Nov 302020
 

When a stone wall in Wellington Brae started to crumble, Aberdeen City Council decided to arrange the repair work.

Rather than identifying the property owner and troubling them with a repairs notice, the cash-strapped city mysteriously decided to look to its own maintenance budget, and decided somehow that there were no funds.

Did those involved approach anyone connected with Finance to ask for emergency funding? Apparently not. Did they decide to determine who owned the land at that point and issue a repairs notice? Suzanne Kelly presents part one of a two part investigation.

As many Aberdeen homeowners can attest (including the writer), even a few slates falling off a roof or a damaged front garden wall can result in a warning letter from the city that repairs must be done.

The wall in question sat on privately-owned land and the stone wall collapse spilled over onto Wellington Brae cycle path: all the more reason why, some might think, a repairs notice should have been swiftly sent to the owners, who should have been identifiable from the Land Registry records.

This is the origin of ‘Wallgate’, a tale of council procedures being ignored, a simple matter of land ownership being hopelessly (unnecessarily) confused, leaked emails and more.

ACC officers first tried to identify and contact the property owners AFTER the money was sought from SUSTRANS the cycling/walking charity, on 3 February 2016.

Why didn’t ACC do what they have often done – identify the owners and hit them with a repairs notice?

The email author asserted that the cause of the wall crumbling was Storm Gertrude; others claim that the wall was in bad repair before then (Aberdeen Voice will try to find out whether any repair notices were served on the property, or whether any complaints had been made prior to the storm).

The city’s version of events can be found in this FOI (heavily redacted) and with comments in the Appendix to this two-part article.

As it transpired, then Finance Chief Councillor William Young apparently owned the wall – or maybe his dad – or maybe his wife – or maybe someone else.

For reasons hard to fathom, ‘Wall I Am’ was uncertain who owned the wall despite telling the press on 3 May 2017 he had sold property at Wellington Brae to his father in 1992, and despite apparently giving verbal permission for the repairs.

All will become clear – or not – shortly.

Whose Wall is It Anyway? – A time line.

Mr Young is adamant that he acted properly throughout. Would a lawyer and Councillor acting as Finance Chief/convener be expected to know whether or not he owns a property – or to act swiftly to find out whether he did if asked for permission to do with it?

If you sold your father land, would it slip your mind?

Here is a partial timeline showing dates of statements, sources, and who is apparently being treated as the landowner.

Much of this information has been published before, such as the leaked emails, but assembling this timeline illustrates how problematic all the conflicting ownership claims are, and the issues arising.

DateQuoteWho is said
to be the landowner?
IssuesSource
03/02/2016









‘WE have a problem’








EMAIL WORDED AS IF ABERDEEN CITY COUNCIL WERE RESPONSIBLE




Someone at ACC writes to SUSTRANS to ask for £250,000, wording the email as if the responsibility for repair had already been determined to be Aberdeen’s. The city’s later report does not appear to address this misrepresentation – a serious failing one might think. FOI-released email from ACC to SUSTRANS.






28/10/2016










“Following your conversation with our XX yesterday (27th October) re your verbal instruction to proceed with the works at Wellington Brae.”
WILLIAM YOUNG









Why did Willie give verbal instructions to proceed if he was as he said in 2017 unsure who owned it? Would a lawyer remotely risk acting like this? If he knew he was the landowner and was free to give these instructions, then he ‘misspoke’ in 2017 when he said officers ‘mistakenly believed’ he was the landowner.28/10/2016 Leaked Email 1.








00/00/00






















“A couple of months ago XX and myself [came] to see you about Wellington Brae. Please find attached. These show the extent of the works to be undertaken. My understanding from our meeting was that you would forward the plans to your solicitor to confirm whether you owned the area?”UNSURE






















Willie was to have checked with his solicitor and knew about the scheme ‘months ago’. If he acted promptly – and who wouldn’t to find out if they owned land or not? – then why is there still uncertainty to ownership implied in this email?














Leaked Email 2.





















00/00/00









“…we are looking for written confirmation that the works can proceed – can you reply with this confirmation?

WILLIAM YOUNG








How is the public supposed to know for certain which hat Young is wearing here, not least as he is taking meetings about privately-held land in his office by now according to the ACC report – land he is at points denying ownership of or expressing uncertainty whether he owns it?Leaked email 3. (To Cllr Young)







00/00/00









“… you would continue to be the legal landowner…”






WILLIAM YOUNG








AV has to ask why aren’t all the involved parties asking for complete cessation of negotiations until the question of ownership is 100% settled? If Mrs Young is also an owner as was claimed in the press subsequently, there is scarce evidence to show her approval was ever sought.Leaked email 3. (to Cllr Young)







26/04/2017














“The Land Register for Scotland lists William Young and his wife as landowners of the site.
Cllr Young said he was unsure who owned the land despite council officers telling him he was the land owner.
MR & MRS W YOUNG













Willie says he’s not sure who is the landowner; Land Register apparently says he and his wife are. Was Land Registry advised of the sale Willie made to his dad in 1992? What was the sale price? Were there any tax/stamp duty implications from the sale? Why was the Council not able to get this information?




Probe into £200,000 of public cash used ‘to fix Willie Young’s boundary wall’ – Evening Express






03/05/2017





















“The land in question does not belong to me. I sold land at Wellington Brae to my father, David Young, in 1992, and land in this area remains in his ownership.
“Late last year, I was approached by officers of the council, who mistakenly believed that land at Wellington Brae belonged to me.”
DAVID YOUNG





















This sale does not appear to be reflected in Land Registry records. We are meant to believe a man with a law degree did not know he owned the land and/or somehow the title transfer was not made.
Why would council officers have approached Young – through his councillor email/office – as being the owner?
Why didn’t Young immediately tell the officers he either wasn’t the owner or was unsure who was?






Willie Young confirms land at centre of row belongs to his dad
– Press and Journal
















03/05/2017



























“I told them I would ask my solicitor to check the title… and I have since confirmed that none of this land belongs either to Deeview Homes or to me personally.
“All I actually did was to respond to council officers who mistakenly believed I owned land there, to say that I was not sure of the position, and that I would ask my solicitor’s advice on the matter.
UNSURE



























While stating he sold land at Wellington Brae to his father in 1992, Young is simultaneously unsure about the title. ‘All he actually did’ also includes (according to ACC emails) giving verbal permission for work.




















