Positive outlook for Portlethen Academy

Secondary education was in the spotlight at the Kincardine and Mearns Area Committee today. Councillors questioned the three local head teachers about the results among senior pupils.

Councillor Ian Mollison said later: “I have to say I was concerned, even worried, by the results from Portlethen Academy. They were lower than those from similar academies. However I was reassured by head teacher Neil Morrison whose presentation was inspirational. And jargon-free, which was refreshing.

“He acknowledged there were “significant concerns” regarding comparative schools. However there were many positives. Secondary 5 pupils pulled up in some measures, and Secondary 4 pupils performed better than expected.”

Mr Morrison also pointed out that young people were very successful at getting jobs or going to college when ideally the staff would like them to stay on longer at school. The concern is that initially they have been very successful but four or five years down the road in their careers they may hit a ceiling in their careers.

Turning to another issue, Mr Morrison said he was very worried about girls at the academy. They are not attaining as they should. One reason could be that a number of female pupils do not have breakfast. Efforts are being to address this, with encouraging results … for example the school canteen is testament to that before the school day begins.

In order to improve standards at the academy, staff have been visiting other schools, such as Mearns Academy and Craigie High in Dundee. Maths have been a particular concern. The teachers have come back with a wealth of ideas, he said.

Portlethen Academy has seen a number of successful appointments in the past year. He told councillors that the staff are very focussed on attainment: “We will ensure all our people attain their very best. We need to increase aspiration.”

Among the other issues he mentioned were career academies where pupils are mentored by business people. He also said that behaviour in the school is significantly better.

I pointed out the obvious – that pupils only have one chance at receiving a secondary education. There is no reason that PortlethenAcademy should not have as good or indeed better results than similar schools. Mr Morrison gave me the confidence that this is achievable.

The Mearns Leader and the Evening Express had journalists at the meeting, so hopefully reports will appear in both papers. 

The council meeting also heard reports about progress with dealing with flooding around the Mearns, including Stonehaven, Fettercairn, Portlethen, and St Cyrus.

Planning permission was given for the replacement of a house at Batchart Cottages at Blairs. 

A £5000 grant was agreed for the Dickson Hall at Laurencekirk to support Scotland’s only Tea Festival. The three-day festival will mark Aberdeenshire’s links with the tea industry, and is part of the Homecoming 2014 series of events.

A £100,945 tender was accepted to repair and refurbish the Stonehaven Clock Tower in the old town.

Kincardine councillors dismayed by closure of 999 control rooms

The loss of the North East’s police and fire control rooms has been greeted with dismay by local Liberal Democrat councillors.

The Scottish Police Authority (SPA) met in Glasgow on Thursday (January 30) and rubber-stamped the proposal to close half of Scotland’s police control rooms, including two in Aberdeen. The work of the Aberdeen centres will be transferred to Dundee which will cover the whole of the north of Scotland from December 2015.

On the same day, the Scottish Fire & Rescue Authority (SFRS) met in Dundee and agreed to the closure of its Aberdeen facility, with the operation also being transferred to Dundee. Four other control rooms were also earmarked for closure.

News of the closures, likely to lead to the loss of several hundred highly-skilled jobs across Scotland, has been met by anger from politicians, trade unions and communities in the North East.

North Kincardine councillor Ian Mollison said: “This was a very dark day for the North East. It came as a direct consequence of the SNP’s centralisation of the police and fire services into single Scottish forces under direct ministerial control. The Justice Secretary boasted that the move would generate savings of more than £1bn from police budgets alone, through reducing duplication, while protecting the number of police officers in Scotland.

“The Scottish Liberal Democrats were the only party to vote against this measure, warning that the savings targets were unachievable and that there would be dramatic cut-backs over which local communities would have no say or influence. By moving to a system where chief officers and all the members of the SFA and SFRS  were appointed by the Justice Secretary and answer directly to him, more than 100 years of successful local, democratic accountability were swept away.

“We now see the chickens coming home to roost.”  

