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

Friday, May 30, 2008

Check your bank account!

Regular readers will remember how I told them to apply for the Small Business Rates Relief Small Business Bonus Scheme, giving potentially large discounts for low rated buildings.

When we checked our bank statement yesterday we found the Council have collected 1/10 of the original bill, which equates to about 50% of the real bill.

Apparently, they had never received the application form which we sent in the day I originally blogged, and now they have the money, and the benefit of the interest, and we have to jump through the hoops again.

Anyone else got the same problem? Or is this a result of me criticising the process?

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Caption contest

Alasdaur Allan Mike Russell Stornoway HarbourAlasdair Allan MSP and Mike Russell MSP at Stornoway Harbour ....

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Quote of the week (if not the year)

As scurrilously reported to me by a Councillor who attended the "Local Income Tax" seminar held by the Comhairle on Monday, at Lews Castle College.

The Convener opened the consultation on the SNP policy for a Local Income Tax by explaining how unworkable and inappropriate it was to impose a local income tax on the Western Isles. He was supported by a number of Councillors, and then the Councillors moved to discussing the substance of the matter (with open minds, obviously!)

After much debate about the pros and cons of LIT, SNP Group Leader reiterated his support for progressive taxation* quoting Marx, "From each according to their abilities; to each according to their needs"

To which a Labour Councillor responded "That doesn't work here!"

* It's not progressive, favouring the wealthy - as I have detailed previously.

Fuel costs and a fuel duty regulator

The members motion being debated today in Parliament is in standard form, but makes no mention of any proposal for a fuel duty regulator to be set-up.

That the Parliament notes that the price of diesel is now over £1.30 in the Western Isles and across Scotland’s island and remote communities, making it probably the most expensive diesel in the western world; further notes that fuel costs now represent an ever increasing burden in the Western and Northern Isles, not least for businesses and fishermen, some of whom report 80% increases in diesel costs in the last two years; notes that the main company delivering fuel to the islands deposits fuel at differing costs at different ports on the west coast despite the fact that the same vessel is used; notes the irony of an oil-producing nation putting its motorists, businesses, fishermen and rural businesses in this impossible position, and finally notes the various measures that exist in parts of France, which make cuts in fuel duty in the remotest areas.

Presumably the suggestion about a regulator will come in the debate, and it will make very interesting reading to see just how that can actually be introduced, as the calls to date have been vague and unclear. And impractical.

As an example, when petrol costs 107.9p per litre it is split 32.60p for the product, 50.35p for the fuel duty, 8.88p for the retailer and 16.07p in VAT.

As I understand it, the proposal is that the Government yield should remain constant by varying the fuel duty.

So if the price of petrol ex-refinery increases by 50% to 48.90p and with 8.88p to the retailer, the Government should still take only 66.42p, giving a pump-price of 124.2p. (Which includes VAT of 18.5p and fuel duty at 47.92p)*

The the effect is to slow the growth in prices, not prevent them

Oh, yes; and slow any drop in prices too.

Then there is a hugely practical problem for some of those whom this measure is targeted at.

Bus operators and fishermen can reclaim the duty by completing a form certifying consumption and the duty rate applicable. These forms allow for three or four rates in any one year, but under this proposal, the applicant (or his accountant!) might have to schedule 200 different daily rates to make the claim. And someone then has to check this.

Of course, the motion is nonsense and more about grandstanding that achieving anything, as the Treasury will pay no more attention than if it was the subject of a poll on this blog.

The fundamental dichotomy is that we are all (supposedly) trying to stop our addiction to fossil fuels and promoting green energy, whilst car drivers are screaming that their petrol costs are going up.

Global demand is currently just behind global supply, and demand is expected to increase as the Chinese economy grows. What happens when supplies dry up? Provide subsidised bread to the masses to keep them happy, or the harsh face economic truths? Personally, I expect oil prices to continue to rise, and we will all have to make efforts to reduce consumption - or be made to through fiscal measures.

As far as the islands are concerned, the real ambition should be to have a duty-free and VAT-free status, like the Canaries, which will encourage growth and a self-sustaining economy at minimal cost to the Public Purse. Anything else but is a sticking plaster.

* According to Angus MacNeil MP, the yield to the Treasury should stay the same. So he presumably means that if increased prices reduce demand then the fuel duty rate will increase to ensure no loss to the Exchequer.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Bus costs

Those who see the good bus coverage we have in the islands probably do not realise that in part it is funded by the Bus Service Operators Grant which is a Government subsidy at a rate of 41.21p per litre, compared to the rate of 50.35ppl paid in fuel duty by bus operators.

