Building of the week: Strontian Community School

Strontian is a small village in the Scottish Highlands. If the name sounds familiar but you can’t quite place it, perhaps it’s because the element Strontium was discovered in the lead mines there and named after the village.

Today the mines are closed and the village has suffered from a lack of investment, including to the primary school. The council had proposed some upgrades to a building that was barely fit for purpose, but couldn’t afford to replace it. With only 30 children or so in the village, it was hard to make the economic case for substantial investment, but of course that made life in the area very difficult for families. They would either need to send their children to a school elsewhere, or move away. So the community came up with an imaginative solution, and took on the challenge of building the new school themselves.

The result is a small school that is the first community owned school building in Scotland. The village owns it and leases it back to the council as a school. This is not dissimilar from some of the private finance initiatives (PFI) that have been used to build schools up and down the country, usually resulting in generous profits for shareholders and over-priced buildings for schools. In this case the owners and beneficiaries are local: “We are calling this a Community Finance Initiative (CFI), and believe it could be an exciting new model of public & community partnership for the future.”

The new school was funded with donations, a community share offer and a loan from the ethical bank Triodos. Further funds came from a community owned hydro-power scheme, demonstrating how community energy can put money back into the local area rather than extracting profits for distant shareholders.

The building itself is interesting too. There is a possibility that the primary school could be incorporated into the secondary school in future, so the building had to be designed in a way that it could be repurposed later if necessary. So the building consists of four discrete units with connecting rooms. The architect designed the connections so that they can be removed, leaving four separate houses. These would stay within community ownership and be available as affordable housing.

At a time when public ownership isn’t valued as highly as private ownership, and infrastructure is starved of funding, Strontian Community School shows how things can be different. It hints at how we could work towards ‘public affluence‘ without waiting politicians to catch up to the idea, and doesn’t depend on either government or the power of big private capital. It gives people an active stake in the facilities they depend on, creating a more engaged citizenry and a more equal society. It’s exactly the kind of project Katherine and I highlight in The Economics of Arrival, and if we get a second edition perhaps we’ll be able to sneak it in…

The school accepted its first students last year and you can read more about it on their website or this BBC article.


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