Councillors have confounded expectations by ordering yet another review into where the new Anderson High School should be built, meaning the latest proposal will be delayed until next year at least.
At Thursday’s services committee meeting, members voted 9-8 to back councillor Jonathan Wills after he argued that a school on the lower Staney Hill site at Clickimin could be ready to open within the same timeframe and for a significantly cheaper cost than the £49 million earmarked for the latest design on the existing Knab site.
It is a rare political victory for Dr Wills, who has consistently opposed the siting of the school there and has repeatedly stated in recent weeks his belief that the project was being “railroaded” through by a political clique. He said afterwards that it showed people were willing to listen to “reasoned debate”.
The final outcome of a tumultuous week of wrangling is an independent review, which will now set out to determine the best site in terms of both capital and revenue costs, with architectural, financial and environmental specialists to be drafted in to contribute their expertise.
The project to build a school has been rumbling on since 1991 and many observers expressed surprise at the latest decision, which came three days after the local authority’s planning board had unanimously given permission for building work to commence at the start of the summer holidays.
It had been widely expected that the latest proposal – essentially a like-for-like replacement with additional dining and social spaces – would glide over the last hurdle after receiving planning permission, but councillors got cold feet when it was time to take the final plunge. A total of £4.3 million in project costs has been incurred to date.
It came less than 48 hours after chief executive David Clark vowed to deliver the £49 million project “on time and on budget”. Mr Clark was out of the isles on Thursday but in a statement he said the decision was likely to have an “adverse impact on the current programme and cost structures”.
Convener Sandy Cluness said that while he would await the independent review’s findings with interest, he was frustrated that there was going to be a further delay.
In a roll call vote, Dr Wills was supported by services committee chairman Gussie Angus, vice-chairwoman Betty Fullerton, planning board chairman Frank Robertson and councillors Allison Duncan, Iris Hawkins, Robert Henderson, Andrew Hughson and Gary Robinson. Backing an amendment from Florence Grains to give the project the green light were Jim Budge, Mr Cluness, Alastair Cooper, Addie Doull, Caroline Miller, Cecil Smith and Allan Wishart.
Councillor Laura Baisley abstained, while Bill Manson had declared an interest and left the chamber because of his capacity as chairman of Shetland Charitable Trust, which has agreed in principle to fund the project’s estimated £40 million building costs. Vice-convener Josie Simpson and councillors Jim Henry and Rick Nickerson were absent from the meeting.
“It was a democratic decision and I have to go along with that, particularly as it was supported by the chair and vice-chair of the committee,” said Mr Cluness afterwards. “I’m well aware of the fact that this project is going to cause difficulties and disturbance to people, residents, and also to students, but that is likely wherever we site the school in Lerwick.
“What would be concerning is a delay because I’m perfectly certain that any decision to move to a school somewhere else will mean a delay of years, not weeks or months. I’m disappointed that we’re not able to build this school in the timescale that we intended, which was an early commencement on site.”
There has been a growing clamour for a new school building for the town in recent years because of the increasingly dilapidated state of the existing school and the proposal is the fifth version over a lengthy gestation period which is the source of considerable embarrassment to many of the isles’ politicians.
The latest design, a five-storey, mainly sandstone building, would be capable of accommodating up to 1,000 secondary age pupils and would have 7,900m² of teaching space compared to the existing 7,300m². Some councillors yesterday queried why it was being designed for 1,000 pupils when the school roll is at present 820.
Executive director of education Hazel Sutherland said the SIC would have to get in touch with contractors O’Hare & McGovern before the implications of the decision can be fully evaluated. She admitted to being surprised at the way the meeting had played out but added: “My job is to continue to implement the policy decisions of the councillors as I have always done. If this is one more step that they need me to do then that’s what we’ll do.”
Councillors last month approved £540,000 of preparatory work on the Knab site – which caused some objectors to the development mistakenly to believe that construction had begun before final approval had been granted.
The council’s capital programme senior contract manager Robert Sinclair said there would not be a penalty clause payable to the contractors as the result of any delay. “The early contractor involvement phase is based on their actual costs, on a cost-reimbursable basis. If the project wasn’t to proceed for any reason then it could be terminated at that time, or we could extend or reduce that as was necessary, so it’s a flexible arrangement.”
In a heated debate on Thursday morning, there was relatively little in the way of new arguments from either side, but Dr Wills suggested the design did not represent value for money, pointing out that when the lower Staney Hill was the preferred option back in 2001 a price tag of £25 million was set before the decision to move back to the Knab, at that time with the aspiration of saving £3 million, was taken. “We don’t need to start again, just to compare the best options,” he said.
He suggested that a restriction imposed by the planning board that construction could not be carried out on a Sunday would mean the building phase would be likely to end up lasting for more than four years, rather than the projected three and a half. It had been hoped that the new school would be completed by December 2012, but an opening date is now anyone’s guess.
Dr Wills again pointed out that the lower Staney Hill site was the most sustainable site because 97 per cent of Lerwick pupils would live within one mile of the school and would be able to walk there rather than having to be driven by car or bus. Members also accepted his idea of asking Architecture and Design Scotland, along with a team of local architects, to be asked for their input into the review.
Mrs Grains, who has seen more prevarication on the school issue than most in her time as a councillor, had suggested that it was high time for members to make the decision to get on with the new building. She said various consultations had kept coming back with the Knab as the best site, while staff and pupils were having to be sent home because of problems with pipes. “We can’t have staff and pupils in those conditions,” she said. “This is a Shetland school and we have to support the bairns. Get on with it for their sake.”
She was supported by Mr Cluness, who as a resident of Twageos Road is fully aware of the potentially “severe and substantial” disruption to be caused. He also voiced concern about the consequences for children’s education, but weighed that against the fact that the school was “no longer fit for purpose” and another delay would mean “essentially back to square one”.
Mr Cluness told The Shetland Times: “Had Lerwick been like Stornoway or Orkney, where there’s substantial flat land immediately beyond the edge of the town, that’s where the school would have been built. It doesn’t matter whether you choose to cut into Staney Hill or Seafield, the disruption is still going to be there. In my view we didn’t have an appropriate site, if there had been easy access suitable land immediately to the west of Lerwick, that’s what we would have used – this has to be the way forward.”
Mr Duncan said he had calculated that the reduction from seven to six days a week of construction would add an additional 36 weeks to the building programme. He also feared that the £49 million price tag was too high and would be likely to increase, while the location and design were also wrong in his book.
According to Ms Sutherland’s report, under the terms of the early contractor involvement arrangment with O’Hare & McGovern, if any savings on the target cost are identified, the contractor “will receive a share of the savings”.
Mr Robinson took issue with the convener’s assertion that the existing school was not fit for purpose, pointing out that it has had its maintenance budget cut year on year for some time now and in any case has been ruled to be “adequate” in the meantime. Dr Wills agreed, saying the school had been “deliberately neglected” leading to closures on three occasions in the past two years.
Earlier in the week, members of the planning board had unanimously given the project their nod of approval following an emotionally-charged three-hour hearing in Lerwick Town Hall. Vice-chairman Mr Robinson had walked out and Dr Wills, who had been at the meeting as an objector, tore up some of his papers in protest towards the end of the hearing.
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, said: “Everybody is saying the same thing. It’s not as if we don’t have another place to build a school.”