At A heated meeting in Cairnryan this week, villagers asked Dumfries and Galloway Council for an independent public inquiry into controversial plans to create a children’s home against the wishes of the majority.
A visibly shocked Alex Haswell, the director of chief executive services at the council, who attended the meeting, warned such action could increase the costs of the project “five-fold”.
The council purchased Cairnryan House, a former B&B, in 2011 to replace Milton House, the children’s home in Stranraer, after it was deemed unsuitable for use as a children’s home by officers and by the Care Inspectorate. From the start village residents were against moving the children, believed to be four in number, to a place away from schooling, facilities and their peers in the town.
Essential work is now being done on the property to meet the legal requirements for a local authority children’s home. But as the cost of the conversion escalates, residents are challenging the council’s view that Cairnryan House was the best value available for taxpayers’ money. They also accuse the council of not taking into consideration the views of the residents after the statutory consultation process was complete.
John Alexander, the council’s chief of social work, told the meeting his department had been “under some pressure” to find a replacement for Milton House since 2006 and Cairnryan House was the favoured option.
But many villagers felt the public had been misled by the council after an officer was quoted saying the property was ready “to walk into”. The ongoing construction work has included a new roof, rewiring, replumbing, a new heating system and new alarm system. Work was halted last week after it was revealed the necessary warrants had not been sought for some of the work. Mr Haswell defended the officer, saying he was a social worker who was not a structural expert on buildings, but his comments had been made “in good faith” .
When pressed on the cost, Mr Alexander said around £665,000 was needed to make the building fit for purpose which, he added, was well within the budget of £750,000 earmarked for the replacement of Milton House. Many of the Cairnryan residents returned to their main objection: incredulity that the council thought Cairnryan, a small fishing village that also happened to be a major port, was thought a suitable home for vulnerable children.
Mr Alexander said his aim was to give the children a good start in life and make a better quality provision for them. Revamping Milton House was not an option as it would be “throwing good money after bad”. He pointed out the children themselves were “keen to make the move” and were “excited”.
Another matter that left a bad taste in the mouth of the villagers was the impression that, as Cairnryan resident Mr McCreadie stated: “The council officers had been evasive on many matters, not answering questions properly or not answering them at all … That is what has annoyed the people of Cairnryan,” he said, to heartfelt applause.
Mr Haswell admitted mistakes had been made by the council in the process and he apologised. He added they could “argue about procedure all night” but he wanted to know how they could all “take this forward”.
But for the residents they was to be no going forward without a public inquiry. Mr Hawell replied: “A public inquiry will increase the cost of Cairnryan House five-fold. This is not a simple process and I would ask, who is going to pay for this?”
“The council!” was shouted from the floor.
Stranraer and North Rhins Councillor Willie Scobie said later: “The council started to look for alternative accommodation in April 2007 but it is now five years later and still it doesn’t appear we have the most suitable alternative for these young people. Two sites in Stranraer were offered by the developers. A further option was an area of ground behind Milton House and we could have applied for planning permission to provide a custom-built home.”