FOI documents on Castle Toward support Actual Reality’s allegations against Argyll and Bute Council

Documents received by For Argyll from Argyll and Bute Council on 23rd December 2013 under Freedom of Information legislation and relating to Castle Toward and Actual Reality Learning and Leadership Ltd, have been shared with Dr Christopher Mason, Director of the Actuality Reality Trust.

Actual Reality had operated Castle Toward and now owns and operates Ardentinny outdoor education centre.

The Director of the Actual Reality Trust, Dr Christopher Mason, in December 2012, made a formal complaint on the treatment of Actual Reality by the council to Council Leader Dick Walsh. In late 2013 he lodged a formal complaint about Councillor Walsh with the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life, in relation to Councillor Walsh’s own conduct in aspects of this matter. The company is also instituting legal action against the council.

Dr Mason has found the material acquired by For Argyll helpful in his determination to have the council’s closure of Castle Toward in 2009, its treatment of Actual Reality and its handling of the attempted disposal of Castle Toward, fully investigated – as documented evidence in the public domain indicates it must be.

He has given us his analysis of the evidence this material provides, including omissions in the Chief Executive’s Briefing to Audit Scotland on Actual Reality, which have the effect of substantially misleading the audit commission; and including admissions which demonstrate the veracity of Actual Reality allegations against the council.

We have taken the points raised by Dr Mason out of the order in which he gave them to us, in order to emphasise what we feel are the items that must powerfully compel Audit Scotland to reverse their previous underinformed decision not to undertake a full investigation of this matter.

For the sake of its own credibility, to reassure the public and in the light of the documented evidence now available to it from several official sources, all of which have been published here – Audit Scotland will need to reverse that decision and to be decisive in doing so.

We provide access at the foot of this article to the original material we have received from Argyll and Bute Council under FoI and to which Dr Mason refers in this analysis.

Dr Christopher Mason: Castle Toward closure in 2009

Comment on the papers released by Argyll and Bute Council on 23 December 2013

I congratulate For Argyll on securing the publication of two Council reports relevant to the closure of Castle Toward in 2009:

  1. Sally Loudon’s report to the Council on 21 March 2013;
  2. the brief that she sent to Audit Scotland on 7 February (and made available to the Councillors on 21 March);
  3. and the letter dated 28 February from Audit Scotland in which they said they would not investigate the events of 2009 leading up to the peremptory closure of Castle Toward.

The key document is the brief.

It purports to be a truthful summary of the information in the Council’s possession about Actual Reality’s occupancy of Castle Toward from 1996 to 2013 and about the circumstances of the 2009 closure.

In fact it manages to mislead its readers on every important issue that it covers, mainly by omitting relevant facts.

Actual Reality allegations shown to be correct

[Ed: The texts of paragraphs 6-9 of the Chief Executive's Briefing to Audit Scotland can be read from the original document accessed below - in the paper headed 'Actual Reality'.]

Actual Reality is particularly interested in paragraphs 6 to 9, which are presented as a complete summary of the events leading up to the 2009 closure and the aftermath.   They contain many half-truths and misrepresentations but also, no doubt inadvertently, two important truths.

The crux of Actual Reality’s complaint about the Council’s conduct in 2009 is that from July to November of that year Council officers did nothing to implement the recommendations in the Strathclyde Fire Service’s Fire Risk Assessment.

Moreover, they actually instructed Actual Reality not to take any action ourselves to implement the recommendations.

We have also complained that Council officers did not tell us about the electrical inspection report (PIR) which was sent to them on 5 May 2005.

These are the complaints that Sally Loudon, Dick Walsh, and Ellen Morton have said ‘have no substance’.   They are the complaints that Audit Scotland were asked to investigate.

What does Mrs. Loudon’s brief have to say about these crucial matters?  Nothing at all.

She records in paragraph 6 that we had a meeting with Council technical officers on July 9th [to finalise the fire safety remedial works plan, which had been a joint effort]. From there she goes straight to the second Fire Risk Assessment carried out by Council health and safety officers on November 10th and 11th.

According to Mrs. Loudon’s account, the Council did nothing at all between 9th July and 10th November – which is exactly what we have always alleged. [Ed: this fact exposes the threadbare deceit of the CEO's claim to Audit Scotland that the council's actions over Castle Toward were driven by an urgent care for the health and safety of the public.]

Similarly in paragraph 6, Mrs Loudon sets out what she says the Council did when it received the PIR in May 2005 [although we have no record of them doing any of this].

