As meeting over school looms, a timely reminder that we’ve been here before
On Wednesday folk in Shetland will get the chance to voice their views on the location of a new high school at a major public meeting at the Town Hall. It is part of the independent review being carried out into whether the Knab or Clickimin is the best site. Of course, it is not a new debate; in fact it has been going on for years. JOHN ROBERTSON refreshes our memories.
Ten years have come and gone since SIC councillors made the “historic decision” to build a new Anderson High School near Clickimin. It was with considerable relief that they gathered in the Town Hall in March 1999 to rubber-stamp the unanimous wish of the education committee that the big school move across town to a fresh site.
Former education chairman Bill Smith, a veteran councillor dedicated to educational excellence for young Shetlanders, urged the council on with its flagship project after a decade of procrastination. The moment had come weeks before he retired in 1999. Presiding over his committee’s big decision he said, with great satisfaction: “I have thought all along that the correct option was to go for a new school on a green field site.”
The 900-pupil school was to consist of two and three-storey blocks on a site earmarked back in 1993 next to the existing rugby pitch at Clickimin. A new hostel would go next to the caravan and camping site to house 90 boys and girls, hopefully ready in time for accommodating Island Games sports competitors in 2005!
The cost was to be £25.3 million, just £900,000 more expensive than rebuilding and refurbishing the existing school.
That exciting new chapter in Lerwick’s story did not get written. The first pupils were not at their new desks below the Staney Hill at the end of summer 2006. What momentous event was it that knocked the school-builders so badly from their steadfast course that a decade on they are still spinning in circles, gobbling ever more public money with not a brick laid to show for it?
|Arguably the greatest single source of embarrassment to Shetland’s politicians, the project to build a new Anderson High School to educate most of the isles’ secondary pupils has been batted around the Town Hall chamber since the start of the previous decade: |
December 1991 – alternative sites for new AHS and a further education college are suggested.
December 1992 – a brief for AHS is drawn up after the council states “clear preference” for a new build on a new site.
April 1993 – first plans unveiled for new school and halls of residence at lower Staney Hill site adjacent to Clickimin, with combined price tag of £41 million and target opening date of 2000. Councillors note existing buildings – designed to accommodate 750 pupils – are “overcrowded” and it is estimated that a move to Clickimin would save £5.8 million thanks to having leisure facilities nearby.
November 1994 – attempts made to whittle cost down to £30 million as Tory government refuses SIC permission to borrow money to fund the school complex and suggests private finance could be used instead under its Build, Own, Operate (BOO) scheme.
October 1997 – study commissioned comparing the two sites and examining option of refurbishing the existing school. Convener Lewis Smith describes project, which has already “slushed around” for two councils, as matter of urgency.
February 1999 – feasibility studies conclude preferred option is a new build at Clickimin because existing site is “unsatisfactory in several respects”, while Clickimin offers a “better solution in educational and functional terms” albeit at “significantly higher cost”. It is deemed a marginally cheaper long-term option than refurbishing the existing school.
March 2000 – report to councillors asks that charitable trust fund the school project by setting up educational trust, with cost estimated at £34 million over seven years and insufficient funds available from SIC’s capital programme.
March 2003 – services committee agrees to re-investigate suitability of existing AHS site for a new school and the wheels begin to come off hitherto unstoppable Clickimin bandwagon.
October 2003 – with fresh faces following another set of council elections, agreement is reached that the AHS taskforce should “concentrate solely on the AHS site at this stage” and “only in the event of difficulties should the Clickimin site be considered as the second option”.
May 2004 – feasibility study proposals for a £29.6 million new school and £10 million hostel at the Knab site presented to councillors, after they were told quarrying out the slopes of Staney Hill would cost an extra £10 million.
September 2006 – adoption of “living wall” design as the preferred option sees the cost of a school on the “cheaper” Knab site spiral to £48 million.
December 2007 – two bids from new councillors for a rethink and comparison of alternative sites are rejected.
March 2008 – radical arc-shaped model for a school on the Knab site, in partnership with Irish contractors O’Hare & McGovern, is rejected just a fortnight before planning permission due to be submitted, after councillors become unhappy with staggering £63 million price tag (not including a halls of residence). Executive director of education Hazel Sutherland asked to take charge of process with a view to getting a slimmed-down model on the existing Knab site, but another attempt from some members to look afresh at alternative sites is rejected.
June 2009 – three days after fifth attempt at design, a more compact building lower down the hill at Knab and with price now capped at £49 million, was given the go-ahead by SIC planning board, councillors take surprise last-minute decision to ground project to a halt again, commissioning review to look at respective merits of the existing Knab location and lower Staney Hill site.
In hindsight it was perhaps unwise for elected members in early 1999 to make such a far-reaching decision to commit to a new school weeks before an election that was to bring eight new faces and some new thinking into the council chamber. In the years that followed, doubts crept in and eventually the Clickimin option was effectively frozen out.
There was lobbying against the Clickimin move by some Lerwick business owners and shopkeepers who feared losing the trade from children who throng to Commercial Street twice a day to make their presence felt. Town centre association chairman Laurence Smith warned against damaging the traditional and historic town centre by moving the focus of activity further out.
There was also the factor, perhaps now forgotten, that Clickimin was chosen not because councillors desired it but because they had been told by officials there was no room for a new school at the existing site and all they could do was spend nearly as much patching up and improving the current school complex. They were not weighing up the options of new school at the Knab versus new school at Clickimin. Faced with a botched refurb job it is little wonder there was nobody on the education committee in 1999 in favour of staying put at Lerwick’s traditional seat of learning.
