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

Monday, November 30, 2009

Town Hall refurbishment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schools funding debacle continues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 29, 2009

First of many...

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Global financial crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just back in the land of the living

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

(Situation normal, I hear you cry!)

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Housing problems

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

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


Withdrawal of BP Fuel Cards

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

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

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

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

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

Unless you know different.

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

Friday, November 20, 2009

500,000 thanks

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

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

Thanks for putting up with me.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

HHP, Stock Transfer and the Council

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

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

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

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

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

But back to how it happened....

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

DSO - an apology

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

I was utterly wrong.

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

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

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

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

Clydesdale Bank £5 note

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

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

Monday, November 16, 2009

COU crunch meeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Scottish Football Team

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

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

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

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

Commonwealth Games - who pays?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 13, 2009

Stornoway town centre regeneration fund

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

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

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

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

Stornoway town centre Sundays
Stornoway town centre on Sunday

* Artists impression, post regeneration

Praise where praise is due (updated)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glasgow NE result

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

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

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

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

So why did this happen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Synthetic fury over fuel card withdrawals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 06, 2009

On the buses....

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

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

That's caught your attention hasn't it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Shock at love rats on ultra-religious islands

Dear God!
Thanks and (c) The Sun

Just how many people can this offend?