Councillors have approved contentious plans for a new £49 million school to replace the Anderson High School following an emotionally-charged three-hour planning hearing in Lerwick Town Hall.
Members of the planning board unanimously gave the project the go-ahead at a specially-arranged meeting on Monday morning, although vice chairman Gary Robinson walked out and Jonathan Wills, who was at the meeting as an objector, tore up some of his papers in protest towards the end of the hearing.
Building work should now start this summer on a new school to educate Shetland’s pupils for the remainder of this century, although there is still scope for the Full Council to overturn the planning board’s decision and the possibility that it will be called in for examination by Scottish ministers in Edinburgh.
The five-storey, mainly sandstone building has been designed to accommodate up to 1,000 secondary-age pupils. There has been a growing clamour for a new building in recent years because of the increasingly dilapidated state of the existing school and the approved proposal is the fifth version over a 20-year gestation period for a project which is the source of considerable embarrassment to many of the isles’ politicians.
A total of 12 objectors, including Lerwick Community Council, had outlined their opposition for a variety of reasons, chiefly the level of disruption and “extreme traffic congestion” which would be caused during the construction phase and the council’s failure to follow its own development plan and local plan.
A petition signed by 89 residents in the surrounding area was also submitted urging the planning board to refer the application to Scottish ministers. Tom Jamieson, who organised the last-minute petition against the proposal, said: “Everybody is saying the same thing. It’s not as if we don’t have another place to build a school.”
Some of the objectors were annoyed that no model for the latest design had been made available. Concerns were also raised about the manner in which the application appeared to have been rushed through in order to meet a timetable which suited the council, as the developer, and its Irish building contractor O’Hare & McGovern.
LCC chairman Jim Anderson said members of the community council had voted to object primarily because the proposal was at odds with various agreed plans which commit the SIC to pursuing sustainable transport policies.
He said that if the school was built on the lower Staney Hill site next to Clickimin, 97 per cent of Lerwick pupils would be within the stipulated one-mile walking distance whereas at the Knab everyone to the west of Sound Service Station and to the north of Grantfield Garage would have to be bussed in to the school.
Mr Anderson said the council was still carrying out a best value service review into education, and that to go ahead with a new high school before that was completed would “at best seem premature” and would be “compounding the errors that have historically blighted this council”. He was one of several speakers to be given a round of applause by objectors at the end of his contribution.
Parent Patricia Wright was also opposed on the grounds that pupils’ education would inevitably suffer as a consequence of being taught on a building site for up to four years. “I selfishly want what’s best for my children [and other children] in Shetland. I don’t want to see children suffer educationally and I don’t want them to be left with a £50 million debt as our legacy to them.”
But every member of the planning board, bar Mr Robinson, gave their backing to building the school on the existing site, adding the caveat that building work will not be permitted to take place on a Sunday. It is not clear what knock-on impact that will have on the construction phase, originally estimated to take three years but which some objectors suggested may in fact be as long as four and a half years.
In line with the planning department’s recommendations, the number of heavy goods vehicles coming onto the site will be restricted to 47 movements a day, which could also have an impact on the timescale.
Moving that the board approve the application, Lerwick South councillor Cecil Smith said it was “one of the biggest decisions the planning board is going to make” and, while he had some sympathy with objectors over the level of inconvenience it would cause, only a few had referred to concerns about disruption to pupils and the AHS’s parent council had chosen not to object.
Mr Robinson had earlier walked out of the meeting shortly after its inception, citing external interference in the planning process.
He said he felt “the authority of the planning board may have been undermined” and, because he had previously expressed his opposition to the Knab site, he felt he could not take part in the meeting. “There is evidence to suggest interference from one or both executive directors at least in the setting of the timescale for the applications to be heard,” he said.
He reminded fellow planning board members that several of them were on public record favouring the Knab site but none saw fit to follow suit in declaring an interest. Mr Robinson was unable to find a supporter for his motion to ask chief executive David Clark to engage an independent, external scrutiniser to carry out a four-week investigation into the level of interference by senior officials.
Dr Wills said planning board members were “turning conflicts of interest into an art form” and were irreconcilably compromised.
“You’re not only applying to yourselves for planning permission but you’ve already said you support your own application. Therefore these proceedings can only be a charade and a mockery of the planning process – which requires you to judge each application solely on its merits in planning law, disregarding all other considerations. The process should be transparently fair and rigorously independent from political influence.”
But Dr Wills is intent on continuing the fight to halt the project, highlighting what he perceives to be “very obvious breaches of council policy”. He said: “This is by no means the end of it. The campaign against this building and this site is not over. The petition continues to gather signatures as the public come to realise the enormity of what has been approved.”