What challenge was the inspiration for your project?
The village of Strontian comprises around 400 adults and children situated at the head of Loch Sunart, approximately 22 miles west of Fort William on the Ardnamurchan peninsula in Scotland. During daytime it is served by the Corran Ferry, but at night or in severe weather Fort William is a 48-mile drive away.
In 2012, following parental concerns our existing primary school was assessed by Highland Council as inadequate for both educational suitability and building condition. A statutory consultation followed on three possible solutions to address the condition of the school; the Council’s preferred solution (modular units on a new site) was strongly rejected by parents. We felt we needed a high-quality, permanent solution to give the children the best facility, without which we would struggle to keep and attract young families.
What was your innovation that addresses this problem?
Parents, working with the Highlands Small Communities Housing Trust (HSCHT), proposed instead that they should design, finance and build a new school and lease it to the Council, in a community-based equivalent to the better known, and more controversial, Private Finance Initiative (PFI). To their credit, the Highland Council agreed to support this approach, as did, importantly, the wider community, and a Community Benefit Society – Strontian Community School Building Ltd (SCSB)- was established to take forward the project.
A key element of the school design was that it needed to be convertible to another use: Highland Council’s support for the project was conditional on there being a break point in their lease with SCSB at 10 years. This was because the adjacent High School, built under a PFI arrangement, would revert to Council ownership at that point and they wanted to keep open the option of moving the primary school into the High School building then.
Accordingly, the school’s innovative design was based on the footprint of four housing units: so that if the building is no longer needed as a school, it will be converted into affordable housing – badly needed in the area.
What impact has Triodos Bank had on your organisation?
Triodos was crucial in offering support at an early stage of the project: we met our relationship manager in the village and he simply said: ‘we love your project’, shortly afterwards offering loan finance. Triodos has thus played its part alongside local people in securing the future of Strontian’s primary school, so that young people in our area can be assured of somewhere to learn, play and grow in their local community.
Finance for the £930,000 project came from a commercial loan from Triodos, a payment for tenant’s works from Highland Council, a community share offer which raised over £155,000, and £80,000 in grants from the Scottish Land Fund and Foundation Scotland. The local community themselves also raised £34,000 from funds generated by their community-owned hydro scheme, and local donations.
What impact has your organisation had on the sector you work in?
We like to think that we have paved the way for more community owned schools and other public infrastructure in Scotland – at the 2019 Education Buildings Scotland Awards, we won the category “Innovation in Delivering Value”. The model is transferable to a variety of other situations and the innovation of designing for conversion to other uses also offers flexibility in its application.
What impact has your organisation had on the community?
The community is very proud of the school! It has added to the confidence and capacity of the community following the earlier construction of a community hydro scheme, with further significant projects in the pipeline. The end result exceeds our expectations and is an asset for our community which will help retain and attract young families. It has been a very challenging undertaking for our community not least as it was a ‘first’ – hopefully the lessons learnt from our experience will make it easier for other communities to progress similar projects of their own.
How does Triodos Bank share your vision?
It is good to work with a bank that understands the heart of remote communities in Scotland, where significant challenges are being overcome. It was complex to get the finance together from different parties and so having a partner that understood this was important. We were delighted to be able to work with an ethical banking that fits our values as a Community Benefit Society.