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

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

An election hand grenade

The election campaign has really been as dull as ditchwater, with the two principal candidates rivalling each other in driving tedium to a new low.

So it's good to be able to report something that is hugely important, and which might enliven the campaign for at least a few minutes.

A client has received a worrying letter from the Government, which they believe will adversely affect the Western Isles. I think they are right, but because they don't want to go public, I will.

The new ADS cards come with these friendly words of warning:
"The Scottish Government has announced that business-related travel will not be reimbursed under the scheme.  Business-related claims are considered and journey where there is a business component, regardless of whether there is also a leisure-related component." (My emphasis)
As my client rightly points out, just who is to police and enforce this scheme, and just what is a "business component"?

My good lady and I left the island on Saturday, both carrying laptops.  We weren't away for work purposes, but will do some work whilst we were away; after stepping off the third plane.  Does that disqualify me; as the first journey was the only one that qualified for ADS, and I did not do any work between flight 1 and 2?

If I take a business phone call in Glasgow Airport after stepping off the Stornoway flight, does that disqualify me?  Do I have to turn myself in to the ADS Police?

If I take a business phone call in Stornoway Airport between checking in for an Edinburgh flight, for a client who has heard I'm coming to Edinburgh and wants to see me, do I have to go back and confess all to the FlyBe desk, and ask them to surcharge me?

Is this going to be a civil or criminal matter?  How do I appeal against a wrong decision?

My guesses: they'll look for a regular pattern of travel and the civil servants will then stop the card until you persuade them they are wrong, through some undefined and yet to be worked out method.

And who will be the easy first targets?  Step forward the offshore workers travelling every fortnight to Aberdeen, regular as clockwork.  You might as well hand the ADS cards back now.

But let's not forget the purpose of ADS, as it's website proudly and clearly announces:
  • The primary objective is to facilitate greater social inclusion in the most peripheral areas of the Highland and Islands through affordable access to air services to the main economic areas administrative centres of Scotland.
  • Other important benefits are potential improvements in capacity and frequency and greater economic growth as a result of improvements in accessibility.
And how does this fit in with stopping business people making a living - and continuing to live - in the Western Isles?  It so obviously doesn't.

It is all about the Government saving a few pounds here and there, and paying lip service to a policy that it doesn't want to implement properly.

As my client further points out, this might even be illegal, as the Western Isles has a higher percentage of female small business owners than the rest of the Scotland, and a statutory equality impact assessment should have been carried out before the policy was sneaked out.

Can I encourage everyone to think how they might be affected, and then to demand that both leading candidates pledge to reverse this move.  They might also want to know why our former MSP has never done anything to stop this massive economic damage to the islands.

The Government can spend huge sums issuing the Census in Gaelic, and celebrating this fact, whilst bringing in policies that will further undermine the viability of the Gaelic speaking areas.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Pairc - heroes and villains

Yes, I was duly embarrassed by the wrong call I made at the beginning of the week when I claimed the buy-out was to be refused, much to the amusement of some commentators

If I were infallible, there is probably another calling that I would be encouraged to follow, but yes sometimes I get it spectacularly wrong.  The erroneous post haves been suspended (not deleted) and the mocking, abusive and humorous comments preserved for all posterity, or whenever I feel less red-faced about the whole episode.

However, as the process moves on, let's see what the landlord has to say.

There are some pretty serious allegations in the document that require to be - and must be -  properly investigated.

It is also important to examine the landlord/crofter share from the Pairc Windfarm and Pairc Trust’s urgency to obtain the interposed lease so that it can deny the landlord any value from it. Two of Pairc Trust’s directors were present at the original meeting on 04 March 2003 when Pairc Liaison Group declared the issue of crofter income share to be a matter, not for Pairc Estate but, for Pairc Liaison Group alone to consider. The result? Two director’s families are in line to receive one fifth of the windfarm benefits, whilst some two hundred crofters and the landlord are intended to receive nothing.
If it is true that directors of the Trust - and I have heard it repeated from a number of sources - were to receive 20% of the benefits, directly or indirectly, then this requires to be placed into the public domain.  As a publicly funded body, and one seeking huge public assistance, it is only right that any potential benefit to the directors/trustees or their immediate families should be made widely known.

If it is fairly, openly and correctly awarded to them, then that is fine.

If the landlord is lying, then his standing will be fatally undermined, and such libellous suggestions could prove very expensive.

If the situation is not investigated and resolved, and if it later proves to be true, then the community and the whole rational behind community land purchase schemes will be undermined, and previous land acquisitions will be tainted.