Stonehaven councillor Peter Bellarby added: “The process by which these decisions were reached was a disgrace. Both Police Scotland and the Scottish Fire & Rescue Service are partners in community planning, along with councils, other agencies and communities. Community planning partnerships are legally established to ensure that the public and community sectors work closely together to deliver the best services for their area.

“I was surprised when it emerged that the Fire & Rescue Authority had deliberately chosen not to consult councils on their proposal to close control rooms and shocked that the first councils knew about the threat to the police control rooms in Aberdeen was through the media, less than a week before Thursday’s meeting.

“The SPA business case, which was supposed to justify the closures in Aberdeen, had all the marks of a document written to provide support for a decision already made. It ignored the strengths of the Aberdeen facilities, made light of the significant costs of upgrading the Dundee control room and ignored the risks arising from the loss of detailed local knowledge – of geography and of communities.

“The Justice Secretary has dismissed all of this, claiming that these are purely operational matters for which he has no responsibility. If this is the nationalist vision of how things are going to be done in an independent Scotland, through centralised decision-making with absolutely no local consultation or engagement, the prospect is seriously alarming.

“Local staff employed in these centres have been treated very badly. Local knowledge is of great importance and cannot be fully replaced by technology.

“We warned that this would be the sort of outcome to be expected from the creation of a single police force and a single fire and rescue service. Local democratic accountability has been replaced by diktat from the centre, a one-size-fits-all approach based on practice in the Central Belt and huge damage done to the legacy of the excellent Grampian Police and Grampian Fire & Rescue.

“The fact that no-one was surprised that the proposals were simply rubber-stamped speaks volumes. No other outcome was anticipated.”

Local Lib Dems gear up for elections

New office-bearers have been elected by the North Kincardine branch of the Scottish Liberal Democrats. Former Portlethen councillor Paul Melling is the chairman, Councillor Ian Mollison is the secretary, and Sheila Jamieson the treasurer.

The meeting in Portlethen Golf Club heard of plans for the European election in May, the referendum in September, and the UK General Election next year. Campaigning is being stepped up on all three fronts.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie in a message to the local members said: “Local branches are the foundation stones of the Liberal Democrats, with our party’s emphasis on local campaigning. North Kincardine has a strong team with Liberal Democrats at every level of democracy – in Aberdeenshire Council, at the Scottish Parliament, and Westminster and in the European Parliament.

“2014 is shaping up to be a big year for Scotland. In May we have the European elections when we will be campaigning to return George Lyon MEP. In the summer we have the Commonwealth Games to look forward to. And on 18 September, the referendum.

“As we debate whether to keep Scotland in a strong United Kingdom or back independence we need to recognise the many things that Scotland has already achieved and think about what we can hope to accomplish in future.

“I firmly believe Scotland can achieve great things as part of the family of nations in the United Kingdom and I invite you to join with me in campaigning for a prosperous future for our country. This will be the most important year for our country since 1707. Liberal Democrats with their proud history of campaigning for Home Rule can help shape the future.”

On 28-30 March the party is holding its spring conference in Aberdeen at the AECC.

Appeal for lollipop volunteers

Residents were urged today to volunteer to become school crossing patrollers. 

Aberdeenshire Council has tried without success to recruit local people to take up the posts for two primary schools in Newtonhill and Portlethen. 

Local councillor Ian Mollison said: “Appeals to parents, posters, and adverts on the council’s website have all drawn a blank. 

“Meanwhile our youngsters are having to be taken to school by parents, friends and neighbours. Teachers also continually alert the children and young people to the potential dangers – particularly regarding the wearing of head phones while walking to and from school.

“At Portlethen, with an increasing roll, it is even more important to have a patroller there every day to help the children cross safely. Unfortunately there are too many reports of some drivers nor prepared to give a little consideration to others, even children. 

“Council officers tell me they have found it exceedingly difficult to recruit to the vacancy at Newtonhill. The position has been advertised and re-advertised with no success. It is being advertised again on the council’s website with an extended closing date to July 2014 … but so far no applicants. 

“Officers have circulated an advertisement for the Newtonhill post to the village primary school, the library and the Bettridge Centre to see if this drums up any interest.”

