FEARS that a new £45 million Easter Ross super-school campus may be delayed for years amidst savage budget cuts and site selection wrangles have been voiced by a veteran councillor.
Cllr Alasdair Rhind’s remarks following a local consultation staged by Tain Community Council following a decision by Highland Council to go back to the drawing board on site selection for a new campus catering for young people aged from three to 18.
The new campus would replace existing sub-standard primary and secondary school buildings and tie in with Scottish Government thinking on educational provision for the future.
Highland Council had initially chosen the existing Tain Royal Academy site at Scotsburn Road as its preferred option but then had a change of heart in August following local concerns about its suitability.
Meanwhile, Highland Council looks set to slash its capital budget for such projects and is also committed to a new campus at Alness, casting doubt over the funding package needed for Tain.
Tain and Easter Ross councillor Alasdair Rhind said he was "extremely disappointed" the local community council went ahead with its own consultation and described the project as now "in limbo".
He said: "The project could have been started on the ground with the funding in place.
"Personally I have heard nothing from anyone to say the existing Tain Royal Academy site is the wrong one."
He said Scottish Government funding is now in doubt with competing claims for money from school projects in Inverness.
Highland Council’s own capital budget is expected to be firmed up in February.
He warned the town was becoming "stagnant" with the proposed RBS closure the latest setback and that the process could be set back five years without a radical improvement in the budget situation.
"A golden opportunity has been lost," he said. "I think we had the right site with all the associated sports facilities."
In a robust response, Tain Community Council chairman David MacDonald noted that it was Highland Council which decided to pull out of the project back in August in order to go back to the drawing board on site selection.
He noted too that three other community councils – Ardgay and District, Tarbat and Kilmuir and Logie Easter – had also objected, along with 30-plus members of the public and Tain and Easter Ross Civic Trust.
He said objections about the existing Tain Royal Academy site were based on "solid, very basic concerns", amongst them a constricted development space for expansion.
He said: "There were legitimate concerns and unanswered questions. We’ve been bullied and criticised but we have an over-arching responsibility to represent the whole community.
"At the end of the day, Highland Council decided to look afresh at the sites – we’ve not stated a preference and are aware they all have strengths and weaknesses. It’s Highland Council’s call."
He said of the initial consultation leading to the TRA site selection: "The way it was handled was poor.
He said: "We simply cannot afford to take chances with it whether for economic or political expediency. It will remain Highland Council’s responsibility to select the site and the community council’s job to help inform officials and members as best we can.
"The more we are able to reflect community opinion, the more successful the outcomes should be. To this end, we will be looking at how best we might take our ideas online and engage public opinion that way. We want folk to realise the importance of the development not only to Tain but to the wider school catchment area. One way or another the proposed campus will affect most of us and help shape the futures of our children. How it is delivered will impact upon at least the next two generations. It is an extremely complex development and we must get it right."
Tain and Easter Ross ward councillor Derek Louden said: "Thanks to the civic trust and the community council for considering the style and layout options available. People in Tain will be looking for swift progress in 2018 to deliver the stylish solutions our community desperately needs. Everyone hopes we can progress things soon."
Amidst concerns Highland Council’s capital budget could be cut in half from £110 million a year to £55 million, leader Margaret Davidson said earlier this month that two schools in Inverness and Ross-shire must be prioritised.
"We have some really difficult choices to make," she warned. "We will need to go to care and learning and ask what absolutely needs to be done, what has to come first and what has to wait.
"There are some I know we need to deliver. We need to sign off on Alness because the Scottish Government wants it delivered by 2020. We are also moving as much as we can in Inverness just to alleviate the overcrowding but a lot of the extensions we have planned will have to be demountable classrooms.
"I know we will need to move fast on the new Ness Castle Primary because we have just given planning permission for more than 700 new houses in that area."
Easter Ross MP Jamie Stone, himself a former Tain Royal Academy pupil, said it was crucial the chosen project won local support and set out a vision for facilities which could also host community events and performances, providing a knock-on benefit to the local economy.