The entire CHORD project – funded urban regeneration schemes for each of Argyll’s five keystone towns - Campbeltown, Helensburgh, Oban, Rothesay and Dunoon – has been an expensive mess from the outset.
It began with a teststerone-packed winner-takes-all competition between the five, utterly at odds with the continuing pork-barrel politics of local government, throwing the odd morsel into each of several pens to keep the inhabitants minimally content.
All five towns failed to produce competent proposals, so more money was thrown to continue to employ consultants to help to steer them to competition standard.
The reality dawned – late – that one winner would mean four sore losers.
When the decision was made, the then Council Leader, Dick Walsh, was wreathed in beatific smiles as he pronounced that they were ALL winners and that the council would raid its reserves to pay for ALL the schemes to go ahead.
The story since then has been one of management failures, changes of plan, virement of funds, unminuted meetings, inaction and a delivery marked by how little has actually happened and how little is even certain.
Local politics and the promotion of councillors’ own vanity projects saw the Oban CHORD project suffer in addition to most of the features noted above.
The shambles this quickly became saw a town with an intrinsic, unique attraction and natural advantages remain in serious need of regeneration.
Over the past year, the Oban CHORD project has, for the first time, been making real progress, with projects important to the economic growth of the town moving much closer to becoming a reality. A key example here is the planned transit marina for the town side of Oban Bay, with walk ashore access direct to the town centre.
The decisions now taken need to be formerly actioned – which is normally done simply by the Council Leader and Depute Council Leader. Due to the state of play with the SNP machinations, there is currently only a Council Leader, Councilor McCuish, with no Depute Leader. He could, constitutionally, action the decisions alone – but Council officers are unnerved by the volatility of the scenario in which they are compelled to work just now so it is unlikely that Councillor McCuish would wish to take such an action.
With next week’s full meeting of Argyll and Bute Council certain to see a change of administration, there is well founded concern amongst the Oban business community that this change might destabilise the progress of the vital CHORD project. And it might. The uncertainty alone is unhelpful in terms of public confidence.
Audit Scotland are in Kilmory at the moment, investigating member-to-member relations, with a nervous CEO keen to be present at as many individual interviews with members as possible. The commissioners will be present at next week’s meeting, which, on form, should be an instructive experience.
Games people play at Kilmory
Elected members of Argyll and Bute Council have, for a long time now, been engaged incessantly in kaleidoscopic shifts of position, structure and group membership, seeing:
- the SNP party hierarchy continuing to do everything possible to ensure that, whatever happens and, literally, at all costs, the SNP are formally responsible for nothing [although they were elected to responsibility, as the largest group and have worked in deliberate self-mutilation to lose that dominance];
- pressure constantly applied to a core group of SNP councillors to give in and join the lemmings.
- turkeys digging in against the onset of Christmas, as those who actually left the current administration some time ago have nevertheless continued to cling to their paid senior positions within it. And yes, this does beggar belief.
The pressured core group of SNP councillors, under the notional leadership of novice councillor, Sandy Taylor whose own position is variable, have worked to make the party face up to its elected responsibilities rather than cut and run, as it insists on doing.
Those at the heart of this group – current Council Leader Roddy McCuish and Councillors Mary Jean Devon, Louise Glen-Lee and James Robb – cannot hold the ring much longer. They will personally be judged by their respective constituents on whether or not they go with the flow that has put the deformed contortions of party interest above those of Argyll.
It will take a choir of fat ladies to sing in synch before anyone can be sure what has actually happened at next week’s council meeting – the last before the July recess.
Predictably the manoeuvering is ongoing and while all that is certain is that this meeting will see change of some kind, the planned likelihood is that the 17-strong Argyll and Bute for Change group will become a minority administration, replacing an SNP-led administation with the agreed support of an SNP group led into that position by Councillor Sandy Taylor.
The key thing here is that this will be an informal – and even possibly unspoken – arrangement, since the SNP party’s sole objective remains to get to a position where it can be held responsible for nothing.
