How Argyll & Bute Works: Michael Russell’s parliamentary questions and replies

Michael Russell asked some written questions in the Scottish Parliament about the way Argyll & Bute Council has been operating recently. His questions and the replies he got from Marco Biagi are shown below. Readers can judge for themselves whether the secretive manner in which the council’s budget is being handled meets with the government’s expectations.

5 June 2015

Index Heading: Communities

Michael Russell (Argyll and Bute) (Scottish National Party): To ask the Scottish Government whether it considers that the establishment of a local authority committee that (a) met in private and excluded the public at all times, (b) took no minutes, (c) refused councillors who are not members of the committee access to its papers, (d) refused councillors who are not members of the committee to attend and (e) gave no indication of the means by which its recommendations would be published or issued for final decision by the local authority would be consistent with best practice in local authorities in the development of budgets and financial plans.


Marco Biagi:

The Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 provides the legal framework within which councils have to operate, and it makes provision for the arrangements for formal committees or sub-committees of a council. This includes arrangements for admission to meetings and access to agendas and connected reports, including minutes.

A council may establish other groups to take forward matters as it chooses, however where a working group, or similar, is set up, it cannot exercise the council’s statutory functions and decisions on those would have to be taken by the council itself, or by a committee to which the access arrangements of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973) apply. It is up to a council to ensure that its arrangements comply with relevant statutory requirements and meet the requirements of Best Value, which include the principles of accountability and transparency.

5 June 2015

Index Heading: Communities

Michael Russell (Argyll and Bute) (Scottish National Party): To ask the Scottish Government whether the power of general competence available to a local authority allows it to establish committees that (a) take no minutes, (b) do not permit their papers to be distributed to councillors who are not members of the committee, (c) forbid councillors who are not members of the committee to attend and (d) meet in private and exclude the public at all times.


Marco Biagi:

Local authorities in Scotland do not have a power of general competence, instead they have a power to advance well-being. The Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 provides the legal framework within which councils have to operate, and it makes provision for the arrangements for formal committees of a council. It is for a council to decide how it conducts its business, providing it complies with the 1973 Act.

5 June 2015

Index Heading: Communities

Michael Russell (Argyll and Bute) (Scottish National Party): To ask the Scottish Government what redress is available to a councillor who is refused access to papers regarding the local authority’s budget and the development of financial plans.


Marco Biagi:

Reports submitted to meetings of a council, its committees and subcommittees are covered by the provisions of Part IIIA of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973. This requires them to be available for public inspection, unless they are to be considered in private session. Following the meeting, background papers have to be made available in accordance with a statutory scheme. Section 50F provides that a member of an authority is always entitled to inspect material relevant to business to be transacted at a meeting of the authority, unless it would disclose exempt information, as are members of committees, where committee business is involved.

These provisions do not cover meetings which are not part of a council’s formal committee structure, in which case the release of reports is a matter for the council itself.

In the first instance a member of an authority should approach whichever officer or officers the council has designated as its proper officer for such matters for access to material. Ultimately a member of an authority could seek access to documents through the courts, or pursue a complaint of maladministration with the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman.

How Argyll & Bute Works: some questions for Cllr Walsh

I decided it might be nice to drop Dick a wee line or two so here is what I sent him today:

From: Breslin, Michael Sent: 18 June 2015 17:49 To: Walsh, Dick Cc: Dance, Vivien; Marshall, Bruce Subject: questions

Cllr Walsh, please reply to the following questions:

1              Why did you choose to create a project board that operates outwith the standing orders? To phrase this another way, why did you not create a short life working group instead which would have had to work within them?

2             Why have you completely overlooked me on at least 16 occasions for appointments to committees etc since January 2014?

3             Why have you instructed officers not to pass on to me the budget pack from the recent seminar?

4             Why have you instructed officers not to provide me with the slides used on the day?

Thank you

Michael Breslin

How Argyll & Bute Works, or not

Having had a couple of interesting days in Oban this week, mostly meeting businesses for the SJ Noble Trust of which I am a trustee, it’s back to the painful council stuff.