The one thing she does not claim is that Council officers told Actual Reality that the PIR had been received – and again, we have always alleged that they did not.

Sally Loudon, Dick Walsh, and Ellen Morton have claimed that our allegations on these two crucial matters ‘lack substance’. [Ed: Dr Mason here refers to the confidential letter circulated in late November 2013 by Council Leader Walsh and Deputy Council Leader Morton, with variations and individually to all councillors. This matter, with the full text of the communication, was published at the time in For Argyll: Walsh briefing to councillors on Castle Toward misleads and manipulates.]

That claim is not supported by the information in Sally Loudon’s brief to Audit Scotland, information which has been in the Council’s possession since November 2009, when these allegations were first made.

The Council officers have always known that they did nothing in these four months to implement the recommendations in the Strathclyde Fire Service’s report.

They have also known that it was precisely their inaction which gave them a plausible excuse to close Castle Toward on Friday, November 13th.

Careful reading of Sally Loudon’s brief should tell the elected councillors and the public in Argyll and Bute that our allegations on these points have real substance and are well-founded.

Omissions disguising the nature and avoidance of Council responsibilities

The Castle Toward estate came into Argyll and But Council’s ownership in 1996 through reorganisation of local authorities.

Paragraphs 2 and 4 of the CEO’s Briefing to Audit Scotland omit to mention:

  • the undertaking that Argyll and Bute Council gave when the Castle Toward estate came into its ownership in 1996 -  to support the continuation of outdoor education in Castle Toward;
  • the Council’s agreement with Glasgow and East Renfrewshire to form a Joint Management Committee [JMC];
  • the later agreement between the three councils that the JMC would be wound up and that Actual Reality would be granted a long lease to enable it to restore and maintain the property as an outdoor education centre;
  • Scottish Ministers’ consent to that arrangement;
  • and Argyll and Bute Council’s subsequent refusal to conclude the lease negotiations.

[Ed: It is our understanding that Actual Reality had asked for the security of a proper lease to support their operations at Castle Toward. Yet the CEO's briefing to Audit Scotland tacitly presents the company as a passive and willing beneficiary of what she describes as 'an informal licence from the council'. It would be interesting to know what the audit commission's videw is of the fiscal responsibility of 'an informal licence' - whatever that is?]

The failure of the three-council JMC regime was what gave Argyll and Bute Council, in 2003, the opportunity to set about the sale of Castle Toward.

Omissions disguising earlier covert preparations for disposal of Castle Toward

Paragraphs 8 and 10 of the Chief Executive’s briefing to Audit Scotland, dealing with the sale of Castle Toward, omit an interesting fact.

From June 2005, if not earlier, Council officers had been engaged in secret discussions and correspondence with prospective developers and architects about changing the planning status of the property and thereby improving its market value in preparation for its sale.

The discussions were concealed from the community in South Cowal and from most of the elected members of the Council – until Seasons Holidays had been identified as the preferred purchaser.

NOTE: The material we received from Argyll and Bute Councilon 23rd December 2013  in response to our third FoI on Castle Toward matters is, as we were given it, rolled up in a single pdf document here: Castle Toward_2644. We suggest it is downloaded and kept for reference against this and the following articles resulting from scrutiny of this material. It contains:

  • The report to Council on 21 March 2013 on ‘Castle Toward and Actual Reality’ by Chief Executive, Sally Loudon.
  • A letter of 7 February 2013 from Council Chief Executive, Sally Loudon to Fiona Mitchell Knight, Assistant Director of Audit at Audit Scotland, headed: ‘Review into matters relating to Actual Reality’.
  • The Chief Executive’s Briefing paper for Audit Scotland, attached to the 7 February 2013 letter above, entitled: ‘Actual Reality’
  • A letter of 28 February 2013 to the Council Chief Executive from Fiona Mitchell Knight of Audit Scotland, as above, and headed: ‘Request for review of matters relating to Actual Reality Learning and Leadership Ltd’.
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32 Responses to FOI documents on Castle Toward support Actual Reality’s allegations against Argyll and Bute Council

  1. Thank goodness the real truth is coming out! Hopefully the people of south cowal will now back the community bid and accept the dealings “behind closed doors and shrouded in secrecy” leading to the proposed sale with seasons holidays will be accepted as wholly unsavoury! I admire Dr Mason for pursuing this and bringing honesty to the fore!

