It could cost taxpayers and contractors “hundreds of thousands of pounds” not to go ahead with the long-awaited £3.5 million Dornoch Sports Centre project, it emerged this week.
It is is understood that the recommended successful tender for the job is “significantly” below its nearest rival – and Highland Council admitted it has already spent £287,000 on the project.
As revealed in the Northern Times last week, a veteran Sutherland councillor has resigned from the ruling administration in protest after learning the sports centre has now virtually zero chance of going ahead.
East Sutherland and Edderton ward councillor Jim McGillivray is angry that a programme of new school builds in Inverness is likely to take precedence over the sports scheme, a project which dates back more than 25 years.
But this week Cllr McGillivray revealed that on November 29, the Sutherland county committee “unanimously” approved the recommended tender.
He said: “The committee decided to proceed with urgency to legally commit to the project before the closing date for acceptance on January 5.
“The fact is this was the only council capital project of any significance in Sutherland for a number of years and potentially for many years ahead.”
But when the tenders went before the last full council it was “kicked into the long grass” until the next meeting in February when a decision on it will be up against other projects competing for a stretched capital budget.
Crucially council officers recommended that the successful tender for acceptance be “subject to the availability of adequate funding.”
Cllr McGillivray said: ”The recommended tender is significantly lower than the others. In addition the amount of fees and time already spent on this is considerable.
“If this sports centre does not go ahead it could cost the taxpayer hundreds of thousands. If it does not go ahead next year, but at a later date, it will also cost the council a lot more money.
“Even a year on the tender price is unlikely to be as low as it is now, given inflation and other costs etc. This just doesn’t make sense.
“The people of Sutherland are being failed, the contractor – who has acted with integrity – is being failed, but the council’s reputation is failing.
“We have ended up with a costly phantom building project. I think Sutherland deserves better.”
Cllr McGillivray is accusing Highland council of being “Inverness-centric” and of failing to give Sutherland its fair share of the capital funding available.
He has now launched a campaign aiming to wrest more money for the county. He is calling it Six per cent for Sutherland and is urging local people and fellow councillors to support him.
He said: “Sutherland has six per cent of the Highland population and should, in a fair and equitable council system, get six per cent (£3.3 million) of the annual capital spend of £55 million. I haven’t even looked at the revenue spend for the county. But we should be getting six per cent of that too.”
The sports centre was in pole position in the council’s capital plan and a funding package had been provisionally put together – the authority was expected to provide £3 million along with £200,000 from SportScotland; £200,000 from a private donor; £100,000 from Dornoch Common Good and £75,000 from Leader.
However, it became abundantly clear last week that there was little chance of the centre, which was to be sited at the rear of Dornoch Academy, going ahead.
Cllr McGillivray has seen an email from Cllr Matthew Reiss, one of the backroom budget team, which indicated that the authority will in February opt to commit its capital budget to new Inverness schools.
And, in a report before last week’s full council meeting, head of corporate finance Edward Foster warned that capital projects, including new schools and leisure centres, will need to be reduced, as the council can no longer afford to pay back the loans.
Also, SportScotland held a funding assessment meeting when it emerged it would not award its funding without Highland Council first committing the £3 million.
Cllr McGillivray said the council’s reputation for integrity was at stake.
Meanwhile, his Six per cent for Sutherland campaign is receiving growing support as its message spreads across the community.
Joan Bishop, chairman of Dornoch Area Community Interest Company (DACIC), said: “Dornoch has been patient for decades waiting for this much-needed facility, urgently required by our young people in a busy and well regarded school that has embraced the council’s three to 18 campus and deserves better treatment than this.
“We have been assured on numerous occasions that this project was in the capital plan and to be let down at this late stage is horrendous. The council seems to be taking an ever more Inverness-centric approach and failing all other communities.”
But the authority claims that the sports centre scheme has not been dropped and is still in the £55 million capital plan, which will be reviewed in February.
A Highland Council spokesperson said: “The Dornoch Sports Centre project has not been removed from the council’s capital plan. Decisions on capital funding, including Dornoch, will be taken at the February council meeting.
“Total expenditure on the Dornoch Sports Centre to the end of November was £287,000.”
n Do you want to support Cllr McGillivray’s campaign? Please fill in the form through our Facebook page.