Six days ago, For Argyll called for solidarity in support of Argyll and Bute Council’s effort to have the state funding of Argyll and the Isles – arguably the most complex local authority area in Scotland – structurally revised and established on a basis appropriate to the nature and level of its challenges.
We said that this was no time for cheap party politics because what is at issue is the sustainability of Argyll. The council’s position in challenging the traditional basis of calculating Argyll’s annual block grant from the Scottish Government is correct and well founded. For Argyll, in comparing the funding granted for 2015-16 to Argyll & Bute and to Angus has irrefutably shown the indefensibility of the Argyll allocation [article online here].
The SNP, however, has been unable to abandon its default mode of aggressive opposition to a council it was directly responsible for returning to power in abandoning its own elected responsibilities – and Argyll – in the unforgivable betrayal of 2012-13.
A vacuous attention grabber
On Tuesday 20th October the SNP group of councillors issued a statement to the media, welcoming ‘the positive contribution of Michael Russell, Brendan O’Hara and Mike McKenzie to the development of alternatives to the unacceptable savings options being put before the Council this Thursday’.
It went on to say: ‘The SNP Council Group is opposed to all those service cuts as currently proposed by the Administration which impact on the vulnerable, the young and the elderly, particularly as the consequences of such cuts have not been established. It seems that even the Administration know that some of their proposals are not acceptable and their insistence on forcing these to consultation is creating unnecessary stress and anxiety for some of the most vulnerable in our communities.’
The statement made no mention whatsoever of quite what were the ‘alternative’ savings proposed. For Argyll asked for the detail as we naturally wished to evaluate the alternatives to be put forward.
The response we received to this request was: ‘The statement of our position is all that we are going to issue at this time.
‘We will issue a further statement[s] when we have the level of detail which you seek. Meantime, we will be working with the Trade Union, the workforce and others to develop our alternative proposals.’
So the detail did not exist. The press statement was no more than political posturing with nothing to support it other than superficial and passing engagement.
Running away from responsibility – again
Later the same day, Tuesday 20th October, the SNP group of councillors issued a second press statement, announcing that they had that day resigned from the Service Choices Project Board, of which they had been members to that point.
Before he knew of this sudden resignation, Council Leader Walsh had described the process in saying: ‘Proposals for savings options have been considered by a cross-party working group which includes members of the SNP group of councillors. These proposals have been developed by working together.’
The SNP Councillors’ press statement on Tuesday opened by saying: ‘The SNP Group formally resigned from the Service Choices – Project Board today given their prevailing opposition to those service cuts currently proposed by the Administration, which adversely impact on the vulnerable, the young and the elderly.
‘Sandy Taylor, Leader of the SNP Council Group said “The savings options this Administration is taking forward carve away major parts of vital services with no idea of the consequences. The majority of their cuts target the most vulnerable in our communities, the elderly, our children in education and those with disability.’
Given that the group, as members of the Service Choices Project Board to that point had therefore been party to the drawing up of the menu of savings options to be considered by the council and, through public consultation, by the Argyll electorate,it is hard to see why such implacable opposition to a pick -and-mix list of ‘options’ had not manifested itself in this resignation longer than two days before the special council meeting to consider them on Thursday 22nd October.
The SNP group of councillors has serious form in this sort of last minute retiral from matters in which they have had a part to play – and again at the point where responsibility requires to be accepted.
Back in 2010, in the cataclysmic ‘school wars’ where a united community wholly defeated – twice – major and risibly incompetent school closure proposals put forward by Education Director, Cleland Sneddon and supported by the then administration led by the present Council Leader, Dick Walsh’s Alliance of Independent Councillor in coalition with the SNP.
As the strength, determination and capability of the opposition from local communities across Argyll and the Isles became daily more clear, the SNP partners in that governing coalition panicked and walked out of power at a council meeting on 25th November 2010 – to be replaced within hours by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.
In this case, the administration’s Education Spokesperson at the time was SNP Councillor from Bute, Isobel Strong, who was guilty of being soundly asleep on watch – but who had, as a safety precaution, also been deliberately cut out of the loop of ongoing internal consultations by the Council Leader and his officers.
