Secondary school pupils in the isles will not be moved to a brand new £50 million school in Lerwick for at least seven years, according to the latest estimate from Shetland Islands Council as it kicks off a six-week consultation process on the project.
After councillors decided to shift the proposed school from the existing Knab site to lower Staney Hill last summer, the SIC is to hold a public meeting to gather views on the new proposal on 13th September. It is also seeking written submissions.
In a paper accompanying the consultation exercise, the schools service says it is expected that pupils “would relocate to the Lower Staney Hill site in August 2017, or as soon as possible thereafter”.
The new timescale appears to vindicate the view of councillor Frank Robertson, who has extensive experience of the building trade. He predicted last year that a school on the new site could take up to seven years to deliver, contradicting the estimate of consultant Andrew Laidler – brought in to carry out a review last summer – that a new school at lower Staney Hill could be open by 2013.
Services committee chairman Gussie Angus said he would be “pushing as hard as I can” for things to happen faster, but explained there were a series of hoops to be jumped through on all educational projects of this nature. He remains “absolutely convinced” that switching sites last year was the right thing to do.
Once the formal six-week consultation has been carried out, the results of it have to be factored in and then an application to relocate the site has to be cleared by Scottish ministers. Mr Angus believes it is likely to be into next year before the tendering process for new architects’ designs takes place.
“The thinking is we’ll probably need at least a couple of years, or more, lead-in time, then probably a year’s site preparation and a couple of years’ building,” he said. “I’ll certainly be pushing for it to be telescoped; sometimes capital projects seem to work on biblical timescales. Even Mid Yell [school], which is a prefabricated building, is taking longer than I would have hoped. I’m very hopeful it could be done before 2017, but I think it’s one of those things where you’re preparing for the ultimate and hoping for the best.”
The expensive new school would be funded through a lease-back deal with Shetland Charitable Trust’s property arm Slap. Based on an outlay of £349 million and a “fair return on capital”, that would cost £3.1 million a year for 30 years at 2013/14 prices.
That contradicts a council decision that any item inflating the budget “must identify corresponding savings which equate to the total sum sought”. Savings of £9.9 million are being looked for in the current financial year, with substantial further cuts expected each year for the forseeable future.
Staff have investigated a range of options and believe the best one is lower Staney Hill, next to Clickimin Leisure Complex, in line with agreed council policy. It is deemed preferable because it is now at the centre of the town, making it accessible for pupils, parents and staff. The report states that “although slightly sloping, the topography is suitable for building, being similar to the Knab site”.
Other sites which have been looked at include the area north of the leisure centre where a running track and rugby pitches are situated. The report states: “Although a flat area, there is uncertainty over the condition of the ground in this area, due to it being the site of the old town dump. Previously, tests have indicated methane gas might be present if the ground is disturbed.”
The campsite at lower Staney Hill is deemed unsuitable because it is too small, while there is also uncertainty over the condition of the playing fields at Clickimin South due to flood levels. The latter would also mean the school being built very close to neighbouring properties at Lochside.
Building contractors were days away from beginning work on a previous £40 million proposal at the existing site last summer before councillors’ change of heart. The Knab site is now “not considered to be achievable” for a variety of reasons. “Proposals for the new school to be located away from the existing buildings caused the design to be located in an exposed location,” the report notes.
“Constraining the design to lower down the site, to suit the natural contours, resulted in a proposal for the new school to be built next to the existing school, with decant arrangements required. There were concerns therefore over the potential disruption to the education of the pupils. The road network may suffer from congestion, both during construction and beyond.”
The report lays out the benefits of building a new school, including “creating an environment that meets the needs of the new emerging curriculum” and “innovative uses of space both within and outwith the school building”. It also provides the opportunity to design a low-energy school which will reduce the council’s carbon footprint.
It is estimated that £25,000 could be saved on transport costs as only 45 pupils would receive “winter months only” travel to and from the school, compared to 104 pupils at present.
Last year’s change of mind from councillors came as a result of widespread protests by neighbours of the proposed school and a large number of concerned parents, with Lerwick South councillor Jonathan Wills prominent in leading the campaign.
A new AHS has been in the pipeline, in one form or another, since 1991. In late 2009, a total of £5.6 million had been spent on the project – including up to £2 million to contractors O’Hare and McGovern for work they carried out from September 2007 onwards. The Irish building firm has disputed the council’s decision to walk away from the contract, which the SIC insists it was free to do under the terms of their agreement.
* The consultation meeting takes place in the main hall at the current Anderson High School at 7pm on Monday 13th September. Written submissions can be posted to Anderson High School Relocation, Schools Service, Hayfield House, Lerwick, ZE1 0QD or emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org and must be received by Sunday 10th October.