Valerie Watts served as Aberdeen City Chief Executive on a six figure salary from March 2011 until mid-March 2014. She scrapped her job as Derry Chief Executive and came to Aberdeen to give us the benefit of her experience. What benefits exactly have we reaped from the experience of Valerie’s tenure? ‘Watt’ should not be forgot? By Suzanne Kelly.
Valerie Watts’ stewardship as Aberdeen’s Chief Executive of Aberdeen City Council could and should have been a huge triumph by default.
Thousands marched against cuts imposed by the LibDem/SNP alliance in 2008.
The reigning LibDem/SNP coalition not only imposed cuts – they then turned around with some serious audacity to march along with thousands of those whose services they had cut.
Service slasher and budget protest marcher Kate Dean said at the time:
“I will be marching under the banner calling for a fair deal for Aberdeen. I can understand why people need to protest against these cuts but we also need to protest against the reason why we have had to make the cuts which in my opinion is mostly to do with the distribution formula.
“If we had the same funding as Glasgow we would have something like £60m a year more. We have the lowest funding settlement per head of population of any council in Scotland.”
http://www.heraldscotland.com/councillors-to-join-protest-over-service-cuts-1.845949 (Note – when Labour today use this argument in the council, they are derided. It is almost as if politics overrode logic).
LibDem Kate Dean imposed cuts while the city lost millions and gave land away for a song. Then Dean marched alongside people protesting her cuts. LibDem Aileen Malone, an elected councillor, later participated in a protest against the council she was part of (over the failure to build a structure in Union Terrace Gardens). Perhaps this form of protesting against yourself is a LibDem thing.
Some £11 million was written off under Dean as bad debt in one year; a property sale scandal came under her as well. Choices Day Care Centre was controversially closed. Could the then administration have found £60 million to benefit people in need? Not if it also wanted a shiny new office building.
Guess which need won the day. Sue Bruce apparently had enough of the Chief Executive post and scarpered.
Watt’s immediate predecessor Sue Bruce moved to Edinburgh by January 2011; Bruce also received a six figure salary. Before her we had the spectacle of Chief Executive Douglas Paterson retiring due to ill heath in June 2008, (coincidentally concurrent with the Audit Scotland investigation into the property sales) days after announcing that he would not resign.
For further background on the property sales including how Stewart Milne was virtually handed land in Kingswells, see past issues of Aberdeen Voice.
Kate Dean and SNP coalition councillor Kevin Stewart tried to sweeten Paterson’s leaving package for reasons only they would understand, but sadly the pair were unsuccessful, as this extra money proved too unseemly even for Paterson to swallow. http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/scottish-news/fury-over-pay-off-for-chief-exec-981139 .
some of her less shiny milestones from three years in Aberdeen should be remembered
In the end, Audit Scotland couldn’t decide if the city was amazingly inefficient or criminally negligent.
Aberdeen Voice tried to find the report Audit Scotland directed Grampian Police to produce on the matter.
However, Police Scotland has said they cannot find any record of a report on a multimillion pound real estate debacle they were directed to create by Audit Scotland. It would be difficult to find such a document as you can imagine.
In short, it was a sorry catalogue of scandals that swept through the city’s previous administrations (best not mention a curly-haired councillor disgraced for financial misappropriation or another councillor done for ‘kerb crawling’ while being appointed to work with youths).
Surely the woman who brought Derry its City of Culture status would turn our fortunes around, stop any corruption, and make accountability to the taxpayer a priority, and ensure our vulnerable citizens, our environment and our wildlife would be protected. The only way was up. So we thought.
While some newspapers are busy lauding her accomplishments, whatever they may be, perhaps some of her less shiny milestones from three years in Aberdeen should be remembered too.
She was not amused: Early days at Marischal College
It was not an auspicious start. She was not long into the job when the glorious refurbishment (read gutting and disposal of many architectural and historic items) of Marischal College was announced and an opening scheduled.