Willie Young confirms land at centre of row belongs to his dad
– Press and Journal






















24/05/2017




















“The Council is in the process
of contacting the landowner to discuss the necessary agreements to access
and facilitate the works.”











UNSPECIFIED




















Eric Owens, Fraser Bell and Stephen Whyte reported to councillors requesting scheme approval. Councillors were presented with their report – without the ownership issue or Cllr Young’s potential ownership getting a mention. In private institutions this omission might be taken extremely seriously. As an aside, it is likely now a new fiscal year for ACC: would Maintenance still have had no budget? Why didn’t the report authors suggest getting the landowner to pay as an option? Councillors are often slated by the public, but they are only allowed to vote on what officers put before them.Wellington Brae – report to Communities, Housing & Infrastructure.















26/09/2017



















“Councillor Young did not require to declare a conflict of interest because he had not been asked to make a decision as a Councillor on the works or the grant, but rather to provide his consent as a landowner”



WILLIAM YOUNG
Willie Young referred to as landowner in this Audit Risk & Scrutiny report












Back to Square One: NB Willie had told the P&J on 3 May “Late last year, I was approached by officers of the council, who mistakenly believed that land at Wellington Brae belonged to me.”
Some would say the conflict arises precisely because Young is both a councillor and a private landowner, benefitting from council help with the estimate and securing finance as meetings were held in his council office and correspondence conducted through his council email. His title of Finance Convener, his position as a councillor all carried weight.
Aberdeen City Council ARS report

















14/10/2020



































“You ask when I disclosed to SUSTRANS that my family owned the wall, the answer to that is I never disclosed that my family owned the wall to SUSTRANS indeed this was not a matter for a Councillor it is a matter for the Council Officer. As the FOI shows the officer moved forward with discussions with SUSTRANS without involving Councillors.”










UNSURE



































If we accept the ARS finding that Willie was being contacted via his council email as the private landowner, it is unnecessary to talk about what his role was as a councillor. As a private landowner whose permission was required for the scheme (perfect word for it) went ahead, at some point SUSTRANS must have been made aware whose land it was they were putting c£250k of their money to work on and whether via intermediaries or not, Young must have been in the loop. Willie is right – councillors were not involved – but the landowner was – whoever that actually was. The landowner is mentioned in the 26 September email as having given verbal consent. The leaked emails show that Young was in the loop; the ARS report says he was giving his consent as landowner. If he never disclosed that ‘my family owned the wall to SUSTRANS’ it was nevertheless disclosed to the staff within ACC that ‘his family’ owned the land or they would not have sought his permission – permission which perhaps should have come from his father.Email to Suzanne Kelly from Willie Young 14 October 2020 (re-sent Nov 2020)





























Mr Young told AV:

“As the FOI (the most recent answered by ACC) shows the officer moved forward with discussions with SUSTRANS without involving Councillors.”

AV accepts this: what we have been questioning is who owned the land, why ACC was not pursuing the land owner to pay for the repairs, why Young was uncertain whether or not he owned land, and why he was being contacted as a private landowner (mistakenly or not) via his official ACC councillor email rather than a private one.

Aberdeen Voice continues this story in Part II – examining recently-released emails and leaked emails in further detail.

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Nov 132020
 

What are friends for? Aberdeen City Council gives Aberdeen Journals Ltd three years rent free at Marischal Square. Suzanne Kelly reports.

A Freedom of Information request by Aberdeen Voice has revealed that Aberdeen City Council gave Aberdeen Journals Ltd the equivalent of three years free rent for Marischal Square.

The Information Commissioner’s office is investigating the city’s refusal to provide details, and in October it was revealed that the brand-new, taxpayer-supported project gifted AJL space for c 200 staff (with 19 free parking spaces) at virtually no cost whatsoever for the first three years.

The document reads in part:

“The tenant will benefit from an incentive package as follows: Equivalent to a rent free period 36 months.”

Aberdeen Journals Ltd is allowed to choose how it will use this benefit:

“… taken as rent free, surrender payment for the lease at Land [sic] Stracht or a capital payment or a combination of all three.”

The 19,000 square feet are charged (if AJL were paying that is) at £30 per annum or £570,210 per year. Over three years this comes to £1,710,630.

Other details to emerge from recent FOI requests by Aberdeen Voice include:

* ACC said:

“Marischal Square is managed by CBRE on behalf of ACC. This means that all invoices for rent are raised by CBRE and are payable to CBRE who then pay over rental income to ACC as it is received. We are therefore unable to provide any information on amounts billed and whether or not these have been paid in full.”

*  The total rental income received via CBRE for Marischal Square to 30 September 2019 is £849,936.61.

* The Headline rent for Marischal Square is £30 per square foot.

*  The city claimed at one point it had no idea about details of which entity paid how much rent.  The City said:

“We are unable to provide you with information on rent ACC has collected from occupants, renters of Marischal Square including amount billed to occupants/ renters, and whether or not the sum invoiced for has been paid in full as it is not held by ACC. 

“In order to comply with our obligations under the terms of Section 17 of the FOISA, we hereby gives notice that this information is not held by us.”

When the Information Commissioner concludes its report, Aberdeen Voice will update this story.

Nov 112020
 

Debates on what is and what is not Racism abound on Facebook, recently involving a former Aberdeen councillor. Craig Gorman shares his thoughts.

Warren Ellis once wrote:

“Journalism is just a gun. It’s only got one bullet in it, but if you aim right, that’s all you need. Aim it right, and you can blow a kneecap off the world.”

Many ‘Journalists’ in our city would do well to take heed of these words.

The reaction, or rather, the lack of reaction, to former councillor Willie Young’s racist tweet, depicting a caricature of a Chinese person, wearing a rice hat, with a fortune cookie containing broken English, would suggest that we do not live in a city blessed with quality journalism. 

Rather, we do live in a city served by stenographers, happy to toe the party line and serve up soft balls to the public, neither questioning nor instigative in its approach or execution.

