I was copied into a complaint this evening from one of the directors of SCCDC, Ian Hodgetts. Ian has asked that it is distributed widely so please find it at the link below.
I have had a reply from Mr Hendry but have not had a reply from Cllr Walsh. The correspondence is pasted below for you to read and comment on. To see the earlier correspondence, look back at the blogs over the last several days with a similar title.
From: mills, susan On Behalf Of Hendry, Douglas Sent: 11 May 2015 17:45 To: Breslin, Michael Cc: Dance, Vivien; Marshall, Bruce; Walsh, Dick; Loudon, Sally Subject: FW: service choices project board [OFFICIAL]
Further to your email of 6th May below, I confirm the following points:-
1. I confirm the Chief Executive’s advice, that it was competent for the Policy and Resources Committee, on 2nd April, to set up the Project Board which has been put in place
2. For the avoidance of any doubt, there is no particular legal significance in the term “Project Board”. “Task Group” or “Working Party” could equally have been used.
3. What is of significance, however, is that the Group which has been put in place by Policy and Resources is not a Committee or Sub Committee of the Council. To be entirely clear the Project Board has no decision making powers.
4. Given that the Project Board is not a Committee or Sub Committee of the Council, the extract from the Constitution which you have reproduced in your email is not relevant in these circumstances.
5. My understanding is that the Project Board’s remit is to consider how best to take forward Service Choices, and to produce options to be presented at a workshop for all Elected Members to consider. All decisions in relation to Service Choices are, as I have noted above, clearly excluded from the Project Board/Members workshop, but, rather, remain with the Policy and Resources Committee, and ultimately the full Council.
I hope this response is helpful in terms of clarifying the position.
My reply was as follows:
Even if what you say is correct, this is an artificial construct that is out with the standing orders of the council. I do not believe that is remotely right and proper. The fact is has no decision making powers is irrelevant. This construct removes scrutiny from elected members; it denies access to any papers, it produces no minutes and it meets in secret. On this last point Douglas, Cllr Walsh hasn’t replied so I am taking it as read that they have all agreed to meet in secret.
This isn’t some banana republic Douglas but it seems to want to behave as one.
I quote again part of the quote I used from the constitution. I am firmly of the view that this kind of group is unconstitutional on the simple grounds it’s not mentioned in the constitution and it denies me access to documents and information in a manner that impedes my ability to carry out my duties.
Would you like to reconsider please before I place all this correspondence in the hands of Audit Scotland tomorrow?
They have the right of access to the documents, information, land and buildings that are
owned or in the possession or control of the Council in so far as such access is necessary for the proper discharge of their duties as a Councillor and in
accordance with the law.
UPDATE AT 2100
Cllr Walsh replied when he saw my reply to Mr Hendry. He had a go at me for the tone of my reply but failed to deny that the meetings were secret. So, they are secret.
No papers, no minutes and all those attending sworn to secrecy and, in all probability, the meetings themselves are unconstitutional. Dear me.
I took a call late yesterday from one of Cllr Walsh’s army of yes men and women about another matter entirely but during the course of the call this person told me that the so called project board dealing with the budget, ie the one referred in in the last 2 posts and the one where no other councillor gets papers or minutes, is operating on a strict secrecy basis. I was told that all of the members of this group agreed that what is discussed in the room stays in the room.
Welcome to North Korea folks. My email of this morning is shown below. Sadly, it appears that the 4 members of the SNP Group who are members of this project board signed up to this secrecy.
From: Breslin, Michael Sent: 09 May 2015 10:07 To: Loudon, Sally Cc: Dance, Vivien; Marshall, Bruce; Walsh, Dick; Hendry, Douglas Subject: RE: service choices project board [NOT PROTECTIVELY MARKED]
This element of my query is for the council leader.
I was told yesterday by one of your administration councillors that what is discussed at this project board is to be secret within the members of this group. Please confirm if this is correct Cllr Walsh because the person who told me is not part of this group. Given that no papers have been circulated to all elected members and given that there hasn’t been a minute of the first meeting, I think the information I was given is almost certainly correct but your confirmation is required please.