This surreal plan would see:
- the SNP support into office the very group of councillors whose previous administration they claimed to have badly damaged Argyll;
- the SNP dump their own administration and support into office those whom – as a result of the SNP’s explicit campaign in May 2012 – the electorate set aside in favour of the SNP as the largest group of elected councillors;
- the SNP with two members active in a politically competitive group – Argyll and Bute for Change – while still retaining party membership and attending party group meetings;
- the possibility that this group might even vote in as Council Leader the novice councillor, SNP resignee and serial trouble maker within the SNP, Councillor Michael Breslin. We discount this rumour – which is being mooted in Dunoon – because it is impossible to believe that Councilor Duncan McIntyre, who has a better claim to the leadership, would step aside. However, given the illicit meeting of the two-man College of Cardinals at Councillor MacIntyre’s home last week – himself and local MSP Michael Russell, to whom Councilor Breslin is close – who knows, until next Thursday, just what deal went down then?
Bolters versus stayers
The number and membership of that SNP group will not be known until the deed is done at next Thursday’s meeting – although, with fudge the flavour of Argyll and Bute, it is not impossible that that will remain unclear.
There will be keen constituency interest in seeing just who goes where and who chooses to keep their position to themselves.
The reality, which the political caste cannot see, is that Argyll is heartsick of this mess, of the continual game-playing, of strings pulled from outside, of the deliberate lack of transparency.
Those who voted for each and every one of the SNP councillors need to know exactly were they stand – and to know whether each prioritises fidelity to their electorate or fidelity to their party.
The SNP, as a party, has damaged itself immeasurably with its machinations to get out of the power it had campaigned successfully to be given.
There is absolutely no residual credit for the party in any of this, nor for any of the councillors who have gone along with it. The party has shown no responsibility to Argyll or to colleagues; and no trace of strategic political intelligence or common sense.
Current Council Leader, Roddy McCuish from Oban, who has always been a gold-standard of personal integrity, of care for his constituency and for the wider interests of Argyll, of collegiality and of a very savvy common sense, is bound to make some sort of El Alamo last stand in defence of right.
With his own party whipped against him, he is unlikely to carry the day – but will deservedly emerge from a year seeing plunging local credit for his party, with his personal credit higher than ever.
And the SNP has chosen to pay the enormous cost in credibility of being seen to be a bolter in tough times – to protect the ‘Yes’ vote September 2014′s independence referendum. Everyone knows that an independent Scotland would face very tough times and serious challenges to its competence in its early days.
Fro the evidence of what has been going on in Argyll within the SNP. how can the party that bolts from local government responsibilities hope to persuade the nation that it can be trusted to handle national government bravely, competently, straightforwardly, with transparency and without internal civil war?
Note: Argyll and Bute for Change is made up of the former Alliance of Independent Councillors , two resignees from the SNP group, two current members of the SNP group, the three Argyll First councillors and an Independent from Oban North and Lorn. Specifically, they are:
- Vivien Dance [Helensburgh Central, Independent]
- Iain Angus Macdonald [Oban North and Lorn, Independent]
- Alistair MacDougall [Mull, Independent]
- Duncan MacIntyre [Oban North and Lorn, Independent]
- Donnie Macmillan [Mid Argyll, Independent]
- Bruce Marshall [Cowal, Independent]
- Alex McNaughton [Cowal, Independent]
- James McQueen [Dunoon, Independent]
- Len Scoullar [Bute, Independent]
- Dick Walsh [Dunoon, Independent]
- Donald Kelly [South Kintyre, Argyll First]
- John McAlpine [Kintyre and the Islands, Argyll First]
- Dougie Philand [Mid Argyll, Argyll First]
- Michael Breslin [Independent - SNP resignee, Dunoon]
- Fred Hall [Independent - SNP resignee, Oban South and the Isles]
- Gordon Blair [SNP, Cowal]
- Robert E Macintyre [SNP, Bute]