Rolle College: Plymouth University quizzed on plans

The Owen Building at Rolle College

The Owen Building at Rolle College - Credit: Archant

The future of the Rolle College site was recently the subject of a consultation by its owners, Plymouth University, about plans to redevelop it for a mixture of housing and community use. A planning application, which would include two schemes with differing amounts of community use, is expected soon. The Journal sat down with Trevor Wills, the university’s director of estates and capital projects, to find out more.

Rolle College closed in 2008. It’s now 2015. What is the reason for the delay? Why are we only getting this proposal now?

“First of all, the university does recognise it’s taken a long time to get there, which is as frustrating for us as it is for the people of Exmouth. Plymouth University’s decision to close and withdraw from the site in 2008 coincided with the market downturn, and conditions in the property market were hugely against us at that point.

“There have been occasions since then when the university has been intent on concluding a deal with parties and they never quite came off, so in one sense it’s not for a lack of trying, but I think market conditions were certainly against us in the first few years.”

What has been happening at the site since then? Has there been a lot of maintenance or has it been left to sit there?

“We haven’t done nothing, but we have kept a very low level of maintenance on the buildings. They’re not in a state that could reopen tomorrow. There’s not a building on the site that could reopen for use tomorrow.”

In 2012 [property agent] Grimleys did some marketing of the site. At that time, it was suggested it would be 40 per cent housing, 60 per cent community use. We’re now looking at, even under the scheme with the most community use, almost 80 per cent housing. What’s behind the rise in the amount of housing that’s been allocated?

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“Grimleys’ marketing in 2012 did make some assumptions about community allocation, but I think the principle reason why that fell down was it still needed to have a financial viability to it. At the time, there was an option agreed with Rolle Exmouth Limited (REL), where, had REL and whoever it was partnering with been able to come up with something, then that indeed would have come to fruition, but they couldn’t get a backer and it didn’t materialise.

“To bring us up to date, we’re now in a position where we’ve consulted the planning authority. We have talked to East Devon [District Council] several times on this in preparation for what we’re proposing, and we’re trying to strike a balance. We believe this is a good scheme to be consulting on, because it does strike a balance between housing and meeting local needs.

“We don’t have the detail on it, but we are allocating the Owen Building and the land surrounding it for potential community use. It will come down to viability, and the planning authority will ask us to demonstrate viability, so it’s not just something that is market driven from our point of view.”

Two schemes are proposed. With this consultation, if there was an overwhelming response from the community that they wanted to have more community use than there is in these schemes, is that an option? Or is that something that would have to be sorted out by another planning application at a later date?

“I think the fair answer is, because this is a genuine consultation with the community, actually we won’t know what people are saying until we’ve concluded the process.

“I’ll come back to the point that we genuinely think this is a scheme that can work and does strike the right balance, and I think we’ve shown that through the way we’ve described the scheme in our display boards.

“We do feel the responsibility that Plymouth vacated the site in 2008, and actually it’s important to breath new life into it, so the viability of suggestions that come from people we’re talking to needs to be real. It needs to be something that really can be delivered for it to breath new life into the overall site.”

But if REL was able to come up with some sort of backer who wanted to go for more community use, that would be an option, hypothetically?

“It would. But equally, it could be another party. The whole point of all of this is to talk to anybody that wants to think about this and put proposals to us.”

When, down the line, you come to market the site, is it just going to go to the highest bidder? Or, if someone came in offering maybe a bit less money, but more that was beneficial for the town, could that potentially win out?

“Firstly, the nature of whatever deal we strike with whatever party will be a confidential matter, so in a way I would be pre-empting or second-guessing whatever the market will say to us, so in one sense I don’t know that answer.

“I think in another sense the nature of the deal that follows should be a reflection of the planning consent we get.

“Given that we believe we’ve struck a balance in the scheme that we have, the majority of the site, that is allocated for housing development, will generate a value.

“The university is both a charity and a university, so we have to obtain the best value as a receipt from our surplus estate. That is a legal responsibility we have.

“So, if we can demonstrate that we have achieved the best price from the majority, then actually it supports the allocation of something that specifically is for the community.

“That comes back to the basis of how we might strike a deal for the Owen Building, where we genuinely are allocating that for community and business benefit.

“We think there’s potential for that to remain ring-fenced for the community in a way where that does not necessarily need to command the highest value, whereas the rest of it does.”

So are we saying if you achieve ‘best value’ for the housing allocation, that gives you a bit more leeway maybe on the Owen Building?

“Yes. But the one thing I can’t comment on is who the parties are going to be, because that’s down the track and people have got to come up with proposals that mesh in together and work for the whole thing.”