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.

http://www.scotsman.com/news/lesley-riddoch-time-to-focus-on-local-government-1-3795323

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.

How Argyll & Bute Works: The Budget Latest

If you have not read the previous posts on this, the first one can be found here.

In summary, the first stab at tackling the council’s serious budget shortfall was made public for the meeting of the policy and resources meeting on 2 April 2015. The budget proposals at that date can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/p-r2april

At that meeting, I asked to vote though I am not on the committee. The chair, Cllr Walsh, refused. I also asked some questions, especially about the £52.5m that had been deemed to be out of scope for any cuts to find that the costs of councillors, salaries and expenses, was tucked away in this £52.5m. Cllr Walsh proposed the setting up of a “project board” of 12 councillors to consider the proposed cuts further.

The board comprised Cllr Walsh and 7 of his administration plus 4 SNP councillors. Cllrs Dance, Marshall and Neil McIntyre, plus myself, were not even given the opportunity to be on this. I would not have wanted to be on this knowing what I now know which is that this group meets in almost complete secrecy. The group operates as follows:

  • nobody else is told the dates the group meets
  • nobody else is provided with the papers
  • the papers don’t appear anywhere on the council website
  • minutes are not taken nor issued
  • the group has agreed that what they discuss is kept secret among them.

This group therefore meets and operates completely outwith the standing orders that apply to all other council meetings. Worse, we already have a mechanism that would have complied with standing orders. Cllr Walsh could have proposed setting up a Short Life Working Group but he didn’t. Ask yourself why this might be other than to operate below the radar.

In my previous posts on this topic I have tried to give chapter and verse on what has happened since I became aware of the clandestine nature of this group. I won’t repeat these here but the summary position as of today is as follows:

  • the 3 senior officials charged with ensuring good governance have confirmed, yesterday, that they consider this to be good governance.
  • I asked the independent external chairs of the council’s audit and performance review and scrutiny committees to look into this but they have said they are satisfied with the arrangements.
  • I offered a way out of the current position on Tuesday morning this week which is pasted below. This has been completely ignored.

I cannot make much by way of comment because some parties are hoping I make public criticism of officers which would allow a further complaint to be made that I have breached the code of conduct. Now that the officers have told me they think this is good governance, I am unable to say publicly that it’s not, if that was my view.

In 2010, the Accounts Commission published guidance on elected member/officer relationships. This can be found here: http://www.audit-scotland.gov.uk/docs/best_value/2010/bvrm_100826_councillors_officers.pdf

Some of this guidance relates directly this issue and parts were quoted in the email pasted below sent on Tuesday morning, to which nobody has replied.

I can’t say much more about this but this council is your council, and you may wish to say something. Please comment on this issue but keep your comment moderate or they won’t be accepted. You can also do a very short survey at: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/B87JZ82

Over to you.

From: Breslin, Michael Sent: 02 June 2015 07:28 To: Hendry, Douglas Cc: Dance, Vivien; Marshall, Bruce; Walsh, Dick; Loudon, Sally; Barrett, Steve; Taylor, Sandy Subject: RE: service choices project board [OFFICIAL]

Good morning all.

I detect some significant difficulty in trying to say that these governance arrangements are good in the sense suggested by CIPFA. Let me offer both guidance and a way out of this because I am sure  we have all spent more than enough time on it.

The guidance I offer is taken directly from the Accounts Commission guidance issued in June 2010 on roles and working relationships. It offers some examples of good working practice and in Exhibit 2 it talks about working groups, getting it right. The guidance is clear in saying these can be a good thing but it then goes on to say why, ie they work well when:

•             there is a clear purpose for the group

•             there is a clear and shared remit

•             there is representation by all political parties

•             participants discuss policy options and delivery in an open and transparent way

•             discussions are formally noted and notes are made available to all interested parties.

Working groups can help to:

•             discuss and test policy options with councillors before developing formal proposals

•             make officers more aware of the motivation and expectations of councillors

•             provide councillors with an insight into the challenges of service delivery.

I don’t need to point out that the so called project board doesn’t meet a number of these points.

The way out of this might best be handled by us all (ie including the leader of the SNP group) having a meeting but, among other things,  it will involve a motion going to the June council meeting that will reform what we currently have;  bring it into our standing orders; provide proper political balance and allow all councillors access to information and the opportunity to attend meetings of the reformed group if they wish.

In order for us to achieve this the administration will need to be willing to move from its current entrenched position. The end result will be that we all can say this is both good governance, without qualification, and that it meets the guidance from the Accounts Commission.

If there is a willingness to meet to discuss a way forward, it would be good to get a date  agreed in the next day or so.

I trust this helps.

Regards

Michael Breslin

How Argyll & Bute Works: Budget Update

I have given my views on the secretive and undemocratic method proposed and defended by Cllr Walsh to discuss possibly the biggest cuts in the history of this council. If you haven’t read this, start here and read subsequent posts about this process.

In the post here, I had put it to the external chairs of the council’s audit committee (Martin Caldwell) and performance review and scrutiny committee (Ian Ross) that perhaps a joint meeting of these 2 committees should consider the secretive method used by Cllr Walsh. I regret to say that both have confirmed they are satisfied with the process being followed. I have politely but firmly disagreed with them both.

I have also been asking officers if they can confirm they are satisfied that this is “good governance”. The Chartered Institute of Public Finance Accountants (CIPFA) refer to this phrase in their guidance to audit committees. I have not yet had a reply to this question but the council’s monitoring officer, Mr Hendry, has said he considers this to be “adequate” governance. I have asked again if he can confirm it meets CIPFA’s “good” governance but so far I have not heard back.

I will publish his reply and all related correspondence when I get it. Meantime the secretive show goes on.