New administration. New coalition. New broom. How have they done at the end of their first ‘term’, now that we’re in the summer recess?
A great deal of hopes for better were – are – riding on the new coalition administration at Argyll and Bute Council, formed following the Scottish local government elections at the start of May, just over a couple of months ago.
It wasn’t all wet behind the ears though.
The SNP, as a party group and a handful of its members elected in May, had three and a half years experience – from May 2007 to November 2010 – of being in power, of holding posts in an administration and of being in coalition. Three other members of the new coalition it now leads have had the same experience, two of them substantially so.
So this was not an administration devoid of experience of administration; ignorant – or innocent – of the ropes; or without first hand knowledge of the rough and tumble of coalition politics.
In the foothills of power
The early indications were mixed.
Following the election, the SNP was the largest group, with 13 elected members but it could not govern without partners.
It was quickly announced, because it had been agreed in principle before the election, that the Argyll First group of three councillors, unarguably the most trusted of all, would work in coalition with the SNP group.
It was also announced that two experienced independents were also to join the ‘coalition for progress’.
These commitments were something of a gold standard for a possible new administration. But 18 out of a total of 36 members is a see-saw, not an administration.
There was then a clumsy and unnecessarily scrambled omelette of an announcement of the responsibilities of the members of an assumed full coalition administration of 22. The additional four were the new independents – although one had been around the block before in a previous council.
The publication of this potential ‘cabinet’ was designed to be an accelerant, to copper-fasten a coalition of every councillor except the core of the former coalition of the Alliance of Independents, the LibDems and the Tories.
Frankly, what was proposed was a mess. Some of the briefs described would have needed at least three people to carry them out. There were duplications, overlaps and some crucial missing links. This was not a promising start. It was rushed, essentially unstructured and ill considered.
One of the assumed coalition members, named and appointed in this list, was always – to any secure political judgment, an uncertain ally. Under the pressure of the last ditch bidding war from the outgoing coalition, this member signed up with the other side.
This was not – but felt – damaging, simply because this person’s membership of the new coalition had been prematurely claimed. And then he joined the opposition. This was immature and over-anxious politics.
In the end the coalition formed with the addition of the three remaining new independents had a perfectly workable majority of 21-15 – which underlines the folly of the reputationally expensive attempt to harvest the unwilling member from Mull.
Another early disappointment was the failure of the leading group in the new coalition to show the grace in power many had hoped to see.
While, as the single largest group, the SNP had every right to seize all of the major power positions for their own party group, it would have been graceful and generous spirited not to do so. It would also have been a potent signal of a genuinely democratic coalition.
But every one of the chairs of the four area committees and the chair of the honeypot of the Planning Committee went to SNP members.
There was every reason, say, to assign the Chair of the Mid Argyll, Kintyre and Islay Area Committee to the Argyll First group, who have the same number of councillors as the SNP in that area – one in each of its three wards. The three Argyll First candidates outpolled their SNP competitors in first preference votes in these three seats by a total of 39%.
That this opportunity was ignored sent a disappointing signal that the smash-and-grab heart of local politics might not change as much as had been anticipated.
In power – and on the back foot
The first strike against the new administration was shockingly bad luck. It came early enough to catch them unprepared, still green and without the time behind them to have established policy and clear lines of authority with council officers.
A young primary schoolgirl whose illustrated blog documenting her school dinners had become something of a cult read, was – under instructions from council officers, taken aside by her head teacher and told she could no longer photograph her meals.
That evening the child said – and explained – a sorrowful ‘Goodbye’ on the said blog – at which point her admiring audience wept and raged – but hit all available social media while their tears fell and their anger swelled. The news of the Stalinist action against a 9 year old went viral – and international.
The next day the council was slow to act but, when it did, issued a reasonable and open communication – but confined it to the Argyll media. By then the nationals were ravening at the door.
BBC Scotland’s lunchtime television news carried the most appallingly unevolved statement in the name of the council, devoid of skill in public relations, brutalist, graceless, casting aspersions on the integrity of the child.
This damaging atrocity bore absolutely no relation to the thoughtful rubric issued to us and others earlier in the morning.
