This was the week that news of West Dunbartonshire Council’s financial worries broke beyond the boundaries of the local press purview and made it to The Herald. A spokesman for the local authority was quoted in the article as follows :
“The council faces significant financial challenges in the coming years with savings of around £17m required by 2016/17. This means it will need to continue to identify new ways of reducing the amount it spends.”
A number of potential cuts in council activities and services, along with some land disposal options are mooted in the article, some rendering savings as low as £5,000, and some potentially breaking into six figure budget reductions. The Council has launched a consultation process, asking residents to specify which services they’re prepared to lose – the very definition of a zero sum game. Council Leader, Martin Rooney, states that residents’ views will be considered before any decisions are made. Co-incidentally, this was the very same claim that was made in advance of the recent schools consultation process, where the Council polled on two options for the siting of the new Our Lady and St Patrick’s (OLSP) school. And then completely ignored the results, stating that the quantity of responses didn’t matter as much as the quality of the arguments. And who decides on the quality of the arguments? The Council, of course! So, it’s really less of a consultation process and more of a tokenistic, spend-money-that-we-don’t-have-on-useless-ticky-box-exercises exercise. I guess then it’ll be sayonara to whatever small projects or services that Council officers take a dislike to, whether residents care or not. Plus ça change…
Anyhoo, setting aside failures in democratic process for now, I’d like to get back to the issue of WDC’s financial sticky wicket. So, the Council is skint. They’ve got to find £17m worth of savings over the next couple of years and, even factoring in all of their cutback recommendations mentioned in the ‘consultation’ will only generate a fraction of that. So, can someone please tell me why, in God’s name, this Council is contemplating a massive capital development that will stretch budgets to breaking point? I’m referring, of course, to the proposal to build the new OLSP high school on the most challenging and expensive site, Posties Park in Dumbarton.
A new school build in such a tough economic landscape might seem like folly, but apparently the current OLSP building has fallen into such a state of disrepair that only a complete replacement will do. Also, the Scottish Government, through the Scottish Futures Trust, has chipped in funding to the tune of £14m to support a new build, so it would seem wise to act while this funding is available (ie prior to 2018). The Council has signed off on an additional £8.5m from its capital budget for this build, making the total cost of the project a whopping £22.5m. That’s what large secondary schools costs nowadays, it seems, and most people accept that this eye-watering use of Council funds is necessary to ensure that OLSP is regenerated. However, what many people, myself included, are struggling to understand is why the Council seems determined to stretch our scarce funds to the absolute limit by recommending a build option which demands significant additional capital expenditure. I’m referring to the proposal to put the new school on Posties Park which, as well as being the most fiercely contested issue the Council has faced in years, is also an unnecessarily expensive undertaking.
Everyone recognises that a school build on Posties Park would be significantly more expensive than the alternative option – a build on the existing site at Castlehill. Even the architect of Posties’ destruction, Terry Lanagan, grudgingly admits that. Although those of you who saw the full-page advert that WDC placed in the local newspapers during the consultation period may have been forgiven for thinking otherwise. These adverts listed ‘facts’ for each site, but failed to make it clear to citizens that Posties is the money-no-object option, whereas Castlehill is the quality-but-on-a-budget option.
The primary reason that any build on Posties would be so much more expensive is because of the need to have a footbridge erected over the River Leven, to ensure that planning protocols are met and that pupils can access a bus-stop within 400 metres of their school. When asked at the consultation meeting for details of the proposed footbridge, Terry Lanagan deferred to his expert sidekick, Craig Jardine, who, looking a bit confused, denied all knowledge of any such details. Between then, they eventually agreed that the much quoted figure of £3m for a footbridge had been arrived at by power of WDC’s in-house expertise. Ahem, pardon my cynicism, but I was unsurprised to note that this figure had potentially risen by half a million to £3.5m by the time the consultation report was produced. We can only wonder at how much it will eventually come out at once a work order has been placed.
I would ask everyone to stop and think for a minute about that item – a footbridge over the River Leven – and its cost – three and a half million pounds sterling. For a footbridge that would be sited around 400m away from the old Dumbarton bridge, which coincidentally also allows pedestrians to cross the River on foot. At a time when we’re trying to cut services and sell-off land just to balance the books. This is a bit like me saying to Him Indoors – “I know money’s tight, and we’ve just been talking about how we’re going to have to save money over the next couple of years by shopping at Aldi rather than Asda – but I really think we should build a second staircase at the back of the house because I find it most inconvenient to have to walk the length of the front hall to get upstairs.” It’s a complete nonsense. And incidentally, £3.5m is a little over 20% of the £17m total that we are being asked to save over the coming years.
Is it really financially prudent for our Councillors to vote through a proposal which is so extravagant? Remind yourselves of their duties, as noted in the Councillors’ Code of Conduct :
You are accountable for your decisions and actions to the public. You have a duty to consider issues on their merits, taking account of the views of others, and you must ensure that the Council uses its resources prudently and in accordance with the law.
So, at a time when the Council is embarking on another costly consultation, aimed at identifying services to axe in order to save money, is it a prudent use of Council resources to splurge on the most expensive option for a new school?
Aside from the footbridge, there is also a potential quagmire (pardon the pun…) of unexpected build costs arising from the site issues that were identified by Ramboll UK Limited, the Council’s geotechnical experts. Terry Lanagan plays these down in the consultation report and suggests that a build on Posties would be very similar to the build at Dumbarton Academy’s site. Admittedly, I didn’t ever see the geotechnical report for Dumbarton Academy, but I’m struggling to understand how an inland, developed site, with existing services and infrastructure could be directly compared to a functional flood plain on a peninsula of made ground, containing acids, heavy metals, a high water table and, of course, unexploded ordnance – and lacking any mains drainage, cable service and suitable access roads.
Since I obtained the Ramboll report, I have questioned the costings that WDC produced for a build on Posties, and, when the consultation document was produced showing highly detailed potential costs for Castlehill, but only vague pre-survey ‘ballpark’ figures for Posties, I wrote again to Terry Lanagan for further clarification. I received a letter of response on 22nd November, drafted by Craig Jardine, in which he stood by his consultation document figures for a build on Posties, stating that he “would expect that any costs associated will be contained within the amounts identified in [the risk register].” This risk register stated that the costs to adapt Woodyard Road would be £300,000. Imagine my surprise then to read in the consultation report just a couple of weeks later that this figure has now trebled, rising to an expected £900,000.
In the same letter, Craig Jardine writes that it, “…would be negligent of WDC officers not to carry out proper due diligence at each stage [of the design process].” Indeed it would, Mr Jardine, and I would also like to add something to that statement. I believe that it is morally questionable for WDC officers to provide only low-ball estimates in a document that should have been populated with all the necessary information to fully inform the public and facilitate decision-making. I believe that it is unsatisfactory to hold back or delay more accurate costings until the public consultation period is complete and then embed these in the final report without drawing any attention to or explanation for the increases.
I can’t deny that the potential cost of a new school build on Posties Park would be too steep for me, whatever the price. I feel it is impossible to put a value on this public green space, and its loss would be felt far deeper than just on the bottom line. However, the undeniable fact is that it is the most expensive option, and we are in an economic climate where we need to save, not splurge. Our Councillors have a duty to be prudent with our resources, and should remember that any spend over and above the £22.5m budgeted for the school will be 100% the responsibility of the Council. The Council will also be responsible for the entire cost of a superfluous footbridge at £3.5m, or whatever it ends up costing.
If this ridiculous proposal goes ahead, where will we find ourselves in 2016? What cutbacks will we be asked to ‘consult’ on, then?