I now know that since January 2014 I have been overlooked completely on 16 occasions for vacancies on council committees. This will, no doubt, be an oversight by Cllr Walsh and couldn’t possibly be deliberate, or could it?

I was interviewed yesterday by 2 auditors from Audit Scotland as part of their work in reviewing what the council is doing. I have today provided them with the email trail that shows the extent of the council leader’s behaviour regarding membership of committees etc.

Readers may recall I asked to get the papers sent back to me following their withdrawal at the recent seminar on the budget. I still don’t have them and it’s clear I won’t be getting them so a complaint has been lodged with the chief executive. My suspicion is that she and other officers are acting on the direct instructions of you know who, but we’ll see. It is truly woeful that I am being denied information that enables me to do my job properly.

The council’s audit committee meets tomorrow and it will be considering a number of issues which I hope to inform you about over the weekend.

Castle Toward, the aftermath continues.

Alan Stewart of South Cowal Community Development Company has written again to Mrs Loudon the chief executive of the council. He has also written again to Cllr Walsh. These letters are on Facebook and are reproduced here for information.

Dear Ms Louden

Disappointingly I have not yet had a response, other than an acknowledgement, from my email below.

However today I see an article published in the National newspaper:,

This article is extremely concerning as it not only reinforces the claims of deliberate interference in the Castle Toward project, but this time the claims are not anonymous. Moreover they have been made by a very senior and experienced councillor.

In view of the fact that there now appears to be evidence of this interference, I must insist you take the following actions immediately:

  1. 1. Cease all marketing of the Castle Toward Estate
  2. 2.Instigate an immediate external independent investigation into the actions of the council
  3. 3. Invite Police Scotland to examine the reasons behind the actions of the individuals concerned.

As I have said before, the community is baffled as to why our own council could not support this major investment and the many jobs that would have been created. If, as now appears to be the case, our own councillors were deliberately blocking us for reasons as yet unknown, we need to know why.


Alan Stewart

Alan’s letter to Cllr Walsh is as follows:

Dear Councillor Walsh

I see that an article carried in today’s National newspaper:, reiterates and expands on claims that you and some of your colleagues deliberately acted to stop the community buyout of Castle Toward.

The difference between this and previous allegations is that they are no longer anonymous. They have been made by a very experienced councillor.

As it now appears to be the case that the council as a whole and you in particular deliberately acted against the wishes of the majority of your constituents, your position as leader of this council has now become untenable. You should step aside and allow the council to instigate an external examination of the actions of the council.

The reasons for your blocking the project now need to be established. You were elected to serve the interests of the people of Cowal, and to try and improve our lot, within the constraints of the current economic climate. To deliberately reject a £10 million project, with 100 jobs and an annual return to the area of close to £1 million, and with the support of HIE, The Scottish Government, SLF, National lottery and 10000 signatories to a petition, has baffled the community and needs examining.

Until such time as the true facts can be established, the sale of the Castle should be immediately halted. I understand that the council is currently considering an offer for the estate, if this is the case it should be rejected until such time as the true facts are known.


Alan Stewart

How Argyll & Bute doesn’t work: yes folks there’s more!

The poll above will expire a week from today, ie on 20 June.

Castle Toward

I am continuing to seek some clarity on why Cllr Walsh insists this property sale will not be handled by the area committee but rather by the full council. I have been told it’s a “strategic” property and that a decision in the past somewhere made it so. Apparently that same decision also said that sales of such properties were to be handled by the full council. This, despite the fact that the recently amended council constitution appears to say differently. I have asked for the minutes of this dim and distant meeting but so far they have not surfaced.

Meanwhile, it now appears the Castle Toward estate is off the market. I made some enquiries and was eventually told that we were now past the closing date. I asked if there had been any offers to be told that the matter is now “confidential”. The fact that I am one of the 3 ward councillors appears to be neither here nor there. I bet you, though, that one of the other ward councillors, Cllr Walsh, knows what is going on. Confidential it won’t be for him.

Dick’s obsession with secrecy continues unabated.

The Budget

Despite lots of asks,  there has been a refusal to send me the budget pack that was taken off me last Friday, There has also been a refusal to send me the slides that were used. I have made it clear that I am being denied information in a way that obstructs me from doing my job as a councillor. I have asked again today for the information that they wish to keep me well away from.