Gone is the robust, detailed and forensic approach of John Pilger. The anger and outrage which bled onto the work of Hunter S Thompson, has been reduced to bland and flaccid copy. White hot fury has been replaced by beige, dejected acceptance.

The Evening Express was extremely reluctant to cover the matter, when informed of the tweet, they reverted:

“With regard to the fortune cookie picture, I would urge you to report it the Standards Commission to see if they consider it worthy of investigation. If they do, that would be a story that we would cover.”

Surely the position currently and formerly held by Mr Young would render this a matter of the public interest and worthy of coverage? Did no journalist at the Evening Express feel any impulse to pen an article which would eviscerate the tweet, but not the man?

Indeed, our national broadcaster, the BBC lead with the headline:

“Labour suspends former Aberdeen councillor Willie Young over cookie tweet.”   

To be blunt:, the tweet was racist. The failure to capture and draw attention to this is a hallmark of how toothless, ineffectual and utterly insipid the standard of journalism has become in this country.

Perhaps I expect too much of our media.

However, the job of a Journalist should not be to provide a layer of faux impartiality, to offer a comfort blanket to those whose disposition they may offend. Or to unsettle those in power. 

Mr Young immediately went on the offensive

One would think that the newspapers actually represented those individuals and their interests over their readership.

Perish the thought that the public should have a critical and articulate voice.

No, the job of a Journalist should be to impartially appraise a situation, present the facts and then call it as they see it. At no stage should racism, intended or otherwise, be presented with a veneer of impartiality. Racism is a binary topic: It is or it isn’t. It is acceptable or it is not. 

Now, not for one second do I believe, or wish others to form the opinion that Willie Young is a racist. I don’t believe for a second that he is. What I do call into question is the judgment of the man. 

Once the offensive nature of his tweet had been pointed out to him, Mr Young immediately went on the offensive, belittling anyone who criticised him and further doubled down by claiming the:

“world we live in has gone mad if people think my tweet was racist in any way”

This is not an accusation of an ‘ism’ without context nor nuance. Mr Young was continuing his year-long streak of baiting and antagonising, trolling if you will, supporters of Scottish Independence on social media.

However, so petty and gleeful was his latest attack, that his already questionable judgement failed to spot the clearly racist element of his attempt at ‘humour’.

Let’s be very clear: there is nothing ‘funny’ about racism. Casual. Explicit. Accidental. It s a cancer which is growing and gnawing away at the heart of our society.

This behaviour has a cumulative impact upon society.

Our nation and our very sense of decency has been decimated by it. Our tolerance of racism has been exposed to the world writ large, and laid bare in the most vulgar and tawdry manner possible.

Individuals like Mr Young, and those who have attempted to gaslight criticism of the racist tweet, fail to appreciate the notion what by continually defending, or perpetuating the myth that those who object to racism are ‘snowflakes’, ‘the offended brigade’ or someway implying that we should casually hand wave away racist language or actions.

This behaviour has a cumulative impact upon society. It sends the message and gives the green light for others to behave in a similar manner.

This tolerance of racism, actively allows it to take a foothold, to become normalised and overtime accepted. 

As we as a people hold the door open to casual acceptance of bigotry, the further down the mire we slip of allowing racism to be the underpinning factor in our society. 

Indeed, is there anyone with an ounce of honesty going to put their head above the parapets and admit that Brexit was driven by an undercurrent of racial and xenophobic hatred?  

That the ugly and utterly repellent ghost of the United Kingdom’s colonial past still haunts the collective conscience of many in our nation, unwilling or unable to grasp the fact that people from all cultures and backgrounds form part of a modern and progressive culture.

Does anyone think that the impoverished working classes in many areas of England voted for the Tory party in such overwhelming numbers because they felt they had something in common with the odious Reece-Mogg? 

Or are we going to be adults about this and state that the racism and prejudice found in many of these areas was the overriding factor in voting for a party which views the poor and vulnerable as nothing more than the fair and justifiable targets of an ongoing class genocide, rather than an infinity for the very policies which have killed tens of thousands of people?

we send the message to all, that it is once again acceptable to be racist

The vile and hate-filed forces which the likes of Boris Johnston and Nigel Farage have unleashed upon our society cannot be underestimated.

Indeed, a brief look at some of the posts on the AV Facebook page demonstrate that racism and intolerance are being acted upon in our country with impunity. 

No longer are baseless, moronic, outbursts against Muslims or ‘foreigners’ considered something to be ashamed of. 

Rather, the dregs of our society, inspired by the likes of Farage or Yaxley-Lennon, are more than happy to post memes featuring such figures as Enoch Powell, invoking his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.

Stealth racism, posited in the form of critiques of organisations such as BLM, frequently find fault with one element of protests against racism, or to provide a defence of the maintenance of monuments to former slave owners.

On no, dear reader, in no way are these people in any way racist. Please, don’t think that. 

“We’re not racist – we’ve got black mates, don’t cha know, guv.” 

With this, we arrive at the crescendo, the end point.

In diminishing the impact, of Mr Young’s tweet, by failing utterly to condemn racial nature of the content, we send the message to all, that it is once again acceptable to be racist – that it is acceptable to single out an element in our society to be thought of as less than worthy of our full respect. 

We have lost the most basic empathy to understand that those who are different to us, whether it be culturally, racially or in their sexuality, are an equal and valued part of our culture and society.  

I long for the days when racism, homophobia, Islamophobia are once again through of as bad things in this country. 

Sadly, as long as we have individuals who are incapable of comprehending that such caricature portrayals of our fellow human beings are an outdated and unwelcome relic of a bygone era, I fear that we have a long way to go to fully eradicate racism from our society.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

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Oct 252020
 

By Suzanne Kelly.

If you managed to keep up with shifting Covid-19 government advice, changing statistics and the evolving list of related health complications, congratulations.

If you have mastered the Rule of Six, know when you are or aren’t in a relationship, have figured out when you’re free to break the rules ‘in a specific and limited way’, and when it is or is not acceptable to drive to Barnard Castle, perhaps you can explain to the rest of us why pubs and restaurants are risky, but schools are safe.

Advice on children and Covid-19 is as changeable as everything else to do with this disease, and yet teachers, staff, parents and students are being reassured by some school heads that ‘school is perfectly safe’.

