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The truths they don't want you to read....

Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year predictions

After some off-line prodding/provoking by a regular correspondent, I have decided to don my psychic hat and put down some hostages to fortune. They range across all matters of interest to me, from national to parochial, but have one thing in common....if I am wrong, you won't stop reminding me.

Here goes.
  1. The General Election will be on 25 March
  2. The Tories will win (this is an easy one!) with between 300-350 seats
  3. If they don't have an overall majority (323 seats) they will not form a formal coalition with the LibDems, but will work as a minority Government
  4. Labour will do better than the polls predict
  5. The SNP will win 8-14 seats at the General Election (if pressed, I'd estimate 11)
  6. The Western Isles will not be held by the SNP
  7. Alex Salmond will announce that he will stand down as SNP leader after the Holyrood elections in 2011 (arise, Lord Salmond???)
  8. Tesco will announce their plan for a much larger new, additional, superstore in Stornoway
  9. The Lewis Sports Centre won't open on Sundays - but will in 2011
  10. The Council will be seriously reprimanded for their mishandling of certain commercial matters, and the public will be shocked when the facts are in the public domain :-)
Best wishes to you all for 2010, and I hope to entertain as much as I infuriate during the coming 12 months.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Flights to Barra under threat?

Loganair landing in Barra
The Times are reporting that Loganair may not bid for the next round of route franchises as the cost of keeping the Twin Otters maintained and in the air is proving to be too high.

With replacements for the Twin Otter being built by Viking Air but unlikely to be available before 2015, the prospects look bleak unless a different approach is taken.

The ball is firmly back in the court of the Scottish Government to develop a new tendering structure if they want to see the service continue, and with the Chair of the Transportation Committee being a Barra resident, I expect the Council to make their position clear and forthright next month.

Without doubt this issue will also be an important factor at the coming election, and something I will return to over the next year.

Council gritting policy

As the snow falls once again, bathing the town in a deadly sheet of snow-covered ice, I look from our house window gazing across the beautiful scene.

It surely can't be long now until the gritters make their way out and about and spread the precious load of rock-salt across the roads, car parks, pavements and collapsed pedestrians that give the town a post-apocalyptic, rather than post-Christmas, look.

The Road in Stornoway, Isle of LewisStornoway town centre this morning

Last week they made their appearance in town in the late afternoon, with the grit being carried from the back of a lorry with shovels to be cast onto pavements.

However, one service was running absolutely as normal.

At 7:45am on Sunday the road sweeper made its way through town to make sure the roads were clean beneath the snow before Church started.

Good priority choices.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

A rotten burgh?

With an electorate of about 21,500 at the coming election the two main parties will each spend close to the maximum they are allowed by law. Or possibly just a tiny fraction more, if they think they can get away with it.

The maximum allowed, per constituency, is current just over £7,000, meaning that the SNP and Labour will spend about £14,000 and share 80% of the vote, with the other parties spending perhaps another £6,000 between them. So a total spend of £20,000.

Except that there is an exception to this general rule. Any political party can spend a total of £30,000 per constituency contested, on the wider -national - PR campaign.

It is with a huge degree of discomfort, nay disgust, that I see that the Scottish Christian Party are entering into the battle for the Western Isles constituency, and are using their full allowance of £30,000 in the one seat.

It may be within the law, but it is certainly not what was intended; to effectively allow one campaign to try to buy the seat by outspending the total of all the other parties by 50%.

That the SCP appear to be planning not on victory, but simply to unseat the SNP for being responsible for the introduction of Sunday ferries to Lewis, may to a very small extent change the perception from vainglorious self-aggrandisement by the Rev Hargreaves, to a deliberate "Anyone but the incumbent" campaign; and may give it some veneer of respectability, but it still leaves me with a distinctly unpleasant taste in my mouth.

Even allowing for paying for the open primary - election advertising in all but name - the lucky candidate will be spending more on general advertising in each of the months after their nomination than the main parties will spend in the whole campaign.

With the wider Christian community lining up behind the good Rev's plan, the successful outcome for the SCP is almost certain and I forecast that the SNP majority of 1,441 will be overturned and, subject only to a half-decent candidate for the SCP, a SNP loss is a virtual certainty, as the SCP will get 10-15% of the vote, just by virtue of their spending power.

One final thought for those who plan to participate in the open primary, or be active for the SCP, which comes from Proverbs 22:7, and seems entirely appropriate to the role of Rev Hargreaves:

"The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender."

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Fuel cards

So whatever happened to the great launch of fuel cards in the islands, due last Friday?

It was cancelled, as none of the petrol stations would accept the cards.

Which is where the headline on a Comhairle press release
Council complains over fuel monopoly
would be funny if it weren't quite so sad, with the Council Leader owning one of the big three petrol stations in Stornoway.

The last investigation by the OFT cost the local petrol stations a huge sum of money and delivered nothing, except enormous reports showing that they were making a 'reasonable' return. But if they start throwing around 'monopoly' accusations, whilst simultaneously being perceived to be acting in concert over the fuel cards, then they risk reopening the (wrong) debate again.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Loose screws

The following email exchange made its way into my hands (some details obscured)....

From: Architect
 Sent: Thu 17/12/2009 12:15 PM
To: CNES - Staff Sandwick Road
Cc: CNES - Members

Subject: Essential Work CnES HQ, Sandwick Road, Ground Floor East Wing
To all staff,


Due to essential works and Health & Safety issues the ground floor East Wing inner door to the stairwell door (old payroll dept.) will be out of bounds for 6 weeks. The Fire Escape route through this wing from the main foyer will no longer be in use during the works, this work does not affect the East Wing emergency escape stairwell which will remain in operation. Please see below for plan of affected areas.

I will send another email around informing everyone when the works have been complete.

Should anybody have any issues they would like to raise or needs to gain access to this area please get in touch with me.

---

From: Cllr. 
Sent: 17 December 2009 15:43
To:
Architect; CNES - Staff Sandwick Road
Cc: CNES - Members;  

Subject: RE: Essential Work CnES HQ, Sandwick Road, Ground Floor East Wing

Any chance of having someone look at the door to the members lounge/dining room. This door is unstable and has been for ages.

---


From: Architect
Sent: Thu 17/12/2009 16:52
To: Cllr. 

Cc: Management Team;  CNES - Members
Subject: RE: Essential Work CnES HQ, Sandwick Road, Ground Floor East Wing


Mr.
 
I have spoken with the repairs and maintenance team and they inform me that new door hinges are on order. Hopefully this will solve the problem but if not we will look at this when the Members Lounge is renovated next 
year.

---


From: Management Team
Sent: Mon 21/12/2009 07:52
To:
CNES - Members
Cc: Subject: RE: Essential Work CnES HQ, Sandwick Road, Ground Floor East Wing


Cllrs,

After detailed investigation we have discovered that it is not the doors that are unhinged or that the loose screws are in the door frame.

To protect the public, will all members please meet in the Members Lounge on Monday when they will be re-hinged and their loose screws will be fixed; in as many cases as this is possible.

Dignitas will be on hand for those who cannot be sorted in this fashion.

Thereafter the doors will be sealed to prevent contagion to the general public, and members will be released in early January.

2011.

---

OK the last one was made up, mostly, ....

Lockerbie bomber wins the lottery

The Times report that Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrah had £1.8m in a Swiss bank account when he was arrested.

