John McLellan: Portobello High row heats up

Parents and kids protest on Portobello Park against the campaign to stop the construction of a new school on the site. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Parents and kids protest on Portobello Park against the campaign to stop the construction of a new school on the site. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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Every blade of grass in Edinburgh is sacred. From the bitter feuds which blow up every time any development is proposed for an open green space it’s obvious no turf can be turned without years of wrangling.

Perhaps that is as it should be. Parks and fields are what make this city such a wonderful place to live and if any are to be surrendered there has got to be a very good reason. Testing the arguments to destruction is an essential part of democracy.

And if there is one plan which has been tested beyond destruction it is that for Portobello High School.

Of the many divisive issues which have dominated the pages of this newspaper in recent years, few have generated such passions on either side of the arguments.

I’ve recently written about Caltongate, a scheme which pretty much united a community against the council and its developer. So too has the local opposition to the plans for Craighouse Hill been largely solid (although I know of at least one Morningside Drive resident, an economist, who thinks the campaign is naïve and misguided).

And those with longer memories will remember the anger which dogged the construction of flats on the rough ground at Meggetland much beloved by dog walkers.

But Portobello High is different in the way it has divided the community, with around 30 per cent of respondents to the consultation opposed to a new school on Portobello Park. It’s hardly surprising that the “Hitler downfall” mockery of leading opponents caused considerable anger, but the fact the dispute got that far says it all.

Now, an astounding 2560 days after permission was first granted – seven years, the end is in sight. The Scottish Parliament is set to sweep away the last legal obstacle to building on what is common good land early next year and the city council this week agreed to renew the planning permission for the new school buildings.

The public submissions to the development management sub committee on Wednesday were emotional, but fatigued. Emma Wood, whose two children will never attend the new school, sounded nearly in tears as she pleaded with councillors to give the go-ahead.

There was a moment of levity when a slide showing a “Save our Park” protest was shown as she started her evidence, but an unmistakable tone of sadness as she quietly said: “That’s not my slide.”

But even though she’d made her arguments many times before – she said it was her fourth presentation to a council committee – there was no doubting her passion.

“We care for the wellbeing of our young people. We should send out a clear message about our priorities,” she said.

“We want to say we haven’t squashed your school, instead we have prioritised your education. We want them to know they are valued.”

Speaking for the Portobello Park Action Group, chair Jack Aitken sounded resigned, but ran through the arguments; the open space is too valuable to lose, that they did not trust the council to honour the pledge to convert the current school site to a new open space, there were bound to be traffic accidents and the new playing fields would create unacceptable noise and light pollution.

I certainly pricked up my ears with his argument that it was somehow inconsistent for the new Boroughmuir High to be built on a brownfield site rather than Bruntsfield Links or 
Harrison Park.

Maybe it was my inner Nimby as the back of my house looks over 
Harrison Park, but the fact is Boroughmuir is fortunate enough to have a prime site very close at hand which became affordable thanks to the 
property crash.

And of course Harrison Park is home to the mighty North Merchiston youth football club, and with teams ranging from under-9s to under-21s is in pretty much constant use.

A stroll around Portobello Park yesterday shows precious little sign of sporting activity, but plenty evidence of dog activity.

By contrast the school plan includes two new synthetic football pitches which will be playable all year round barring snow, and available for community use.

But sports do seem to cause a disproportionate amount of localised anger. Look at the ferocity of the opposition to Edinburgh Academicals’ splendid plans to breathe much-needed life into Raeburn Place.

And just up the road in Inverleith there were ridiculous residential objections to floodlights at the Academy’s new hockey astro. A hockey astro, for goodness sake. I hope the locals have found out by now that the youngsters of Inverleith Hockey Club are hardly football casuals.

But the heart of the argument about Portobello High is not that it’s digging up grassland for the sake of it, it’s the creation of something around which the community can gather and be proud.

And it doesn’t just mean one new school, it means better facilities at St John’s Primary too.

The protesters have made it clear they support a new school and it’s just the site they oppose. But many more children have had to put up with the old dilapidated facilities for far longer than was necessary to test the arguments for development on the park site.

I used to live across the way from Gracemount High and while the arguments about the finance for the school building programme under the previous Labour administration still rumble on, the fact remains that the new school made a huge difference to the district.

Just recently I visited the Orkneys and my host went out of his way to take me to the brand new Kirkwall Grammar School, a stunning new facility about which the islanders are bursting with pride. And rightly so. Never mind the Pentland Firth gales, it’s even got an outside theatre!

The 2007 elections put the SNP in power not only in Holyrood but into coalition in Edinburgh and shortly after their victories I spoke to a very senior member of the new SNP government. I remarked that if there was one thing the party could do to make a real impact on the city it was to get the new Porty High built.

“Aye well,” he replied “You’ve spent all your money on trams.”

Of course it is not the government’s fault it has taken so long to get to this stage, but the reality is that hundreds of Porty kids have entered S1 and gone through their entire secondary schooling in a building the authorities have known for years was unacceptable.

With 1400 children on the roll, that’s about 230 new pupils every year. If work can start next year then maybe the new school can be open by the start of the 2016-17 academic year.

So every pupil who went there before 2010-11 will never use the new building and playing fields.

No wonder Emma Wood must feel like crying.