The National

See link below to The National today about the treatment of Cllr Vivien Dance.

Your views on the council and its budget process

I have had 107 responses to the survey but the free version of Survey Monkey only lets you see responses to the first 100 results. So, for the moment, the survey is closed but here are the results:

2 people said they were completely satisfied with the way things were being handled. These may well have been the same 2 who didn’t give their names or email IDs so I can’t follow up to find out why they are satisfied.

74 people said they were not satisfied at all.

22 gave other answers and some of these are shown below.

I am not at all happy with everything I am currently learning about how the council is operating. Thank you so much for speaking out!

This process will effect families. It will potentially reduce a family budget, or remove it totally. Families will have to do without crucial services that support them. They will have to do this with no input into the decision making process. They cant take any responsibility, or owndership, for moving their communities forward through this period of extreme austerity. This process has effectively removed the ability to co produce community direction into the future.

Dictatorship, Limited information to Public! No transparency!!

No – why are they being so secretive and why is Dick allowed to treat people like this?

Keeping the council tax payers in the dark about some of the most important issues in A & B and how they are decided is bordering in tyrannical and must be stopped. Local Democracy..NOT!

outraged at the lack of democracy within A&B Council.

Not after hearing about Walsh, what’s his problem sounds like a little Hitler

Budget cuts are being made without proper consultation of elected officials, and the majority of decisions are being made behind closed doors by a small group of people who are excluding councillors and the public from any discussions and consultations. Councillors being asked to place red and green stickers next to areas to be cut does not amount to proper consultation or decision-making.

No, Not at all! – Where is the public consultation or even just openness and transparency? Why are our elected representatives not being supported (or even allowed) to make informed decisions by having the necessary information in advance of being asked to make decisions so they have time to reflect and conduct any further research or consultation they feel is necessary to effectively represent their constituents rather than making on the spot decisions with red and green stickers?

I am at a loss to understand why the Accounts Commission/Audit Scotland fail to act on this. It is abundantly clear that the processes of governance within this Council are fundamentally flawed and not in the best interests of the public they purport to serve. Why the ‘independent’ chairs of audit and scrutiny find this acceptable is worrying. Perhaps they might care to justify their stance in an open letter to the public via the local and indeed national press.

Very concerned with lack of transparency & accountability in this Council. I have no confidence at all with this Council & do not believe they have the public interest at heart.

How Argyll & Bute Works: more budget secrecy

In a post here, I told you about the farce last Friday at the seminar for councillors on the budget. Here’s an update and it’s beginning to look like I am being further marginalised by denying me access to information I believe I have a right to access.

You may recall that they took the pack away from me on the day, complete with the notes I had made, despite me saying publicly I wanted to consider all the options and make a written submission this week sometime. On Saturday morning I emailed the officer who took my pack and asked for it to be put in the post to me on Monday. I got a reply yesterday, Tuesday, to say the team looking at the packs had it, implication being she could not send it back. I replied and asked for the pack back.

At the seminar last Friday I also asked for a copy of the slides the officers used. I followed this up the same day with an email asking for them. To date no reply.

Last night I sent an email to Mr Hendry saying I was being denied information that I had a right to have and asking that this was treated as top priority and resolved this morning.

What kind of way is this to treat an elected member? It is absolutely outrageous in my view. Somebody is pulling the strings here. The question is who is the puppet master?

More to follow.

How Argyll & Bute works: Castle Toward raises its head again

I have been unable to get a satisfactory reply as to why the Bute & Cowal Area Committee will again be bypassed when any sale of the Castle Toward estate comes up. I have been told that it’s a “strategic” property and that some years ago the council agreed it would handle the sale of any such property. I have asked to see the minute but so far, nothing. However, the For Sale sign has been removed from the estate in the past few days so maybe something is afoot, who knows.

One of the Castle Toward supporters, Lorna Ahlquist, today submitted a complaint to Mrs Loudon about the failed community buy out. Her letter is published here now with Lorna’s consent.  Dear Ms Loudon public

Lastly, Lesley Riddoch, who attended the People’s Council event in Oban on Saturday (see my blog on this here) had an article about local government in today’s Scotsman. This can be read at the link below.