The defence positions were either:
  • He was holding the money to pay bribes to third parties
  • He was holding the money to buy goods with cash to breach the embargo
  • He was part of the inner circle, all of whom were very wealthy by virtue of being part of the inner circle
Any of which make his claim that he was a minor employee of the Libyan Airways much less plausible.

All of which places the decision to release him more into the 'naive' camp and further from the 'humanitarian' camp.

Only time might tell....

Universality of Cheese

As the Brie hits the ventilation system I must confess my own very minor involvement in the whole debacle.

Back in the day when the SNP were more concerned with believing in the cause rather than absolute unquestioning devotion to the latest Blackberry instruction of the day, I was contacted by Mike Russell to get involved in a pro-SNP blogging ring.

I was to be part of the 'group' as an 'influential' (sic) blogger and I was to be contacted again as part of the blogging network he was setting up.

Perhaps I was not pliant enough, but I never heard from Mike again.

All of which explains why I blog in my own name and not under a nom de guerre plume.

Council Sunday policy dismantled

It is good to see that the Council's Sunday policy is applied consistently. And I am not referring to the Sports Centres in Uist and Barra being open today, whilst that in Lewis is closed with the Free Church manning the barricades.

Remember what the position was on Sunday ferries?
This was an open and wide ranging meeting in which both Cal-Mac and the Comhairle outlined their respective positions. We clearly stated that the Comhairle remains opposed to the introduction of Sunday sailings for Lewis and Harris because of the traditions and customs of those areas. CalMac gave a commitment that further discussions will take place with other interested parties and with the Comhairle.
Traditions and customs?

Today, Sunday, surveyors employed by the Comhairle are surveying the Bayhead basin for the proposed infill to build a new car park (?) office accommodation (?) or - wild rumour has it - a seven day pole-dancing brothel night club facility.

Work of necessity or mercy? As the Lewis and Harris policy would have it; except for Sunday street cleaning for the Church attendees; except for opening schools and the Town Hall for Church services; and except for certain employees working some Sundays in the Sandwick Road offices when no-one is watching.

Explain this policy to me again. Only with logical arguments, this time.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Marketing the Uist rocket range

The Council have apparently received a letter from Quentin Davies, Defence Minister, former Tory MP, and owner of the bell tower that expenses really weren't claimed for, promising that next year will see the launching of a campaign to market the Rocket Range to potential customers.

More significantly, he has asked his officials to assist with planning for diversifying the economy of the islands to reduce the dependence upon the range facility.

The over-dependence - reliance - was of course, something that the late Donnie Stewart MP often warned about.

This move is to be warmly welcomed, and should be supported, but fully in the knowledge that it is a double-edged sword.

If the range - in the words of Mr Davies - is too economically intertwined with the local economy to be closed, then by diversifying and growing the economy then the option for closure returns.

But let's not look a gift horse in the mouth, as long as we can avoid its bite.

Abolition of cheques

So the long forecast demise of cheques will now happen in 2018. Probably.

It is clear that private consumers are expected to move to the use of cards and other similar methods over the next number of years. Whilst that may be fine for the vast majority, there are still many, many people who do not want or cannot get a debit card.

They will either have to stick to cash; the banks will have to devise new payment methods; or third party providers are going to have to find solutions.

For smaller businesses the situation is potentially much more serious, as we receive the vast majority of payments (by number) by cheque.

How are smaller businesses going to cope with making and receiving payments?

In the expectation of the change, we have been working hard over the past 18 months to develop alternatives for small and medium-sized business, and this concluded the very expensive process with us becoming a BACS Approved Bureau just recently.

There are only 20 or so Scottish based bureau, and we are now able to help our clients by making payments direct out of their bank accounts to suppliers and employees. We will shortly be able to provide debit facilities too, allowing suppliers to collect money due to them from customers.

There is no doubt that this is going to be a growth area over the next few years, and we already process over £20m annually in payments for clients across the UK.

Here endeth the advert.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The secret fibre optic cabling

Wouldn't it be great to have fibre optic cabling running through the islands so we could all get really high speed broadband and all other associated services.

We already have it.

That is 'we' in the sense of 'not us'.

According to the Gazette, Transportation Committee last week were told that:
BT have a fibre optic cable located in the verge of the existing causeway and wish the Comhairle to duct this cable through the area of new works.
There are (were?) similar cables running to Stornoway Airport and hence on to Faslane which were put in place perhaps 10-15 years ago.

Of course, they are all military based, but instead of running civilian and public services along side, they don't officially exist.

Instead of thinking that broadband in the Western Isles could be revolutionised by piggybacking on the moving of the existing, once top secret, cables and delivering lightening speeds across Uist, we have the unedifying spectacle of a bitching session about the cost of moving a public asset so that the public can't get near it.

I am sure there are many people out there with more knowledge, but I am told that the network runs to Rangehead in the South and Clettraval in the North, and between Stornoway Airport and to at least one other 'civilian' location near Stornoway.

Further information is very welcome....

Fuel Duty rates

No-one can argue that fuel prices are very high at present - although some may argue that for environmental reasons they need to be higher - and the issue of fuel duty rates rears its ugly head again.

The argument from our MP runs like this...
The soaring prices we are seeing at the pumps now are just a glimpse of what is to come next year. In addition to rising inflation, 2010 will see increased VAT and the UK Government's absurd fuel duty escalator which will push prices through the roof [...]

We need the full fiscal powers of a normal, independent nation so we can set fair taxes that do not penalise rural motorists.
Fuel duty is about 70% of the price of every litre, and yields an additional £260m for every 1% higher. Scotland's share is therefore, in round terms, £25m for every 1% change in in fuel price.

Now the maths get more complex. And here I use round numbers for ease of arithmetic.

Price of fuel: £1.20/litre
Duty and VAT: 84p (70%)
The petrol: 36p (30%)

A reasonable price for fuel is exactly what Mr MacNeil? You have never answered this question or even given the slightest indication of the proximity of the balance position or the fuel duty regualtor, but you started issuing press vague but vituperative releases when petrol was over £1/litre, implying that 90p/litre might be somewhere in the right region.

Ok, lets redo the maths:

Price of fuel: 90p/litre
The petrol (unchanged): 36p (40%)
Duty and VAT: 54p (60%)

That 10% change in duty implies a fiscal cost of £250m each and every year.

Which could be funded by cutting student grants in half, or by removing all the support for ferry, rail, air and other transport directorate services.

I am sure that Mr MacNeil has thought this through and can tell us exactly where this money can be found, in a way that won't be painful for any sections of the community. Or not.

(I do know where it could be found, but I'd love to hear his explanation)

Monday, December 14, 2009

As one door closes....

One good thing about free enterprise is that where one company may see nothing but a cost, another is always ready to see an opportunity.

Keyfuels are ready to step in and fill the gap left by the withdrawal of BP Fuel Cards, and they plan to launch on Friday.

Even taking their press release with a pinch of salt, it appears that there are simple business reasons behind the withdrawal of the BP card and the decision by Keyfuels to step in.

I'm applying for a card tonight, and will let you know how I got on.

Update 5 minutes later: There are no service stations on the islands that take the cards at the moment, which might be what the launch is all about!

Housing stock transfer

Now remind me again, just what benefits Housing Stock Transfer has brought to the islands....