How safe is ‘perfectly safe’?

A teacher’s perspective: An arse covering exercise.

“Risk assessments have been talked about more than anything else in every school, folk that are employed to do them have seen their workload go through the roof recently because they’re needed as an arse-covering exercise.

Teachers will get Covid and die; their family members will too, children will spread it to vulnerable people they’ll die too.

“The risk assessment will be used to justify that ‘we all knew what we were signing up to’ and that’s true to a point. It’s all about getting people back to work and getting taxes and money coming back into the system. Safety is secondary to that.”

The Safety Expert: Not enough detail.

We invited an expert to look for risk assessments, and we sent a representative sampling from the short (1 to 3 page) document to the massive document (over 30 pages). We looked at scores of risk assessments – some schools happily publish them; others feel they should not be shared – which rather defeats their purpose.

Our expert wrote:

“ In preparing risk assessments not enough detail is put into them and people tend to just put in an overview and think it’s sufficient when dealing with a highly contagious virus. 

“What needs to happen is every small detail needs to be looked at, the slight act like passing a pen to each other can prove fatal down the line, therefore this highlights the actual need to be doubly vigilant in the preparation of a risk assessment” 

Risk assessment should identify every task involved in an enterprise (such as a school day) from students lending each other pens to touching surfaces to grouping together. 

A valid risk assessment identifies every activity’s possible risk and then determines how likely or unlikely the risks can be (from catching or transmitting Covid-19, being mildly ill with it – or worse). 

A robust risk assessment then determines how likely or unlikely the risks are before corrective measures are made, so it can prescribe the corrective measures to lower the risk. 

Aberdeen’s Oldmachar Academy has a 31-page risk assessment document based on government templates seen elsewhere; it mingles Covid-19 and non-Covid issues (lift maintenance for instance).

Staff are mentioned 137 times; the word pupil appears 47 times. It is cumbersome, and the actual risk matrix says nothing concrete about the risks of Covid-19 – illness, death, transmission, long Covid etc.

Three Aberdeen City schools have had Covid-19 cases.

It is not easy to use and is not geared for all the people who are meant to be covered by it. As adults we find it cumbersome; if we were pupils, we’d find it less than user friendly.

It scores diseases as medium risk; though permanent health problems and death are present when Covid-19 is present.

Despite the time-sensitive, urgent nature of our request for risk assessments, Aberdeen City Council suggested we do a Freedom of Information request rather than have its media department send all or at least some of it for us to review.

The city should have had all the assessments in and professionally reviewed before schools opened. As it happened, the city’s risk assessments were still not finalised in the last few days before its schools opened.

Three Aberdeen City schools have had Covid-19 cases.

How it handles these in the media follows a pattern seen elsewhere: dissuade the public from thinking there could have been school transmission; claim their risk assessment is robust; patronise parents by saying ‘we understand your fears’.

Here is what Bridge of Don Academy told the press:

“Mrs McWilliam said: “I would want to reassure parents and carers that there is no evidence of transmission of Covid-19 at Bridge of Don Academy and that the school has very good control measures in place.

“The strength of the control measures has enabled Public Health to advise that the school remain open to the vast majority of young people.

“I realise that this is unsettling news and want to reassure you that decisions have been made following a robust risk assessment process with public health.””

We have requested this ‘robust risk assessment’ but do not have it yet. How is it determined ‘there is no evidence of transmission?’

Teachers are not all keen on going to school; as we saw, our teacher states they believe teachers will die.

Covid-19 facts that dropped out of the curriculum.

Few if any risk assessments we saw which were prepared prior to school openings acknowledged the existence of long Covid (the lingering fatigue and other symptoms that can last weeks or months). Perhaps this is a very rare occurrence; some say it is.

Is it worth taking the risk though, or risking long-term or permanent heart, lung nervous system damage, and inflammatory syndromes striking young Covid-19 victims such as Kawasaki disease.

Some head teachers still seem happy to insist their schools are safe, to insist it is fine for children to mingle unmasked in groups which can range from a dozen to one hundred pupils, and that ‘safety is our main concern’.

Talking to parents, it is this insistence that all is well and there is no risk that causes their worry: how can a school be a sanctuary from a disease that is spreading elsewhere in a community?

In order to get children through the doors, parents are being threatened with fines, threatened with social worker visits, threatened with police visits, ridiculed (‘you are the only parent who has any worries’), threatened they are harming their child (children must socialise and must learn at the government prescribed rate). But possibly worst of all, they are being greatly misled.

Failing marks for factual information.

One sentence found in a few school bulletins up and down the country concerns symptoms; here is one variant (from South Grove Primary School):

“This means that if your child has a cold, they should still come to school just like they would have last year. If your child has symptoms that point to a cold, they can still come to school. These could be a blocked or runny nose, sneezing and/or itchy eyes.”

The problem is experts, including the CDC, advise the following concerning flu and Covid-19 symptoms:

“Both COVID-19 and flu can have varying degrees of signs and symptoms, ranging from no symptoms (asymptomatic) to severe symptoms. Common symptoms that COVID-19 and flu share include:
“Fever or feeling feverish/chills
“Cough
“Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
“Fatigue (tiredness)
“Sore throat
“Runny or stuffy nose
“Muscle pain or body aches
“Headache
“Some people may have vomiting and diarrhoea, though this is more common in children than adults” 
– https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/flu-vs-covid19.htm

If the schools are handing out advice contrary to world experts, it hardly inspires confidence.

Unsurprisingly, some teachers and parents fear retaliation if they talk to reporters on the subject. Many tell us they ‘are not allowed’ to tell others if their school has had a positive Covid-19 case. This stifling of expression would have been contrary to European Human Rights law – but that seems like something we don’t need to worry about any longer.

One school wrote to parents, advising their child might have been exposed to an infected peer to self-isolate for 14 days:

“We must prioritise the health and safety of our students first and foremost.”

It begs the question: if they were prioritising health and safety, wouldn’t they allow students to study at home and take lessons remotely?

The government maintains its recalcitrant stance against this sane, risk-mitigating measure.

With a vaccine in the pipeline with several pharmaceutical companies, would it be that bad to save lives and educate at home for a number of months?