The taxpayers were supposed to be forelock-tuggingly appreciative as to how the project apparently came in under budget and on time – a first for Aberdeen by any reckoning. A mere £60 million pounds or so was spent refitting the interior of the Victorian building, designed in such a way that new, smaller office furniture had to be bought to fit the space. All the while, school closures were considered and further cutbacks appeared.
Valuable Victorian books were thrown in a skip (and their rescuer was threatened for saving them by a construction worker).
Amid much fanfare over the £60 million spend when it could have been £80 million, the ceilings leaked dubious substances onto the council offices from a men’s loo.
This £60 million gutting of an architectural gem might not have seemed a bargain to those harmed by swingeing cuts. Since the city doesn’t actually own the building, was this re-fit really a great bargain and the only solution to office space?
The council owns hundreds of office properties for one thing, and surely before embarking on such a project, carefully researched options and costs would be studied. Value for money?
An Aberdeen Voice request to see the costing of alternatives to the Marischal College refit was rebuffed; it was claimed the financials were actually the ‘intellectual property’ of the accountants, not the taxpayers whose money was under discussion and who ultimately had to foot the bill. And Ms Watts had just taken the reins of power. According to STV, she said:
“The City Council has brought to fruition a remarkable project which has created a stunning new public building for all the people of Aberdeen. It will be admired far and wide by citizens and visitors alike and will become the iconic (iconic is a hard word to avoid in Aberdeen) image for this proud city.”
For those who opposed the previous budget cuts and saw their effect of people in need, ‘pride’ was hardly the appropriate word for this £60 million pound office building which gutted a gem. So the principle of pride and edifice before people was established in the opening speech.
Alas, nothing could stop the opening of the grandiose ACC offices at Marischal.
Unfortunately, someone leaked the date to the Friends of Union Terrace Gardens and other grass-roots groups, whose members peacefully showed up with placards at the launch of the new Marischal College, protesting the plans to turn the only city centre gardens which happened to be common good land into a development opportunity.
On the day the opening took place, these peaceful protestors arrived with placards. Some politicians chatted to the group; some VIPs seemed bemused. One woman on the scene positively seethed with rage according to several accounts.
As a protestor put it – Valerie Watts (for it was she) might have been fairly new in the job, but it was clear she was ‘fizzing with anger’. Watts had apparently been both on holiday and spray painted an orange/brown tan shade for the event, earning her the nickname in some quarters ‘fake bake.’
Newly-ensconced Watts said:
“This is an exciting time in the life of Aberdeen. We are facing the tightest squeeze on public spending that almost any of us can remember but this gives us the chance to use our imaginations and rise to the challenges.
“It is my role as Chief Executive to take responsibility for leading on the priorities which elected members and the people of Aberdeen have set for this organisation – and I am bringing together all the strengths of this great city to make sure it continues to thrive.”
No one knew what she meant by ‘continues to thrive,’ but at any rate, Valerie was set to turn things around.
Deer Oh Deer:
Coinciding with Watt’s tenure, the LibDems and in particular their leader, Aileen Malone, were determined to plant ‘A Tree For Every Citizen’. This noble-sounding scheme somehow didn’t seem so noble when it was eventually revealed in Aberdeen Voice that the herd of deer on Tullos Hill, had been set for the cull before the consultation was published.
Deer had existed on Tullos without any cull for 30 years – all for trees which probably would not grow due to soil condition and decades of dumping (including industrial, household waste and some traces of radiation).
somehow her turning seven council departments into three departments wasn’t meant to mean job losses
Aileen Malone, Lib Dem, held all the cards when she was the convener of the Housing & Environment Committee; she issued the unprecedented ultimatum that the public had to come up with £250,000 in a short space of time, or the deer would be killed as the most ‘economic’ way to turn Tullos Hill into a forest.
