COMHAIRLE nan Eilean Siar voted last night to take action to challenge the Scottish Government’s decisions over school closures.
Councillors voted 16 to eight – with two abstentions and two councillors absent – to authorise the Chief Executive to advise the Scottish Government of the legal opinion they have received; to have further discussions with the Scottish Government on the previous decisions and if these discussions are not productive to proceed to Judicial Review.
The plan to close Shelibost and Carloway Primary Schools and the S1/2 departments of Shawbost and Lionel Schools is part of the Comhairle’s educational strategy to provide the best education for all children in the Western Isles which includes rationalisation of the schools estate.
Nevertheless, the result of the vote has disappointed the Comhairle’s SNP group who stated: “The SNP Group is deeply disappointed that the Comhairle is pressing ahead with its threat to the Scottish Government that it will instigate a judicial review if the Minister’s decision to reprieve the four schools is not reversed.
“The SNP Group Leader attempted to block the move at the earlier Policy and Resources meeting but the motion was passed at full Comhairle by 16 votes to eight with - curiously - four abstentions.
“The Comhairle’s decision will plunge the four affected communities into further uncertainty and why the Comhairle wants to go to this length and expense to fight the local communities it is supposed to serve is beyond us.”
The move has also angered SNP candidate Alasdair Allan who said: “The Comhairle’s decision last night will depress and baffle people in the islands in equal measure. Despite opposition from the SNP members on the council, the Comhairle voted to commit thousands of pounds of public money to pursuing a legal action to take the Scottish Government to court.”
He added: “This is all in a bid to challenge the Cabinet Secretary for Education’s decision to prevent the Comhairle closing four island schools.
“I have already been contacted by people in a number of the school communities affected - Carloway, Seilebost, Lionel and Shawbost - who are astonished to think that some councillors are so apparently obsessed with closing down island schools that they are actually prepared to hire highly expensive legal teams to challenge the successful arguments of those communities in the Court of Session.
“I realise that the leadership of the Comhairle and I are never going to agree on this issue but I really think they would do well to stop digging on this one, accept the minister’s ruling, and start listening to the communities they represent.”
At a press briefing yesterday afternoon, Leader Angus Campbell said they were hoping to give the Scottish Government a chance to consider the legal position themselves and see if they would be willing to review the Minister’s decisions.
Chief Executive Malcolm Burr said this would take place over a period of three to four weeks.
He suggested that if the Comhairle did proceed down the Judicial Review line and were to lose, this could cost in the region of £12-16k.
The legal opinion came from QC James Wolffe.