Mar 252012
 

Aberdeen City Council has been warned today that its staff could face criminal prosecution for its activities on Tullos Hill.  Animal Concern’s John Robins issued a press release explaining all, and Aberdeen Voice brings you this latest development in the ongoing Tullos Hill saga.

 

Aberdeen City Council (ACC) has been warned that staff and volunteers involved in the controversial Tree for Every Citizen project could face prosecution under wildlife crime laws.

It is believed workers have started clearing gorse and shrubs on Tullos Hill in preparation for the planting of saplings which is due to start next month.

Gorse is a favoured nesting habitat for a variety of birds including members of the finch family. It is a criminal offence to disturb or destroy active nests or to harm eggs or chicks.

John Robins of Animal Concern Advice Line (ACAL) has asked the Wildlife Crime Officer at Grampian Police to investigate the situation with a view to arresting anyone found to have broken wildlife protection laws. The SSPCA and RSPB have also been asked to intervene. ACAL have warned ACC that their staff and volunteers could be prosecuted for destroying birds’ nests and they have asked the Council to suspend all work on Tullos Hill until September.

John Robins states:

“This tree planting scheme has gone from insane to criminally insane. Who in their right mind orders clearance of nest sites just at the time when song birds are nesting and then sends in an army of tree planters when ground nesting birds are trying to raise their young?

“This latest development suggests that the people behind this project really do not have a clue about what they are doing.  ACC claim their Tree for Every Citizen project will provide wildlife habitat. All I can see is habitat destruction and disruption at the very worst time of year for that to happen. Will it take a criminal prosecution before ACC see sense?”

Gavin Lindsay, Wildlife Crime Officer at Grampian Police, has agreed to speak to Aberdeen City Council about possible breaches in wildlife protection laws.  The SSPCA have asked their Aberdeen inspectorate to look into the matter. We await a response from RSPB Scotland.

The Council have put up temporary fencing around and on Tullos Hill. These have yellow hazard warning signs stating “Warning Forestry Operations. Please obey all signs and restrictions.”

A copy of the warning sent to the ACC Chief Exec and the Councillor behind the tree planting project is as follows:-

 

Dear Ms Watts and Councillor Malone,

I note that Aberdeen City Council has announced its intention to commence ground preparation work and the planting of saplings on Tullos Hill. I understand that this work will involve the removal of bracken and gorse and that clearance of these plants may already have started.

Given the long period of unseasonably mild weather you’ve had in the Aberdeen area over the last few weeks it is highly likely that birds will be nesting early and there will be nests with eggs and chicks in the gorse and on the ground at Tullos Hill. Gorse, which provides prickly protection for nesting birds, is a favoured nesting habitat for finches such as Twite, Chaffinch, Linnet, Redpoll and others.  From photographs and descriptions of the terrain on Tullos Hill I expect there are also a fair number of native ground nesting birds such as Lapwing, Curlew, Skylark and perhaps Ring Ouzel nesting in the area.

Yesterday we had a report that someone has heard grouse calling on the hill so it is likely that grouse will be nesting there too. There will no doubt be many pheasant breeding on the hill as well.

As you are probably aware it is a criminal offence to disturb or destroy birds’ nests containing eggs or chicks. It is likely that it would be individual employees or volunteers who would be prosecuted should wildlife protection laws be breached while the gorse and bracken is removed or while saplings are being planted.

I ask Aberdeen City Council to suspend all activities on Tullos Hill until September to avoid disturbing or destroying any active nests. I have notified the Grampian Police Wildlife Crime Unit, RSPB and the SSPCA of the situation.

Yours sincerely,

John F. Robins, Secretary to ACAL

 

Mar 152012
 

With thanks to Suzanne Kelly.

A new cloud covers the controversial Union Terrace Gardens Referendum today, as a care home worker came forward with concerns about postal votes sent to a residential home.

The worker, who wishes to remain anonymous, approached Aberdeen Voice to say that over a dozen postal vote envelopes arrived at one residential home – but when the worker went to retrieve them a short time later – they were not where they had been left. No one at the residence seemed to know precisely what became of them.   The concern is whether or not the residents’ votes were properly distributed and managed.  The matter is still being looked into, and no allegation of wrong-doing has been made at this stage.

Aberdeen Voice’s Suzanne Kelly is researching further, and contacted the elections officer, and the other recognised campaigning organisations on the issue.

Kelly asked the elections officer for the marked Register to be checked with a view to how many care home residents returned votes, and whether there are any unusual voting patterns.  However, the elections officer’s position is that “it would be illegal for me to provide this in terms of the Representation of the People(Scotland) Regulations 2001.”  In an election relevant parties would normally  be able to view the marked Register.

Crawford Langley, the Elections Officer for the Union Terrace Gardens referendum vote, previously contacted the police over potential postal vote fraud in May 2005 when he was elections officer and a small number (between 6 and 12) of anomalies arose, where people appeared not to have received their postal vote forms.

Langley was quoted at the time as saying:

“We are talking about a very small number but, given the publicity elsewhere and the tight ship we run in elections in Aberdeen, it was sufficiently unusual that I needed to do something about it.”

The controversial referendum, which was over the future of Aberdeen’s Victorian Union Terrace Gardens, gave residents a choice to either ‘retain’ the gardens, or to endorse a £140 million pound scheme called the Granite Web. This entails the city obtaining a £70 million pound TIF loan, which will be matched by Sir Ian Wood / The Wood Family Trust (£50 million), £5 million from an anonymous donor, and another £15 from as-yet unnamed private sources. The TIF scheme is still in trial stages in Scotland.

many feel the media bombardment influenced the vote

The referendum was dogged by controversy. Official campaigning groups were entitled to place a 300 word essay into the voting pack, and had to adhere to strict expenditure limits.

The Green Party’s statement was not printed in full. Also controversial were the actions of a ‘secretive’ group (as described by a BiG Partnership employee) known as ‘Vote for the City Gardens Project.’ This federation of businessmen and women, who prefer to remain anonymous, are thought to have spent tens of thousand of pounds to promote the City Garden Project Granite Web.

Their glossy, A3 full colour brochure went to households in Aberdeenshire which were not eligible to vote as well as to City residents. The group also issued a four-page newspaper format item, and had several full-page spreads in the local press. Local radio stations broadcast pro City Garden Project commercials. None of the officially recognised campaigning groups would have been able to afford such a campaign, and many feel the media bombardment influenced the vote.

The materials produced by the group used projections by PriceWaterhouse Coopers to claim the scheme would create over 6,500 permanent jobs and mean £122 million to the local economy every year until 2023. Those who tried to contest these projections being used as fact found that the Vote for the City Gardens Project group was not accountable either to the elections officer or the Advertising Standards Agency. Other points of contention have been brought to the election officer’s notice as well.