Clearly this makes a huge difference to the viability of the rural bus services, and most particularly those where passenger volumes are low, but where the social need is the highest. It is one of the many essential services that communities require, but can never be justified in pure financial terms.
Bus Lewis
It is therefore very worrying to learn that the entire scheme is up for review under a current Department for Transport consultation which seems to prefer to make payments based upon passenger numbers, fuel efficiency of the vehicles and the installation of computer equipment on buses, such as GPS units.

You can see where this is going.....

The largest bus operators have the cash to fund this and back-office infrastructure to monitor and manage the computer equipment and make claims to Government.

Using passenger numbers will improve funding for 'rural' or lifeline services around sink-estates in urban conurbations, or rush-hour commuter traffic from dormitory towns.

Rewarding more fuel efficient vehicles is the only good part of this that I can see.

I know that the local bus operators can see the danger; but the end result is potentially an enormous funding requirement by local councils to pay for essential services where there are no alternatives, and not the cherry-picked routes in and around the cities.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Public Local Inquiry - the next step

it was very disappointing to read on Hebrides News that the decision from the Beinn Mhor Power PLI will not be expected before December.

As the report astutely says...

There was nothing particularly new in the inquiry that had not been rehearsed by islanders over the past four years.

Which begs the question of why it was ordered in the first place. Virtually everything has been discussed, argued, refuted or knocked about by supporters and opponents alike inside the Council Chamber or in the local press.

The one sure outcome is that the planned announcement in August by Jim Mather of a new 'strategy' for renewable energy in the islands will be against the backdrop of a pending decision that could fundamentally change the 'strategy' that requires to be adopted.

Put simply, it the application is granted, then there are few restrictions placed on new application, beyond those which would normally be raised anyway.

If the application is refused, then any application that can be seen from Callanish is effectively going to be prohibited.

Try drawing up a 'strategy' that embraces both possibilities!

You can't; which is why I believe that the announcement - when it comes - will be bland and uninspiring, and will give no real guidance or lead to the community. Warm words; hot air; and no substance.

Student endowments

Didn't we all cheer when Student Endowments were abolished?

Now some post-Graduate students have found that their deferred Endowment payments have become due and payable immediately.

Ignore the gibbering noises from the Labour spokesperson, but the underlying principle of almost no notice of the debt falling due, and being due to be paid by those just starting in work, often on very low salaries, and you have a recipe for hardship.

Worse than that, an easy political 'win' has just been turned into a mean-spirited 'loss' of all those directly affected, and their families.

Is there no understanding of the political implication of these sort of decisions?

School closures

The parents committees have taken another large step forward in their campaign to stop the closures with big signs where the roads enter Stornoway.

The one at the Manor roundabout compares the number of school closures in the whole of England (8), mainland Scotland (6) and the Western Isles (9), and seeks to create public support for the schools to be retained.*

However much sympathy I may have for the parents and pupils affected, I am also very aware of the financial atmosphere in which this is all taking place; and I do not envy the Councillors who have to make these choices (which I have previously suggested are being taken without the full context being considered).

With school rolls generally falling - although some schools are seeing a slight increase this year - the key driver is the absence of pupils.

There is a simple vicious circle:

Limited job opportunities -> fail to retain people of working age -> fewer children -> schools close -> community up in arms

Or a virtuous one:

Job opportunities -> people of working age attracted back -> more children -> schools remain open -> communities thrive

Not difficult to work out is out?

Parts of these islands are heading towards the former - rapidly - and the cost of that is going to be the loss of certain services in those areas. Unless someone has a magic pot of gold.

Retirement seems to be the only growth industry in large swathes of the West Side.

Perhaps someone will tell me how tourism will reverse this trend?

* Update 28/5/08: The correct detail on the poster is pointed out in comment 13. Sorry, my mistake.

Gang left MP unconscious

Call me unsympathetic, but don't you think that her own party are largely to blame for the whole situation?

Describing her encounter with the group of youths, she said

"I didn't see them but I heard them and I could tell that they were either high or drunk or they were very loud.

"I took my mobile phone out of my pocket and held on to it and when I came across them I realised they were really quite rowdy and could have been a bit of a threat, but I didn't think this much of a threat."

Perhaps she will now appreciate just what her constituents in Musselburgh have had to face for a very long time.

Does she think that there might, just, possibly, be a connection between the failure of the policy on 'Education, education, education', the encouragement of the supermarkets to grow their businesses partly by flogging cheap booze to the masses, and the lack of job opportunities or apprenticeships for youngsters and what has happened to her.