Yes, children need to play, socialise, learn and be around others: but if junior falls behind a few months but is free of long-term health issues, surely that is worth it.

BRTUS

Parents’ advocates Boycott a Return to Unsafe Schools (BRTUS) keeps a map of school Covid-19 occurrences, and its Facebook page is filled with discussion.

A BRTUS spokesperson said:

“Boycott Return To Unsafe Schools is campaigning for a Sensible, Safe and Sustainable return to schools, which should take consideration of local infection rates and include properly resourced blended or distance learning where appropriate.

“BRTUS understands the pressures teachers are under, and BRTUS is concerned for the welfare of all who are in the school environment – students, teachers and staff.

“Our map of Covid-19 cases within schools demonstrates that a return to full classes in the most densely populated classrooms in Europe is unsustainable and threatens the safety of society as a whole.

“In addition to sending newspaper reports to add to our map, parents have forwarded us communications they have received from their school, confirming cases which have not always reached the media. Some parents state they have been pressured not to discuss the case outside of their school community, and express concern that we will ensure anonymity. “

This is just one example of unacceptable treatment being endured by parents; the blanket policy of compulsory attendance fines – irrespective of local infection rate or the health risk factors of family members – is entirely inappropriate in the context of a pandemic.

“This policy has a detrimental impact on the mental health of family members including children, and alongside lack of funding prevents schools from providing appropriate support for home learning in order to protect children’s academic progress.

“With cases rising once again the Government must now formulate a properly funded plan for education which will minimize the opportunity for schools to be vectors of transmission, protect children’s educational outcomes and ensure the safety of families who are at increased risk from Covid-19.”

Parents said:

Parent A:

“The headteacher hates any disruption to their usual [routine] and any complaints tend to be quashed pretty quickly.  Their risk assessment was poor to say the least, as most points there were useless or still to be done.

“Even though the school is in the area with most cases in our town, they supposedly remain Covid free. It just simply doesn’t make sense. Rumours started amongst students that a teacher got it and when enquiring about that, I was told that the school doesn’t comment on rumours.

“Regardless of the fact that my own child had direct contact with this teacher, they refused to confirm if he is waiting for results or already has a positive result. 

“Our local newspaper has published that the council confirmed that “a number of schools have had positive tests”, yet only one school has been named. I do believe my children’s school has been affected by now.”

Parent B:

“If my child gets sick who is to blame? Me? The school or the government?”

Parent C:

“We’ve even been threatened with police!”

Parent D:

“We don’t want to deregister but we’ve been told we’ll be fined.”

Parent E:

“My head teacher says I am the only parent who has worries”

Parent F:

“The school says it will send social workers because I don’t want my child in school.”

Other parents talk about an absence of social distancing and masks at drop off and pick up times; parents with conditions such as asthma do not feel they are being taken into account, some find out their head teacher have called their child’s physician to discuss the parent’s reticence to send their child to school.

One thing bothering teachers, staff and parents is how widely varying policy and procedures vary from one school to the next. Some schools are having giant bubbles of the entire year; some have small bubbles of different classes within a year.

Some have taken the concept of ventilation to extremes insisting windows must be left open all the time (one parent told of a puddle forming in the back of a classroom when it rains) but will not let children wear coats to keep warm (cue potential respiratory illnesses) – and a school in Aberdeenshire has classrooms where windows cannot be opened.

Children in one school will eat at their desks; others will eat outside in all weather – standing up.

There is nothing logical, scientific or even consistent going on in the country’s schools when it comes to the pandemic. Maybe students will not die – but we believe the risk to teachers, staff and parents has not been addressed sufficiently.

If you think we are being overly dramatic or fearmongering by bringing up the risk of death, don’t blame us, here’s a quote from Matt Hancock:

“Don’t kill your gran.”

Hancock was referring to young people not keeping social distance: what exactly does he think happens in a school setting?

Image by Steve Riot from Pixabay

Sep 032020
 

By Suzanne Kelly.

Multi-million pound charity Sustrans has halted controversial plans to spend £100k on artwork as part of its ‘Spaces for People‘ project in Aberdeen.
Aberdeen Voice has seen correspondence which reads:

“[Sustrans Scotland] … confirmed that Aberdeen City Council has decided not to proceed with this commission, especially in light of the recent increase in confirmed cases in the city, to enable it to prioritise the protection of public health.”

The city and Sustrans have £1.76 million to spend under the scheme, which is meant to aid social distancing and slow the spread of Covid-19.

The controversial plans include building 136 ‘parklets‘ (wooden benches with decking) on the city’s closed streets.

A group of over 30 people have formally complained to Sustrans, ACC and central government about how the £1.76 million is being deployed.

The complaint covers the road closures (done with no prior consultation), permission granted for tents and marquees (formerly banned – but fast-tracked for some, despite social distancing problems) and the parklets (at least one was dangerously vandalised, and which will see tonnes of wood wasted when these are removed – and they create new spaces which can harbour Covid-19 for hours or possibly days).

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Aug 202020
 

By Suzanne Kelly.

Sustrans, a pro walking and cycling charity with a multi-million pound budget might not seem an obvious choice for doling out millions in funds “to improve social distancing and slow the spread of Covid-19”, but here we are: Aberdeen will get benches and artwork, delivered in partnership with Sustrans, for £1.76 million of taxpayer money.

Sustrans’ website claims:

“The work we’re doing is creating healthier places and happier people.”

Not so much in Aberdeen where a second lockdown took place while Sustrans and the city were spending money.

Aberdonians familiar with the ‘Wallgate’ scandal may recall Sustrans’ involvement.

Former city councillor Willie Young’s father owned a stone wall that collapsed; through some maneuvering the city got Sustrans to spend a quarter of a million pounds to fix it. Neither Sustrans nor the city seem to have done any due diligence to find out the public did not own the wall; questions remain over the massive expenditure and where all the money went.

As an aside there was a vote to claw back this money from the Young family. It failed by one vote, with disgraced sex-offender Alan Donnelly voting in favour of letting Young off.

But that is a tale best told on Facebook by the Stop the Desecration of Marischal College page.

Many are still scratching their heads at the central government decision to give SUSTRANS the cash and remit to deal with social distancing in city centres. It exists to get us out of cars and buses and onto bikes or to walk instead – is this really the moment for doing so?

