Friday, 30 August 2013

More controversy over schools merger plan

A source close to Ardrossan Academicals Rugby Club has told the3towns a controversial ‘land swap’ proposal that could see a new super-school built on the club’s pitches “might not necessarily mean new pitches are created on the current site of Ardrossan Academy”.

the3towns has previously revealed that officials from North Ayrshire Council have had a series of meetings with Trustees of the Memorial Field, which is currently home to the rugby club and sits directly opposite Ardrossan Academy on Sorbie Road.  The purpose of the meetings was to explore the possibility of building a new secondary school on the Memorial Field.  A plan backed by North Ayrshire’s ruling SNP administration would see closure of four local schools – Ardrossan Academy, Stevenston’s Auchenharvie Academy and two schools for children with additional needs, Ardrossan’s James McFarlane School and Haysholm School in Irvine.  Under the plan, pupils from the four schools would be transferred to a new super-school in Ardrossan.

Initially, Council papers suggested the new school was planned for the site of Ardrossan Academy, but this subsequently changed to the favoured option being the Memorial Field – apparently after one member of the public suggested the Accies site during a consultation meeting held at Ardrossan Academy.

Despite no decision having been taken by councillors, either in terms of a schools merger going ahead or where any merged school should be located, Ardrossan Academicals last week held meetings with elected members of North Ayrshire Council, at which club officials set-out their vision for the future.  The source who spoke to the3towns indicated the Accies were looking for new rugby pitches to be created adjacent to a new school built on the Memorial Field – including one located within the running track that currently forms part of the St Matthews Academy sports facilities.  The source said, “This would allow a new clubhouse to be built where the current [Ardrossan] Academy sits, with the rest of the site available for further development.”

The source would not confirm what form “further development” might take, but it is believed the rugby club could seek to provide land for a housing development at the current Ardrossan Academy site.

Previously, it had been thought a ‘land swap’ between Ardrossan Academicals and North Ayrshire Council would be with the intention that a school could be built on the Memorial Field and new rugby pitches created on the current Academy site.

In another controversial development, the3towns can reveal that senior Council officials have already met with design “experts” regarding the proposed new super-school in Ardrossan.  Again, such meetings have taken place despite councillors not having taken a decision on whether or not a schools merger and new-build facility should go ahead.

In a document leaked to the3towns, Ms Carol Kirk, North Ayrshire Council’s Corporate Director (Education & Skills), states that, along with colleagues from Planning and Infrastructure, she has “spent time” with “experts from Architecture & Design Scotland developing the vision for the new Campus (although campus is beginning to feel like the wrong word”.  The document compiled by Ms Kirk is dated June 27 2013.

 Many parents of pupils attending schools that will be affected, should a merger go ahead, continue to voice opposition to the plan.  In particular, Auchenharvie Academy Parent Council has rejected the idea that children from Stevenston should have to travel to Ardrossan for their secondary education.  One parent pointed-out it would easier and cheaper for her daughter to attend Kilwinning Academy than a new school in Ardrossan.

Parents of pupils attending Ardrossan Academy and Auchenharvie Academy argue that the schools are in relatively good condition and should be retained.  They also point out that both schools recently held prize-giving ceremonies where the high standard of pupil achievement was acknowledged.    

Housing services - tenant satisfaction high

A survey of more than 1,400 Council tenants has revealed that overall satisfaction with North Ayrshire Council’s Housing Service is very high - 91% of respondents indicated they were either ‘very satisfied’ or ‘fairly satisfied’ with NAC as their landlord.

The results of the 2013 Tenant Satisfaction Survey were presented to a recent meeting of the local authority’s ruling SNP Cabinet.  Through a series of face-to-face interviews, tenants were given the opportunity to share their views on the Council’s delivery of housing and related services, including in areas such as customer care, estate management and tenant participation opportunities.

Findings included positive feedback on customer service, with 98% reporting satisfaction with overall customer care when visiting Council offices and 85% content with the quality of advice and assistance offered through the telephone service.  This represented an increase of 26% compared to the 2011 survey.

In addition, 96% of tenants were satisfied with the service provided by the Housing Benefits team, and 93% reported they were content with the landlord’s management of the local neighbourhood.  There was also increased satisfaction in the way Council staff manage complaints of anti-social behaviour.

However, while the overall results were positive, the survey also identified areas of concern for tenants, including a need to raise awareness of home visits for older residents or those with a disability, the assistance available in relation to rent arrears, and the range of tenancy support services.  A Council spokesperson said an ‘action plan’ is being developed to target the areas identified as needing improvement.

Cllr Anthea Dickson, North Ayrshire Council’s SNP Cabinet member for Health and Social Care, said, “I am delighted that overall satisfaction with the Council as a landlord is high - highlighting that our on-going efforts to meet the needs and expectations of our tenants are proving fruitful.
“This large survey is extremely valuable to the Service because although we are delighted to accept the extremely positive results, it is important that we continue to listen to all of the feedback and address the concerns that have been identified for further development.”

