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Highland Council capital budget meeting cancelled at 11th hour

By Nicola Sinclair, Local Democracy Reporter

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School building projects for the Highlands could be delayed.
School building projects for the Highlands could be delayed.

Highland’s new schools could hang in the balance as councillors cancelled their capital investment meeting, with no new date set.

Highland Council was due to agree its capital budget at a special meeting on February 1.

But with just days to go, the administration has confirmed that the meeting will not go ahead.

A spokesman for Highland Council says this is because the council still has not had confirmation that the Scottish Government will fund its major new school builds.

Opposition leader Alasdair Christie called the delay “unacceptable”.

Highland Council has a huge school estate spread across a geographical land mass the size of Belgium.

Many of those schools are in a poor state of repair, and the council’s latest capital programme sought to invest £180 million in new builds and major refurbishments.

In October, the council applied to phase three of the Scottish Government’s Learning Estate Improvement Plan (LEIP).

The council asked for funding for a bundle of three primary schools: Beauly, Dunvegan and Park school in Invergordon. It also submitted separate applications for St Clement’s School in Dingwall and Tornagrain Primary.

However, with the council’s capital budget less than two weeks away it still doesn’t have a funding decision from the Scottish Government.

The council says this makes it impossible to move ahead.

“The special council meeting scheduled for February 1, 2023 has been cancelled,” a spokesman said.

“This is because the council has not yet been informed of the outcome of its bids to the LEIP Fund (Learning Estate Investment Programme) for investing in the school estate.

“It is recognised that this is potentially a significant proportion of the council’s capital spend and it is not possible to undertake a review of the overall programme in the absence of certainty about what funding may or may not be coming forward.”

Opposition leader Alasdair Christie slammed the delay.

“It is unfortunate and disappointing to us all – and when I say 'all' I mean councillors, teachers, communities, parents and children – that the meeting to set the capital programme on February 1 has had to be cancelled,” he said.

He said the council expected an answer on their funding bid in November/December last year, but “the silence on funding these new schools is deafening”.

He added: “Once again the Highlands loses out and the delay in the funding announcement and consequential delay on setting the programme and getting on with the important task of building is unacceptable.”

However, Highland Council convener Bill Lobban claims Councillor Christie agreed to cancel the meeting. Cllr Lobban’s independent group is in a coalition administration with the SNP.

“The meeting was postponed following discussions with all council group leaders, who were in complete agreement that further information from Scottish Government was required before the capital programme could be considered,” he said.

Without a capital plan, Highland’s new schools hang in the balance.

Some, such as St Clement’s in Dingwall, have been many years in the making.

School inspectors dubbed the ageing building "unsuitable" as far back as 2014, while local MSP Kate Forbes likened it to “something out of Oliver Twist.”

Last year, Dingwall councillor Margaret Paterson called the new building discussions the start of a “journey of joy”.

Park Primary School suffered two devastating fires, in 2020 and 2021, leaving it in need of a completely new building.

Beauly and Dunvegan schools are also deemed unsuitable for modern education, and secured Highland Council funding in September.

Tornagrain Primary, when complete, will serve the growing community to the west side of Inverness.

But Highland Council is relying on the Scottish Government LEIP money to deliver those schools.

Meanwhile, the delay to the capital programme could also affect the delivery of other major projects in the council plan.

This is the latest in a series of setbacks. Project costs have shot up 20-40 per cent across the board, and councillors admit they cannot afford the £1 billion list they agreed in 2021.

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