Portobello High parents celebrate school go-ahead

Children on the Portobello Park site where the new school will be built. Pic: Ian Georgeson
Children on the Portobello Park site where the new school will be built. Pic: Ian Georgeson
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A NEW high school will be built in Portobello Park by August 2016 after MSPs gave the long-awaited project the final green light.

Shovels are set to break the ground within weeks after MSPs passed a Private Bill paving the way for work to get under way on replacement premises for Portobello High.

Royal assent – expected over the next four to six weeks – is all that is needed before building teams move in and begin construction of a state-of-the-art, £41.5 million campus for the school’s 1400 pupils, who are currently being taught in a crumbling 1960s tower block.

For local families, the decision marks the end of a 2765-day journey to final victory, with joyful and relieved parents hailing yesterday’s vote as a “great moment for the future of Portobello”. Dad of two Michael McTernan, 48, who has children in S3 at Portobello High and P6 at Towerbank Primary, said: “The issue with the school has gone on too long and has been too divisive – we need to draw a line under that.

“We’re going to get a great school and a new park, and now is the time to grasp that opportunity for the kids. What has stuck out for me was how seriously the MSPs took their job over this – I was taken by how earnest and how balanced they’ve been.

“Ultimately, the facts speak for themselves and this is the right solution.”

Plans to build the new school on protected green space in Portobello Park were thrown off course when objectors successfully appealed to the Court of Session in 2012, forcing the council to lodge a Bill aimed at switching the land’s legal status and opening it up for education-related development.

Yesterday’s vote means construction in Portobello Park is now almost certain, although it is understood the time needed to obtain royal assent presents a window within which objectors could launch an appeal on human rights grounds or another aspect of EU law.

But given the care with which MSPs have weighed individual interests against the community benefit of a new school, legal experts said a challenge was unlikely, with one telling the Evening News that the chances of success were “virtually nil”.

Leaders of Portobello Park Action Group (PPAG), which has been fighting the proposals, were tight-lipped when contacted last night and said only that an urgent meeting would be held to decide on what action they would take next. Branding the vote a “bleak day” for Scottish democracy, PPAG member Stephen Hawkins said: “MSPs tell us that today’s ruling won’t lead to other councils appropriating inalienable common good land but today’s adoption of the Bill shows that it can happen.

“Sadly, today’s decision comes as no surprise to PPAG supporters as we know that many MSPs had made their minds up to adopt the Bill 
even before hearing the evidence.

“The parliamentary process and PPAG’s experience of the balance and fairness of private Bill committee proceedings has been woeful.” He added: “Of huge frustration and upset to PPAG is the fact that many of our supporters went to Portobello High School or have children who are due to go the school themselves. The sometimes highly personal accusations about PPAG delaying the school’s development are without foundation.”

Delighted city chiefs said contractors Balfour Beatty would be formally appointed to begin work as soon as the Bill becomes law.

Councillor Paul Godzik, education leader, said: “This decision will be welcomed by the Portobello community as it clears the legal obstacle that has prevented us building the new Portobello High School on Portobello Park.

“We know there is overwhelming support in the local community for our plans.

“The young people of Portobello deserve high-quality education facilities and I am confident not only that the school community will benefit from our plans but also that the wider local community 
will be able to enjoy the improved sports and other facilities that will be available when the new school opens, which we anticipate will be in August 2016.”

johnpaul.holden@edinburghnews.com