IT’S the issue which has divided the seaside town, but, asks Gina Davidson, do tensions over the new high school really run deep?
DOWN a long hallway and in a comfortable kitchen with French windows which lead out onto a leafy garden, three men are plotting a revolution.
A social worker, a tattooist and an architect, the trio are perhaps an unlikely combination, but then the anger which is currently coursing through the seaside town of Portobello has forged unexpected friendships and possibly ended others.
For the fury which surrounds the building of a new high school for the area has finally broken through the strained but polite surface since the latest twist in a seven-year long tale.
Last week the Court of Session upheld an appeal by the Portobello Park Action Group (PPAG) and ruled that the council could not build the school on Portobello Park as it is common good land. The ruling means that plans to have the school open by 2014 have been put back by at least another two years as the council decides whether to appeal the judgement or find a different site.
While councillors and politicians urge those on either side of the divide to forget being angry and get together to find a solution, a visit to the online forums discussing the issue shows how deep feelings run.
“They will never be forgiven,” declares one. “It’s a travesty. Children’s futures have been sacrificed to allow some NIMBYS to maintain a leafy outlook,” says another. “I hope these small-minded people that are ruining the education of our children are proud” and “We have long memories, you will not be forgotten. Vengeance will be mine sayeth the Lord”. Loving thy neighbour seems to have been abandoned.
And on the other side, there are allegations of nasty tricks with shop owners who were prepared to show their support for the school being built on the park threatened with boycotts by those against the plan.
One local business owner, who doesn’t want to be named in fear of commercial reprisals, says that many people feel intimidated by the few people who sit on most of Portobello’s voluntary bodies such as the community council and PPAG.
“There are a few people, the same people, who seem to have strong views on things, who are preventing all sorts of things happening, from the school to Sainsbury’s to the hovercraft... it’s very frustrating.”
Giles Greenslade and his wife Elena Groll already have a son Danny in S3 at the high school and their other son Gabriel is due to start there next year. “I think the latest decision is absolutely ridiculous,” says Elena. “The council should be able to deliver what the majority of the community wants, and that’s a new school built on the only viable site, which is the park.”
Giles adds: “This is just a temporary setback. They’ve got to get their heads together and find a way of making it happen. This school is being stopped because of a few people, a handful of very motivated people who live around the park, which is not right.”
Linda Logan lives opposite the proposed school site. Her cheery disposition could be because the latest ruling has gone her way, but she laughs off any suggestion of Nimbyism. “I’m not convinced a school would affect my house price badly,” she says. “It could well improve it. My objection to the idea though was the loss of green space. Once it’s gone, that’s it.
“My own children went to Portobello High so I do know how much a new school is needed, I just don’t think we should sacrifice green space for it.”
She adds: “I don’t really feel the issue has divided the community. There have been some nasty comments on forums recently but there are people with strong views on both sides. Some commonsense now needs to be applied.”
A neighbour, Jennifer Peters, who has two children who will be attending Portobello High, says: “I’m delighted with the ruling. A new high school is extremely important to me but the council’s handling of this has been pretty bad.” She also believes that feelings have been inflamed by the council and by the media coverage. “Maureen Child, our councillor, has said that the ruling has caused a further two-year delay, but that’s inaccurate, it’s the council which has caused the delay. This school could have been built by now if they’d stuck to the original plan to build on the current high school site.
“We get called Nimbys, but I know lots of people who don’t live on the park who don’t want to lose it to a school. It’s an easier sell for people to believe it’s just a small group of small-minded Nimbys, but it’s not.”
That view seems to be backed by the sole user of the park on Monday afternoon. He’d rather remain anonymous he says, as he’s aware of the divides. He lives nearer the shore but can see the value in keeping the open space. “It’s a great space, I can see why people wouldn’t want to lose it,” he says. “But at the same time I can see why it would be a great site for a school. I am in the minority without a hardline opinion.”
However back down that hallway and in the kitchen are three 40-something dads, Kieran Gaffney, Kieran Middleton and Paul Slifer, who all have children at Towerbank Primary and say they feel provoked into action as their children will likely be affected by the lack of a decent high school.
As a result they have even set up two new community groups in the hope they will be able to gain seats on the community council and break what they describe as a stranglehold of a minority.
Kieran Middleton, a part-time social worker and a former Portobello High School pupil, says he returned to the seaside to raise his two children – a third is on the way – and part of the decision was down to there being a new secondary. With the latest setback he says he knows of people considering “down-scaling to afford to send their kids to private schools or moving into a catchment for a decent high school.”
“We can be as angry as we like about the people who have stopped the school,” he says, “but that the council have no Plan B is also upsetting.”
Paul Slifer, owner of the Red Hot and Blue tattoo parlour in Tollcross, who has two daughters, adds: “Whatever way you look at it the whole thing has been set back by two years which is devastating..”
And architect Kieran Gaffney adds: “There are issues with the way the community council has been involved, and who sits on it, and how much influence they appear to have when they are in the minority..”
Kieran Middleton agrees. “The community council elections are not until next year, so we’ve set up a couple of organisations like Positive Porty, through which we hope to get representation on the community council and make sure all the views of Portobello people are known..”
Chair of the community council John Stewart refutes any suggestion that it is biased.
“Everybody in Portobello feels strongly that we need a new school but I think those in PFANS weren’t prepared for the community council to take a balanced view.
“When the planning application came out there were 381 in favour, 300 against, so our response was balanced. And yes there’s a member of PPAG on the council, but there’s also a member of PFANS. I think though that because we didn’t condemn PPAG we were seen as supportive.”
He adds: “Perhaps the council could have gone about things better rather than sit back and watch a community split. It all now depends on how soon a site can be found and a school built. The longer it drags on... the hostility and division will just get worse.”
n A public meeting on the future of a new Portobello High School will take place this Friday at 6.30pm, Portobello Town Hall.