Acrimony over a plan to build new premises for one of Scotland’s biggest schools on a public park is showing no let up as a consultation enters its final week.
City of Edinburgh Council wants to site Portobello High on green space and is seeking a private bill in the Scottish Parliament to overturn a legal ruling blocking the move, in what one supporter admits is a “last throw of the dice”.
Tempers flared at a public meeting last week attended by more than 300 people, including some children.
The wrangle has split the local community for almost a decade, with mutual accusations of self-interest against the two main campaign groups and the council being widely blamed for delaying the process unnecessarily.
No-one denies that a replacement building is long overdue for the 1,400 pupils at the school in the east of Edinburgh. However, supporters of Portobello for A New School (PFANS) say opponents of the park site are jeopardising the education of countless young people by their continued stance.
For their part, Portobello Park Action Group (PPAG), which won a legal appeal last autumn against a ruling that the land could be used for a school despite its “common good” status, insists an alternative site on a disused industrial space would be preferable.
Failing that, it argues for a rebuild on the current site, although PFANS says both it and the industrial area are too small.
PPAG has promised to continue its campaign even if the council determines that the consultation, which ends next Thursday (January 31), shows majority support for the park option. In that case the local authority will draft a private bill to the Holyrood Parliament.
“We have looked at all the possibilities and building on the park would be better, cheaper and quicker than anything else,” said Billy MacIntyre, head of resources at the council.
A contract with Balfour Beatty to build the new school is already in place, with planning consent granted, meaning work could start as soon as the final obstacle is removed if the private bill goes through.
“Even in the streets around the park, we have found about 80 per cent support for building on it,” said Emma Wood of PFANS.
Mr MacIntyre gave a presentation highlighting how the loss of green space would be compensated by the creation of a new park on the site of the existing school, as well as extra amenities for a housing estate bordering the new site.
“Also, a private bill only relates to Portobello Park. It sets no precedent for any other green space either in Edinburgh or the rest of Scotland,” he said.
More than 5,000 people had responded to the consultation as SecEd went to press this week. The final tally is likely to be more than the number of residents who voted in the most recent council election. Children’s views are also eligible.
But Stephen Hawkins, a former councillor who represented PPAG at the meeting, said: “The council is not neutral in this. They have run the consultation and they have ignored the legal verdict by choosing the park in the first place, so the question is: can we trust them?”
He also questioned how long a public golf course that forms part of the park would continue to receive promised protection from further development if the school went ahead.
Sean Watters of PFANS said support for the plan was widespread and the private bill had a good chance of success. “But if it fails, that’s it for the park option. This is effectively our last throw of the dice.
Afterwards he added: “Clearly, the mood of the meeting was in favour of the school going up in the park. I hope that is reflected in the wider community.
“The saga has gone on for so long. It is an emotive issue and there have been occasions when individuals have behaved in a manner which is not ideal.”
Sheila Coventry of PPAG said opponents of the plan had been mocked and humiliated for defending land that was granted to the community “in perpetuity”.
“The council is to blame for the delays, not us, because they always knew we were likely to launch a legal appeal, which we did successfully. Yet it has twisted things round to claim we are trying to stop a new school being built when that is clearly not the case. It is possible to keep the park, keep the golf course and have a new school.”
She cited research showing how the loss of green space has a “hugely detrimental” effect on mental and physical health. CAPTIONS: Consultation: City of Edinburgh Council wants to relocate Portobello High (pictured top) to a new site on Portobello Park (pictured above)