Douglas Hendry, Executive Director for Customer Services at Argyll and Bute Council, one step below the CEO, is the council’s former long time in-house legal authority; the officer who polices the procedural correctness of councillors’ motions to council with an almost sadistic keenness; and the officer who routinely refuses information to councillors on often arguable ground of commercial confidentiality.
Is it remotely credible that this particular officer would accidentally send out to all councillors a briefing note on a matter of genuine commercial confidentiality – and fail to mark it protectively as confidential?
No. Of course it isn’t.
Not would the office team of such an executive let such a communication go out in their principal’s name without protective marking.
Yet on 4th May, the day before the 2016 Scottish Election, Mr Hendry circulated all councillors – many of whom and rightly or wrongly, he frequently castigates for leaking confidential information for political advantage – with an unprotected briefing note on the current state of affairs in the purchase of the Castle Toward estate.
Worse – and odder.
By some inexplicable process, Mr Hendry was damagingly misinformed on the information he was so freely promulgating and provided bizarrely false details of the buyers’ intentions for the property, for which there was no documented basis upon which he could have drawn.
Inevitably – and almost unarguably intentionally – this communication was freely passed on to all and sundry, feeding the advanced paranoia of the South Cowal Community Development Company whose Chair, Alan Stewart, re-transmitted the communication with the hysterical prefatory note that:
‘You will see that the worst fears of the community are to come to pass, instead of the spa hotel and associated 150 jobs the historic mansion is to be turned into a block of unaffordable flats. As this is so at odds with what the purchasers have been telling us, it is fair to assume that their other promises can be taken with a large pinch of salt.’
Facts are rather surplus to requirements in such pieces of cookery and they do tend to deflate the drama – but the fact is that Mr Hendry’s unequivocal assertion to councillors that the buyers propose: ‘converting part of the main house to residential accommodation for themselves and to convert the remainder into flatted dwellinghouses’ is completely without foundation or supporting evidence.
The buyers have confirmed that they have had no such intention, have made no application for any such thing and have not submitted any documents giving rise to such an interpretation.
We understand that the Council’s own planning officers are as upset as the buyers of Castle Toward as this extraordinary invention that has been disseminated without protection of confidentiality. The planners are said to be demanding a retraction and the buyers will certainly demand the same, at least.
Whether this has been an act of monumental incompetence and dereliction of duty or a piece of casual and hugely irresponsible mischief, this looks like a sacking matter beyond defence.
It has brought serious reputational damage to Argyll and Bute Council – hardly in a position to sustain more such damage.
It will make any of potential investors – which Argyll so badly needs – pretty wary of engagement with a local authority so lax in its care for commercial confidentiality – and so lax in its care to transmit only accurate information.
It has already brought more stress upon the buyers of the Castle Toward property with more confections of abuse from the local community hurled in their undeserving direction.
These have been the consequences of an inexplicably naked wrong perpetrated by a senior executive known for his macchiavellian practices.
In this current episode, in our view an important line has been crossed; and sacking ought, in all honour, to follow.
Community response to Hendry communication to councillors
This morning, 9th May 2016, the following communication was widely disseminated, including to media contacts like ourselves:
‘Dear friend of Castle Toward
‘You are probably aware that Argyll and Bute Council are in the process of selling the Estate to a businessman who has said that he will turn the mansion into a spa hotel with facilities that all the community can use. The jount press release is here: https://www.argyll-bute.gov.uk/news/2015/oct/castle-toward-sale-progresses
‘Unfortunately we have just found out that we have been misled by the council and the buyers. A planning application has been lodged to change the use of the mansion to a house, part of the application is to convert the remainder to luxury flats that will be unaffordable to the majority.
‘We assume that as we were duped by the council as to the final use of the building, that all the other promises of jobs and access will also be false. The estate will be lost to the community for ever.
‘There is a petition calling for government intervention into the running of Argyll and Bute Council. It may be too late to save the castle for the community, however we need a council that acts for its residents, not one that fights them at every turn.
‘Please sign the petition and spread the word. Scotland currently does not have powers of intervention in a council, unlike England. Its time we did have the power.
‘The petition is here:https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/call-for-government-intervention-in-the-running-of-argyll-and-bute-council.
‘Thank you in advance.
It should be noted that both Mr Stewart and Katey are guilty of themselves perpetrating damage upon the buyers of Castle Toward by distributing more widely on their own independent responsibility communications which are demonstrably and damagingly astray of the facts.
Text of the communication
The communication in question – with no protective marking’ – from Mr Hendry to all councillors was as follows:
‘Sale of Castle Toward Estate: Briefing Note
4th May 2016
Legal Services have been in correspondence with the purchasers’ solicitors in relation to various aspects of this transaction and eventually on 5 April 2016 the draft Disposition in favour of the purchasers was received from their solicitors. There were issues with regard to the plan referred to in the draft Disposition which were addressed as quickly as possible and up to date Plans reports were sought and these were obtained on 25 April 2016 and sent to the purchasers’ solicitors that day, seeking confirmation that purchasers were happy to proceed on the basis of these plans and reports. No substantive response has thus far been received. In the view of Legal Services with the plan issue having been resolved there is no real obstacle to settling the sale in the very near future. Officers will continue to push for settlement.
The purchasers have submitted a planning application for part of their development proposals which now include converting part of the main house to residential accommodation for themselves and to convert the remainder into flatted dwellinghouses. The application description reads “Change of Use from Class 8 (residential institution) to Class 9 (dwellinghouse), including ancillary housekeepers accommodation and Sui Generis use as a commercial/leisure events venue”. The purchasers have issued a press release explaining their position in relation to the development of the Estate as follows:
‘The first of several forthcoming planning applications have just been lodged for Castle Toward. This application reflects a mixed use to allow us to commence events later this year. More applications will follow relating to the further development of the estate in the coming months and weeks in accordance with our development strategy. These will include the retail, spa and manufacturing together with development of luxury accommodations. The reason for coming forward at this very early stage, i.e before purchase has been concluded, is to allow us to confirm booking enquiries for weddings already requested. Public access will be enhanced with the approval of these consents, access will be formalised to major elements of the Estate, allowing an increase in public access from what was previously available under the premises operation as an outdoor centre.’
‘Planning will be contacting the purchasers planning agents by the end of this week to request the submission of a masterplan in respect of their clients proposals, to be considered with the current valid planning application.’
A spokesperson for the buyers of the property says: ‘This [the flats] is not part of the master plan and we have no idea where this has come from.’