At least £1m in consultants fees, 7 years of political wrangling and the off-loading of the housing debt from the Council to the Government, and where are we exactly?

Houses not being built....
The Council filling the funding gap....
Financial crisis....

Oh yes, and very limited political say by the Councillors over the whole process. What a wonderful success it has been.

The ideological decision by Labour to drive Stock Transfer through has been the root cause of the problem and with budgets tightening there are only going to be temporary solutions to the underlying problem.

And all the time, the construction sector struggles more and more.

Fat Cat salaries

So the top public sector earners are facing a 5% cut in their salaries.

As pay cuts cannot be imposed by the employer, this is nothing more than ignorant grandstanding.

It may be possible to insist that new incoming post-holders will start on the 5% lower salary, but the time that this will take for any meaningful savings to be generated is immense; but the LibDems have already planned to spend the non-existent windfall on the lowest paid.

Of course, the SNP might just be leading the LibDems into a political trap to get the Budget through, but if they are, then we are simply going to see public sector wages increase overall, rather than being rebalanced, and will actually make the economic situation worse.

What is required is a complete review of the very fat packages awarded to some of the top public sector employees - big salary, guaranteed and generous pensions, and being virtually unsackable - whilst consultants are hired left, right and centre to advise the appointee how to do their job, and what decisions to take.

"Bonfire of the quangos" anyone?

Berneray - a jewel of the Gulf of Thailand

It's amazing what pops up on Google Alerts, but my attention has been drawn to a blog about the Koh Chang peninsula in Thailand.

It looks like the Thai Tourist Board are using a picture of the west beach in Berneray to advertise the attractions of the Thai islands.

Clear blue seas, empty beaches and welcoming locals; I can definitely see the similarities.

I took this photo of another local beach over the weekend, and the tourist board are free to use it to advertise the wonders of these islands.

Coll Beach

Friday, December 11, 2009

Grrr, I'm a Tiger baby

A copy of the English injunction is here, the last page being the most important and interesting, especially given that he hasn't sought an injunction anywhere else in the world.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The fable of Noah

It looks like the fable of Noah has been explained and debunked by science as this schema of the Mediterannean basin being broached at the Gates of Hercules (Gibraltar) explains.



Ah, the majestic power of science over magical belief....

Jim "Two bathrooms" Devine

So the Livingston MP has claimed for a new bathroom twice in one year.

Firstly when the flat was redecorated and secondly when the room was flooded and needed redecoration.

Seems reasonable you might think.

Pardon me, but where's the contents insurance cover for the flat?

With no possibility of loss - as Parliament will reimburse all the costs - are MPs failing to take out insurance cover or, Heaven forbid, are they claiming on the insurance too?

Expenses scandal gets worse

It appears that Transport Minister Stewart Stevenson is the focus of a renewed Parliamentary expenses scandal, when it was revealed today that he used his bus pass for free travel to Ministerial visits.

The other MSPs are scandalised that an opportunity to claim expenses was avoided and that their constituents might look at the lead being given by Mr Stevenson and expect them to follow suit by not wasting public money.

One MSP said, "I have already reduced my expenditure on Gaelic hair gel to under £1,000 per month by using Gordon Diesel's special offers."

One Scottish MP said, "I would never think of using public transport between my flat and the Union Jack Club, if there was some way to claim the taxi on expenses. Anyway, the Fees Office are there to complete my forms and sort it all out, and take responsibility if I they get it wrong."

How to deal with 'staff'

With the latest expenses claims for MPs now being available on the web, I took a look at those claimed by our esteemed MP.

There is barely a claim that has been properly completed or for which all the supporting documentation is in place, and the vast majority have had some amount (often quite large) disallowed.  The sheer shoddiness of the claims is appalling, and they clearly have been cast into the Claims Office for the minions to sort out.

Let's not mention the threats of legal action for non-payment of bills.

The best bit, however, is the very final document, which is an email exchange between MacNeil and the Fees Office.  It perhaps epitomises everything that is wrong with the current system, and just how the whole system went so badly wrong.

A rude and bullying email by our MP justifying why he doesn't bother to put his claims in by the deadlines (and why should he, he implies) is met with an obsequious crawling response from the officials, who duly interpret the rules in a more flexible manner.

It really is a shame that MacNeil has to bother himself to actually produce receipts to justify buying £158.50 of nice new bed linen from John Lewis, to replace the nice new bed linen previously claimed.  A king-size duvet cover at £58.50;  mmmm, nice.

I wish I had a job that paid those sorts of expenses......

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Dysfunctional organisations

When the bosses lay down the rules for all their employees, but don't bother to adhere to those rules themselves, then you know that the public-sector organisation is highly dysfunctional.

That these rules were supposed to be enforced to make sure the organisation operated properly and had functioning internal controls, and were flagrantly ignored is a disgrace.

More to follow in the next few weeks, when I can go public with the detail.

"Expert" team

You just can't make it up, can you....
Bosses from some of Scotland's main energy companies are to advise the Scottish government on achieving its climate change targets.
The experts include:
  • Ian Marchant (Chair), Scottish and Southern Energy
  • Nick Horler, ScottishPower
  • Gordon Grant, Ineos (Grangemouth oil refinery)
  • Nicola Shaw, FirstGroup
  • Brian Souter, Stagecoach
This new group brings together a wide range of expertise to examine in detail the actions needed across Scotland to meet our ambitious climate change targets.
Yes, but, with the Chair having such heavy vested interests in certain courses of action, is the credibility of the Group (Committee? Panel?) not already compromised.

As Alex Salmond says:
There should be no doubt climate change is the greatest environmental threat we face.
Can't argue too much with that, but that surely calls for decisive and urgent action, by the Government, and not the creation of another talking shop to confirm the vested interests of various industry representatives.

There's no timescale for action; no detail of when and how reports will be made; and no details of their remit. These may come out in time, but the lack of time is the key issue.

Next week, the Corleone family are advising the Government on crime policy.

Crisis - what crisis?

Good news emanates from Sandwick Road, as the budget process grinds its way slowly through the system.

As figures have started to firm up, it appears that the correctly held pessimistic views of the Director of Finance may have overstated the depth of the problem.

I am now told that the forecast deficit is significantly under £500,000 which is well within the levels that are manageable as it represents less than 0.5% of the revenue budget.

If this proves to be accurate, then it is good news indeed, and it will be very interesting to find just from where the extra income (or lower expenditure) originates.

My source suggests that additional support from central Government has appeared for this year, and if this is true then it is a welcome - if temporary - buffer before reality bites. I have previously expressed the view that next years settlement will be highly political, with the Holyrood elections just around the corner, but with the prospects of severe public sector cuts planned by Westminster after the coming General Election, then the planning for the savings has got to start now, so that the Council has a chance to deal with what will be a likely serious cut-back announced in 2010/11 for implementation in 2011/12, or before.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

With friends like this.....

The supposed saviour of the Uist Rocket Range made an announcement today...

Robert Key, Member of Parliament for Salisbury since 1983,
will not seek re-election at the next General Election

So little chance of him influencing the next Defence Select Committee.....

