SIC councillors and top officials were left in no doubt as to the scale and strength of community opposition to siting the new Anderson High School on its existing site at the Knab during a well-attended public meeting in Lerwick Town Hall on Wednesday.
The event was staged in order to canvas opinion among residents, parents and other members of the public as part of the independent review being carried out comparing the respective merits of the existing AHS site and an alternative at the lower Staney Hill adjacent to Clickimin.
More than 20 speakers during a well-mannered meeting voiced a clear preference for the Clickimin site and those contributions were uniformly greeted with warm rounds of applause from many in the 170-plus audience.
Only one contributor spoke categorically in favour of the Knab site and a show of hands at the end of the meeting indicated an overwhelming majority would prefer the Clickimin option.
Two separate petitions – one for residents and one for concerned parents – have been gathering signatures apace opposing the development going ahead at the Knab. The residents’ petition has now gathered 600 names, while organiser of the parents’ petition Patricia Wright said they have 1,000 signatures.
Chief among a string of well-rehearsed arguments which were aired was the potential impact on pupils if they have to be educated on a building site for several years, with a number of parents urging councillors not to let down the next generation of school pupils by condemning them to such a disruptive teaching environment.
Others pointed out that the cost of digging into the Staney Hill would not necessarily prove to be prohibitively expensive, while being able to tap into the nearby leisure facilities should create some savings.
Parent Neil Risk said the democratic view was “absolutely clear” and urged councillors to take the right decision for the sake not only of Shetland’s young people but their own political reputations. “If you choose the wrong site I think you will be reviled for generations to come,” he said.
Retired head teacher of Scalloway school Ian Fraser said he had first hand experience of the challenges of educating children on a building site for two years back in the 1980s. He recalled the time as “undoubtedly the most traumatic years of my life”, adding that it created “real danger” for pupils at the school.
Referring to concern about the influence of town centre traders on where the school ought to be situated, resident John Fraser had some strong words: “I seek assurances that educational policy is not going to be determined by the potential viability of fast food and sweetie shops in Lerwick. Secondary to that, I would ask that each councillor prior to any vote declares any commercial interest that they have in the street and removes themselves accordingly.”
Lerwick Town Centre Association chairman Laurence Smith said it was no secret that his organisation was worried about the “loss of foot fall” though he accepted the school was a big issue with many other important considerations.
He said: “We have a historic core, we have tried to put forward that we need to retain activity in the centre of town – to lose the AHS will be a big loss of activity, there’s no two ways about it, so for us that’s a concern.”
The review was commissioned at the very last minute, just weeks before Irish contractors O’Hare & McGovern were due to start on site and three days after planning permission for the development had been granted.
During the meeting Shetland South councillor Allison Duncan expressed a debt of gratitude to his fellow councillor Jonathan Wills, who he credited with doing “a power of work” to collate people’s concerns and abruptly change the course of the project.
Back-pedalling Lerwick South councillor Cecil Smith, who successfully moved last month that the planning board should approve the £50 million new school at the Knab, said he had now changed his position in light of public feedback.
Mr Smith felt he had been “misinformed” by council officials about how the consultation process was progressing and ended up making a decision “that I probably wouldn’t have made” if he had known then what he knows now.
Services committee chairman Gussie Angus chaired the meeting, attended by many SIC councillors and chief executive David Clark, infrastructure services director Gordon Greenhill and coordinator of the review Andrew Laidler.
The review is scheduled to be completed by the middle of August and a report comparing the two sites should go before councillors for a decision sometime in September.
Mr Angus, a proponent of the Clickimin site, said after the hour-long meeting: “There’s really no doubt what the public opinion is, and I’m absolutely astounded to see the turnout and folks’ willingness to speak out because we as councillors need to know this.”
He said he had originally hoped to take the latest proposal out on a road show around Shetland earlier this year but that idea had been prevented by “influences” within the council, though he did not want to elaborate on that.
“I’m sorry that we didn’t do that because all of this could have been prevented,” he said. “I’m very pleased to see that it’s being conducted in a civilised manner – folk are entitled to their views one way or another.
“Bear in mind that it was to save £9 million that we moved back to the Knab Road site, and I had to support that at the time because there were nine million compelling reasons for doing so; how silly that all looks now and I’m furious about that. But we can’t go back and re-write history, much as some of us would like to.”