January 28, 2015
Councils need to play ball
Next week the Community Empowerment Bill will have its Stage 1 Debate in the Scottish Parliament. Scottish Community Alliance members have appreciated the opportunities to become involved in shaping the Bill and while its long term impact will largely be determined by the devil in the detail of guidance, regulation and available funding, this is a very welcome step forward for the community sector. It goes without saying that local authorities will have a crucial role in making it all happen. Or not, if the case of Castle Toward and Argyll and Bute Council is anything to go by.
Tryng to dissect and lay bare the conduct of Argyll and Bute Council in its ‘management’ of Castle Toward [the estate it inherited free from Greater Glasgow Council in local authority rearrangements a considerable time ago] can take – and has taken – years; countless media articles; ‘investigations’ both minimal and swerved altogether by a supine Audit Scotland; threatened legal actions; failed contracts; and unsavoury rumours.
Of late there was a prolonged and finally failed sale of the 143 acre property and buildings, including the 1820 Castle Toward, to a form of timeshare holiday business.
This failure followed a local business particularly suited to Argyll, Actual Reality, dispossessed of its tenancy of the premises and in the process see its survival put at risk in bizarre evolutions by the most senior council officers and the recurring and present Council Leader.
The council has recently been exercised to obstruct, through a variety of increasingly transparent devices, the registered will of South Cowal Community Development Company to purchase the property in the interests of sustainable community development, under land reform legislation.
The council frustrated the attempts of Actual Reality to buy the property and is now serially frustrating the efforts of a responsible local community to do the same. Both attempts to take the property into alternative ownership focused on strengthening the sustainability of the community in this beautiful but remote part of the mighty Cowal peninsula.
Argyll and Bute Council’s stewardship as the owner of the estate, has been neglectful and irresponsible. The property has not been maintained and will now require serious repair and restoration in order to serve any continuing useful purpose.
The latest dodge
But last week saw yet another council ploy to obstruct the community’s acquisition of the property by what can only be described as a licensed band of public sector tricksters.
Kay and final decisions, which ought to have come to a full council meeting, were diverted to the Policy and Resources Committee on 27th November – where scrutiny by elected members would have been vastly reduced in the different nature and membership of that committee.
The supporting papers for the agenda of that meeting – as is characteristic of this council on manoeuvres – did not contain the Report by Executive Director of Customer Services [Douglas Hendry] for Item 7, ‘Castle Toward’ – the community purchase. This report was ‘to follow’.
After the end of the working day, on the evening before the committee meeting, Council Leader Dick Walsh, whose personal role in the tangled affairs of the Council’s mismanagement of Castle Toward requires investigation that has always been avoided, sent an oleaginous email to elected members:
From: Walsh, Dick Sent: 26 November 2014 18:33
Subject: Policy and Resource – Agenda item 7 – Castle Toward [OFFICIAL]
You will know that the paper regarding agenda item 7 regarding Castle Toward was not issued with the pack of papers. My apologies to you for this.
The position is that officers have been working on the paper up until now, and there are still some outstanding issues which it has not been possible to close down. On that basis no report will be submitted to this special meeting of the committee, and the report will now come forward to the next ordinary meeting, on 18th December. This will allow officers to continue engagement with SCCDC to ensure that the paper which comes forward will allow members to take a fully informed decision.
I will make a statement covering these matters at the committee meeting and, in the meantime, hope that this advance notification is helpful to you.
Best regards, Dick
This delay rightly caused an immediate storm, with Helensburgh Councillor and former Council Leader, James Robb, within minutes, emailing Executive Director Douglas Hendry, associated closely with Council Leader Walsh in much of the murk surrounding the Council’s handling of Castle Toward:
From: Robb, James (Councillor)
Sent: 26 November 2014 18:45
To: Hendry, Douglas Cc: #All Councillors
Subject: FW: Policy and Resource – Agenda item 7 – Castle Toward [OFFICIAL]
It seems incredible that given the length of time this has been an issue the required paper couldn’t have been produced on time (or even grudgingly as a late issue). Could you provide some detail to members on any substantive reasons for this. It would also be helpful if you could explain why it required to come back to the P&R Committee at this time anyway.