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

An Lanntair

Anon wrote:
Any idea why 6 directors of An Lanntair resigned during November 2009??? Just how bad are the Management Accounts that they are running. And guess who has now been appointed as a director, the illustrious Brian Wilson :-)
Companies House shows:

25/11/2009 APPOINTMENT TERMINATED, DIRECTOR CAROLINE MACLENNAN

25/11/2009 APPOINTMENT TERMINATED, DIRECTOR FINELLA MORRISON

25/11/2009 APPOINTMENT TERMINATED, DIRECTOR CALUM MACDONALD

25/11/2009 APPOINTMENT TERMINATED, DIRECTOR RODERICK MACKAY

11/11/2009 DIRECTOR APPOINTED MR RODERICK MACKAY

11/11/2009 DIRECTOR APPOINTED CALLUM ANGUS MACKAY

11/11/2009 APPOINTMENT TERMINATED, DIRECTOR ERICA MORRISON

11/11/2009 APPOINTMENT TERMINATED, DIRECTOR ALEXANDER TEARSE

11/11/2009 DIRECTOR APPOINTED BRIAN WILSON

29/01/2009 APPOINTMENT TERMINATED DIRECTOR DAVID GREEN

I think that the appointment of Cllr Roddy Mackay on 11/11/09 is actually the backdated appointment from 2007 and I think Angus MacKay (WIHB) was appointed in 2008, but the forms just weren't submitted at that time.

The accounts are due to be lodged by 31 January, but hopefully the Council will seek public (!?!) explanations before pledging yet more finance.

Anyone know who the new directors might be?

The Independence Devolution referendum

The new Culture Minister, Fiona Hyslop, threw the following document out of her pram this morning, before being relieved of the Constitutional remit:

TOP SECRET: THE REFERENDUM QUESTIONS
FROM THE DESK OF THE FIRST MINISTER


After due consultation and debate over the next year, the following are the questions that will appear on the referendum ballot paper.

Complete this ballot paper by ticking only one box, preferably the first. We know where you live.

In order to make Scotland a land of Milk and Honey and not sponged off by the English, where the sun shines constantly and we all live happily and don't need to work, I want the Government in Scotland to be based on:
  • Independence tick here ->
  • Devolution max
  • Devolution medium
  • Devolution mini
  • Devolution micro
  • Devolution maestro
  • Calman
  • Calmac
  • Calmax
  • Calculus
  • Cactus
  • Status Quo
  • Rolling Stones
  • That Robbie Shephard always plays nice tunes
  • Chan eil fhios agam
This ballot paper is available in Urdu, Hindi, Chinese, Polish, Zulu, Lallans, Braille, punch tape, machine code, Martian, Walloon, Pictish, talking dog for the deaf, Venezuelan, as an audio book for the illiterate, Pictish braille, hieroglyphs, ancient Incan, Elvish and Aberdonian.

If you would like a pre-completed form in this or any other language, please contact the independent organisers at SNP HQ.

    Monday, November 30, 2009

    Town Hall refurbishment

    Stornoway Town Hall
    Have a look at the application here, and the detailed plans, and be prepared to be shocked....

    You can also use the on-line site to submit comments. I would strongly suggest that to make these as effective as possible, you do refer to planning matters, rather than just general abhorrence of the scheme.

    The balcony remains, but the seating is to be removed and the floor levelled to create a Gallery and 'Flexible Function Area' (Doc 8).

    The stage goes to create an 'Exhibition Area' with another 'Exhibition Area' under the balcony.

    There is potentially to be a Cafe, although this doesn't appear on the plans and searching the online planning system is less easy than it should be, but I have one serious, major, concern about the whole scheme.....just what are we going to show in this new Exhibition Area?

    I went to An Lanntair over the weekend and it was quiet, deadly quiet, just as it seems to be on the occasional instances that we go there for a drink. With the Council already making very, very, substantial deficit support payments for the facility, are they now going to create a competing space that will also require revenue funding, and a cafe that will compete with the cafe in the library (proprietors Comhairle nan Eilean Siar) as well as all the hard-pressed businessmen in town?

    Or are they just going to approve the alterations and leave us with a building that doesn't deliver the purposes for which it was intended?

    An Lanntair should - and must - make a profit from the commercial activities to put it on a level playing field with private business. It must do that for it's own sake, and to prove to the sceptical taxpayers that it can, before the Council provide another space for Gaelic Mime Artistes or for sculptures made of Mars Bars wrappers and engine parts to undermine a struggling business.

    Or they could reinvent the Town Hall as a public space, for the public of the islands.

    The plans need Listed Building Consent. The absence of public consultation on the most historic and significant public building in the Western Isles should be enough to delay or refuse the application, and allow us a chance for some say in what happens to this fine building.

    No doubt the Stornoway Historical Society will have something to say about these plans, and no doubt the Councillors who are members of SHS will take due attention to what SHS has to say. ( I've lifted the picture off their excellent and informative website.)

    Schools funding debacle continues

    The more I asked around, the less I was able to learn about the surprise decision to provide £3m of funding for a new primary school in Daliburgh.

    Firstly, we should be glad to see that the poor state of the school has been recognised and that some funding has been provided to renew the building. All sums gratefully received.

    But it is the background to this largesse that is the most intriguing and confused aspect of the whole affair.

    As far as I can determine, the Council have (repeatedly) submitted a list of the schools that need rebuilding, together with associated estimated costs, to the Government to try to get a coherent strategy for rebuilding agreed. The decision to award funding to Daliburgh, and Daliburgh alone, came a bit out of the blue and leaves the Council in a real dilemma. The award is being described as 'political' rather than 'educational', with a desire to see as many Councils as possible benefit, rather than the educational issues of each being properly addressed.

    With the consultation on the future of Daliburgh Secondary to be re-established and with the need to review the entire future of Secondary education across the islands, the award is being perceived to be a sign that the decision to close the Secondary has already been taken and that any consultation will be a sham.

    You can understand why some people are thinking that, even though I genuinely don't think that that is the case.

    But the real problem is: just how will the Council fund the other £3m of building costs?

    All capital expenditure is already (over) committed to the new schools project and the budget cuts are going to place further strain on resources. The one option is to use 'prudential borrowing' or HP as the rest of us know it, but that then committs another chunk of the Education Department budget for the subsequent 25 years, allowing even less flexibility.

    The Chair of Education is already talking about adding Daliburgh Primary onto the new schools project, obviously to see if there are some economies of scale that can be achieved. That makes sense from her budget viewpoint, but just means that another big piece of work is being passed off-island when it could be potentially done by some of the local contractors and provide more local work.

    The Council have been placed on the horns of an educational and financial dilemma by the Government, and I'm not sure how they are going to get out of it.

    Sunday, November 29, 2009

    First of many...

    It was absolutely inevitable that an aide to an MSP would be caught smearing opponents.

    It is just as inevitable that Parliamentary computers will be found to have been used for those purposes - in other words that you and I are paying for a 'civil servant' to sit in front of a computer and to misuse these facilities for party ends.

    Mike Russell MSP, the erstwhile employer of said anonymous blogger, commented:

    "There is no place for anonymous, despicable commentary of this sort in politics and the person no longer works for me. It shouldn't happen in any party. I hate the fact that this has happened."

    "I am happy that this is the end of the matter - the person has paid the ultimate price, he no longer works for me."
    I am sure that all MSPs will take the same attitude, and will vote to allow a thorough investigation of the misuse of Parliamentary computers for party ends by their employees. Or indeed by the MSPs themselves.

    I'm happy to hand over the logs that I have showing that Scottish Parliament computers were used to make offensive - and potentially libelous - comments on this blog about a certain Labour politician; and to make others in a deliberate campaign to try to cause problems for me.