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 17 Thumb down 4

  2. Robert, this is a joke right??

    ‘Cause you seem to be saying that if Audit Scotland agree with the complainer then they are up to the job – whereas if they don’t agree with the complainer then they are fudging it.

    I could be wrong but I’m not sure that revealing your prejudices ahead of the report from Audit Scotland reflects a fair-minded, even-handed and/or non-judgemental approach.

    I certainly wouldn’t like to be on trial with you in the jury.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 8 Thumb down 20

    • I’m saying that I think Audit Scotland needs to do more than just dismiss the issue as not an issue. It seems that there’s more information available now, but the first time around it seemed to me that Audit Scotland was going down the ‘what we don’t know doesn’t concern us’ road, and I’d have thought that there was enough information to justify Audit Scotland making the effort to do a bit of digging. Isn’t that the way to settle matters, Simon, rather than leaving accusation and suspicion hanging in the air? You’re not a proponent of sweeping things under the carpet, ‘let sleeping dogs lie’, are you? I don’t think the dogs are asleep.

      Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 12 Thumb down 3

  3. The simple fact is this: Audit Scotland did NOT investigate Actual Reality’s complaint, for reasons none of us is aware of.

    At the moment Audit Scotland do not intend to do any investigation on this matter. What For Argyll is asking them to do is carry out the investigation they ought to have done in the first place.

    As a minor correction to the 3rd paragraph on the article above, Actual Reality did not lodge a formal complaint in December 2012. Roddy McCuish and I got 2 pieces of correspondence from them, one from Christopher Mason and the other from Gordon Gibb. We both took the view that what we had received had to be treated as a serious complaint. We still think we were correct in that view.

    We took advice on what we should do, and the key bit of advice was to have this investigated by Audit Scotland and that is what we set in train.

    All the above is verifiable and already in the public domain. This matter still requires investigation and if Audit Scotland won’t do it, someone else will need to be approached.

    Cllr Michael Breslin

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 22 Thumb down 8

    • Cllr Breslin

      You are absolutely right that someone should investigate it. In fact that is pretty much exactly what Audit Scotland’s letter says and highlights the appropriate ways of it being done – not only does it say that it also asks the Council to inform them of what the council does to progress the issue.

      It would appear from the Chief Exec’s report that the Chief Exec and Group Leaders had a chinwag and decided Nah let’s not bother.’

      It seems odd that in her letter of 7 February the Chief Executive lists a load of areas she wants Audit Scotland to investigate ‘expeditiously’ but when Audit Scotland point out that they are not there to do her officer’s work for her the need for the review is suddenly not that important after all as ‘no further action is necessary’

      As always there are questions to be asked of this Chief Executive and the Group Leaders.

      Why was the review so urgent and then not necessary?
      What is the basis of the Group Leader’s decision that no further action was necessary?

      Why ask Audit Scotland’s advice and then ignore it?
      Have they reported their decision to do nothing to Audit Scotland as per the request in their letter?

      As always I doubt any answers will be forthcoming – you have a thankless task.

      Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 12 Thumb down 3

    • “We took advice on what we should do, and the key bit of advice was to have this investigated by Audit Scotland and that is what we set in train.”
      Sally told us to do this. Sally and Dick had a common interest to bury this matter and Sally had checked with Audit Scotland that they would not investigate the events of 2009 before suggesting this. It eventually led to Sally getting the change of administration she wanted.
      We wuz done up like kippers by Sally and Dick.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

      • There are legitimate confusions in this because of conflicting claims.
        However, the Chief Executive did not instruct or advise Councilors McCuish and Breslin to go to Audit Scotland.
        Quite the reverse.
        Councillor Breslin has reported below – under his own name and from his direct first hand experience – that in a private meeting, COSLA Chief Executive, Rory Mair, told him to go to Audit Scotland.
        But in a subsequent three-handed session between himself and the two Chief Executives, Mr Mair and Mrs Loudon [with the implication that they had squared the issue between them beforehand], where Mr Breslin raised the issue of Mr Mair’s advice to go to Audit Scotland, the COSLA CEO denied it all.
        The two CEO’s then attempted to press upon Councillor Breslin the need to find some other way of dealing with the Actual Reality/Castle Toward affair – other than bringing in Audit Scotland. Councillor Breslin resisted this, as, when he was informed, did Council Leader Roddy McCuish – who went ahead and brought in the auditors.
        This was actively against the CEO’s wishes and, in a way as you say, she did then find ways of making sure that Audit Scotland stayed largely away from the party. [We will come to this matter later.]
        We understand from a different source that third party corroborative evidence may be available to support Ms Breslin’s allegation of Mr Mair’s brass-faced volte face.
        Ironically, it is Audit Scotland that, to use your phrase’ ‘has been done up like kippers’ by Sally Loudon.
        They have been underinformed, misinformed, misled and misquoted.
        They are now pinned in the full scrutiny of the public, looking passive, inept, afraid of serious investigation of the activities of fellow members of the public sector tribe to which they are affiliated – and paralysed.
        This is probably unfair as they too are essentially victims of an administration whose nature they appear unable to contemplate.
        They are now, though, between a long reef of Lewissian Gneiss and a visit to Dignitas and they need to be brave.
        They must investigate this matter fully – and not just on procedural tick boxes. If they don’t, their credibility is on the first flight to Switzerland.
        Have they got the will, the ability and the bottle?
        Who knows?

