An outdoor education centre in Eltham owned by Greenwich Council is lying unused four years after the charity that ran it closed, along with a centre in Kent that was visited by the Duchess of Cambridge only a decade ago.
The Eltham Environment Centre on Bexley Road and Margaret McMillan House in Wrotham were operated by the Wide Horizons charity, which folded amid acrimony in July 2018.
Both centres have reverted to the control of the council, which is paying for property guardians to live in them. Both face an uncertain future.
Dave Picton, a former leader of the council and its chair of education for six years in the 1980s, says they should be reopened and made available for children to visit once again.
The Bexley Road centre, which sits in 10 acres of woodland, could easily have reopened three years ago, Picton says. Two organisations have offered to take on Margaret McMillan House, he adds, but their enquiries have met with little response.
Bexley Road was a nature supply centre for all schools in inner London, growing plants and shrubs for use in classrooms and laboratories. It then became a centre for teacher training and day visits for primary and secondary pupils, set among flower meadows, ponds and orchards.
“It was a very special learning environment,” said Picton, who was Labour leader from 1988 to 1990. “The centre at Eltham could have been reopened two or three years ago,” he added, saying that a slimmed-down service could still have been provided.
“It did not require major investment. And the centre could be accessible to local environmental organisations and the community at large at suitable times in the week and the year.”
Wide Horizons was spun out of Greenwich and Lewisham councils in 2004 after the boroughs inherited the outdoor centres from the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) when it was abolished in 1990.
Those centres included Margaret McMillan House in Wrotham, which was founded to provide outdoor activities for the children of the old boroughs of Deptford and Greenwich. It was opened in May 1936 by the Duke of York, just seven months before he became King George VI.
The royal connections continued in 2012, when the Duchess of Cambridge visited the site to join children from a school in Marylebone. But it closed six years later after Wide Horizons hit financial problems and folded.
Margaret McMillan House, which was run by Wide Horizons staff, is overseen by a separate charity whose sole trustee is Greenwich Council.
Greenwich inherited the trustee role from ILEA and its predecessor, the London County Council. A special sub-committee of councillors, with one outside representative from Greenwich University, is in charge of the trust, which is dedicated to “field studies for children”.
In 2019, the sub-committee agreed to lease Margaret McMillan House to an organisation that would be sympathetic to the trust’s objectives. But in September 2020, it changed its mind after council leader Danny Thorpe addressed a meeting. It decided to sell the centre and plough the funds into reopening Bexley Road as a centre for young people with special educational needs.
Picton argues that the sub-committee does not have the power to spend the McMillan charity’s money on Bexley Road, which is directly owned by the council. While he is sympathetic to the council’s idea, he believes Bexley Road would be the wrong location as it would be “at the cost of losing an environmental gem built up carefully over many years”.
Some 20 months later, Margaret McMillan House remains unsold and property guardians are still living there. Tonbridge & Malling District Council, its local authority, made it an asset of community value in 2019 to try to protect it from developers. So far has not been notified of any plans to sell.
‘A wonderful centre’
Picton has teamed up with Mike Penny, a former outdoor education adviser to both Lewisham and Greenwich, Peter Carne, a former head of the Bexley Road centre, and Richard Slade, the head of Plumcroft school in Plumstead, to fight for the future of the centres. The four are also involved in a campaign group, the Friends of Margaret McMillan House.
“Some, including the council leader, have suggested that outdoor education can’t be afforded in the future,” Picton said. “It is not top of the agenda at this moment for head teachers and schools still coping with absence from Covid and ever increasing budget pressures.
“But looking beyond the pandemic, should school journeys and the chance for children and the community to visit a wonderful centre like Eltham still be available? The answer has to be a resounding yes.”
A Greenwich Council spokesperson told 853: “The council is developing a proposal for part of the Bexley Road site that will include an educational facility for residents with special educational needs and disabilities with the woodland retained for community use. The final proposal will be subject of a future report for consideration by councillors.
“As the Margaret McMillan Trust is also a charity, there are several processes to go through including securing the Charity Commission’s consent before the decision of the trust to sell the [Wrotham] property can be implemented and the property made available for marketing.
“In the meantime, the council as trustee has kept a record of all expressions of interest and in the event that the Charity Commission approves the disposal these will be considered alongside any others that are received. This will allow the trust to fully consider what best delivers the charitable objectives of the Margaret McMillan Trust.”
Asked if there was a future for outdoor education in the borough, the spokesperson said: “Yes, our schools offer a broad and balanced curriculum and outdoor education is an integral part of this.”
Thanks to Mike Penny for the photos.
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