Willie Young of the Labour Party, who were an official campaigning organisation, had this to say:

“We really do need to see the mark register so we can prove to ourselves that the referendum was run correctly. In a democracy we need checks and balances and the Electoral Commission is clear that those involved in an election should be given access to the mark register. I am not suggesting anything is untoward, but it is our right to make sure that it isn’t. We are baffled by the stance taken by the counting officer”.

Suzanne Kelly commented:

“It is abundantly clear to me why my source wishes to stay anonymous. They are keen to continue in the job they love, and are all too aware of what can happen to a whistle-blower. This issue is still being investigated, but I thought bringing it to the election officer’s attention immediately was the right thing to do.  This is why we need to check the votes sent to all of our residential care homes – we must ensure no one has been exploited and no votes have gone astray. Were all the votes sent to the homes used, and if not, what percentage went unused? Did the vote split at the residential homes echo the nearly 50–50 split the total vote saw? If not, then further research will be needed.

There is at present no allegation of any wrong doing by any individual – but it is clear that we need to have the transparency we were always promised concerning Union Terrace Gardens, but which we so sadly lacked. We’ve seen redacted minutes – minutes where lines of text have been ‘blacked out’ to keep the public in the dark. Why should there be any secrecy over what is common good land?”

Kelly was chair of one of the recognised campaigning organisations (‘Democracy Watch’) and has been liaising with other campaigners; a number of issues remain over the referendum, and these will be reviewed soon.

Mar 102012
 

Aberdeen Voice’s Suzanne Kelly learned as we all did this week that the Council plans to push ahead with unsuitable and unpopular plans to turn one of our remaining meadows, Tullos Hill, into some kind of forest.

Just a few little problems:  they want to cull the half-tame deer that have lived in the area for decades, and then there is the small matter that the trees probably won’t make it – again.

With no warning, and while Councillor Cooney was attempting to forward the idea of preserving Tullos Hill as the meadow it is, we learned this week that the cull and tree scheme is on.

Aileen Malone is in the news this week, saying the scheme will work and ‘a lot of hard work’ has gone on the scheme. I’m sure it has. Pity the hard work was against the wishes of the community councils in the area, 3,000 facebook ’cause’ supporters, and nearly 2,500 petition signatories.

It is also a pity that the scheme simply is not going to work. Following my visit to Tullos Hill tonight, I can confirm that the area of gorse just cleared for the trees is far stonier – and far more polluted – than I could have imagined. It is testimony to the resilience of gorse that it managed to grow there at all.

But the gorse is largely gone; the birds that lived in this patch are dislocated; the deer and other mammals have lost a huge amount of shelter.

(Should any deer die on Wellington Road in the next few weeks, I am personally of the opinion that it will be due to the removal of this gorse habitat).

I never saw a finalised funding application, and the draft I received was a work of fiction in places.

The draft seemed to claim that the hill was disused farmland. Part of it indeed was – but the rest was either a tip, or too stony by miles to grow any crops on. I certainly hope the finalised application was accurate.

I have asked for a copy of it, so has Councillor Cooney – who arguably should have had sight of it before it went to the Commission; he is on the Housing Committee, and I know he wanted to see it. How precisely his draft paper in support of the meadow scheme has managed to sink without trace without going before his committee is a matter I hope the relevant Councillors and officers will research with some speed.

Earlier articles are on Aberdeen Voice, and research and backing documents (and an executive summary) can be found at http://suzannekelly.yolasite.com/

If you were not previously aware that a soil report says the soil matrix on the hill is poor and not suitable for trees, or that the Council had to repay £43,800 for the previous failure of trees to grow on Tullos (largely due to weeds), you might want to start reading there.

But the subject of this article is the alarming amount of industrial waste that has been uncovered where the gorse has been cleared – and the extremely poor soil quality. The debris was everywhere: tubes, parts of rusted machinery, giant pieces of wire – it is all there where the gorse was, above and below the soil.

I am now more convinced than ever that the trees are not going to stand a chance. We are throwing good money after bad, and are going to sacrifice deer in the process.

Now our city’s tree expert has been in the news this week, saying the city has a responsibility to cull the deer anyway, because Tullos is small. He seems unaware that the deer move fairly freely in the area between Kincorth and other areas.

Of course, with the over-zealous housebuilding programmes coming soon to Loirston and Cove, we are losing more meadowland forever. This is bad news for all the local animal populations.

Why in the circumstances turning this meadow into a non-workable forest experiment is considered a good idea is a complete mystery to me, to animal welfare experts, to forestry experts I have consulted, and the local residents.

 http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=SP8qb4j32Qc 

I do apologise – my voice is awful, but I did my best to think on my feet as the light was fading, and as I was shouting into the wind. (Wind is the very thing that will get rid of any trees that begin to grow. Winds of over 90 miles per hour were a fairly frequent occurrence this winter). In a random wander into the cleared area (which should ideally have warning signs on it), I found the soil to be only a few inches deep, and with the heel of my boot I was unable to go more than say 4″ into the soil before hitting rock.

The debris was everywhere: tubes, parts of rusted machinery, giant pieces of wire, broken glass, fibreglass  – it is all there where the gorse was.

More on this story later. If you want to help: tell the City Council you oppose the scheme and are concerned about the soil’s suitability and health and safety. Parents – tell your school your child will NOT be planting any trees. Voters: vote for people other than the ones that pushed this scheme on us (a list of how councillors voted on environmental issues is coming soon).

Dec 152011
 

Voice’s Suzanne Kelly provides further detail regarding The Scottish Information Commission’s decision on Aberdeen City Council’s handling of FOI requests regarding  sales to and contracts won by Stewart Milne related companies.

 

This week the Supreme Court sided with Aberdeen City Council and rejected Stewart Milne’s appeal concerning profit-sharing on a land deal.

Milne bought land from Aberdeen City Council (property worth some £5 million was sold to him for c £375,000) with a clause stipulating Milne had to share any related profits with the seller, Aberdeen City Council.

After lengthy appeals, the Milne Group must pay £1.7 million pounds to Aberdeen City Council (legal costs are at present unknown).

Precisely how and why the cash-strapped City Council made this deal still remains unclear.  Once acquired, the property was sold from one arm of the Milne group of companies to another, and on this basis, Milne’s position was that there were no profits to share.  The Courts have disagreed.

This issue spurred a freedom of information request to the City Council.

What land had been sold to Milne-related companies?  What contracts had been awarded to the Milne companies?   Was a group of companies receiving preferential treatment by being sold public assets without the assets going on the open market to the highest bidder?  Was a construction firm buying land at considerable discount with one hand, and at the same time under-bidding competition to win work?

It is a year (and a few days) since the initial FOI request was lodged with Aberdeen City Council.  Late replies, denials that information was held, assertions that information was too difficult and costly to obtain were some of the obstacles in the way of obtaining information.

If not for the Information Commission, there would be no chance of this information – concerning public assets and the public purse – coming to light.  As it is, the City has until 23 January to finally comply.  At that time it must either disclose the information or lodge an appeal against the decision.

