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

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The sad end of a career

The spectacle of the downfall of probably one of the most able - if divisive - political characters in recent decades is sad, but sadly inevitable.

As the trial progressed, it looked like his chances were improving, despite, or perhaps because, of his decision to represent himself.  That gave him great leeway in Court, which a legally qualified individual would not have had to say, what shouldn't be said.

Clearly he lied, and the full extent of the back-story, and some of the unreported elements are starting to appear as I type, all of which seem to raise more questions about risks he took and the sheer scale of lies he told.

How he was guilty and Gail was not, is a matter for the prosecution, but they seemed to have not wanted to split the jury between husband and wife.

That's the end of him as a serious politician; the end of his legal career; but I suspect that we will see him reappear in an advocacy and lobbying role for future social campaigns.

He will undoubtedly remain a totem for his supporters and a monster to his opponents, and the questions of "What could have been?", will remain unanswered.

Saint Vincent the fallible

Shoot the messenger....
The Daily Telegraph has caused "great damage" to the relationship between MPs and constituents with its undercover sting tactics, Vince Cable says.
Actually, what Vince (and virtually all other politicians) want to be able to do is to be able to tell their constituents what they think their constituents want to hear, as a way of excusing the hypocrisy of their actions.

That's commonly known as 'lying' of 'talking bull' and I think you find that it is that which actually does 'great damage' to the MP and constituent relationship.

Well done to the Telegraph for exposing those LibDems who are happy to sell their souls for an official car, and are then prepared to lie to all and sundry about their position.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Death by 1,000 cuts

So, Hebrides News reports that ADS is to be restricted - read prohibited - for business travellers and Comhairle employees.

So if I book a flight, who decides if it is private or business?

Me, or a faceless civil servant, who tries to later claim back the ADS discount?

Actually, that doesn't matter too much, as it is all administration.

Where the real problem lies is the change in the philosophy about the operation of the scheme.

Public sector bodies are supposedly already excluded - but the Comhairle/WIHB/etc seems to have been taking the urine, and only now have the Government realised what's going on.

Now apart from the body cavity searches at the airports, you are going to be asked if you are travelling on business or leisure. Just who is going to answer to the expensive former, rather than the cheaper latter. Still, the boxes will have been ticked, and the principle of cutting the provision will be established.

Next, a maximum number of journeys a year?

Only left-handed students on Tuesdays?

And thence to RET.

You can see where this is going, and the deafening cries of outrage from our MP and MSP will show exactly where they stand....

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

School closures (or not)

As I predicted some of the school closures have been called in, and as I also predicted, the terms of the call in are vague and offer little hope to the campaigners.

Look at the thrusting leadership from the Minister:
Mr Russell said closures must always be taken by those with the best knowledge of local circumstances.
But he added: "My role is not to retake a democratically-taken decision but to ensure that a robust consultation process was properly followed and the educational benefits of these decisions are clear."
In other words, look at the process again and have another vote before coming to a decision.  No threat or promise of a veto, just a series of iterations of the consultations until they are acceptable to the Minister.  Acceptable process that is. 

And this is likely to happen just before the Holyrood elections, if my timetable is right.

This would give the Council the opportunity to give a good kicking to the MSP for his failure to engage in the process, and his support of the SNP ahead of the best interests of the Western Isles on a number of issues.

Which will be fun to observe.

But let us again stand back on this whole issue and look at the calamitous failure to have a rural policy that delivers anything.

The new schools were given the go ahead only on the back of the Council finding it's share of the funding gap by closing a series of schools.  This was approved by the Minister, and all the funding was calculated, approved, paid and celebrated in numerous Government press releases over the past 5 years.

Now the Government is trying to backtrack on the implications of its decision when it realises what it has done.  Only to find that it doesn't actually have the power to stop what it has set in train.  Only delay it slightly.

And when you look at specific areas, you will see that the West Harris Trust have received large sums of Government money to buy the estate and develop the area.  All acclaimed by large and numerous Government press releases.  A large part of the rationale behind the buyout was the retention of children, at Sheilibost School, to grow the population in the area.  A school that the Government has already tacitly agreed must close to justify the new school in Tarbert.

Ooops, anyone see the logic in what is being done?

Actually, I think that Sheilibost might just survive because the buy-out having happened so recently, but I'm not holding my breath.

Now, would anyone like to remind us what the MP and MSP promised us about education provision in the islands and in the rural communities?


(I would normally, but I'm away and haven't got the time at the moment)

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Minister resigns

It was inevitable, wasn't it.

As soon as Alex Salmond professed his "complete confidence" in the Minister, it was time to clear the Minister desk, and hitch a lift in the Ministerial Mondeo, before the country goes all snowy again.

I bet the Met Office didn't forecast that did they?

(With apologies to Private Eye)

Farewell then, Stewart Stevenson
Your career wouldn't have been derailed
If the trains had been running.

You read the forecasts
to the MSPs
in their mind-numbing entirety
in lieu of making a statement.

Unfortunately, that was still
better
than the rest of your performance
as Minister.


EJ Thribb 17 1/2 feet down in a snowdrift in Perthshire

Friday, December 10, 2010

Council Budget choices

The Council seem happy to run budget seminars with the community (next one in Uig on Tuesday) but strangely reluctant to publicise in advance what sorts of choices they are potentially making.

Well, here's the various choices that are being offered in the Policy and Resources Agenda at item 19.

Alternatively there's a comprehensive report at item 25 about flying flags, which occupies three pages, compared to a one page report about cutting school transport for primary and secondary kids.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Education funding

If you want to understand the impact of the cuts in front-line educational services, then you need look no further than Stornoway Primary today, where the school did not have enough money to provide Christmas crackers for the kids' Christmas lunch today.

Over 40% of the Council's revenue budget goes on Education, and yet there is still not enough money for such a minor item.

Education is not underfunded, but front-line teaching definitely is. 

The biggest single cost - staffing - is largely outwith the control of the Council and solely the remit of the Scottish Government, and this is not being addressed.  The consequence is almost unsackable staff - however incompetent - conserved salaries even where there isn't any need for staff; and a staffing structure that prevents new teachers gaining jobs. 

Ally this to an administrative structure that seems to be there to administer the administrative system and make endless statistical returns to Government, and you should be able to make significant savings.  If the political will was there.

And the Headteachers have to manage inadequate sums, that are being cut to fund the administrative demands.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Inter-island ferries

It is very good news that the fare subsidy scheme for the inter-island ferries has been saved (declaration of interest: I have a client who benefits) as this sends exactly the right sort of message to the public, to local businesses and beyond these islands.

However scathing I might have been about the decision to cut subsidy for the Balivanich-Barra flight, this kind of balance, this kind of difficult decision, and this kind of debate about where the cuts will fall needs to be had in the open.

A quiet day on the Barra-Eriskay ferry
The Councillors are under horrendous pressure or the worst kind, and decisions are going to be fraught and harsh, but cuts need to be made - as the Council have been told by the Scottish Government.

But, having these discussions in public at least has the benefit of understanding how individual councillors came to their decisions, we may not agree with everything they decide, but the options of public, open, debate or closed room deals presented as a fait accompli by 31 North Korean actalike Councillors would be the worst of all options.

Councillors: air your differences, make your decisions in public and be prepared to adapt your expectations as the votes pan out, but do it openly and reject any behind the scenes moves to stifle your choices.

Barra-Benebcula air service

As the Council cuts begin to bite, difficult decisions have to be taken, and I think we all appreciate that, but to vote to remove the Barra-Benbecula air service is a serious blow to the economy of Barra.

It also raises questions about the focus of the Council - is it looking after the islands and inter-island travel, or is it just provide exit routes from the islands?  And, as importantly, what message does it send to the Scottish Government about the priorities.

And with Barra Airport having just been described as one of the top 10 inspirational airports to land at in the world.

This decision can only serve to undermine the viability of Benbecula and Barra at a time when our connections need to be protected.


I understand the meeting was quite fractious, and the Chair and Vice-Chair were overruled in their recommendation to keep the service.  Interestingly the MP finds himself screwed over by a prominent "I'm not a member of the SNP" Councillor, who had personally pledged full support for the Barraich, before voting for removal.

