A bitter political row has broken out in the aftermath of the planning board’s decision to approve the application to build the £49 million new Anderson High School on the existing Knab site.
Having learned that the application would not be called in by Scottish ministers, Lerwick South councillor Jonathan Wills has accused SIC head of planning Iain McDiarmid of deeming objectors to the new school to be “beneath contempt”.
In response to a query from Dr Wills about what arrangements were being made to report back to and consult with objectors to the proposed school now that the decision had been taken to press ahead, Mr McDiarmid said he was unaware of any requirement to undertake such consultation.
In an angrily-worded subsequent email, Dr Wills asked Mr McDiarmid why he had bothered showing up for the hearing on Monday because he “didn’t even have the courtesy to attempt a reasoned refutation of the points [the objectors] raised in writing”.
In light of the government’s refusal to call the application in, he wrote: “You will indeed not have to suffer the personal indignity and professional embarrassment of attempting to defend your abject report to the objectors whose views you have so resolutely ignored.”
But SIC chief executive David Clark jumped to the defence of Mr McDiarmid, who had insisted on Monday that he would never bring an incomplete report before the planning board. “For the record, I would like to state my confidence in the professionalism of my officers,” said Mr Clark. “I also expect them to be treated with respect and common courtesy as they carry out their duties in service to the community.”
The application was approved by eight members of the planning board on Monday after they had heard a plethora of objections over disruption to residents and pupils, as well as the application contravening the council’s own plans in relation to pursuing sustainable transport policies, though board vice-chairman Gary Robinson walked out of the meeting suggesting there had been political interference which had undermined the board’s authority.
Dr Wills believes that the planning application has been rushed through a “fatally biased and compromised planning board” by a “discredited political clique desperate to save their fading reputations”. The proposal being adopted is the fifth design of the school and the project has been batted around the Town Hall for the past two decades.
His email continued: “It’s the wrong building on the wrong site at the wrong price and everyone now knows it. It makes a mockery of the council’s stated policies. Yet the applicant was given preferential treatment that no private developer could expect. This stinks and you know it. You seem to have decided that the objectors are so beneath contempt that you don’t even need to meet them to explain yourself.”
During Monday’s meeting, Mr McDiarmid stated that he believed all the planning issues raised by the application had been looked into and his department had given it “the same level of care and the same level of attention and diligence” that it would to any other development. He said: “We wouldn’t be putting a report before this planning board if we didn’t feel it had been through the appropriate level of consideration by the planners.”
Eighty-nine people signed a residents’ petition against the project last weekend and a second petition is now being organised by concerned parent Patricia Wright, who told the hearing on Monday she was worried about the impact it would have for schoolchildren who would be taught on a building site for a number of years.
The council’s services committee will meet on Thursday to decide whether to give their final approval for the project to proceed to the construction phase.
Earlier, Mr Clark had vowed to deliver the new school on time and on budget. If all goes according to the wishes of the council’s senior management, building contractor O’Hare and McGovern could be ready to start demolition work on the site at the start of the school summer holidays in just over two weeks’ time.
Mr Clark, who started in the post two weeks ago and boasts experience of delivering large-scale capital projects, was speaking at his first weekly press briefing in Lerwick Town Hall.
He said he wanted to foster a culture whereby only in “exceptional circumstances” would project costs overrun. “We will make sure we carry out the correct level of work … to deliver to the budget and to the timescale that we agree. I’m determined to get a culture of on time, on budget.”
He accepts that mistakes have been made in allowing projects – including the AHS, the aborted Bressay bridge project and cinema and music venue Mareel – to drag on far too long.
Mr Clark is also clear that in the current economic climate, both globally and locally, it is imperative that the council starts identifying savings. In view of that, he has instructed head of finance Graham Johnston to set up a “savings register” whereby any savings that can be made will be ring fenced. “We know as a council that we need to stop spending as much,” he said.