How Argyll & Bute Works: September 15 Council Meeting

Last Thursday was the day of the full council meeting in Argyll & Bute.

The new Reform Group (see here) comprising myself, Vivien Dance and Bruce Marshall, shared thoughts on some of the papers prior to the meetings and prepared motions for some of these. One of the reasons we created the group was because we were effectively marginalised within the council. On one hand Cllr Walsh had set out to keep the 3 of us out of anything remotely important but this was compounded by the actions (or inactions) of the SNP Group.

An example is the Service Choices Project Board, see here, with 12 elected members on it. Cllr Walsh correctly said that his administration was due a pro rata share of members, in this case 8. He then offers the 4 places to the leader of the SNP Group, Sandy Taylor. Sandy knows that there are 4 other councillors not in the administration, ie the 3 above plus Neil McIntyre from Oban. However, he takes the 4 places offered without approaching any of the 4 other councillors. This means the SNP Group has more than their pro rata share of places. He should have taken 3 places and offered 1 to the other 4. Whether or not we took them is beside the point; he should have offered.

The SNP Group has also ignored the possibility of a wider opposition group by asking the 4 of us if we wanted to consider this. In fact, the reverse has applied because I have spoken to a number of members of the SNP Group suggesting this on more than one occasion. Nothing came of this I regret to say.

I am trying here to state the facts and not make judgement on the SNP Group. They are entitled to adopt the position they have done but the question is this: is this wise? Personally I am more than willing to consider some wider grouping, especially if the SNP Group was willing to adopt the principles of the Reform Group Alliance, see here. But they don’t have to adopt these principles: we could still work together on a number of issues, especially the forthcoming budget. As things stand, that seems unlikely because they have continued to be part of Cllr Walsh’s secret society, the project board. See here for details.

Going back to last Thursday’s council meeting, our Reform Group got no support at all from any of the SNP Group present. If anything, they criticised some of what we said, especially the most vocal of them Cllr James Robb. He appeared, on the day, to be the de facto group leader when in fact it’s Sandy Taylor. Again, in order to avoid making any direct criticism of the SNP, I simply reproduce here extracts from the minutes of last week’s meeting. Suffice to say that our Reform Group is hugely disappointed, especially on the issue of the refugees. Note also Cllr McNaughton dodging the vote on the disappearance of the Cowal Ward In the final extract below.

The full minute can be found here: Printed minutes Thursday 24-Sep-2015 10.00 Argyll and Bute Council

Extract 1

PERFORMANCE REVIEW AND SCRUTINY COMMITTEE – APPOINTMENT OF VICE-CHAIR

The Council considered a recommendation from the Performance Review and Scrutiny Committee to amend the constitution and to create a position of Vice – Chair for the Committee.

Motion

To agree to amend the constitution and to nominate Councillor Taylor to be the Vice-Chair of the PRS Committee.

Moved by Councillor Walsh, seconded by Councillor E Morton.

Amendment

The position should be openly advertised and a suitable independent person be appointed to this position. The costs can be mitigated by replacing one Member on the Committee with the new appointee.

Moved by Councillor Breslin, seconded by Councillor Dance.

Decision

On a show of hands vote the Motion was carried by 28 votes to 3 and became the finding of the meeting.

Extract 2

SYRIAN REFUGEE CRISIS

The Council considered a report which advised that Argyll and Bute Council, its community planning partners and local communities had indicated a willingness to support the resettlement of the Syrian refugees whose plight has dominated the media over the past few weeks. The Council has indicated to the Scottish Government and CoSLA that the partnership will offer housing and support to 20 refugees families in the first instance with the possibility of more in the future.

Motion

That the council amends the decision to offer housing and support to 20 families. There are significant numbers of empty homes owned by Registered Social Landlords in Argyll & Bute. There are also empty properties owned by the MOD although we recognise and endorse the need for secure tenancies. These empty properties amount to something in the region of 300 to 400 units. Given the population decline in parts of A&B this motion proposes that we offer to take as many refugee families as we have empty homes for, working with the RSLs and the MOD as appropriate and taking into account the views of relevant communities and the refugees.