Nothing ever changes; and such is the measure of the man.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Nicolson Institute problems

I've had nothing but negative comments about the school, or more accurately the education system in the Western Isles, since I raised the issues about the quality of education in the Nicolson.

I am now told, by someone who should know, that there is a major drugs problem in the school that is not being addressed by the teachers or management.  It is unclear whether that is due to their ignorance of the situation, or their unwillingness to tackle the principle principal offenders, or indeed whether it is being deliberately ignored in the hope it would go away.

Irrespective, there appear to be a smallish number of pupils with seemingly unlimited access to anything and everything, operating unfettered just below the surface.  Whilst their fellow pupils seem to aware of what is happening, there seems to be no restrictions or secrecy around their activities.

Thankfully, the vast majority of pupils seem to be unaffected by this.

Perhaps I am overstating the extent of the problem, but there clearly is a problem that needs to be dealt with.

Labour selection battle

I'm not attending the Western Isles Labour Party selection meeting on Monday night, mainly as I am not invited, not eligible to attend, and not here.

Indeed, the Facebook open invite has apparently disappeared, or perhaps become a closed invite.  Cock-up rather than consipracy, meethinks.

With at least one (or possibly all?) of the previous three candidates having withdrawn, the race is wide open, and some of the names I expected have now decided to stand.

The leading contender appears to be working hard just below the surface, ably advised by his brother, and he seems to be the favoured compromise choice between the various faction - the anyone but [fill in blank] candidate, would be a only slightly unfair observation.

In the likely two horse race - and here I mix my metaphors in the vague hope of injecting some humour into the process - we have a pantomime cow wearing a blindfold with the logo "Labour - kick me" versus a big pile of bull being lead around the course by his master.

Am I only the only one who wants both to lose in the interests of the islands?

Building work resumes

After the hiatus caused by the collapse of ROK it was good to see the contractors back on site at Manor Drive, trying to get the houses wind and water tight before the winter hits (!)

There were at least three or four guys and one fork lift busy on site, but perhaps the rest were trying to avoid frostbite, and the prospects of having the houses done on anything near the original deadline looks, sadly, impossible.

Unfortunately, none of that will replace the losses suffered by the sub-contractors when ROK went under.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Licencing Board - too drunk to take notes?

The decision in IX MacIver -v- CnES was released and makes scary and magnificently false reading.

And I speak as a former member of the Licencing Board.

The fact that no notes are (apparently) taken is a shocking breach of the Law Society Guidance which dictates that notes of all advice should be taken and retained at all times.  This includes - as previous disciplinary matters have concluded - that solicitors should always keep notes of the advice given.

Perhaps that is the next way forward.

Whilst everything the Council may have written is true, given the number of legal challenges and disputes there have been over licences being granted, I always assumed that every decision and all advice was properly documented.  The times I supported an opinion to the Court was always accurate, as far as I was concerned, but I did assume that there was some kind of record to substantiate what was said.

In future, Board members might want to insist that their discussion are accurately recorded in a contemporaneous record so that they do not expose themselves to potential liability, nor the legal services manager to action by their regulatory body.

Indeed, having been party to some exceptionally clear advice to the Board that was then duly ignored, appealed and the Board decision defeated, I assumed that the appeal documents and reports of the debates and discussion were always written up from contemporaneous notes

Is there any other Licencing Board that doesn't keep contemporaneous notes?

New taxation powers

A Good Thing or A Missed Opportunity?

Well, I could tell you a lot more if the Inland Revenue had been paid to keep up the system maintenance and provide us with more information about tax yield by (easily, cheaply & crudely) flagging Scottish taxpayers.

That niggle aside, any form of reduced dependency has got to be welcomed, even if cautiously, as a step forward.

Assuming the Scottish Government is ready, willing and able to accept this.  Emphasis on able.

But let's look at the anomolies in the meantime.

Scottish tax liability can be determined by the postcode of the home address, so that (for example) pensioners are dealt with by a Cardiff tax office, but that tax yield can be attributed to Scotland.

The Chairman of the Lloyds TSB receives pay relating to a UK wide performance, but because he doesn't live in Scotland, none of that income is attributed to Scotland.

Now, these sums may just balance themselves out - although I suspect not - in the event of the Scottish tax rates increasing, then Scottish tax payers will buy a property in England or Wales and designate it as their principal residence (as required by the taxes acts) and avoid Scottish taxation.

Conversely, and this is known as the Laffer Curve, by reducing tax rates, more will 'move here' and pay lower rates but generate more for the Scottish Government, much like the Irish Economy (deceased) lowered Corporation Tax to attract Dell, Shire and a host of others to move to Ireland and fund the crazy boom and bust.

It's not about the powers, so much as how you use them.  If you are scared of using them - as opposed to consciously and deliberately not using them - then you don't deserve to be in power. Or is that 'in office'.

It's a big step forward; if our politicians can be trusted to use them appropriately.

Schools and education

I have a long term interest in Education in the Western Isles for the very simple and selfish reason that we have three children using the system, and we want to see the best for them at every level.

As regular readers will know, I have been disturbed by some aspects of current and future educational provision in the islands.  That's not just about teaching methods, subject choices or physical structures, but about how all these elements and more fit together to give every child the best possible chance in life.

Some of the fixtures in the Council offices have preferred to interpret this as personal criticism, because that's easier to ignore, whilst others have tried to actually find solutions.

Sitting here in Edinburgh, with our children unable to reach their school and nursery, I have had a chance to reflect on the overall provision in the islands.

I am not happy to have been proved right about Castlebay School, where I was the only one to give voice to concerns of pupils, teachers and parents, but in classic gagging mode, the Council tried to shoot the messenger rather than respond to the message, until it was way too late.

It can't be a matter of resources - as 42% of the Council budget goes on Education - but is obviously one of management, direction and guidance from on high.

At this point, let's pause to consider how this is going to improve if all the schools earmarked for closure and the new schools and the increased number of teachers have less and less of the pie to actually provide education, without some fundamental changes to the way education is organised and delivered. Or alternatively, if our MSP can get some more very large sums of money from the Government.  Something that doesn't appear to be on any agenda at the moment.

It is with great disappointment, worry and concern for the future, that I am starting to receive reports that parts of the Nicolson Institute may be suffering from exactly the same problems that have beset Castlebay, and that there is a failure of management to respond or deal with the concerns of parents.

I'm starting to get the feel of a dysfunctional organisation slowly collapsing under the weight of it's own consultations were ticking boxes, developing courses that pupils aren't able to attain and with no clear strategic approach.  All the decisions are giving the impression of being knee-jerk reactions to immediate events.

This is not being helped by the lack of clear, consistent, support from Councillors.  The hokey-cokey of closure-retention by some of our representatives is nothing short of disgraceful.  How Morag Munro has kept her sanity is beyond me.

Of course, the SNP Group might be able to find the funds to keep some of the rural schools open, but all this will do is put a very expensive elastoplast on a festering sore.  It is not the time for easy decisions, but it is the time for the right decisions to ensure that the pupils are being educated, and not simply attending schools.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

I'll see you in Court...

I'm sure you have often heard that said, but have you ever see the next stage?

Here's a copy of a writ issued by Angus MacMillan, Storas Uibhist, against Calum MacMillan, would be windfarmer.

Having been on the receiving end of a couple of threats of legal action from a certain sanctimonious lying sleaze-ball in the Comhairle (full details coming shortly), I'm going to choose my words carefully.

And hypothesise about the sort of questions that might be asked in response to the writ.
  • Is your reputation really worth £100,000?
  • Shall we examine the accounts of the various companies to determine how successful the various businesses are?
  • "The pursuer, acting in an individual capacity, has not at any time discussed any private proposals to develop wind farm capacity with any funding or regulatory body with whom he has come into contact in the course of his dealings as Chairman."  What acting about in a corporate capacity for a limited company?  Have there been any contacts about other windfarm proposals with any funding or regulatory body whilst he was Chairman?
  • "He does not presently, and did not at the material time, have plans to advance any proposals for a wind farm project on land owned by him..."  But were there any plans advanced during any time when he was Chairman?  Any possible conflicts of interest, declarations of interest, or overlapping use of the same contractors or consultants?
The curious conditional denials and circituous (not the right word) sentence construction serves only to raise more questions than are answered.

