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Concerns have been expressed about the impact on pupil rolls at primary schools close to the new housing being built on the Blar Mhor at Fort William after it emerged there is no new school planned for the area for at least the next five years.
In what is the largest affordable housing scheme to be built in the Highlands since the 1980s, the housing on the site forms the first phase of the strategic Blar Mor development that includes a replacement for the Belford Hospital and a STEM centre for West Highland College.
The housing element of the project is due to complete by May of next year and comprises 117 new affordable homes of various sizes and tenures to help meet the demand within the area.
But at last week’s meeting of Kilmallie Community Council, which includes the Blar Mhor area, members were worried about the impact so many new families would have on the nearest primaries at Banavie and Caol.
Community council chairman John Hutchison has in the last two months written twice to the chief executive officer for education and learning at Highland Council, as well as to officials in the estates department and the chief executive of the local authority, but has not had a reply.
‘But I am going to continue to press for response from officials, because it’s just not right that we don’t hear anything. I’ll keep doing that because we’ve got so many houses coming there with no school apart from what’s on the opposite side of the main road,’ he added.
Highland Council member Allan Henderson (Caol and Mallaig) said any additional pressures on school rolls could see an extension to buildings accommodated on the Caol campus which had been designed with this in mind.
‘But there is certainly nothing in the capital programme – there are five schools going forward in the first part of the programme, costing upwards of in the region of £60m and another five to come on board and that certainly does not include the Blar Mhor at that stage, so it could be a long way down the line,’ he added.
Community council secretary Russell Leaper said the last information he had was that schools at Caol and Banavie were at 90 per cent capacity and if that was correct then the new houses would mean there would be a shortage of pupil places.
Councillor Ben Thompson (Caol and Mallaig) told the meeting that the last time the Lochaber High associated schools group rolls were reported to councillors was three years ago or four years ago when they were at 90 per cent capacity.
‘I think the two new Caol classrooms went on after that. We are due to have update and the Lochaber one should be next year,’ said Councillor Thompson adding that the projection for these local schools was nowhere yet near the more than 100 per cent being projected for schools in the east Inverness area catchment due to new housing.
‘But we do need to get answer. And I’m deeply disappointed, John, that you’ve not had a response. I think that’s pretty unacceptable really,’ added Councillor Thompson.
Mr Hutchison replied: ‘Even if the answer was that there were no plans whatsoever because the rolls don’t look like it for the next 10 years, that’s at least an answer. But we should be getting some kind of answer.’
Asked by the Lochaber Times if she was concerned over the potential impact on school rolls, local constituency MSP Kate Forbes told us: ‘Looking at the current roll figures on paper, it would certainly appear that there isn’t a huge amount of spare capacity in the present primary school buildings.
‘If there is to be considerable house building in Fort William over the coming years, as we expect and hope, then capacity is a legitimate concern to be raising.
‘I would hope that this matter is on Highland Council’s agenda, and they will be giving it careful consideration.’