Councillors have given their “wholehearted” backing to the idea of seeking Scottish government money towards the cost of a replacement Anderson High School.
Progress has slowed since members agreed over two years ago to site the new building at the lower Staney Hill, as the new school worked its way through the SIC’s “gateway process” for major capital projects. That site preference was once again re-affirmed.
But at Wednesday’s Full Council meeting a succession of councillors said it was “about time” to “get on with” finding a financial package so that the new school may finally move out of the political quagmire it has been stuck in for fully two decades.
Without dissent, councillors backed Monday’s education and families committee decision to prepare and submit a bid when a new tranche of funding is made available early in 2012.
SIC chief executive Alistair Buchan recognised the extent of frustration within the council and the wider community, but said he felt the project was now “very much on track”. He said: “I’m confident we’ll secure the best terms for the council, whatever they may be.”
Councillor Gussie Angus said Mr Buchan was the seventh chief executive involved in the new AHS since it was first conceived of back in 1991. None of his six predecessors had taken “a serious interest” in the project, Mr Angus suggested, adding he was “very anxious to see this move on”.
As the council strives to strip £18 million from its annual budget over the next two years, securing government support is deemed critical to making a new school affordable. At a recent meeting in Edinburgh, Scottish education minister Mike Russell encouraged the local authority’s delegation to bid for up to two-thirds of the capital cost.
Should the SIC’s bid succeed, it is expected any assistance would be in the form of a loan. No direct capital funding grants will be available until 2015, and acting head of finance Hazel Sutherland said the nature of government funding was “unknown” at this point.
Education and families committee chairwoman Betty Fullerton described the funding bid as the “first step in ensuring a suitable funding package”. She had been pleased to reach a general consensus earlier this week.
In order to attract government assistance, the council will have to adhere to national standards in its bid. That means planning for a school of only 11,000 square metres to house 1,000 pupils, rather than the grander 17,400 square metre option set out within a year-long feasibility study.
Education director Helen Budge’s report to councillors suggested a smaller school – not including a hostel – would cost roughly £30.25 million. If successful the SIC could hope to get around £18 million through the Scottish Futures Trust (SFT) and its “schools for the future” programme.
The council could then theoretically opt for a more palatial school using its own resources, though Mr Angus and others suggested the “Rolls Royce” mentality was now a thing of the past.
By involving the SFT, the council can benefit from access to expert knowledge and advice through a regional “hub”, and Mr Angus hopes “reality will start to dawn on some of the grandiose plans we’ve had in the past for this project”.
There was some unease from councillor Gary Robinson at the inclusion of a new hostel or similar accommodation in the bid. He feared inserting the £10 million add-on at this stage “could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back”.
But Mrs Budge has already discussed that with the Scottish government. She was told it would not harm the council’s chances and there was “nothing to stop us including [accommodation] in the bid”.
Councillor Laura Baisley suggested office staff might be moved out of Hayfield House – which is within easy walking distance of the new school site – so that it could be converted into accommodation for isles pupils.