Watts didn’t bat an eyelash and animal charities and opposition politicians called this unprecedented blackmail. Those in the know, including the Scottish SPCA derided the scheme and its cruelty; much of which has already been written. But it is to the part Valerie Watt played in the destruction of a herd of deer that should be looked at.
Should anyone want to view source documents and a report, they can be found here along with her letter to me.
A whole raft of information was put to Watts as to why the cull was unnecessary, cruel and flawed.
Animal Concern Advice Line, the Scottish SPCA, local residents, community councils all objected specifically to this particular cull and its circumstances. Watts’ behaviour in denying any possible options or alternatives to killing the animals, and her dismissal of all arguments from the opposition might have reminded those she left behind in Derry of her stance on jobs cuts she proposed as a parting gift.
When she was leaving Derry to grace Aberdeen with her presence, she created a plan to restructure Derry’s council. In a BBC report entitled ‘No Job Losses’ at Derry City Council, Watts ‘denied there will be any job losses under restructuring plans’. This then turned out to mean ‘I have worked out that potentially there may not be any job losses, but that depends on the willingness of employees to apply for these new jobs as they are advertised’.
In an article filled with rhetoric, Watts was said to have refused to negotiate over the restructure (as she refused to negotiate over the future of Tullos Hill’s deer), and somehow her turning seven council departments into three departments wasn’t meant to mean job losses, even though people had to apply and be accepted for jobs.
With such a command of logic and mathematics, it is no wonder she had a few lapses in terms of arithmetic with deer-related issues in Aberdeen.
These included losing track of a 3,000-strong petition against the cull and the tree scheme presented to the council’s representative Aileen Malone on national television. She also managed to lose track of anti-Tullos deer cull postcards (thought to be a much higher figure) which were hand delivered to a receptionist at the Town House who said he’d seen ‘tons’ of the postcards.
She used her Watts logic and claimed this had no bearing at all on the question asked
Hundreds of cards were handed out; dozens of people advise they posted their cards in, and over 60 were handed to the receptionist. Watts claimed to have received 35. The Scottish SPCA made a specific objection to the Tullos Cull, calling it ‘abhorrent and absurd’ to kill deer where trees were highly unlikely to flourish.
When given that quote, Watts replied to Aberdeen Voice that there was no evidence the Scottish SPCA opposed deer culls. She had taken a statement made by a senior Scottish SPCA officer directed specifically at the Tullos cull, and managed to come up with a statement which had nothing to do with the fact she was presented with.
This strategy of taking a specific fact and contorting it to either a specific focus or a widely painted assertion seems to be a Watts trademark, whether it is denying facts on deer killing or potential job losses during her Derry job restructuring.
When asked if a previous failed tree planting scheme on Tullos Hill cost Aberdeen’s taxpayers £44,000, Watts colourfully asserted that this was not the case. When pressed, she admitted that £43,800 (which seems to the lay person as being rather close to £44,000) had been repaid to the Forestry Commission for a failed tree planting on Tullos.
She used her Watts logic and claimed this had no bearing at all on the question asked, because the money was paid in March and the question was asked in May. Surprisingly animal welfare campaigners were not impressed.
Aberdeen Voice also uncovered the fact the cull was being planned, but was kept out of the public consultation (which only mentioned putting in rabbit fences rather than slaughtering deer). Watts wrote the consultation was ‘robust’ and that it wasn’t necessary to spell out what was required to have the projected forest.
She never did explain why then it was spelled out that deer fencing was mentioned in the consultation as a method for the plantation if it was not necessary to say what was going to happen to the deer if the trees were approved.
Several community councils, thousands of petition signers disagreed.
Eventually Aberdeen Voice found out the city spent tens of thousands of pounds on consultant Chris Piper, who would be paid if the trees were planted and the deer culled.
case after case of financial misappropriation arose
Watts could have stopped all this and saved money for the city in the bargain with saving deer, but she didn’t do anything except defend the cull, rejecting the wishes of elected community councils.
