This blog entry is an epilogue to the story of the Save Posties Park campaign, which had its final chapter on 8th January 2014, when West Dunbartonshire Council (WDC) voted not to build a new school on the park. Since then, the Executive Director of Educational Services, supported by other Directorates within the Council, has apparently been working tirelessly to review the original scoring matrix on suitable locations, scour the region for other potential locations and assess and score these, and, ultimately, undertake a fresh consultation process. And all in just five months!
And today, Thursday 26th June, at a special meeting of the Educational Services Committee (ESC), the fruits of all this labour were, in turn, expounded, debated, questioned, challenged and ultimately approved when WDC signed off on an official siting for the new Our Lady and St Patrick’s (OLSP) school – the formal residential high-rise site in Bellsmyre, which is currently being demolished and cleared.
Readers who followed the Save Posties Park campaign until its victory in January may be scratching their heads and wondering when the Bellsmyre site came into consideration. And rightly so, for this site wasn’t mentioned or considered at all for the new school during the first consultation, despite its impending demolition and consequent availability being approved several years ago. It would seem that the penny didn’t drop until one enlightened consultee suggested it in their response to the first consultation, at which point the Executive Director presumably re-checked his extensive analysis of all available sites and said, “oops…”
By the time the March ESC meeting came around, the following explanation emerged :
“The Bellsmyre site was not previously considered for the new Our Lady and
St Patrick’s High School because originally the demolition of the high flats
which currently occupy the site was scheduled for completion by November
2014, several months after the anticipated commencement of construction of
the new school.”
This was accompanied with the news that this previously unconsidered site was, in actual fact, highly suitable for the new school, scoring as it did higher than any other option and looking to be significantly cheaper on the public purse. Well, quelle surprise. And so it was that this site was selected to go forward for consideration through another public consultation process.
Now I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m somewhat dismayed that the people running our Council didn’t take a slightly more strategic perspective in the first place. Consider the facts :
- They knew that the Scottish Futures Trust funding for the new school has a time limit of March 2018.
- They knew that a new school development would have a construction time of 12-24 months.
- They knew that the Bellsmyre site would be cleared and available by, at latest, November 2014.
Why then weren’t they able to anticipate the potential here?
This, for me, really throws into doubt the assurances by the Executive Director that “every possible site in the area was considered and evaluated.” Can we really believe that, or did he and his team really just look for the quickest and easiest off-site option and pin their colours to that? This is an important question, because a great deal of public money was spent on the first, fruitless consultation and a huge amount of distress and upset was stirred up within the local community in the process.
The Administration has been full of praise for the Executive Director’s management of the search for a new school site and will not entertain any notion that the process was flawed or mishandled. Indeed, when one Councillor dared to voice concerns over the Executive Director’s performance he was reported by the Administration to the Commissioner for Ethical Standards. Well, I remain unconvinced that the time, money and public anxiety spent on the Posties Park/Castlehill consultation reflects good practice. I’m not the pitchfork-wielding type; I’m not after a scalp. But I do think that the Council needs to take a step back and fully consider the appropriateness of publicly citing this process as a success. The community at large don’t consider it a win to have hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money wasted because someone didn’t take a strategic view, and neither should our elected representatives.
Anyway, now that we have a confirmed site, should we presume that it is absolutely perfect for the new school? Well, as I mentioned, it certainly scored higher than any other site in the revised feasibility study, although, from past experience, the scoring in these studies doesn’t always seem to reflect common sense. It’s fair to say that the Bellsmyre site proposal wasn’t universally welcomed, but there appeared to be a significantly lower number of objectors, and indeed generally less public engagement in the debate, with only 54 responses to the consultation (compared to 515 during the first round).
There are however, as the title of this blog suggests, a number of potential problems with this site, and these were listed in the consultation report, and duly dismissed by the Executive Director in his own inimitable style (which is to say, by taking a slightly superior stance and with an subtle overtone of passive aggression). His presentation at the ESC meeting today included an overview of his consultation report, and he took the opportunity to re-iterate his response to the list of problems.
As you might imagine, with a proposal which moves a school from one end of the town to the other, there were concerns about travel and transport problems. There were concerns about increased volume of traffic in the Bellsmyre area. And there were concerns about road safety – both locally at Howatshaws Road and further afield at the A82 crossing. All of these concerns are valid, and the Executive Director gave some recognition of this validity, particularly relating to traffic management, where he described a need for additional planning. However, some concerns were effectively dismissed as non-issues (eg walking distances for children are within accepted tolerances), or simply refuted on the basis that they would apply to any new siting (eg crossing the A82). This didn’t go down particularly well with the public gallery, and there were some low-level heckles to illustrate this.
There then followed a discussion about the safety of the Bellsmyre site apropos its reputation as an area of high crime and social unrest, which was a concern raised by one of the group consultees. The Executive Director quite rightly attempted to dismiss this concern, and in order to do so, he chose to compare Bellsmyre to the current school site in Castlehill, suggesting that they were similarly matched in their social profile. Except what he actually said was, “Let’s be honest, Castlehill is hardly a leafy suburb”, once again bringing his own brand of tact and diplomacy to the debate.