The city has just informed Aberdeen Voice where some of the money is going, and that all these wooden structures are temporary: All that wood will eventually be removed, possibly scrapped.

Parklets life:

These are not just any wooden benches with planters and decking; these are ‘parklets’. To date (21/7/20) ACC spent approximately:

“…£105,000 on the completed parklets, which has been carried out by in-house operational teams, with Hall & Tawse Ltd providing specialist joinery workshop fabrication and delivery to site… we were only able to locate one supplier that could meet the demand.

“The installer has a link to ACC by having an existing contract to manufacture and supply doors and fire doors from their workshop.”

Sustrans says Aberdonians will get 136 parklets. A Sustrans spokesperson said:

“It is hoped the parklets will be an attractive addition to the city centre and provide an alternative to the use of plastic bollards”

How it was determined that plastic bollards were essential in fighting Covid-19 is unclear.

Sustrans’ and Aberdeen City’s parklets jut into Union Street and other areas; many businesses are irked that they had not been consulted on road closures. Sustrans distanced itself from any road closure issues, but did not explain how it could be working with the city to build the parklets without being involved in putting them on city streets.

Businesses have been hurt by one-way traffic systems and road closures, with several small businesses closing.

The Covid-19 virus can live for quite some time on wood, but fear not. Sustrans said:

“…like all public infrastructure, it would be up to the user to assess the risk of catching the virus, before touching a surface.”

In other words, rather than spending funds on awareness posters, stickers on the pavement telling people to social distance, stickers showing any one-way pedestrian areas, added hand sanitizer stations, partnerships with retailers and hospitality businesses to ensure better social distancing, you will get 136 temporary benches, providing 136 brand new surfaces where the virus can exist, creating a risk (even if small) where none previously existed.

Two weeks ago a photo was posted to social media showing a vandalized parklet, where wooden strip had been dangerously bent to a vertical position.

Aberdeen Voice asked the city whether it had done any cost projection for the cost of maintaining, cleaning, restoring the decking. We were told no cost projection has been undertaken yet.

The city’s FOI response also said:

“To date the decking materials expenditure is £31,167.45 total (to 21/7/20) for decking, anti slip inserts, bolts, nuts, shims, adhesive, sealant, non-slip tape.

“The suppliers used to date are Keith Builders Merchants, Jewson, MGM Timber, Premier, John Smith Ltd, Cordiners Timber, General & Technical Flooring, Hall & Tawse. Quotation enquiries have been sent to suppliers by email and telephone, in line with the ACC procurement regulations.

The process is still ongoing as the units are still being manufactured, and there is limited stock due to factory and cargo shutdowns… all suppliers except for Keith Builders had existing links as suppliers with ACC, and had supplied ACC in the past.”

Simultaneously, there are insufficient resources to facilitate blended and/or on line learning and children are returning to schools – many of which do not have their risk assessments finished.

These will not be published in any event, despite UK government recommendations to do so, and other unions and schools happily publishing their assessments.

While acknowledging that not a single other Scottish city which got some of the £38 million-pound Spaces for People pot opted for decking, we are assured that:

“The decking is grooved and is sold in Scotland commercially as decking. The trip and slip potential for footwear has been considered and non-slip strips have been provided on the decking.”

Convinced that no one will slip and fall / cut themselves on the edges of these parklets, the city confirmed:

“We are not considering procuring specific insurance for the decking. The Council has public liability insurance for all its activities should a claim be received from a member of the public.”

Whether that insurance has been updated to include 136 parklets is unknown, but seems unlikely in light of the city’s comment. By the way, the decking is not fireproof – because it doesn’t have to be.

Precisely how wooden decking, notorious for slippery nature and for its uneven surface hostile to those in heels or with mobility issues, artwork and security guards from Leicester will make Aberdonians happier and safer remains to be seen.

Icing on the cake:

In order to ‘make people feel confident’, the Sustrans money for Covid-19 distancing will see £100k spent on three artworks. Sustrans demanded the right to help approve how this is allocated, according to local press ‘to help Aberdeen stay within the rules’.

The same newspaper article quotes someone on the project saying:

“This will make people feel confident.”

Complaint:

Nearly 30 people sent a formal complaint about the Sustrans/Aberdeen City plans, asking for a review involving central government of just how these projects meet the initial remit, noting there has been a new spike – possibly because people were feeing a little too confident and not sufficiently cautious.

Moves like allowing marquees and crowded pavements may well have contributed to the transmission of new cases. Anyone wishing to add their name to the complaint can email sgvk27@aol.com.

Sustrans is very keen to distance itself from any responsibility for overcrowding that took place at a nightclub, saying it had no remit to deal with private businesses.

It was reminded that the crowd was on the public pavement and road.

More people are welcome to add their name to the complaint; it was felt best to get it out as soon as was possible due to the urgency of the situation. It replied to Aberdeen Voice quoting a portion of its remit; we replied quoting their website:

“The Spaces for People programme is funded by the Scottish Government and managed by Sustrans Scotland.

“It aims to enable statutory bodies to implement measures focused on protecting public health, supporting physical distancing and preventing a second wave of the outbreak.”

With £1.76 million going on benches, artwork and goodness knows whatever else, public health protection was a fail, physical distancing was a fail, and a second wave of the outbreak hit Aberdeen. That artwork had better be spectacular.

With millions flowing through Sustrans staff according to last year’s Companies House documents, the pro-walking/cycling quango will be just fine. As yet only a small portion of the £1.76 million has been spent or committed as yet: Aberdeen Voice will watch where the rest of the money goes.

Aberdeen Voice is happy to hear in strictest confidence from anyone with information on the spread of Covid-19 and/or related issues. Please contact Suzanne Kelly via sgvk27@aol.com

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Aug 122020
 

By David Forbes.

Covid-19 has had a damaging affect on the whole of society, however it’s not all doom and gloom.

Two local teenagers, who are life long friends, have stepped forward to help support their local community, particularly those that are physically disabled.

Ryan Bannerman (14) from Northfield, currently doing his Saltire Awards volunteers his time for local voluntary led charity Future Choices, a charity which provides social inclusion and recreational activities, however due to the current pandemic, the charities activities are currently suspended.

