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Doubt clouds buildings deal

THE BIGGEST investment for over 30 years in Glasgow secondaries and one of the most significant educational developments in Scotland remains clouded in uncertainty, according to a leading critic.

Dr Christopher Mason, Liberal Democrat councillor and persistent Labour irritant, is backing the pound;220 million initial buildings investment through one of the largest private public partnership projects in Britain,but still harbours niggling doubts. He is unconvinced about the financing of the controversial deal, the secrecy involved and the designs.

Work will begin in several schools this spring after last week's approval of plans to renovate and rebuild the entire stock of 29 secondaries through the 3 ED consortium, led by building giants, Millers. All are due to be completed by 2002.

Dr Mason said: "It will be a tremendous boost to morale if we get through all this. Rather different school buildings may induce a much better ethos in schools."

Like any development, there are benefits and costs, he points out. The "whacking great investment" does not deserve the "whingeing" from the Educational Institute of Scotland which has attacked the loss of teaching and staff space in revamped buildings and the demise of six swimming pools.

"Losses are more apparent than real," Dr Mason believes. "But there are risks and uncertainties. If you build 11 out of 29 schools to a particular plan and concept, ou are stuck with that for the next 100 years and I'm not persuaded there's been adequate benchtesting of the concept," he states.

Virtually all schools will follow the "street" pattern of St Margaret's Academy in Livingston and Leith Academy in Edinburgh. Classrooms spin off central corridors with abundant social spaces, including a cafe.

But before committing itself further, Dr Mason would like Glasgow to simulate the whole school year and how it would fit in with the buildings.

On the financial side, he observes, the 3 ED group will pump in over pound;220 million over 10 years and receive payments from Glasgow of pound;400 million. "It would be a terrible shame if the company went bankrupt. We're going to be dealing with a complicated, fundamentally financial institution.

"We're located in Glasgow but this financial institution is free to roam the world and there's a risk there," he points out.

No-one knows either if the PPP will prove to be vastly more expensive or cheaper. "There won't be time for an independent appraisal of the financial value," he says.

The secrecy behind the deal, which has been roundly condemned, is down to Treasury rules that do not trust councillors, Dr Mason adds.

"This gives the Scottish Parliament another excuse to poke its nose into local government business which is a bad thing," he insists. The parliament, too, should trust local democracy.

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