(I might update this later, but I have a plane to catch very soon)

    Wednesday, November 24, 2010

    A void in search of a policy

    Remember way, way back in 2009 when the bill to protect rural schools was launched to great fanfare?
    The SNP Government has today launched plans to protect Scotland's rural schools from closure. [...]

    Dr Allan, who has campaigned successfully against rural school closures in the Western Isles (I think that this might be a fib) said; “I believe that access to a local school is particularly important in rural communities, not least in places like the Western Isles, where schools are at the very heart of a community.

    "This bill will help enshrine that principle in law and I am pleased that it is an SNP Government which is delivering this policy.
     Roll forward to a fortnight ago when the protection offered by the bill was unveiled to an unsuspecting public.
    Alasdair Allan MSP said he would back the community’s submission asking the Scottish Government to call-in the Carloway closure.
    So, the protection of the "heart of the community" now extends to backing a letter asking the Government to do something.  Is this what passes for successful campaigning?

    It certainly isn't leadership.

    Today, we see the press releases which talks up what was actually written (if anyone has a copy of the original, please send it on);
    Western Isles SNP MSP, Alasdair Allan, has written to Education Secretary, Michael Russell, to ask him to consider whether he has legal grounds to "call-in" any of the school closure decisions recently made by the Comhairle.
    Not - one should note- asking Mike Russell to actually call in all the decisions.  Not asking the Minister to meet with the Comhairle to discuss the wider issues of education provision in the Western Isles.  Not asking for more money to allow some of the schools - Carloway, for instance? - to stay open.

    In case you were unsure of the serious and intensive lobbying going on on our behalf, the press release - and remember, this is putting a positive spin on the whole matter - continues:
    “I accept that some schools will close..."
    Argument lost, presumably on instructions from his former boss Mike Russell.

    Which schools does he accept will close?  Carloway? Lionel?  I'm sure the parents are interested to know.

    Mike Russell's reply will be that HMIE have studied the reports and will either agree that the consultation was correct and the schools will close; or, that the consultations were flawed, and that there should be new consultations before the schools close.

    That's all the power the wonderful and hugely trumpeted bill gives to schools.

    Alasdair Morrison and Calum MacDonald were defeated at the elections in a large part because they misinformed the public about their non-existent right of veto over any windfarm decisions.  The same ignorance of the legal position is evident here.

    It's not just that, but the decisions were taken a long time ago, and the time to protect the schools was when the new schools project was being negotiated, and the consequent rural school closures approved by, err, the SNP Government.

    Leadership would be demanding meetings between the communities and the Minister.  Leadership would involve looking at funding packages jointly with the communities, the Comhairle and the Government of which he is a member.  Leadership would be discussing with the Comhairle how the policy will be implemented.

    Writing banal, pointless, and useless letters is the mark of a lapdog and party political place-man doing what he is told is best for the party, not the community.

    Tuesday, November 23, 2010

    Health Board appointments

    With two local Councillors with the right political connections attending the interview panels today in Edinburgh for the position of Chair, the future direction for the Health Board should be very clear, come decision time.

    Has the Board got a long-term future, and how will the capital and revenue cuts be implemented with the minimum impact on services?

    The real cost of living

    Fascinating analysis by the Joseph Rowantree Foundation and the Commission for Rural Communities on the cost of living in rural areas.


    Anyone who lives outside the big towns will know that the financial impact of rurality is quite severe, and that costs are loaded on individuals and public services.

    Assuming life in the Western Isles needs 20% more income to give a standard of life equivalent to the cities, and on the basis that actual income levels are 66% of the Scottish average, then income per head in the Western Isles needs to rise by 81% for us to be on a par with Glasgow or Edinburgh.

    The real failure of all Governments - Westminster and Holyrood - is that income levels in the Western Isles have not risen over the past decades, and that economic decline has been allowed to continue with seemingly no interest in reversing depopulation and poverty.

    Perhaps the Council should grab hold of these statistics and use them as a big stick to beat Holyrood to argue that sparsity of population has now been better quantified and that further support is necessary to keep schools and communities alive and active.

    Let's hear the outcry from our elected representatives.......

    Monday, November 22, 2010

    Daylight saving

    As the (re)current debate on daylight saving moves towards a decision, I must confess to having moved from a position of opposition to one of considered ambivalence.

    I admit that living in town means that I am less affected than those in the country, but I am probably more unconvinced by the status quo due to the business issues I have experienced.

    Time is a nebulous concept, and with numerous clients operating in Norway and other parts of Continental Europe, we are well used to receiving business calls at what seem like odd hours, but are actually just the effects of the time difference.  And I've made a few of these too, getting answering machines in the Dutch tax administration telling me that they are closed, and me thinking whether I need to choose option 1 or 2.

    Reykjavik is in the same time zone as the UK and sunrise tomorrow is 10:19am - 9:19 if it were in the 'right' time zone - and there seem to be few issues there about the dark mornings.

    Last Thursday I got a business call from a new client in Australia (don't ask!) who was just leaving the office, and need me to do something that day, so she could pick it up the next morning to deal with the matter.

    Time is no longer about the hens and the cows, nor is it ruled by the business needs of New York or Frankfurt, but it as about how each of are going to respond to the demands of our employment or profession.

    Such has life changed.

    And now a message from our sponsor sent on by a correspondent who wishes to remain anon....

    As you know, I'm writing to ask that the [name] joins the growing number of Scottish organisations backing the Daylight Saving Bill. The bill itself calls for a cross-departmental government analysis into the effects of moving the clocks forward by one hour. It is only if this review concludes in the positive that a 3yr trial of any recommended clock change would then be enacted. In other words, this bill operates along the principle that any claims about clock change must first be independently proven before any trial could take place. This fail-safe mechanism has finally moved this issue forward, and it is on this basis that we have garnered support in Scotland from as wide a spread of Scottish organisations as the National Farmers Union Scotland and VisitScotland. 

    That said, the reason our Lighter Later coalition are working so hard to secure this bill (including heavy hitters like the AA, the FA and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, Age UK and 10:10) is because the research into the benefits is so overwhelming. Last week the Policy Studies Institute released the attached report which shows that in Scotland (which stands to benefit disproportionately in comparison to the rest of the UK) the move would invest £300m into the Scottish economy annually with over 7,000 new jobs in the tourism sector alone. Wider benefits would include a fitter, happier population and better alignment with European and Far Eastern trading partners. Furthermore, as you'll see from the attached two-pager, it is a move now favoured by the majority of the Scottish population. 

    As a strong voice for the industry the support of [name] could make a big difference in the run-up the bill. The more Scottish voices that call for us to investigate this matter once and for all through the Daylight Saving Bill, the better the chance we've got. 

    If you need anything else on the issue from my side, please do get in touch. As you can imagine, with the vote just one month away, time is of the essence and your voice could make all of the difference to this crucial issue. 

    Many thanks

    Sion

    How many ....

    communicant members does it take to create a schism on the head of a pin?

     (Just for clarity: I'm not having a go at my former neighbour Rev Stewart)

    The Scottish Budget

    Hmmmm.

    The Devil is in the detail, but it looks like a pretty good job, inside a very difficult set of limits.

    That's not to say it is good; merely that an apparently adequate job has been done of managing the cuts.

    It's not a "fair budget" as the brown-nosers would have it.  Indeed, the SNP are using the same excuses and rationale that the ConDems used about the UK cuts just a few weeks back.

    The obvious problems are the massive cuts to Housing, Education and Enterprise, and the continuing desire to fund the unfundable, such as the abolition of prescription charges.  I remain very bemused that our business doesn't have to pay any business rates whilst services are being cut due to a lack of cash.

    I've spent the weekend speaking to friends who work in some of the sectors worst affected, and the mood is most definately one of dispondency.

    The instruction from on high is not to have any redundancies, which in reality means that there potentially are going to be staff sitting around with nothing to do, as the budget for achieving anything has been removed.

    I'm reliably informed that the Bord na Gaidhlig cuts will mean the end of some projects, and some temporary posts being lost, and I suspect that the same pattern will repeat itself acrioss other sectors too.

