THE coalition running Highland Council will next week try to force through a decision on Fort William’s new Gaelic medium primary school - despite losing a crucial vote on its favoured site for the controversial project.
Independent Highland councillors, backed by the clergy and the region’s youth convener, combined to pull off a shock victory over the SNP-Liberal Democrat-Labour administration in Inverness last Thursday.
The council had wanted to press ahead and construct the £4 million school on Ardgour Road in Caol and approve education director Hugh Fraser’s recommendation to select the location, instead of the Blar Mhor which he warned could cost up to £900,000 in site preparation costs.
Following a marathon discussion in which six Lochaber councillors fiercely debated the two rival sites, Caol and Mallaig councillor Eddie Hunter tabled a successful amendment – seconded by former education chairman Councillor Bill Fernie – calling for the adult and children’s services (ACS) committee to postpone a decision. The amendment was carried 14 votes to 13.
Religious representatives on the committee, including a minister and Stuart Davidson, the youth convener, voted for the amendment which sought “more comprehensive tests” and quotes from three separate contractors for the Blar groundworks.
Senior administration councillors were left smarting after the defeat but in another twist this week, it emerged the Caol recommendation will be diverted to the full council on Thursday of next week for a decision instead.
David Alston, the depute council leader, said the administration had made the move because it had not lost the councillors’ vote and felt the religious intervention was undemocratic because they were not elected committee members.
He said: “We are taking it to the full council for a decision because of the way it was dealt with by church representatives.”
Councillor Alston said it would present a notice of amendment, signed by 12 councillors, at the meeting to challenge the ACS committee’s decision.
By law, all council education committees must include religious representatives but they do not often vote.
Councillor Alston said the statutory membership and voting power they held on education committees was an issue which the council would consider raising with the Scottish Government.
Opposition Independent councillors reacted with fury to the administration’s actions.
Group leader Carolyn Wilson claimed the move to overturn the committee vote was “frightening” and only came about because the leadership had lost control of the issue.
She said: “I just can’t believe it, just because the administration lost the vote, which was purely about a deferral for more information, that they would then be taking this back to the full council.
“The degree of control that they are trying to have is frightening really. They are panicking because they lost the vote.
“It is not as if a decision was taken, the Independent councillors were just looking for six weeks more to look into it.”
Councillor Hunter said: “I’m disappointed but not surprised that the administration has taken this course of action.
“It had been suggested to me that there was an element of control freakery within the administration, which I refused to believe, knowing many of the members personally.
“But now it’s becoming clear to me that indeed this may be the case.
“On the subject of non-elected members voting, this has been normal practice on Scottish local authorities for many years.
“And surely we should be encouraging the voice of your younger people to be heard on matters that will be affecting them in the future.”