This potted history only goes back as far as the mid 90s to the time of local government reorganisation. Argyll & Bute Council inherited Castle Toward Estate at that time and only avoided a challenge to that ownership by agreeing to the continuation of outdoor education in the premises. That agreement was reached with East Renfrewshire Council and Glasgow City Council. Two of the key players were Dr Malcolm Green and Dr Christopher Mason, at that time both councillors in Glasgow. Dr Mason, with the assistance of Dr Green, has written his summary account of what happened then. It’s a short but interesting read.
In 2004, Actual Reality submitted a report to Glasgow City Council. Extracts from this are shown below, one of which summarises the extent of the business and its contribution to the local economy. It also highlights the inexplicable failure of Argyll & Bute Council to offer a 99 year lease despite having been given the green light to do that by the Scottish Government. Without that 99 year lease, Actual Reality were unable to raise the necessary funds to renovate the main building within the estate.
The question is why did the council refuse to give a 99 year lease? Was it to make life so difficult for Actual Reality that they would give up thereby allowing the council to sell the estate? To get the Scottish Government’s agreement to provide this 99 year lease, the council said the estate had nil value. Yes, zero, nothing, not a penny yet they refused a recent offer of £850k from South Cowal Community Development Company and want £1.75m for it. Remember, they got it for nothing and promised to foster outdoor education.
From the report to Glasgow City Council on December 2004.
In May 2001, the management committee dissolved, on the understanding that Argyll & Bute Council would enter into a 99 year lease with the Actual Reality Learning and Leadership Trust. However, this arrangement did not materialise and the Centre has continued to operate with uncertainty over its future.
Despite these difficulties the Centre has provided outdoor learning, music and arts programmes for over 50,000 young people from all over Scotland since 1997. It is also a major contributor to the fragile economy of the Cowal peninsula. Employing over 50 people, it is within the top two per cent of employers operating in Argyll and the Isles Enterprise (AlE) area of operation and within the top six per cent within. Highland and Isles Enterprise (HIE) area and has generated more than £4.5m to the local economy.
In that same report the company said that in the 12 months to August 2004, 6,530 individuals had attended Castle Toward. It was, in short, a huge success for Cowal and Argyll & Bute as a whole. Why, then, would Argyll & Bute Council want to shut this operation down other than to flog it off for short term gain? But they have never actually managed to sell it off. The known offers that have been rejected were from Castle Toward Trust in 2008 (£500k), Actual Reality in 2011 (£650k) and South Cowal Community Development Company in 2014 (£850k). In between these dates they accepted an offer of over £2m from a holiday company who eventually pulled out. It was clear from that company’s balance sheet at the time of the agreed figure that they were so indebted nobody was likely to lend to them. Did anyone check them out or take a hefty deposit from them? Who knows?
More will follows of this sad tale of a wasted and wasting asset in beautiful South Cowal.