This email, circulated, as you see, to all councillors, brought, minutes later, a response from Dunoon Councillor, Michael Breslin, to Councillor Robb, also circulated to all members:
From: Breslin, Michael
Sent: 26 November 2014 18:59
To: Robb, James (Councillor); Hendry, Douglas
Cc: #All Councillors
Subject: RE: Policy and Resource – Agenda item 7 – Castle Toward [OFFICIAL]
I agree James.
SCCDC has had a very large amount of information that they have been asked to provide to the council, all of which I understand they provided within the time requested. The reality is that much of what they were asked to do was peripheral to the substantial economic benefit that was clearly there from the activities of the tenant they had for the building. See my email of last night for detail.
It was incumbent on us to then do what was needed, within the timescales we then set. We have failed, and miserably.
This matter could have been, and should have been, agreed in principle in June but here we are in late November with the usual nonsense and prevarication.
Are you not ashamed to lead such a shambles Dick? You should be but perhaps this is par for the course that you have charted for years.
Independent Councillor, Ward 7 Dunoon
There is a concern that the council’s continuing manoevering to stop the issue coming to a decision will see the community bid to buy fail by running out of the legal time period within which a purchase must be concluded.
It is now time to put a stop to the council’s room to frustrate necessary community development in such ways.
The Scottish Government’s drive on Land Reform
Yesterday, 2nd December 2014, the Scottish Government sent out for public consultation its proposals to extend powerfully Scotland’s existing land reform legislation – towards the introduction of a Land Reform Bill.
Much of the proposed change is highly controversial, politically driven and, seriously under-engaged with the consequences for rural and agricultural life, carrying the potential for profound damage to the sustainability of that sector.
It has been accused of demonising responsible landowners along with the odd rogue, for the advantage of a separatist political agenda; of trying to inflame a ‘class war’ – all of which concerns are fully sustainable in the final report of the government’s Land Reform Review Group [LRRG], whose process and progress was, at best erratic. This report forms the basis of the consultation which began yesterday.
In For Argyll’s response to the publication of the LRRG’s final report in May this year  we noted that one of the many areas short on being properly thought through, was the failure to recognise and confront the basic fact that landowners exist in the public as well as the private sector.
One of the key paragraphs of the consultation document issued yesterday is:
‘Address barriers to sustainable development and begin to diversify patterns of land ownership: by providing powers for Scottish Ministers, or other public bodies, to intervene in situations where the scale or pattern of land ownership in an area, and the conduct of a landowner, is acting as a barrier to sustainable development.’
Argyll and Bute Council as the owner of the Castle Toward Estate has been, patently and on evidence, ‘acting as a barrier to sustainable development’ in South Cowal.
Cut to the chase
This is an opportunity for the SNP Scottish Government to demonstrate its objective fidelity to land reform.
Here is a landowner who is, in the recent words of the local and SNP MSP, Michael Russell, is a ‘blight on community progress’ and is inflicting ‘anti-democratic abuse’ on the community of South Cowal.
Until recently a senior Cabinet member of the Scottish Government, Mr Russell has access, influence and presents himself as a fighter,
He has recently sworn to his constituents in Argyll and Bute to work even harder in their interests now that he has more time to do so.
Here is his opportunity to bring to bear the necessary forces to intervene in this issue, using the force of land reform in existence and in intent.
Mr Russell is not only the constituency MSP but Cowal is his personal territory, since it is the area where he and his family have lived for a long time.
Here is the ideal marriage of needs and the opportunity to do good locally.
Argyll and Bute Council cannot be allowed to frustrate any longer the will and drive of the community of South Cowal to take its future into its own hands.
The government’s thinking on land reform leaves the Council adrift – as an irresponsible and neglectful landowner, with a profoundly poor record on its stewardship of this particular property – and clearly keen to be just that ‘barrier to sustainable development’ the government is willed to remove.
There should be no more arguing on the fiddles of council conduct – cut to the chase, get them out of this picture altogether, and let South Cowal make a better sense of this estate.
At a stroke this would show that, in its land reform drive, the Scottish Government is not setting out on a class war and is not protective of deviant practices in public sector ownership – but is concerned to act against failing landowners and mangers who are proven to obstruct community moves to sustainability.
There is no better place to start than this case, with the tools that come to hand now – to free a community of a demonstrable and wilful blocking of its progress by a failed and incapable landowner interested only in making mischief.