Perhaps, just perhaps some of the blame might lie with the former Scottish Executive, and it's failure to effectively tackle social issues. Oh no, that's not good enough....

The MP, whose property has been attacked in the past and who has complained of a political vendetta against her, said it was "highly unlikely" she had been targeted.

As the problems stemmed from a dodgy selection contest, it does seem unlikely, but she doesn't miss the moment of grandiose self-importance.

But she said: "I suppose there's a slight chance. I suppose those that have been nasty towards me politically could have said 'duff her up' or something like that.

She'll be looking for armed officers to follow her around next.

"But there was no way they would know I was going out at that time of the night."

At last reality bites.

She was mugged for a gold chain, her 'good' watch a diamond ring and diamond stud earrings. Perhaps the thugs saw a pompous middle-aged wealthy woman, who claims generous expenses yet seems to do little for her money, and they decided that redistribution of wealth was a policy that she used to support, and needed reminding about.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Bethesda and VAT

Driving through town and seeing the signs urging our support for the Bethesda Hospice appeal fluttering from lampposts, my thoughts turned to a recent story in the Stornoway Gazette.

Western Isles MP Angus MacNeil will be among a group of Cross Party MPs who will be meeting the Prime Minister Gordon Brown this week regarding VAT on hospices.

Does anyone know what has happened, or even if the meeting took place? A Google search for Press Releases gives no clues as to who else was planning to be there or any post-meeting comment.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Scottish Futures Trust

An enigma, wrapped in a riddle, surrounded in mystery.

Today's announcement has gone some way to explain just how this might work in the future and how the change is better from the existing system.

Here's a diagram from the announcement, to make it all clear.


Can you spot all the differences from PFI?

And how it is going to be better/cheaper/more efficient?

Me neither.

It appears to place a new public body (another quango) between the financiers and the ultimate customers, presumably intended to cap the return to the lenders.

However, when you cut through the consultant bullshit and vague statements (sample: Coordinate and promote the development of tax incremental financing and asset backed vehicle models in the regeneration sector), you get a list of aspirations that no-one seems to fully understand.

"Tax incremental financing", for instance, uses increased income from capital investment to pay for the debt to build the capital investment. In other words, the same as "Spend to Save", "Modernising Government Fund" and, er, PFI.

And look at stage 2 of the plan. At that point the public sector moves out and private partners move in, shaking their "conduits" at everyone; speaking fluent consultant; making a large profit from the public sector; and, being the sole approved source for financing new projects.

Just like Partnerships UK, actually, set up by Thatcher to drive PFI forward and now doing a roaring and profitable trade under Labour. As in that case, financiers will try to get on board at stage 1, to be the ones able to feed their snouts at stage 2.

This SBC has set out the case for the establishment of a SFT initiative, whose delivery would be supported by the creation of a new SFT organisation.

No it hasn't. Ignore the prolific use of acronyms - which seem to have some sort of enhanced status in the new Government - which are there to obscure, and you find a series of 'maybes' joined together with lots of words frequently in the right order that ultimately betrays a lack of substance.

Principle behind the plan: 10/10
Substance of the report: 2/10
Strategy for taking it forward: 4/10
Overall: A hollow shell

Big Brother

A report in today's Times reveals that the Government plans to store a record of every phone call and email in the UK.

Under RIPA, this information will be available to a variety of public bodies, including, but not limited to the Police, MI5, MI6, The Inland Revenue, The Post Office, The Foods Standards Agency, The Intervention Board for Agricultural Produce and, of course, the Comhairle.

Suddenly all these bodies, and more, will be entitled to get access to your calls and emails if they suspect a crime or some misfeasance. Suspect being the key word.

You data will be kept entirely safe by the wonderful data managers in the Government, and there will be no prospect of the information being leaked. Ever. At all. My arse.

The 12 month time limit is a red herring, given that some investigations may take much, much, longer. So how long before the first request to extend this time 'due to an ongoing investigation'?

Tie this in with a possible National ID card, number plate recognition software and mobile phone records and the Government can track you everywhere at the press of a button; or more likely, fully automatically.

This actually gives the Government more power over it's citizens than those anti-democratic dictators in China; or that nasty, nasty, regime of Robert Mugabe. But don't worry, Gordon Brown wouldn't dream of allowing this information to be used for trivial purposes, or for imprisoning people without trial.

The sooner this lot of power-mad idiots are ousted the better.

