Failing to connect with reality
Reading through the latest edition of Scottish Borders Council’s wonderfully Orwellian newsletter, I have increasing concerns about the the grip on reality of those folk at Newtown.
The headline boasts of 200 new IT jobs being attracted – for how long, one wonders, before the company concerned decides that it is cheaper to out-source to China or India, or wherever? The history of such initiatives in Scotland is littered with firms grabbing the publicly-funded cash/tax perks/incentives and doing a runner a few years later.
On capital plans, five new schools (excluding Kelso) consume £29million, more than the total spend on roads and bridges. And what of the new Kelso High PPI deal (in all but name)? There is a fine tradition of financial legacies for future generations to pick up in such arrangements.
Elsewhere, we have the “Resilient Communities” initiative, basically a way of farming out to local volunteers preventive work that the council should be doing.
But wait, surely we have evidence of real democracy with a waste collection consultation? Only the deaf, dumb and blind could fail to know that what most folk want in this context is the return of green waste collections. And SBC has strenuously ignored those calls.
Like most consultations, this is but window dressing for another reduction in service, perhaps bin emptying every four weeks? Don’t laugh, it’s being tried on in parts of rural Fife. Not mentioned anywhere, of course, is the council’s absurd refusal to reveal details of its investigation into the waste treatment contract fiasco. The local authority must know that it will be forced to make this public in the end, so why wasting its time and our money fighting it? Arrogance, stupidity or a cover-up?
Council leader David Parker really does need to take control of the content of “Connect” and of the Newtown thought police generally before the parallel universe takes over entirely.
Lessons not learned
A written “judgement” from Scottish Information Commissioner [SIC] Rosemary Agnew has confirmed that an official visit at taxpayers’ expense by an 18-member delegation from Scottish Borders Council [SBC] to a waste treatment plant near Bristol did not generate any written records of the trip, and no reports were produced after the party returned home.
I had asked the council under Freedom of Information [FoI] for copies of any jottings made during and after the £4,000 site visit to New Earth Solutions’ “revolutionary” facility in a bid to find out what was achieved as a result of the expensive trip which included an overnight stay at an upmarket Bristol hotel.
After all, the repercussions from that event in October 2014 were to prove crucial as the council – including those unfortunate enough to miss out on the jaunt – decided unanimously a few weeks later to abandon plans for a similar treatment plant at Easter Langlee. The decision cost the public purse at least £2.4 million.
The investigating officer from the SIC clearly thought it strange that so few documents had been identified as falling within the scope of my request, and asked SBC for an explanation.
In response the local authority claimed it had been “an information and familiarisation event for councillors, to increase their base knowledge of the project”.
SBC told the SIC there were no minutes taken on the day and no further meetings were organised to discuss the visit. To me it sounds like a neat way of sidestepping accountability in the wake of such a catastrophic waste of public money, for it was not the first time I’d been told by my local authority that briefings on the disastrous waste management project had been conducted verbally.
The council’s failure/inability to maintain written records of crucial issues can be traced back for at least 15 years. And yet nothing appears to have been done to end the practice of shoddy book-keeping, despite a number of public rebukes.
This high-risk strategy was exposed following the discovery of a massive overspend in the council’s education budget in 2001, resulting in a withering verdict from MSPs following a Scottish Parliament enquiry.
There was another outbreak of the verbals in 2012 when a FoI requester attempted to elicit information about the departure of former council chief executive David Hume.
SBC was asked for the date on which Mr Hume intimated that he would be leaving the authority.
An investigation by the SIC learned that Mr Hume notified the council verbally and that no notes, emails or minutes recording details of discussions were held. But that was not the end of the story.
SBC went on to inform the SIC that Mr Hume did not submit an application form as part of the retirement process, and there was no requirement for staff to put notice of their intention to cease being an employee in writing.
Presumably there is a written record of Mr Hume’s sizeable severance package which, according to council accounts, included £103,000 compensation for loss of employment, a pension lump sum of £136,000 and an annual pension of £50,000.
There is insufficient space here to describe a list of other important matters deemed unworthy of a written record. But SBC’s decision not to bother with a written agreement with a private contractor who worked for them for six years certainly brought a considerable amount of grief, plus a £40,000 bill from lawyers to overturn a £250,000 fine imposed by the Information Commissioner.
This was the infamous incident when thousands of confidential paper records containing details of SBC pension scheme members were dumped in a skip outside a South Queensferry supermarket.
It seems surprising and disturbing that despite the track record outlined above, lessons do not appear to have been learned.
Benefits of life in Scotland
The Tories claim that because the SNP, if re-elected, will not reduce the threshold for the 40p higher tax rate, Scotland will somehow become the “highest taxed” part of the UK and lead to individuals heading south.
But they fail to mention the considerable benefits of living north of the border.
For example, there are no prescription charges, unlike south of the border where patients have to pay £8.40. In Scotland eye tests are free, whereas in England they cost an average of between £20 and £30. South of the border students pay £9,000 to go to university – young people in Scotland pay no fees.
It would be rather strange if someone uprooted themselves and their family and moved to England to save income tax amounting to £323 a year – less than 90p a day.
Nationalists’ taxing tactics
The SNP presents its tax plans as raising significant sums over the term of the next Scottish Parliament, despite also saying that no one will pay a single penny of extra tax.
This apparent alchemy is possible by not implementing tax threshold changes that are to happen in the rest of the UK, which would otherwise have reduced taxes raised in Scotland.
So, the reality is that compared with now, the nationalists plan negligible changes to tax, so ensuring they do not undermine their chances in the May elections.
They are not the first political party to prioritise their own position ahead of what the country needs. It just seems somewhat at odds with all that rhetoric about putting Scotland first and reversing the impact of austerity.
Looking at various photographs of the Scottish Parliament while it is in recess, all I can remember is the down-at-heel intake of 1999.
But just look at them now – prosperous, overfed, expensively-dressed and not a worry in the world.
So at least 129 people have gained from devolution.
Is David a keen fisherman?
It was interesting to read the explanation for the frequent appearance of Kelso on the BBC weather map (Southern, March 10).
What would be even more interesting is an explanation for the occasional appearance of Hass – showing up to the south of Jedburgh. This does not appear to be a village or even a farm, but a fishing loch just off the A68.
Perhaps David Underwood is a very keen fisherman?
Posted missing in Newstead
Newstead’s letter box has disappeared, cut down, vanished.
So who has it? Where is it? And please, Royal Mail, what are you doing about it?
Boogieing the night away
Thank you to everyone who supported the golden anniversary celebration held in Victoria Halls, Selkirk, to mark the 50th year of the Selkirk branch of Cancer Research UK.
The Border Boogie Band and Rhythms Disco provided excellent entertainment and the evening raised £2,300 towards invaluable research that the charity funds.
Thank you for all the donations, sponsorship and anyone who helped in any way.
(secretary, Selkirk committee, Cancer Research)
We would like to thank all those who attended the coffee morning on Saturday in aid of Arthritis Research UK – Melrose branch.
More than £550 was raised which will go straight to the research work. This was a very happy morning and is a great start to the week which will conclude with the branch being the charity partners for the Melrose Sevens.
(chairman, Melrose branch, Arthritis Research UK)