    Wednesday, November 25, 2009

    Global financial crisis

    The news that sovereign state is applying for a Creditors Voluntary Arrangement is as predictable as it is shocking.

    Dubai's economy has gone belly-up and it's main investment arm (which is the Government by any other name) has suddenly decided that it can't afford to repay the debts it has incurred.

    It is not about lack of income coming into the organisation, as the oil price is continuing to support the planned investments, but is is everything to do with the inability (or unwillingness) of tenants to pay the landlords any rental income.

    In simple terms, you are using your excess salary to fund the purchase of new buy-to-lets whilst the value of the existing properties crashes and the rental income doesn't cover the mortgage. Oh, and by the way the value of the properties is less than the outstanding mortgage.

    It's around this time that the IMF usually in and instruct the country on how to recover, but somehow I think that Dubai may be too proud to allow this to happen. Yet.

    But it bodes ill for other investments that they have made across the world which may need to be realised quickly and may drag down other companies.

    Allied to the surreptitious loans to the Scottish Banks and a pattern of covert financial disaster becomes apparent. Dear God, what have the Governments brought us to?

    Just back in the land of the living

    ...after a 36 hour bug that left me totally wiped out, feverish and unable to rationalise.

    (Situation normal, I hear you cry!)

    Saturday, November 21, 2009

    Housing problems

    Perhaps the solution to the local housing shortage lies closer to home than we like to admit....
    The number of vacant properties in Scotland has soared to a four-year high of 103,000, (4.2% of the total), a Bank of Scotland survey has shown.[...]

    In the Western Isles 1,850 homes were unoccupied - 13.2% of all properties.
    Yes, they may be the family homes that Mary in Glasgow (or Brisbane, or Texas) was born and brought up in, but if they are empty 11 months of the year, they are not helping the local situation except by the smallest margins.

    Discuss.

    Withdrawal of BP Fuel Cards

    The story on Hebrides News about the partial withdraw of the BP Fuel Cards starts off fine....
    Many employers in the Scottish islands are facing a massive threat when an oil giant withdraws a vital fuel discount.

    Island businesses warn around 20 jobs could go in the Western Isles as BP bans the use of its discount card - which provides fuel at 7.5 pence a litre cheaper - at some independent filling stations in the islands.

    The islands affected are Lewis, Shetland, Skye and Arran where filling stations are not run under the BP brand. The discount stops in four weeks and some island firms say their costs will soar by up to £30,000 annually as a direct result.
    So far, so reasonable and you can see why the hauliers are up in arms.
    It could cost the economy of the Outer Hebrides half a million pounds it is said.
    Whooaa! That doesn't seem right.....

    This is a very serious matter which deserves serious consideration, but let's try and get the numbers right and substantiated.
    • Assume that the hauliers fill up on the mainland any lorries that are running across the Minch
    • The hauliers use a mix of large lorries and small vans
    • The discount is only available to the larger businesses, so the smallest hauliers are excluded
    Now comes the maths, and please let me know where I go wrong.
    • 7.5p a litre costing £500,000 to the economy, equates to 6.7m litres
    • As I can't do the modern stuff, that's about 1.46m gallons
    • With the mix of vehicles, an average mpg of 10 is probably on the low side, but that gives us 14.65m miles pa
    • I estimate that the three big hauliers in Stornoway have perhaps 20-25 vehicles on the go on the islands at any time
    • Add on other businesses that may qualify and I estimate perhaps 50 lorries are on the go at any time (Full Time Equivalent)
    • That implies each lorry travels 293,000 miles per annum
    • Or 5,635 miles a week
    • Or 940 miles per day (6 days a week)
    • At an average speed of 20mph (town deliveries, starting and stopping etc.) that means that they are operating about 47 hours per day, which is good going by any reckoning, but must play havoc with the tachograph.
    So let's do it the other way, with what I guess might be more accurate figures.....

    50 lorries/vans working full time 10 hours a day at an average speed of 15mph, getting 15mpg, five and half days a week, 52 weeks per annum = 143,000 gallons per annum. That's about 650,650 litres, which at an additional cost of 7.5p per litre gives an additional cost of £48,800 per annum. Even allowing for a huge error in my assumptions, it looks like £100,000 is a more accurate top line figure.

    Unless you know different.

    Sorry about being a pedant, but I do like numbers.

    Friday, November 20, 2009

    500,000 thanks

    When I first started blogging it was as a way of letting-off steam that I expected to be read by family and a few random visitors.

    Nothing much has changed, except that over 500,000 page views later I have you, dear readers, to berate, abuse and occasionally praise me.

    Thanks for putting up with me.

    Thursday, November 19, 2009

    HHP, Stock Transfer and the Council

    What an unholy mess we find ourselves in with the apparent near collapse of the funding package for HHP.

    Having been party to the discussion of the Stock Transfer inside the Council - and following SNP policy, having opposed it as being anti-democratic and unnecessary - I know a fair amount about how the deal was structured and how it was likely to progress.

    My take on the news that the Council has had to 'bail out' HHP to the tune of £1,000,000 is that the real issues are being missed in much of the criticism.

    That the terms of the deal are being kept secret (presumably due to 'commercial confidentiality') is a complete and utter disgrace, when such large sums of public money are being dished out to other public bodies. I don't care that they are a registered Industrial & Provident Society; they are still a body controlled by the public and the only ones who can build houses in the Western Isles. If they take the money, then they have to be prepared to let the public see where it has gone and what it is being used for, and the Council need to justify why such a sum is being given to the organisation instead of into Care Homes or pavement repairs.

    The same principle should apply to all other public bodies who receive soft funding from the Comhairle, and if anyone can pass me the papers, I will make sure they are put in the public domain.

    But back to how it happened....

    My understanding is that HHP made applications to Scottish Homes (or whatever they are called this week) for the permission to undertake certain developments.

    Permission was granted and the business plan was worked up on the basis of the then current grant levels that would be expected.

    Housing association grants were slashed resulting in a shortfall in funding.

    Now, at the last minute, the Council have agreed to bridge the gap after a crunch meeting with the Minister, who in turn has allowed 'more flexibility' over the use of the funds.

    So what does all that actually mean, when you cut through the rubbish and verbiage?

    Well, the feared clawback of the bulk of the Housing Grant won't happen, because the Government will give HHP more time to get the funding for the new houses sorted; but, only because the Council is finding £1m to cover the shortfall in funding caused by the Government.

    Result? Not quite, we a £1m worse off - on top of the other cuts the Council will have to make - and the Government walks away from the blame for precipitating the problem in the first place.

    It is undoubtedly a better outcome that all the other options, but that like praising the the chiropodist who was treat an ingrowing toenail for only amputating your lower leg by mistake.

    The matter was raised by the Council as long ago as January, and on many occasions since we have heard muttered concerns about the house building programme.

    There is still an unanswered question about how HHP reacted to the change in the Housing Association grant levels. But if they put forward proposals which were approved by the Government on the assumption of a certain level of grant support, then I believe that there is a moral obligation of the Government to stick to the level of assistance, not to try and back out and lumber the taxpayers of the Western Isles with the costs of their policy change.

    Tuesday, November 17, 2009

    DSO - an apology

    I really owe the guys in the DSO an apology over my suggestion that they had lost the Council about £100k last year.