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

      • I am unsure if they did. I did not provide it to them myself.

        I provided them with other material that related to Actual Reality, material that ought to have alerted them to a problem in the way the council operates. They appear to have failed to take that material into account.

        Roddy McCuish asked me to write a report for the members of the administration and that was circulated to all of them. The letter from Gordon Gibb was included in that. This report was subsequently passed to the Cowal Courier and Dunoon Observer by someone and most of it was published as far as I recall.

        Cllr Michael Breslin

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  4. “We both took the view that what we had received had to be treated as a serious complaint.”
    Is this a health and safety complaint “The Council officers have always known that they did nothing in these four months to implement the recommendations in the Strathclyde Fire Service’s report.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 4

  5. There are 2 main reasons why an investigation has to be carried out.

    One is the issue itself because all the evidence presented to me tells me that an injustice has been done. What’s more, while I do have a lot of information about this affair, there is more that I have asked for and have not been given. Why?

    The second reason is that until we establish the truth, and right any wrong, we risk allowing the wrong kind of culture to flourish and other wrongs may be done to individuals and organisations in our area. That isn’t acceptable.

    All organisations can be judged by the way they handle complaints and in this case the complaint hasn’t been handled at all.

    Cllr Michael Breslin

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 13 Thumb down 3

  6. “In fact it manages to mislead its readers on every important issue that it covers, mainly by omitting relevant facts.” Dr Chris Mason.
    Am I alone in seeing similarities to other actions taken by this Council? Did the Council’s timeline of the schools debacle they submitted to the Scottish Parliament not suffer from exactly the same disease that Chris Mason so aptly describes the symptoms? In this case the incompetent and farcical 25 school consultation of late 2010 was expunged from history when it was the most relevant thing of all to a Parliamentary Committee discussing changes required to the current legislation.
    The minimisation in accurately reporting facts to Audit Scotland is also nothing new. In their Audit Report, Audit Scotland refer to work done on identifying misinformation in the consultation process by the Scottish Rural Schools Network as having been established to be “untrue”. I wonder where Audit Scotland could possibly have received the information that our work was a pile of complete and utter b*****ks?
    The shame here in this case is on Audit Scotland as they did not take the care to investigate properly the complete garbage that Argyll & Bute officials spew out on a regular basis.
    Audit Scotland have been found to be all too ready to accept the word of people who have been completely discredited on a local, national and international basis. They have identified the serial problems of Castle Toward, the schools fiasco, the schools meals blog and the care homes shambles and yet they find time to praise a CE who is presiding over a shambolic meltdown of a Council. At the same time they find pages of space to criticise elected members for their mistrust of the same officials.
    While Audit Scotland are right that blame does lie at the door of elected members they have only been superficial in their investigation of where many of the problems really lie. Had they done a more thorough job on Castle Toward, involved Dr Mason and others. Had they contacted us before printing that our work was all b*****ks. Had they listened to some of the radio interviews given by officials at the height of the school meals blog fiasco. Had they done any of the above, people like Dr Mason would not have to be considering expensive legal action to achieve a result that a national watchdog should really be there to do.
    Audit Scotland may claim, possibly correctly, that this is not in their remit. If it is not then Scotland needs a body whose remit it is. Cllr Breslin is right, this Council needs to be investigated and that investigation must be thorough and carry public confidence. What we cannot have is a national watchdog which inhibits councillors from scrutinising and questioning the information they are provided with. At this moment we are perilously close to that.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 15 Thumb down 2

  7. Anne says Sally told us to speak to Audit Scotland. She didn’t.

    In December 2012, after Roddy McCuish and I had received what we agreed was a serious complaint, we agreed that as I was in Cosla in Edinburgh anyway the following week, I would seek advice from David O’Neill, President of Cosla. David wasn’t available so I spoke instead to the chief executive, Rory Mair.