The decision will be disclosed to the public  around 16th December.  In the meantime, here are some of the important issues and facts to emerge from the Information Commissioner’s decision.

On 10 December 2010 a FOI request was sent to Aberdeen City.  Such requests are to be answered within a specific time frame and are backed up by legislation.

The City failed to respond in time. Aberdeen’s representatives said the information was not easy to obtain, would cost over £600 pounds to collect, and that some of the data was immune from disclosure.  When the request was largely turned down, an internal investigation by ACC into its handling of the affair was requested as the law permits.  The City was sorry it was late in responding, but it was not going to release the information.

Findings:

The Information Commissioner’s office was supplied with the entire (lengthy) chain of emails from the first request through the refusal and the internal investigation.  The Commissioner will soon release its report into ‘Case 243/2011’ and these points are among the findings:-

  • ACC FAILED to comply with Part 1 of the Information (Scotland) Regulations 2002 (FOISA)
  • ACC  FAILED to comply with the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004
  • ACC FAILED in dealing with the request by wrongly claiming that section 12(1) of FOISA was applicable to the request
  • ACC FAILED to provide reasonable advice and assistance under Section 15(1) of FOISA.
  • ACC FAILED to meet statutory timescales for handling the request

Background:

The comprehensive decision from the Commission covers the history, legal issues and relevant points of my request.  The Background section covers my initial questions to Aberdeen:

1. List of property (including but not limited to land, buildings, building services, material goods, etc.) Aberdeen City sold to the Stewart Milne Group, Stewart Milne Homes and/or any associated companies, and/or directly to Mr Stewart Milne. List to show property name/description, date of sale, sale price, minutes/reports of the City Council approving/recommending the sale, and if available the market value at time of sale.

2. List of property or services (including but not limited to land, buildings, building services, material goods, etc.), the Stewart Milne Group, Stewart Milne Homes and/or any associated companies, and/or directly to Mr Stewart Milne sold, managed or built for Aberdeen City Council. List to show property name/description, date of sale, price, reports/minutes of the City Council recommending the purchase, and if available the market value at time of sale.

If any aspect of this request is not clear, then please contact me directly for clarification.

I was asked to clarify what I meant by Stewart Milne associated companies, and on the same day as the request was emailed to me, I sent this list from Companies House:-

05232604

D

STEWART-MILNE CATERING LIMITED Dissolved
SC305012 STEWART MILNE CENTRAL LIMITED
SC152943 STEWART MILNE COMMERCIAL LIMITED
SC083265 STEWART MILNE CONSTRUCTION LIMITED
SC054259 STEWART MILNE DEVELOPMENTS LIMITED
SC191167 STEWART MILNE (GLASGOW) LIMITED
SC057709 STEWART MILNE GROUP LIMITED
SC132524 STEWART MILNE HOLDINGS LIMITED
SC137803 STEWART MILNE HOME OPTIONS LIMITED
SC065403 STEWART MILNE HOMES LIMITED
SC096898 STEWART MILNE HOMES (SOUTHERN) LIMITED
SC056620 STEWART MILNE INVESTMENTS LIMITED
SC063606 STEWART MILNE INVESTMENTS (SCOTLAND) LIMITED
SC349644

D

STEWART MILNE KITCHENS AND BATHROOMS LIMITED Dissolved
SC204848 STEWART MILNE PART EXCHANGE LIMITED
SC145941 STEWART MILNE PROPERTIES LIMITED
SC192726 STEWART MILNE (WEST) LIMITED
SC305009 STEWART MILNE WESTHILL LIMITED

The City also wanted to know what time period the request covered.  This was a bit of a surprise – was the list of property sold so extensive that a cut-off date was needed?  Dates of 1980 to the present were chosen.

On 9 February 2011 the City advised that the request would be too costly, and that it did not hold information relating to property it had sold to Stewart Milne companies.  An internal inquiry into how the City handled my request was offered and accepted.   This inquiry proved rather fruitless, and on 4 May 2011 the Office of the Scottish Information Commissioner was asked to look into the case.  The investigation began.

The Information Commissioner’s office contacted Aberdeen City Council on a number of points.  One of the issues was whether or not all or part of the FOI questions should have been dealt with as an Environmental Request (EIR).  The City then told the Commissioner’s office it ‘no longer wished to withhold the information in the reports (about tenders) in their entirety.  Some but not all the information on contracts Stewart Milne companies had won in September was released.  This included information about new build work at Byron Park, Hayton Road and Rorie Hall.  The documents were heavily redacted.

It was nine months since the FOI questions were first asked of ACC.  At one stage during the Commissioner’s investigation there was an opportunity to re-state the case and explain why the information should be put in the public domain.  I wrote about the state of Aberdeen’s finances, the fairly recent criticism of the City’s fiscal operations by Audit Scotland, the lack of transparency in the City’s dealings, and my concern for the disposal of public assets without clear attempt to get the best possible market price.

The decision notes my claim that ‘public assets should be bought and sold in a fully transparent manner, especially in such a cash-strapped city as Aberdeen.’  I wondered if my efforts would be enough.  I waited.

Findings & Analysis:

One of the most important reasons for refusing the request was cost.  If the costs were truly going to exceed £600 (the threshold over which public authorities do not have to respond – but can if they wish to), then someone at ACC’s Freedom of Information Office should have offered  guidance as to how to reduce the cost of the search.  This never happened.

Aberdeen’s initial cost estimates indicated that many people would have had to spend hours on the request, and some of these hours were going to be charged at over £15 per hour.  As it turned out, the maximum hourly rate that a public entity can charge for searches is £15 per hour.   Perhaps someone in the City’s Information area should have known this?

Over the course of the dozens of e-mails exchanged, I made clear I did not accept Aberdeen’s claim that supplying a list of the property would be to arduous and too expensive.

At one point the City said some of its records were only on paper format.  I informed the Information Commission that the City holds an Excel spread sheet detailing the property that it owns and that I considered it likely that the Council would have a similar spread sheet for property it disposed of.

Aberdeen said such a record did exist, but that it didn’t show to whom property had been sold.  (This seems like a very poor state of record-keeping if it is the case).  The City said its list would be ‘meaningless’ to me.  The City estimated that it sells some 10 pieces of property per year, and we would be talking about 140 sales from 1996.  In summary, the City said it would cost £1,117.50 (a rather precise figure I thought) to get the details I was after.

Item No. 50 of the Commissioner’s decision reads:

“…the Commissioner is surprised that the Council is unable to establish the identity of the purchaser in relation to individual property disposals in a less labour intensive manner, he accepts that the Council does not have simple access to the information requested…”

Here are some other points from the report concerning the issues:-

51.       “Having considered the Council’s submissions, the Commissioner accepts that it has identified a reasonable method of locating and retrieving the information Ms Kelly has requested.  This involves two distinct stages:  firstly identifying those property sales in which the purchaser was one of the parties of interest to Ms Kelly and then secondly locating and providing, for only those transactions involving relevant purchasers, the particular pieces of information requested by Ms Kelly about that transaction.  The Commissioner is satisfied that the information requested could all be located within the file relating to the property sale.”