Ryan commented:

“Helping the most vulnerable is a really good feeling.”

Also currently doing his Saltire Awards and a Future Choices volunteer, is Ryan’s friend Lucas Mackenzie (13) from Tillydrone,

Lucas added:

“I’m so excited to help the most in need during these tough times.”

For both teenagers, the challenges of going back to a new school routine and academic year is a hurdle in itself so trying to help the community via an online fundraiser is very commendable. 

Both Ryan and Lucas have learnt a great deal by doing their Saltire Awards and take pride in the community work they both do. They hope that their appeal will raise much needed funds and inspire other young people to volunteer.

The funds they raise will help to provide vital support to help those most vulnerable adults post covid-19, and to help engage them in social inclusion by breaking down the social isolation barriers they have had to endure since March.

You can check out their special film and view their Crowdfunding page at:

Aug 082020
 

By Suzanne Kelly.

Aberdeen City Council yesterday admitted that it has not finalised revising risk assessments for next week’s school openings and have refused to release the assessments to Aberdeen Voice.
Students are due to return to school despite a new lockdown in Aberdeen City Centre in response to the recent Covid-19 outbreak.

The City told Aberdeen Voice the school risk assessments were being revised.

With days to go before schools open, Aberdeen Voice asked for sight of the assessments; a city council spokesperson said:

“These are internal documents which we would not routinely share with the media. You can of course submit an FOI request.”

Aberdeen Voice replied it had never received a freedom of information request response from the city in less than 25 days – clearly too late for concerned parents

The City pointed Aberdeen Voice to its website when we first asked about safety for students, teachers and everyone connected to schools. The website lacks any specific provision details – but does say that distance learning has virtually been ruled out:  and parents must send children to school.

Additionally, on the Aberdeen City Council website, it says that risk assessments have been done. 

However earlier today ACC told Aberdeen Voice: 

“These will be discussed and agreed with all staff at the beginning of next week and before children return.  This is in keeping with the best practice advised in the national guidance. The risk assessments are informing the information that is being shared with families.” 

How the city can claim the assessments are done when they are now being redone, and claim ‘the information that is being shared with families’ but will not release the assessments to the general public is unclear.

The TUC is one of many organisations to publish its Covid-19 risk assessment; its website reads:

“UK law says every employer with more than five staff must produce a risk assessment. And new government guidance for the return to work after the coronavirus pandemic says that these risk assessments should be published on employers’ own websites.”

One school proud of its risk assessment that has published it to its website is Blackheath; it can be seen here: 

Parents and teachers throughout the UK are concerned at safety and according to The Scotsman only 1 in 5 teachers are confident about returning to the classroom.

The myth that children are ‘nearly immune’ to Covid-19 has been dispelled; they are not only efficient carriers who can transmit the virus to others, but when infected themselves, they may be prone to syndromes including multisystem inflammatory syndrome and Kawasaki syndrome.

Aberdeen Voice also awaits comment from Aberdeenshire council and Unison.  We are happy to continue receiving information and questions from parents, teachers and health professionals who alerted us to the situation.

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Jun 242020
 

Duncan Harley reviews Mike Shepherd’s latest book, ‘The World Makers – Who Gets to the Top and Why’.

At first glance Mike Shepherd’s new book might well appear to be a detailed instruction manual on how to reach beyond the greasy pole and become a super-achiever.

And, there is certainly a glut of content here to sign-post the ambitious.

Tales of Olympians, top scientists, infamous and not so infamous politicians, ground breaking engineers and innovative business leaders – over achievers the lot of them, inhabit the pages.

But, as Mike points out early on in his introduction, the ambitious amongst us will undoubtedly gain insight here but the tales within might actually deter them from ever trying to get there in the first place.

Described as gossipy by the author, this is certainly no dry academic tome and throughout the 300 or so pages of discussion there are dozens of entertaining and often supremely bizarre tales involving the unexpected aspects of human behaviour exhibited by the gifted few.

Mathematician John von Neuman – who worked on the Manhattan Project, could memorise entire telephone directories and seemingly was able to recall any of the entries on request.

Moroccan Emperor Moulay Sharif who fathered some 1,200 children. Heiress Evalyn McLean who took the art of gloating to new levels by parading the Hope Diamond on the collar of her pet pooch.

Henry Morton Stanley who rose from penury to prominence as the man sent by the infamous New York Herald press baron Gordon Bennett Jr to find the missing David Livingstone.

Churchill, who despite episodic attacks of the Black Dog and a fairly mixed early career, rose to some prominence in the 1940’s. And many many more.

A stoic belief in one’s own destiny, an obsession with achievement, intense ambition and on occasion an intense and incorruptible – as in the case of Thomas Plimsoll of Plimsoll Line fame, desire to do good all feature within these pages alongside much discussion regarding the nature of those single-minded achievers.

Throw in a bit of hubris and a measure of narcissism and you get the drift of this book.

Many of the featured hyper-achievers deserve to be celebrated but inevitably many others do not. Florence Nightingale certainly falls into the former category – for her achievements after the Crimean Campaign.

Saparmurat Niyazov – tyrannical dictator of Turkmenistan, resides firmly in the ranks of the latter. But no spoilers here.

At the core of the discussion though is the idea that these big ideas of those few in number super-achievers shape our world and, like it or not, the rest of us have to fit as best we can into the framework they create.

On an optimistic note Mike concludes that the folk at the base of the pyramid can usually rub along just fine with those at the pinnacle but tempers this with the brutal thought that the actions of those achievers, whom he labels world makers, might just be a little extreme.

He may very well be right.

The World Makers by Mike Shepherd is published as a Kindle Book (291pp) and is available from Amazon @ £2.99

Jun 242020
 

By Suzanne Kelly.

Rob Scott’s ‘Zombie Cake’.

March 17 – a day that is usually given over to a stereotypical but good-natured outbreak of beer-drinking to honour St Patrick.

This St Patrick’s Day, the UK was poised to go in a lockdown to slow the spread of the deadly Covid-19 virus. James Watt, co-founder of Ellon’s BrewDog, tweeted:

“At BrewDog we are doing all we can to make it through & protect as many jobs as we can. But we, like so many businesses have lost 70% of our income almost overnight.”