The posts are for 6.67 hours per week and the rate of pay is £6.92 per hour, although Aberdeenshire Council applies a Living Wage supplement to all council employees earning less than £7.50 per hour. 

There is also a vacancy for a relief lollipop man or woman at the Mackie Academy in Stonehaven. 

Councillor Mollison added: “There must be some people in our communities who can help ensure our kids cross the roads safely. Anybody interested in a school patroller position should contact the Support Services Coordinator at the local academy for more information.” 

Dark day for emergency services

Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Alison McInnes MSP said today is a dark day for Scotland’s emergency services.

Following on from announced plans by Police Scotland to close six out of 10 police control rooms, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service published plans which will close further fire control rooms in Aberdeen and Inverness.

In total, five out of eight fire control rooms are to close.

Mrs McInnes – who is MSP for North East Scotland – said: “It is not an exaggeration to say that this is a dark day for Scotland’s emergency services. I have already been contacted by staff who have told me of their devastation at the proposed closures.

“This confirms that Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill has stood by and done nothing while highly regard local emergency police and fire services are dismantled.”

North Kincardine Liberal Democrat councillor Ian Mollison commented: “First it was our fire control room in Aberdeen that was threatened with closure (decision later this month) and now Police Scotland want to shut the 999 call centre in the city. Calls would be handled in the Central Belt.

“Coming on top of local courts closing and many police offices shutting to the public, what’s going on? I don’t like centralisation … but no false tears from Labour and the SNP about this please. They backed having one centralised police force and one centralised fire service. It was inevitable that resources would head south.

“Local knowledge is essential in providing an effective response to time-critical emergencies.”

SNP councillors refuse to back call for improved infrastructure in the North East

A senior Aberdeenshire councillor today expressed disappointment that SNP councillors refused to support a report calling on the Scottish Government to give greater priority to the vital infrastructure needs of the North East.

Today’s council meeting was asked to consider its response to the Scottish Government’s National Planning Framework 3 (NPF3), published by ministers on 14 January. The document provides a framework for development across the whole of Scotland, together with the government’s priorities for the next 20 or 30 years.

It also identifies nationally important developments to support its approach, including carbon capture and storage at Peterhead, improvements at Aberdeen airport and the project to develop Aberdeen harbour.

While welcoming many aspects of NPF3, the council’s response raised concerns over the lack of detailed actions to deliver the infrastructure necessary to support the levels of growth envisioned by Scottish ministers, particularly in the North East.

The report also highlighted concerns previously raised by the council and by Nestrans over the priority being given to a project to develop high speed rail between Edinburgh and Glasgow, rather than to improving journey times between the North East and the Central Belt.

 Liberal Democrat councillor Peter Argyle, chairman of the Infrastructure Services Committee, commented: “I was absolutely astonished that the SNP group failed to back a report calling for greater priority to be given to rail links to and from the North East, rather than this unnecessary and uncosted high speed rail project.

“The Scottish Government is already spending £650m on rail improvements between Edinburgh and Glasgow, to reduce journey times by an estimated eight minutes and increase capacity. High speed rail coming on top of this investment would be a luxury Scotland cannot afford at this stage, certainly not in isolation from the wider UK high speed rail project. 

“We urgently need Scottish Government investment to improve journey times between Aberdeen and the Central Belt.

“Taking almost three hours to travel by rail from the economic powerhouse of Scotland to the Central Belt is inadequate in the 21st century. While there are still sections of single track around Montrose, including high speed rail in NPF3 as a priority National Development simply cannot be justified.

“It is a sad fact that of the £2.6bn of capital transport projects underway across Scotland today, none are in the North East. Indeed, the last Scottish Government project to be completed in our area was Laurencekirk station, way back in 2007. It is disappointing that the SNP failed to support the Aberdeenshire community on this issue and instead wanted to back the inclusion of this high speed project.”

Following debate and a vote, the proposal from the Aberdeenshire Alliance to endorse the response was agreed and it will now be forwarded to the Scottish Government.