Moved by Councillor Breslin, seconded by Councillor Marshall.

Amendment

To accept the recommendation in the report and to endorse the decision to set up a Refugee Resettlement Group and through this to progress our work to resettle families initially with 20 families but also to progress our desire to accommodate greater numbers in the future.

Moved by Councillor Walsh, seconded by Councillor E Morton.

Decision

On a show of hands vote the Amendment was carried by 28 votes to 3 and became the finding of the meeting.

Extract 3

NOTICE OF MOTION UNDER STANDING ORDER 13

Councillor Marshall, seconded by Councillor Breslin had given notice of the following Motion:-

Motion

The current consultation on ward changes within Argyll & Bute proposes, among other changes, the disappearance of the Cowal ward and the extension of an island ward, Bute, into mainland Cowal. The proposals as they stand make no sense to local communities and there is genuine anger and bewilderment in Cowal in particular. This motion urges the Scottish Boundary Commission to recognise the unique place of Bute and Cowal, to use its powers to recognise special geographic circumstances and to preserve the status quo in both Bute and Cowal. This might best be done by creating a new category of voter/councillor ratio which lies somewhere between the current one and that used for the Western Isles.

Moved by Councillor Marshall, seconded by Councillor Breslin.

Amendment

That the Council notes the terms of the motion lodged under Standing Order 13 at agenda item 17 on the Council agenda and the supplied advice regarding the concerns being expressed by the people in Cowal. The Council further notes the concerns and anxieties being expressed from a number of communities within Argyll and Bute with regard to the likely impact on them from the Local Government Boundary Commission (LGBC) proposals.

That the Council restates its formal objection and strong opposition to the LGBC proposals for the Argyll and Bute area on the basis that the Council is not assured that their proposals will best serve the communities of Argyll and Bute as they do not adequately address natural community links, representation in the Islands, or the rurality and sparsity issues faced by our area.

The Council calls on the LGBC to conclude that for the Argyll and Bute Electoral arrangements that the status quo in terms of member numbers and ward boundaries can and should be maintained.

Moved by Councillor Walsh, seconded by Councillor E Morton.

Councillors Freeman and McNaughton left the Meeting at this point.

The requisite number of Members required the vote to be taken by calling the roll and Members voted as follows:-

Motion

Councillor Mike Breslin

Councillor Vivien Dance

Councillor Bruce Marshall

Amendment

Councillor John Armour

Councillor Gordon Blair

Councillor Rory Colville

Councillor Maurice Corry

Councillor Robin Currie

Councillor Mary-Jean Devon

Councillor George Freeman

Councillor Anne Horn

Councillor Donald Kelly

Councillor David Kinniburgh

Councillor Roddy McCuish

Councillor Alistair MacDougall

Councillor Duncan MacIntyre

Councillor Neil MacIntyre

Councillor Robert E Macintyre

Councillor Robert G MacIntyre

Councillor Donald MacMillan

Councillor Jimmy McQueen

Councillor Aileen Morton

Councillor Ellen Morton

Councillor Gary Mulvaney

Councillor James Robb

Councillor Elaine Robertson

Councillor Len Scoullar

Councillor Isobel Strong

Councillor Sandy Taylor

Councillor Richard Trail

Councillor Dick Walsh

Decision

The Amendment was carried by 28 votes to 3 and became the finding of the Council.

How Argyll & Bute Works: The Budget Secrecy

I have written several times before about the group that Cllr Walsh created to consider what could be the largest ever cuts to council services. I understand at the moment that we’re looking at losing about £9m from the budget in each of the next 2 years.

The group Cllr Walsh formed is called a project board. The budget cuts process is called Service Choices. There are 8 administration councillors on this project board including Walsh as chair. There are also 4 SNP Group members on the project board. I have been assured that such a group is legitimate BUT:

  • It does not have to follow council standing orders, ie it operates outwith the council’s normal rules.
  • The papers are only sent to the 12 councillors on the project board and the rest of us never see them.
  • There are no minutes taken as far as I know but if there are then these are not published.
  • There is an agreement among the 12 that anything said in their meetings is not circulated any wider. (Other councillors don’t even know the dates the group meets!)

