Portobello High School bill backed by MSPs

MSPs backed the latest stage of the bill today. Pic: File
MSPs backed the latest stage of the bill today. Pic: File
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CAMPAIGNERS have hailed a vote in the Scottish Parliament as a “fantastic victory” on the way to getting a new, long-awaited Portobello High School.

A bill paving the way for construction of the new school in Portobello Park was backed unanimously by MSPs. Yesterday’s vote came after a crunch Holyrood debate which heard how fed-up families had waited 2597 days since plans were first approved without any sign of their campus being built.

The city council’s private bill would enable work to get under way in the park – which is a legally protected green space – by switching its legal status and opening it up as the site for a school, although the four-strong committee of MSPs set up to scrutinise the bill will now weigh up amendments and remaining objections in a process that could take months.

Campaigners said MSP backing for the bill’s core principles meant it had now cleared “the major hurdle” in its passage through parliament.

Sean Watters, chair of Portobello for a New School and secretary of Portobello Community Council, said: “If MSPs have provided unanimous backing for the principles, then all that remains is making sure the wording of the bill is spot on.

“I don’t think the consideration stage will take that long – although there are lots of objections, it’s the same objections over and over again.”

MSPs who took part in yesterday’s debate acknowledged the complexities and importance of the law on Portobello Park’s status as “common good land”, as well as fears that passing the bill could threaten protected green space across Scotland.

But they said it was clear the school’s existing building – where part of its roof blown off in strong winds in 2012 – was no longer fit for purpose.

Labour MSP Siobhan McMahon, who convenes the Holyrood committee looking at the bill, insisted the proposed legislation would not set a precedent. She told parliament: “While we recognise it will be open to other councils to follow this route if they so choose, any such bill would have to be considered on their own circumstances and merits.”

With Local Government Minister Derek Mackay stating he was “pleased” the city council was closer to delivering a new high school, Conservative MSP Cameron Buchanan said the bill was “about Portobello Park and Portobello Park alone”.

Alison Johnstone, Green MSP for Lothian, voiced concern over the city council’s “dismissive and at times disrespectful” treatment of residents who have been fighting the plans, but also came out in support.

She said: “The school has planning permission to be built in the park. A contractor is in place to do so. Community consultation a year ago had a massive response and a fairly hefty majority in favour of building in the park.

“However, many criticisms one can level at the community consultation, it is difficult to argue that the will of the community is other than that which emerged from the consultation.”

Opponents reacted by branding the decision a stitch-up and accused MSPs of being more interested in digging their city council counterparts out of a “hole” caused by “total mismanagement” of the Portobello High saga.

Stephen Hawkins, member of the Portobello Park Action Group, said: “We knew that the vote would go in favour of the bill because it has already been decided behind closed doors by members of Labour and the SNP. There has been political pressure exerted on the other parties and they are reluctant to speak out.

“What was interesting was the condemnation from the speakers of the council’s total mismanagement of the project and that anyone sensible would have gone for legal clarity on this in 2005-6.

“Through their mismanagement they have created this ongoing acrimony within the community. We have offered so many times to go for a court decision, and in 2008 the council decided to go for legal clarity, but it was not until 2012 that we got them into court.”

He added: “We stand by our position that a private bill is not appropriate in this situation. It’s an act which affects other places and a more general updating of the law is required, which was acknowledged by several of the MSPs who spoke.”

But education chiefs in the Capital welcomed yesterday’s vote as a “major milestone”.

Councillor Paul Godzik, education leader, said: “We are pleased that the Scottish Parliament has unanimously agreed the general principles and that the private bill can proceed to the consideration stage.

“This means we are getting closer to delivering a fantastic new school that the people of Portobello rightly demand and pupils of Portobello deserve.”

Timeline

December 2008: Education bosses commit £41.5 million to building a Portobello High after finding the condition of its crumbling 1960s premises is the worst of a group of schools in desperate need of work.

February 2011: Plans to build a secondary school in Portobello Park are given the go-ahead. City councillors admit it is “regrettable” that the park is the only suitable site but insist the need for a school “outweighs” the loss of open space.

September 2011: Portobello Park Action Group (PPAG) raises a petition in the Court of Session arguing that the school should not be built on the park because it is common good land. Education leader Marilyne MacLaren warns the move could cost the council more money and says she is “hugely disappointed” that “a small group of local residents” are trying to stop the plans.

March 2012: Judge Lady Dorrian refuses PPAG’s petition in the Court of Session. She upholds the council’s appropriation of part of the park and concludes a local authority does have the power to appropriate inalienable common good land.

March 2012: PPAG members announce they will appeal Lady Dorrian’s ruling.

September 2012: The Court of Session accepts PPAG’s appeal and throws out the council’s

plans.

April 2013: The council introduces a private bill to the Scottish Parliament which aims to change the park’s common good status from inalienable to alienable, but only for educational purposes.

‘IT’S BEEN 2597 DAYS AND IT’S TIME TO GET SHOVELS IN THE GROUND’

KEZIA Dugdale MSP is shadow cabinet secretary for education and lifelong learning.

She said: “It has been 2597 days since plans to build a new Portobello High School on Portobello Park were approved by Edinburgh City Council. The children of Portobello have been promised that new school for a number of years now. I met Jessie, who told me she was in primary two at Towerbank when she was promised a new high school; she’s now in her fourth year at Portobello and will be sitting her exams this year and next in the current building – a building that falls far short of the needs of the kids in Portobello, let alone the very best they deserve.

“I was delighted to vote in favour of the council’s private bill to build a new Portobello High School on Portobello Park at the preliminary stage yesterday because it is the best, quickest and most cost-effective option to deliver a school the children and community deserves. I believe this the substantial backing of the local community, a point evidenced by the public consultation carried out last year.

“The teachers of Portobello High School have continued to deliver a high-quality education, creating a fabulous sense of community, getting great academic results whilst also excelling at sport, music and do wonders for charities but they do all this is substandard conditions. Kids are taught in temporary classrooms, get crushed in the stairs when the bell rings, miss school days in high winds because the roof is so weak and then get just 15 minutes of PE a week because they have to travel across the east of the city to get to decent sports facilities.

“The private bill will not only provide for a new Portobello High School but also a new replacement for St John’s Primary School, a new park on the existing site and additional improve-ments in Magdalene and to the park itself. This bill delivers for the local community in a number of ways. A new school for the community on a piece of land that is ridiculously under used at present.

“But remember this, nothing about this bill will set a precedent about any other green space or common good land across the city, or indeed Scotland.

“The land itself will remain common good land and what great common good is there than the education of our children.

“The community has been asked and they have resoundingly backed these proposals. It is the best option, it is the quickest option and it is the most cost-effective option.

“I look forward to the final vote on this bill so we can get shovels in the ground.