(Declaration of interest: this might affect the information I am sent by email by various Council employees)

Monday, May 19, 2008

Beinn Mhor Power Public Local Inquiry

I had a most entertaining morning - OK, an hour - at the PLI this morning where I read my precognition and was then cross examined.

One Freudian slip in reading my precognition, where I called the Head of Economic Development, Calum Iain MacIver, by the name of my neighbour, Callum Iain MacMillan; which certainly insulted one of them, and possibly both.

No questions from SNH; some sensible, incisive (but fair) questions from the John Muir Trust; and some simple questions from Dr Finlay, representing MWT.

A whispered aside (perhaps deliberately loud) from Counsel for SNH, "Here's something from the man on your right's blog from last night. It will give you a laugh." (I was on her left!)

Exit stage left, leaving Mr MacIver and then the Vice-Convener to face the much, much, more intensive questioning.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Death by quango

I really, really, hope that this story is untrue, but given the nature of the source I have to believe that the facts are as given here.

The community in Tolsta are trying to develop a small wind power scheme.

Lewis Wind Power provided the community with the bird movement data, which indicated that the site chosen by the community was possibly the best anywhere - the red-throated divers were nowhere nearby, and no protected birds flew through the site at all; bypassing it to north and south.

Since the Lewis Wind Power scheme was refused, Scottish Natural Heritage have told the community that the bird data given to them by LWP is unacceptable and they must commission new studies that meet with the approval of SNH. This might be due to the inconvenient 'fact' that it doesn't produce the result SNH want.

This attitude probably puts the community plans back by two years, and may be beyond their resources to finance. But don't worry, there is plenty of money to pay for the SNH staff; their jobs and their communities are not being disadvantaged in any way.

Now the directors of the scheme have received a letter from SNH telling them that they cannot proceed with any development without the full approval of SNH, and reminding the board that if they do anything then they may face huge fines and possible criminal prosecution; and they helpfully provide details of the potential jail time they could get for maliciously trying to develop the economy.

And remember, this is being done in our name by the authority of the Scottish Government, for our benefit.

It is clear that the policy is now to totally sterilise the moorland of North Lewis from any development, irrespective of the community view, and to place another layer of unelected authority above the community, above the Council, and apparently even above the Minister.

Doesn't it just fill you with a warm glow, when you have a bunch of superannuated civil servants destroying our island and telling us how to live our lives, from some nice comfy offices in Inverness or Edinburgh.

"Bonfire of the Quangos", anyone?

Update 19/5/08: My chronology may be slightly askew, but it doesn't change the story -- corrected details to follow.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Sunday football

Amidst the farcical row about the girl's football team not being able/allowed to take part in the Coca-Cola Sevens final as it takes place in a Sunday, the reality of the situation has been kind of lost.

The utterly vacuous motion at the Scottish Parliament does it's best not to offend anyone whilst trying hard to avoid any constructive suggestions. It's about being seen to do something; not actually doing something.

The previous tournaments had taken place on a Saturday, which would have excluded Orthodox Jews, whilst Fridays would have excluded Moslems. So who is to say which group should be more inconvenienced? And, which day is more convenient for the majority?

Tesco's plans - an update

As you know, Tesco have a 'national pricing' policy, supposedly ensuring that goods are sold at the same price everywhere.

No longer.

According to Shetland Today, reporting on a meeting between Tesco and Lerwick Community Council,

According to the community council, Tesco may depart from its national pricing policy in the case of the northern and western isles. Mr Wilson (corporate affairs manager) said Tesco was “looking at the additional costs to get goods to the islands”.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Busy days

With my political activities having been placed on the back burner, it has been interesting to sit back and watch everyone else getting the flak for the decision that have to be made.

However, this week has been an exception.

The prospect of appearing at the BMP Public Inquiry is an intriguing reminder of the good and bad bits of being on the Council, and the continual changes to the probable itinerary have made for interesting time planning(!) Thanks to some of the attendees for keeping me up to date with some of the events behind the scenes.

I've also ended up being interviewed by a journalist from Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wearing all sorts of different hats, as per usual, about the refusal of the impact of the Lewis Wind Power on the economy of the islands. I believe that all sides of the argument have had the chance to have their say, but as the newspaper is exclusively in German, I'm not sure we will ever know just what the view from Continent really was.

Today I'm off to do an interview with Radio 5 Live on the Public Accounts Committee report on the Inland Revenue. As I was found through a web search, this shows what a good web presence (or at least a high Google ranking) can do for you. Being 13th in the searches for "Chartered Accountant" in Google UK is very pleasing and has driven a lot of mainland business our way, as in the service sector it doesn't matter about physical location when IT services can deliver for you.