    I was utterly wrong.

    With a total final loss of £365,000 for last year, it is clear that such an achievement was beyond those who slog their guts out in the day-to-day operation of the various parts of the organisation.

    A loss of such a magnitude requires the involvement of management i.e. the Council, with their superior abilities to create cock-ups on such a scale and with such inability to see the blindingly obvious as it passes over their desks.

    • Simple question 1: Who has responsibility for making sure the DSO operates efficiently?
    • Simple question 2: Why has the DSO gone from being profitable just a few years ago, to being the biggest millstone?
    • Simple question 3: How on earth does moving the loss making DSO into Technical Services make it a profit-making organisation?

    Instead, let's look at some simple realities.....
    • The DSO ran as a profitable organisation for many years, because it had an excellent and highly able Director who took sole responsibility for beating it into shape
    • Now there is no direct responsibility, so no-one is making sure that the bad practices are being stopped
    • The DSO made a small profit and was always on the edge because it had a huge fixed cost base - overheads and staff costs
    • If the volume of business dropped and turned the profit into a loss then there was a viscous circle of increased costs spread over less income and hence bigger and bigger losses
    • The new schools project has meant that the Building Maintenance DSO has little or new work from that source and this is what has tipped the underlying position for the entire DSO from being sustainable to being unsustainable
    So how does this go forward? Sorry, guys, but it is hard decision time....
    • 'No job losses' is an absolute nonsense at current levels of business (without, of course, an enormous subsidy from you and I)
    • Closing down parts of the DSO will simply push the remainder into bigger losses and speed up the closure of the entire DSO
    • 12 months to develop a business plan - join reality and do it in 1 month, maximum
    • Who will take over some of the specialist operations or take on the staff under TUPE?
    • The Marybank depot is unsaleable, as it is contaminated land and will cost (perhaps) £5m to remedy
    • Why, oh why, oh why, is the Council trying to run a range of commercial business when there are plenty of private sector businesses who are leaner, cheaper, and more efficient (and yes, with poorer terms and conditions)
    • With large budget cuts imminent, is there any place for a large ill-managed loss-making organisation that duplicates the private sector?
    Tough times, caused by management taking their eye off the ball, need tough decisions; but the ones who are going to suffer are the poor bloody infantry, and not the donkeys who lead the lions.

    Clydesdale Bank £5 note

    The new note has an image of St Kilda on the reverse......

    St Kilda £5 note
    There is no truth in the rumour that the printing press for these notes is to be situated in Mangersta, and that the notes are not valid for transactions in Harris or North Uist.

    Monday, November 16, 2009

    COU crunch meeting

    I am reliably told that the COU (formerly known as the DSO) are holding a crunch meeting tomorrow morning - Tuesday - with the Chief Executive, the Leader and one of the two Directors of Technical Services.

    Apparently lack of work is hitting the COU, and the year-end losses are forecast to be huge unless serious remedial action is taken immediately.

    I expected the COU to be the last to be hit, due to the amount of political capital that has been invested - apprentices, continuing growth in the face of reduced work etc - but it looks like it might be the first.

    Councillors are advised to pay very, very close attention to what happens here, as any subsidy for a loss making operation will be a double cut in other services over which they are allowed to have a say.

    Update: It looks like another 'restructuring' is planned when the Royal Visit to Marybank takes place tomorrow.  Has the last Council restructuring ever been finished? As far as I can tell it was abandoned as 'complete' part way through - just when the difficult decisions needed to be made.

    Councillors will be pleased to know that after 18 months of inaction, a new plan can be decided upon in two weeks  Without the need for any input from elected members. Except to rubber-stamp a business plan - where most of them aren't allowed to see the details of the business!

    Saturday, November 14, 2009

    Scottish Football Team

    When researching the previous post, I found a whole host of SNP press releases and news stories about the Olympics and a Scottish football team:
    21/12/08: Scottish Sports Minister Stewart Maxwell has given the SFA his full backing over their opposition to a GB team at the London 2012 Olympics as Gordon Brown continues his efforts to force a GB football team.
    10/3/09: The cut and shut creation of a GB side would endanger Scotland’s long term ability to compete in international football, and the UK government must ditch their crazy proposals and look at ways in which the situation can be resolved.

    We must allow no precedent that could be used against us in the future, and no reason or argument given by those who seek to change the status quo has addressed that.
    11/11/05: The Scottish National Party has called for a Scottish football team to be given "a shot" at the London Olympics.
    Then I found a photo (thanks to The Steamie)..... just who do you think is a member of the GB Football Team, albeit the Parliamentary one?

    GB Parliamentary football team
    You might have to squint a bit, or enlarge the photo, and look to the person fourth from the left at the back, unusually hiding themselves and not sending hourly press releases to the Gazette is our MP, Angus MacNeil.

    Remember that phrase from Pete Wishart MP, "We must allow no precedent that could be used against us in the future"? Oh dear, oh dear!

    Commonwealth Games - who pays?

    As the budget increases from £373m to £450m plus, one has ask how a 20% overspend could possibly arise if we exclude incompetence, stupidity, lack of ability and general unprofessionalism.

    However, the best prescient question came from our MSP in July 2007:
    To ask the Scottish Executive (sic) what benefits the Commonwealth Games will have for the Western Isles constituency.

    Answered by Stewart Maxwell (14 August 2007): The Scottish Government is working with various sectors across Scotland to ensure they are aware of the possibilities and opportunities available to individuals, communities, groups, and businesses from the Glasgow Commonwealth Games.

    The 2014 Games will offer some opportunities for some businesses across Scotland to supply goods or provide services.

    No specific benefits to the Western Isles constituency beyond the general ones outlined above have been identified.
    Of course, you will by now have realised that the question was about the 2012 Olympics, and I have deliberately changed it to make a point; that point being that being in power has a cost.

    But let's leave the question hanging: just what benefit to the Commonwealth Games bring to the Western Isles?

    Friday, November 13, 2009

    Stornoway town centre regeneration fund

    The Scottish Government has awarded £1. 5 million to regenerate Stornoway town centre. The cash will be used to improve the appearance of the town.
    How do you think the money would be best spent?

    There are no prizes, beyond the respect of your fellow contributors, for the best suggestions.

    For those not familiar with Stornoway, here are two views of the town centre:

    Stornoway town centre
    Stornoway town centre on a quiet Tuesday in Winter*

    Stornoway town centre Sundays
    Stornoway town centre on Sunday

    * Artists impression, post regeneration

    Praise where praise is due (updated)

    Everyone in the Western Isles needs to read the story in this week's West Highland which utterly, completely and finally put the future of the Rocket Range on the backburner.

    The case made by QinetiQ is smoothly and efficiently gutted by the Defence Minister, who seems to have learned more about the QinetiQ operations from the employees and Tax Force than from QinetiQ themselves.
    “I was very struck during my many conversations with senior engineers and technicians in the Hebrides by the fact that none of them had had sight of the detailed proposals. I was able to identify from these conversations at least one understated investment expenditure which was acknowledged by QinetiQ management.”
    And, of course, from the case built by the Task Force using specialist consultants:
    “I think Jane’s [Advisory Services] comments should be taken seriously and the proposal should not go ahead unless we are satisfied with QinetiQ’s response.”
    Then Mr Davies beautifully skewers QinetiQ over their failure to consider any problems that might arise in getting planning permission on St Kilda, and a host of other (important) local issues.