By walking out of power and making a major issue of it in turning actively against the proposals to which they had been quite prepared passively to assent, the SNP became the people’s champions overnight – and went on to be elected as the largest group in the Council in the Scottish local authority elections of 2012, leading their first administration. And everyone knows what they then did with that position of trust.
The SNP’s resignation this Tuesday from the Service Choices Project Board, on the brink of battle, is therefore yet another in a series of guilty retreats.
Plus ça change.
A coordinated stunt
By no chance, on the very same day, Tuesday 20th October, The National – the nationalist flag carrier published by The Herald Group, carried an article, Argyll and Bute Council under fire over its plans to cut 26m from budget.
This focused on the the three elected SNP politicians whose contributions to the development of undetailed ‘alternative savings’ was later to be welcomed by the SNP group of councillors in its press statement mentioned above. Argyll and Bute constituency SNP MSP, Michael Russell, Highlands and Islands SNP List MSP, Mike Mackenzie and Argyll and Bute’s new SNP MP, Brendan O’Hara were here getting stuck into the council, undermining its position on the inappropriate budget for Argyll and promoting their own acuity in coming up with what they announced to be ‘alternative savings proposals’ – distilled into a 20 point plan.
They declared that they were also seeking a meeting with Finance Secretary, John Swinney – to ask for a sub for Argyll to tide it over bad times.
This is unhelpfully subversive of the council’s efforts to focus government attention on the real problem – which is not a short term budgetary embarrassment but a serious structural flaw in the Scottish Government’s method of allocating funds to the Scottish local authorities. This inadequate system has seen Argyll & Bute persistently underfunded over a long period and therefore exist in progressive economic and infrastructural decline.
The solution is not a sub on the council ‘s overspent pocket money cadged from Big Daddy Swinney by a privileged group of party insiders to whom, for party political interest, the Finance Secretary would, of course, be happy to give the triumph of coming home to Argyll with a few extra beans.
The SNP, at all levels, simply cannot help but try to make political capital out of anything, even putting this above the manifest interests of Argyll – and not for the first time.
The Council’s published list of options for savings is just that – a list of options from which strategic selections will have to be made to meet the required reduction in spending imposed by the Scottish Government in its continuing Council Tax freeze.
The gang of three’s narrative is that this list has been concocted as blackmail of the Scottish Government for political purposes by a Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition at Argyll and Bute Council.
In fact, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats – who together number seven councillors – are part of a council administration led by long time Independent and Council Leader, Dick Walsh.
Mr Walsh, whose Lazarus-like return to power at Kilmory came – let us never forget, courtesy of the SNP’s chaotic abandonment of the trust of the Argyll & Bute electorate from 2012 to 2013 – leads an administration which contains more independents than the tally of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.
Mr Walsh’s administration – and the Provost of the Council is again an Independent – to the SNP’s embarrassment, also contains several prominent previous members of the SNP, including two former leaders of the SNP group of Councillors, one a former [twice] SNP Council Leader. These councillors resigned from the party during the shambles of 2012-13, one on principle and one for personal gain in a major post which he fought openly to be given by Council Leader Walsh’s replacement administration.
Setting aside the contary facts of the nature of the Council administration, the ‘blackmail for political purposes’ narrative of the gang of three is expressed in hilarious faux wild west terms as: ‘Give us the money or the Scottish Government gets it’ and described as: ‘a plea made with menace and done in a grudging and accusatory tone directed at the very people whom the council wants to help them out of this mess.’
The daftness of this is that Argyll and Bute Council is in no position to threaten anyone. They are trying to put a reasoned case to outline the existence of a structural flaw in the funding allocation process which profoundly disadvantages Argyll; and are asking for structural redress – not a temporary sub.
The 20 point plan
We detail and comment below upon the 20 point plan which is the core of the public relations stunt by the three SNP politicians in question.
In accompanying text but not specified in the 20 Point Plan is the notion that Argyll should help to increase its shrinking population by asking for more than the 20 refugees currently allocated to it. Have none of the three proposers of this understood who exactly these refugees are to be?