This week and every month we have posted some original documents to clients in four countries who don't care about our location, and as long as the post continues to deliver as quickly as it currently does, our clients in continental Europe and the middle East are happy. With lower costs than the big city centre offices were charging, they are even happier, and we are bringing work, incredible experiences, and wonderful challenges to our staff. This is but a small part of the opportunities for the islands, and is something we all need to continue to build upon.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Remove head from arse...

....before making any important pronouncements.

The desperate well thought out measures announced today by Cpt Mainwairing The Badger of the Exchequer on taxation policy must be making every former Chancellor turn in their grave, or the House of Lords as we know it, as they see the magnificence of the ill-thought out series of pronouncements and their impart on the crucial target group of voters.

Just before a major electoral test.

In which you get a serious, serious, kicking.

And then announce a u-turn which has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the outcome - "Do you think we are that shallow?"

Increase the personal allowances to reduce the tax bill on the poorest. Reduce the higher rate threshold to increase the tax on the highest earners. Bloody hell, you would think we had communists socialists liberals wet Tories running the country.

Just wait for the (fake) outrage in the Telegraph and Mail tomorrow and a subsequent 'clarification' from the Badger.

I'm not sure that 'useless' is an adequate description of the fall guy's (in)abilities....

Rural General Hospital

In July of last year I flagged up the potential issues surrounding the creation of "Rural General Hospitals" highlighted in a document produced by the Highland and Western Isles Health Boards.

Today the Minster has announced that the document has been accepted (in full?) and that the Government are proclaiming a Secure Future for Rural Hospitals.

Yes, but.

I'm not a medical professional, but it looks like the centralisation I was worried about is happening, when you read through the detail of the press release, and spot the omissions.

The six hospitals - in Oban, Fort William, Kirkwall, Lerwick, Stornoway and Wick - will all now provide core services, including:

* Outpatient, day case inpatient and rehabilitation services
* Nurse-led care for urgent cases, managing minor injuries and illnesses
* Initial management of broken bones
* Routine and emergency surgery
* Management of acute medical conditions
* Management of patients who have suffered a stroke
* Management of long-term conditions
* Maternity care, led by midwives
* Management of patients with more complicated problems before they are transferred.

"Initial management", "Care for urgent cases", "Management" and "transferred" are some of the key words that hint at what is missing.

Yes, the hospital is secure; but, the range of services is going to be reduced and the service is going to be provided at the centre by Raigmore. There is obviously a balance between quality of service and the access to those services - especially by the elderly or relatives of the ill.

The full report is available here, and whilst the creation of a new breed of specialist,

one who combines the skills of a general practitioner with specialist training in acute medicine,

or a "General Surgeon" as they used to be known, before being phased out, is to be welcomed, I think the balance of centralisation has moved just a bit too far, and we will be worse off for the changes.

Priorities, priorities....

Beer not childrenA car driver in Australia has been fined for strapping down his beer rather than his young child.

Police said they were "shocked and appalled" when they pulled over the car south of Alice Springs in Australia's Northern Territory.

They said the 30-can pack of beer was strapped down between two adults in the back, with the five-year-old child unrestrained on the floor.

The driver was handed a fine of A$750 (US$709; £362).

The fine was for failing to ensure a child was wearing a seatbelt as well as driving an unregistered and uninsured vehicle.


The full Antipodean madness can be read here.

Clear out at the Health Board

The relatively new management at the Health Board have taken some further decisive action following the savaging by the Audit Committee of the Parliament.

Four of the non-Executive Directors are leaving at the end of their period of office, presumably clearing the way for a new approach to the fundamental issues that still continue to float beneath the surface.

No-one has suggested that any culpability lies with the non-Execs, but clearly there is a desire to bury the former management (in both senses) and to move on. Which can only be a good thing, and clearly lays responsibility for the future into the lap of the new team at the top.

The only hangover remaining is the accumulated deficit; but by demonstrating the Board's ability to deliver, it is hoped that the Government may reconsider the impact of the accumulated deficit on the delivery of services. Hoped.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Blair 'secretly advising Brown'

Tony Blair is giving advice to Prime Minister Gordon Brown and has told him how to win the next election, Cherie Blair has said.

Given that the first element of 'secretly' advising someone is, er, secrecy, why has this pearl of wisdom and respect for confidentiality come from?