The growth of Brewdog is without precedent in the UK craft beer world, possibly without precedent anywhere.

In the beginning they were Watt, Martin Dickie, and a dog, selling 4 different brews at Aberdeen’s farmers’ market. They now employ thousands and have breweries in Columbus Ohio, Australia and Germany as well as their Ellon home.

From one Aberdeen Castlegate bar sprouted scores of bars on four continents. These bars are a key point of revenue – and just like that, all the UK’s hospitality sector was faced with the lockdown and all it implied.
This dog was not going to just roll over.

Sanitized News:

BrewDog first decided they would use their distillery to provide free-of-charge sanitizer for the NHS which had announced a shortage. They worked with the NHS and while the very first batch wasn’t quite strong enough (a BrewDog first), they’ve been pumping out sanitizer and packing it into any and all bottles and packages they can get. An NHS spokesman said:

“It’s heartening that firms like BrewDog are choosing to play their part, and helping protect our NHS workers on the frontline across Grampian.

“This serves as yet another example of the phenomenal support we’ve received from a number of businesses in the local community. By working together, and continuing to follow the government advice, we will get through this pandemic.”

The sanitizer is not for sale; BrewDog are now delivering some of it to North East Scotland’s nursing homes, and over 100,000 bottles have been distributed free.

Funding this initiative’s costs, and commenting on a government covid-19 scandal, BrewDog recently released a new product…

Barnard Castle Eye Test – Cummings’ Comeuppance:

While many of us were doing our part and following lockdown orders created by Boris Johnson and his advisers, he and his advisers seemed immune to these regulations they created.

BoJo shook hands with Covid-19 patients – later denying it- he caught the disease and passed it to others.

His unelected guru, Mekon-lookalike Dominic Cummings, decided that despite lockdown, despite being ill, and despite not able to see straight, he’d drive his family to stay with his dad (staying in a cottage on the property that seems to have no planning permission and for which no tax seems to be paid by the way. True: Dad owns a horse he named Barak because the horse is black and white: Racism is alive and well and in Barnard).

The country was outraged (save some Daily Mail readers) by these double-standards and all their implications. Watt told LBC Radio:

“If they’re asking the country to make sacrifices for the common good the government and its advisers should be abiding by the same rules.”

Following BrewDog’s longstanding history of ‘protest beers’ such as ‘Hello my name is Vlad’ (dig at Putin’s anti LGBT hardline actions), ‘Make Earth Great Again’ (a commentary on Trump) and more, BrewDog announced it would make a Cummings-related beer.

The name was put to a public vote, and within hours of being put on presale, ‘Barnard Castle Eye Test’ sold over 45,000 units: all profits going to the NHS hand sanitizer project.

Open Arms Welcome:

For many on lockdown, BrewDog provides a great online social resource, the BrewDog Open Arms https://www.brewdog.com/uk/onlinebar .

Every Friday at 6pm this virtual online pub opens up for a few hours of zany fun.

BrewDog told Aberdeen Voice:

“The Open Arms was started as soon as our bars shut so we could still bring our community together to be social and enjoy a beer. Since opening we’ve been blown away by the support and experience with over 100,000 people joining our sessions from all over the world.

“The Open Arms has hosted live music, virtual beer tastings, homebrew sessions, food & beer pairings and our weekly Friday session.

“We now have regulars joining us every week and, due to demand, have recently changed the Friday session to be unlimited entry via streaming on YouTube Live”.

Dawn Scott’s ‘Kamikazi Knitting Club’.

MCs Tim Warwood & Adam Gendle host the event and run a hilarious quiz with prizes randomly given out. James Watt and Martin Dickie are among the hundreds who attend. Musical guests have included Carl Barat from The Libertines and a host of upcoming talents performing from their homes.

It usually ends up with people dancing in their living rooms to the cheesiest of music, ending in Toto’s Africa (yes, really).

James and Martin announced, seemingly off the cuff that they’d give away £1,000 next week in beer vouchers for the best costume. Amanda Scott won the bar’s costume competition with a hyper-creative recreation of BrewDog’s ‘Homicidal Helpdesk Puppet’.

Runners-up included Jazza Crawford and Linz as ‘Super Bario Brothers’, while Rob Scott and his wife Dawn recreated BrewDog beer labels for ‘Zombie Cake’ and ‘Kamikazi Knitting Club’.

Rob said:

“I love the Open Arms Online bar…[it] lets us experience some of the vibe. We attend the Open Arms bar and afterwards we videocall each other and talk some more.

“Another reason I like the Open Arms is that I’m an introvert. This way I can take part of the experience on my own terms.”

Jazza said:

“Since the very first week both Linz and I have been enjoying catching up with friends and other Equity Punks in the BrewDog open arms.

“So far we have learned a lot more about the creation of some of our favourite beers and spirits. Learned how to cook some amazing dishes. Painted sharks and whales with Plague Fisher.

“Most of all our Friday night highlight is the quiz and after party. It’s been brilliant to have what feels like and escape from the home without actually leaving the house.

“I hope it stays after lockdown maybe as a once monthly catch up for the international friends that we have made through BrewDog.

“Brewdog Open Arms is a great community, it’s fun to see everyone and to hear James & Martin talk about the business and the new beers and sprits they’re making!”

The Open Arms session on 29 May featured a challenge which raised a massive £3,000 for the NHS. Sessions are occasionally held on other days, featuring beer yoga, recipes, virtual tasting sessions, and even an art tutorial from Craig Fisher, whose distinctive bold designs decorate BrewDog bars and breweries around the world.

Craig, who no longer works in-house for BrewDog, said:

“It’s been an awesome way to interact with the BrewDog fans who’ve followed my work, despite the current limitations.”

While many businesses are losing revenue, while many people are worried about finances, friends and lockdown, BrewDog is coming through with helpful initiatives – and it all started on our doorsteps in Fraserburgh, Ellon, and Aberdeen.

On a personal note, I am a shareholder (as I always disclose when I write about the company) – I’ve had many proud moments as such, but how they’ve handled lockdown’s challenges, but these initiatives re-set the scale and won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

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