The best we get are seminars with little by way of detail on what is proposed. As I have said before, there is a need for some confidentiality around this because every budget cut option has potential job implications and in some smaller departments it may be possible to identify people who could lose their jobs. Nonetheless, there is no need at all for the overly secretive manner in which this group operates.

I have had it confirmed by the council’s monitoring officer that this group is not a committee or sub-committee of the council. His exact words are shown below. Despite this, councillors attending these meetings can claim travel and subsistence costs even though it’s not a council committee. I find this bizarre.

Update late on 28 September. It might be worth reading an earlier post of mine to see how an alternative budget might look. Have a look at this from late May this year.

Finally in respect of your point about the Project Board, I would confirm that the Project Board is not a committee or sub-committee of the Council. 

How Argyll & Bute Works: New Political Group

The official opposition to Cllr Walsh and his group is the SNP Group. There are 4 other councillors who are not in Cllr Walsh’s administration: myself, Vivien Dance, Bruce Marshall and Neil McIntyre. There has been no approach to any of the 4 from the SNP as far as I am aware but there have been approaches to the SNP Group. However, nothing has as yet happened that would form a wider opposition to the secretive Cllr Walsh.

A week ago on Friday Vivien, Bruce and myself agreed to form what we have called the Reform Group. We have also formed a wider Reform Alliance. The alliance is there to allow councillors who broadly subscribe to our aims to remain in the group he or she is in as well as being a member of the alliance. Councillors are not allowed to be in more than one group at a time, hence the need for an alliance.

The aims of our Reform Group are shown below. I will update you on the shenanigans at yesterday’s council meeting on Monday.

The Reform Group has one key aim: To initiate a thorough reform of Argyll & Bute Council to ensure it works for, and is answerable to, the people of Argyll & Bute.

The group recognises that it needs to attract as much support as possible from elected members and it has also created a Reform Alliance which has the same key aim. The Alliance will work to achieve this aim by:

  • Moving decision making to local areas to the maximum possible extent.
  • Ensuring that councillors are accountable to their communities for decisions made.
  • Maximising the skills and abilities of councillors of all views provided they wish to contribute to reform.
  • Listening and responding to the views of local communities.
  • Minimising bureaucracy to bring democracy back to people in a simple and straightforward manner.

The Alliance:

  • Is open to any elected member, including members of political parties, provided there is a broad commitment to reform.
  • Will seek to get agreement in as consensual manner as possible. Disagreement on issues will be respected and not shunned.
  • Will ensure that all issues that affect the citizens of Argyll & Bute are dealt with as openly and fairly as possible. The use of exempt items for council business will only be used when absolutely essential.
  • Will be swift and open in dealing with complaints, be willing to accept fault where fault is found and it will learn from any complaints made.

How Argyll & Bute Works: Complain about somebody and the same person handles your complaint!

As readers of previous posts will know, Alan Stewart of South Cowal Community Development Company (SCCDC) submitted a complaint about 3 senior council officers over the way they handled the community buyout of Castle Toward. This was submitted on 1 September.

The complaint can be found here and it is well worth a read: Castle Toward Complaint reduced size

You will see from the complaint that Alan made it clear he wanted it to be handled externally because the complaint was against the 3 most senior officers in the council. This was a wholly justifiable position to take and I think most people would agree that the last people who should go near your complaint are the people you are complaining about. However, that is not the way things work in Argyll & Bute. Alan got a reply today from the council’s chief executive and this is reproduced in full below.

The timing of the reply is curious though because when we found out that it was being handled internally, Cllr Bruce Marshall and I submitted an urgent motion for tomorrow’s council meeting asking for the complaint to be handled externally. I got confirmation yesterday that the motion will go to the council meeting tomorrow and then this morning Alan gets a reply. Funny that, but it almost certainly means they can now refuse to consider our motion on the grounds the complaint has been considered and rejected. The motion Bruce and I submitted can be read here: motion re SCCDC complaint

Alan will now complain to the Ombudsman, exposing Argyll & Bute to potential criticism. He has also asked the chief executive for sight of the legal advice she has taken and what the questions were to those external legal advisers. This is referred to in her response to Alan, details immediately below.

