Decision time for important projects

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By NEIL RIDDELL

A YEAR on from the inception of this council, the next week will mark a watershed in determining the direction in which members will attempt to steer the community during the remainder of their time in office.

Two key long-running projects – the new Anderson High School and Mareel, the proposed cinema and music venue – are due to come under the microscope again at next Wednesday’s meeting of the full council, a symptom of some newly-elected councillors’ desire to re-examine some of the commitments made under the previous administration.

SIC executive service director Hazel Sutherland has been preparing reports on the different site options for the school and, along with head of finance Graham Johnston, a detailed review of the business plan, financial projections and attendance figures for Mareel after members last month voted to review their £5.2m commitment to the £9.3m project.

Shetland Arts director Gwilym Gibbons told The Shetland Times this week he felt satisfied that he and his staff had been able to answer all the questions asked of them when they were grilled by the senior officers. The body is understood to be quietly confident ahead of next week’s meeting, which is critical to the future of the project. It is also understood to have a contractor ready to start digging if councillors give the project the thumbs up, with the venue’s opening date set for spring 2010.

The council has already spent around £750,000 on Mareel and previously committed itself to spending a further £4.5m from its capital programme. Shetland Arts has already secured £2.1m in lottery funding and has applied for further money from a variety of external sources, including around £750,000 from Highlands and Islands Enterprise and £300,000 from Shetland Development Trust.

But some cost-cutting councillors see Mareel as a convenient starting point as they seek to usher in a new era of frugal stewardship of Shetlanders’ money. At least on Wednesday we should learn one way or another whether the project will go ahead.

It is more difficult to see a quick resolution to the interminable AHS saga, however, and it seems unlikely that any hard and fast decision will be taken next week as many councillors now feel more information is needed before they can decide on the best way to see the project to fruition.

SIC convener Sandy Cluness said members had already made decisions on the two projects several times and, given the rapid increases in building costs, he feels the sooner both are up and running the better.

“As far as I’m concerned, we’ve made decisions in relation to both Mareel and the AHS on a number of occasions,” he said. “The real enemy we have is time, because building costs have almost doubled in the last three years. Every month we delay is costing us money and the sooner we get on with this the better. Hopefully the reports will show us the way forward.”

It is generally accepted that the need for the school is increasingly urgent because of the run-down state of the existing AHS, but progress has again been delayed in recent months. Planning permission was due to be submitted in early April for the radical arc-shaped building at the Knab, before some councillors began to get cold feet. The prospect of the new school being able to open its doors as planned in 2011 now appears to be receding rapidly and members seem further away than ever from settling on a site.

There appears to be a growing division among the 22 councillors, with a vocal lobby calling for the new school to be built on another site altogether, either at Seafield or adjacent to Clickimin at the lower Staney Hill, another group who just want to get on and build it, and others who are calling for the design to be scaled down and modified to reduce costs.

No budget appears to have been set over and above a combined £34m for a new school and hostel five years ago, but Lerwick South councillor Jonathan Wills estimates a total for the two buildings of £76m would be more accurate, with around £58m for the school alone.

He said that in 2003 the project team were instructed to concentrate on the Knab site and only revert to Clickimin if unspecified difficulties were encountered. “Presumably coming in at well over twice the budget constitutes a ‘difficulty’ under any definition,” Dr Wills said.

He believes a “reasonable sum” for the new school would be around £40m.

Dr Wills is also concerned that the council has not followed formal procedures since the early stages of the project and believes no further progress can be made until the services committee sets a budget, a brief and a specification.

One option raised by Dr Wills is for a phased re-development of the existing site, as opposed to the area between Knab Road and the existing site on which the present plans are based, though he was not sure whether that could be done while minimising disruption to pupils. He is also in favour of looking at the alternative sites afresh. “It’s all got to be looked at again, because elsewhere in the country schools are coming in much cheaper,” he said.

Services committee chairman Gussie Angus agrees that the proposed school needs to be pulled back to nearer its budget. Officials’ report on the budget and possible site options are also due to go before a special meeting of the services committee for decision, though it is not yet clear whether the meeting will take place before or after the summer recess.

Mr Angus told The Shetland Times he still believed the idea of a joint primary and secondary school was one which merited further investigation.

“My concern is that future primary provision is being lost in the current considerations,” he said. “We have a one-off opportunity to look at the provision for both, sharing resources, management, everything else. If we build on the present site, we lose that opportunity. It hasn’t found favour so far, but that would be my preferred option.

“There are problems with the existing building. I would suspect that it’s no worse than a lot of school buildings throughout Scotland, but it is probably the worst school building in Shetland, where the building stock is of very good quality. But whatever happens we’re going to have to spend money on the existing building.”

Councillor Caroline Miller said that in principle she favoured the Knab site but she would like to have more information in front of her before making a call on whether to press ahead with building the school in its present form.

“We need a new school as soon as possible, but certainly not at any cost,” she said. “We want a building that is fit for purpose and not OTT; if that means scaling back what we’ve got then so be it.”

Mrs Miller said she was confident that, even with a re-think, a new school could yet open its doors within the lifetime of this council.

A decade ago, there was a lobby saying the best idea would be to forget the Clickimin and move to the Knab, and now some are arguing vice-versa, in light of which it will come as little surprise to the people of Shetland that another of last year’s intake this week voiced a fear that the debate will continue going “round and round in circles”.

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