    And this all takes us back to the absence of a coherent policy for rural areas.

    School closures?  The only people who can stop the school closures will be the Government either by (a) providing the funds to keep the schools open on 'strategic' grounds, or (b) refusing the Council the permission to make the closure, and insisting they find the money.  Neither - frankly - is a realistic solution; and certainly not a long term plan.

    The massive housing cuts are much more insidious, and I think will have a bigger and deeper impact here than any other element.  The local housing strategy was described as 'being in tatters' as a result of these cuts with all sorts of small and large projects unlikely to proceed.

    Worse still, as this is only a one-year budget, no-one knows if the situation will get better or worse on the other side of the election, and no-one can plan for even the most simple of strategies about staffing, service delivery or capital spending when they have no idea of what their budget is likely to be.


    Finding and delivering the cuts efficiency savings is going to be much more of a challenge than it might appear, and there is most definitely going to be a large impact on services right across the board.  And right before an election.

    As I get more specifics, I'll share them with you..

    Friday, November 19, 2010

    Incompetence, sheer pathetic incompetence

    The loss of the right to create a Scottish tax rate is unbelievable.

    That such a loss came about because someone forgot to pay the bill is just jaw-droppingly pathetic.

    With two-years notice now required, on top of the two/three years to get legislation drafted, voted upon and passed effectively rules out any use of the power inside a single term of a Parliament.

    Hopefully, the SNP will admit just who was responsible for this stupidity.

    Unless - of course - it was deliberate, to try and focus the debate on the extremes rather than all the possibilities.

    However, it feels more like incompetence; but all the same, whose incompetence?

    Thursday, November 18, 2010

    The royal engagement

    Is it just me, or is the coverage just a bit too understated?

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010

    A big thank you...

    ...to whoever found my laptop, exactly where I left it in the back of the luggage trolley at the airport, and handed it in to the security staff.

    Tuesday, November 16, 2010

    ROK collapse

    I've spent a large part of the past week helping companies and businesses affected by the collapse of ROK.

    Apart from the obvious danger to the future of local business one theme has been coming though.

    HIE = Highland and Islands Enterprise.

    ROK get the contract to provide all building services to HIE, despite not then having a base in the HIE area.

    The contract for the improvement to Arnish are awarded without the need for tender to ROK because of the insolvency of ROK urgency of the situation.

    Wouldn't it have been more appropriate for HIE to encourage businesses in the HIE area by, er, funding someone in the region to gain the skills to compete for the tender, or alternatively to determine that a HIE area business has to win the contract for the very economic reasons that HIE advance for their very existence.

    Regardless, I am picking up the crap that politicians issue inane press releases saying what they are thinking that they might think about doing something about.   I'm helping keeping clients in jobs. They are just doing their jobs with no regard for those affected. Grrrrr.

    Monday, November 15, 2010

    Council funding gap

    Schools are being closed to try to bridge the Council's funding gap.

    So where would the money come from to keep those schools open?

    Job losses?

    Well it looks like jobs and schools are to go, and the gap still isn't going to be bridged.

    There's only one place the money can come from, and that is the Scottish Government.  Unless you know better.

    Some of the redundancies are already agreed, and from those I about it is some of the best and most knowledgeable officers who are going to be first out the door.  Which is often the case when things go bad.

    Leaving the Council worse off at every level.

    Friday, November 12, 2010

    Using public money for party political ends

    Too much time on their hands, too little to do, and they are sitting there wasting your money....

    A recent comment on the blog:
    Anonymous said...
    "I'm told that..." = "I made it up in my head that..."
    12:34 PM
    You may have noticed that Google comments are 1 hour out, due to the clocks having changed.


    My goodness.  Which one of the MSPs multitude of staff was this, do you think?

    Apart from being contrary to the rules, this follows on quite nicely embarassingly from the Police investigation into the self-same computers being used to smear the former Labour Candidate with libellous comments.


    We'll be passing this to the Parliamentary authorities for their comments.  Was that you Kenny Flip?

    You would be appalled at the amount of time that Parliamentary staff are spending on this blog, but I am sure you can guess which of the comments - all coincidentally supporting the SNP - have been made by them  :-)

    How democracy works....

    A recent email from the Chief Executive explains how the policy of transparent and open discussion about the budget priorities will be followed (my emphasis)....
    Dear Councillor,
     
    Everyone in the Comhairle, Member and employee alike, is fully aware, even in advance of the announcement of the financial settlement for Scotland, and the Comhairle's own allocation of the Local Government settlement, that next year's budget process will be singularly challenging for the Comhairle, and as the recent Budget and HR Strategy Seminars have shown, the Comhairle has resolved to commence preparations for next year's budget at the earliest opportunity.   The Comhairle's customary approach to budget setting has been, as you are aware, to debate the whole budget strategy through a series of seminars, culminating in recommendations to special meetings of Policy and Resources Committee and the full Comhairle in February of each year, with discussions as to service priorities, and individual budget lines, taking place at these seminars.  It is appreciated that Party Groups particularly, in addition to individual Members, may wish to discuss and present alternative budgets to the Comhairle, the details of which may take some time to prepare, particularly in current  financial circumstances.

    If it is your intention to prepare and submit an alternative budget, even in outline, pleasse (sic) let either Robert Emmott or me know as soon as possible, in order that Robert and his team can arrange the necessary support and advice.  It is quite possible that it will not be possible or practicable to discuss significant strategic alterations to the budget late in the process, for example, in the hours and days before the budget setting meetings, and any such discussions should begin well in advance of the end of this calendar year.

    Kind regards.

    Malcolm
    Malcolm Burr
    Chief Executive
    So, if you went to one of the public events where you expressed your view on a particular aspect of how money should be spent or saved, you are not going to have an opportunity to hear any discussion (or even know if there was any discussion!) as the members will debate this in a seminar, which is held in private, and for which no minutes or records will be kept.

    The deals done behind closed doors will then be placed into public for ratification - not discussion of anything important - and the public will remain in the dark as to why A was cancelled whilst B went ahead.

    Seminars should be to improve understanding of the issues, and providing a general direction to the process, with the real debate held in public.  The only reason for not doing so can be fear of having the decisions scrutinised.

    Most bizarrely, with the seminars to decide upon strategy timetabled for next year, anyone with a different view on the final budget is asked to flag up their changes before the end of the year.

    We know it is going to be a tough process, just please let the public see how tough it is, rather than giving the perception of a cabal stifling real open discussion.

    Thursday, November 11, 2010

    Interconnected scrapped

    The announcement that SSE are withdrawing the connection only to reapply later is a bitter, bitter,blow to the communities and economy of the Western Isles.

    Where now for community schemes?

    Where now for wave power development off the west coast?

    Where now for the economic future of the islands?

    Any re-application for investment might take another year, they say, but in reality it is going to be 5-10 years before anything come of it, buy which time the developments will have passed us by.


    And, yes, let us point the finger at those whose opposition to the developments has been vociferous, systematic and pervasive; and which failed to even consider discussing the big picture in favour of a blanket unthinking nay saying at the highest levels.

    And who refused to discuss anything beyond outright uncompromising opposition to wind power, whilst trying to pretend that community schemes could somehow justify a cable?  The same people who are happy to support pylons to carry the output from wavepower across the islands, but completely opposed the same pylons for windpower.

    The same people who repeatedly refused to meet with the Council to discuss any sort of compromise support for modified Council aspirations, or try to find any middle ground between complete support and complete opposition. 

    I refer, of course, to our MP and MSP who have sacrificed Galson, Pairc, probably Storas, Tolsta, Shawbost and Point on a course of action they wouldn't debate because they didn't want to understand it.  And I know, because I was there when they flaunted their prejudice and ignorance when workable middle-way solutions were proposed.

    I am - as you might tell - disgusted, but the chickens have come home to roost, as I - and many other Councillors have warned.

    Hopefully, I can be more optimistic about our future when I next blog.

    Emergency Tug provision

    Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar, Scottish National Party)
    To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what steps he plans to take to ensure adequate marine emergency coverage for the Highlands and Islands following the removal of the Anglian Prince tug boat in 2011.