Cllr Dickson thanked Council staff “for their commitment to continuous improvement.”

Council Tax freeze welcomed as other bills soar

Margaret Burgess MSP has highlighted the SNP’s action to freeze Council Tax levels as a welcome benefit for local people who have seen other household bills soar.

Mrs Burgess told the3towns, “With local households facing the pressure of rising bills, it is a bit of relief for people to know that their Council Tax will not rise under the SNP.”

The MSP for Cunninghame South pointed out that since the SNP Government was elected in 2007, Council Tax bills have remained static in Scotland, while energy bills have increased on average by 61% with massive hikes in average food costs and petrol prices.

“While bills outwith the control of the Scottish Government have soared, with rocketing energy prices hitting the poorest and most vulnerable, Council Tax has not risen by a single penny under the SNP,” said Mrs Burgess.

The SNP MSP added, “The Council Tax freeze has provided a welcome boost for those struggling with the rising cost of living, but with independence we can do even more.

“Only a ‘Yes’ vote in next year’s referendum will give the Scottish Parliament full control of job-creation, taxation, welfare and energy policy in an independent Scotland.  With the full powers that only come with independence, we can reduce inequality and work to ease the financial pressures faced by households across North Ayrshire and Scotland.”

Local MP leads Royal Mail debate

Local MP Katy Clark is to lead a backbench debate in the House of Commons in support of keeping the Royal Mail in public ownership.

Ms Clark’s debate – on September 2 – will make the case for retaining current postal services and will oppose the plans of the Tory-Lib Dem UK Government, which would see Royal Mail privatised.

News of the Westminster debate came in the same week that Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond MSP, spoke of his support for the ‘universal service’ – the current system where letters are delivered six-days-a-week and it costs the same to post a letter to anywhere in the UK.

Mr Salmond said, “The Scottish Government recognises the vital importance of postal services to sustaining communities across Scotland, and that is why we are making a clear commitment that an independent Scotland will match – as a minimum standard – the universal service obligation, ensuring people across Scotland continue to receive the postal service they expect.”

The SNP leader pointed out that the majority of Scottish MPs at Westminster had voted against privatisation of Royal Mail, but were impotent to stop the Tory-Lib Dem Government from pressing ahead with their plans.  Mr Salmond said, “We will be keeping a close eye on Westminster’s privatisation agenda, which will determine the postal service Scotland inherits on independence.”

Mario Dunn, Director of the Save Our Royal Mail campaign, added, “The UK Government has failed to address the realities this privatisation will bring.  People in rural communities, like those across Scotland, will see the service they rely upon reduced significantly while prices will rise disproportionately.  The public are strongly opposed to the UK Government’s plan to push ahead with this deeply unpopular privatisation.”

Katy Cark, MP for North Ayrshire & Arran, said, “With Royal Mail making a £400million profit last year, there is no need for privatisation and it is being pursued for ideological reasons.”

The Labour MP spoke of constituents’ fears over the impact privatisation would have on the universal mail service, adding, “If Royal Mail is sold, experience tells us that prices will rise, post offices will close and there could be the end of the daily universal service, with rural communities, including those in my constituency, likely to suffer most.”

Teenage girls encouraged to have HPV jab

Local Cancer Trust Ambassador Suzanne Fernando has spoken of the importance to young girls of receiving the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccination when it is offered at school.

With local schools returning last week after the summer break, girls in Second Year, normally aged 12 to 13, will be offered the HPV jab, which helps to protect against the virus that causes most cervical cancers.

Suzanne Fernando is, herself, a survivor of cervical cancer and now leads an Ayrshire Support Group and raises awareness of the disease through her ambassadorial role with Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust.  Suzanne was diagnosed while she was pregnant with her second daughter, Aaron, who is now age to receive the HPV jab.  Mrs Fernando’s older girl, Jordan, has already been vaccinated at school.

The HPV vaccine is designed to protect against the two types of Human Papilloma Virus that cause 75% of the cases of cervical cancer. The vaccine also protects against two other types of HPV that cause about 90% of the cases of genital warts. 

Speaking of the vaccine, which is given in three doses to teenage girls, Sir Harry Burns, Scotland's Chief Medical Officer, said, “This programme plays a critical part in helping to protect thousands of Scottish women from a disease that can attack them in the prime of their lives.

“It was established first and foremost to protect against cervical cancer, however, the fact that the new vaccine also provides protection against genital warts is an added benefit.

“In Scotland, we have seen very high levels of uptake of the vaccine over the first five years of the programme, and I am confident that will continue to be the case in the future.”

Health professionals explain it is important to get protection early enough for it to be effective, with the early teenage years being the best time to start.  However, as the vaccine is only effective against the two types of HPV that cause 75% of the cases of cervical cancer, it is stressed that females should also start going for regular cervical screening (smear tests) when they reach the appropriate age.  The combination of immunisation and cervical screening is recognised as offering the best possible protection against cervical cancer.