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

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Not quite RET 'pilot project' to be 'extended'

I've had to rewrite this posting a number of times, and temper my disgust. I'm not sure I succeeded.

One cheer for the blatant electioneering that delivers nothing much, but the opportunity for the next Government (whoever they might be) to cancel the 'pilot'.

The fare reductions are A Good Thing. But, by themselves they achieve little of lasting benefit for the islands. It is only as part of a wider strategy that they will actually be of great and lasting benefit to the islands.

The failure of RET has been that the necessary infrastructure - bigger and more frequent ferries - aren't even on the horizon with CalMac having announced that they (for which read the Government) hasn't got the cash.

We have ferries that locals can't get onto; tourists who arrive at the ferry ports to find that last minute bookings are impossible; and, a change in the nature of the visitors, with more camper vans arriving. I've had hoteliers tell me that they are regularly 'full' until the visitors reach the port of departure and find they cannot get on the ferry. One 'full' hotel in Uist lost over half it's guests the night I was there, for that very reason.

The islands need to adapt, and that means new investment in new hotels and new facilities to meet the new demand, and the unmet demand that is sitting on the quay at Ullapool, Oban or Uig.

A one year extension doesn't deliver that, and no developer in their right mind will pump large sums into renovating, extending or adapting their hotel or guest house on the back of such a vague and weak promise.

By providing the capital for better ferries and more frequent services, the Government should see the economic regeneration of the islands, which can only be good for everyone, and will be a constructive use of taxpayers money.

If you drive across the new, wonderful, causeways in Uist, you have a beautiful dual carriageway that is straight, smooth and safe; if you ignore the bizarre single-lanes at the bridges. But at either end you still have single track with passing places.

The cheap ferries are the new causeways, and their effectiveness is largely destroyed by the constraints at either end, which in this case is ferry capacity at one end and structural developments at the other. The solution is in the politicians promises that were made many, many years ago.

Oh yes, and why is the Uist-Harris ferry excluded from RET?

Monday, August 30, 2010

Stornoway Town Centre

I must confess that the works in Percival Square to create a 'Civic Square' look very nice; at least the bits that are now being exposed as the contractors remove the fencing and expose the almost finished design to the public.

Completion really cannot come soon enough, but I suspect the tourists will have gone long before it is ready.

You know my views on the whole matter - appalling timing (albeit forced upon the Council by the Scottish Government), not well thought through (toilets open closed and open again) and the loss of parking for why, exactly?

However, that being said, I think it will add to the amenity of the town, just as long as this seasons tourists don't think that this place is a permanent building site.

Now, just what can we use the area for?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

We are honoured with a visit.....

From: Nigel Scott
Sent: 24 August 2010 16:56
To: CNES - Members; Ali MacLennan; Flora Somerville; ''CMackayTG[redacted]"

Good Afternoon,

You are cordially invited to a Question and Answer session with Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander MP, who will be visiting the Western Isles this Thursday 26 August 2010. Mr Alexander has requested a Q&A with representatives of the Community regarding the Government’s Spending Review. The event will be held in the Council Chambers at 3.15pm.

The Chief Secretary has indicated that he will be happy to answer questions on the spending review, its potential impact on services and how we can provide services more efficiently.

Christmas pantomime

The Christmas pantomime is a tradition in Stornoway, and one that the school pupils (and adults alike) love to attend.

The local drama group put a huge effort into the show, with months of rehearsals, scenery construction and costume design cumulating in a long run at the centre of civic life, the Town Hall.

No longer.

Three days is all the Council will let them use the Town Hall for, after which they are told to use An Lanntair.

Which they can't afford.

Which means the kids are going to lose out.

Can anyone shed any light on why this is happening?

Monday, August 23, 2010

...and your inside leg measurement too!

An irate ballet lover emailed me about her attempt to see Scottish Ballet at An Lanntair.

Proffering her crisp £20 notes, she was told that the new ticketing system would only issue her tickets if she provided her title, name, address, gender(!) & phone number.