Her disclosure is made in an interview with the Times newspaper to coincide with its serialisation of her autobiography...

Oh bugger, I could have guessed.

First Prescott with his unbelievable 'Gorge and Purge' revelations of his antics as a failed bulimic and now we have one half of the Blair's trying to find money to pay for another multi-million pound house.

Gordon Brown needs this like a hole in the head. Which might, of course, be the intention.

Cherie Blair - gobshiteCherie Blair: Gobshite

Uist House - update

I understand that a significant part of the problem was the failure of the Health Board to convey the property to the Council in time, and consequently it could not get conveyed on to HHP.

So it was a tripartite failure.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Conflicts of interest?

The 'schools project' that is currently going through the Comhairle is probably the most complex and interrelated series of decisions that the Council will have to take for many a long year.

To make sure that the decisions are properly taken, then all the Councillors need to be objective about each and every strand of the approach, and to challenge and consider whether each strand - in itself - is the correct way forward.

I have no doubt about the difficulty of the decisions that are being faced, and if the new Councillors didn't see this coming when they stood, then you can draw your own conclusions. There are three legs to the problem:
  • A serious drop in pupil numbers in some schools
  • The new schools PFI
  • The impact of the new curriculum on S1/S2
The first is relatively easy to deal with, although it speaks volumes about the demographics.

The second is driving the entire decision making programme.

The third is popping up now and again, as a side issue, when it should be a key part of the decision making process.

Unfortunately, the PPP is the be-all and end-all of the process, and it is being assumed that it must take priority over every other element. The fundamental changes that there have been since the PPP was first considered should mean that the entire approach requires to be considered again in full.

If school A cannot deliver S1/S2 classes then the impact on the rest of the decision making should be reconsidered; and the knock-on on the other schools in the area should be carefully considered. But, the PPP is calling the shots; when it should be the Council and the pupils making the best decisions.

This is the Council's vision for the delivery of education through the Special Purpose Vehicle, or as it is described...

The Comhairle, as the client, is committed to procuring the schools through a Hybrid PPP Model, which is outlined above. The Comhairle will borrow money from the Public Works Loan Board to fund the capital costs of the new schools.

The Comhairle will set up the Special Purpose Vehicle and intends to own 100% of that SPV; the Contract between the Comhairle and the SPV will be based on the Standard Scottish Schools Contract. The Comhairle will provide the SPV with the Brief and Output Specification for the schools.

No let's be fair. This is the previous Executive's vision for the future, put into words by the Council, and now endorsed by the Government. Missing from the diagram are the hundreds of Consultants extracting fat fees, and the teams of lawyers who will descend on the completed project and suck the lifeblood out of the project.

The the leaks come out that Councillors who are on the Special Purpose Board are going to get a bollocking for voting to save some schools.

Excuse me!

If, as the report suggests, membership of the SPV Board implies that you must vote for school closures, then should not all Councillors on the SPV Board have declared an interest and excused themselves from the relevant meetings; or face an accusation that they are inherently biased in their approach to the decision?

Surely, the SPV is there to implement the decisions of the Comhairle, not to set policy. That role - last time I checked - is the responsibility of the Councillors. Just who is pulling the strings here.

Although I may not agree with the reasoning, I think that Convener MacDonald and Councillor Manford showed the correct approach to decision making, which is to consider each decision rationally on it's individual merits, rather than being told how to vote.

Was pressure brought to bear on them yesterday at the Board Meeting? Are they now toeing the line? (Who's Whose line!?!) Will there be declarations of interest by Board members in future?

And last, but not least, why are there no agendas or minutes publicly available on the Council website?

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Uist House

Today sees the opening of the replacement for Uist House, the Social Work nursing home for the elderly of South Uist.

I understand that the project has been overspend -- as seems almost inevitable with any capital project of any size -- although the exact value is unclear at present.

But that is the least of the problems.

As part of the development the Hebridean Housing Partnership were to acquire a number of flats in the building to provide a better and more coherent level of service to the residents of those flats. These flats were to be paid for by a grant of £350,000 from Communities Scotland which would fund most - if not all - of the cost of the properties.

The deal should have been done by the end of March, but for some reason the Comhairle failed to arrange the transfer of title from the Comhairle to HHP by that date.

The consequence? The grant was lost, and pulled back into the central pot by Communities Scotland.

Cue outraged howling from all quarters; except Councillors, who seem to have been kept in the dark.

Last Thursday the Chief Executive of HHP, Angus Lamont, met with Communities Scotland Housing and Regeneration Directorate (as they have been renamed) to discuss the budget allocation for the coming year and to try to get the 'lost' funds back.