The UK government is to select from the residents of Syrian border camps of refugees, the very young, the vulnerable and the elderly, those most in need of help to repair their lives. Whilst it would be admirable to ask to host more of these needy people, that cannot be presented as likely to improve the economy of Argyll since these particular refugees will need more than the average of care, assistance with health issues, possibly specialist adapted housing, specialist and special needs education and welfare benefits. In brutal economic terms, this will be a net cost to Argyll not a net gain.
It should also be noted at the outset that the ‘alternative savings’ proposed in this 20 Point Plan are uncosted. It cannot therefore be known how much money they might raise and how that total might compare with selections from the costed options menu already published by the council to meet the required reduction.
As an uncosted list this is no more than the outcome of a swift brainstorming session anyone could perform.
As with any such exercise from any opposition source anywhere, it is a ragbag of good ideas, bad ideas, off the wall ideas, dishonest propositions and attempts at immediate and wider party political points scoring.
The 20 points
1. Use external accounting, service provision, procurement, property and HR advice to reduce expenditure and maximise income in each area of the council’s work.
This council already wastes massive annual amounts on consultancy services of all kinds. Proposing that they extend this spending is irresponsible. The need is to have senior executives competent to do such work in-house – and confident enough to take responsibility for it.
2. Close down Kilmory within two years and sell the building in a process of decentralisation, utilising existing local offices with a much smaller senior staff to save £1 million per year on senior staff and £1m on central office costs.
At one level – why not? Kilmory may look ‘grand’ but even in its private heyday was always architecturally more mouth than trousers; and is, as an operational base for a complex 21st century local authority, ridiculously inadequate.
However, there are two major reasons why dispensing with a central HQ for this council – whether or not that were to be Kilmory – is foolish.
Argyll & Bute’s biggest problem is its topographical absence of a possible centre. Adding to that by decentralising a council, many of whose operations are already, by necessity, widely distributed, would be to make Argyll utterly incoherent in every way.
Then there is the corporate reality that any organisation with the level of responsibility of a local authority needs premises that reflect the weight of its authority.
The apparent savings quoted are unsubstantiated, do not appear to have allowed for the new costs involved and are therefore incompetent.
The staffing element of this proposal would require detail as to which specific posts, with which responsibilities, on which salary scales they might propose to cut, before any reliable judgment on the impact of this could be made. No such detail appears to exist.
3. Reduce councillor expenses and remuneration by 10 per cent year on year, using IT for meetings.
It is inconceivable that at this stage of corporate evolution, Argyll & Bute Council has not long employed video conferencing for all but full council meetings which must always be face to face. This efficiency is as basic as it gets. It has to be deployed and it has to work reliably. This would certainly reduce councillors’ total annual travelling expenses.
Knocking 10% a year – and ‘year on year’ – off the salaries of councillors is simply mean and is not defensible. Councillors are already so poorly paid that candidates with the necessary level of senior private sector experience understandably would not consider standing for election. Reducing these salaries by a rolling 10% per annum would eventually leave councillors working on a voluntary basis.
This proposition is no more than a cheap playing-to-the-gallery stunt.
4. Convene meetings of local community councils and third-sector organisations to draw up a list of proposed budgetary changes, seeking to transfer work to third sector and local groups to save £1m or more in each area.
Taking together this and Point 7 below, this is a shamefully exploitative and irresponsible proposition. The third sector is characterised by volunteering. To seek to devolve statutory responsibilities to the low paid third sector would, if achievable, see a heavily abused third sector and infinitely less reliable services.
5. Invite the public to contribute ideas for reconfiguration of services and elimination of waste.
To bureaucratise something people are already free to do – submit bright ideas – would either make little difference to the modest volume of such suggestions that are forthcoming – or produce a ton of incompetent notions that someone would have to paid to filter.
It would be interesting to know how many such suggestions come to the council in a year – and what proportion have enough apparent viability to be taken further?
6. Establish a joint committee with the trade unions and all council groups to seek savings through agreed changes to work practices and staffing levels without redundancies.
And how does this square with the philosophy of propositions 4 and 7, which seek to make savings by making professional officers redundant in favour of exploiting the goodwill and cheap labour of the third sector?
7. Adopt a radical approach to devolving work to the third sector; reverse proposed centralisation of services.
See commentary at propositions number 4 and 6. This is beyond contempt in philosophy and in risk to the assured delivery of services.
