Borders council chiefs and Scottish Government step up row over funding for new high school in Peebles

A falling-out between Borders council bosses and Scottish Government representatives over funding to replace fire-hit Peebles High School is being stepped up by both sides.

By Darin Hutson
Monday, 24th February 2020, 5:55 pm
Scottish Government education secretary John Swinney paying a site visit to fire-hit Peebles High School, accompanied by Borders MSP Christine Grahame.
Scottish Government education secretary John Swinney paying a site visit to fire-hit Peebles High School, accompanied by Borders MSP Christine Grahame.

That row was sparked by Scottish Borders Council leader Shona Haslam and Carol Hamilton, its executive member for children and young people, earlier this month accusing ministers of rejecting a plea for extra financial help to cover the cost of rebuilding the Springwood Road school ahead of schedule.

Holyrood education and skills secretary John Swinney and Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale MSP Christine Grahame are adamant that no such request has been made since November’s fire, and the council has now conceded that to be true.

That concession has failed to bring the dispute to an end, however, with Mrs Haslam continuing to insist that the council is being short-changed by ministers as it looks to continue its school estate rebuilding programme.

Councillors Shona Haslam and Carol Hamilton at Peebles High School.

Ms Grahame said: “The claims being made by Mrs Haslam and her Tory colleagues are going to be massively concerning for the school community.

“As soon as the scale of the damage from the fire was apparent, I wrote to the council to check that insurance would cover the cost of rebuilding, and I was told yes, it should.

“Is it the case that the insurance company has rejected a claim for a new build and will pay only for reinstatement of the damaged areas?

“If that is the case, then Mrs Haslam should come clean.

“She is claiming the school faces a £20m deficit. The only explanation I can offer is that this is the cost of replacement of damaged areas, but on this Mrs Haslam is silent.

“I await her response, but in the interim I would ask her seriously to desist in trying to play politics with this to get a disingenuous hit on the Scottish Government. It serves no one and is unnecessarily causing genuine concern amongst the local community when efforts should be going into returning stability and normality to students, parents and staff.”

Mr Swinney, a visitor to Peebles High following last year’s blaze, has also written to Mrs Haslam seeking an explanation, telling her: “You are reported as stating that requests have been made by the council to the Scottish Government for funding to repair the school.

“For the avoidance of doubt, to date no formal request for capital funding to repair Peebles High School has been received by the Scottish Government.

“In any event, our understanding is that the local authority has in place insurance to cover the capital costs of fire damage to the school.

“If the council decides to make a formal request for exceptional capital funding from the Scottish Government, I will wish to understand the detailed insurance arrangements the council has in place for these eventualities, along with an explanation of why you feel that those arrangements are inadequate to cope with the capital costs of repair.

“In the meantime, I am aware that there is good, constructive joint working ongoing between our officials to help minimise disruption to the pupils, teachers and community of Peebles High School.

“This has included initial discussions about the potential for the council to put forward its priorities for investment through the £1bn learning estate investment programme.

“This programme, which is jointly overseen by the Scottish Government and Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, has been designed to support councils to meet the costs of improvements to the school estate.

“It is not accurate to describe this, as you reportedly do, as “some help with running costs when the school is open”.

Tweeddale East councillor Mrs Haslam remains insistent that ministers ought to do more to help, however, saying: “The facts are clear. Scottish Borders Council’s capital budget has been cut by the Scottish Government by 25% this year.

“Meanwhile, the Scottish Government has changed its funding model for schools.

“Last year, we were promised 50% up-front support for the capital cost of replacing our older high schools.

“This year, that was changed, with no consultation, to assisting with revenue costs once schools are completed, so we are left with having to rebuild three high schools with no capital support from the government at all, but, in fact, with a 25% cut in our capital budget.

“Peebles High School was due for replacement within the next 10 years. This schedule has had to be moved up due to the fire.

“Of course, we could just rebuild what was lost using the insurance, but we are more ambitious than that.

“If we just replaced what was lost, we would still be left with a windowless basement music department which, despite those facilities, produces first-rate musicians and an out-of-date science department which still produces some of Scotland’s finest scientists.

“We want to do more. We want to think bigger. We are ambitious for the future of our schools and our young people. It is just a shame that the Scottish Government does not share our ambition.”

Prior to November’s fire, a new Galashiels Academy was due to open in 2023 at a cost of £62m or £48m, depending on whether a like-for-like replacement or all-age campus is built, with a new Hawick High costing £96m or £48m following by the year after and a new secondary school in Selkirk priced at £60m or £37m welcoming pupils in 2029.

A replacement for 1,300-pupil Peebles High costing £92m for a like-for-like upgrade or £128m for an all-age campus was not due to open until 2032.

A £100,000 options appraisal agreed in December is now under way, however, and it is expected to lead to Peebles not having to wait another 12 years for a new high school.