52.       “Turning to the Council’s estimates of the staff time required to complete this process, the investigating officer reviewed the copy of a file provided by the Council.  Although this contained over 780 pages of information, the investigating officer was able to identify the purchaser of the land or property within two minutes of opening the electronic file.  Although, in this case, the purchaser was not one of interest to Ms Kelly, the investigating officer went on to locate the types of information about the sale she had requested.  The investigating officer was able to identify and extract the relevant information from this file within a further 15 minutes.”

53.       “Having considered the Council’s (somewhat limited) submissions and the investigating officer’s review of the sample file, the Commissioner is unable to accept the Council’s estimate that it would take 30 hours to establish which files involved sales to relevant parties.  This suggests that this initial stage would take an average of just under 13 minutes per file….”

The Commissioner’s findings on the issue of retrieving the information are even more concerning than just this over-calculation on the City’s part.  Looking back to an earlier point, it seems the Council are no longer keeping records of crucial information such as how public assets are disposed of:-

43.       “The Council explained that there is no longer a comprehensive database which records all transactions…”

After a less-than-glowing recent report from Audit Scotland into Aberdeen’s property management – why is there ‘no longer a comprehensive database’ concerning important transactions?

The decision then goes to the matter of the ‘duty to provide advice and assistance’.  The Information Commissioner found

“…the Council offered no advice and assistance to Ms Kelly on how she might reduce the scope of her request…” and “Given that the Council provided no advice or assistance to Ms Kelly in either narrowing the scope of her request, or accessing some of the information of interest to her, the Commissioner finds that the Council failed to comply with its duty…”

Part of my FOI request concerned contracts won by Milne companies.  Were we selling land at very favourable rates to a bidder who might put in low bids?  Would it be possible that a contractor won work by bidding lower than the competition, but that another company connected to the contractor bought land at profit-making prices – possibly even to the detriment of the public purse?   This possibility crossed my mind.

The Council felt harm would be done if details of contracts awarded were publicised.  I commented that there was a need for confidentiality during negotiations of a contract, but not once a deal is concluded where public money is being spent.

The Commissioner noted that my requests were about one year after the contracts were awarded.  The tenders had been evaluated; the contracts were issued.  As it turned out, the unsuccessful bidders had been advised of the details after the award – but by some kind of oversight or another on the part of Aberdeen City Council, this information was never made available to the public despite EU law making such disclosure mandatory.

This is what the Commissioner’s investigation found:-

“The Commissioner is unable to accept that a competing company would be able to gain significant insights into the relevant company’s capabilities, pricing or bidding strategies from the disclosure of this information [information re. Bids]… the commercial sensitivity of that information will have diminished with the passage of time, and in particular with the award of the contracts in the subsequent phase in the Council’s home building programme.  The Council has provided no evidence to support its submission regarding the continued risk or harm following from the disclosures of that information.”

More to come:

The decision has been released to me and the City.  They have until 23 January 2012 to lodge an appeal or comply.  The Commissioner’s intervention and in-depth analysis is greatly appreciated and clearly was much needed.

This report will be available to the public via the internet c. 16 December.  It will prove a valuable read to other researchers and anyone interested in how Aberdeen City Council handles information and requests for information.  However, one year on from asking the initial questions, there are still crucial questions unanswered:-

  • Who suggested selling land to Milne companies?  What was their position in ACC?
  • Exactly what public assets have been sold to Milne related companies?
  • Who in the City was involved in progressing and approving the sales?
  • Were any bids won by placing bids with very low likely profit margins?
  • What internal audit procedures, if any, flagged up any issues with the sales or contract awards?
  • Does anyone within this chain of decision making have any links to any of the Milne-related companies?

Further information on this subject will be forthcoming.  Aberdeen Voice will be reporting on the City’s next move.

Dec 122011
 

Aberdeen Voice  has learned that the Scottish Information Commissioner has upheld Voice reporter Suzanne Kelly’s Freedom of Information request with regard to land and property sold by Aberdeen City Council to Stewart Milne and associated companies.

Less than a week having passed since Stewart Milne’s appeal to the Supreme Court failed, the Scottish Information Commissioner has decided that the Council must provide Kelly with information on land transactions between Aberdeen City and Stewart Milne companies.

The Supreme Court had been asked to review the details of a land purchase Milne Group made from Aberdeen City Council. The Supreme Court found that Milne must pay the City £1.7 million over the land deal.

The cost of the legal action is at this point unknown.

Kelly had followed the case, and had heard from several sources that there may have been other deals regarding the property developer and the City.

In a Freedom of Information Request made to the City, Kelly asked for a list of property sold to Milne and/or associated companies and the selling price, as well as a list of contracts the Milne companies had won from Aberdeen (there are several companies connected to Stewart Milne). Kelly wanted to analyse the contracts won and land purchased. The City initially refused her request.

An appeal was lodged, and the Information Commissioner was asked to look at the history of the freedom of information request and the grounds for refusal. The Commissioner issued its findings on 9 December 2011. The Commission decided that Aberdeen City Council and its Freedom of Information officers failed to act properly on a number of issues.

Key points include:-

  • The City did not always respond to correspondence and requests in a timely manner.
  • The City said it did not have a comprehensive record keeping system and finding the information would be very difficult. Kelly proved to the Information Commissioner that the City keeps much of its property portfolio details on spreadsheets.
  • The City said it would cost over a thousand pounds to find this information.
  • Kelly received some of the requested information during the course of the investigation including details of c. £10 million worth of construction contracts won by Milne and associated companies. No information has as yet been released by Aberdeen to show what property it sold to Milne.

The property dealings of Aberdeen City council had come to the attention of Audit Scotland some time ago. In its findings Audit Scotland found:-

  • evidence of procedural and administrative deficiencies and poor record keeping,
  • cases where accurate and relevant information was not reported to elected members,
  • a lack of evidence to support the valuation at which properties were sold, and
  • cases where the Council may have achieved a better price. Overall, it appears that there is a potential loss of capital receipts which may be more than £5 million.

The City is considering a number of budget and service cuts, and this spurred Kelly on. Kelly states.

If the city is awarding contracts based even in part on low bids, then I question the wisdom and prudence of selling land at a fraction of its potential market value to a successful bidder. The City has a massive property portfolio, and if must keep detailed and accurate records of its transactions. In light of the Supreme Court decision last week, the decision from the Information Commissioner is extremely timely and most welcome. I look forward to receiving the information I have sought for so many months.”

