College reveals £8m revamp

SUFFOLK'S hard-pressed rural economy has received a major boost after Otley College revealed plans for an £8 million investment in new facilities over the next five years.

By Duncan Brodie

SUFFOLK'S hard-pressed rural economy has received a major boost after Otley College revealed plans for an £8 million investment in new facilities over the next five years.

The former agricultural college, which has already transformed its range of courses in recent years to cover the whole of the land-based sector, now also plans to upgrade its buildings to meet the demands of the 21st Century.

Plans include around 6,000 sq ft of new teaching accommodation, including a new library and an IT centre, to replace around half of the existing space on the site including some converted 60-year-old cattle sheds.

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There will also be up to four "incubator" units to help fledgling food businesses using the college's development facilities to increase production until they are ready for the move to premises of their own.

And, for the first time, the college is also to provide residential accommodation, in response to the growing number of students travelling to Otley from outside the local area.

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A "masterplan" seeking outline planning permission for the development has been submitted to Suffolk Coastal District Council, with the hope of the first phase of building work beginning as soon as late autumn this year.

College principal John Pearson said the impact of foot-and-mouth disease had compressed perhaps six to seven years of evolution into a rapid, revolutionary change for the rural economy.

The college had responded to this by consulting with more than 200 organisations and businesses on its future role, backed by independent research commissioned from consultants KPMG with the support of the Learning and Skills Council for Suffolk.

"KPMG concluded that if there was not an Otley College the LSC would need to invent something like it to meet its targets, particularly in respect of widening participation and rural communities," said Mr Pearson.

The strategy adopted by the college should see its annual turnover increase from around £9 million to up to £12 million by 2005-06, and student numbers rise from around 5,000 at present to 6,500.

However, if this was to be achieved, it was also recognised that the college needed to bring its teaching facilities up to modern standards, he said.

The new teaching accommodation represents around £5 million of the total investment.

Among the first facilities to be built will be a new library and an IT centre, followed by new accommodation for the growth areas of construction and animal science.

It is hoped that work on the 75-bedroom residential block, which will cost around £1 million, and the incubation units, likely to cost up to £2 million, will follow next year.

Funding for the work will come from a range of sources, notably the LSC which is to contribute 35% to 50% of the cost of the new teaching facilities.

The college itself will be funding part of the work through borrowing, which it has been able to agree on the strength of its business plan despite not owning the freehold of the site.

In addition to the new college buildings, the proposals involve a new community sports facility including football, rugby and cricket pitches and a pavilion, and there will be a new car park with a separate entrance and exit further along the B1078 towards Otley Bottom.

The present frontage of the college facing Charity Lane will become the "back" of the site, being used principally by commercial vehicles.

Mr Pearson said that, despite the increased student numbers, residential accommodation and car parking, the number of student visits to the site was expected to remain unchanged or even to fall slightly.

This was as a result of increased use of on-line learning and the college's "outreach" centres in locations including Colchester, Lowestoft, Ipswich, Leiston and Felixstowe.

Residential facilities were required to meet the growing number of people travelling to the college from outside the county, such as those on foundation degree courses which involve 10 residential weekends a year, he said

"If the rural economy is to grow and development its needs help and support to do that," added Mr Pearson. "People can change and adapt but they need support from people they have confidence in.

"This is an ambitious plan but we want the college to be something the people of Suffolk can be proud of."

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