    Michael Penning (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Roads and Motoring), Transport; Hemel Hempstead, Conservative)
    holding answer 4 November 2010
    The current contract for the provision of emergency towing vessels at public expense will not be renewed when it expires in September 2011. Between now and the end of the contract, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency intends to work with the shipping and wider maritime industries, and also with local interested parties, local authorities and the Scottish Government, to explore options for ensuring the effective operation of commercial arrangements could operate in the future.

    ----

    Good question, detailed (if unsatisfactory) response.  Now can someone keep me appraised of what actually happens and who actually meets with whom.  Is it all bluster and waffle, or is there a cunning plan?

    Scottish budget

    It is going to be a budget offering only severe cuts, as John Swinney finds himself boxed in with expensive promises that cannot be undone, and with a real terms cut in cash available.

    Money cannot be created from nowhere - although there may be an attempt to (falsely) claim that that could so easily be the case in an independent Scotland - and if you want to spend somewhere then it has to come from cuts elsewhere.

    The reported change in policy from revenue to capital expenditure is not quite a case of deckchairs on the Titanic, but is not far off.  To the ordinary Council tax payer, there isn't much of a difference between repairing a mile of road and building a new mile, but for the bookkeepers it moves the expenditure.  And somehow the economists reckon that the later will create more jobs by virtue of a higher multiplier.

    There is no dispute that it increases the national balance sheet, which is A Good Thing.

    Personally, I think that slimming the bureaucracy and using the savings for actually doing things is actually likely to produce a better economic result, than some kind of financial juggling.

    But it is the impact on the other public services that has to be considered.

    With Nicola Sturgeon apparently having bargained for Health to be ring-fenced from cuts, then the other services were facing significantly larger cuts.  Yesterday's announcement that students are going to have to pay more for their education (for that is what it is) is just a taster of the extant of the savings that have to be made, and the kind of policy changes that are being considered.

    Being in power can sometimes be even more frustrating than being in opposition, as the SNP are finding.

    I predict a centralisation of funding, with revenue being cut from all public services (except Health) and channelled into a more centralised capital pot to be administered and distributed by the Government into both large national schemes and smaller local ones.

    Cue cries of "favouritism", "political bias" and "power-crazed Stalinist ministers" as the pot is distributed, just ahead of the election.

    It is going to be a deeply unpleasant few months for the SNP as they try to wrestle with the responsibilities of office, and justify successful small businesses paying no rates whilst home care services are being cut.

    Tuesday, November 09, 2010

    Oh! For a coherent rural policy

    I've spent the past few days trying to help various relatives who are affected by the schools closures to work out how they can oppose, reverse or just object to the closures.

    My message to them has been quite blunt: the battle was fought a few years back, and you lost.  You just didn't know or realise it.

    Of course, I'm not quite that heartless, but I'm not giving false hope, as I am most definitely not in a position to do so.  But it is still quite difficult telling people that they are almost certainly going to lose.

    Some years back the Council made a strategic decision based upon class numbers, depopulation and a big bag of money dangled by the Government.  The Council was offered two choices (a) brand new shiny schools part funded by Government, or (b) find your own money to maintain dilapidated and largely-empty schools.

    An invidious choice, but such is the nature of politics.

    And time moves on and the new SNP Government pledges that no rural schools will close with the approval of the Minister and only after proper consultation.  Which has the effect of dragging out the process, rather than actually changing the outcome.

    And all the time the Government(s) came the major changes in land ownership and the absolute support for rural communities to grow thrive and, er, educate their children in far off places.

    Why are crofters being encouraged to buy their own crofting estates to regenerate their communities, when with the other hand the Government is forcing - through financial mechanisms - the closure of the schools in the area?  And the care units will follow shortly in the name of rationalisation.

    Now, I am not one to back limitless public spending, but you cannot deliver on a policy that you deliberately undermine.  That is not a policy, it is a press release.

    A Councillor gave me some insight into the issues.

    Moves to try to keep some of the rural schools open - in exchange for modifications to the centralising impact of the new schools project - were stymied when the MSP refused to get involved in negotiations with the Government.  As the Education Minister is his former boss, the tone of the MSPs banal, and utterly hollow, press release decrying the closure decision betrayed a total lack of interest in the issue.

    I am told that three years ago he was asked by the Council to help broker a deal that would have saved some rural schools.  The MSP declined, and backed the Government financing and closure package against the Council.

    Hence where we are today.

    Good to know who your friends are.

    Sunday, November 07, 2010

    Thousands join march to support RAF Lossiemouth

    Anyone see any similarity between the massive SNP campaign to retain RAF Lossiemouth attended by the First Minister and supported by numerous SNP Governemnt press releases and the way the Range Hebrides campaign has had to plead to get access for an SNP Ministerial hearing, far less get any level of active support?

    Could it be anything to do with the level of importance/ability of the different SNP representatives in the minds of the SNP Government?

    Electricity boosts numeracy

    As the Independent put it:
    A tiny electric current applied to the back of the head can significantly improve a person’s mathematical skills for up to six months, a study has found.
    A senior Council employee has advised that the Council has approved the purchase of 31 new chairs to assist with the Annual Council Budget process.

    electric chair
    "Cut some street lights and just use my glowing head"

    Managing the public cash

    The Council has many different sources of income, so of which it earns, so of which comes as automatic grants and some of which it has to request.

    It's not rocket science to have a list of tasks which includes VAT Returns every quarter, PAYE every month and claim for grants A-Z on whatever cycle makes sense.

    Some of these claims are annually, others monthly, others when something passes a milestone.

    Why then, have claims for 2010/11 not been lodged for the Fuel Duty rebate that the council gets for every mile that the buses run, or for the subsidy that the Council gets from the Scottish Government for running the public bus services?

    I'm told that the unclaimed amounts are in the region of £150,000, and whilst it only (only! hah) affects cash flow, it shows a lack of focus on what should be being done by rote.

    [The solution will probably be to employ another member of staff, rather than to deal with the underlying omission]

    Perhaps someone on the Finance Committee or on the Commercial Operations (sic) Board might like to ask what else hasn't been done - I have a list - and why not?

    Friday, November 05, 2010

    Rural schools and teachers

    The Council spends 42% of it's budget on Education.

    Many of these costs are fixed - teachers' jobs and salaries are secure, and teachers can only be sacked in exceptional circumstances - and few significant costs can be changed in any meaningful time scale.

    The closure of the rural schools became inevitable as soon as the Council decided to build the new schools.  The centralisation of education is not new, as the empty derelict schools in Uist will testify, but is an inevitable result of a declining school roll in every area.

    Stop: yes some areas seem to have some growth in pupil numbers, but the supertanker that is the education system doesn't react to annual or quinquennial changes, but to long term trends.  And they are all down.

    The battle was lost when the previous Labour Government decided that the new schools had to be one building project and funded by PFI.  At that point the die was cast.

    The current SNP Government have promised to protect rural schools, whilst simultaneously approving a Council funding package that explicitly included the closure of rural schools as an approved element of funding the gap between capital costs and the grants/loans from Government.

    There will almost inevitably be a symbolic call-in of one or two of the 11 closures, but as the Government have already told the Council how they must re-consult to meet the Government's requirements for approval, it is nothing more than window dressing.

    Have the Council made the right decisions?  I don't think that they had any choice but to make the decisions they have made as they were constrained by past decisions, funding problems and Government instructions.

    I look at some of the Councillors who voted for the overall strategy, but most certainly not the schools in their own areas, and shake my head in disbelief.

    The Council is not the bad guy in this decision.  The blame lies with successive Governments - including the current one - who have failed to stem the economic decline of the islands, and who have failed to find the mechanisms to retain the people in the islands to secure the schools, the economy and the future.  Despite the promises they all churn out at election time.

    The islands population may be stabilising; but that is only because we are gaining retirees to replace the young we are losing.  But that isn't going to fill the schools, or keep a maternity ward in the hospital.

    Cllr Angus Campbell once proposed a bounty be paid for every child born in the islands, to which I would add that a further one be paid at entry into Primary school and again at Secondary school.  That might encourage the parents, and the challenge then lies with encouraging the children to remain or return and to - in turn - fill the maternity wards and the schools.

    Wednesday, November 03, 2010

    New schools project

    kennels

    As the new schools near completion, the Comhairle has an open day for parents, teachers and pupils to show them the new classrooms.