Milne is also a director of Aberdeen Football Club. It is slated to sell its existing Pittodrie Stadium ( the UK’s first all-seater stadium ) and use the proceeds to build a stadium in greenbelt land near Loirston Loch. Planning permission was hotly contested, with local community councils objecting to the plans. The area is home to a variety of wildlife. The club’s income is thought to be in steady decline, as attendances have fallen and the team struggle to climb the league.

Says Kelly,

“I shall contact Aberdeen Council if I have not heard from them shortly, and as soon as the information is made available to me, I will report back. The Commissioner agrees that the public have a right to have the information I have fought long and hard to obtain.”

Dec 092011
 

The Council will be voting on Wednesday on proceeding with either a referendum or an opinion poll in an attempt to resolve the controversy over the fate of Union Terrace Gardens. Mike Shepherd reports that the outcome of the issue on a referendum question has already turned into a total mess.

One of the issues that has been recognised is the need to ensure that the wording of any question asked is fair and acceptable to both sides.

On this basis, both the Friends of Union Terrace Gardens and the Aberdeen City Garden Trust were asked to concur on a suitable question for councillors to agree on at the full Council meeting on the 14th of December.

In practice, this would involve a council officials acting as a mediator.

In good faith, I submitted a group suggestion for the question to the Council as follows:

You are being to ask to choose between either retaining Union Terrace Gardens or replacing them with the proposed City Garden Project design

Which option do you support?

A) Retaining Union Terrace Gardens
B) Building the City Garden Project

Very simple, clear and nothing controversial, you would have thought.

The Council Officer replied with this:

“For your information, based on the responses I have received, the proposed question that I will now be recommending to Council on 14 December (subject to final, last minute consultation with other Council Officers), is as follows:

You are being to ask to choose between either retaining Union Terrace Gardens or replacing them with the proposed City Garden Project design (please read the voter information pack to make sure you understand what is meant by “retaining Union Terrace Gardens ” and “the proposed City Garden Project”).

Which option do you support? (please place a cross in the appropriate box)

A) Retaining Union Terrace Gardens
B) Building the City Garden Project

“I feel that this is a reasonable compromise and trust the FOUTG agree that this represents a fair and balanced position. Kind regards, Gerry Brough.”

I agreed to this. So what happens next?

The Aberdeen City Garden Trust left it to the last possible moment to object to this, allowing no time to be made for any compromise. This was at about 5pm on Monday night this week, when the final wording was needed for the Council report first thing Tuesday.

“Dear Mike,

“Further to my earlier note, I can confirm that ACGT have replied this afternoon asking for some changes to be made to the proposed question, so that it reads as follows:

You are being asked to choose between either retaining Union Terrace Gardens or replacing them with the proposed City Garden Project design which includes Union Terrace Gardens and the covering of the adjacent dual carriageway and railway line.
[please read the voter information pack to make sure you understand what is meant by retaining Union Terrace Gardens and the proposed City Garden Project]

Which option do you support ? (please place a cross in the appropriate box)

A) The proposed City Garden Project
B) Retaining Union Terrace Gardens

“ACGT feel that the previous suggested compromise question makes it appear that the City Garden Project is restricted to Union Terrace gardens, when in fact UTG is only part of the City Garden Project development area.

“They also feel that since retention of the gardens is placed at the beginning of the introductory paragraph, it is only fair that the option for supporting the proposed City Garden project should be the first option on the ballot paper.

“Can you please indicate whether these changes are acceptable to FOUTG.

“Regards, Gerry Brough”

I replied that the proposed wording was highly ambiguous, confusing and gives far more wordage to one side than the other. The Council official then decided that as the two sides could not agree on the referendum question, the councillors should decide at the full Council meeting next Wednesday instead.

“Since it was not possible to obtain complete agreement prior to the submission of this Council paper, Council are therefore asked to take a view as to whether they would prefer to endorse the question in 5.3 d), 5.3 e) or 5.3 f) or, indeed, whether they wish to propose a further compromise between these three positions.”
http://committees.aberdeencity.gov.uk/mgConvert2PDF.aspx?ID=17676

I complained bitterly about this as what had happened here was highly irregular.

“Gerry.

“We participated in good faith last week. The ACGT only replied last night, too late. This has stalled the process of mediation as recommended by councillors. This is unacceptable.

“We are not at fault and should not be penalised for this. We insist that our question should stand. This does not bode well for a fairly conducted referendum and we may have to reconsider our options. – Mike”

I received this reply from Mr Brough (this is the last bit of the email):

“Nobody is being penalised.

“As you can see from the attached 5.3 that I sent to you, the process for determining the question is set out clearly up to the final submission received before the paper needed to be submitted. Council members are then being asked to either choose between these latest proposals, or come up with an alternative of their own that they consider to be fair and balanced for both parties.

“I understand your desire to undermine process, as a means of campaigning against any development of UTG. However, in this case, I believe that you are stretching a point to suggest that you have been in any way treated unfairly

“Also, although you “insist” that the FOUTG question should stand, FOUTG need to accept the fact that any referendum will be run by the City Council and that it is ultimately for the Counting Officer to decide, after consultation with Campaign Groups, on a suggested question.

“At a statutory referendum, the question is set by parliament, through consultation and, although there are no rules for the Council to follow, best practice suggests this should be done by the Counting Officer. This is the view expressed by the Electoral Commission.

“The Council are therefore putting in place a process to test various proposed options in advance of the Council Meeting, so that both Council and the Counting Officer can have some comfort concerning the appropriateness of the question.

“Regards, Gerry”

I now have a series of meetings with Councillors and the Council Executive to discuss what has happened. I will make it clear that the ongoing participation in a referendum depends on both sides being treated fairly. However, this is not a good start.

STOP PRESS – Council seeks views of the public re referendum question.
Consultation closes Monday 12th December.

http://www.aberdeencity.gov.uk/CouncilNews/ci_cns/pr_referendumoptions_081211.asp

Nov 042011
 

An Editorial and suggestion for a better plan for Tullos Hill. By Suzanne Kelly.

For nearly a year many people have attempted to get Aberdeen City Council to see sense over its planned cull of the Tullos Hill roe deer.  The City insists the archaeology-rich, bio diverse meadows of Tullos must be turned into an 89,000 tree forest.  They will not budge.

It makes no difference that the area has a history of arson and that there are explosion hazard sites on the hill (there is a dangerous old waste tip and escaping gas areas, protected by warning signs and barbed wire fence).
Aileen Malone (Liberal Democrat Councillor), Valerie Watts (Chief Executive), Pete Leonard (Officer) and Ian Tallboys (ranger) have all been corresponding with me and others.  These emails often contradict other correspondence.

They also often quote an unnamed expert or two, and the writers refuse to so much as listen to any dissenting expert opinions, even if offered free of charge.  This puts to rest any feeble excuse that there is a robust scientific approach to the hill’s future.

