Holt Hall to close and be put up for sale after council decision
- Credit: Archant
Councillors have voted to close the outdoor learning services it runs from Holt Hall - and to make the building available for sale.
Norfolk County Council's controlling Conservative cabinet today agreed to stop directly providing such services at the 75-acre site.
And, having agreed to immediately cease such services, which had not been running due to coronavirus restrictions, they will close the centre and put it up for sale.
In October, the council announced it was no longer able to afford the facility, but a petition to save the service got more than 5,000 signatures.
This newspaper had urged the council to pause a decision - particularly given how other providers of outdoor learning are facing an uncertain future due to the coronavirus pandemic and the figures used to justify closing the hall preceded the pandemic.
John Fisher, cabinet member for children's services, said people had suddenly "come out of the woodwork" to support the service.
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He said it was a shame those people had not spent more time using word of mouth to support Holt Hall over previous years.
He said the future of Holt Hall had been discussed in 2010 and 2016, when the decision was taken to retain it and fresh efforts were made to promote it.
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He said: "It's interesting that, surely, if you are looking at advertising then word of mouth is one of the better ways.
"And I'm surprised that, with all the letters I have received, certainly since the council meeting a couple of Mondays ago, if they had all used their voices at the time we probably wouldn't be looking at what we are looking at today.
"People have suddenly come out of the woodwork. In the last 24 hours I've received a number of letters and it's a pity they weren't here in 2016 and maybe 2010."
Mr Fisher added: "Efforts have been made to promote Holt Hall. Efforts have been made to make it work.
"The pricing range we have made attractive and, in fact, we have received criticism from some of our competitors in offering reduced prices to schools."
He said the biggest users of Holt Hall were from out of county and it was "not a good idea" for the council to be "sponsoring" that use.
However, in the council’s own report it stated 30pc of residential visits to Holt Hall were from schools or organisations from outside of Norfolk.
The council said 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.
The council said the hall had a £270,000 deficit from the last three years and needed £600,000 of maintenance over the next decade.
Graham Plant, deputy leader of Norfolk County Council, said just two per cent of children from Great Yarmouth used Holt Hall last year.
Mr Plant said: "Holt Hall is subsidising a whole range of people out of county to come into the county to use services being subsidised by the ratepayers of Norfolk.
"For me, it's difficult to understand why we would retain something that clearly people are using other providers for."
Tom FitzPatrick, cabinet member for innovation, transformation and performance, said: "I understand a lot of the emotion, but it's right that we transform our focus to enabling."
Council leader Andrew Proctor said a range of options had been looked at and the pros and cons carefully considered.
He said the process followed had been "robust" and "correct".
The cabinet then agreed to a number of sites it wants to market for sale, including Holt Hall.
The Friends of Holt Hall have applied to North Norfolk District Council for the hall to be made an asset of community value.
If that is approved, that would give them the Friends of Holt Hall the chance to make the case for them to bid to take on the hall.
Norfolk County Council said it will not oppose that application, but Greg Peck, cabinet member for property, urged the Friends to "honestly appraise their business case and to really consider the viability of operating the site as an outdoor education facility".
He added any sale would still be made at open market value.