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Cutbacks target outdoor centres

The Scottish Secretary has been warned that unitary authorities and cuts in council spending are threatening to decimate outdoor, residential and environmental education. Ten outdoor centres in Argyll and Bute face possible closure, the Scottish Advisory Panel for Outdoor Education says.

The panel has told Michael Forsyth that closing centres in remote areas will be "catastrophic" for small communities that depend on income from residential stays. Up to 500 full-time jobs may go if the Argyll centres are axed, the panel maintains.

The "incalculable" contribution of outdoor education seems to be "unrecognised or undervalued", Drew Michie, the panel's secretary, states in a letter to Mr Forysth. Members are said to be "deeply dismayed".

Mr Michie says of the new councils: "Vast resources of specialist expertise, built up over many years, are being dispersed. It is depressing to see all the structures, stores of equipment and expert staff which have taken years to establish disappearing overnight.

"It is apparent from colleagues in England that the present situation in Scotland is just the beginning of a process which may ultimately lead to the disappearance of much of the well organised and safe local authority provision for outdoor, residential and environmental education."

Mr Michie also warns of the impact on commercial holiday centres that depend on public funds to subsidise young people's activities. "The population of young people whose parents are able to afford the full cost of attending a commercial activity centre is very small," he contends.

The panel argues that early experiences of outdoor education "create the widespread appetite for adventurous activities and sports holidays which have become the foundation of the Scottish tourist economy".

It is also concerned at the costs of implementing the Young Person's Safety Act since commercial and publicly run centres will have to bear the financial burden of compulsory licensing. Almost all outdoor activities in Scotland fall within the scope of the Act, according to Mr Michie.

* Three of the eight centres in Argyll and Bute run by the former Strathclyde Region - Ardentinny, Achnamara and Castle Toward - are under immediate threat, Archie Morton, education director said.

Ardentinny is jointly run by the three Renfrew councils and Argyll and Bute. The other two are controlled by Glasgow and are due to close in June. Edinburgh and Fife run a centre each in Argyll but these are not believed to be at risk.

Mr Morton said talks were continuing about ways to preserve the centres each of which employs 20-30 staff. "We are keen to support centres' survival but we have no cash to plough into them," he said.

Other options such as trusts and companies limited by guarantee are being considered.

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