And it had no feel of the new administration but a very heavy fingerprint of the former one. Why? How?
Actually a linguistic analysis of this document with another famously intemperate folly from over a year previously makes the story reliably deducible – but that is irrelevant. The damage was done.
New Council Leader, Roddy McCuish, agreed to appear on the same news bulletin and visibly found himself trapped in no man’s land between identities: his own – commonsensical, engaging, light handed; and the persona of Council Leader he thought appropriate to adopt (why?) but hadn’t got sorted out yet.
He was unrecognisable to the point where he seemed a credible source for the clogging press release. Watching someone distort his own natural ease, straightforwardness and judgment was painful.
All the school dinners saga has ever needed, before and since, was an easy statement from the council, saying every kitchen has its down days; who hasn’t hated their school dinners one day and loved them the next; that it was great to see this sort of initiative from a young pupil; that all views on anything were welcome and paid attention in Argyll.
This was never the big issue the Stalinists drove it to become.
A child who sometimes doesn’t like her school dinners is not a story.
An engaging child who is repeatedly clogged and discredited by grim-faced senior council officers is a cause for the masses to go to the barricades to defend – and they did.
Calmer waters and genuine change
As it has settled in to the business of local government, the new administration has started to seem more secure.
It made two important early decisions which have brought real and worthwhile democratic change – and transparency, to the region.
The major development was the decision to dispense with the undemocratic Executive committee and return informed decision making power to the full council.
This had originally been an Argyll First initiative and was the key element of that group’s negotiation over the invitation to join the SNP group in coalition.
The move returns equal power to all elected members and makes it possible again for the interests of all constituencies across Argyll to be properly represented in the process of decision taking. This matters.
What we need to see now is evidence that each elected member has actually read and absorbed the strategic intent and detail of each proposal on the agenda of a council meeting. In order for them to do this, officers must, unprecedentedly for Argyll and Bute, circulate all such papers to members in advance and in good time.
There is, though, a great deal of work to be done in the creation of a new way of coming to decisions that allows informed engagement with issues, interrogations of ‘evidence’ and genuine exchanges of views.
To date there seems neither to be the will nor the capability amongst council officers and their political masters to address this vital matter.
Council meetings, as they stand, are impossibly long, with interminable agendas, weighted with vertiginous slabs of paper for each member – a substantial proportion of it previously unseen. It is unrealistic to expect sound decision taking in circumstances which literally exhaust.
Power to the people
In a second democratic move, the council agreed to set aside the decision by the former administration to press ahead regardless with an architecturally and functionally illiterate revision of the formal geometry of Helensburgh’s Colquhoun Square.
Opposition to this had been led by an SNP councillor for the town and, with the earlier decision set aside for the time being, the issue was put to an informal but informed referendum of local residents.
With a choice of three options, the people unhesitatingly voted for the only defensible option and put the toytown preferences of the previous council last.
The people’s decision was duly endorsed by the council.
However, no one can satisfy all of the people all of the time.
A local resident sent a letter to the Helensburgh Advertiser, whicb has printed it to considerable notice. The author then sent it to us, since ‘other council taxpayers in Argyll and Bute might be interested in its contents’.
The substance of the letter is in the following first section:
‘Increasingly concerned about the cost of the “informal referendum” on the Helensburgh CHORD project instigated by Councillor Robb I made a Freedom of Information request to Argyll and Bute Council on the matter to see if I could discover the amount involved.
‘On the 6 July I received the response that the approximate cost of mounting the referendum, in which about 5% of the eligible electorate participated, was £23,000 in total.
‘The estimated saving of about £48,000, because Option 3 was eventually selected, cannot be set against this amount because to do so would be to suggest that the Council already knew the result of the referendum before it agreed to hold one and factored that in to its decision making.
‘Reinforcing this latter point is the fact that no costings on the various options were presented to the electorate in the material provided to them before the “referendum”.
‘Although, more cynically, I suppose you could take the view, given in comment by another member of the electorate at the referendum that “This is a muddled exercise so that someone in influence can obtain the result he/she wanted – not the majority of the residents of Helensburgh”. ‘
There are two issues here – the value of the democratic principle and the absence of logic in the last quotation included in approval.