The justification from the staff member was simple: this was information required by the funding bodies to provide information about the type of customers buying tickets; but you could still opt out of receiving marketing information and avoid the inevitable deluge of fliers.

Mrs Irate knows a thing or three about the assimilation of data and pointed out that:
  • To obtain reasonable statistical details about the type of visitors to the shows, you only need gender, postcode and age
  • The phone number might be requested in case the show is cancelled, but is really, really, not necessary
  • Why are An Lanntair not registered with the Information Commissioner if they are collecting and processing all this data?
Her spleen duly vented, Rev Lady Smith of Penzance will be using the home phone numbers of Directors of An Lanntair as her contact details until the situation improves or the database is so inaccurate as to be useless.

Housing problems

In my role as a debt advisor to those who cannot manage their affairs properly, I am often asked to advise many who cannot see the wood for the trees.

Such was the case this weekend, when a new client approached me with an unusual problem.  Mr MacNeil, as I will call him to maintain his anonymity, was being forced by his employers to stop receiving a tax-free sum of £300 per month in housing subsidy, and having to accept a tax-free £1,450 per month instead.  He was at his wits end, unable to balance his budget and facing a continuing life of taypayer funded luxury.

"Angus", I said, "Get a fucking grip and stop acting like a completely sanctimonious arsehole."

"You choices are:
  • Pay for your own property in the same way as everyone else has to, or
  • Find a new flat; get £1,450pm in subsidy; rent out your old flat for £2,000+ pm; and you are still quids in, or
  • Put your money where you mouth is, and sell your flat, and give the profit to the Treasury."
"You earn £66,000 and whatever your wife gets from the public purse for her non-job as your 'constituency assistant', and all your travel costs are paid, along with subsidised food at work, and numerous other perks"

"The flat you own was almost totally fitted at the taxpayers expense, and the fitting of any flat you move to will be paid for too. Although perhaps not quite so generously."

Another case solved.

"By the way", I asked, "Did you see the report that 25% of the population of the Western Isles live in poverty?"

"No", he replied, "I was too busy submitting my expenses claims to worry about something as minor as that."

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Legal action in Uist

I am told that Angus MacMillan, the Chair of Storas, has commenced the first stage of a libel action against Calum MacMillan.

The grounds appear to be that Calum has claimed that Angus has profited personally from his position as Chair of Storas, and with particular reference to the ongoing wind power disagreement/dispute.

No doubt this will be a very entertaining process - at least for those not directly affected - and it will undoubtedly touch on the issues of fish farm leases; unsigned agreements; conflicts of interest; the role of a shadow director; that directors of Storas have been acting with probity in every situation; and acting for the benefit of the community as a whole.

In the interim, given the obvious conflict of interest, Angus will have to be kept away from anything to do with Calum dealings with Storas, and the other directors and staff will have to do their utmost to maintain the Chinese walls.

As soon as copies of the documentation are available, I'll post them here.

"War is a continuation of diplomacy using other means." Carl von Clausewitz

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Secret meetings aren't secret anymore

The Licensing Board decision about refusing the Sunday licence for the Stornoway Golf Club and the subsequent outburst from the Chair have had further ramifications. All at further cost to the taxpayer.

However, it also appears that there has been much needed clarification about how at least one member of the Board came to his decision.

But first, there are some interesting aspects of the relationship between the Board and the Council that seem to be contrary to all I understood to be the case.

The entire Board were summoned - not invited - to a meeting by the Council Leader. Quite what powers he used to do that are unclear, and why the Board acceded to such a demand when they are supposedly a completely separate legal entity appointed from within the Council, is even more unclear. But straight to the Headmasters study it was.