8. Establish school clusters to merge the budgets of each secondary school and its feeder primaries and seek savings of five per cent or more driven by head teachers, parents and pupils.
Where does the figure of 5% savings come from? It appears to be no more than a notional target.
Moreover, expecting pupils to put their time into trying to solve the government’s problems is both in this instance beyond thier competence and would certaily take time from a foolish curriculum that is already – and measured to be – failing them.
9. Examine health and social care integration.
This proposition is blithely ignorant of the complexity of integrating two individually complex, expensive and overworked services – and with the aim of ‘efficiency gains’ [eg fewer staff]. Such an ‘examination’ could not be conducted internally but only by external consultants – at vast expense and no assured success.
10. Review town centre improvement strategies to attempt a greater role for the private sector and more engagement with local SMEs.
Anything that could be done by anyone to improve Argyll’s town centres would be helpful. But this again looks like making more jobs for consultants. Frankly, few ‘consultants’ produce anything worth paying for; and, equally frankly, ‘consultancy’ today is scam central, too often peopled by mediocrities made redundant from shrinking local authorities but with the contacts of the former insider to nail such contracts.
11. Review the property portfolio and asset register to maximise early revenue.
Absolutely. For Argyll has called for this to be done as a matter of urgency – before savings made from reducing already inadequate maintenance come into play. A few years of this sort of regime will see the value of the council’s property register on a rolling drop. Local authorities have no business to be sitting on unused property assets. Sell them.
12. Approach Cosla to seek a variation of its funding formula if that disadvantages Argyll and Bute. Withdraw and save membership fee if that is refused.
Forget COSLA, which is on the way out – and save the annual eyewatering membership fee anyway. Negotiate direct with the organ grinder, the Finance Secretary – as the Council is working to do. The Scottish Government holds the ultimate responsibility for funding local authorities appropriately. There is a serious structural funding failure here that is damaging Argyll. It must be sorted out directly by the man with the responsibility, the power and the ability to do so – without the delay of faffing around through third parties.
13. Approach Cosla and the Scottish Government to seek improvements to the SINA formula and an increase in allocation of funds to Special Islands Needs Allowance payments.
Again, forget COSLA and go direct to the Finance Secretary on this issue as, again, the Council seeks to do. It would be important to see the figures on the comparative allocations to relevant councils of this Special Islands Needs Allowance [SINA]. [In the papers we have been able to get, SINA is rolled up with the main GAE [Grant Aided Expenditure] funding to arrive at a total amount for each local authority.]
Argyll and Bute Council says it currently has 23 inhabited islands – down from 25. Wikipedia gives Orkney 20 inhabited islands and Shetland 16.
The distant offshore location of several of Argyll’s islands makes the specific resolution of some endemic problems – experienced also by other island groups, particularly expensive for Argyll and Bute to deal with. We would instance here the issue of inadequate water supplies causing droughts to be confronted in prolonged dry weather.
14. Approach the Scottish Government to discuss medium- and long-term financial issues, with the aim of seeking some bridging finance if possible and seeking a clearer national understanding of, and funding for, particular island pressures.
Where is the sense in a council already strapped for cash seeking and getting expensive bridging loans?
The fact that after eight years of an SNP government, three SNP elected politicians should see the need for ‘a clearer national understanding of, and funding for, particular island pressures’ begs the question of what exactly that government has been doing over eight years if it still lacks understanding of ‘particular island pressures’?
15. Approach Westminster to discuss the impact of continuing austerity, including the effect of benefit cuts which is adding to the pressures of depopulation and therefore to the reduction in council income.
This is cheap and irrelevant political game playing.
Westminster ‘Austerity’ has nothing whatsoever to do with the position of Argyll and Bute. It has also been shown by Andrew Neil that, despite persistent SNP grievance propaganda, there has been no cut by Westminster to the Scottish budget.
The SNP government’s freeze on Council Tax which began in 2007 [before the 2008 financial collapse] and which has continued annually to the point where it appears to have outlived its unquestionable utility.
16. Assess additional income likely to accrue from the devolution of the Crown Estate.
This is an interesting matter for several reasons.
First, ‘the Crown Estate’ is not being devolved to Scotland. It is the management of the Scottish assets in the Crown Estate portfolio and the revenue arising from that management that are to be devolved, not the ownership of those assets, which is to remain with Westminster.