All of the residents of Helensburgh had the right to vote in the referendum, as we all do in any election. In both such cases it is those who care most, one way or another, who vote. In this case the great majority who voted chose the same option.
There is no evidence of any kind to justify the claim that ‘the majority of the residents of Helensburgh’ wanted anything else – or indeed wanted anything very much.
This was never a case of anything other than an attempt to prevent an ignorant civic vandalisation of one of the remaining grace notes of a long neglected and struggling town.
We detest the waste of public money – the ‘other people’s money’ to end all variations of other people’s money.
But there are elements of government that have to be paid for. We believe that £23,000 to give the people of Helensburgh the democratic opportunity to express their will on this issue was a valuable exercise. It can be helpfully contrasted with the hundreds of thousands of pounds thrown at external consultants whose work performs little service other than shifting responsibility away from the council.
Supporting inherited success
The new administration has continued to support what is the major success of the previous administration – the establishment and development of the Argyll and the Isles Strategic Tourism Partnership
Now in its third year, this saw substantial success at VisitScotland’s tourism Expo in Edinburgh earlier in the year and was an inspiring example of council staff and area marketing groups working together, hard, imaginatively and enthusiastically – under the banner that has the capacity to lift Argyll and under the team, led by Mike Story, that is driving it forwards.
In our considered view, appropriate and strategic development of Argyll and the Isles’ offer to visitors is the best hope for economic development here. It deploys our richest resources and, like those resources, it is not confined to one place.
Eddies and whirlpools
As a clear character seemed to be emerging for this new administration, it produced another glitch.
In the latter period of the previous administration, the Argyll First group successfully led a public campaign to compel the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government to address the serious economic impact on the entire region of its vulnerability to the landslide prone and badly maintained arterial road, the A83.
Argyll First’s strongly supported public petition led to the consideration of the issue by the Scottish Parliament’s petitions committee, with an able supporting presentation made to it by Argyll First, followed by a question and answer session with committee members.
The Mid Argyll Chamber of Commerce also threw its weight effectively behind the initiative.
In the new coalition, Argyll First’s Councillor Donald Kelly became Lead Councillor for Roads.
He put the matter of the A83 directly to the Transport Minister, Keith Brown and asked for a meeting to progress the government’s practical reactions to the need to protect access to Argyll and its ferry ports to the islands.
So far, so good – in an exchange entirely appropriate to formal assigned responsibilities.
Then the Council issued a media statement trumpeting another letter to the Transport Minister, asking for a meeting – from a different councillor.
This tine the approach came from the SNP’s Councillor John Semple whose brief includes ‘infrastructure’.
The result was unfortunate, to say the least.
In observing, reporting and commentating, what exactly were we looking at here?
Who was in charge of what? Was there an undeclared hierarchy in councillor’s portfolios, with Councillor Kelly second in command to Councillor Semple? Why? Did this indicate party political manoeuvering within the coalition, with the SNP anxious to impress its fingerprints on the work of a fellow senior member of the administration belonging to a different group? Did the right hand know what the left was writing? What did it say to the outside world and to the Transport Minister about the management of responsibilities within Argyll and Bute Council, with this sort of duplication going on.
None of the possible interpretations of this muddle were – or are – reassuring.
The probability is that it results from imperfectly framed briefs for lead councillors, seducing this sort of double handling.
But this is poor political management and must be addressed before matters go any further.
It needs three developments:
- the tightening up of the definition and boundaries of the responsibilities of lead councillors;
- the continuing development of the team ethos of mutual respect and consultation that underpins any coalition;
- generosity of spirit.
This new administration formally promised different and better. Its very existence has ‘promised’ even more of both.
It is imperative that it deliver on demonstrating major shifts in culture, policy, process and transparency.
It has good people with appropriate responsibilities. It needs a new name. ‘Argyll and Bewt’ has been killed off by the sock puppets’ You Tube satire.
The short summer recess will give it a breathing space and an opportunity to reflect and refocus.