Not to worry either, as it was an 'approved duty' which meant that the taxpayer paid for each and every member to travel to Stornoway and have all the accommodation costs paid for those from the Southern Isles. Plus officer time in dealing with the travel and attending the bollocking party. No change out of £1,000.
The Board were duly shouted at by the Leader for the following sins:
  • Ignoring legal advice on the application
  • Ignoring legal advice on the decision
  • Talking about the process in the press
  • Squandering £10,000 of our money on legal fees in a battle that inevitably would be lost
After much wailing and gnashing of teeth, and tears before bedtime, the Leader called for the Chair's head, inviting Cllr Taylor to resign. Quite rightly, Cllr Taylor told the Leader to insert his resignation letter into the appropriate orifice.

Then the penny dropped that shooting the messenger might actually make more of a story than the Comhairle was comfortable with, and there was much kissing and making up.

Those of you who were bemused or perturbed by Lord MacKay of Clashfern's encouragement for the judiciary to use the Bible in daily Court proceedings, may not be surprised to find that such a practice has never left the quasi-judicial arses seats of the Western Isles Licencing Board.

I am advised that one member of the Licencing Board who voted against the Sunday licence and against the legal advice admitted that he did so because he was told by 'external third parties' that he must not abstain.

If that is the case, then that member should resign immediately as he is clearly unable to demonstrate objectivity, is influenced by matters that are not related to the application, and is clearly bringing the Board into disrepute by his actions. I can't wait to see him in Court on the stand!

Perhaps now is the time for the Board and the Council to make a clean breast of what has happened, and save us all some money by confirming that the Board will not defend the indefensible in Court.

Councillors: you need to get a grip on the board members. I suggest a double handed grip around the throat would be entirely appropriate in these circumstances, until Board Members who lack objectivity and integrity finally see sense.

Religious poster

Friday, August 13, 2010

Licencing Board - the ramifications

The mild-mannered and highly able Chair of the Licencing Board, Cllr Martin Taylor, is busy denouncing his colleagues in the Gazette this week for voting against a Sunday Licence for the Golf Club.

In an extraordinary outburst, according to Cllr Taylor the five Lewis Councillors ignored the legal advice they were given and moved to refuse. Cllr Taylor wants to see his colleagues face a surcharge to cover the £10,000 or so the Golf Club appeal will cost. [Link not working at time of posting]

One of the Councillors has previous form for doing just the same, as I can testify, having watched him tell us to vote against another Sunday licence based on his knowledge of the premises. 'Knowledge' that I was able to completely refund and expose as being nothing more than preconceived lies to cover his bias.

As the refusal was on the grounds of 'public health' why do these self-same Councillors oppose the Sunday opening of leisure facilities in Lewis and Harris, but not Uist?

However, the best part has yet to be put in the public domain.

One of those attending the meeting tells me that the objector from either the Lords Day Observance Society or the Church (he said they blurred into one bundle of smug piety) opened his remarks with the word "Brethern!"

Image if an objector started with "Fellow Masons" there would be an outcry, but the clear and deliberate use of religious language herded the sheep nicely into the fold.

I am SO looking forward to the appeal....

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Who's going to tell the dawn patrol.....

Stornoway public drinking ban


Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill has given The Comhairle Nan Eilean Sair (sic) permission to introduce a new ban on the public consumption of alcohol in Stornoway. The measures come into force on September 6, 2010.

Mr MacAskill said:

"Public drinking is often a nuisance and can greatly hamper the quality of life for residents in a particular area. Thirty one local authorities already have such byelaws in force and that demonstrates how seriously local authorities are tackling the problem of reducing the nuisance and disorder commonly associated with public drinking.

"I will continue to support other councils that come forward with similar byelaw proposals."

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Council face the facts

It is good that the Council have faced up to the severity of the cuts they are facing, after burying their heads in the sand last year and hoping for the best.

It is not good news that these cuts have to be made, but it is good news that they have faced up to the facts.

I note, with a wry smile, that public meetings and consultations are on the agenda for the first time ever. Just as I suggested to inform the voters.

Data Protection Act and Storas Uibhist

Shouldn't Storas be registered with the Information Commissioner if it keeps details of members and supporters to whom it can email or post?

The answer is, of course, yes it should.

And the answer to the next questions is: No it isn't.