    The extent and nature of the critique should be enough to keep the Range safe for many years and it is yet another tribute to the Task Force and the workforce for their intense hard work in a short period of time.

    We really must appreciate the full depth and extent of the impact that their hard work has had.

    Just as well they didn't listen to our MP, talking about the visit by the Minister: “Playing the old trick of lobby me lobby me won’t wash.”


    Update 14/11/09: The letters can be read here and here. The quality of the files may be less than perfect.

    Glasgow NE result

    What a disastrous result for almost everyone, but most especially for the SNP.

    The one winner was Labour who couldn't energise it's voters - as evidenced by a 1/3 turnout - but still somehow manged to take nearly 60% of the vote and keep the majority at a respectable and healthy margin.

    The LibDems must be putting the periscope up to see if they find dry land, and some prospect of survival, coming a very, very, poor fifth.

    As for the SNP: this was disastrous for the natural party of opposition, who should have been able to capitalise on distrust and disillusion with the Government, and who should have been able to get their vote out. Instead the managed to lose 900 votes.

    So why did this happen?

    Simple - the SNP are the party of Government in Scotland and as such they are being blamed for economic mismamgement and the economic problems in exactly the same way that they have blamed Labour and Tories over the past decades.

    It is a consequence of being the party of power that you stop being the party of hope, and start being just another party who says one thing and does another. Such is the price of power.

    What makes that interesting is the impact that this new realism will have in Scotland at the next General Election.

    I was surprised how well Labour did last night, but I think that it is more about how badly the SNP are doing. Or more accurately, how the imnpact of their policy decisions is feeding through to the voters.

    I predict that Labour will do much better than currently forecast at the Election, and that the SNP will be hard pressed to get more than a dozen seats. I also think that there will be some surprise, local, results which will be more about the individuals than the parties, but that the overall political landscape will barely change.

    As I have said before, the SNP's greatest set-back was becoming the party in power in Holyrood, which will prove a millstone rather than a springboard, and were Labour still running the show, you would be looking at the SNP being within spitting distance of a majority at this point in the electoral cycle.

    However, it is the unexpected events that will drive the result of the Election; and I look forward to an exciting, incident-filled, campaign next year. Sadly, I expect a dull, dreary slog that will alienate the voters.

    Wednesday, November 11, 2009

    Synthetic fury over fuel card withdrawals

    According to The Gazette, Angus MacNeil MP is furious about BP withrdrawing the fuel cards from businesses in the islands and has written to the Chancellor demanding that he bring pressure to bear on the company.

    Yes, withdrawal of the cards would be a serious blow, but let's look at the knee-jerk reaction from our occasional MP....

    Writing to the Chancellor: WTF use is that?  He'll write back to say that he cannot interfere with commerical business decisions.  MacNeil will blame Labour, Labour will refute any invovlement.

    BP Fuel cardsContacting BP: Not on the agenda. Why not? They are the only ones who can change the policy.*

    Getting the Scottish Government involved: Not on the agenda either. Could this be because MacNeil is more interested in blaming Labour than actually achieving anything.  cf MacNeil's actions over the rocket range

    * Actually, the cards are provided by Fuel Card Services Ltd, who are a completely separate business, and are an agent of BP, whose existence is predicated upon getting a cut of the BP turnover by driving large volumes through the cards and through the BP Stations.

    As the most likely companies to have to deal with the loss of discount are the local hauliers who have failed to pass on the benefits of RET, is there not a wider issue here about lack of joined up policies that between Edinburgh and London that needs to be sorted before blame is spayed everywhere, regardless.

    Tuesday, November 10, 2009

    Where the Sun don't shine.....

    It's not often I feel a modicum of pity for Gordon Brown, but I feel myself strangely angry at The Sun, and it's manipulation of a greiving mother.

    We all sometimes suffer from word-blindness, where you misread a word. I suppose it is a very mild sort of dyslexia, but one that tends to imprint the wrong word onto your consciousness.

    Is the Chancellor Alastair, Alasdair or Alistair Darling? Why do people insist on spelling my surname with an H? At the PLI into the Eishken wind farm I read the wrong name out from the statement I wrote by myself, and made a bit of an ar$e of myself.

    But to attempt to pillory a disabled person (for that is what he is!) for not being able to write neatly and for some spelling mistakes is a nasty and spiteful piece which reflects badly on the newspaper and the lady involved.

    The secret tape-recording of the subsequent phone call smells more of an entrapment by The Sun to further their own political agenda, rather than making a truly serious political point.

    This will, I suspect, backfire on both the genuine campaign to support the soldiers and on the attempts to demonstrate the general incompetence of Mr Brown. If anything this series of articles will strengthen Brown's position and gain him a substantial sympathy vote.

    Friday, November 06, 2009

    On the buses....

    BlakeyIt seems that Bus na Comhairle are powered by free-range caviar-fed gold-plated rocking-horse shit, rather than simple and hideously expensive diesel.

    That has to be the case, given their financial performance this year......

    That's caught your attention hasn't it?

    Well it certainly caught the attention of the Councillors last Monday, when the Chief Executive was given a serious bollocking - particularly, I understand, by Roddy MacKay - over his inability to control the deficits.

    "If this were a commercial business..." went the oft-heard refrain.

    Bus operators will be gnashing and wailing and rightly complaining about unfair competition when the truth appears in the annual accounts. Except it doesn't, as the buses are no longer considered to be a Significant Trading Operation, and hence the losses don't need to be disclosed in the accounts.

    Oh yes, and as the matter is 'commercially sensitive' the Councillors can't go public with it, as it might affect the ability of BnC to compete with the private sector.

    That is 'compete' in the sense of having a bottomless pit of money to use to drive the competition out of business, so that only BnC survives; and so that it's existence can be justified as a 'public service'

    WTF is going on, and why is our money being squandered? And hidden from the public?

    And where BnC leads, is the rest of the DSO going to follow?

    Enough teasing, but sit down -- losses at the DSO last year were £100,000 of which the buses lost £84,000.

    Bus owners of the islands unite, you have nothing to lose but your livelihoods.

    Thursday, November 05, 2009

    Friday, October 30, 2009

    Out of the mouths of children.....

    SNH Gagging childrenThe children of Barra have had a long and illustrious history of activism, and successful activism, on community issues.

    It was thanks to sustained pressure from the school children that Barra got mobile phones; and they even went to the House of Commons to campaign for the retention of the air service to Barra.

    They know their community and are not scared to make their views known. Model children for the future in other words.

    Or not, as the case may be if you are a Quango.

    Sources in the Education Department have told me that when Scottish National Heritage heard that the school children of Barra were going to demonstrate yesterday against SNH and the possible designation of the Sound of Barra as a Marine Special Area of Conservation, then SNH jumped into action.

    Phone calls, faxes and assorted threats later, the Education Department instructed the two Barra schools not to allow their children to show their views on the possible designation, as it wasn't the media image that SNH wanted to give.

    SNH are, of course, happy to go into schools and give their perspective, but any contrary view meets with this heavy handed approach. It looks like democracy only works one way in their mind.

    Does the Minister know what is being done by the organisation is is nominally responsible for?