    A spokesman later brushed aside complaints saying that it was as a result of "A breakdown in communications resulting in the contractor - Kennels & Cages plc - misreading the plans."

    He later whinged that "It is not fair to blame the Council for work we designed, commissioned, supervised and approved, when clearly we have our heads up our backsides."

    Monday, November 01, 2010

    Fabrication and lies?

    Much as the Council may 'apologise' for the 'misunderstanding' of the contractor in building a cage for an autisitic boy to play in, I understand that the reality is slightly different.

    I am told, by a source I believe knows, that the area was build exactly as instructed by the Council.

    A Councillor suggests that I do an FoI request.

    Is there any Councillor out there with the balls to actually go and look at the specification that was issued by the Council?  Before the papers are lost....

    It might be worth cross-checking with the contractors that you have the real story, before coming to a conclusion.

    It appears that the specification may have been wrong because of a failure of communication inside the White House, but that doesn't stop the blame being sprayed around like fertiliser on a field. 

    It's not the mistake; it's the lies to cover it up.  Be brave enough to face it.

    Business development

    Every week seems to offer more proof of the opportunities that can arise for the Western Isles in certain sectors if you use a bit of innovative thinking and have the skills to deliver a service.

    Google Adwords has been driving at least £1,000 of new business to us each and every month for at least the past year from all across the UK, at a cost of under £50, which is great as it helps us to secure and increase employment in our office and spreads the risk of any local recession on our staff and business.

    As a consequence of the growth in some of our specialist sectors we opened an office in Aberdeen a few months back.  "An office" sounds very grand, as it is really more of an outreach point for clients in that area, but it has already proved its worth in securing business.  After all, perception is vitally important.

    We can offshore the work from the high-cost Aberdeen area, whilst offering personal contact, and last week alone we secured enough work to keep one member off staff busy 50% of their time for the next 2 years, minimum.  Having doubled our staff in the past year, we hope to do the same agaain next year, and all our staff are doing a fabulous job in absorbing and dealing with the growth.

    Now to knock on some more doors, physically and virtually.....

    Who guards the guardians?

    The manure is obviously meeting the air conditioning:

    18. The Director of Finance and Corporate Resources submitted a
    report in relation to an investigation into the award of Accountancy, Audit and
    Advisory Services by Sgoiltean Ura LLP.

    It was agreed:

    (1) to note the Report; and
    (2) that the Chief Executive submit a Report to Audit and Scrutiny
    Committee seeking to establish a Scrutiny Panel to examine the issue arising from the Report.
    One has trust that the Scrutiny Panel will look carefully at the role of the Chair of Sgoiltean Ura LLP.
    Not that one wishes to prejudice the situation, but if it true that Councillor Norman MacDonald has refused to meet with the Internal Auditor to discuss the investigation and answer the auditors' questions about his actions, and those of the LLP, then he needs to consider his position. As the deputy to our Glorious Dear Leader, if he is refusing to meet with the internal auditors', then he cannot continue in that position, as he is undermining the work of a key element of Governance of the Comhairle.

    One has no doubt, that the Panel will also consider the actions of the Chief Executive's Department in providing legal advice to the LLP whilst participating in all the relevant meetings.  However, with the Chief Executive's Department providing the remit for the Panel, and providing the legal advice as to what can and cannot be considered, it would be unfortunate if a conflict of interest at the highest levels went unacknowledged, and the Panel were not allowed to consider all relevant matters.

    Is it true that the Court papers included very specific evidence of corruption and malpractice, and that these papers have not been seen by any Councillors?

    Saturday, October 30, 2010

    Barra and Mingulay SAC proposals

    The Scottish Government sneaked out the Economic Impact Report into the above without any announcement or linkage to any other documents.

    Any guesses why that might be?

    The value of catches in the proposed dSAC in the Sound of Barra is £787,000 and in East Mingulay is £86,000.

    Para 3.5.8 summarises the restrictions likely to be placed on new developments:
    In summary, any aquaculture development proposed in the Sound of Barra and East Mingulay is likely to be affected by SAC designation due to the potential impact on the integrity of the sites. However, harvesting of seaweed is unlikely to be affected.
    Para 3.8.5 and 3.8.6 summarise the position for offshore renewables:
    The precise nature of short and long term impacts of noise and vibration on some of these receptors (dolphins, whales, seals, otters) is poorly understood at present and would need to be factored in all applications using a precautionary approach as well ensuring adequate research into the topic.
    In summary, while there are currently no proposed offshore renewable developments planned or proposed in the vicinity of the two dSAC, any proposals for future marine renewable development in or adjacent to the Sound of Barra and East Mingulay could require HRA but this is already likely to be required to satisfy protection requirements of existing Natura sites.
    Which in plain English means that any offshore developments that might affect seals will need to operate on the precautionary principle, and subject to veto by SNH.  As I guessed.

    And sub-sea cables will be forbidden, so say goodbye to broadband cables.

    Overall the expected impact of the proposals are a loss of £2,180,000 to the fishing sector and a direct cost of £836,00 to the Government if both areas are closed.  That will result in the loss of 58 jobs.  And you can guess where these jobs will be lost.

    Perhaps others can read this report and take something better out of it, but it is a bigger kick in the teeth than we thought.

    Friday, October 29, 2010

    Wave power in the islands

    With a seal conservation area announced today and covering the entire Western Isles, I think we can probably kiss goodbye to any significant wave power developments off the coast.

    Yet another expensive hoop for developers to jump through.  Or go elsewhere, where the hoops (and the seals?) don't exist.

    Any chance of an assessment of the conservation zones on the human population?

    Listening to the public (not!)

    So after careful consideration and advice from the quango that will benefit from the decision, the Scottish Government have undermined the local fishing industry, once again,.

    The Scottish Government has approved the case for a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) at East Mingulay, south of Barra, while vulnerable Western Isles seal populations are to be better protected.
    As Guth Bharraigh reported it in early 2009:

    Na h-Eileanan an Iar SNP MP Angus MacNeil has written to Scottish GovernmentEnvironment Minister, Michael Russell MSP, asking that no consultation be held with any view to making the Sound of Barra or east of Mingulay an special area of conservation. Mr MacNeil said: “I met with a local representative group at the weekend, who just feel that they are being strangled by conservation and designation orders. “
    They simply do not feel that any consultation should happen or SAC designation made which would take in most of the Sound of Barra and complete encircle the Island of Eriskay. People are frankly sick tired of the perennial conservation industry that comes their way.” He also stated that he was trying to find the person or group responsible in Brussels for this latest conservation bureaucracy to come to the affected islands and state why and explain just what threats they wield if the designation does not take place.

    It is with some relief that I note that the second designation has not been approved.  Yet.

    Further investigation in seal populations are - apparently - required.

    Any sign of a study into the decline in the human population in the islands?

    Thursday, October 28, 2010

    Working hard....

    After a break of 20 days, MSPs were back hard at it again yesterday, writing, scurtinising and approving some very important emergency legislation in record time.

    Or as the BBC put it...
    MSPs sat late into Wednesday evening to see it through
    That doesn't quite tell the whole tale, of course.


    Starting the day sharp at 2pm, the poor souls worked until close of business at 8pm. At which point they all patted themselves on the back for all their hard work.

    Food parcels can be sent to the usual address.

    Wednesday, October 27, 2010

    The cuts agenda

    The removal of the intra-islands ferry fare subsidy was an inevitable consequence of the cuts that the Council is facing, but there is more to this that needs to be considered than the simple financial aspects.

    It is going to be extremely serious for some businesses that are trying to thrive, and is a set-back for inter-island trading.

    The Council are absolutely right to be pushing for RET to be extended to all the ferries and not just island to mainland services, but one has to ask just what they have done to try and move this agenda forward over the past 4 years?  Have there been any meetings with the Minister, the MSP or MP* about this?  Has the Chair of Transport tried to use his political connections to try to make the case?

    With the RET scheme up for renewal, did no-one think about lobbying the Minister to extend the scheme to its logical conclusion?

    Anyone know what the MSP and MP (have been told to) think about the Comhairle's ambitions?

    Obviously, this was an issue that the Council took forward at the community consultations.  Wasn't it?

