How Argyll & Bute Works: The ASN cuts

Cllr Donald Kelly has told the Dunoon Observer that the 40% cuts proposed to the staff delivering an additional support needs service to children were always going to be withdrawn. If he is correct, and I think he is, this is the most cynical abuse of position by Cllr Walsh and his tawdry administration. To propose something as dramatic as this with the intention of looking like the good guy when you withdraw the proposal is appalling.

One of the parents quoted in the paper, Duncan McGillivray, said that this is “…both immoral and disgraceful.” Quite.

The article in the Dunoon Observer can be found here: http://www.dunoon-observer.com/index.php/news/the-news/9693-controversial-cuts-removed-by-Christmas

Perhaps the worst aspect of this is that the ASN cuts are a smokescreen to enable the rest of the cuts to go through quietly once the ASN ones are removed.

There are alternatives and some of them can be found here and here. Meanwhile, there were 2 exempt items on the agenda for the policy and resources committee on Thursday past that I can’t say much about. What I can say is that, together, they have cost this council an eye watering 7 figure sum. There will be a little more on this to follow once I consider what I can and cannot say without breaking the councillors’ code of conduct.

How Argyll & Bute Works: The land swap

Here’s a wee tale about the council that I can’t give you exact details of, ie where, when or who due to the fact the paper was one of Argyll & Bute’s classic exempt items where press and public are excluded. It was discussed at the audit committee meeting mind you so maybe it would be OK to identify the when and where but to keep on the safe side of the tracks, I won’t, for the moment.

I could also not possibly say anything that might be construed as being public criticism of officers but this tale involves one officer who needs significant amounts of praise and he will duly get this.

This story is about a land swap between a private company and the council. It happened in Argyll & Bute in the recent past. The private company owned a bit of land that was out with the master plan area for the town involved. This bit of land was also, most likely, out of the building line and the planning status of the land was dubious.

The council owned a similarly sized bit of land that was within the master plan area and which might best be described as a prime retail site.

There had been discussions between the council and this private company over swapping the 2 pieces of land, something that might well have benefits to both parties. The excellent officer of the council who was involved in this wrote a paper which, 100% correctly, recommended external valuations of both bits of land to ensure there was complete transparency over the value. Such an independent valuation would also allow a deal to be reached with money changing hands if there was any difference in value between the 2 bits of land.

This paper went to Kilmory where senior officers changed the paper to remove any reference to any independent and external valuation. I am reliably told by another councillor that those who changed the paper to omit the need for any independent valuation were “senior officers in legal and estates”. I asked who takes responsibility for these changes and did not get a reply, as usual.

Instead, the paper now stated that officers took the view that both bits of land were roughly of equal value so the land could be swapped with no money changing hands. It is possible, of course, that they were of equal value but the only way to establish the truth would be to get an independent valuation, best obtained from the district valuer.

The paper, as amended, went to the committee concerned. The officer who had written the initial draft said openly at the meeting that he still considered there should be independent valuations carried out. Brave officer for saying so, especially after senior people had already over ruled him on this. Nonetheless, when it went to a vote the forces of darkness voted in favour of the land swap and the forces of common sense voted for an independent valuation. The forces of common sense lost the vote by one vote so the land swap was agreed.

I suggested to one of the councillors who voted against the land swap to contact internal audit about this because there was a very clear recommendation from internal audit and the council’s audit committee that in all land or property transactions there needed to be both valuations of the land or property provided to elected members plus details of the asset value if what we were selling was a recognised council asset. To be frank, such a recommendation should never have been needed because most people would simply expect this information to be available to those making decisions, ie councillors. But this is Argyll & Bute remember so don’t set your sights too high.

The issue was raised in a report by the chief internal auditor at the September audit committee meeting and I made clear my displeasure at officers completely ignoring audit committee recommendations. I subsequently wrote to one of the officers and the other day saw a reply to the effect that the legal  transaction would not be carried out until independent valuations were obtained. This looks like a result but here you never really know.

The bottom line is that in an organisation that is properly governed and managed, none of the above need have been written because none of this would have happened.