    Among several bits of advice, the key one was to pass the matter to Audit Scotland. I emailed his advice to Roddy while on the train back from Edinburgh.

    The following week Roddy asked me to come to Glasgow for a meeting. When we got there Rory Mair was there but with Sally Loudon. Rory tried to argue I had misunderstood his advice, which I had not. They both them tried to argue that this was best handled some way other than using Audit Scotland.

    Roddy and I stuck to our guns and said no. That is why Audit Scotland were then asked to investigate.

    These are the facts.

    Cllr Michael Breslin

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

    • “Rory tried to argue I had misunderstood his advice, which I had not. They both them tried to argue that this was best handled some way other than using Audit Scotland.”
      What was the “some way other”, and is there a time frame when the “serious complaint” will be made public. I did ask earlier if it was a health and safety issue due to this being stated ““The Council officers have always known that they did nothing in these four months to implement the recommendations in the Strathclyde Fire Service’s report.” Are fire regulations being compromised by the council.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

    • It’s a bit of a stunner when a senior COSLA executive can look you in the eye and say he didn’t say what you both know he said to you.
      We hope you’ve marked his card. We have.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  8. Michael
    That’s really interesting. So you and Roddy McCuish brought in Audit Scotland to investigate but didn’t know that Sally Louden had Audit Scotland’s agreement they would not investigate the 2009 events. Not clever and your still kippered.
    How did the Audit Scotland investigation on Castle Toward get widened out to expose the general rot in Argyll & Bute Council under Louden/Walsh leadership?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

    • Anne, your timeline isn’t right I’m afraid. The agreement not to investigate came a few months after we had agreed to bring Audit Scotland in.

      The only matters relating to this that Audit Scotland investigated were the sales of Castle Toward to Seasons Holidays and Ardentinny to Actual Reality.

      There was no wider investigation in the manner you suggest.

      Cllr Michael Breslin

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

      • You don’t get it. It was made public a few months after but Louden always knew that Audit Scotland wouldn’t look at 2009 events. The establishment Mair, Louden,Hendry and Walsh had decided no action should be taken.
        I don’t understand then how the Accounts Commission are involved and demanding action from the council.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  9. Never a dull moment in Argyll and Bute . Will our esteemed MP and MSP ride to the rescue and of course the invisible man MacKenzie with his experience of the legal system would surely be a great asset.
    And poor Tommy got the jail for a wee fib.
    Cheers Neil.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  10. Looking at Rhoda Grant’s “Annual Report 2014″, which fell through the letterbox recently, it seems that there is such a lack of representation on the outer isles that the Labour Party have set up another office in Stornaway. Clearly Mackenzie is invisible.

    As for his “experience of the legal system” I assume you mean his attendance at court?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  11. I think I will write a book. The text would be based on the comments here and elsewhere, it of course will be pure fiction because no one outside Scotland would believe such a farcical way to run a Council . It would be a serious book highlighting the misunderstandings regarding Councillors and the way they operate, but it would be perceived as a Comedy of Errors. If it wasn’t so blatantly disgraceful the way this shambles continues to rumble on, it could be funny. If Scotland becomes independent this year I trust this formula of self perpetuation by some, whilst completely disregarding the needs of A&B, will not be repeated in A&B and future Governments – it is scary and frightens me to death if it were the case.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

    • The question is: “Would an indepedent Scotland make any difference?”

      The manner in which Mike Russell MSP appeared to intervene in ABC activities might suggest that things could become a lot worse.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

      • probably not – it seems to be inherent in the make up – well at least in A&B and I would think it is probably in their D&A

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  12. Never mind folks we will be able to fire in plenty of questions to Dick next Thursday on the council,s online forum should be good crack.
    Any odds on what questions will not be answered?
    Cheers Neil.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  13. ‘Informal Licence’; in the words of Humpty Dumpty, it means what the person wants it to mean, no more. Meaningless flapdoodle from a bureaucrat drowning in her own verbiage.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

    • Maybe this phrase has more significance than you think – could ‘informal licence’ be top council management’s ‘wordspeak’ for justifying the freedom to manipulate councillors’ actions by providing them with carefully filleted information – or none at all?

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

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