A meeting of North Yorkshire County Council’s executive saw the leading councillors approve in principle the redevelopment of its centre at Bewerley Park, near Pateley Bridge, and improvements at its East Barnby site, as supporters forecast exciting and bright futures for the facilities.
Members also agreed to plough up to £400,000 into a feasibility study, but said further investments in the site would be considered separately and dependent on the authority’s Outdoor Education Service meeting five tests.
These include attracting more visitors to the sites and seeking ways in which the centres can be self-financing.
The meeting heard several councillors applaud the action plan and tell how they or their children had benefited from residential trips to the centres, which were built in the 1940s and 1950s.
Councillors heard the sites, which include prefabricated and wooden buildings, needed an overhaul to attract more visitors.
Executive member for education Councillor Patrick Mulligan said: “The crux of the matter is a number of the buildings on both sites are delapidated. They are way beyond their shelf life.”
He said the running of the centres would also need to be transformed, citing how they lacked revenue-generating expertise as they were run by teachers who continued to be paid even when there were no visitors.
During the 2019-2020 financial year, the centres hosted more than 6,700 children from 170 different schools on residential visits, but with occupancy during weekday term time averaging 52 per cent at East Barnby and 34 per cent at Bewerley Park, the authority believes there is significant room for improvement.
As a result the service has been forced to draw on the public purse to remain afloat in some years, while at other times it has come close to breaking-even.
Coun Mulligan said in the face of growing maintenance costs at the site the financial status quo could not continue, but he was very hopeful the proposals would see a first-rate self-sustaining service established for the long-term.
He said: “We want to make sure we are going to transform this service onto a more commercial footing so that if we do make some investment into the buildings, which we will need to do, then the Outdoor Learning Service will be able to repay those investments.”
Nevertheless Councillor Gareth Dadd, the authority’s finance boss and deputy leader, said while the residential centres were widely popular, the future of the centres remained far from assured.
He said while the maintaining the centres during the pandemic had cost the taxpayer about £1 million, but the council’s proposals gave them the opportunity to prove they could sustain themselves.
Coun Dadd said: “This is not, and I repeat not, the saving of the Outdoor Education Service. I don’t want anybody to be under the illusion this is a free-for-all and an open-ended cheque.
“It’s a brave move by the authority. It’s not a statutory service and many authorities have actually closed their facilities.”