The Housing and Regeneration Directorate offered to allocate a further £350k for this project, but only on condition it came out of the existing current year grant - in other words, all from existing funds.

So how is this to be funded, other than by making cuts of £350k in the HHP budgets?

Why are the Comhairle blaming HHP for this situation?

Why is this not the only situation where incompetence has resulted in money being lost to the islands? (Details to follow shortly on another example)

Is anyone to be held to account for this situation? No matter how senior they are?

And, when will the Councillors be told?

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

No comment required...

From the Gazette:

Climate change set to destroy Salmon?

SCOTLAND's wild salmon stocks could be facing serious decline if action is not taken to limit the effects of climate change, according to experts.

The country's rivers support one of the largest Atlantic salmon resources within Europe. The cold water fish, found in temperate and arctic regions of the Northern hemisphere, has a complex migratory lifecycle in both marine and freshwater phases, and experts believe climate change is affecting both of these stages.


As if it wasn't bad enough with Wendy Alexander flip-flopping about on the referendum/neverendum/neverhaveone issue, it now turns out that she may not have read the Parliamentary rules correctly.

For the record, I think it was astute of her to try to bring the independence/devolution matter forward in an attempt to try to control the debate.

However, set against the repeated and continuing refusal to discuss independence, or even to see it is a viable possible alternative, she was bound to get a lot of flak. Indeed, having apparently not discussed the matter with her colleagues or with Number 10, she appeared to be doing the political equivalent of strapping the 12-bore to her temple whilst writing a suicide note.

She duly took collateral damage from her own colleagues, before wondering dazed into the line of fire from the Government.

Now the BBC report that her proposal for an early referendum may not be constitutionally possible without the support of a member of another political party and even then may not be allowed if the Government intend to legislate on the matter during the current term.

The former rule is eminently sensible to try to avoid political grandstanding, and you would have thought that one of the political allies (definition: someone we use to get into power; and ignore as irrelevant at other times) would have been lined up to jump that hurdle.

Not so, our Wendy. Walking blindly into an elephant trap that her own party designed, approved and legislated on, it appears that they never read the rules, and have little idea of how it all works.

The second obstacle is less clear, but would seem to prevent any opposition party launching A Good Idea as a piece of legislation by allowing the Government to promise to intend to think about - maybe - bringing forward the self-same legislation themselves.

Irrespective, yet another good plan scuppered by the most basic failings to understand the rules around the game.

Are there any depths of incompetence to which Labour cannot plummet?

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

NHS Western Isles - the aftermath

The Parliamentary Committee has reported, and the damning report is reported in detail on Hebrides News and in the Gazette.

I'll not go through the report in detail, but suffice to say the ancien regime get a serious kicking and have their entire credibility torn apart, due to their ability to 'forget' a serious and major report.

The new management are praised for bringing the position into balance - and quite right too - so does this represent the final time we will hear about this matter?

Probably not, and there is still - surely - the significant matter of the behaviour of the former Chief Executive that remains to be addressed by his current employers, the Western Isles Health Board.

Monday, May 05, 2008

It's a man thing...

Barbeque unitWith the weather in Stornoway being an unfeasibly high 21C - putting us on an isotherm with Faro, Ibiza and Casablanca - it was time for the barbecue equipment to come out and be tested for the forthcoming season.

With the family having had various assorted ailments over the past week or two, and with us having to grab sleep as-and-when we can, this weekend has been an opportunity for relaxing and spending some quality time together, whilst we are all relatively well.

Being a man, my job is to stand at the barbecue unit and pretend to know what I am doing, whilst some of the food was underdone and some overdone. The kids enjoyed it, until the midges arrived.....

The equipment is now certified to be in full working order, so I hope we will have many more this year to which the usual suspects will be invited - you know the routine; an email leading you to a web page, leading you to a vast supply of food and assorted drinks to be consumed by responsible (!) adults and assorted children of various ages.

Peat cutting

Calum Steallag blacksmithWith Calum 'Steallag' MacLeod getting big coverage in the Guardian and the Gazette for his vast increased production of tarasgeirs (peat irons) there is just one very small sound of caution.

The Stornoway Trust Chairman, Iain MacIver, was interviewed

There are concerns, however, about the environmental impact of the trend. Iain MacIver, chairman of the Stornoway Trust, one of Lewis's largest landowners, said that since the cessation of peat-cutting most of the peatlands had won protection under wildlife legislation. And most peat banks available outside the traditionally cut areas were already heavily depleted. "There's nowhere left, unless we start getting into the designated zones".

