Search begins for alternative school site as councillors urged to ask MSPs to overrule verdict

Lothian Buses Depot
Lothian Buses Depot
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COUNCIL leaders are being urged to ask the Scottish Parliament to overrule a court decision and allow a new Portobello High School to be built on a community park.

Campaigners are pressing the council to follow the example of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and ask MSPs to pass a special law which would allow them to develop a new school on Portobello Park.

On Wednesday three Court of Session judges upheld an appeal from the Portobello Park Action Group against the new high school being built on Portobello Park, a throwing council plans into disarray.

The council is now looking at options, including an appeal to the Supreme court and finding an alternate site for the development. But community support has also been thrown behind plans to ask for MSP’s to effectively overturn the 
ruling. Andy Wightman, a well-known campaigner for land reform and an expert on the common good in Scotland, said: “The council could ask for a Private Act of Parliament to build the school on the park, or it could go to the Sheriff Court and ask for the authority to dispose of the land. They could then dispose of it to EDI, which would lease the land back to the council and the council could build a school.

“If the people of Portobello want this to happen and the council are committed to it, then I think a Private Act of Parliament might be the best route because it could be quite quick – it could all be done and dusted within 12 months. If the Scottish Parliament passes an Act saying you can build on the park, that trumps any Court of Session decision.”

In 2003 the National Galleries of Scotland lobbied ministers for a change in the law to allow the development of the underground link on land at Princes Street Gardens, next to the Royal Scottish Academy.

Sean Watters, chairman of Portobello for a New School (PFANS), backed for Mr Wightman’s suggestions, and also urged the council to appeal this week’s court decision.

The council plans to meet with Mr Wightman to discuss his suggestions, with a report on all the options set to go to council next month.

Lothians Labour MSP Kezia Dugdale said Mr Wightman’s proposal for a Private Act of Parliament was a “very credible idea”. She said: “Every possible idea needs to be on the table.”

Edinburgh East SNP MSP and Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill added that he would not rule out Mr Wightman’s suggested course.

He said: “There is no quick or simple solution to this situation, but I am happy to look at every option and provide every assistance I can.”

Councillor Cameron Rose, Conservative education spokesman, will lodge an emergency motion at full council next Thursday calling on officers to produce a report within one month, which will provide the exact timescale, cost and likely success of court action, and seek to identify any possible sites that the new school could be built on.

Meanwhile, Councillor Paul Godzik, the city’s education leader, added: “In light of yesterday’s judgement, we are considering all options at our disposal. I have asked for a report to be presented to council at the first possible opportunity.”

Existing school site

The current site is too small to accommodate 1400 pupils but could still be part of the answer. A smaller school could be built and the catchment area redrawn, although that option would be unpopular with parents who end up outside the new catchment.

An all-weather sports pitch could be built on the neighbouring Figgate Park for use by schoolchildren during the day and the wider community at other times. An alternative site could potentially be found for a new St John’s Primary, freeing up more space.

Verdict: A front runner.

Lothian buses depot

Despite its huge garages and large car park, the bus depot on Seafield Road is not large enough to build a seafront school. The council would need to spend millions buying up the garage and workshop next door in order to create enough space. The council previously ruled it out on cost grounds and finances are even tighter now.

Verdict: Non-starter.

Former ScottishPower offices

The old ScottishPower site is not big enough in its own right and adjoining land on the Baileyfield Industrial Estate would be needed as well. The cost of buying the plots and paying for the existing businesses including Standard Life to relocate would be prohibitively expensive. The Powerleague five-a-side football pitches on the other side of the High Street would also be too small, and traffic levels on the High Street would make combining them in a split campus difficult.

Verdict: Non-starter.

Craigmillar

Land is there waiting to built on and the council also promised a new high school as part of the regeneration of Craigmillar. Opens the door to a single super-high school or even a joint campus. A move to Craigmilar won’t be popular with Porty parents. A new school here coupled with redevelopment of the existing Portobello site is more likely, although it might mean shrinking the Porty catchment area. Verdict: A front-runner.

Bingham park

Outside the existing school catchment area and surrounded by narrow streets, the potential traffic problems are a major drawback. Just a few months ago, the site would have been a more attractive proposition, due to the closure of Lismore Primary School providing extra space for development. However, work started there in the Spring on the building of a new children’s respite centre, to replace the “unsuitable” Seaview premises in Joppa. Would also be unpopular due to the extra travelling it would mean for all children.

Verdict: An outside chance.

Green belt

Portobello is close enough to the edge of the city to make building on an alternative green field site a practical option, at least in terms of travel time. However, there would be great opposition to any building on the green belt, ensuring a long and protracted planning process without the guarantee of a successful outcome. The new Holyrood High School took up possibly the last suitable site.

Verdict: Non-starter.