In the continuing stalemate at Argyll and Bute Council, with no serious talking going on and the next council meeting the immediate hope of a material address to the situation, there is, as of this morning, still no June meeting of the council formally notified to the public on the Calendar of Meetings on the Council website. We have asked the council for clarification on this matter.
However, some interesting shifts of opinion are taking place amongst SNP activists.
There appear to be seven SNP branches in Argyll and Bute.
Five of these – Oban, Helensburgh, Dalriada, Mull and Campbeltown have now mandated their SNP councillors to work with any other councillors in the wider interests of Argyll and Bute.
The other two – Cowal and Bute and Holy Loch [also in Cowal] – are unlikely to follow suit, since their area is the storm source of the internal warfare that still rages, with no dawning of awareness of discipline and collective responsibility and a continuing absence of any political intelligence on the party’s own interests.
The five local mandates represent a growing awareness amongst SNP local activists of the depth of the damage the ongoing internal political farrago has done to their party’s prospects.
This is a situation which ought to be germane to the unhelpful perspectives subjectively applied to party instructions to its councillors by the SNP’s NEC.
The key issue now is what next?
Back to the Council Constitution
Argyll and Bute Council’s Constitution – as currently published online remains both out of date and seriously incomplete. We know that the Constitution was revised after the May 2012 council elections and that the former Executive Committee was abolished.
The detail of the revised Constitution, however, remains a matter from which the public is currently excluded – as it the case with any detail even of the outdated version, from page 21 onwards.
We would have thought it the responsibility of the CEO to ensure that public information of this sort was always compete and up to date. We have asked for a digital copy of the current Constitution.
From our analysis of the current situation from the out of date Constitution, there is no constitutional problem with the present governance of the council. There is an elected Council Leader and all councillors appointed by the council to senior responsibilities are continuing to carry out those functions.
However, the common sense that politicians ignore at their peril, demands a resolution of an obvious stalemate.
This may not be paralysing the functions of the council in terms of service delivery but the distractions generated are nevertheless impacting unhelpfully upon democratic debate.
For example, at the meeting of the Council’s Planning and Protective Services Licensing Committee on 28th May, 9 councillors tendered apologies for absence, with only 6 in attendance. Yet this agenda contained controversial applications from the Scottish Salmon Company for another salmon farm in Loch Striven, Sgian Dubh and a massive extension to the existing one in the same loch, at Strone Point – which would double its biomass.
There has got to be movement towards engaged stability in our local governance.
The question is what levers might be applied to knocking some sense of elected responsibility into the current situation – in which communication and discussion between members and groups is being actively obstructed, despite the pious claims of one councillor, as in yesterday’s Helensburgh Advertiser, that ‘We need to talk’. The quick answer to this is ‘So start talking.’
The issue of leverage
The obvious place from which leverage may be exerted on this unacceptable paralysis is the office of the Provost.
The Council Constitution – and this is unlikely to have been changed in the revised version – describes thus the Provost’s powers and duties – which are statutory:
- to promote involvement in the Council’s activities;
- to act as the conscience of the Council;
- to secure the rights of all Members to participate in the Council’s decision taking;
- to act as a focal point for the whole Argyll and Bute community;
- to carry out civic and ceremonial activities and act as an ambassador for the Council and Argyll and Bute.
This would require the Provost or Depute Provost to understand the objectivity of the authority with wncih they cat constitutionally in such situations.
The Provost and Depute Provost are elected councillors who are likely to have personal political affiliations to groups within the chamber.
Those affiliations must be utterly set aside in the conduct of their responsibilities as Provost or Depute Provost. When either acts in that capacity they are effectively translated to a different role and assume different responsibilities to different masters.
- In that capacity, they are responsible for the process of governance and responsible and accountable to the electorate in whose interests they exercise their authority.
- In that capacity, they may take objective procedural advice from council officers, who may not act ‘politically’; but they must not consult or take advice from any elected colleagues whose role remains ‘political’.
Do we have a Provost or a Depute Provost who can rise to this challenge?
In a situation of this kind, which involves member-to-member relations and member-to-officer relations, Audit Scotland may step in and conduct an audit of the scenario.
Their descriptive and analytic intervention may lead to a resolution of the matter. If it does not, they may refer the issue to the Accounts Commissioners.
We spoke to Audit Scotland this morning and they have made it public that they are aware of the situation obtaining in Argyll and Bute Council and are now looking at making just such an intervention.
This has to be helpful but it does mean that an entirely avoidable chapter of willful and irresponsible self-destruction in one party group has left Argyll and Bute again the subject of national scrutiny for political management of a very low order.
An Audit Scotland spokesman says:
‘We publish assurance and improvement plans for all 32 councils based on risk assessments for the year ahead. Argyll and Bute’s plan identifies planned work by auditors to review the relationships between councillors, and between councillors and officers. This work is at an early stage.
‘As part of our annual audit on the council, we are also looking at the sale of two council-owned properties operated as outdoor education centres - Castle Toward and Ardentinny. The annual audit report is due to be published in October this year.’
The Audit Scotland website shows paragraph 7 of Argyll and Bute Council’s Assurance and Improvement Plan as reading:
‘No risks were identified with the council’s corporate governance framework that requires risk based scrutiny work. However concerns have been raised with Audit Scotland, in relation to the council’s dealings with an external company. Whilst audit work will not be done to investigate all of the concerns raised, some targeted work is planned. Work is to be undertaken by the Audit Scotland team in collaboration with colleagues from Best Value and Scrutiny Improvement, to review member to member and member to officer relationships. This has been reflected in an additional risk assessment for leadership and culture in this AIP.’