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Education / Councillors decide to progress Brae school project to full business case

COUNCILLORS have agreed to move the new Brae school project to the next phase – a full business case.

It is estimated that the cost to reach the full business case stage is £4.5 million.

The decision was made at a three-hour meeting of the full Shetland Islands Council (SIC) on Wednesday.

The preferred option remains a new build at an estimated cost of £42.5 million, with the Scottish Government lined up to provide half of the funding – but over a 25-year period.

This means the SIC could would have to fund the capital outlay itself.

An initial outline business case on the project was approved by councillors at Wednesday’s meeting following a vote – amid concern from some members about the finances of the project.

Shetland Central Moraig Lyall had pressed for the project to be paused to gauge future education requirements in the North Mainland, but the vote went 13 to six against her.

The key site in contention for a new school is where the grass pitch is at the moment, behind the high school.

Wednesday’s meeting was billed as an important day by many, particularly given the sum of money – £4.5 million – which lay behind their decision.

It also marks a pivotal step forward towards the construction of a new school – but the final decision is still some way in the future.

SIC children’s services director Helen Budge opened the meeting by making the case from an education point of view why, in her view, a new build is the best option.

She said the current school, which covers three to 18 year olds across nursery, primary and secondary, no longer meets the needs of the community.

This is said to particularly be the case for ASN pupils.

A report to councillors said the condition of the ageing school is “deteriorating both internally and externally”.

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Over the last three years, an average of £180,000 a year has been spent maintaining the school.

The meeting heard of various faults and issues – including hot food having to be taken from the primary to secondary building, cracks in walls, inadequate parking and unreliable heating.

There was also concern over the additional support needs (ASN) provision, with Shetland North member and SIC convener Andrea Manson saying some have had to sit in the corner of the dining room due to a lack of dedicated space.

The primary school building at Brae was built in the 70s and the secondary building followed in the early 1980s.

The design is ageing and “does not provide the flexibility required for every child to achieve their full potential”, councillors were told.

The meeting also heard that a new school could offer flexibility for other services to use space inside the building.

Concern was relayed to SIC officials about the idea of Northmavine primary schools closing “by the back door” due to a new Brae school opening, through parents wishing to put their children there instead.

But Budge said that was not part of the plan and stressed the new Brae school is only being proposed due to the suitability and condition of the building.

She added that a new school could act as an ASN “hub” for the North Mainland.

While councillors were accepting of arguments for a new school, the financial outlay the SIC would face – at a time when officers are trying to find savings – caused concern.

Finance manager Paul Fraser did say however there was an expectation that the government grant would rise in line with inflation.

However, the thought of the SIC having to potentially borrow £42.5 million to create the full business case and build the school, before receiving the grant over the next 25 years, did not sit right with some.

While she said she would like to see a new school in Brae, councillor Lyall called for things to be paused in the meantime – saying it was not the “right project at the right time”.

She also highlighted that given the SIC would have to pay interest on borrowing, quoted at more than £1.3 million a year, the true cost of the school would be much greater than £42.5 million.

Lyall said pausing the project would be “more in line with the fiscal and financial messaging” from the council in recent years.

It comes at a time when the SIC is looking ahead to other large capital projects, such as a new Cullivoe road, which is now estimated at £9.9 million, while tunnels remain a desire.

Education and families committee chairman Davie Sandison, however, said he felt the SIC might not get much of a better financial offer from government for the Brae school.

He also called on the SIC to be ambitious, and said a new school could support other projects in the area, from active travel to energy transition.

There could be significant future energy development at the nearby Sullom Voe Terminal and the former Scatsta Airport site in the coming years.

“I don’t think we’re going to get a chance to do this again in this fashion,” Sandison added.

“It will not do us anything but harm to delay further this opportunity that we’ve got at the moment.”

Sandison’s motion to move to a full business case won the day in the 13-6 vote.

A host of other councillors gave their views on the subject; Shetland North trio Emma Macdonald, Andrea Manson and Tom Morton all spoke up for the merits of a new school.

Morton said it was “really important to hold our nerve” amid the financial figures.

“But the economic benefits of a new school, a new hub in Brae, are immense, not just for the North Mainland but for the whole of Shetland.”

On the other side, development committee chairman Dennis Leask was one of those stressing caution – saying he was concerned the SIC was in danger of being “not fiscally responsible” given the circumstances.

A recently updated programme of works put the estimated opening date of a new Brae Campus at August 2027.

The report to councillors added: “Negotiation with the Scottish Government will be required in respect of ‘the Shetland uplift’ for the additional costs of building in an island location.”

Five options were presented within the outline business case including the status quo, refurbishment and a new build, with the latter the preferred option.

A number sites feature on a longlist, including at Moorfield and new brownfield areas behind the existing school.

However, an option to build on the site of the existing grass football pitch appears to be the preferred option at this stage – particularly as pupils would not need to be decanted during construction.

The report said a pitch would be reinstated in the area where existing buildings would be demolished.

An indicative site layout, which would be subject to further design and consultation, shows a new pitch located where the current high school is – with the new build located behind.

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