Do you think it’s right that if you complain about someone that the same person can deal with your complaint?

—–Original Message—– From: Loudon, Sally <Sally.Loudon@argyll-bute.gov.uk> To: ‘Alan Stewart’ <brackleystewarts@aol.com> Sent: Wed, 23 Sep 2015 9:46 Subject: Castle Toward – Stage 2 Complaint – 101000348194 [OFFICIAL]

Classification: OFFICIAL

Dear Mr Stewart

I refer to your email of 1 September 2015 against myself, and two other senior officers of the Council which has been treated as a stage 2 complaint in terms of the Council’s corporate complaints procedure.

I have noted your position that I, being a subject of the complaint, could not carry out the investigation. I have received external legal advice which confirms that it is appropriate for me to investigate and respond to your complaint.

You have summarised your complaint as having three parts, and I have responded to each of them as detailed below.

     1.  Information was used in a highly selective and misleading manner by two senior officers of the Council. 

The external legal advice I have taken has included consideration of this issue and has found no evidence to support your contentions. 

In conclusion, I have to confirm based on my consideration of all the information available to me, I do not uphold this part of your complaint.

  1. The retrospective by the Chair of the Council’s Performance, Review and Scrutiny Committee adds weight to your complaint.

This is more of an assertion regarding a conclusion you have drawn from the Chair’s retrospective than it is a complaint. I do not agree with the conclusion you have drawn, and note that on the day of the meeting on 27th August 2015, the Chair of the PRS committee confirmed his view that Members were given correct advice by Officers.  I further note, for completeness, that the Committee, on that date, agreed to formalise a document which will bring together their findings and any recommendations, which will be considered at their next meeting in November. 

I therefore do not uphold this part of your complaint.

  1. Both senior Officers misled SCCDC and induced them to withdraw their appeal to the Lands Tribunal

The external legal advice I have received considered this issue and found that there is no conclusive evidence that SCCDC were misled and induced into withdrawing their appeal.

It is clear from the correspondence that neither of the two Officers had the authority to make such an offer to SCCDC and SCCDC’s representatives were aware that the decision as to whether a discount on the valuation should be allowed was a decision for the Council Members to make. I therefore do not uphold this part of your complaint.

Finally, I would confirm that in considering the issues you raise, I have had regard to the views of Audit Scotland who refer to Castle Toward, and comment that it remains their view that the Council took reasonable decisions regarding the community buy out proposals. 

If you are not satisfied with this response then you have the right to ask the Scottish Public Service Ombudsman (SPSO) to consider your complaint.

The SPSO is the final stage for complaints about most organisations providing public services in Scotland including Councils and the service is independent, free and confidential. Their contact details are contained in the undernote.

The SPSO cannot normally look at complaints:

  • where the customer has not gone all the way through the council’s complaints handling procedure.
  • more than 12 months after the customer became aware of the matter they want to complain about.
  • that have been or are being considered in court.

Regards

Sally Loudon

Chief Executive

Undernote:

SPSO, 4 Melville Street, Edinburgh EH3 7NS

SPSO, Freepost EH641, Edinburgh EH3 0BR

Freephone: 0800 377 7330

Online: www.spso.org.uk/contact-us

Website: www.spso.org.uk

Mobile site: http://m.spso.org.uk

New Castle Toward Campaign by Kerry Nixon

I provided some links here to the articles in last week’s media about the new campaign led by Kerry Nixon.

There is more information on Kerry’s campaign at:

http://www.iheartcastletoward.co.uk/

There is a petition to support this and this can be found at:

https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/work-with-us-argyll-and-bute-council-bring-back-the-youth-of-scotland-to-castle-toward

Support this if you can please.