South Uist - what can be done?

The business relationship between Heb Energy and Storas has totally collapsed, with the deliberate release of confidential, leading to adverse - and very personalised - media comment.

As with many things, there are often other underlying issues about all these matters, but why are many Uisteach thinking fondly of the old estate owners, compared to what they see today? Why are so many telling me that they cannot raise their heads above the parapet for fear of real or perceived retribution?


Huw Francis
Chief Executive
Storas Uibhist
Isle of South Uist

9th August 2010

Dear Huw

Thank you for your letter dated 6th August 2010. There are issues regarding the letter which concern me greatly. These are namely;
  • You hand delivered a copy of the letter to me at my house in Bornish on the evening of Friday 6th August.
  • On Saturday 7th August, I was informed that a copy of the letter had been issued to all the members of SnBM.
  • A copy of the letter was sent by recorded delivery on Saturday 7th August.
  • My permission was not sought before this commercially sensitive letter was made public, although you had the opportunity to do so, when hand delivering it. You also have my mobile number, telephone number & email address. Who authorised this to be done?
  • The Directors of the estate were not consulted before the letter was made public.
  • The Directors of the estate were not given a copy of the letter before it was made public.
  • To date, no other matter of a commercially sensitivity nature has been made available to all members simultaneously. Who authorised this change in procedure?
  • At our meeting on Thursday 5th August, you (Huw) were quite clear on the following;
    • Community Members are members of SnBM.
    • The Directors are accountable to the members on SnBM matters
    • The members are not members of South Uist Estates.
    • SnBM and South Uist Estates are two separate organisations.
    • SnBM holds all the shares in South Uist Estates.
    • The Directors are not accountable to members regarding South Uist Estate matters.

The above meant that when I asked you about what leases have been granted by the Directors of South Uist Estates and what standard securities over assets have been granted by Directors. (This was in order to compare commercial terms with my own proposals). You replied that the Directors of South Uist Estate are not answerable to the membership for their actions, because they are members of SnBM and you are a member of SnBM.

  1. All estate dealings of a commercially sensitive nature must now be dealt with in the same manner, past & present. I look forward to viewing all the information on all leases, bank loans obtained by the estate, all standard securities granted by the estate and all commercial contracts entered into by the estate, being sent to all the members, in the same manner as you dealt with my commercially sensitive proposal.
  2. You seem to have forgotten that I am effectively an ‘inward investor’ to the economy in Uist. Simply because I live locally should not mean that you are free to treat me in this shabby and unprofessional manner.

The way in which this matter is being handled by the estate serves to underline the unprofessional approach, which we have come to expect. If you fail to understand the most basic concept of ‘commercial sensitivity’ then all your dealings must be in constant jeopardy.

It is clear that you personally failed to apply for the grid connection on behalf of your employer and are trying every method to cover up this failure. My development will not be put at risk simply because you were incompetent.

I insist that this letter should be posted onto the Storas’ website by Tuesday 10th August 2010.

I made you an offer on 17th February 2010 and I have yet to receive a reply. It is noticeable that the Chairman has chosen not to attend any meetings with me to date.

I urge Angus to attend the forthcoming meeting on Wednesday 11th August 2010 at 11.00am, which we agreed on last Thursday.

Considering that the estate is being offered £150million, in return for very little, you have an unusual approach to dealing with the whole issue. Your actions to date do not appear to have been in the best interests of your employer or the estate, to secure the deal which will ensure the estate’s future.

I await your reply by 9.00pm tomorrow.

Yours sincerely

Calum MacMillan

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Another Licencing Board success....

A week after the Licencing Board prevented the Golf Club opening on Sunday afternoons, my family and I were out for a walk this afternoon, when we were passed by three people carrying plastic bags from a certain off-sales.

As they staggered past us - and past the Free Church seminary - wondering from side-to-side with what I estimated to be 8 cans of beer + bottles (each) in clinking bags, I pondered the LDOS view that an absence of Sunday licences means that families of alcoholics have a day off.