For me, there are just too many contradictions, omissions and flawed logic for the plan and its supporters to retain any credibility on this matter.  It is time to examine some of the conflicting information these four people have been offering.  It is also time to examine whether or not everything they say is accurate, and to ask why we have spent council time, money and energy on this plan.

For what we were once told was a ‘cost-neutral.’ sound plan ready to implement turns out to be nothing more than a draft proposal to the Forestry Commission.   But more importantly it is time to secure Tullos Hill’s future and preserve what we already have:  a beautiful, changing meadowland and grassland habitat which supports animals including deer.

Who has said and done what?  To completely detail all of the misinformation and seemingly misleading statements would require a book.  Instead I prepared a chart which highlights some of the contradictions.  It can be accessed here, but is in no way exhaustive of the ever-changing information slowly leaking out concerning this scheme. Click Link

Past articles have highlighted that £43,800 was already wasted on a failed tree planting at Tullos.  Even though I formally asked the City to clarify this had happened, Valerie Watts at first effectively denied any such thing had occurred.  When presented with proof positive (in the form of a letter from the Forestry Commisison demanding the £43,800) Ms Watts said that ‘there was no relation’ between my request to clarify that money was owed – and that since I asked my question in May and the bill was paid in March, there was no need to clarify the position.  The public and I beg to differ.

New Revelations

The Evening Express (itself accused by Valerie Watts alongside the P&J of getting the story wrong over time) revealed that there is actually no budget in place.  All this time Aileen Malone and others have insisted the scheme is cost neutral and that we must shoot the deer as it would be the most cost effective way to grow trees.

Never mind that the scheme will destroy what is already on the hill or that this argument is wholly immoral – which led to the public outcry – there is no money in place.  This one revelation alone calls into question reports issued by the City which claim the scheme had funding.  It does not.

Asking the City to clarify the funding picture has so far been fruitless, but I have since learned that only a draft application for the tree scheme is in place.  All the press releases and sweeping statements about the trees are, just a little bit, premature.  Months ago I asked Ms Watts for the financials.  She eventually wrote back to ask what I meant – which in case you were wondering meant the financials for the tree plan (money in, money out, costs, expenses).

Rather than answering me, she has sent my question (months after first being asked) to her Freedom of Information department.   The Council recently complained that its FOI staff were inundated with work:  perhaps those who hold information should release it without the need to burden this department.

( Stop Press – Financial information. Click Link )

 Mystery of the Missing Postcards

With funds kindly raised largely by Lush (which had a cycle event – their team from Edinburgh gave up personal time and cycled to Aberdeen to highlight the deer’s plight), some dramatic, effective pre-printed postcards were produced.
They were so popular that a re-print was done, and 700 such postcards were made in all.

I have some photos of the backs of pre-printed postcards.  These were signed after a meeting of anti-cull people was held at the end of September.  A few nights later, I obtained more cards from other people, and handed a total of 63 cards protesting the cull to a security guard at the City’s Town House.  The guard told me:

“we got loads of these in this week, and even more came in the week before.”

In a recent letter to me, Ms Watts says that 35 postcards were received.

Ms Watts and the City somehow are not getting items sent through the regular post:  Torry Community Council’s letter protesting the cull never arrived, as Watts confirmed in the same letter which mentions the postcards.  I spoke to the Torry CC Secretary on 2 November, and she said ‘the letter was definitely sent, but the City didn’t receive it.’  This letter was the result of Torry’s CC voting unanimously to protest the cull and complain about how the whole affair was handled.

Perhaps I can understand the City not receiving post through the mail – something the City claimed to have posted to me never arrived, and an email they sent never showed up either (which conveniently for them put the cull protest off by weeks).  However, I most definitely dropped 63 signed postcards from different individuals at the Town House:  there is no logical excuse for the cards ‘disappearing’.

‘The Media is to blame’ (Really?)

The City’s position, according to its Chief Executive Ms Watts is as follows (from two different letters):-

“Aberdeen City Council has no control over how the media report Council meetings.  In this case the media did not accurately report on decisions of the Committee and have continued to publish inaccurate information about the project.  They have published their interpretation of the committee decisions.”

I do not personally believe that the reports I read in print or saw on television misconstrued the Committee’s decisions at the time it decided to press ahead with the cull, having read the committee reports and minutes.

In an even stronger attack on the media, last week Valerie Watts wrote to me the following, which I believe must have been based in part on the Evening Express front page article of 30 September by you, Mr Ewen:

“In terms of media coverage, Aberdeen City Council’s Media Team has on several occasions sought to correct the media’s assumption that our deer management programme would necessarily begin on or around the first day of the season for controlling the numbers of roe deer hinds.

“Both the Evening Express and the Press & Journal have reported that the roe hind seasons begins on 01 October – the season in fact commences on 21 October – and that deer management would begin on or near that date. Both newspapers were informed as to the correct date of the start of the season and were reminded that no date had in fact been set by the Council for the start of our management programme. 

“The newspapers were also informed that their stories had raised false expectations that the start of deer management was imminent.  They have been told that details will only be finalised once funding is in place and when the trees are about to be planted.”

I spoke to an Evening Express reporter on the 2nd of November about this issue; they replied

“I am in contact very often with the City’s media team, and it’s never come up.”

Perhaps the media is misleading me, as Ms Watts would have me believe, or perhaps the media team has not contacted reporters who write about the cull.  In fact, now that I have published a number of articles on the cull, I can confirm the city has never once been in touch to suggest I have any facts wrong.

Moving on:  to a Meadow

This week the Housing & Environment Committee met (2 November); Neil Cooney called the whole dubious scheme into question.  Not only did he bring up the absolute lack of funding, but he also mentioned the soil report.

To say that Tullos is not ideal for tree planting is accurate.  But the City never did publicise this additional fact:  they have been asked to spray weed killer on Tullos for two to three years until the trees are established.  There is no detail on the cost, damage potential for plants and animals, and even potential health risks for people.

Neil Cooney, many concerned residents and I are now working to get the hill preserved (or perhaps even enhanced) as a meadow.   If you have ever seen the Dame’s Violets in bloom you would wonder why anyone would disturb their balance.  The gorse (being unceremoniously ripped out on occasion – and burnt) is essential for many forms of wildlife year round, providing food and shelter.

It is this gorse Ian Tallboys says is of limited value and which he wants ripped out.  At present there are beautiful forms of delicate (probably rather rare) fungi growing – any change in soil PH balance could kill them, not to mention the damage planting would do to the underground network from which these mushrooms grow.

You probably know there are three Bronze Age Cairns on the hill; they are set off in a striking fashion.

A forest will forever obscure them and the amazing views of the city and sea.  You might not know that over a dozen other smaller sites, many bronze age, are in the planting area.  It is unclear whether the appropriate government agencies have been contacted about this aspect of the tree plan.