What is then interesting is evidence given in September 2015 by Iain MacLean, Politics Professor at Oxford University and an adviser to the Calman Commission. He was before the House of Lords Economic Affairs Select Committee which is investigating the impact of the devolution of further powers to the devolved administrations in the UK [and particularly Scotland which is to be given the most.]
In discussing the two ‘No detriment’ clauses in the Smith Commission report – the second of which is agreed to be unworkable by all concerned, Professor MacLean used the planned devolution of the management of the Scottish assets in the Crown Estate portfolio as a clear example of an occasion where the ‘No Detriment’ concept could bear to Scotland’s disadvantage.
He said that if the Scottish Government chose to manage these assets ‘less commercially’ and therefore to raise less revenue from them than had been the case before their management was devolved, the Treasury could ‘come after them’ for recompense – presumably as the owner of the assets which would have been devalued by earning less under different management.
Furthermore, if the Scottish Government were to seek to increase revenue by managing the Scottish assets of the Crown Estate portfolio more commercially, there would be a lot of unhappy sailors and maritime businesses charged even more for their moorings; and unhappy renewable energy developers charged more for access to the sea bed.
17. Put a population growth programme in place utilising the emerging conclusion of the Task Force under Nick Ferguson.
Sounds so easy. But where are the jobs to attract them. Where are the houses to accommodate them? Where is the pulling power of an area so skint through structural underfunding it can only look at deliberate non maintenance of roads, verges, public realm facilities, public buildings and schools? Then there is the impact to come of the statutory imposition of a Named Person / State Guardian for every child living in Scotland, from birth to legal maturity. This can only be a powerful negative in terms of encouraging families to migrate here.
18. Institute a strategy to increase the population every year by at least the national average of 316 people to restore £30m to the council’s budget within five years, wiping out the suggested deficit.
‘Institute a strategy to increase the population every year by at least the national average of 316 people’ is again and in its happy vagueness very easy to say but far harder to deliver. What sort of strategy? Marketed to whom? Backed up with how much funding from which sources? When would the five year period start?
And this still leaves the issue of what jobs and housing would there be here in Argyll – in each year of five consecutive years – to attract these people to come here?
Pie in the sky and one dram too many in the brainstorming. This only needs Tommy Cooper’s famous ‘Just like that’ to sum up its realism.
19. Consider merging the council’s economic development function with HIE.
Consider handing it over.
20. Use uncommitted reserves to smooth the process of change, which is a particular challenge because of the failure of the current administration to plan effectively for the future.
This is a piece of nonsense thrown in at the end as an excuse for a political jibe. How much money are they talking about? To smooth the process of what change from what situation to what new situation? To plan effectively for what future?
There is a footnote to this. The special council meeting on Thursday 22nd October agreed to send to public consultation the service options list with an agreed list of tabled substituted options. Some members of the SNP claimed afterwards that they had opposed sending this to consultation. The documented evidence demonstrates the opposite. Both the motion tabled by the administration and the amendment tabled by the SNP group express written support for this specific consultation.
- The administration motion proposes that the chamber: ‘approves the substituted savings identified in the paper at Item 6b for inclusion within the options to be the subject of public consultation’.
- The SNP amendment proposes [in identical wording?] that the chamber: ‘Agrees the substituted savings identified in the paper at Item 6b for inclusion within the options to be the subject of public consultation’.
It could not be more disappointing that the SNP – at all levels – has continued to try to undermine and to usurp rather than try to find the largeness to support the council in its legitimate and urgently necessary endeavours to have the structural foundation for the inadequate GAE and SINA funding for Argyl & Bute interrogated and revised. As we said at the top of this article, it is Argyll’s fundamental sustainability that is at stake here. This is no time for game playing.
For Argyll has laid out the comparisons between the funding of Angus and the funding of Argyll & Bute, laying bare the destructive inability of the current allocation system.
There is no answer that we can see to the outcome of this comparison other than root systemic failure – and if anyone wishes to put forward any counter to this, let’s have it.
And let’s stick with getting behind the council on this one. They have got to win and they will negotiate with more confidence if they know that public support is unequivocally there.