As neither the woman nor the two men have immediate families, beyond the sad community they inhabit, it was easy to see the utter fallacy of that argument.

The absence of LDOS in ever providing support or advice to these unfortunates was conspicuous.

The irony in them bouncing past the FC Manse and the AA building was not lost on me.

(Nor, to be fair, was the fact that we had enjoyed a nice bottle of wine with lunch).

However, as far as I could see, none of the three were carrying golf clubs, nor were they ever likely too. Never mind, the easy target was shot by the Board; whilst the real point was missed.

How to get banned by the Council.....

Is it really true that 10 out of 12 pupils at Castlebay failed Higher English, as a previous comment has claimed?

How does this compare to:
(a) previous years? (I can't find any details on the web), and
(b) everywhere else? (ditto, but they may be out next week)

If this is correct, it would appear that pupils' (and parents') complaints were fully justified, and that IIRC the educational achievement in Barra has gone through the floor.

As for being banned - previous discussion of this subject was met by a blocking of this website by the Council servers. They would probably have been better dealing with the educational issues.

Update Monday: I'm told that the school and education authority level data is being collated and checked before being issued later this week. That'll give the Council time to decide how to spin it all.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Council cuts - what they mean

Hebrides News carry a story about a 20% cut in the budget being planned/assessed/considered for the next financial year.

Whether this is the full extent of the cuts needed to balance the budget over 5 years is debatable, but as a planning assumption it is a good start.

That is "Good" as in, 'as it has to happen then we are facing up to this'. It doesn't change the extent of the bad news.

But lets put some of these numbers in perspective.

The council spent £120m on Revenue last year and plans to save £24m over the next few years.

Staff costs were £64m and £56m on everything else (which includes interest payments and other unavoidable costs).
Council Offices Stornoway
To save £24m from non-payroll would imply a 40% cut in services, which would actually be closer to 90% in some sections when you factor in the costs that can't be cut significantly - Care Homes etc.

Unworkable and unacceptable.

Assume a 10% staff loss and you still have to cut 30% from the actually doing budgets. Which in reality means 60%+ from some areas.

This is probably still not achievable, without leaving a rump of employees with nothing to actually do, except to be relocated to another department.

Make no mistake, these cuts are going to have to be savage, and it will not be easy for the Councillors.

But, I think that they need to engage with the public early, and to make the options they face available to the public for comment, criticism and possibly even approval.

The public are not just council tax payers, but service users too, and even employees, and if you just throw the 'answer' at the public then you not endear yourselves at a time when Councillors could do with all the understanding they can get.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

HIE - a new structure or its demise?

The Scottish Parliament is gathering evidence about the future for HIE after the demise of the LECs such as Western Isles Enterprise

You may want to add your comments here, especially with regard to having some form of development agency based in the North of Scotland.

In my view, HIE became an Inverness Development Agency, and any successor must be more rural focused, which means decentralising the organisation - something the organisation tries to encourage in potential investors in the area - but without replicating an administration structure across numerous offices.

The transfer of budgets and responsibilities to the Comhairle has been, by and large, a success; the credit for which must lie with the officers of the Comhairle. However, this has led to the HIE becoming even more Inverness-centric, something most observers considered impossible.

One area not up for debate is the slashing of the budgets for economic development by the Scottish Government which will seriously undermine economic growth in future years.

European market comes to Stornoway

Everyone, everywhere, will have seen a European market (sic) which purports to be a traditional composite traditional French/German/central European market, and which arrived in Stornoway this week.

I have no problem with these traders trying to make a living, although a couple of comments by customers suggested that as a cash business, there may be issues with record keeping to ensure the correct amount of tax is being paid. But that is a matter for the retailers.

Some of the shopkeepers in the immediate vicinity have had problems ensuring continued access to their premises, and it certainly appears to be a causing a crush through the pedestrian precinct.

However, the issue I have relates to an item of private correspondence within the Fire Brigade locally and at HQ level.