This is actually a potentially very serious and dangerous position into which the community is being driven.

The banks on the designated peatlands cannot be re-opened without permission from .... well, from just who? Presumably, any attempt to re-open these banks will have to pass the test of environmental purity that SNH, RSPB the John Muir Trust and umpteen other unelected and far distant organisations will apply. And what are these tests? No doubt they will be 'developed' as the applications are submitted.

But the report by Richard Lindsay (University of East London) which was initially used by RSPB to justify their stance on the LWP application called for a complete and total ban on all economic activity on the designated land. I read that report carefully and there were to be no new peat roads; old peat roads were to be unmaintained and allowed to degrade; no moorburn; and, no peat cutting. Each and every one of these activities was inimicable (in the view of the self-proclaimed expert) to the preservation of the moor in it's current state, and eventual return to the original 'pure' state.

Although the report used to be on the web, it seems to have disappeared around the time it was systematically demolished by Boreas Ecology, but this report has formed the basis of the entire approach adopted by the RSPB, and I expect the unelected and unaccountable will try to use this 'justification' to prevent even the most basic economic activity on the moor.

Remember, the locals don't know how to protect the moorland; but all the do-gooders do.

How taxation works

The UK is supposedly a good example of how progressive taxation works, so let's have a little primer for those who don't understand just how it all works.

Individuals pay tax at 20% or 40%. It used to be 10%, 22% and 40%, but the 10% band which benefited the poorest was abolished to make things fairer. The cost of this was negligible to the Treasury in actual £, but this was offset with 331 Councillors unseated.

Small limited companies pay tax at 20%, up from 19%, as small companies are so important to the economy that they must be encouraged and fostered.

The biggest companies pay tax at a nominal rate of 30%, but by the judicious use of off-shore companies the actual rate they pay tax at is greatly reduced, often to only negligible sums.

Now the big listed plc's are threatening to relocate to foreign jurisdictions in a seemingly endless macho contest between countries to show how attractive they are to multi-nationals.

The end result of this will be a comparatively small hole in the budget.

But, I forecast that Chancellor and the Prime Minister are so in awe of the multi-nationals that they will bend over backwards to give them more attractive terms to persuade them to 'stay' in the UK, when in actual fact they are just using the issue as a stick to beat the Government with.

And who will pay for these sweetners? Why, you and I of course.

It is perhaps the 'greatest' legacy of Margaret Thatcher that she has bequeathed a Labour Party who will bend at the knee in front of the rich, as they fail to understand who they work and think. Socialism and redistributionist policies need to reappear on the agenda, but I don't believe that NuLab have it even on the radar.

Friday, May 02, 2008


Why can the rest of the world know about Viscount Lindley?

Remember the Spycatcher fiasco, and how that made everything worse?

Farewell Gordon Brown

It may be two years early (just what is the latest possible date for a General Election), but this is the end of the beginning of the beginning of the end of the brief and deeply unsubstantial premiership of a figure who was better in the shadows than the limelight of his predecessor.

And Boris wins in London - as confirmed by Tessa Jowell, in possibly her first ever honest and open statement - a mere 30 minutes ago.

The scale of the losses are immense, 331 councillors and 9 councils down takes some doing, and the resurgence of the Tories seems to have been at the expense of all the parties, so the results will take some reading and some analysis before we have the slightest understanding of what it means.

Beyond Cameron in Downing Street after the election, obviously. With a hefty majority.

I'm almost glad the Tories have done so well, and this is the kind of feeling I never wanted to have. But, Labour have lost the plot, the philosophy, and the drive they once had. And allowed Tony to subsume into the wishes of George W. And then tried to rediscover.

Too late.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Lochmaddy Hospital

The hospital has been sold by the Health Board to London Shetland Securities Ltd, a dormant company registered with Ledingham Chalmers, Solicitors, in Aberdeen.

As the Gazette reports, this is "a company on which there is little information available, apart from a registered office address on Rose Street in Aberdeen". Perhaps to them.

A few minutes research told me who occupies the Registered Office, and that the sole director is a solicitor with Wilsone & Duffus, Solicitors, Aberdeen. The company who owns all the shares in London Shetland Securities Ltd is dormant and is owned by a nominee company controlled by Ledingham Chalmers.

All in all, a structure designed to obscure the real ownership, at least in the short-term, which in itself poses more questions about the identity and intentions of the new owners.

Any more information gratefully received.