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:
- Sally Loudon’s report to the Council on 21 March 2013;
- the brief that she sent to Audit Scotland on 7 February (and made available to the Councillors on 21 March);
- 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’.