How Argyll & Bute Works: The latest nonsense from Cllr Walsh

Cllr Walsh certainly has an aptitude for doing the wrong thing. In fact, he excels at this. His latest wheeze is to sack a hard working and highly competent councillor from council committees. Cllr Vivien Dance was today removed from 2 council committees, Policy & Resources and Environment, Development and Infrastructure.

There wasn’t even any discussion with Vivien by anyone from the junta. Her removal came in a revised list of members of committees that was sent out this morning. The sender of the email, Mr Hendry, marked the email as OFFICIAL-SENSITIVE  which means that if I did as I had planned to do and attach it to this blog, there might be another complaint against me because this classification states: “Unauthorised disclosure (including within the council) would cause harm to the interests of the council or other parties by virtue of loss of opportunity or reputation, or cause embarrassment.

 I have asked Mr Hendry to justify the classification of this email because I think this should all be public knowledge. After all, do the people of Argyll & Bute not need to know which councillors are on which committees? I think so.

Cllr Walsh doesn’t like to hear anyone disagree with him which was why he threw me out of the administration and why he immediately sacked Cllr Marshall from a committee when Bruce walked out in support of me.

The sad thing is that in all of this there is no recognition given to either the willingness of councillors to serve on committees or to the talents they may bring with them to these committees. The key issue is getting rid of dissenting voices come what may. I have repeatedly said to Cllr Walsh I would serve on any council committee but for some odd reason I have been overlooked every time there has been a vacancy. In January this year Mr Hendry confirmed that there had been 10 appointments made in the preceding 12 months and not once was I asked if I wanted to be considered. My guess is it’s now well in excess of that number but I will ask.

You don’t need to make this stuff up; it’s happening for real in the Lalaland of Dick Walsh, the council leader who brooks no dissent! If you want to make your view known, please do but I would like the survey completed. It will take 2 minutes to do and can be found at this link:

Update: I have been told that marking this email as Official Sensitive was simply a mistake.

Update on the budget, the People’s Council and the complaint

The seminar held for elected members on Friday was, well, better than nothing but by trying to cram everything Cllr Walsh’s secret committee has produced into a day left far too little time for discussion and debate. We were talked at for most of the time and we weren’t able to discuss any of the items that were not the subject of proposed cuts.

A budget pack was given to each of us and we were told, correctly, that some of the detail in it might lead to individuals being identified, ie people whose jobs were possibly under threat. It’s absolutely right that this level of detail is kept confidential and there was clearly assent to this from the 20 councillors present at the start of the day. I remain of the view that the starting point for these cuts is the wrong one and I refer you to my alternative starting proposals posted here.

The day deteriorated mid to late afternoon when we were all handed out red and green self adhesive dots. We were asked to place these against the budget options we wanted to see pursued and those we didn’t. Myself and Cllr Iain MacLean refused to do this. I said I wanted to consider matters and that I would submit a written response in the coming week.

These proposed cuts affect the employment of people in our community and to be asked to play a kind of parlour game with their lives was appalling. Iain and I left before the event finished as there was no point in staying. To cap it all, the pack we’d been given was taken off me before we left despite it containing notes I had taken. I have asked for it back as this really is treating councillors with contempt and is part of the Walsh secrecy stuff.

All in all, this was probably a bit of window dressing from Cllr Walsh to allow Audit Scotland to say councillors were consulted.

Saturday was a dire day for weather but an uplifting one in Oban for the first People’s Council. This was organised by 2 young women in Oban and the rejection of the Castle Toward community buyout was the trigger for them to become more active. There were over 100 people at the event and it was clear there was agreement that the localisation of democracy in Argyll & Bute and beyond is well overdue. People are fed up with being dictated to and the top down, we know best approach, has to end. A declaration was agreed and this will be posted here once the final wording is tidied up. Some tweets from the event are shown below:

Lastly, I have just opened a large envelope with the complaint against me by the senior staff in Argyll & Bute Council. It runs to some 90 pages and I have till the 18th to respond. I can’t say any more on this subject but the process has now started and I will be defending myself robustly.