Today the City Council agreed unanimously to take the next step on building a new Portobello High School. One of the Green members of Education Committee, Cllr Gavin Corbett explains.
The saga of Portobello High School is a long one. No-one disputes the need for a new school to be built. At issue has always been whether it should be built on Portobello Park or not.
Last year, the Court of Session ruled that Portobello Park was inalienable common good land and could not be used for building. The City Council since then has been consulting on the possibility of taking a private bill to the Scottish Parliament to change the status of the land and the council is also seeking to purchase the nearby Baileyfield site as a fallback option.
Today we had to decide whether to proceed down the private bill route. It is the route which potentially can deliver a school most swiftly, by early 2016, and is the most popular option with young people. It is also the most popular with the community as a whole with a recent consultation exercise attracting 12,000 responses, around 70% of which supported building on the park. There have been criticisms of the consultation process – and no process is blemish-free – but there is no real way to cut the data that does not not come up with the conclusion that there is significant majority support for building on the park.
There is no denying that this is hard for Greens. Our every instinct is to protect and enhance green space. But we also strongly support good quality local schools which are at the heart of successful neighbourhoods. Speaking personally, over the last 5 years I have given a lot of my time and energy to schools campaigning, both as chair of my own local school and, more widely, in setting up Edinburgh Parent Councils Network. Portobello Park is a good location, which has been recognised by Green councillors for three years now. We have also recognised that new playing fields on Portobello Park are to be made available for free community use when not used by the school; and that a new park or open space will be created on the current site of Portobello High School, once St Johns primary has been given a bit more space.
So today we backed the proposal to take the next step of lodging a Private Bill in the Scottish Parliament. It is not a surefire process and today’s deputation from Portobello Park Action Group made some perfectly legitimate points about risk. This is why we also support the Council seeking to buy the potentially alternative Baileyfield site.
And we also sought and obtained Council backing for our addendum which clarified that both new green space and community access to new playing fields should be secured in perpetuity. There is no question that they should be offered as short-term sweeteners and then withdrawn in the future.
I am not naive enough to expect that there will ever be a settled view in Portobello. I understand the views of those who treasure green space and I also equally get the concern to build a new school that the young people of Portobello deserve.
I believe that the Council collectively took a decision that, at this stage and based on what we know, strikes the best balance – delivers a new school but ensures that the remaining part of the park is still a community asset and provides new space in the community by way of compensation.
Now it is over to Parliament.