    The actual meeting in the Craigard was full to overflow, but SNH refused to discuss the issues, clkaiming that they were there to have only an informal chat, mingle and make small talk. Which required about 75% of the attendees to leave the room so that SNH, assorted hangers-on, and the vast coterie of officials, could have cheese and wine and make meaningless noises.

    All at vast public expense.

    SNH is held in such huge contempt by large sections of the public that it claims to represent that the need for it's very existence is questioned by most of those directly affected. This reflects very, very, badly on the entire process and consequently upon the Government itself, who seem unable - or perhaps unwilling - to take any action to bring the organisation under control.

    This cavalier behaviour cannot be allowed to continue, but we've been saying this for a decade, and it is only getting worse, not better.

    If they can't debate with the children who will be directly affected by the decisions they want to bring in, then why should they be trusted that what they are doing is the right thing?

    Thursday, October 29, 2009

    Council complaints procedures - the black hole

    The Scottish Public Services Ombudsman is seeking an urgent meeting with the Comhairle, about their handiling of complaints.

    The policy is clear:
    Your complaint will be acknowledged by, or on behalf of, the Head of Service within three working days of receipt.[...]

    You will be advised in writing of the outcome of your complaint within 21 days and be given the opportunity to discuss the outcome if you so wish. If a decision cannot be given within 21 days you will be informed of the reasons for any delay.
    Today, it is now 150 days since a complaint I made was acknowledged, and 170 since it was received without any further update being received.

    Good stuff!

    No doubt Audit & Scrutiny Committee will have a very good look at whatever the Ombudsman says.

    Wednesday, October 28, 2009

    Ferry subsidies are allowed

    Was there anyone who really thought that - post Altmark - there was no way that CalMac could continue to receive a subsidy?

    Cllr Manford and I read the decision carefully some 6 years ago, and only the blind or terminally stupid could have tried to insist that tendering was essential on life-line ferry services.

    So it proved, when Scottish Labour continued to drive through the ludicrous deconstruction of CalMac into goodness knows how many companies to meet some fabled (and utterly unjustified) 'European' requirement for a west-coast maritime Railtrack.

    Thankfully, Europe have eventually made the position clear and we can now see the CalMac ferries being brought back into a sensible single structure; rather than the fragmented shambles it has become.

    Can't we? Can't we?

    Tuesday, October 27, 2009

    Raft of school closures on the horizon

    That's the headline in Hebrides News.

    This is not about new schools, per se, but about balancing the budget.

    The Council face a number of very serious challenges in achieving the aim of rationalisation:
    • The parents and teachers don't trust you
    • What Councillor is going to vote to close a school in his ward?
    • The Government want to protect rural schools, at a cost to the Council; not the Government
    • Our MSP has made protection of Gaelic a higher priority than educational quality
    • Is there actually a coherent plan?
    On the positive side, the Chair of Education - Morag Munro - is probably the very best person to have in post to make these decisions and drive them through.

    However, I predict many tears before bedtime, and many changes to the plans before the communities accept the inevitable - the money isn't there to keep all the schools open; and it is not in your children's best educational interest to be educated in a class of three in a semi-derelict building.

    Anyone understand this?

    Congratulations to my brother who has just seen a patent of his published for approval.

    I might be being just a bit thick, but does anyone understand just what "Secure Boot with Optional Components Method" actually means?

    Kenneth, whatever you are doing is highly impressive but totally unintelligible to us mere mortals.

    Monday, October 26, 2009

    Edwyn Collins - utter genius

    Edwyn CollinsFriday night saw us out and about on the town, which is extremely unusual, as we normally prefer dinner and a few drinks on a Saturday.

    We had booked tickets for Edwyn Collins at An Lanntair, and due to mainland travel and sick children we really weren't sure that we were going to make it.

    What a night we had! Truly one of the best nights out we have had in a very long time, and the best live music that we have seen in years.

    The support act, "The 1990s" came highly recommended by one of our staff, who had seen them live previously. They had a difficult job warming up the crowd who were predominantly slightly older than their usual target market i.e. 40-somethings and older. However, they were very good, suitably loud and made an excellent counter balance to the main attraction.

    Although sparsely attended, the tour which is billed as "The Restoration of Edwyn Collins" (a reference to his serious illness) was utterly wonderful, from the moment Edwyn walked onto stage and perched on the speaker to the end of the encour. I saw the set list as we went to our seats and was delighted to see a mix of old and new, covering the Orange Juice years right up to a new song he had co-written with someone from the Cribs.

    The highly professional band - which included the guitarist from Primal Scream - were absolutely excellent, and provided an excellent backing to an highly emotional and personal set from Edwyn. The songs were all so obviously chosen from an extensive catalogue to relate to his 'restoration', but poignancy never became mawkishness; and there was absolutely no suggestion of any self-pity.

    My good lady ended up dancing to "A Girl Like You" along with some of the 1990s.

    Afterwards we stopped in the bar for a beer or three, and ended up being very late talking to the bands, the management (Mrs Collins) and to Edwyn himself.

    I remember seeing Edwyn and Orange Juice in (I think) the Locarno in the early 1980's, but it might have been the Edinburgh College of Art. And Friday night was every bit as good, as I'm not sure I would be up to a mosh-pit any longer.

    Saturday, October 24, 2009

    Five mainland firms in running to build new island schools

    Did any of the local firms try to get on the tender list, or did none of them make it to the event in Glasgow?

    I was told UBC were going to try to get on the shortlist.

    I can see the successful bidder coming here, setting up a base to try and win other work before, during and after the schools project, and destroying the local construction industry.

    Actually, the Council will be the ones destroying the local construction industry as all the capital budgets are being raided and committed to this project, meaning that nothing else of significance is going to be built or repaired.

    Good news for the islands? Hardly.

    Good news for the mainland consultants? Snouts in troughs.

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009

    #Things can only get better#

    A Scottish Government press release gives a flavour of the economic problems facing Scotland.

    ----

    Scotland's Chief Statistician today announced the release of Gross Domestic Product for Scotland for 2009 Q2.

    This quarterly publication measures growth, in real terms, in Gross Domestic Product at Basic Prices, also known as Gross Value Added, for Scotland.

    The main findings are:

    * GDP fell by 3.2 per cent annually and fell by 0.8 per cent in the second quarter of 2009 (seasonally adjusted)
    * In the year to end-October 2009, the Scottish service sector fell by 2.5 per cent, the production sector declined by 5.7 per cent and the construction sector fell by 6.3 per cent
    * In the second quarter of 2009, the service sector fell by 0.4 per cent, the production sector declined by 1.9 per cent and the construction sector fell by 2.8 per cent

    ----

    I'm not going to shoot the messenger, but I am going to caution against the impact of trying to spend your way out of this deep hole. As in the 1980's, manufacturing is being hit especially hard and the capacity of the Scottish and British economy to recover seems to lie with services and with public sector spending.

    Neither of these are the way to built a strong long-lasting and resilient economy, with the former being more transitory and easily transferable to a lower-cost country; and the later having the effect of smothering the country with bureaucracy and paperwork whilst delivering ego-stroking and over-priced capital projects at the expense of public services.

    Counter-cyclical spending is - of course - part of the answer, but there is also going to have to be economic contraction towards the essential public sector core. And that is a fact that the Scottish Government would do well to acknowledge and take action upon now, before the Westminster Government force these unpleasant decisions upon them.

    And, yes, I do realise that provoking a battle may be part of the strategy, but that's not really going to help economic growth.