Then, in an already heightened atmosphere of tension, the discussion moved on to the issue of potential health hazards, both through the proximity of electrical pylons and the presence of asbestos in the demolition materials.
It is important to recognise that current scientific evidence suggests that there is no real risk from the proximity of the electricity pylons at Bellsmyre. It is equally important to accept that the council has commissioned expert asbestos removal contractors to undertake the specialist demolition work.
However, there are people who believe that there is a risk and they are intent on lobbying for an alternative site where this risk is not present. They posit that the study of the impact of pylons on human health is an emerging science, and illustrate how science evolves by comparing the scientific advice given around cigarette smoking in the 1950’s with today’s understanding. They feel that any risk, even a tiny one, is a risk too far in this respect, particularly when other sites are available.
Now, I have a great deal of sympathy for these people, most of whom are OLSP parents, who are incredibly worried by any potential risk to their childrens’ health. It is staggeringly obvious that there are some people who are very seriously concerned about this, and some of them were in the public gallery today. I felt that the Executive Director’s handling of this matter was callous and failed to acknowledge their very real concerns. He described them as scaremongers. This was, unsurprisingly, very upsetting for some of the people in the public gallery, and there was a period of significant heckling that ensued.
The tension was increased further when Council Leader, Martin Rooney, attempted to assuage any public concerns about the consultation process being rushed (just 5 months!) rigged or decided in advance. In one of his famous ‘foot-in-mouth’ gaffe moments, he assured the room that “…the Council didn’t care where the school was built…” This resulted in an uproar from the gallery with many of the objectors feeling that, perhaps, this had been a Freudian slip from the Leader. A quiet word from Councillor David McBride, and Mr Rooney did the right thing and apologised for causing offence.
For me, one of the highlights of the meeting came when ESC member, Josephine McDaid, representing the EIS trades union, took the Executive Director to task over his public questioning of EIS protocols and processes. In his report, the following paragraph appended a description of the EIS consultation response :
“(Note: the submission from the EIS claimed to be the unanimous view of the 75 members of the branch; however, it was later confirmed that only around 30 members had attended the meeting at which the submission had been discussed and the final submission had not been shared with EIS members within the school or with the WDC EIS Secretary prior to submission.)”
Ms McDaid stated that the Executive Director had overstepped the bounds of fair reporting to call into question the processes of the EIS branch, and she expressed her deep regret that he had chosen to make such an inappropriate attack on the union leadership and membership. She took the time to explain how due diligence had in fact been done in the submission of the group response. The Executive Director, sitting opposite her, remained dispassionate throughout her commentary, and did not apologise or offer any explanation. It’s perhaps just as well that Ms McDaid is an appointee and not an elected official, or she may well have been reported to the Commissioner for Ethical Standards for daring to question the performance of the Executive Director…
But after all the debate and discussion, when the motion to build on the Bellsmyre site eventually went to vote, all but two members of the committee supported it. No Councillors opposed it, although it should be noted that only two opposition Councillors were present at the meeting, with Councillor George Black serving a two-month suspension and Councillor Jonathon McColl absent.
Aside from my aforementioned concerns about the site search and selection process, I’m not sure what to think about today’s decision. There is a part of me that thinks that a new school in Bellsmyre will be great for the local community; it will help the local Church and will hopefully act as a catalyst for new housing development and investment. However, the opposite is also true when it comes to Castlehill. With the school being removed, this already deprived area runs the risk of falling into further decline. It’s very true to say that the West end of Dumbarton doesn’t enjoy a bounty of local resources, and withdrawing the school from the area means, of course, one less.
Above all, I’m disappointed that the school won’t be built, partially or wholly, on the convent site at Clerkhill, which I feel is its spiritual home, if such a thing exists. The combined land mass of the Clerkhill site and the current school site is significant, and I had always hoped that a dual-campus arrangement would be considered, with either sports facilities and/or car parking on one side, and the main school buildings on the other. When I asked the Executive Director about this, he advised that this couldn’t be done without a footbridge being built over the dividing road. How surprising then to see the Bellsmyre plan, which has the school divided from its football pitch by a busy main road…and no mention of a footbridge, of course. I was further surprised to hear the Executive Director explain today that sports time-tabling means that children will always be marshalled across the road to the football pitch, thus minimising any risk. Alas, there was no such declaration when I asked about Clerkhill/Castlehill.
So unless a subsequent committee, such as Planning, put the kibosh on the ESC decision, it would seem that a new era of Catholic secondary education will be dawning in Bellsmyre in the not-so-distant future – on a site which is not without its problems. At least we have Terry’s assurance that the pitch ain’t one of them…
Footnote : Let me know in the comments box what YOU think about the Bellsmyre decision. Thanks!