I am told that the local Fire Safety Officer raised very serious concerns about emergency access to shop, houses and public buildings in the immediate area, and was against giving approval to the market for these reasons.

I understand that the local officer's advice was ignored by the Civic Government Licencing, and approval was granted because the local Fire Brigade were supposedly pre-occupied with local management issues.

I'm told that there is also an email in circulation confirming this and advising that the Comhairle can bury the news, due to familial influence over a Gazette reporter.

Can anyone forward this email to me? All sources treated confidentially, and incoming emails will be deleted.

LazyChicken adds 6/8/10: The Gazette would want to make it clear that they would never surpress a story due to family relationships.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Pay rises, pay cuts

Real world calling Unison ........ is there anyone there?

Scottish council workers have rejected a three-year pay offer, paving the way for possible industrial action.

Some 80% of Unison members voted against a 1.5% rise by 2013. Unite and the GMB have already rejected the deal.

The unions want a one-year deal worth 3% or £600, whichever is greater, and a £7 minimum wage.
The Chief Executives got 2% and teachers 2.4%, so - the logic goes - should everyone else.

Those rises were wrong, wrong, wrong, and the impact is clear.

There might be some rises available for other staff, but it is going to have to be spread across a significantly smaller workforce. The Councils cannot award an increase without the public going up in arms, yet to fail to do so will make their staff revolting [insert own joke here] and either way, it is going to make for an interesting few months, for all the wrong reasons.

Barra transport links (sic)

The disgrace that is the ferry provision between Barra and Oban continues to sink (no pun intended) to new lows.

The blame lies fairly and squarely with the company and its paymaster, the Minister, who have allowed the supposed driver of European legislation to starve the company of funds, strangle the capital programme and have an operation which is allegedly leaner.

At least the vast army of consultants, lawyers and accountants will tell you that the new group structure is leaner, if you ignore the extra paperwork that has been generated.

The operation of a ferry service seems to have slipped of the radar, as the debacle in Barra and the proposed revised service for Lewis evidence. Indeed, the company is having to go cap in hand to the Council - not the Government - for the money to build a new ferry that doesn't come close to meeting our aspirations.

Normally, our MP and MSP would be calling for someone's head...

The problem is simple. Dismantle the complex structures, and relocate the CalMac HQ lock stock and barrel to an island. Would the service be so poor if the directors actually had to use the vessels for a long journey. In Winter. In a gale.

Monday, August 02, 2010

...I wouldn't start from here

John Swinney might be absolutely right to claim that his economic policies would have started from a different place, had he had his way.

He may very well be justified in his view that this justifies the claim that Scotland needs more economic powers; but he hasn't made the case. Indeed, if anything, he has made the contrary case.

The proof of the skill and ability of a Government is not how they handle the good times, but how they handle the bad times. And specifically how they deal with huge challenges.

We have a economic situation where income is dropping and expenditure increasing. Transfer that to your domestic situation and the two choices we are being presented with are: cut spending - fewer meals out, downsize the car - and try to find another source of income (Westminster), or, trim spending a bit and re-mortgage the house to fund your lifestyle (Holyrood).

As the Holyrood option is actually outwith their powers, it's not a starter, nor does it make any sense as a viable long term solution.

If Swinney can manage the cuts in a professional manner, then he will make the case for greater trust in the economic abilities of the SNP, but if he misjudges it, then it will backfire badly.

In the later case, then just who do the disillusioned vote for at the next election?

We are facing a dismantling of some of the padding and excesses of the past 10 years, as well as the reversal of some key policies - when introduced, I warned that a Council Tax Freeze was far too expensive to maintain - and many aspirations.

My contacts tell me that everything is on the table, and nothing is being ruled in or out at present, despite public statements to the contrary, as there is a fear that the cuts passed on by Westminster may actually be much more severe than those already discussed.

But the canny politicians are already working out which cuts they can hold over to the other side of the election (and bequeath to the opposition?), and which they need to avoid to keep the votes.

RET is going to be a hard subsidy to justify...