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December 17, 2019

Council intransigence

Underpinning many aspects of the Community Empowerment Act is a presumption in favour of the community. So for instance, communities requesting the transfer of a public asset can have a reasonable expectation of receiving a positive response. Or at least, that is the theory. An award-winning community enterprise in Castlebay on Barra have been trying for four years to engage the Council in a constructive dialogue about the future of their premises. They simply want to own their building so they can refurbish it.  This a remarkable tale of Council intransigence and obstruction.

Bùth Bharraigh

An award-winning community social enterprise is under threat from Comhairle nan Eilean Siar because the local authority is insisting on demolishing its premises.

Bùth Bharraigh, a local producer co-operative, visitor information provider and community hub in Castlebay, is under orders from the local authority to move from its current location in the former Co-op building close to the ferry terminal – but directors of the Bùth claim the new site would put them out of business as it is not located where newly arrived tourists can find it.

They say the unit they are being offered half a mile away is much smaller, more expensive and is not a good location for tourist information. They would have to reduce the amount of services they provide and stock held.

They also say the Comhairle has refused to engage with them, ignored pleas for a meeting, ignored lawyers’ letters on behalf of Bùth Bharraigh, ignored a Freedom of Information inquiry probing the legality of the demolition plan, and failed so far to publicise comments in response to an asset transfer request for their building, which closed on November 22.

Bùth Bharraigh directors are growing increasingly concerned ahead of a meeting of the Sustainable Development Committee at the Comhairle tomorrow (December 4) where their fate will be discussed. A report is to be given to the committee by the Head of Economic Development and Planning but was not made publicly available on the Comhairle website ahead of the meeting. Also, the item will be taken in private – a move which raised concerns still further, as Bùth Bharraigh has not even been informed by the Comhairle that it is on the agenda.

According to the agenda, the item was to be in private because of “information relating to the financial or business affairs of any particular person (other than the Comhairle)” – but Bùth Bharraigh say the only financial information that might be disclosed is the accounts, already contained in the asset transfer documents, and claim the Comhairle is taking it in private “so they can keep it behind closed doors”.

Director Sarah Maclean said: “Nobody has been in touch with us from the council. They didn’t tell us it was going to be discussed and they didn’t the last time, either. That’s twice now they haven’t informed us that we’ll be a topic of discussion.

“Taking the item in secret is deliberate so that we can’t find out what they’re up to, frankly. I think it’s so that it will be a done deal until it is too late.”

Three years ago, the community of Barra wrote to Comhairle chief executive Malcolm Burr and the then council leader Angus Campbell to try to save the building.

In that letter, dated December 5, 2016, they said: “We are writing to confirm that we, the people of Barra, do not want the old Co-op building in Castlebay demolished.” There were 137 signatories.

The debate about whether to demolish the building goes back to 2012 when it was lying vacant and suffered storm damage. However, since 2013 it has been occupied by Buth Bharraigh who have architects plans and costings to refurbish and renovate it. Bùth Bharraigh believe demolition would contravene council strategies and programmes aimed at tourism, creating employment opportunities and encouraging social enterprise.

In the 2016 letter, the community also said: “We have tried since 2014, without success, to make CnES officials understand that residents now want to keep the building.”

Five years on, the message has still not got through to the Comhairle.

After a meeting with Malcolm Burr in May 2017 at which the directors laid out the case for the Bùth remaining in its place, the Comhairle chief executive never got back to them.

Recently Calum Iain Maciver, Director of Communities at the Comhairle, was asked for a meeting but he failed to respond.

In its current central location in the old Co-op building, Bùth Bharraigh fulfils multiple functions.

As well as acting as a route to market for around 80 local producers, Bùth Bharraigh serves as a visitor information centre, laundrette – laundry contracts include social care – as well as bike hire, Hebridean Way pit stop and community hub cafe with free WiFi.

They won the title of UK Social Enterprise of the Year in the 2016 Rural Business Awards and were highly commended in the category of Rural Enterprise in the 2017 Scottish Rural Awards, winning the Scottish Rural Parliament Innovators Award for Business 2015/16 and reaching the finals in numerous other awards including Scottish Social Enterprise of the Year, Community Ownership Awards (Scotland) and the Highlands and Islands Food and Drink Awards, as an Independent Retailer. Bùth Bharraigh Ltd is also an Accredited Living Wage Employer.

