How parents in a remote Highland community point the way ahead for us all

The National, by Lesley Riddoch
16.09.18

Strontian’s new primary school STRONTIAN in remote Ardnamurchan will make history this month as the first community in Scotland to build and own its primary school – not a private school but part of the Highland Council network. How did they do it?

Back in 2007, on the remote West Highland peninsula of Ardnamurchan, the Sunart Community Company was set up to buy a couple of bits of land in Strontian for a village green and footpath. The management committee soon realised there was a much bigger possibility – a £800k community hydro scheme which could pump prime community development for decades to come.

What has that got to do with schools? Bear with me.

With a huge volunteer effort locals raised the cash in community shares just before Westminster cut tariffs and effectively halted community hydro.

Boosted by that success, the community then created a 50-page, lottery-funded 30-year development plan. Rather than use expensive charrettes (the formal and expensive way of mediating public opinion favoured by central and local government) the document was displayed at the local agricultural show and locals put beans beside their favourite options.

That encouraged the tiny Strontian community to embark on a truly enormous project — building its own new primary school. The problem wasn’t the usual one of declining roles – quite the opposite. Thanks to population growth, the “old” Strontian primary was at bursting point and didn’t meet standards for classroom and play space.

The obvious solution was to merge primary pupils with the local secondary school but that was impossible for 10 years because the secondary was built using PFI and can’t be altered in any way. The council’s proposed solution was to spend £1m on portacabins. But the community’s idea was far better.

They would buy the land, create a building that could serve as a temporary primary, lease it to the council until the remaining decade of PFI was paid off – and then, if the merger actually happened, the Strontian community would own a building capable of conversion into four affordable homes at the end of it all.

Happily, Highland Council eventually agreed to the community’s idea, so Strontian Community School Building Ltd was set up. Eager volunteers brought in £155k in community shares, which unlocked other funds so the community could commission the construction of four connected houses that can be used as a primary school for as long as necessary.

So is this the face of the future? Can every community be as self-sufficient? Sunart Community Company treasurer James Hilder says:

“People here volunteer because they are parents and it’s their school – but they wouldn’t get as involved if they were saving a neighbouring school or tackling ‘strategic planning’ at a peninsula-wide level. That would only attract politicians. I’m sure most other communities would feel exactly the same, when it’s their own place and their own children’s future that’s at stake.”

This all matters hugely – for remote areas fighting to stave off depopulation, for cash-strapped councils spending megabucks on inappropriate, centrally conceived services and for Scotland’s conceit of itself. Despite the worst fears of most politicians, Scots generally excel at heavy lifting in their own communities, given the chance.

The Sunart Community Company has also acquired the seabed licence from Marine Scotland to manage the moorings at the jetty and Highland Council have offered adjacent land for £1 so the community will soon own the land, a lease from Crown Estate Scotland on the jetty and a lease on slipway by the end of the year.

o celebrate they are holding a Water Festival today to raise funds and get the community re-engaged with all things marine.

But that’s not all. Last year Visit Scotland closed the local visitor information centre in Strontian village centre, citing the switch to online services for tourists (even though the West Highlands has a limited mobile signal, little or no 3G or 4G and hopeless internet speeds away from BT exchanges).

So the Sunart Community rallied round. All summer a local pottery shop owner kept an information table of free maps and leaflets organised by the local tourism association. Meanwhile the community company’s started negotiations with Visit Scotland to buy the building. Visit Scotland is currently considering a formal community offer to buy the building, and if accepted, Strontian will have a community-owned Visitor Information Centre staffed by a rota of ten local artists selling local craft products