A SUTHERLAND councillor has been criticised by colleagues after stating that a major project in his ward would not go ahead because of budget restrictions.
Councillor Graham Phillips, East Sutherland and Edderton, said last week that plans for a £2.9 million sport centre for Dornoch had been “kicked into the long grass”.
But his two ward colleagues, Councillors Deirdre Mackay and Jim McGillivray, maintain the long-awaited scheme remains a top priority and is still on course to be constructed.
The dispute comes as the council is about to go into purdah before the May 4 elections – meaning no more political decisions will be taken until after that date.
The sports centre plan has been on the table in one form or another for around quarter of a century and is “shovel ready”.
It was included in the council’s capital programme in 2013 to the delight of local people. Construction work was due to start last May.
If it does not go ahead, it will be a bitter disappointment to the Dornoch district – and it could become a council election issue.
But the local government’s capital programme is oversubscribed to the tune of millions of pounds and is not set in stone – it will be reviewed by the new administration when £50 million savings will have to be made.
And, worryingly, background papers reveal that the council is not yet “legally committed” to the sports centre scheme, which means it could be abandoned if necessary, although the recommendation is that these schemes go ahead.
Cllr Phillips maintained the sports centre scheme was unlikely to progress at last week’s meeting of the education, children and adult service committee, when the capital programme was under discussion.
His remarks have irritated his two colleagues, who were contacted at the weekend by concerned Dornoch residents and local groups after a report appeared in the Northern Times.
The two sent an email to Dornoch Community Council and Dornoch Academy Parent Council reassuring them that the sports barn was at the “top of the (priority) list”.
Cllr McGillivray, who has been heavily involved in the project, said earlier this week: “Only a couple of weeks ago, Cllr Mackay and I, along with representatives of the community council and parent council, attended a stakeholders’ meeting at Dornoch Academy at which the officers working on the sports centre project provided a detailed, comprehensive update. A lot of work is taking place behind the scenes and we are in regular contact with the officers.
“The mood was optimistic. Major projects such as these are rarely straightforward. However, we will continue to deal with challenges as and when they arise along the way. People need to be reassured that the sports centre remains a priority.”
Cllr Mackay said: “Nothing has changed in terms of priorities. I am disappointed that, given his strong statements, Cllr Phillips chose not to share his concerns with Cllr McGillivray, myself and the wider community.
“The straight way is to speak to people. Cllr Phillips chose not to do this and this approach is completely alien to the way we do things in Sutherland.
“The people of Dornoch can be assured that the sports centre has just been reconfirmed as a priority. Yes, finance is a challenge, That’s not new and is constantly being worked on.
“A new council will be elected in May, and is at liberty to change priorities. However, the recommended approach is that progress continues in respect of the sports centre.”
She added: “It is vital that the three councillors elected for this ward fight tooth and nail to see this project through to delivery.”
However Cllr Phillips is maintaining his position.
Responding to his colleagues, he said: “My ward colleagues need to pay attention to what they are being told in education and other meetings.
“We are constantly being told by the director of finance that the capital programme is unaffordable, that priorities have to be reevaluated, that treasured schemes will have to be dropped.
“Any fool can see the sports centre is at risk of cancellation or major delay, especially bearing in mind new calls from Inverness [for new schools].”
The NT political correspondent Emma Crichton said: “You could say the sports centre hasn’t been shelved in the sense that nobody has come right out and said ‘we can’t afford this project we have to scrap it’, but there is absolutely no money left in the budget to pay for it and a whole load of schools will be given priority ahead of it.”
A council spokesman said: “Officers continue to work on the project pending resolution of the funding position.”