If you want more information on why a meadow is such a better idea for Tullos, then please read the article on meadows in this issue of Aberdeen Voice. ( Click link )

Also – remember that we are about to build hundreds of homes and a football stadium where we currently have meadows.  This will spell the end for the wildlife that depended on these fields – to also change Tullos is an environmental disaster as far as I am concerned.  Perhaps now that the City’s ranger service is expected to turn a profit (yes, they are told to generate income streams with the very odd finance system at work in our city), they hope to have timber income from the trees – which according to the aforementioned soil report, will never achieve maturity.

How much quicker, efficient and simpler it would be to conduct nature tours of what is an amazing hill.  Environmental tourism is a growing area, and we with our resources should be getting on it.

This article and the accompanying table contain my personal opinions as well as quotations from the City’s documents.  I invite you to draw your own conclusions, to ask the City and Aileen Malone (once so keen to be quoted in press releases) why a meadow is not the best future for this hill.

If you would like to help lobby for a meadow, please get in touch via the Aberdeen Voice for further information.  We can avert an environmental tragedy if we act now.  This plan is still in a very early stage – but we will come up with a plan that will support the existing flora, fauna – and especially the deer.

Jul 222011
 

Last week in the first of this two part investigation, Suzanne Kelly described how The City Council and its officials were dealing with the Tullos Hill roe deer cull and tree-planting issues. Part 1 also covered the decades of arson on ‘The Gramps’, the excellent quality of Tullos Hill as it is, local community councils’ opposition to the cull, and the considerable public anger at the City’s refusal to even consider modifying its plans.

The hill itself is a wildlife haven; the very important gorse providing homes to bees and birds.  There are fields of wildflowers (the spectacular Dame’s Violets for instance), and it is a recreation area.

This is why our City Council – as a LibDem election pledge – want to turn it into some gargantuan 40,000-tree profit-making (ie lumber-producing) forest.

We now look at other important aspects of this issue, challenge the government to comment, and propose some actions.

The Gorse is always Greener

‘Kissing is out of fashion when the gorse is not in bloom’ goes an old saying – based on the fact gorse virtually always has blossoms.  This is an extremely useful plant for bees.  If you’ve not been made aware, bee populations around the world are in serious trouble.

As long as we still want our plants to be pollinated so we keep eating, we are well advised to do all we can to encourage bees.  My research leads me to conclude that gorse is far better for bees and several other species than trees are (particularly trees which will be cut down for profit when the Council chooses).

Don’t take my word for the importance of gorse.  Do take Dr. Ian Rotherham’s word:-

“Gorse is an incredibly valuable habitat for wildlife – supporting a diversity of invertebrates and many birds and mammals. It provides dense cover plus abundant nesting sites, invertebrate food associated with the gorse, and of course the blaze of flowers during much of the year. Butterflies, bees, hoverflies, spiders, badgers, whinchats, stonechats, yellowhammers, chaffinches, linnets, greenfinches, meadow pipits and skylarks for example, all thrive in gorse-rich areas.

“As the biomass of gorse builds up it loses vigour and beings to die back. If there is a fire then the gorse is reduced to ground level and will quickly regenerate for the next 30-40 years or so. Clearly fire risk can be a problem but not for the gorse or the associated wildlife (except at the immediate time of a conflagration).

“Cyclical cutting of gorse, grazing, and cutting of fire-breaks are positive ways to reduce risk and damage but to maintain what is a rich but often unappreciated wildlife habitat. The establishment of a friends group to watch over the area would also help reduce risk. The gorse in bloom is also a wonderful landscape feature. A plantation wood does not provide a biodiversity resource or a landscape feature to match this. Trees are often planted at the expense of the wildlife habitats and landscape features because of the misconception that they are inherently better for wildlife – which they are not – and because money is available as grants to do this.”

(  Dr  Rotherham is a Professor of Environmental Geography, Reader in Tourism & Environmental Change, International Research Coordinator, associated with universities around the world. He is editor of several important academic publications including International Journal of Urban Forestry, Journal of Practical Ecology & Conservation, and International Urban Ecology Review )

I would be interested to hear from any City Council officer, ranger or pro -Tullos Hill tree plantation consultant wishing to comment on Dr Rotherham’s statement. 

In the meantime, Ian Talboys, Countryside Ranger for Aberdeen wrote to me on 6 June:-

“The amount of gorse on the site will be substantially reduced to make way for the tree planting
which again reduces the risk of wilful fires”.

Why should a countryside ranger particularly be keen to change an ecosystem such as  Tullos to a profit-making, lumber-producing forest?  Where is the evidence that replacing gorse with saplings and trees will reduce wilful fire risk?

City  Council ‘austerity’ and ‘budget’ cuts

I spoke to a person connected to the countryside services for the Council.  They advised me that like virtually every branch of our local government, they are now expected to find income streams and do all they can to make money.

It is not enough that our environment is under threat from over-development, pollution and loss of biodiversity – our environmental conservation activities are supposed to make money for the City.  Would our rangers’ time be better served in patrolling the fire-prone areas, educating people and engaging in active conservation, or are we asking them to look for grants such as the tree-planting ones and to make money at all costs?

If I get an answer to this question, I will share it with you.  Again, I invite comment from the City.

I still await a reply as to how this timber business is going to be set up, and for a copy of the business plan.  Should any of this information ever be forthcoming from our elected officials, I will share it with you.  Again, should any City proponents of the scheme like to come forward and (finally) explain how the timber business will work, I invite them to do so.

It has just been announced that despite negotiations with Unions being incomplete, the City has signed an agreement with external consultants to make £120 million worth of budget savings over a five-year period (cost of these consultants has been estimated at between £500k to £600k).  Perhaps they will have their own opinion as to the viability of a timber business venture on an arson hotspot which has already resulted in the City returning £43,800 to the Forestry Commission…

Failed Tree Planting, Failed Open Government, Failed Freedom of Information Requests

In a ten-point complaint I clearly asked for clarification of a £44,000 debt for a failed tree plantation which I had heard of.  The City’s Chief Executive Valerie Watts wrote in early June to deny any money was owed.

Proof that this payment was made was given to me almost immediately  after Watts’ denial – but as of 21 July,Wattshas not explained the failure to disclose the repayment.

The proof is a letter the Forestry Commission sent to the City earlier this year which was copied to Ian Talboys.  The question is whether Watts knew of the letter when she wrote to me or not.  Until she explains her answer, the whole planting programme should be put on hold.  It is not just returning money for the past failure (we had to pay interest) but the implications for this new planting that need to be considered, which could be significant for the cash-strapped council’s taxpayers.

Watts was made aware of this repayment by me, and possibly earlier by others.  What is beyond the pale is that Freedom of information Officers continued for some weeks afterward to advise that no debt was owed.  All of the requests I have seen referenced the £44k figure; mine specifically asked for clarification of the matter.

