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Are modular school builds the solution for Highland Council?

By Nicola Sinclair, Local Democracy Reporter

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Councillor Maxine Smith.
Councillor Maxine Smith.

Councillor Maxine Smith says modular builds could deliver 10 schools for the price of three.

Cllr Smith is calling on Highland Council’s administration to take bold steps in delivering new schools across the region.

The independent councillor believes that modular construction could help the council to deliver more schools, quicker and cheaper.

Cllr Smith first raised the idea of modular schools in the last political term, when she was leader of the SNP opposition. However, it requires a radical change of thinking, and she feels the council is afraid to make the leap.

“It’s a lot easier just to carry on the way you’ve always done things, but if you’ve got the will to do it, you could deliver schools a lot cheaper,” she said.

Cllr Smith served on the board of Albyn Housing Association for 17 years, and first discovered modular schools on a site visit to York.

“We were exploring ways of building social housing cheaper, and we visited a company called Yorkon, which is part of Portakabin group,” she said. “They have these massive warehouses where they build all these different units – schools, everything – and then they ship them to site and put them all together like a giant jigsaw.”

On its website, Portakabin offers a range of modular units for schools, covering everything from toilets and dining halls and gyms to music rooms and science labs. It says modular classrooms can be delivered 70 per cent quicker than traditional builds.

“Modular schools can be delivered in record time,” Cllr Smith said. “I visited a nursery that only cost about £2 million to build, where Highland Council would have spent up to £20 million. Then there was an academy that cost £10 million, whereas Alness Academy and Wick campus cost the council around £40 million.

“Just do the maths. We could build four schools for that price. It’s an absolutely crazy waste of public money but all local authorities are doing it, so everyone just accepts it.”

However, she believes that could all be about to change. She may no longer be a member of the ruling SNP group, but Ms Smith is keen to reopen discussions about the potential for modular builds.

The discussion feels timely, with Highland Council having recently admitted it can no longer afford its capital plan. Project costs have increased 20 per cent with inflation, while loan charges soar.

“We need to build at least 10 to 15 schools on the capital programme,” Cllr Smith said. “We will never manage that and in the next five years we’ll be lucky to do three or four. Whereas the modular approach could deliver 10 schools for the price of three.”

The obvious drawbacks are the lack of architectural interest. Up until now, Highland Council’s school builds have been bespoke, reflecting a strong sense of place.

Besides that, Cllr Smith said there was pushback in the past from council bosses who wanted to ensure the work for Highland construction stays in Highland. She argues that for many of the large UK companies, a package of contracts in Highland would offer economies of scale, allowing them to open a base up here too. That way, the work stays in the Highlands.

Councillor John Finlayson.
Councillor John Finlayson.

The council’s education committee chairman John Finlayson welcomed the idea of modular schools, provided they can be delivered to the right spec.

“This is a very difficult time, with the rising cost of materials, of construction costs generally and the immense pressures on the council’s capital programme,” he said. “With that in mind I think it is sensible that all options are looked at in terms of how schools are built.”

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