How Argyll & Bute Works: The shame of Castle Toward

Today the press carries a number of pieces about the disgraceful decision not to sell the property to the local community and, instead, to sell it to a private developer.

I emailed my fellow councillors this morning about this. People locally are still angry at what’s been done; some, in fact, are seething with anger. I spoke to some of these last Saturday and I can well understand their anger. Cllr Walsh carries the can for this in my view. Had he, as leader of the council, shown any support for the community buyout it would have happened. You might wish to know that he hasn’t attended a South Cowal Community Council meeting for about a year because he knows he would be with people who all supported the buyout. Bad decisions are one thing but cowardice is worse. He has failed us all.

The other local councillor, Jimmy McQueen, has never attended a community council meeting in his life. He also voted down the community buyout and he has failed us too.

The first link below is from 11 years ago.

http://www.theguardian.com/education/2004/jan/11/schools.uk

But there is a more upbeat element to this with a new campaign launched by Kerry Nixon. It has had huge coverage as can be seen from the 3 links below. Let’s hope this works and thank you Kerry and all your supporters.

 http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/13768366.Stars_fight_to_save_Scottish_castle/

http://www.thenational.scot/news/big-names-from-arts-world-back-new-castle-toward-campaign.7715

Famous names rally to save Castle Toward

How Argyll & Bute Works: more on Castle Toward

The Dunoon Observer has a piece on their website today about the latest on Castle Toward. Their piece can be read at:

http://www.dunoon-observer.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=9484:castle-toward-latest

It’s becoming clearer that the council has a real problem on its hands and it’s wholly their own fault. The manner in which the community buyout was handled was shameful and my own views on this are in previous posts, here and here.

Alan Stewart of SCCDC has today written to all the councillors, His email is reproduced below. Surely some of the councillors will start to see the light of day and stand up for the community…or am I day dreaming?

Much more to follow I think.

Dear councillor

You should all now be aware of the report prepared by the independant chair of the Performance Review and Scrutiny Committee, if not it can be found at item 17 here:http://www.argyll-bute.gov.uk/moderngov/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=460&MId=6747&Ver=4

You will see that he has criticised the way some important information, particularly in relation to the valuations that were carried out, was presented to councillors, and that this presentation painted the buyout in a negative light. I contest that this was potentially done deliberately to make you as councillors feel that the project was not worth supporting. I have attached a copy of a complaint I and several others have lodged with the councils Chief Executive for your information.

What has also been shown as a result of the scrutiny is that council officers, contrary to what they originally stated, did in fact discuss what would be needed for them to make a positive recommendation that a discount be offered, no such recommendation was ever made despite the conditions having been met by SCCDC. This I feel was done to persuade SCCDC to drop an appeal with the Land Tribunal, which would almost certainly have found in our favour, given what we now know of the true value of the estate.

This whole procedure has been extremely damaging for the reputation of Argyll and Bute Council, and will result in no additional financial gain over the offer of £850k made by SCCDC. Almost £180k has been spent in keeping the castle secure since the council withdrew from negotiations with SCCDC and the offer on the table is £1.1m. There is no guarantee that the balance to £1.5 million will ever be paid.

There is though a chance for the council to redeem itself. A decision such as this can be overturned within six months should sufficient councillors request it, or the Provost can agree that there has been a material change in the circumstances. In this case the fact that the council will not receive the £1.75m that council officers told you that the estate was worth, and that an internal investigation has shown that you as elected members were given misleading information over the value of the estate, is more than enough of a material change to warrant revisiting the decision.

As I said, the damage to the reputation of Argyll and Bute council is huge, yet again Government legislation has had to be changed as a direct result of the actions of the council. It is time now to try and repair at least some of the damage. I urge you to take whatever measures are necessary to halt the current sale and to re-open negotiations with the community with a view to transferring ownership. I would also urge that you question the reasons for the lack of accuracy in the information you were given throughout the buyout attempt. There has to be a reason to reject a £10m project with 100 jobs. A project that required no financial input from the council, only that it accepted a realistic price for the estate.

 

Regards

Alan Stewart