Thursday, 18 April 2013

Newbattle plans prompt a new battle for localism

It's a strange thing but the subject which has sparked by far the most number of emails in my inbox in the last two weeks isn't even happening in my ward. However, it is an issue which will ultimately be decided by all 18 councillors - the planned replacement for Newbattle High School and, more to the point, what will happen to existing facilities like libraries, leisure centres and swimming pool in the communities of Mayfield, Newtongrange and Gorebridge.

The cynicism of your average voter towards politicians is well known and often justified, but at Monday evening's public meeting on the issue, held at the current Newbattle High, I was struck by how embedded the feeling was among the 250 or so people present, that both officials and councillors had already made up their minds to close local facilities.

Now unless I've been sleeping through council meetings (I haven't, I assure you), then I'm absolutely sure no formal decision has yet been made on this by councillors. However, reading the consultation brochure, I do worry about the way the options are being presented.

The council has come up with four possible scenarios -  (1) Build a new High School and 'Hub' (i.e. containing combined community facilities) and close all existing facilities in the three communities, (2) build a new school only and keep all existing facilities open, (3) build a new High School and Hub and also keep all existing facilities, and (4) the same as scenario 1 but to 'explore' the provision of local facilities by community groups.

These can be readily narrowed down to two - option 3 simply ain't going to happen in the current economic climate, although there is the possibility of keeping some facilities in Gorebridge given its distance from the new school location in Easthouses. Option 4 would be great in an ideal world, but I'm afraid Midlothian is a long way from the level of maturity in Community Capacity Building and Empowerment (despite my prodding) required for this to be realistic in the time scales involved, particularly given the range of facilities we're talking about. I also think that promoting it as a viable option at this stage has added to people's cynicism, and not without reason - specifically as it puts the onus on the community to fill the gap while the council takes the credit for providing spanking new facilities at the hub.

So we're left with options 1 and 2. Option 1 is presented as brand new facilities with lower running costs and Option 2 with buildings at the end of their life and with higher running costs. It's not hard to see why people think there's a hidden agenda. My own cynicism here is fuelled by a recent revelation that whilst during consultation for the Lasswade hub the estimated repair costs of retaining the Bonnyrigg Leisure Centre were £250,000 the true figure was only £90,000 (this revised figure is now accepted by the council as correct).

More to the point, why no mention of the non-financial implications? Like the fact that a library is an integral part of a community, close to primary schools and somewhere people drop in for a chat and a chance to meet people? We are told that preventative spend and early intervention are high on the council's priority list. So what will be the long term impact of youngsters no longer dropping into the various book clubs and family events the council has been very successful in running, simply because their parents either don't have the time or bus fare to travel to the hub?

What about the longer term future? Have we learned nothing from the closure of the Waverley line, now being reintroduced at much greater cost years later? And ironically it's the re-built Borders railway which will bring new houses to Newtongrange and Gorebridge and with them new customers for those closed down facilities - but unlike the railway, the sites where those valued facilities once stood will be gone, sold off to developers on the back of land values inflated due to the presence of the line itself. A cruel irony indeed, and a paradox which the Green Party's Land Value Tax policy would neatly solve by putting some of those windfall land value increases to public use.

Despite the comparisons, this is no Lasswade hub we're being offered. Unlike Lasswade, we would not be simply moving libraries and leisure centres down the road, still to be within walking distance of most of the people who use them. We would be ripping the heart out of the close knit communities of Newtongrange, Mayfield and Gorebridge and forcing them to become a single suburban sprawl. The parallels between shopping locally and driving to an out of town superstore are too stark for my comfort.

I am grateful to the many people who have spent the time to contact me on this issue, not least because it's reassured me that the kind of society I want to see is shared by so many people. I will not be voting to close down your local facilities and look forward to the time when we can replace and enhance them where they belong - in the heart of the community.