NATIONAL politicians have entered the debate over where to build Fort William’s new Gaelic-medium primary school.
Councillors meet on Thursday (September 6) in Inverness to make a final decision on a site.
A fortnight ago the council’s adult and children’s services (ACS) committee agreed by 14 votes to 13 to defer the issue to gather more information about the cost of peat removal from the Blar Mhor.
The council’s coalition administration had wanted to press ahead and construct the £4 million school on Ardgour Road in Caol, as recommended by education director Hugh Fraser.
Mr Fraser had warned that the Blar could cost up to £900,000 in site preparation costs, figures hotly disputed by some Lochaber councillors.
But as the Lochaber News revealed last week, the deferral will be reviewed by the full Highland Council today after 13 councillors signed a notice of amendment to challenge the ACS committee’s decision.
Independent Highland councillors, backed by religious representatives on the committee and the youth convener, combined to pull off the shock victory over the SNP-Lib Dem-Labour administration.
Councillor David Alston, the depute council leader, said the administration was tabling the notice of amendment because it had not lost the vote of elected members and felt the religious intervention was undemocratic because the representatives were not elected to the committee. But the move has infuriated Independent councillors, who have accused the administration of "control freakery".
On Wednesday, Lochaber MP Charles Kennedy urged councillors to consider the Blar and Ardgour Road options carefully before deciding where to site the new school.
Mr Kennedy said: "It is imperative that the council gets this decision right. There can be no changing of minds once the deed is done.
"All the evidence has to be weighed up. While the Caol site is cheaper on the face of it, the Blar Mhor site is much closer to Lochaber High School and further from the railway tracks.
"It is also vital that the financial aspects of the alternatives are weighed on the basis of fully evaluated evidence.
"We must bear in mind that this school – like a modern sports facility, which should be similarly sited on the Blar Mhor – would become a geographic centre of excellence.
"We must think long-term for at least two generations ahead."
Mr Kennedy added: "It’s worth considering, as well, whether the Caol site would be better used for affordable housing. With more than 1,000 people on the waiting list in Lochaber alone, it is clear there’s a desperate need."
‘Right decision based on full facts’
Meanwhile, Lochaber MSP Dave Thompson went further and called for more time on the location decision.
He said: "I am concerned that the Lochaber Gaelic school site decision is being brought up again this week at the full Highland Council, after a clear vote at the committee to get more information on site costs.
"Surely it is not unreasonable to get more information on site costs for such a major project, and it is important to make the right decision based on the full facts.
"After all, we are only talking about a few weeks, after many years.
"I believe the school should go on the Blar Mhor, if at all possible, along with all the other facilities being built there, and especially as it will probably need to be expanded soon after it is built – as have all other Gaelic schools.
"I doubt the Ardgour Road site could accommodate that in future.
"The long-term view should be taken and a decision should not be made without all the facts."
Highlands and Islands Labour MSP David Stewart on Wednesday also urged councillors to "take time and reach the right decision" on the site for the flagship school.
Mr Stewart said "Clearly the final decision is one for the councillors to make, I merely wish to point out that once the decision is made and work commences on the site there is no going back.
"I understand that there is some concern with regards to the peat clearance costs on the Blar Mhor site, with some local councillors wanting bore tests to be carried out in order that the council can make a more informed decision with regards costs.
"We have waited a long time for this facility now, I don’t personally see what harm it would do to wait a short time longer, if it means that those charged with making this important decision have the full facts in front of them."
‘Free thinking has been attacked’
Provost of Lochaber Councillor Allan Henderson, who advocates the Blar Mhor location, welcomed the intervention of the Westminter and Holyrood representatives.
The Caol and Mallaig Independent said: "This is the clear thinking we want and require before a decision is taken by full council on a school being built for the next 60 years.
"Local democracy and free thinking has been attacked by taking this decision back to the full council. It is an attempt to overturn a valid decision taken by the ACS committee.
The choice of site is a local matter and, reasonable costs permitting, once test bores and actual estimates are received, should be decided by local members."
Thursday’s Highland Council meeting gets underway at 10.30am.