In a roll call vote, the move to advance the biggest capital project the council is ever likely to undertake was backed by a margin of 13-3 during a special meeting of the services committee, meaning the project team can go forward with its plans within the next few weeks.
It is hoped that the application will be submitted late this month or early in March and, should it be successful, that construction work can begin this autumn with a proposed completion date of December 2012.
Members agreed by an overwhelming majority with convener Sandy Cluness’ motion that officials’ recommendation to press on should be followed after he stressed the need to move ahead with the project with no more delays. Around £3 million has been spent to date on five different versions of a new school and members heard at a meeting with the architects on Wednesday that consultancy fees were costing the SIC some £200,000 a month.
Mr Cluness said Shetlanders were renowned for wanting and receiving a high quality of education and if that had to cost extra then “so be it”, adding the council was lucky enough to have reserves meaning it did not have to look at a discredited private financing arrangement to fund major projects. “I know for a fact the PFI [private finance initiative] system has been brought into disrepute and is now rejected by the Scottish government,” he said.
“The present team led by Hazel [Sutherland, executive director of education and social care] has done a really fine job. It’s high time we accepted the proposal. It’s still to go for planning [so] there may be adjustments [but] I suspect central government is unlikely to turn down an application on a site [where the existing school stands].”
Mr Cluness said it was time to get on with the business of providing a new school in which the next few generations of young people in Shetland can be educated, particularly in light of a host of maintenance problems with the existing school. That view was shared by the bulk of councillors, with the prevailing mood that those sitting on councils past and present have already prevaricated for far too long.
Lerwick South councillor Jonathan Wills disagreed and proposed that the project team be asked to review in detail the costs and feasibility of alternative sites at Lower Staney Hill and Seafield, enabling them to demonstrate which option represents best value in terms of the single outcome agreement and concordat with the Scottish government, though he was only able to find two supporters for his amendment.
At a presentation from Alan Shields of architects RPP on Wednesday, councillors were shown the latest design in detail, indicating how the building has been moved from the top of the Knab to what is in essence the site of the existing school. That means the building programme is to be undertaken in seven phases to allow for decanting, which will mean substantial disruption for pupils, with the 1970s concrete A, B and C blocks and the games hall and music department being demolished and temporary PE and music accommodation being created.
The new PE department will be the first part of the new school to be completed, with a timescale of around 12 months from one Christmas to the next. The project team has been unable to find a way of making the artificial sports pitch full-sized due to site constraints, nor has it managed to shoehorn the listed Anderson Educational Institute building into the plans.
Irish building firm O’Hare and McGovern, brought in on an early contractor involvement deal, said it was “very confident” that the construction dates can be met, with the only remaining uncertainty the progress of the planning application, and all being well the builders can “go home with everybody smiling” at the end of 2012.
The council does not have a firm financial package in place for the school, but the proposal being discussed at present is for the charitable trust’s property arm SLAP to pay for the cost of building the school and then lease it back to the SIC at a rate of around £4-5 million a year over a period likely to be around a quarter of a century.
After being quizzed by Lerwick North councillor Caroline Miller as to whether he had any concerns over the financing of the project, the council’s head of finance Graham Johnston responded: “It is the biggest project this council will probably ever undertake. I feel the project team that is working on this project is doing work of value to the council and improving the value of the project, and it’s a matter requiring serious deliberation.”
Dr Wills quoted a teacher he spoke to last September who stated: “No matter how far you have gone down the wrong road, it is always best to turn back.” He said the council had failed to fix an affordable budget, arrange finance or decide on the best site. “What we have done is put the cart before the horse and then try to back them into a closs that’s too narrow for either,” he said, pointing out that the Blueprint for Education had to be agreed before the council could settle upon the size and shape of a new school.
“In a few months’ time we may find we actually need a more flexible building than the design that a charming, persuasive and very ingenious architect has squeezed into the awkward space available at Knab Road,” he continued. “At present we don’t know. This is one very compelling reason for not submitting the latest version for planning permission: it might be wrong and it isn’t ready yet.”
Dr Wills said most teachers had now accepted the design out of “weary resignation and desperation” and claimed that the prevailing mood of “just get on with it” translated into an “it’s more important to do it now than to get it right” approach to a school which is anticipated to have a shelf-life of around 60 years.
He said: “I don’t actually mind which option we choose, as long as we can prove to the public and to the government that it’s the best value for public money. That doesn’t necessarily mean the cheapest, by the way. We haven’t yet demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that this fifth attempt to design a school is the best we can do.”
He was supported by regular allies Allison Duncan, who said the cost and shape of the building were wrong and “the sooner we move to a greenfield site at Seafield the better”, and Gary Robinson, who drew members’ attention to discussions he had with an Orcadian councillor who informed him they had agreed a budget of £50 million to build a new Kirkwall Grammar School, new halls of residence, a primary school and a swimming pool.
“I fail to see how this can possibly be best value,” he said, though education spokesman Bill Manson retorted that councillors in Orkney were “worried to death” about what kind of facilities they will end up with for that price tag.
In what is thought to be a first for the chamber, the spectre of Robert the Bruce and his “try, try and try again” maxim was dredged up. “We’ve tried twice more than he has,” Mr Robinson said. “I think we’re in a hole and we should really stop digging.”
But Mr Manson reminded members that a burst pipe had recently caused the existing school to be shut to pupils for a day and that a move to look at other sites – which the report suggested could delay the process by between 18 months and two years – would effectively write off a large proportion of the spend to date.
Mrs Miller said that while she accepted the process had been far from perfect, she was convinced that the SIC’s heads of department “know what need to be done”. “How we got there is history, it’s irrelevant,” she said. “Why do we employ our staff? They’re professional folk, every one of them is saying go ahead.” Councillor Florence Grains agreed, describing the latest report as “excellent” and, while she preferred the £63 million horseshoe design of 12 months ago, she was now just waiting “to get any kind of school up”.
Councillor Rick Nickerson said he wanted to congratulate Dr Wills and others for their time and effort in scrutinising the project, which had resulted in a “much improved brief”. He remained to be convinced that the new design would be “robust and strong enough” to meet the frequently inclement weather conditions but felt that no more delays could be afforded.
Lerwick North councillor Allan Wishart agreed, saying that after 20 years of trying he found it “difficult to believe that we can come up with anything better”.
Mr Cluness said he was very impressed with the latest design, with its spacious atrium and additional social space. “I think it is quite a nice school, the large open social areas are a good thing, especially if you take account of the kind of weather we have, the occasions where everybody has to be inside.”
• The roll call vote, with six councillors absent due to the heavy snowfall early yesterday morning, was as follows: the 13 members in favour of proceeding to the planning stage were: services committee chairman Gussie Angus, convener Sandy Cluness, Addie Doull, Florence Grains, Robert Henderson, Jim Henry, Andrew Hughson, Bill Manson, Caroline Miller, Rick Nickerson, vice-convener Josie Simpson, Cecil Smith, Allan Wishart. The trio opposing the motion were Jonathan Wills, Gary Robinson and Allison Duncan.
By NEIL RIDDELL