnership approach and allow a third party to take over running the centre and continuing outdoor learning activities there. But the council said this was “high risk with limited benefit” and they would probably have to continue subsiding the site.
The report said: “There may be little appetite from potential partners in the current climate to pursue a partnership approach. Any potential third party may be unwilling to take on the responsibility for the building. Even if the building is leased out, a third party is unlikely to agree to take this on a full repair and maintenance basis, with the council still retaining at least a proportion of the financial liability.”
Option 3 is to simply close Holt Hall and sell the site. This is considered the “recommended” option because it would eliminate the council’s financial risk and “ enable the council to fulfil a clear leadership role for outdoor learning, develop partnerships and engage with national practice and developments without being distrusted as a competitor.”
But the report does acknowledge that “disposing” of Holt Hall may draw public ire, “with significant emotional connection to the venues as it is recognised that many local people have visited Holt Hall and used the services”. The report said there would also be a one-off cost for decommissioning the service.