The claims have been made and the must be rigorously investigated to clear the air.  If they are not, then they will be raised in Court by the landlord, and any failings of the funders will be exposed to public ridicule.

Take note: there is only one course of action that must be followed, however difficult and embarrassing.

Sports Centre - users survey

In case you haven't had the opportunity to make your views known, there is a survey where you can make sure that public opinion on the services is recorded for the Comhairle to use as part of it's public consulations.

Go on, and have your say here.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Local Government settlements

Lucky old Argyll & Bute who have received an extra £3.9m in Government funding following a 'review'.

They complained about the severity of the settlement, and lo and behold the agreed formula was found to be 'wrong'.

Anyone got any idea how much lobbying the Comhairle undertook on this matter?

As I was explaining to a Councillor not that long ago, looking at page 8 of the settlement documents for 2001/12 gives a frightening forecast of where the islands could be going.  I think a simple explanation of what this all means is timely, given the looming election.

The Government grant is computed using a series of formulae about population size, schools, pensioners, sparsity and super-sparsity of the Council area and a thousand other factors.

On that basis, the Comhairle would have received £87.56m or 18.53% less than we currently get.  Yes, you read that right, all other things being equal, we should be facing nearly a 20% drop in Government grant.

The Government then decides what the maximum decease is going to be, in this case 4.5% and the floor mechanism redistributes money for better to worse-off Councils, meaning that we are given £15.084m by other Councils to soften the blow.

Now follow the logic of this through: because we are so far off the bottom of the scale, I can see no possible way in which we will ever stop suffering the deepest cuts in future budget settlements.

This is a challenge for whoever is in power after May, and a challenge for the Comhairle, as the only way to alter the financial settlements will be to alter the formulae, and that is not easy.  The computations are very complex, and difficult to understand, far less argue against; and the need to establish the 'under-performing' sections of the formula is a key element of having a successful case.

There are lots of minor areas you could argue, but the issue has got to be identifying the major changes needed, and those that will make a significant difference to the impact of the floor.  Whilst I am available for a long-term consultancy exercise on this matter, Councillors will need to seriously address this issue internally to establish a basis for the next Council to try to take this forward.

It's that, or face £15m in additional cuts; a figure that is likely to increase in a vicious circle of decline, if something is not done.  It is not hugely complex to understand where this will take us, and it should be a matter for the Council to seek pledges of action from the political parties at the coming election.

Fuel duty changes

So the Government has delayed any fuel duty increases for next year and the year after.  He's using a strange mix of taxation on exploration and extraction to fund a 1p/litre reduction in fuel duty.

Great~ish in so far as it goes, but that really isn't going to make a huge difference to the ordinary motorist.

He has, however, plugged a huge hole in his budget with the tax grab, and got some very good headlines, but the detail needs a lot closer examination to see just what additional room for manoeuvre he may have had.

It's all a bit smoke and mirrors, but perhaps underlines the huge cost of cutting fuel duty.  The real driver for price change is the international price of oil; and until the middle-east stabilises (and how may times have we heard that?) prices are going to go up, and fuel at the pumps will cost more.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Staying on the education theme....

Stoneybridge School has apparently reopened.

Normally, this would be the source of some joy in the local community, but I understand that it has been opened to accommodate one young pupil from Lionacleit.  That is one young, but very disruptive, pupil.

To meet the needs of this pupil, 4 adults are required on site to provide the education and provide security for each other.  Plus the cost of the building.  This must be probably the most expensive pupil in the UK.

Assuming that neither the entire cohort of teachers in Lionacleit, nor the very expensive management can control this child, then whatever happened to good old-fashioned suspension or expulsion?

Are the inevitable social workers demanding that the child be pandered to, rather than being made to face up to the result of his actions?

Either way, isn't all this attention going to encourage the other children to do one better?

There are rarely easy answers in education, but there seem always to be lots that could should be more easily resolved.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Castlebay School

And still the problems mount up.

I was told last week about another subject where exam results were very, very, much less than satisfactory. 

It surely cannot be true that the prelim results in music were so bad, that the school have decided to claim that none of the pupils actually sat the exam. 

I understand why they have done so - because a very poor mark won't help any children with borderline results in the final exam.

But, was is the root cause of the succession of educational failures in this school?  And what is being done to resolve them?

It could be your kids next, in another school, and I am sure that you would want the Comhairle to urgently take serious action.... 

Barra air service

Half a cheer for the news that a new plane is going to be bought to service Barra (and Tiree and Campbelltown) before the existing Twin Otters finally fall to pieces.

This provides some security for the people of Barra ahead of the re-tendering exercise.

