Update on Argyll & Bute Council

Complaint against me

The Standards Commissioner intends to proceed to a public hearing on the 2nd complaint against me, the details of which I cannot make public. Despite asking for it to be in Dunoon, on the basis that this would attract more public interest, they have decided on Kilmory on 20, 21 and 22 September. They appear to think that our newly refurbished pier buildings are not appropriate for some reason.

Audit Scotland

I got a reply from Audit Scotland on the area committee losing powers, the losses of the employability team and the losses at Dunoon Pier, saying the following:

  • We will be following up the December BV report in this year’s Annual Audit Report, which is reported to me at the end of September. This will cover some of the issues around the role of area committees.
  • We are aware of the report the council considered in June on the employability contract. Again, the team will be considering this in the annual audit report in September
  • We are aware of the issues to do with pier operations. We will pick this up as part of our planning for the 2016/17 audit of Argyll and Bute Council.

 

Castle Toward

Alan Stewart commented on my post about the losses being incurred at Dunoon Pier and, quite rightly, assumed that the daily costs of keeping Castle Toward empty could be added to this. See here.

I decided to ask what the council’s own calculations on costs were to ensure that what people were saying in public was justified. In particular, I wondered if the average daily costs might have come down due to some non-recurring costs at the start being evened out over a longer period. However, the reply has been marked as commercially sensitive so I am not allowed to tell you. I have challenged this so perhaps there will be a change of heart.

Lodge House, Castle Gardens

The eyesore of the Lodge House is still there so everyone coming off the wee ferry has sight of it. I have been asking for some time for an update on the costs. The last I got was on Friday past in reply to my 3rd email on the subject. Officers have managed to avoid to avoid telling me what the current estimated costs are, would you believe. I have asked for a 4th time today. I think it’s extraordinary that costs you pay for are kept from you but I’ll keep pressing as I think the public has a right to know, especially on this eyesore we have all had to endure for years.

More to follow next week.

 

More for Audit Scotland

In my last post I told you about what was, in effect, the council sticking two fingers up at Audit Scotland by removing more powers from the area committees. Last year they started that process by taking the responsibility for piers and harbours away from area committees. There are some advantages in having a single committee dealing with ports and harbours but these are hugely outweighed by the lack of local knowledge and control.

I wrote about Dunoon Pier and Harbour in January 2016, here. With the very recent announcement that the tender for replacement vessels will specify vessels of 40m in length, there is a clear opportunity for an unsubsidised vehicle service to operate with a subsidised passenger service because vessels of this length are too big for passengers alone. The need for 40m in length is to greatly improve reliability as this length is needed to meet poor sea conditions safely.

Read January’s piece first to give you the background, here.

Late last week I felt we had to try again to review the current harbour charges at Dunoon. I am advised by people who know that we need to treat each harbour as a separate market and that means having clear and transparent income and expenditure figures and setting charges that are fair to users while producing a reasonable profit to the operator of the harbour. There needs to be provision in the costings to replace the facility when that is needed, eg a new linkspan or whatever.

I was in touch with the members of the ferry action group over last weekend and proposed a motion to go to the August area committee. The original motion is available at this link: Motion for Area Committee Meeting Aug 16

Because the duties of being a harbour authority were removed from the area committee I expected some issues over its competence. These were duly raised by officers and last night I sent a re-worded version that is more likely to be competent but less likely to see a direct result. All I can do is urge Messrs Walsh and Morton to set up a review rather than a motion that directly sets up a review. If they ignore it, like they did in December last year, there is little that can be done.

If they do ignore it, they will also be ignoring the fact that we now know the Dunoon Linkspan operation for the current woeful ferry service costs council tax payers some £6,576 per week, yes, per week. Instead of making a reasonable profit, it makes a huge loss. But Dick Walsh seems to think this is OK while the grass isn’t cut, school librarians are sacked, bins are emptied every 3 weeks, clerical staff are made redundant etc etc.

