North Bute closure 'would cost £50,000 a year'

CLOSING North Bute Primary School in Port Bannatyne would cost Argyll and Bute Council £50,000 a year, according to campaigners fighting the local authority's controversial education proposals.

The Scottish Rural Schools Network (SRSN) says the council has made an error in calculating grant aided expenditure (GAE) due to the authority for providing education in rural schools – and that correcting the mistake would turn an expected saving of 24,000 from closing North Bute into a cost of 50,000 per annum.

A report by the SRSN, highlighting what its authors say are "errors and inaccuracies" in the school closure documents which "stretch into almost every facet of the consultation proposals", is due to be presented at a special meeting of the full council in Lochgilphead on Wednesday afternoon.

But fears are already being expressed that attempts to persuade the council to debate the SRSN report will fall on deaf ears.

For the report (available here) to be debated, the council's standing orders will have to be suspended – a move which would need the approval of two thirds of the 36 council members.

And Sandy Longmuir from the SRSN has told The Buteman that he believes there is "no prospect whatsoever" of getting the majority required to suspend the standing orders so the report could be debated.

"That was never the point," Mr Longmuir said on Monday.

"We have taken legal opinion, and the ruling is that 'anything which impacts on a consultee's understanding of the proposals (or reasoning behind the proposals) is a serious error or omission'.

"We are in absolutely no doubt that the wide range of major errors in these documents fall into this category, and that council have no other legal option but to withdraw the papers, correct and reissue.

"The Provost and the 19 councillors who voted in favour of consulation have the opportunity to do the right thing on Wednesday. Whether they will do this or continue to flout the law remains to be seen.

"There would appear to be no prospect whatsoever of getting the two thirds majority to suspend standing orders - that was never the point.

"The GAE error really impacts on North Bute. There is absolutely no question that the council is wrong on this. It takes the annual loss to the council on closing North Bute to 50,000.

"If that does not impact on a consultees understanding of the proposal papers I do not know what would."

The SRSN report also questions the calculation of North Bute's capacity contained in the closure proposal, stating that the way the council calculates capacity is different to the method used by other authorities.

The council document gives the school's internal floor area as 394 square metres and its capacity as 114 pupils – but the authors of the SRSN report say that of the 60 schools in Scotland closest to North Bute in terms of floor area, none has a capacity greater than 81.

"In these circumstances," the report states, "comparisons of relative capacity measurements with other council areas cannot be justified.

"The extremes identified here would indicate that a review of Argyll's capacity measurement should be undertaken before advancing further with these proposals."

The Schools Consultation (Scotland) Act 2010 contains a section which allows a local authority to change a proposal if a relevant omission or inaccuracy is found.

Mr Longmuir told us that similar errors in GAE calculation had been corrected by Angus and East Ayrshire councils after the SRSN brought the mistake to their attention.

He added: "We would expect, in any reasonable council area, for this paper to be rewritten with proper roll projections, no comparison of capacities with other council areas, accurate financials, a comprehensive list of staff losses and how that impacts on Rothesay, a balanced educational benefit statement and a proper community impact assessment done, as the Act says, before the proposals are brought forward."

The SRSN report was prepared at the request of ten Argyll and Bute opposition councillors, including SNP group leader Robert Macintyre and his Bute colleague Isobel Strong.

Councillor Macintyre said: "If, ultimately, these schools close, it will lead to devastation in many parts of Argyll and Bute.

"Certainly among the 25 there are some schools which sadly are no longer viable or sustainable, but many are part of vibrant communities, and closure would rip the heart out of these areas."

The closure proposal for North Bute (available here) states that although shutting the school would not save money, if it were kept open the council would have to borrow 450,000 to bring the buildings out of their current poor condition, resulting in loan repayments of 35,000 a year.

Should all the proposed school closures go ahead, the council expects to reduce its education spending by 2 million a year; the recent budget settlement from Scottish finance minister John Swinney left Argyll and Bute with the prospect of having to make overall budget savings of 15-16m.