Councillors have settled upon the lower Staney Hill as the site for the new Anderson High School in the wake of an unprecedented display of lobbying from the community and having digested the findings of an independent review into the matter.
In reverting to what had been agreed council policy back in 2003, members on Thursday morning narrowly accepted a motion from Lerwick South member Jonathan Wills to abandon plans to build at the Knab site and have set an “indicative” budget of no more than £49 million, the estimated price tag of a school at the existing site.
A number of members of the public were present at Lerwick Town Hall to hear a short presentation from co-ordinator of the £60,000 review, Andrew Laidler, followed by a 70-minute debate during which not a single councillor expressed an explicit preference for the Knab site.
The change of heart comes after two months of concerted opposition from parents and residents. They were particularly concerned at the scale of disruption which would be caused to pupils who faced being educated on a building site for the best part of four years. In addition, the site is handily placed to access leisure facilities at Clickimin and is more centrally located, which will allow many more Lerwick children to walk to and from school.
With all 22 councillors present at Thursday’s meeting of the services committee, Dr Wills’ motion – seconded by Betty Fullerton – was passed by the casting vote of chairman Gussie Angus after a 50-50 split. Half of the councillors had been in agreement with an amendment from convener Sandy Cluness to delay taking a decision until the Full Council meets later this month while further investigation into the lower Staney Hill site was carried out.
The building design is to be revised in line with recommendations from independent educational and architectural consultants. The Full Council will also be asked to consider reverting to traditional procurement by competitive tender, rather than the “early contractor involvement” model used to bring Irish builders O’Hare & McGovern on board during the design stages of the project.
A covering report on Mr Laidler’s review by SIC chief executive David Clark suggests that it could still be feasible to have the new school open at the lower Staney Hill by July 2013 – the same date which had been projected for the Knab school which was just days away from beginning construction before councillors called for the review in late June.
It is but the latest instalment in a saga which has been rumbling on for nearly 20 years and has cost the best part of £5 million to date. The decision will still have to be ratified by the Full Council on 16th September, but given how little appetite there appeared to be for building at the Knab it would seem unlikely that the debate on which site to plump for will now be reopened. Mr Cluness told The Shetland Times he expected it would simply be “nodded through”.
The architectural and educational components of the review had clearly identified the lower Staney Hill as the superior site, while cost consultants’ outline comparison had estimated that changing sites could cost between £6 million and £10 million extra. But Dr Wills and others said they were hopeful that there was plenty of scope to make savings.
In any case, it was the public consultation rather than any element of the review which appears to have been behind the transformation in many councillors’ thinking. Laura Baisley was one of several who paid tribute to the “thoughtful” and well-mannered protest of parents and residents, expressed during a public meeting in July and through the submission of two petitions totalling 2,000 signatures.
Dr Wills said the council had decided 16 years ago “for very good reasons” to build at the lower Staney Hill before members were sold the shift back to the Knab on “the illusion” of saving money. He said it was abundantly clear which site was the better one, particularly after four attempts to design a school at the Knab.
Pointing to a 1991 survey, he believed the school could be built without significant rock blasting – which was estimated to cost £3.5 million in the cost consultants’ report. He said there was no need for any more feasibility studies and suggested Clickimin would have other benefits, such as the opportunity for a full-sized Astroturf surface which the sports community has been asking for.
Lerwick South councillor Cecil Smith was one of those who performed a U-turn, saying that he did not believe the safety and well-being of children during construction at the Knab could be guaranteed. Mr Smith said members should not be swayed by estimates of extra costs, adding: “This council has a reputation for providing Rolls-Royce facilities – why not this one?”
Mr Cluness, arguably the strongest advocate of the Knab site in recent years, made clear that he had no objection to the change of tack and said that if the council’s wish was to build at lower Staney Hill he would “redouble my efforts” to carry out that policy. Dr Wills described those remarks as a “gracious and courageous” display of leadership.
Mr Cluness said the sooner a decision was made the better and that, while the land at lower Staney Hill was still in the process of being acquired, he was confident it “need not necessarily take a long time”. While he was normally not one for being won over by petitions because they tended to be based largely on opposition to a project, in this case he was prepared to make an exception.
“People power” was something which simply could not be ignored for South Mainland councillor Allison Duncan. He pointed out that the council had offered to buy homes from neighbours who would be blighted by the development, asking why similar arrangements to decant pupils had not been made. Constituents had even contacted him saying they were contemplating sending their children to an alternative secondary school.
But the convener did suggest delaying the decision for a fortnight to allow staff who had been subjected to flak over their role in the project to be able to give their responses to the various criticisms. He was seconded by Caroline Miller, who said the council had “put officers through the mill” when they were only carrying out the express wishes of members.
North Isles councillor Robert Henderson summed up the feeling of the meeting that going against the clear wishes of the public would be “being disrespectful to them”. Furthermore, he had calculated that giving the new school the same per pupil area as the pupils in his Mid Yell constituency are getting would immediately provide a saving of some £4.35 million.
The only concern members had about switching sites was a lack of factual information about the lower Staney Hill, prompting Lerwick North councillor Allan Wishart to request more detailed analysis so that they could take a “full and informed” decision.
“This would be at best a rushed decision and at worst a reckless one,” he said, with Mr Cluness absorbing those concerns into his eventually unsuccessful amendment. Mr Wishart added: “In principle, the lower Staney Hill is the preferred site [but we] need to carry on with research into this site, or we’re giving the building industry an open cheque book.”
Education spokesman Bill Manson criticised Dr Wills for “indulging himself” in a stream of emails which “denigrate” the review and suggested he was guilty of picking out only the findings which were to his liking. He said the sum total of investigations into the lower Staney Hill amounted to “a site drawing … which Jonathan brandishes at us from time to time”.
While the available evidence may suggest the Knab is the wrong site, Mr Manson continued: “We have an overstuffed capital wish list [and] we can’t just drive ahead at Staney Hill.” More information was required, he said, and he feared the council was getting itself into a “slew of further delays”.
Confessing that he was now mixing his metaphors, Mr Manson added cryptically: “This is a poke and, when that poke is properly opened, I don’t know whether we’ll discover a pig in it, or indeed a prince or a frog.”
In a roll call vote, those who sided with Dr Wills’ motion to revert to the lower Staney Hill site were: Gussie Angus, Addie Doull, Allison Duncan, Betty Fullerton, Robert Henderson, Jim Henry, Andrew Hughson, Rick Nickerson, Gary Robinson and Cecil Smith.
Councillors who voted for the convener’s amendment to hold fire on taking a decision for 13 days were: Laura Baisley, Jim Budge, Alastair Cooper, Florence Grains, Iris Hawkins, Bill Manson, Caroline Miller, Frank Robertson, Josie Simpson and Allan Wishart.
Speaking after the meeting, organiser of the residents’ petition Tom Jamieson said it was encouraging that councillors had shown a willingness to listen to the public and he was now eager to see the school built at the lower Staney Hill as soon as possible. “We just want them to get on with it now, try and work together and get a school put up at Clickimin.”