(It should be noted that at the following election, the LibDems who supported their ‘tree for every citizen’ scheme so staunchly were themselves culled. Kate Dean lost her seat, and a campaigner who tried to save the animals, Andy Finlayson, was elected).
Thirty four or thirty five deer were destroyed – and the fact remains the soil reports say the hill – a former refuse dump with a radioactive history on record – cannot grow trees that won’t eventually topple in strong winds, something Aberdeen has in abundance.
In the City’s Hallowed Halls:
Watts also oversaw a few internal struggles, as case after case of financial misappropriation arose. People apparently stole money from the council just before her time as well as during it. People engaged by the city to look after the elderly and otherwise infirm turned out to be thieving money from their vulnerable clients The council then had a colourful time as it bungled the potential cut of 150 jobs.
There have been other amusing stories as to the city’s mismanagement (well, amusing if you are not the people involved).
Valerie, while head of the operations, was surely not responsible for what was going on under her. That seems to have been outwith the remit of taking responsibility.
As the council meandered from one pointless expensive exercise to another (remember the City Garden Project anyone?), Valerie found time to invest our money in trying to relive her glory days. Back in Derry she had won the (apparently) coveted City of Culture Award, and she was going to go for it here, too.
Forgetting the fact that the city of culture has not seen any increase in tourists jetting into Derry, and that some of that city’s cultural infrastructure for music is facing financial ruin, Watts nevertheless pursued the Culture accolade for Aberdeen. This would have been a huge comfort to, for instance, the Torry-based artist collective Limousine Bull, which went out of existence.
Rita Stephen to come up with the goods and create a bid
They had provided art courses, exhibition space and studio rooms in Torry which were popular in the area. Bull ran out of money, and for want of a relatively small sum of money, died. Still, we managed to find money for the ‘Retail Rocks’ scheme in Torry.
Virtually all of the shops created in Torry (where shop holders were exempt from paying various taxes and got advice for their shops) folded, but there was no money for the Limousine Bull collective. Rather disappointing in a would-be city of culture trying to regenerate its poorer areas.
Selecting culture expert (???) Rita Stephen to come up with the goods and create a bid, Watts allowed a fair few Aberdonian’s tax pounds to be invested in pursuing the bid, in the process inventing the risible ‘gigs on rigs’ scheme.
City officials thought rock stars and the like were willingly going to go and perform on drink free, non-smoking, oil rigs in the rough North Sea so we could watch the concerts via video linkup in Aberdeen bars; of course these concerts could have been beamed to any onshore location. All of this was rolled out poignantly in what was formerly one of the city’s few independent record shops which also showcased bands, One Up records on Belmont Street.
Before leaving the issue of culture, it would seem that the approved arts organisations and people had no problem with funding.
SHMU, which undoubtedly does some good work, receives some £200,000 per year from the city, whereas Limousine Bull couldn’t get a few extra thousand. A city employee involved in the distribution of Creative Scotland arts funding managed to win enough money to create a film. Precisely who evaluated his bid as successful over the artists who failed to win funding will form a future story.
Artists have approached Aberdeen Voice concerned that the City seems to have used their artwork without prior consent or remuneration.
All this was on Ms Watts’ three-year watch. Where did the buck stop exactly?
Why did Valerie go? Could it have been due to her crossing swords with Alex Salmond over his unauthorised visit to the Bramble Brae primary school during a by election? No other political parties were given a chance to pose with children for photo opportunities at the grammar school. The SNP locally are saying, as published in the local Press & Journal, that Watts was finally tired of Labour embarrassing the city.
It is tempting as an idea, but if Watts were the embarrassed type, she waited quite a time to show it. Alas for the SNP, she’s said Labour was not to blame.
There is no word as to whether a leaving card or a collection is being made. Aberdeen Voice will keep you posted on any card signing, and what kind of severance package is being offered. Who will take the job next remains to be seen.
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