Western Isles MP Angus MacNeil criticises comhairle over handling of Barra hub

Angus MacNeill MP has said that there are unacceptable implications for the Barra community.

Western Isles MP Angus MacNeil has criticised Comhairle nan Eilean Siar for its handling of a consultation on Barra into the creation of a new school and health hub in Castlebay.

His intervention came as a formal complaint was submitted to the comhairle by Jeanne Christie, a former teacher of English and French at Castlebay Community School.

Mr MacNeil said: “The process has had too little involvement with the Barra community who feel things are being done to them regardless rather than with them. There are unacceptable implications, such as closing the swimming pool and games hall for a staggering two years, which were not revealed at the consultation either. The community were in effect presented with several ‘pigs in a poke’ to choose from.”

Ms Christie’s complaint focuses on the absence of anyone from Barra and Vatersay on the project board; the lack of a site option outwith Castlebay; the absence of anyone from the comhairle’s education department during last year’s consultation visit; the lack of “detailed supervisory care” in the planned care units in the hub; the weightings given to consultation options; the uncertainty over the relocation of pupils during construction; the closure of Eoligarry primary school in the north end of the island and the resultant loss of a community facility; the centralisation of all services in the western part of Castlebay, and the ongoing neglect of the eastern part, the traditional ‘gateway to the Hebrides’; and the absence of a swimming pool and sports facility during construction of the new hub.

Ms Christie also told the Free Press that, contrary to the comhairle’s opinion, parents of children in Eoligarry did not give their consent for the closure of the school.

Last week, the comhairle said that a final business case for the £44 million development would be submitted to the Scottish Government by April.

Article by Michael Russell

Editorial: The comhairle’s poor preparation undermines its Barra plans

Building a brand-new school on the site of the present Castlebay Community School would dislocate over 100 pupils.

A new secondary school and hospital for Barra and Vatersay are both urgently needed and would be extremely welcome in those islands.

It is therefore regrettable that Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s current proposals to combine the two in a “hub” in Castlebay give the impression of having been scribbled on a post-it note on a wet afternoon in Stornoway.

Whenever it was compiled and whoever wrote it down, the statement issued by the council last week appears to be misconceived. More seriously, it also misrepresents the views of people in Barra. Neither is acceptable.

We hoped that we had seen the end for the moment of the closure of small primary schools in the Western Isles. Apparently not. Comhairle nan Eilean Siar plans to close Eoligarry School, the last remaining in the north end of Barra, and transfer its pupils to the grand new facility in Castlebay, which would then cater to all Barra and Vatersay youngsters between the ages of two and 18 years.

The council acknowledges that “we have a statutory duty to consult” on the Eoligarry closure “and will initiate that shortly.”

“However,” continues the comhairle’s statement, “previous dialogue had led to agreement with parents that the [Eoligarry] school would close when the new [Castlebay] school was built.”

As the parents of the 18 pupils presently in Eoligarry firmly deny that they ever agreed to its closure, hold their school in very high regard and insist that they want it kept open, we are left wondering exactly who was party to that “previous dialogue” with the council.

Strangely, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar may have another short-term use for Eoligarry School.

Building a brand-new school on the site of the present Castlebay Community School would dislocate over 100 pupils.

Despite a two-day consultation on the island, nobody is clear about where those students would go during construction. It has been suggested that they could be temporarily relocated in the old disused school building at Craigston, in Castlebay Hall, in Eoligarry School, and even that older pupils might be transferred a couple of islands further north to see out their crucial last secondary year at Lionacleit School in Benbecula.

None of those options are practical or desirable. Even if the top years at Castlebay were removed from Barra altogether, which despite the best efforts of an excellent Lionacleit staff would hardly help their preparation for Highers, it is hard to see how a combination of spare desks at Eoligarry and short-term, patched-up facilities at Craigston and Castlebay Hall would accommodate the other 80 or 90 Barra students.

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar must revisit both Barra and their own “hub” proposals as quickly as possible. The council’s consultation in its most southerly inhabited islands has so far been, at best, inadequate.

It has left only doubt, distrust, and uncertainty. That is not only bad for Barra and Vatersay. It also does a disservice to what could be a desirable transformation of those islands’ educational and medical services.