The latest in this is just jaw dropping and I hope the District Valuer (DV) gets sight of this blog. I asked again if the DV would be carrying out the valuations and initially did not get a straight answer. I pressed the point and was then told that they would not be using the DV. The words used were:

While I acknowledge that  the DV is often engaged by the Council in instances when independent valuations are required , as the proposed transaction relates  specifically to the retail/ supermarket sector, a firm of valuers with experience in that particular area of the property market will be appointed  for this purpose.

I replied: I do wonder what the DV might think if he was to find out that he is not being used on the grounds he may not have the experience in this sector. My view remains that the DV ought to be used.

So, the DV doesn’t have the experience to do this work. Fascinating, but why?

How Argyll & Bute Works: Budget Cuts

I have written before about the proposals to address the council’s budgetary issues and in particular the fact that alternatives are there if councillors wish to take them. Read here to see what these might be.

On Thursday last week the administration led by Cllr Walsh started to show its first cracks, with the Argyll First group (part of the Walsh administration) putting up an amendment to the budget proposals. The amendment was ruled incompetent on the day and not voted on. It was ruled incompetent because clause 2 wasn’t specific enough. If you wish to read their amendment, it’s at this link: argyll first amendment 22 oct 15

The Argyll First group did not vote at all on the budget vote so nobody knows where they really are on this. Let’s hope they can be won over to an alternative approach.

The SNP Group had been approached by me 2 days before the council meeting to see if they would support our amendment but we assume they didn’t like it because they proposed their own. The first draft of it we said we could not support and on the day they submitted an amended version which is at the link below. The key problem with it from my point of view was that it still recommended putting the current proposals on cuts out to public consultation. I do not think that makes any sense at all because it seems to imply they support the proposals.

SNP Amendment: snp amendment 22 oct 15

The administration motion can be found here: walsh motion 22 oct 15

The Reform Group, myself, Bruce Marshall and Vivien Dance, was reduced to two of us since Bruce was on holiday. Our amendment got 2 votes, our own, but we were quite happy because we believe we were the only 2 to completely reject the cuts package. Our amendment is shown below. Walsh’s proposals will now go out for public consultation since his followers all followed, as usual. Even if those opposed to the cuts had all agreed on something on the day, Walsh still has the numbers to defeat us so any stuff you hear to the contrary is simply untrue. If you bump into Cllrs Walsh, McQueen or McNaughton, you might want to ask them what they think they are doing to their community with these proposals.

Amendment agenda item 6

1 To reject recommendations a, b, and c.

2 To ask the Scottish Government to carry out an independent and urgent evaluation of the council’s financial projections over the next 5 years and also to consider the long standing need for the council to receive special islands needs allowance.

3 To agree that the council as currently structured is wasteful of resources and to agree on the principle of maximum decentralisation of decision making and service delivery.

4 To convene a series of 1 day meetings of all elected members, on at least a weekly basis, from November onwards to examine the budget line by line, with  no budget lines excluded, in order to establish a new range of options for savings. Wherever possible these meetings will be open to press and public.

 

How argyll & Bute Works: The fightback begins

Late yesterday Michael Russell MSP, Mike MacKenzie MSP and Brendan O’Hara MP issued a document that sets out a radical alternative to the cuts proposed by the council. In so doing, they were very critical of the current administration and, in particular, of Cllr Dick Walsh.

They were right to be so critical because Cllr Walsh is a serial failure. They were also right in offering an alternative to the cuts which appear to be aimed at the least well paid council staff and which will affect services for the most vulnerable people.

Their document is available at this link: Council Cuts Briefing Document October 2015

I fully support any alternative to the proposed cuts and there are plenty of them. I have already set out some of my views in previous blogs. Have a look here and at some other posts on the same subject.

For any challenge to Walsh and his nodding head supporters, we need the community to support alternatives, not simply oppose what Walsh proposes. Opposition on its own won’t work so please read this and pass on to try and gather as much support for an alternative as possible.

More soon.