    Well, no it wasn't.

    The Councillors discussed the interim results from the consultation last week.  The consultations haven't finished, so they are going to have to go through an update again before coming to any conclusions.

    More that that, the Council launched an online survey (please, take part) in which you can outline your preferences, for many issues that didn't form part of the consultations that have already taken place, and omits some of the issues that have arisen.

    I haven't found anything about inter-island ferries on the consultation, which poses all sorts of questions about the extent, relevance and purpose of the consultations.

    Whilst it seems to be a great opportunity to let the public sound off, I am told that the remit and extent of options are very tightly controlled by the Council, and certain items are off the agenda.  With the actual options available to be discussed by the public not fully known at this time, it seems more like a cosmetic exercise than a real consultation.  Perhaps when the real menu of choices is provisionally selected by Councillors, then the public can be asked to have their say, before a final list is decided upon.

    The public do not have the right of veto or compulsion over the decisions, but the absence of any suggestion of job losses is irking.  Not that we want to see people sacked, but if the impression is that staff will be retained even if they have nothing constructive to do, it's only going to get the public's back up.

    Returning to the initial subject.  I am told that the current arrangements for hauling the waste from Balivanich to Stornoway are costs about 4 times what some hauliers say they could do the job for.  This is partially due to vehicle choice, and partially the general overheads the Council has to carry.  Perhaps this should be put out to tender to allow some of the hauliers who are going to suffer from the abolition of the subsidy a chance to recover some of the losses, whilst offering easy savings to the Council.

    After all, operating and then moving into the private sector exactly is what was intended at the time the recycling service was set-up, and was a fundamental part of the strategy that was agreed by the Councillors.  I should know, I helped design, approve, recommend and establish the service.

    *I know that it's a reserved matter that doesn't affect the MP, but his press releases ignore this when he has something to say.

    Monday, October 25, 2010

    Petrol prices

    So just what does the possible 5p per litre cut announced last month mean for the Western Isles?

    Call me a cynic but, the following has been pointed out to me.....


    SeptemberOctober
    Fort William 116.9p117.9p
    Stornoway 127.9p132.9p

    h/t to my source

    Closed school, not actually closed

    The revelation by Hebrides News that Bayble School was never properly 'closed' is as unbelievably shocking as it is predictable.

    There has been some 5 years of detailed discussion on the process for the new school, involving consultations, which have had to be re-run.  Reports by HMIE to the Scottish Government about the processes, and a protracted exercise to see how the new staffing structure could work.

    Only that somewhere along the way, someone failed to ensure the legal procedures were properly adhered to.

    Who, how and when are the three simple questions that need to be answered, and the culprits properly disciplined.  This failure is going to cost the Council huge amounts in time, effort and additional work that shouldn't need to be done, and which is only going to cause extra stress to parents, teachers and pupils before it is sorted.

    To give the public any confidence that there is the most basic levels of competency in the Council in expediting decisions, then we need to have a detailed public statement about what went wrong and why.

    To many failures are being brushed under the carpet, and too many are avoiding any scrutiny. 

    Whilst we might want a zero error level, reality is that we will never achieve that.  But when mistakes of this scale happen, Councillors need to find out why; and take the appropriate steps to stop them happening again.

    Are any Councillors prepared to take those steps?

    The future for the tugs

    Even before Cpt Magoo drove the RNS Titanic into the Isle of Skye, the future for the tugs wasn't quite as black as it was being painted by some.

    How do I know this?

    Well, I still have my old contact books, and I was able to get in touch with a very senior civil servant in the right department who was able to tell me all about the financial machinations that are going on behind the scene.

    This civil servant has a soft spot for the islands and has pushed some policies and decisions that have been highly beneficial to us.  During drinks after one meeting, his Minister candidly admitted not to understanding the marine aspects of his brief, and deferring to my friend (amongst others) when it came to making decisions.

    I am told that the MCA want to keep some or all of the tugs, and they have been offered up in the hope that the offer will be refused, and extra funding made available to keep the service going.  Sometimes known as "shroud waiving", it is a familiar and well known negotiating stance.

    Having given my views on the matter, influence really lies with the current political leadership in the islands to make a coherent case for retention of the tugs, as there does appear to be an open door reading for pushing.

    The events of last week only strengthen the case, and whilst no-one wants a disaster, the security and reassurance provided by the Minch tug is an essential element of the argument that needs to be made to the Minister.

    Petty point scoring won't do it; the clever approach might yield benefits.

    Thursday, October 21, 2010

    Labour selection process postponed

    I have the first photograph of one of the candidates going into the meetings that led to the delay.


    Jeez.  Defeat from the jaws of victory...

    (Apologies for upload problems)

    Tuesday, October 19, 2010

    Seumas Galbraith

    Eileen sent me this wonderful obituary to a wonderful Barra gentleman. I spent many fantastic days and evenings in their company, enjoying excellent hospitality and endless stories. I think the obituary reflects all his many attributes, and leaves me thinking of him very fondly, and the void he has left; especially for the lovely Mairi Bheag.

    Sunday, October 17, 2010

    LibDem policy reversal (episode 47)

    Remember those promises on energy sources?  Well they've gone the way of student fees, trust and the realisation that good ol' Uncle Vince is actually Keith Joseph reborn.
    Plans for a controversial £30bn Severn barrage tidal energy project stretching from Weston-super-Mare in Somerset to Cardiff are expected to be scrapped.
    Secretary of State for Energy Chris Huhne is expected to make the announcement in Parliament on Monday.
    Reports suggest the scheme is to be axed as it is not "financially viable" and that instead he will give the go-ahead to new nuclear power stations. 
    The LibDems may not realise this, quite yet, but the price of influencing the Government is to shed their principles and be the bearers of all the bad news.  This was exactly what happened in Scotland, and it looks like it is being repeated nationwide.

    Just what Clegg thinks he is getting from the pact is a mystery, but Cameron clearly has his Aunt Sally for the duration of the Parliament.  Just how the LibDems expect to ever have electoral success again remains an enduring and unanswered mystery.  And one that won't be answered with 5p of petrol prices at some point in the future, Europe permitting.

    Saturday, October 16, 2010

    Nothing costs anything

    There is a strange and inconsistent approach to the public finances by the SNP Government, and I don't think that the inconsistency does a lot to advance the quality of political discussion ahead of the election.

    That being said, they are also politically astute, which is probably the reason for them being made.

    Freezing Council Tax is highly astute as almost no-one ever likes paying more taxes, but all it does is to reduce the flexibility and options available to local councils, making them dependent upon central Government.  The Comhairle raises under 8% of it's income from Council Tax and this percentage is falling.  The end result is that the Council is being more and more 'guided' on how to spend, through the Concordat and through 'special funding' being made available for pet projects.  A prime example of this was the funding for Perceval Square which appeared at the last moment and had to be designed, tendered, accepted and commenced within weeks, because some spare funding was identified for a pet concept.  That money could, for instance, have been used to provide an improved home care service had it not been earmarked.

    Labour are going into the election on the back foot (apparently) by planning to increase Council Tax.

    However, this week I saw our revised office rates bill.  Nominally it is c£2,000, but with the small business discount it comes to zero.  Where is my incentive as a businessman to ensure that the Council spends the money wisely?  Where is the fairness and equality in it all?  Much as I might grudge it, I think that a realistic level of local taxation improves the responsiveness of the public to Council services and helps keep the public aware of what there money is being used for.

    Then the other side of the reality gap:
    The number of senior NHS bosses in Scotland will be cut by a quarter in the next four years, Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon has announced.
    She said the move would help fund policies such as SNP plans to abolish prescription charges by next April.
    Abolishing prescription charges might sound egalitarian, but it actually removes any constraint on frivolous medical demands and increases the likelihood of the issue of spurious prescriptions being issued and the wasting of medication.  I forecast pressure on the Health Board drugs bill as a consequence.

    But the other half of the vote-winning formula is the slashing of NHS management - with the absolute and utter meaningless and unenforceable assurance that it won't affect direct health care - by 25% over 4 years.  Great idea, but utterly unachievable whilst targets have to be reported, health initiatives delivered and enhanced fiscal control being demanded by the Government.  It's not even like natural wastage will come close to helping that target being hit. 