Independent Councillor, Ward 7 Dunoon
I now know that I won’t get a reply on the questions I raised about the status of the project board until next week. This will be published as soon as I get it.
The council is forecasting a funding gap of £37.5m and says it needs to find savings of £25m over the next 2 financial years, ie 2016/17 and 2017/18. This is an enormous amount to take from the budget and with today’s election results, the Tories will most likely continue with their unnecessary austerity and will commit the UK to spend £4bn every year for the next 40 years on Trident.
The project board set up to look at what is called Service Choices has 12 elected members on it from the 36 councillors. Apart from Cllr Walsh, he has hand picked councillors from his administration most likely to go along with what he wants. These are Cllrs Robin Currie, Alex McNaughton, Roddy McCuish, Aileen Morton, Ellen Morton, Gary Mulvaney and Len Scoular. These 8 will, in effect, finalise the cuts before a decision is made by the full council in February 2016. Unless the numbers change, Cllr Walsh will get these cuts voted through by the numbers he controls in the council administration in February no matter what. The bottom line is that Cllr Walsh and his 7 pals on this project board will have a huge influence on what is cut and what is saved.
Remember that at the moment they want to cut what is spent on adult care, much of this relating to the care at home service for the elderly. The cuts to the adult care budget could be as much as 40% of the total cuts to be made or almost £9m. They want to protect councillors’ salaries and allowances, much of which is wasted travelling to and from Kilmory. (They awarded themselves a 1% increase at the last council meeting and the single biggest beneficiary of this is none other than Cllr Walsh.) Lastly, they want to increase spend on “communications”, or spin to you and me.
The full details can be found on the council website at the link below but right now the link to the papers isn’t working for some reason.
You could not make this up which is why the legality of this project board is the single biggest question at the moment. If they deem it legal, 8 people will make effectively make these decisions and that cannot be right.
More as soon as I get a reply from Mr Hendry.
There are potentially huge cuts coming the way of Argyll & Bute Council, partly due to the continuing austerity planned by the Tories and Lib Dems and partly because the population of Argyll & Bute is continuing to fall. This decline in population directly affects the share of the declining pot of money councils get.
Instead of involving all 36 councillors in this process, the council leader Dick Walsh put the initial budget proposals for the next 2 years to the Policy and Resources Committee of the council, a committee it would be fair to say he controls. I attended this meeting, as is my right, even though I am not on this committee. While I was allowed to speak Cllr Walsh declined my request to vote. I was therefore not able to directly influence this budget process which has been named Service Choices.
At the Policy and Resources Committee meeting on 2 April they agreed to set up what they called a project board comprising 12 councillors and 2 trade union officials. 8 of the councillors are in Cllr Walsh’s administration and 4 are from the SNP Group. It would also be fair to say this board is controlled by Cllr Walsh. Apart from the SNP Group, there are 4 other councillors not in the administration: myself and Cllrs Dance, Marshall and Neil McIntyre. As far as I know none of us was asked if we wanted to be considered as members of this project board so that effectively means the 4 of us have been totally cut out of the process.
I had been making some enquiries about the budget from the officers and in the course of this discovered by chance that the first meeting of this project board was to be held last Tuesday, 28 April. This was the first I knew of this and it occurred to me that the normal rules about the way meetings are called had not been adhered to. The normal way is for papers to be issued electronically a week before the meeting but this hadn’t happened. Now, a week later, the usual minutes have not been issued either.
In between times myself and Cllr Dance asked some questions of the chief executive, none of which have been replied to as of this morning, 6 May. It is astonishing stuff and totally undemocratic. Read the correspondence on this at the link below. More to follow no doubt.
UPDATE AT 1700 6 MAY 2015
The link below is the reply from Sally Loudon and my reply to her. The mystery deepens about the legal status of the Service Choices Project Board and how elected members get to know anything about what the board is doing, what papers are available to elected members and so forth.