How Argyll & Bute Works: more on the budget

There is no question that the council faces major financial challenges over the next few years. This is caused in the main by Westminster imposed cuts combined with the declining population in Argyll & Bute. To make matters worse, much of the rest of Scotland’s population is increasing and since the distribution of funds to councils is in part based on population, Argyll & Bute is particularly badly hit.

I plan to identify those elements of the proposed cuts which I think are particularly problematic and will do this over the next week to 10 days. On Wednesday 7th I referred to the £3m+ that is shown as an option to be taken from the childcare budget. I want to give a bit more detail on this now.

In this blog, I want to look at the huge cuts to the early years childcare budgets. In the papers for the council’s policy and resources meeting on Thursday 8 October, there is a range of options and the full list can be seen at this link.

Public reports pack Thursday 08-Oct-2015 10.30 Policy and Resources Committee

Taken from this, here are the proposed cuts to the early years budgets over the next few years:

  • Reduce level of support available to the council and providers of Early Learning and Childcare. Total cuts of £1.659m
  • Withdraw 3% annual increase in payments to commissioned providers. Total cuts of £205k
  • Withdraw early years third sector grants and services. Total cuts of £457k
  • Remove early years change fund.  Total cuts of £180k
  • Withdraw services that the council is not required to provide for children under 5. Total cuts of £849k

The total to be taken from this section of the budget over the next few years comes to £3.35m. Having been denied access to the detailed information on the effects of all of the proposals, I am not in a position to say what the consequences are of this so I have asked the officers to tell me. I will publish the reply when I get it.

What I also can’t say is if these cuts will be equally spread, for example will council childcare facilities take the same share of cuts as non council childcare providers?

Be in no doubt, though, that taking over £3m out of the childcare budget will have severe effects. It will almost certainly mean an increase in fees charged to parents by the non council providers and it may lead to a reduction in child care places. I will be in a better place to comment once I heard back from officers.

More soon.

How Argyll & Bute Works: Policy & Resources Committee

There is a meeting of the council’s Policy & Resources Committee tomorrow, Thursday. It will be discussing the papers that were issued last Thursday including the options on cutting services. These papers can be found at the link below.

Public reports pack Thursday 08-Oct-2015 10.30 Policy and Resources Committee

In advance of that I wrote to all councillors this morning but aimed in particular at the P&R committee members. The text of that email is below and the attachment that went with it is at this link: waste, structure and budget

Whether it makes any difference or not is debatable but I feel I have to continue to try. More to follow soon.

From: Breslin, Michael Sent: 07 October 2015 09:37 To: #All Councillors Subject: P&R committee tomorrow

This is mainly for those attending P&R tomorrow but you all need to read this please.

I remain firmly of the view that the starting point for this secretive exercise undertaken by the project board was wrong. The focus should have been on waste and structure and I attach again my paper on this which I sent you initially on 26 May this year. In my view this remains as pertinent as ever, perhaps more so than ever, and it would produce significant savings with service delivery improvements and minimal job losses.

It would not deliver all the savings I grant you but unless you start with the inherent waste in the current structure you’re going in the wrong direction initially. However, even looking at the list of options now in the public domain, some of them are unbelievably short sighted. To take one example, there is an option that would take in excess of £3m out of the early years budget over the next few years. If the focus was on waste within these budget headings, I suspect you would be able to save some money, perhaps a lot, but the cuts proposed do not focus on waste at all. They simple chop the budget and that is shameful.

At a very recent conference where the Minister for Children and Young People was present, she was asked at the Q&A about the severe cuts to early years budgets in Argyll & Bute. Her reply is worth noting. She said that every £1 spent on early years saves £9 in cure later on. I can’t verify the numbers but I accept the basic premise of this argument.

Increasing early years provision was a key part of the Yes campaign in 2014 for a very simple reason. It is a simple and cost effective way of getting more people back into work, ie it assists in the creation of jobs and has economic impact. Reducing early years provision will do the exact opposite.

If the Minister’s numbers are right, we are cutting over £3m that in the long run will cost £27m. Is that really what you want to agree to?

Regards