The calibre of competence and responsibility of local government, fiscally and operationally, is coming under increasing scrutiny these days, with a far more aware and unformed electorate.
Angus schools’ campaigner, Ewan Smith is well known in Argyll for the dedicated research and persistence that saved his children’s school, Muirfield in Arbroath, last time around – and since translated to Councillor Ewan Smith.
On Thursday last, Councillor Smith attended his council’s Education Committee meeting, convened to discuss the options created by their officials on how best to apply the capital budget for the betterment of the Arbroath primary school estate.
He has been working flat out to try to convince his party colleagues of the need to keep faith with their voters on unequivocal pledges they gave them under a year ago – to improve all of the ten primary schools in Arbroath.
To this end, MR Smith had, back in February, organised a meeting with Sheena Welsh (Education Convener), Iain Gaul (Council Leader) and SNP Councllors Donald Morrison and Alex King who, like himself, represent Arbroath wards in Angus Council – and Sam Cassels of Architect &Design Scotland.
This is a company with a three year contract from the Scottish Government to help review and design local authority school estates. They specialise in refurbishment projects and their input costs local authorities nothing.
The meeting agreed that Sam Cassels would conduct a full review of the ten Arbroath schools in conjunction with a Property Advisor from the council in whom they have confidence; and that Mr Cassels would then go on to work on new proposals for Arbroath alongside the new Strategic Director of People Margo Williamson. She takes up her post on 1st April – replacing the retiring Director of Education, Neil Logue.
Within days of this meeting and with no explanation, this agreed plan was just dropped – an inexplicable matter that contributed to a major decision by Councillor Smith.
Ewan Smith, as we have published, recently resigned from the SNP group in Angus Council, having failed to persuade his colleague to stick to promises on school improvements made to the electorate in their successful local election campaign in May 2012.
This meant that Councillor Smith went to the meeting on Thursday as a lone ranger, packing and prepared to use both pistols.
His timing and aim were mercilessly accurate – but Angus Council seems to be the territory of the undead. The bullets passed through the insubstantial targets and they voted just as he predicted and we published here that they would.
It is indeed to be Option C.
The opaque ‘advantages’ of Option C
This will see two new schools built, each for substantially fewer pupil places that the current premises can accommodate. Timmergreens school will halve its capacity from 444 to 222. Warddyles will drop from 444to 335.
The officers who propose this accept with a shrug that one of these, Timmergreens, will be full to capacity from the outset and with a roll increase know to be in the pipeline, are dealing with a bizarrely planned problem by simply saying that they will allow no placement requests for Timmergreens.
The second school, Warddykes, has a major housing scheme nearing completion in its catchment area, bringing in an additional 370 family homes.
Yes, that’s right.
The budget for this plan – which will impact, not necessarily for the better, on two of the existing ten schools in Arbroath will see borrowing of £10.6 million which will also include a pocket money spruce-up of £400,000 for what is laughingly termed ‘Repair and maintain/improve other schools’ and holding out the carrot of ‘possible’ additional funding from bringing forward future maintenance spend.
Councillor Smith is slack-jawed uncomprehending at the wilfully deliberate building of two new schools at a capacity leaving each of them unable to cope with local demand in the immediate and very near future.
He is also alarmed at the extent to which this narrow distribution of very expensive borrowed cash will leave the eight other needy schools in Arbroath with no development for a period he sees as likely to be a further eight to ten years.
The cost conundrum
Ewan Smith points to the relative affordability and universally distributed benefit of Option A – which offered serious refurbishment of all eight schools.
This is also what the SNP campaign promised Arbroath parents in the 2012 election campaign – but not now regarded as any obligation whatsoever. It is this disregard of election promises that Ewan Smith simply cannot stomach because such actions are alien to his nature and to his political philosophy.
The relative costs for the two options, based on the same total figure are:
- Option C [chosen by the Education Committee], the new build option, will cost a total of £28,160,000 when all interest is added over a 40 year write-off period.
- Option A [Councillor Smith's preferred option], to upgrade all of the Arbroath primary schools would cost £18,480,000 when all interest is added over a 20-year write off period.
This is a saving of almost £10 million – and in these times – a saving so substantial that it should surely not be set aside with the nonchalance demonstrated last Thursday?
The SNP administration tried to cover their backs on this indefensible decision by suggesting that ‘in later years’ (never never time) they could borrow an additional £20 million to do the rest of the school estate.
This means that they are essentially proposing to borrow a total of over £30 million – and at a time when they are already right up to their borrowing limits. This does appear to be fiscally irresponsible in the extreme.
Thursday’s meeting lasted about 90 minutes and began with the Convener, Councillor Sheena Welch, asking if anyone had questions for the Director. Councillor Smith seized on this opportunity at once, with a series of questions that opened up the key issues, most an eye-opener for the local press who were present.
Ewan Smith’s questions
- He asked why a Biomass Heating system was priced at £650,000 in the repair option [it does seem unarguable inflated]; and why this was chosen over a gas system at £65,000?
- He asked for confirmation that none of the Arbroath schools were below 58% on their condition assessment and were therefore, 2% within the acceptable Category B Condition Rating.
- He asked for confirmation that the repair plan would cost just under £10 million LESS in interest to complete [detailed above] and that the chosen ‘savings’ in option C (£25,000) would take 384 years to pull back.
Councillor Smith then put down an amendment that the project be deferred until the new and incoming ‘Strategic Director of People’ [the public sector sure can come up with job titles beyond satire], Margo Williamson, takes up the post next month and reviews the school estate with the Architect and Design Scotland specialist, Sam Cassels, to explore alternative proposals.
He found no seconder, so the amendment could not go forward.
The Convener then put the case for the new build options – and had a ready seconder in Councillor David May – a Liberal Democrat thought to be on the brink of joining the SNP in an SNP-Lib Dem coalition – which would return its narrow majority of 15.14, lost on Councillor Smith’s departure.
Councillor Margaret Thomson – another former Angus Alliance member – then questioned how full Timmergreens would be on its opening day if they went for a new school. Outgoing Education Director, Neil Logue, took a few roundabouts to get to the point that they would simply refuse all placing requests to keep down the numbers and prevent it from being overcrowded. This appeared an acceptable plan?
One by one the undead voted for the Convener’s preferred option – staring progressively at Councillor Smith as if to compel him to make it unanimous.
Ewan Smith has more of a spine than that, refusing to back it and saying that this considered opposition came with ‘a severe long term health warning for Angus Council that would come back to haunt them in future years when funds for other schools disappear; and when we finally see that we have created an overcrowded school estate.’ Having put down an amendment to the motion and, unsurprisingly, finding no seconder in the schoolyard ganging up that characterises local authority conduct, Ewan Smith insisted on having his dissent recorded.
A church representative on the committee, who had not previously spoken, then offered a ‘no Vote’ [an abstention, in local authority terms]. He was told that since there was no valid amendment there was no ‘No vote’ option. He said: ‘If you are asking if I agree to this, then the answer is ‘No’. He too had his dissent recorded.
Councillor Smith then gave notice that he is likely to refer the matter to Full Council for a decision. He will lose at Full Council, not because of the logic, the needs of the other eight schools or the serious cost issues but because of automatic tribal politics – regardless.
Ewan Smith knows that this outcome is inevitable but, in honour, he has to give all colleagues the opportunity to listen and to think again. Will he be able to get this to Full Council? We’ll report back when we know.
Since the news of his resignation broke, it has become clear that people in Arbroath do not want the option the SNP group have driven. The voters had expected, as had Ewan Smith, that the election promise from the SNP to repair all the schools, would be fulfilled.
They will be cannier – and disillusioned – next time.