UPDATE 7 MAY 2015
Having read again the reply from the chief executive, I need to make the following observations. It appears to me that the project board has no status within the council structure because the council’s constitution makes no reference to such a body. The 2nd paragraph of Sally Loudon’s reply seems to confirm this yet she says the Policy & Resources Committee was “competent” in creating this project board. The fact is that the project board, whatever its legal status, is operating outwith all the normal rules for any other council meetings. It is, therefore, operating in secret with no other elected members having access to the papers nor does it produce minutes.
Is this really what democracy in Scotland has come to?
When Actual Reality moved out of Castle Toward in the autumn of 2013 the council moved to put it on the market. The agents were Baird Lumsden. Curiously, Baird Lumsden was the only company to respond to the procurement tender to sell the property. It should be noted that they were also the valuers, ie the valuers who said it was worth £1.8m.
To ensure that the property was kept secure and to stop it deteriorating further, the council installed a CCTV system (c £30k) and appointed a security company to look after the premises. The costs of keeping the property empty vary from month to month, as would be expected, but it is clear that the costs are a minimum of £20k per month on average. When I asked what had been spent between 23 August 2013 and the end of August 2014, the total came to an average of £22.5k per month.
In 25 November 2013 South Cowal Community Development Company (SCCDC) notified the council of its intent to purchase the estate under the provisions of the Land Reform Act 2003. From that point the council could not sell it to any other party or negotiate with any other party. The downside to this, from the council’s point of view, was that they would have to continue to incur the maintenance and security costs until the Right to Buy process was completed, one way or another. Having said that, there is therefore a large £20k per month reason for making sure the process is concluded as quickly as possible. That turned out not to be the case. It took 13 months before the proposal collapsed.
The Scottish Government appointed the District Valuer to value the estate and, to everyone’s surprise, it was valued close to the Baird Lumsden figure, at £1.75m. Savilles, who were working for SCCDC, provided an opinion to the effect that the value was around £1m less than the DV’s valuation. They were in a position to know because they had immediate access to the work being done by other professionals who knew, for example, that close to £3m needed to be spent on the building’s services alone.
SCCDC appealed against this valuation. In August 2014 SCCDC agreed to withdraw the appeal after a meeting with council officers. What happened at that meeting is a matter of dispute and is referred to in the documents to be found at the links below. This was a pivotal decision for SCCDC and, given the way things have turned out, it might have been better to have seen the appeal through. They believed, though, that there was a deal to be done with the council if they withdrew their appeal, so they did.
Highlands & Islands Enterprise provided much financial and technical support to SCCDC because their plans would have allowed a major company to work with SCCDC and there were an estimated 100 jobs to be created plus a huge economic impact for the whole of Cowal. HIE’s work was extensive, including providing professional support to SCCDC in the preparation of a business plan. The council duplicated some of the work carried out by HIE, a point referred to in the subsequent complaint submitted to Audit Scotland.
There is little point in spending time here going over all of that happened in the period between November 2013 and December 2014 but as time went on, SCCDC became increasingly of the view that the council did not want the sale to SCCDC to take place. In December 2014, the council’s Policy and Resources Committee refused to sell the estate to SCCDC for £750k but agreed to sell for £1.75m and offered a commercial loan of £1m, with payments deferred for the first 3 years, despite saying the whole project was high risk.
It is remarkable that a public body can offer public money to a project that they themselves consider high risk. It is astonishing that the council also said they would enter into a separate legal agreement with SCCDC whereby the property would revert to the council before repayments were to start. This seems to show clearly that the council knew SCCDC could not afford to take on a loan of £1m, something SCCDC had made very clear to the council.
With the collapse of the buyout due to the council insisting on getting £1.75m for the estate, the aftermath started. SCCDC and its many supporters decided to issue a complaint to Audit Scotland about 7 aspects of the way the council had dealt with the buyout. That complaint, and the subsequent correspondence with Audit Scotland, can be found at the links below. Remarkably, Audit Scotland decided not to investigate the complaint at all. Their reasons why can be found in the correspondence below. This isn’t over yet by any means.
After the meeting I attended with Audit Scotland referred to in the preceding link, I felt the need to press the points about the loan that had been offered. The email below was sent to Fiona Mitchell-Knight of Audit Scotland on 28 April, copied to Michael Russell MSP and Alan Stewart of SCCDC.