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Islanders fear £53 million community development plan is a ‘cost-cutting guise’

Barra Community Campus
A preliminary rendering of the proposed Barra and Vatersay Community Campus.

A £53 million community campus is being billed as a “significant investment” in Barra and Vatersay’s future, but some islanders worry that the high price tag is distracting from flaws in the design.

NHS Western Isles and the Comhairle have been working with Hub North Scotland to design a single community campus to replace St Brendan’s Hospital and Care Home and the Castlebay and Eoligarry Schools.

But the project has proven controversial, despite the massive investment it represents for such a small community. In the wake of multiple consultations, developers have changed many design details.

A large online group says their voices are being ignored because the designers have not agreed to a request to house each service in a separate building.

But it has emerged that such a change could compromise funding for the whole project.

Campus could be a ‘significant investment in public services’

The project’s online public exhibition calls the project a “significant investment in public services” and touted the benefits of consolidating resources on the islands.

“The new Barra and Vatersay Community Campus will comprise early learning, primary school and secondary school facilities, social care housing, primary health centre, hospital, blue light facilities, community space and office space with associated parking, bus drop off and provision of external landscape and sports spaces in the Castlebay area of Barra on the site of the existing Castlebay Community School.”

Barra community campus
A preliminary concept design for the Barra and Vatersay Community Campus, available through the public consultation boards. Supplied by Western Isles Council

Money isn’t everything

For an island community of roughly 1,200 the £53 million project represents an investment of more than £44,000 per person.

“It’s just being used as a smokescreen in my opinion.”

But some residents, like Kenneth MacLean are worried that the price tag is a distraction.

“£53 million is a ridiculous number for an island of this size.

“And that’s great, you know, fantastic. But it doesn’t matter if you have £50 million if you’re essentially using it as a guise to cut services in the long run.

“It’s just being used as a smokescreen in my opinion.”

Petition calls for a pause

Despite the wealth of resources on offer, a large online group is asking for a “major rethink” to the site’s planning. In May, organisers opened a petition called Halt the Hub.

730 people have signed on so far.

Rather than calling for the project to be scrapped, the petition asks for more consideration of public concerns.

It reads: “The consultation with the local community where most expressed a wish to have separate buildings for different local services appears to have been ignored by the decision makers in the Comhairle and the Scottish Government.

“The decision to label the replacement for the old folks home as ‘social care flats’ suggests a lower level of observation for people who have to meet a fairly high threshold of inability to care for themselves before being sent to the existing old folks’ home.”

Government backs community campus model

The Comhairle responded with a letter in May, saying that they had developed the “much-needed project” with input from the community and the support of local and Scottish Governments.

Barra community campus
Preliminary design work shows the possible layout of services on the Barra and Vatersay Community Campus. Supplied by Western Isles Council

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government fully supports this project and have committed funding towards the new health centre and the new school within the Community Campus.

“The hub model, which combines local services on one site has proved to be successful in other locations across Scotland – improving accessibility of local services to the local community and making best use of taxpayers money.”

Community concerns have triggered changes

A council spokesman said that designers have made multiple changes to the project’s design reflect community feedback:

  • Redesigning the road and plaza areas between the campus and sports buildings to maximise safety
  • Relocating the Police Scotland suite to the western edge of the sports block
  • Defining separate entrances for the health and community areas with
  • Having the ability to isolate each part of the campus from the other sections if required
  • Distributing education administration areas across the primary and secondary schools
  • Increasing first aid/staff facilities in the sports block

He added that community workshops resulted in the publication of a frequently asked questions document, which was updated in April.

The FAQ can be downloaded here and consists of responses to more than 80 community questions.

Funding might depend on campus model

Designers will continue to engage with the community, he said, and the plans are not set in stone. However, one of the petitioners’ core requests–separate buildings for each service–may not be possible.

“We don’t have a definitive answer on the question of funding being dependent on different parts and timings.

“However, it is likely that the current funding package has been achieved on the back of the Campus Model and if this didn’t proceed, some elements of the funding may change.”

Work on the project is ongoing. The current timeline calls for final planning applications by the end of 2021 and groundbreaking by 2022.