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Massive series of U-turns see Highland Council ditch plans for 10 school projects

By Scott Maclennan

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Capital budget cuts will see a halt to projects at Culloden Academy, Beauly Primary and Charleston Academy and Inshes Roundabout
Capital budget cuts will see a halt to projects at Culloden Academy, Beauly Primary and Charleston Academy and Inshes Roundabout

Highland Council is set to break multiple promises made to pupils, parents and staff by ditching 10 major school building projects to slash more than £120 million from its capital programme.

In what is the biggest investment draw-down in decades, officials want councillors to agree at Thursday’s full council meeting to multiple U-turns by halting projects at Charleston and Culloden Academies, St Clement’s in Dingwall and Park Primary in Invergordon.

The move is likely to be a big embarrassment for the local authority as it is set to cause frustration and anger and questions about the running of the council in what is the worst imaginable start for new chief executive Derek Brown.

In Inverness, if the plans are agreed, it would mean wiping out the budgets for long-held plans to replace schools with just the proposed £15.5 million new primary at Tornagrain saved with work scheduled to start in 2027.

Other schools which emerged unscathed are the Tain 3-18 Campus, Nairn Academy and Broadford Primary.

But funding to replace a dilapidated Charleston Academy – originally budgeted at £14.5 million – now stands at just £1.5 million while Culloden Academy went from £10 million to £3.5 million.

The sums involved indicate that the original plans are totally unfeasible and the cash available is likely to go on either maintenance or what the council calls demountable classrooms – portable cabins.

Ness Castle Primary Phase 2 has lost all its funding valued at £7.8 million but Phase 1 will be concluded at a cost of £1.8 million. Beauly Primary was to get £10.4 million and will now only receive £800,000.

Two proposed schools will also simply not happen – the £22 million Stratton Primary is gone, as is the new East Inverness Secondary which was to have taken some of the pressure off Culloden Academy with a £59 million investment.

Huge array of projects fall victim to £127 million cuts

The rot does not stop there as dozens of other projects across the Highlands have been axed as the council looks to save on a huge array of projects to bring the overall savings to £127 million.

The £4.8 million community and leisure budget for improvements to Inverness Leisure/Aquadome (£2.6 million) and the Eden Court Theatre Redevelopment (£2.2 million) are set to be axed.

Roads will lose £6.6 million as the £5 million Inshes roundabout remodelling is ditched altogether, as is the Levelling Up Fund NC500 matching investment of £4 million.

The big winners are ports and harbours with £5 million more being spent on Kinlochbervie, Lochinver, and Portree Harbours as well as Uig Ferry Terminal and Link Span.

The bottom line is the council claims it cannot afford to build the schools it needs to because the wishlist stood at £475 million of investment over five years when it could afford something around £300 million.

Infrastructure wish list exceeds £566 million

But following a review by council officers, the final sum at current rates increased by £91 million in just four months.

The report by the head of corporate finance Brian Porter and interim deputy chief executive Kate Lackie blamed everything from inflation to interest rates to the lack of Scottish Government Learning Estate Improvement Programme (LEIP) funding.

It stated: “The review process has indicated that due to rising capital costs and inflation, the costs of delivering the then capital programme had increased from £475 million at March 2023 to £566 million at July 2023.”

The schools left perhaps worst off are those that were being put forward for LEIP Phase 3 funding: Beauly, Dunvegan and Park primaries and St Clement’s Special School.

They will not be included on the council’s capital programme – except for maintenance – in the next five years.

The report stated: “Ongoing capital funding to progress the current intended scope of the projects is not provided in the proposed capital programme over the next five years.

“This revised budget is a reduced level of capital and is intended for essential maintenance works and health and safety investment. Should circumstances alter, which may include clarity on LEIP Phase 3, then the council would need to determine at that point its commitment to these projects and a decision made as to the funding to be allocated, and necessary capital programme reprioritisation that would be necessary.”

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