Next steps for Portobello

Alison Johnstone comments on the stage 1 debate in parliament on the private Bill on Portobello Park and a replacement high school for Portobello.

The controversy over Portobello Park goes back over many years and has been deeply divisive for that community. During my time as a City of Edinburgh councillor (from 2007 to 2012) I was very critical of the way the Council had handled the decision as to whether a replacement high school should be built on the park. I visited the school during my time on the Council and shared with parents and young people the real desire to replace the 1960s Portobello High School, which was poorly designed, has not stood the test of time, and has not been adequately maintained. However I also believe that the council has been too dismissive and at times disrespectful of those in the community who did not want the school built on the park. Regardless of where anyone stands on the debate, it is important that they are able to state a position without fear of ridicule or demonisation. Otherwise, the process of moving on after a conclusion is reached becomes so much harder.

Anyway, hindsight is a great thing but it is clear that had we all known in 2005 what we know now, a different set of options and potential paths might have been followed. And a new school would be up and running now and delivering the quality secondary education which our young people need and deserve.

We are now in 2014. The need for a new high school has grown, not diminished. The condition of the school has worsened. I am no longer a councillor but, as an MSP, I have to take a position on the private Bill on Portobello Park, which is the council’s way of dealing with the legal status of the park which otherwise makes provision of a school there very cloudy. Many years have passed since the Council first made its decision. The choices we face now, with so much water having flowed under the bridge, are different. The school has planning permission to be built in the park. A contractor is in place to do so. Community consultation a year ago had a massive response and a fairly hefty majority in favour of building in the park. However many criticisms one can level at the community consultation, it is difficult to argue that the will of the community is other than that which emerged from the consultation.

So in the unique circumstances in which we now find ourselves, and having weighed up all the issues over a long period, I will support the Bill, while seeking a strengthening of assurances and protections concerning the future of the site itself and protection in perpetuity of the compensatory green space.

That means the issue now is the conditions which are attached to the school being built at one end of the park. What assurances can be secured that new playing fields will always be accessible to the community at large? What certainty is there that the old high school site – once the new St Johns school is built – will be transformed into high quality green and open space to be enjoyed for generations to come? The Council has moved some distance on these matters; they now must be secured for the long term. More generally, I want to be sure that, even with a school in place, the land on which the school sits remains common good land and, crucially, that the decision made by MSPs in this case does not establish a precedent for other common good land in Scotland.

At Holyrood I lodged an addendum to the motion on the Bill to see if Parliament would be prepared to take a view at this stage on some of my concerns. While it was not selected for debate, I welcome the Committee’s recommendation that the Bill should be amended to strengthen protection of the site’s common good status and I urged committee members to pursue the issues raised as the Bill moves forward.

High quality schooling is essential to the future success of this city, but so is an appreciation of the need to preserve and enhance Edinburgh’s green recreational spaces. There is an opportunity here to build a positive future in both regards and I trust that, in time, the community in Portobello rebuilds the cohesion which makes it such a special part of the city.