Another, perhaps spurious, factor in councillors moving against Clickimin was the fact they did not own most of the land, even though it is poor quality and not likely to command a price too high for them.
The green fields, or heathery hill, required for the school was owned at the time by Olive Borland, niece of the late Lady Nicolson of Fetlar. Other bits needed for a hostel were owned by Shetland Recreational Trust and farmers Brian and Maurice Anderson. Perhaps some members could not stomach the prospect of more public money going to the Andersons who had already sold the Ness of Sound to the local authority in the early 1990s for £1.2 million.
A new influence on the debate after the 1999 elections was Sandy Cluness who had rejoined the council after 12 years out. In 2001 the council embarked on one of its periodic reviews of education which are ostensibly about finding a way to close a few schools and cut back some of the overspending.
In a special article on education submitted to The Shetland Times in June 2001 Mr Cluness advocated “going back to the drawing board” after condemning the proposed move away from the Knab site as “a £30,000,000-plus mistake causing major and unnecessary disruption at both ends of the town”.
He wrote: “I have found no evidence that the proposal to move the Anderson High has the overwhelming support of its teachers, pupils, or the general public.”
At least part of his concern was the effect on the streets of Twageos, which although bustling when the school opens and shuts, are quiet in the evenings and weekends. He warned about the school shifting and its old buildings being turned over to, for instance, a hotel in the Bruce Hostel, offices in the old boy’s hostel, a museum/arts centre and most significantly perhaps, at least 120 new houses and flats with all the social change and extra traffic they would bring.
Fast forward to 2003 in the aftermath of the best value review and the SIC services committee agrees on 31st March to a request from education head Alex Jamieson and officials to reinvestigate the existing school site to see if a replacement school could be built there. In a remarkably prescient observation councillor Florence Grains warned it would lead to the debate going round and round in circles again for another 12 or 13 years.
Another councillor and Clickimin fan, the late Rob Anderson, was also deeply suspicious but other members and officials sought to reassure him that the Clickimin option would stay on the shelf for consideration once the existing AHS site had been assessed. However, councillor Jim Irvine claimed there was an unspoken veto on using the Clickimin site because the people of North Lochside would object.
Some members criticised the brief given to architects for the Clickimin site, blaming it for landing the council with “a prestige but inflexible” building design. The only councillors present at the services committee that day who are still around on the SIC are Gussie Angus, Mrs Grains, Iris Hawkins, Bill Manson, Frank Robertson and Josie Simpson.
With the Knab site suddenly back in contention, a large task force of councillors, officials, teachers and pupils was convened to examine it. From that point in early 2003 the wheels began to come off the previously unstoppable Clickimin bandwagon.
A few days later the council did agree that the Clickimin site study, now getting old, should also be updated alongside the new study of the Knab site, much to the chagrin of officials.
According to the minutes of the meeting, chief executive Morgan Goodlad warned that to update the Clickimin design brief would involve more costs and “would cause considerable delay to the process in terms of the instruction from members to look at the outcome of the best value service review”. However, he did confirm that the proposal to put the new AHS at the Clickimin was included in the council’s capital programme at that time.
Intriguingly, Mr Angus and councillor Maisie Colligan saw fit to criticise officials that day for what they perceived as a general assumption having crept in that the new school was to go on the existing site. Mrs Colligan stuck her neck out and suggested it might still be worth considering a completely different site, even outside Lerwick. The late councillor Cecil Eunson was a lone voice calling for Seafield to be chosen with its green fields and acres of space. It appears now, with hindsight, that he was dead set against moving the AHS to Clickimin.
Six months later another set of council elections had taken place, bringing in more fresh faces and the Clickimin option was soon pushed aside. At a services committee meeting in October 2003 it was reported that the task force was coming to the unanimous view there was room to fit a new purpose-built school at the Knab “with minimal impact on the existing education provision”, based on a new study which looked at building a new school behind the existing one rather than just renovating and improving the old buildings. Some space had been won by designing smaller classrooms.
According to the meeting minute and The Shetland Times’ report, Mr Eunson was confident there was ample room and called for the other ongoing feasibility study into the Clickimin site to be forgotten about because it was a waste of time and money. Instead, efforts should concentrate on the study into the AHS site.
Councillor Bill Manson, the council’s education spokesman, agreed, saying the Clickimin site had major disadvantages including the need to buy the site and to pay for large-scale excavation work to fit the school into the side of Staney Hill. He said his reason for previously supporting a study of the Clickimin site was due to the potential disruption to pupils from a new-build on the AHS site but he no longer believed that would be the case because work could be phased.
Councillor John Nicolson was concerned about his colleagues’ desire to proceed with the AHS-only option, casting aside Clickimin, without having all the relevant information. “There is a haste here that worries me,” he said with, as it turned out, very good reason.
The committee eventually agreed to Mr Eunson’s proposal, echoing convener Cluness’ view, that consideration should only return to the Clickimin site if problems arose taking forward the Knab proposals. Members who wanted more information before shelving the option lost out.
In early 2004 when the AHS task force reported the findings of its six-month study Clickimin was effectively forgotten and councillors were told that quarrying out the lower slopes of the Staney Hill would supposedly add up to £10m to the price of a school there.
The price for a school and hostel at the Knab site was put at just under £30m – 25 per cent more than originally estimated but around £8m less than building at Clickimin.
Of course the Knab costs later shot up to £48m in 2007 and then to a staggering £63m last year but councillors had no information available to compare with building at the Clickimin instead.