As a result, I wrote again last night to Audit Scotland telling them how lacking in power area committees were despite them urging otherwise as in my last post, here.

It would be easy to despair.

Council blatantly ignores Audit Scotland

At last week’s meeting of Dunoon Community Council I made mention of the decision at the June council meeting that took further powers away from the area committees. This step towards further centralisation and loss of democratic control was, for me, directly against much of what Audit Scotland said in their December 15 report on the council.

Area committees will no longer agree to the sale of council properties other than when being sold for less than valuation. Area committees will no longer handle any proposals to alter or stop up core paths. Officers will now do this with no democratic input at all.

I was asked at the meeting if I would write to Audit Scotland and I rather wearily agreed because nothing seems to make any difference. The key points from my letter are pasted below. It was sent to Fraser McKinlay, Controller of Audit, with a copy to Michael Russell MSP.

 

I explained to them (community council) on Monday evening this week that further powers were taken away from the local area committees at the June council meeting. The paper in question can be found at:

https://www.argyll-bute.gov.uk/moderngov/documents/s110889/constitutionreport3.pdf

 

 Please see recommendations 1.3 and 1.4 but you might also note 1.2 which will formalise what I consider to be poor practice.

 During the meeting I quoted from your December report on the council because Audit Scotland had made some very good points in that report. I used the following:

It can further improve how it involves local people by building on the local area committees and local community planning arrangements.

Following the Commission’s criticisms in 2013, the council agreed its current political management arrangements in January 2014. The principal changes were to introduce three new strategic committees: a Policy and Resources Committee, a Community Services Committee and an Environment, Development and Infrastructure Committee. Those arrangements included an increased remit for the council’s existing four area committees. In July 2014, we reported that the changes provided a foundation for improved governance, but that it was too early to assess their impact.

The council’s four area committees offer the potential to build good relationships with local communities and contribute to the council meeting its responsibilities under the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015.

Area committees can play an important role in building better relationships with communities, delivering local plans and priorities, and empowering people to do things for themselves. They can do this by working more effectively with local community planning groups to deliver on local strategies. In order to do so, the council needs to develop the committees further. While councillors are supportive of the need for area committees, almost half feel they are not effective. Reasons given for this include: area committees not controlling budgets; decisions about using resources – such as money and equipment – requiring approval by central strategic committees; and perceived conflict between the decisions taken at area committees and the strategic committees.

 

In my view, what was agreed in June is the exact opposite of what Audit Scotland recommended. Power has been taken away from the area committees and, I suspect, it’s only a matter of time before there is an attempt to close them down completely.

The argument put in favour of 1.3 and 1.4 was that it would make the council more responsive and decisions on property sales could be made quicker. That might hold water if it was true, but it’s not. I could give you dozens of examples of appalling waste of property assets (not least Castle Toward which has cost over £500k since it became empty) but there is one striking one in my own ward, the former Innellan Primary School.

I had arranged a transfer of the nursery that used the former school into the current Innellan Primary. The deal in principle was reached in February 2013. As of today, the former school has not even been declared surplus never mind put on the market. So much for being fleet of foot.

Regards

 

 

First post in a long while

I apologise for having been very quiet in recent months. Much time has been spent fighting the complaint made against me by 4 senior council officers.

I know that council officers monitor this blog so the last thing I want to do is give anyone the slightest excuse to submit another complaint.

I am still unable to give you any details on the current complaint other than it will probably go to a public hearing in mid September. At that time, I may be able to give you more details and, I suspect, you will be astonished at what’s going on.

What has happened to me should be a warning to any person thinking about standing for election in next year’s local authority elections. If you stand up for the people who elected you; if you take up causes that you believe to be just; if you are persistent in trying to resolve matters and if you act to try and improve an out of touch council, then there is a good chance you will have a complaint made against you.

That’s how poor democracy is at a local level is in Scotland. The odds are stacked against the citizens of our country and things have to change. The public hearing might just be the start of that change.