    Firstly, the natural wastage won't happen in the right places.  Secondly, just who is going to leave to take another job, when public sector job insecurity is so low?  The answers to both of these mitigate against any policy success, but a very good political slogan.

    I'm not suggesting that the public sector doesn't need change, but with the Government demanding huge and unachievable change, I forecast a huge bounty for the consultants helping the NHS design change programmes, and serious impacts on service delivery, if - and post-election who is going to say that promises will be kept by a minority Government - the proposals are implemented.

    Still it all makes for nice election leaflets and catchy slogans.  Unless you work in the NHS.

    Congratulations are due

    Congratulations are due to my good lady wife for two recent successes about which she has been unduly modest.

    Firstly, she has been asked to act an assessor for her Institute - the Charted Institute of Management Accountants - in appraising and vetting those who wish to apply for a Practising Certificate.  That means that she will be evaluating and approving (or rejecting!) a large number of the new applicants from CIMA who wish to run their own accountancy practice.

    This is obviously highly onerous and responsible, but it demonstrates both her high standing in the profession and the breadth and depth of her real life experience as a qualified accountant.

    Secondly, she has recently been appointed as a director of a significant US company in the leisure industry with which we are involved.  As the company has successfully ridden the recession and is coming out strong and ahead of the competition, it is obviously an exciting time to be involved.  However, the 'welcomes' were quickly followed by a huge budget pack and a long list of difficult decisions!

    I'm very proud of her, in case you hadn't realised this, but is all down to her incredible drive and abilities that she has achieved as much as she has in her life.

    Monday, October 11, 2010

    A break

    Giving everything else that is happening in the community at the present time, I don't intend to blog for a couple of days.

    Saturday, October 09, 2010

    ADS extended?

    It looks like you can now book ADS flights for next summer via the FlyBe website, implying that that the ADS scheme has been extended.

    Good news, but yet again delayed until almost the last minute.

    No doubt there will be a Ministerial announcement next week which makes lots of promises what will happen after the Election.

    Anyone from Labour want to tells us what they are promising?

    Thursday, October 07, 2010

    Caption contest

    Russell Brand meets whoever

    Go on, you know you want to speak your mind.....

    Discussing Uganda

    In this time of cutbacks, restraint in the public sector and general gloom and doom in the Comhairle offices, it is good to see that at the highest level Councillors are working closely together to ensure that the budgetting process is smooth and reflective of the wishes of majoirty.

    Members have been busy during this process, ensuring that the a serious two-way discussion between town and country takes place, covering all the angles, and resulting in intense after-hours enagement between the parties.

    It is unfortunate that this important process may have been misunderstood by the wife, resulting in an accidental transfer of kinetic force from her fist to his eye; which - no doubt - will form an important part of the budget setting process.

    Tuesday, October 05, 2010

    Hebrides Range in action

    Guga curry takes its revenge
    This just in, via The Register:
    The Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced yesterday that HMS Dauntless, second of the class, has made the first firing from a Type 45 of the French-made Aster missiles with which the ships are armed. All previous trial shoots were carried out using a test barge at French facilities in the Mediterranean.
    According to the MoD:
    The system successfully fired an Aster 30 missile from HMS Dauntless at the MOD range in the Hebrides and hit a moving target drone.
    "Both my ship's company and the equipment manufacturers have done a sterling job," commented Dauntless' captain, Richard Powell.
     "Better than the Mediterranean" has a certain ring to it, and this is something the Task Force should be shouting about to demonstrate the necessity of the range.

    The first person/newspaper to lift this story without attribution, and present it as their own will be named and shamed.  IP addresses are being logged!

    My free bottle of Aberlour turned up yesterday.

    Before you all rush around to help me drink it, it has gone into the drinks cabinet for a family celebration we expect for early next year.

    Monday, October 04, 2010

    Superfast Broadband

    Would you like superfast Broadband?  From BT?

    One of our friends works very close to the top of BT and has told us about "Race to Infinity", which allows you to vote for the areas to be upgraded.

    I don't yet know how it will be assessed and rolled out, but I have no doubt the readers will keep us informed about the process.  The top 5 exchanges will win the race....

    Vote early.  Vote often.  From every PC you can access.

    Update: Voting page reads "Stornoway, Western Isles has a current score of 0.05%" which implies something about percentage involvement rather than absolute votes.

    Further update: It looks like only Stornoway is eligible, having more than 1,000 premises. Sorry, but how about some Hebridean solidarity, and then we promise to work to get it rolled out throughout the rest of the islands.

    The Licencing Board give in...

    A Councillor phones me to let me know that the Licencing Board are about to lodge their defences against appeal by the Golf Club over the refusal of a Sunday Licence.


    I'm told that the Chairman has refused to sign up to anything other than a bland statement reiterating the majority decision (which he opposed) and that no attempt at justification will be made.

    The Golf Club's legal advisor?
    Largely, of course, as the legal advice given to the Board Members was that refusal was illegal and would lead to a successful challenge and costs awarded against the Board.  A matter confirmed by Cllr Murdo MacLeod when he abstained at the first hearing, before voting against after coming under pressure from the Church.

    Am I right in understanding that the individual members were cited, as well as the Board?  If so, could the Golf Club be looking for the £15,000 expenses to be paid by the Board Members individually, rather than by the Comhairle?  That would be interesting.

    Thursday, September 30, 2010

    A common language

    With all the talk about public sector spending cuts, it is utterly apposite that whilst working on some Dutch tax affairs for a client, Google Translate gave me the following:

    Dutch            English
    overheid         Government

    How to drag defeat from the jaws of victory

    The political fallout from the cask-handed and panicked decision to extend RET to the Western Isles is causing even more problems for a Government and Minister who should be sitting back and expecting plaudits.

    The goal posts have been changed again, and suddenly no-one is happy about any aspect of the decision.

    Quoth the Minister:
    However, Mr Stevenson said the Western Isles needed the road equivalent tariff (RET) scheme due to lower wages and a falling population.
    His comments coincided with the end of a ferries review consultation.
    Mr Stevenson told BBC Radio Scotland that Shetland residents had weekly earnings that were on average £70 higher than in the Western Isles and in Orkney it was some £50 higher.
    So is eligibility for RET now to be determined on the basis of household income in the island group?

    The Minister continued:
    It is absolutely clear that investment in the Western Isles is investment to support the economy and the future of these islands.
     Now, no-one can argue with that.  Especially the corollary of that which is that the remove of RET would undermine the future of the islands.  Which begs the question of why that might even be on the agenda as part of the fares review.  If the Government were serious about supporting the islands, we wouldn't have a hand-to-mouth year-by-year policy for RET, as that doesn't encourage investment or long-term planning.

    Indeed, as I have previously argued, the timescale for the 'pilot' is far too short to make a sensible decision.

    Year 1, few know about it. Year 2, the problems issues start to arise; Year 3, the position starts to stabilise and you can start an assessment; Year 4 of a 5 year policy would give you a sensible base on which to form a strategy; Year 5 is for an early decision.

    The review came too late and too near the election for anything to be decided and implemented before this time next year, meaning uncertainty for all.

    And even the SNP's guru on CalMac, Prof Neil Kay, a resident of Cowal, has very sharp words to say:
    What has clearly happened is that the public relations horror and electoral disaster that the RET pilot has stored up for the Government has finally dawned on someone in Edinburgh.
    ferry fail
    No, I am not talking about the public relations horror and electoral disaster that it will create for it in Argyll and Bute, that has already happened. I am talking about the public relations horror and electoral disaster that it would create for it in the Western Isles where this “experiment” has already cost £22mill.
    The RET pilot was due to end Spring next year. The penny finally dropped that Calmac will introduce their Summer timetables around end of March and that as things stood the end of the RET pilot would mean the Summer timetables would have to show a doubling of many of the current fares back up to their pre-RET levels – just weeks before the Holyrood election in May.
    Of course there may be reasons other than defering electoral trauma as to why the Government is spending an extra £6.5mill on Western Isles to extend the RET pilot there by another year. If anyone has any other rational explanations it would be good to hear them.
    With a flagship policy causing your friends to have a go, the competency levels are demonstrably low.