North Kincardine councillor Ian Mollison said: “Our focus should be on putting the case for the North East. And that includes pointing out when the Scottish Government has got it wrong. High speed trains should not be running between Glasgow and Edinburgh at the expense of better rail services in the North East. What happened to electrification? What happened to Crossrail, including more local station in the Aberdeen area, including Newtonhill?” 

Progess over recycling centre

There is good news on progress towards a household waste recycling centre at Badentoy, Portlethen.

Aberdeenshire Council has appointed an architect to prepare plans and agree the layout before lodging an application for planning permission.

The next step will be an application for a waste management licence which cannot be made until planning permission is granted.

The whole of the site off Badentoy Avenue has been stripped of topsoil and roadways are at sub base level.

Assuming all goes to plan it should open in the summer of next year 2015.

The intention is to licence the site for commercial waste (disposal only by arrangement) and we will also have facilities for dealing with third sector facility – charity operated re-use container(s) though the council does not have one particular organisation in mind at the moment.

Road to close in Badentoy

A section of Badentoy Avenue in the industrial estate at Portlethen is to close to traffic from Tuesday 7 January. This is while Martin Alan Construction Ltd creates a new site entrance and carries out drainage works at the north-east corner of the road. 

Eventually a new road will lead into the land to the north so that it can be developed. A household waste recycling centre is also due to be built in this area. 

The work will last for 6 weeks 3 days. 

Site notices will be erected in due course emergency and pedestrian access will be maintained. Vehicular access to affected properties is to be maintained whenever possible.

Getting ready for new waste collections

Before Christmas I was asked about the background work that Aberdeenshire Council had done before deciding on the new method of collecting rubbish – which has just been introduced in the Banff area. It comes to our area next year. Everything apart from rubbish and glass will go on one recycling wheelie bin.

Waste strategy officer Matt Davis tells me that council officers, with Zero Waste Scotland, looked at other councils’ dry recycling services to see how they performed and what we could expect from different dry recycling services in terms of kilo of recycling per household per year, which was then multiplied up to tonnages and converted to recycling percentages. This exercise did not include garden waste for the reasons he outlined during the talk to the community council forum in November.

He says it is important to remember that overall recycling percentages are made up of many different factors of which a kerbside recycling service is only one part. With this in mind benchmarking against overall recycling rates would not have been applicable.

“We do believe that the service we are introducing will make recycling easy for householders though, with most waste in one recycling bin.

“The polytunnel in Forres is run by a charity, Moray Wastebusters. We have a few similar arrangements here in our household waste recycling centres (HWRCs) such as Banchory, Ellon, Macduff and Peterhead. These facilities are reuse containers – basically shipping containers which people can leave any unwanted, but reusable items. The charities often ‘cherry pick’ the best items for resale off-site through their shops or other reuse and the general public can pick anything up which they want for free from the container at the HWRC.

“At present there are none of these in Kincardine and Mearns; there is an ongoing review and they may become more widespread in future. There are numerous other opportunities for reuse via charity shops, Freecycle etc which we encourage people to use. “

A HWRC is to be provided at Badentoy industrial estate, removing the need for the current service in the Asda car park.

Concerns over village shop’s future

Newtonhill residents fear that their village shop may have closed for good as it has now lain empty and deserted for several weeks.

The shop in Skateraw Road opened in 1912 and over the years as well as being a general store and newsagent has housed the village post office. 

More recently the Co-op leased the shop and ran it for some years under the “Morning Noon and Night” brand. However they pulled out and sub-let the premises. It continued to operate for several months but a drop in customer numbers led to it closing. 

Local councillor Ian Mollison said: “The local staff were let go and it was said that a new family were taking over. However all that happened was that the stock was removed. Customers were told that it would be refurbished and restocked, but that was weeks ago. It now lies empty.

“No doubt the opening of the Tesco store by the A90 would have had some impact, but I am sure there is still a role for the shop in the heart of the village. In its last days the stock had been reduced to soft drinks and sweets with some basics. It was a shadow of its former self when it was the centre of Newtonhill life.  

“I do hope that someone with flair and imagination can take over, bringing it back to life. However the task should not be underestimated. 

“Many villagers ask me if I have heard anything about the shop, but sadly I am as much in the dark as they are.”