Row breaks out over bill for replacement for Peebles High School

A row has broken out over how the bill for replacing fire-damaged Peebles High School will be footed.

Wednesday, 12th February 2020, 6:03 pm
Updated Wednesday, 12th February 2020, 6:03 pm
Councillors Shona Haslam and Carol Hamilton at Peebles High School.

The school was hit by a serious fire at the end of last year, prompting calls from council chiefs for the Scottish Government to step in to provide extra financial assistance.

But Conservative council leader Shona Haslam and executive member Carol Hamilton say that request has fallen on deaf ears, a response which both have branded incredible given the extent of the damage to the building.

Rachael Hamilton, Tory MSP for Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire, has also joined in the condemnation of the government, saying that claimed lack of support puts the planned replacement of Galashiels Academy and Hawick High School at risk of delay.

The view that responsibility lies squarely at the government’s door has been questioned by Stuart Bell, the leader of the opposition SNP group on the council, though.

And Christine Grahame, MSP for Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale, says the council’s insurance cover for the school should be more than adequate to reinstate the Springwood Road premises, earmarked for a £128m rebuild in 12 years’ time.

Mrs Haslam claimed that last year the Scottish Government “moved the goal posts on school funding”.

She added: “This was done without any consultation with local government and has given many local authorities significant issues when it comes to their schools replacement programmes.

“Councils had put together plans based on the government promise to pay half of the upfront costs. Last year this changed to no up-front support, even when a school is burnt down, and some help with running costs when the school is open. This is simply not adequate.

“Councils are left with their plans in tatters and are having to look at increasing council tax so that communities do not miss out on new schools. The blame for this rise can only lie in one place – at the feet of the SNP.”

Ms Hamilton, the council’s executive member for children and young people, said: “The lack of support from the Scottish Government is damaging to the education of Borders children and young people.

“When a school is significantly damaged by fire, the government have a duty to assist the pupils of Peebles High School.

“Both councillor Haslam and I have written to the Scottish Government calling for them to review this refusal for funding”.

Mrs Hamilton, her Holyrood namesake, claims years of SNP underfunding had left the council in a very difficult position.

She said: “I don’t want to see an already cash-strapped Scottish Borders Council have to make the decision to postpone the replacement of Hawick High School just because the Scottish Government won’t fulfil their duties.”

But Mr Bell said it was council and not the Scottish Government which has a statutory duty to ensure adequate provision of school education in their area.

He added: “It’s depressing that Conservatives who control Scottish Borders Council spend their effort complaining about the Scottish Government instead of getting on with managing our council.

“Since 2009, the Scottish Government’s ambitious Schools for the Future programme has seen £1.8bn invested in new schools, delivering 117 across the country.

“Regardless of the fact that this is a council responsibility, two-thirds of the new funding has come directly from the Scottish Government and has resulted in £44m coming to the Borders to help deliver new primaries at Broomlands, Duns and Langlee, as well as new high schools in Kelso and Jedburgh.

“The challenges at Peebles High School are exceptional and the Scottish education secretary, John Swinney, is himself paying close attention to what support is needed, but in reality Scottish Borders Council have yet to specify and detail what they want to do on that site.

“Rebuilding will be part-finance by insurance which has already contributed to restoring teaching of all classes on one site.

“Borders’ Tories say nothing about what the government is actually doing and until the council has a clear plan for Peebles High, it is hollow to complain that there is no support. As they say, empty vessels make the most noise. Does this apply to local Conservatives?”

Ms Grahame said: “It is my understanding that there has been no formal request from Scottish Borders Council to the Scottish Government for capital funding for Peebles High. There have been, as I understand it, general discussions about the future school estate, as there are with every council and these conversations are ongoing.

“That said, I’m unclear what’s being asked for here.

“I have been told by Scottish Borders Council that its insurance policy on the school provides for the value of reinstating of what was lost with new-build accommodation, along with up to £1m for site clearance and professional fees and £1m for consequential costs such as transport or hiring alternative accommodation.

“In my last communication with the chief executive of Scottish Borders Council, I was assured that the insurance claim was progressing without issue.

“The Scottish Government stands ready to assist, as do I if the council would like to raise anything with me, but why are the Tories expecting it to duplicate funding already provided by insurance?

“Is there an issue with the insurance cover for the school or is it perhaps a somewhat transparent attack on the SNP to distract from the recent local government benchmarking report which shows Tory-led Scottish Borders Council as the second worst performing in Scotland?”