A former Labour minister rejected advice from senior officials to delay a deeply flawed and highly controversial £100 million plan for new schools and homes in Stirling and Dunblane, the Sunday Herald can reveal.
Top secret documents disclose that the deputy communities minister in 2005, Johann Lamont, was strongly urged by government planners to call in the application for consideration by ministers. The plans were lambasted by advisers as “questionable”, “worrying” and “poor”.
Stirling Council, which promoted the development, was also accused of “procedural failings” and of maximising profit at the expense of decent housing. “Stirling Council's judgement in carrying out its statutory duty under the terms of planning legislation has been heavily clouded by its conflict of interests,” warned the official advice to the minister.
All this, however, was brushed aside in a one-page email from Lamont, who gave the plans the green light because they would bring “wider community benefit”. As a result the new schools have now been built, with the most contentious of them, Wallace High, due to open its doors to pupils this week.
Stirling Council, backed by a consortium of private developers, applied for permission to build four new high schools and over 500 new houses and flats in mid-2005. The schools - three in Stirling and one in Dunblane - were all to be built on greenfield sites while the old school sites were to be sold off for housing.
The plan, which was funded under the previous government’s Public Private Partnership (PPP) scheme, was for the profit from the housing developments to help finance the schools. But it provoked widespread opposition from politicians and community groups, who mounted a campaign for a public inquiry.
Campaigners were shocked when an inquiry was rejected by Lamont, who referred the application back to Stirling Council for it to go ahead. Jim Thomson, an SNP councillor in Stirling, used freedom of information legislation to request the advice that had been given to ministers.
Despite being ordered to release the advice by the Scottish Information Commissioner, Kevin Dunion, the then Scottish Executive kept it secret. It took the highly unusual step of appealing Dunion’s decision to the Court of Session.
Last week, however, the new Scottish government decided to abandon the appeal, and released the advice to Thomson. “It’s hardly surprising it was denied us,” he said.
“Every aspect of the planning approval was deemed flawed, including the funding arrangements. The entire process has proven to be a sham.”
Thomson accused the Labour councillors who ran Stirling Council at the time of putting their political interests before those of the communities they represented. Their failure had been compounded by the failure of Johann Lamont to heed the advice of her officials, he alleged.
He added: “The planning process has been brought into disrepute by the actions of Labour councillors and ministers. The democratic process doesn't seem to apply to PPP projects.”
The released documents show that Lamont was advised by officials on 9 September and again on 10 October 2005 to call in the planning application. The housing plans were said to be “clearly and significantly contrary to the development plan and to national planning policy”, while the schools were “contrary to development plan policies”.
Stirling Council’s planning assessment had been rendered “meaningless” by its backing for the project, said the formal advice to ministers. “It is of particular concern that the council has failed to even consider some key planning issues, such as whether there is indeed an identified need for the developments proposed.”
The council was accused of trying to “cram” in as many flats as possible in breach of its own and the government’s policies on the provision of open space and affordable housing. “It appears that the plans have been drawn up in a way that would maximise the financial return from the sale of the land to a housebuilder,” officials cautioned.
Objections to building the new Wallace High School on part of the greenbelt vulnerable to flooding had been ignored, they said. “A recurring theme throughout the council's assessment of these proposals has been its failure to address, or to simply gloss over, some legitimate grounds of objection.”
Their advice concluded: “It is our concern that the council had already decided that the developments should proceed, before the key planning merits of matters such as need for the developments, location, density, design, affordable housing, open space, flooding etc could be assessed.”
But Lamont rejected her officials’ advice in an email on 8 November 2005. “While appreciating the range of planning issues raised by these proposals, some of which do not support these proposals, Ms Lamont considers that the wider community benefit, gained by delivering these improvements to the school estate, should carry significant weight,” wrote her private secretary.
Stirling Council did not respond to a request to comment on Friday. The council, which used to be run by the Labour Party in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, has been run by a minority SNP administration since 13 March.
The Scottish government said it had withdrawn its court appeal against Dunion’s decision in line with its commitment to open government. “The appeal was lodged over a year ago and was due to be heard in this autumn,” said a government spokesman.
“It would be wholly unnecessary for either the government or the commissioner to incur the substantial costs of a full hearing to argue over an issue that no longer meets the government’s approach to access to information on planning decisions.”
Dunion was pleased that the information he requested had now been released. “It provides a detailed insight into a major planning application involving substantial sums of public money,” he said.
The internal documents released by the Scottish government are available here.