The plane will be owned by Ministers - it appears - and leased to the successful bidder for those routes.

I haven't seem the Government Press Release yet, but what does it mean that "Work will start over the next 12 months on buying a new aircraft"?

Does that mean that the process hasn't actually been approved, and that we are just in the later stages of the early stages of assessing the position; before actually coming towards a conclusion?

Surely not.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

School closures; a different way

My visit to Uist resulted in lots of very useful information, pointers and general rumour. 

Sometimes some facts come my attention that were quite unexpected.

With all the conflict in Lewis over the closure of schools on a scale that hasn't been seen since a similar exercise happened in Uist, it was intriguing to hear about about a parental view that was just that bit more nuanced.

Normally the pupils at Carinish would go to Paible school for their secondary education.

I am told, by one of the parents, that all P7 pupils have elected to go to Sgoil Lionacleit instead, effectively precipitating the closure of Paibleas there will only be one pupil in Secondary 1 in the coming year.

The reasons are many, but appear to focus on the large class sizes and the opportunities to mix.  Apparently some of the pupils have had the same teacher - and only the one teacher - for their entire primary education, which cannot be good when the rest of us have had to appreciate and endure the teaching vagaries of the excellent, the vague, the criminally insane and the dangerously neurotic occupants of the staff room.

The parents believe that a bigger school will deliver more opportunities and will secure the future of Sgoil Lionacleit with bigger and better facilities.

Are they right, or are the Lewis parents who reject that view right?  I suspect that in the long run the Uist parents are right, painful as that might be for the local communities.

Life is never that black and white, and making difficult decisions is never easy, but you have to appreciate that parents can sometimes take a seemingly perverse view for all the right reasons.  Kudos to all the parents for doing the best for their children.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

How not to build an economy

I'm sitting in a hotel in Uist using their wireless connection to try to do some work, and the signal is dropping every few seconds.

Absolutely normal, a local tells me.

How can anyone run a business that relies on a technology that simply is not up to the job?

I've got connectivity via my phone, but that doesn't help if the data I need is on my server?

Network down again, after 60 seconds of being up......aaargh!

Monday, March 14, 2011

How little does a school weigh?

Sources close to the schools project have told me that the recycling rate on the entire project is even higher than you might have thought.

The table below is, I am very, very, reliably informed is the current recycling rate on the schools project.

Waste Material
CnES Landfill
Nicolson Institute
Balivanich PS
Point PS
West Side PS

These figures are much more than impressive and hopefully the hard work - and detailed planning - will be noticed and appreciated by the wider public.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Councillors 'should get pay rise'

Leaders to get at least £44,000 and Councillors to get £18,000 a year, a Government report recommends.

"Anyone got any thoughts on this matter?", he asks in a highly inflammatory way.

I'm of the view it is far too much for Councillors here, and way, way too much for the Leader.

Perhaps if there were 1/3 fewer Councillors it would make sense, but the Committee seem happy to spend our money willy-nilly.

BASE jumping in the Western Isles

Words almost fail me....

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Fuel prices

According to a press release:
Mr MacNeil added his voice to the call for action on Wednesday, saying: “I have seen the books of some of the fuel retailers in the western isles and there is a big opaque hole around the distribution costs between refineries and pump prices." (My emphasis)
This isn't news, but the faux surprise in the tone is more about electioneering than about achieving anything.

We've heard repeated calls from MacNeil for investigations by the OFT into the petrol retailers, which he now acknowledges - after two OFT investigations - to have been targeted against the wrong parties.

But as Donald Crichton has asked, why has it taken this long for him to recognise the facts?

Police Typing fail

Wait until about 30 seconds in.....

h/t to Joe.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Contracting with the Council

Contractors (and the public) might be interested in this list of projects going out to tender from the Council over the next year.

Except that most will be 'drawn' from existing approved contractor lists, so if you are not on the list you're not getting in.  And even then you might not get a chance to tender.

Still, at least something is being done, and I'll claim a tiny bit of the credit for the publication of this list.

A small step forward for the Council.

Monday, March 07, 2011

MacAulay Road roundabout

Have you been wondering why progress on the new road layout was so slow?

The plan was to have two lanes coming into two from Newmarket, one of which filtered traffic to the left, up Perceval Road and the other lane for traffic going down Matheson Road.  A bit like the junction of Bayhead at the Spar has two lanes.

The roundabout and crossings were to be moved to facilitate this, and (inevitably) vast expense has been incurred, before I got a copy of the official project design:

I am now told that the new road layout cannot go ahead, as - errr - the road isn't wide enough for three lanes.

