ACTIVISTS in an Easter Ross community are pressing for assurances over a "desperately needed" school campus that has been shelved, despite £1.2 million being ploughed into the scheme already.
A year after Highland Council lodged plans to demolish the existing Tain Royal Academy (TRA) complex to make way for a new £52 million super-school campus for pupils aged three to 18 at the same location, the application has been officially withdrawn by the local authority, despite assurances a consultation on alternative sites will go ahead.
In a letter published in this week’s Ross-shire Journal, Tain Community Council chairman David MacDonald questions Highland Council’s handling of the affair and asks why the application wasn’t allowed to go to the planning committee after community concerns were cited as a reason for halting it.
He said: "Historically, community opinion over local development has carried little weight, so all the more unusual it’s elevated prominence over the campus project. Did we witness an exercise in ‘smoke and mirrors’?
"Was the Highland Council already looking ahead to trimming its budget and saw Tain as dispensable, particularly in the face of rising demand for school replacement elsewhere? Did ‘community concern’ present a convenient cover to remove funding? After all, we now know the allocated £52m was more than the budget currently available for the entire Highlands.
"Shame on the council if this was a calculated ploy, especially now it is being twisted in some quarters towards ‘community blame’. That is a slight on the four community councils and the 37 members of the public who were concerned enough over the proposal to make representation. Something doesn’t quite add up and it will be interesting to learn where the Tain money has been reallocated to.
"Cllr Ian Cockburn a fortnight ago in a letter to the Ross-shire Journal pointed to a general culture of bad financial management and poor leadership at Highland Council over the last three years. Is Tain a case in point?
"This has always been a project that raised more questions than it answered, but the fact remains Tain is desperately in need of renewed school facilities and the community council remains committed to supporting its delivery on the best site for the job and in the most practical manner."
Mr MacDonald says that "merely keeping a mention of Tain in the capital programme isn’t enough" but is encouraged by what he sees as a move to consider "tried and tested" modular building rather than "controversial bespoke school designs".
A special meeting of Tain Royal Academy Parent Council to discuss the campus last month heard of "the current dire situation with the school buildings in Tain" and the conclusion that "no new campus simply wasn’t acceptable".
It was noted that £1.2m had already been ploughed into the consultation process though there was lack of clarity on exactly why the planning application had been stopped.
Budget leader Alister Mackinnon said then that site selection would go ahead this year as planned with £1m set aside for the purpose and that £28 million would be kept in the capital budget for the campus, last costed at £52m. After site selection, he said "all additional possible funding options" would be explored.
Tain and Easter Ross ward councillor Derek Louden said: "In common with many people, my feelings are of sadness and fear.
"Sadness for the pupils and staff who have been let down by this decision. Fear that an organisation that doesn’t learn from its mistakes will repeat the whole exercise again only to offer us the same option or an even worse alternative outside Tain altogether.
"I’m left with the impression Tain and Easter Ross have been made to suffer so no community ever dares to stand up to Inverness again.
"The Scottish Government remains supportive of Tain. Let’s hope Highland Council gets back on board and delivers what we desperately need."
Speaking at the recent capital budget setting meeting, fellow ward councillor Fiona Robertson said: "Tain schools are falling down around us. There are huge concerns among Highland Council staff, school staff, parents and communities about continuing to put our children in these buildings."
Questioned about Mr MacDonald’s concerns, a spokeswoman for Highland Council said: "A stakeholder meeting has been arranged for next week at which the council will provide an update on the next steps regarding the campus."