Despite these achievements, the Bùth Bharraigh directors claim the Comhairle is “desperate to get rid of us” and move the enterprise into unsuitable premises.

Residents of Barra who are keen to keep Bùth Bharraigh in its current home gathered for a picture at the weekend, to show their support for their community social enterprise.

Sarah said afterwards: “They were shocked at the fact that Malcolm Burr just didn’t get back to us and they want the building to continue. Regardless of what the council says, most of the people on the island do think the shop is a good thing and doing an important job, but not everybody is going to write a letter or jump up and down about it.”

She also stated the Comhairle were onto their third supposed reason about why the Bùth had to vacate the building.

Their first reason, she said, was that the building was not structurally sound. However, a structural survey proved that the frame was “structurally sound” and drew up plans for a complete renovation in the future. Complete renovation quotes had come in at around £400,000. If allowed to remain, Bùth Bharraigh hopes to raise some of that through crowd funding.

The Comhairle’s second reason, she stated, was that it did not have community support.

“Then when we disproved that, they said it was about road safety – but a Police Scotland report showed there has never been an accident outside the shop.

“They are grasping at straws. It’s the sheer desperation they have to get rid of us. That’s the frustrating thing – that, and their failure to engage.”

With the issue due to be discussed at the Sustainable Development Committee, Sarah expressed concern about what might be in the report due to the content of the previous one which went to the Comhairle’s meeting in September.

Directors of the Bùth were not notified in advance of that meeting either and given no opportunity to correct the inaccurate content of the report.

“It was just wildly inaccurate and wrong – and that was what councillors had in front of them to base their decision on,” she said. “In that report, it said nothing about what we’re doing, how much money we’re bringing in, nothing.”

Since this meeting, Bùth Bharraigh has hired lawyers to fight its corner and the legal firm sent its second letter to the Comhairle last Friday. The Comhairle has not yet replied to the first lawyer’s letter sent in September and has also failed to answer a Freedom of Information inquiry about the legality of the Comhairle’s process, within the set timescale.

Sarah said: “They should be working with us to get the best outcome for Barra and our business. We’re a successful community business and we’re under constant threat. We haven’t been able to develop and barriers have been put in our way. We’ve been held back. We have even won Rural Social Enterprise of the Year – and that was a UK award – and it just doesn’t make a bit of difference.

“They will be putting producers’ takings and jobs at risk if they force us to move.

“We’re open when the ferry comes in and we’ve taken on the tourist information and we don’t get any money for that. That is a big service that we provide and if we move half a mile it’s going to be so difficult for visitors to get accommodation and information on arrival.

“The big thing for me is the frustration that the council don’t recognise what a great thing we are doing. Plus, it’s the frustration that they just don’t get back to us. We asked them for a meeting recently and it was just ignored.”

In their original lease application, Sarah said they asked for a “20 year lease with an option to buy” and were then given a five year lease by the Comhairle in 2013. Problems began afterwards.

She said: “In these premises, we have been trading and established our business over the past six years. If we moved, we’d have to reduce the amount of stock we carry and we couldn’t do the laundrette. We would probably have to shut the Wifi cafe. But the location is the biggest thing.”

Turnover has been around £750,000 over the past six years but Sarah said the Comhairle’s attitude remains dismissive. “The council have never taken us seriously. We’ve always just been a bunch of women in Barra with a wee project but we’ve grown from strength to strength and we’ll continue to do so if we stay in the same spot.”

Bùth Bharraigh is due to hold its Annual General Meeting on Thursday, December 12, amending its Articles of Association to ensure it will fully comply with the conditions for an asset transfer, should that be approved.

It is understood that demolition of the building is one of the conditions attached to a Regional Capital Grant which the Comhairle received from central government. However, Sarah said they had been advised that the Comhairle could negotiate with the government about redirecting that money into refurbishment or another project as the situation had changed.

Sarah stated: “We have tried to engage. It has got us nowhere. When we saw that report in September, we knew we had to get a lawyer. They are trying to destroy a community business and they don’t care. Nobody knows what’s going on; the council are doing it secretly so people don’t know how sticky our position is.

“We make most of our income from tourists. What other council would move a successful business somewhere that it can’t develop? The council should be supporting us. It’s ridiculous.”