Obviously, this shrinkage is due to the vast amount of rain over the winter and not for any other reason.

When the Council are looking at this again, perhaps they should also check that they followed the correct procedures in notifying residents of the work that they were undertaking, as not one affected resident was ever given notice of the work that was to be done, other than why the guys turned up on site to start the work.

(Declaration of interest: my parents are an affected party).

Perhaps the Council can refute all this by the simple expedient of putting some temporary markings on the road to give the road users some sort of clue as to where they should and shouldn't drive.

(LC apologises: he posted this under his name when it should be under "angus")

Sunday, March 06, 2011

A fuel discount is coming.

Two cheers for Danny Alexander in promoting the pathetic offer of 5p of duty for all Scottish islands, and finally getting the business case to Europe.

Then he was undermined by Alan Duncan injecting a dose of realism that petrol might reach £2/litre (or in the worst case scenario £4/litre) if the Arab unrest continues.

If it currently costs me £60 to fill my car, it will cost me £58 after the discount.

By which time, if prices go the way we expect to £2/litre then even at the discounted price it will cost £85 to fill my car.

That puts it all in perspective.

Still, it makes the case for waiving all duty much easier, when you have that foot in the door.

No fuel duty would reduce the £60 to fill my car to £34.  All in favour of that option......

Friday, March 04, 2011

How much does a school weigh?

Sometimes there is amazing good news to break, and the answer to the question contains surprising information that requires wider dissemination.

In the case of Springfield South - the Pink School - the answer is 2,500 tonnes.

Astonishingly, I am told that the contractors have managed to recycle all but under 50 tonnes of the rubble; with less than 2% going to landfill.

The rest - slates, window frames, steel and old maths jotters - have all been reused in one form or another.

That is an astonishing rate of recycling, and I understand that some of the other schools may actually have a HIGHER reuse rate.

This deserves wider publicity, loud plaudits and sincere hopes that local contractors can absorb the methodology and up their performance accordingly.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Legal advice and the gritting contracts

I am very reliably informed that the Council officers got legal advice before deciding not to award the gritting tender to the lowest tender by Sovals.

The legal advice told them that what they were doing is correct and proper.

We all know of £250,000 reasons for this contractor alone just why that advice was wrong.

But can it really be true that the advice was given by none other than the then recently appointed Chief Executive?

Dental surgery

Can I put the rumours to rest, please?

Having been told authoritatively that we were moving to bigger premises, I can confirm that it wasn't us who bought the surgery.

We did go and have a look at the building, but it just wasn't suitable for our needs, and we did not make an offer.

You have been warned!

A simple 'please' would have changed the whole tone of this leaflet, which was distributed to every house in the area, and put a lot of backs up.

I am at a loss to understand what possible sanctions could be brought to bear on those who disregarded THE INSTRUCTIONS.

Is this now Council policy?  And does it apply to all skips or just to this individual one?

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The coming election

I believe that the time might be right for a strong independent candidate to stand at the May elections, to show that there is more to politics than just shouting 'black' or 'white'.

Specifically, I look at the poverty of thought enforced upon the two main candidates by their parties and wonder why we have to accept only the second best for the islands.

Quasi-RET is now officially good and might be here to stay, but neither party representative is shouting for the real RET of 40p per mile.

Is that poor offering really the best they want to see for the islands?  Almost certainly not, but the party system means that they aren't able or willing to show dissent.

A successful independent candidate for the islands is likely to be in the position of holding (or sharing) the balance either for the position of First Minister or for the Budget setting.  Just imagine what deals could be struck in such a febrile atmosphere.

It is not stupid to consider that the best way to see real delivery for the islands is to cast aside the party structures and put a strong independent voice into Holyrood.

The simple truth of the matter is that the Western Isles could be 'bought off' with almost all our aspirations for mere pennies from the Government coffers, if a vote depended upon it.  We are - crudely - too small to ever make a noticeable dent in the central pot, but we still have one vote.

Up to now, we've not had anyone prepared to shout as loud and as long as is necessary.

But it is not going to be me.

After some serious attempts at arm-twisting; some very smooth talking; and some serious political analysis, I have given it really serious thought.  I'm honoured to have been asked, and that some people believe that I have the skills and ability to fill such a role, and I was persuaded by many of the arguments.

But I have a wife and family, a rapidly growing business, and a multitude of clients throughout the islands and beyond who rely upon me for help, advice and support.

The options for me were very clear, and I have made my decision.

I hope, however, that someone else will rise up to speak for the islands - and not speak for the Parties at the islands - as I think there is a huge opportunity over the coming weeks to make significant change and to put the islands back into the centre of political thought.