If the City tries to use the excuse that since the debt was paid in March and the questions arrived in June, then that would be the most disingenuous logic coming from Town Hall in memory.  I am sure it is beyond the Council’s lowest standard to try and make pretence of using such a childish defence.  When we will get the truth is crucial – they must not be allowed to stall this matter until cull season opens.  If anyone trying to prevent the cull could ask their elected officials to have these issues addressed and investigated fully as an urgent matter, it will help.  I have asked the FOI office to explain whether or not it discovered this letter in its search to answer my question.  I have asked it to advise whether or not it made a deliberate decision to not disclose this letter.  I await the outcome of the investigation.

Yet another Freedom of Information anomaly exists regarding Grampian Fire.

Fire power

The previous article covered the problems of arson.  Confusion emerges as to the number of fires.  There was a FOI request response from Grampian Fire which shows a nominal number of deliberate fires.  At the time of writing I await permission to share or reproduce these figures, as they are apparently ‘copyright’.  I have officially applied to print them, but cannot do so until Grampian Fire’s officials approve my written request.

However I came across an internet document which shows a rather different, substantially higher number of fires than the FOI request revealed, entitled  ‘Grampian Fire and Rescue Service Category 2 – Advancing Community and Citizen Well-being’ .  This document states there were over 70 fires for 2006, and claims the figures were going down; it had partial 2008 figures and said only 11 fires started that year.  It is worth mentioning that there have been at least half a dozen fires in the Gramps since May of this year.  In any event, the paper’s numbers are not the same as the recently supplied figures, which are lower.

I will try to discover an explanation for the discrepancy, and will cover whatever explanation Grampian Fire sends in another article. Both email addresses for the FOI officer and the above paper’s writer are at the address ‘@grampianfrs.org.uk’, which leads me to conclude the same organisation might be responsible for distributing contradictory figures.

I add this to the ever growing list of things I am trying to discover, and yet all the while a cull remains the City’s goal, and the clock is ticking.

SNH – Natural Heritage as long as it’s not inconvenient

Scottish Natural History have been taking great pains to gain media coverage recently (BBC and local press), saying in effect that deer are great, but to stop them being killed in road accidents and over-populating, they have to be ‘managed.’  They launched a consultation, which many animal groups felt had a strong bias towards hunting and culling red deer and roe deer equally.  First, what kind of animal are we talking about exactly?

What are roe deer?

Recognition: Small deer, reddish brown in summer, grey in winter. Males have short antlers, erect with no more than three points.

Height: Average height at shoulder 60-75cm (that is less than 3 foot tall). Males slightly larger than females.

Weight: Adults 10-25kg

Lifespan: The maximum age recorded for wild roe is 16 years, but most die before 7 years.

Diet: Their diet is varied and includes buds and leaves of deciduous trees and shrubs, bramble, rose, ivy, herbs, conifers, ferns, heather and grasses.

By permission, the Mammal Society,
http://www.mammal.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&id=228

So in short these tiny creatures, of which we seemingly have 30 on Tullos Hill alone jeopardise a 40,00 tree plantation.  (The Council has made absolutely no mention of how they will tackle the weed problem cited by the Forestry Commission as a partial reason for the previous expensive failure – again, I have asked for this information with no reply).

Glasgow has made a strong statement against these types of culls which can be found at:
http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/Doc/291204/0089678.pdf  and the relevant section starts on page 5.”

Here are some relevant extracts:-

“….collaborative deer management is not necessary for Roe deer in urban environments as there is no scientific justification for this.

2.4 There is no mention of the positive role of wild deer on natural habitats. Large herbivores help to create and retain glades and rides within woodlands, which provide habitat for a range of other species.

2.5 This section of the Bill has the potential to perpetuate and reinforce the perception of deer as pest species. Whilst this will promote the interests of a minority who have a vested interest in deer management principally through culling, it goes against the reason for the inclusion of native wild deer on the Scottish Biodiversity List, Le. the appreciation of these animals by the general public who wish to see them left unharmed.

2.6 Glasgow City Council believes that this section in its present form promotes an unbalanced view of the rationale behind deer management, whilst acknowledging that there is scientific justification for the management of red deer in parts of the Highlands.

Deer in Scotland – General Comments.

2.7 GCC object to the blanket statement that ‘Deer therefore need to be managed … ‘ for the following reasons:

• The terms manage/managed/management are not defined but appear to relate to culling deer, which is not the usual definition of management. This needs to be clarified.

• If the above is the case, then deer do not always require to be culled because in some areas an increase in population size could be beneficial.

•Red Deer and Roe Deer are quite different animals not only in size but also in habits etc. Why are they covered by one piece of legislation and why do they both have to be managed?”

The various animal charities I’ve communicated with all remain against this cull and have their own experts who explain the flaws in the entire premise.

Can we have some urban trees please?

A personal observation.  The section of Aberdeen I live in, Torry, has fewer trees on its main streets than any other part of the world I’ve lived in, city or suburb.  The streets are however covered with cars and trucks 24/7, and the exhaust fumes have air quality implications.

A few trees would do a good deal to clean the air.  It would be costly and difficult to plant and protect them.  But it would not be impossible.  We know from the Council’s websites that parts of Aberdeen (Wellington Road in particular) have serious air pollution issues.  We also know trees help reduce vehicular pollution.  In the course of my research I learned that the indigenous fir trees for the Grampian area have been greatly depleted over time – yet there is no plan to replace these native species.

Conclusion:  Stop this destructive, unwanted plan now and cancel any deer cull.  Plant fewer trees.  Plant in other locations

Unanswered questions
  • Regarding the business plan for the proposed forest.  How much will it make?  How disruptive would this plantation be to the area residents and businesses? 
  • Why does the City insist only a ‘minority’ of people are against this cull when elected bodies have objected on behalf of their communities?   If the Community Councils are lining up against this scheme – which started life as a Liberal Democrat election pledge – is it not just time to dump it?
  • Why didn’t the City disclose the £43,800 failure when asked to clarify whether a £44,000 debt existed?  
  • As the failure was due to deer and weeds – what are we doing about the weeds?  What kinds of pesticides will be used?  What are the risks and implications?
  • If the scheme is ‘cost neutral’ – who exactly pays the (low-seeming) estimate of some £2,500 per year for ten years to shoot the deer?
  • Have council employees been discouraged from expressing opinions against the cull? (My sources tell me this is the case).
  • Why take the scheme up at all if it must be done at the lowest cost – which is shooting the deer?  Who is hold a gun to the City’s head and forcing it to change Tullos Hill into something it is not?  What is the reluctance to just stop this scheme now?  Has the City made any effort at all to get sponsors to pay for the non-lethal options?  (Note: BAA and Wood Group have contributed for the phase 1 scheme – neither seem keen to be associated with this deer-culling phase 2.  Concerned people may wish to contact these and other companies to state opposition to phase 2).
  • What are the real arson risks once a forest is established on this windy hill (if indeed it is not too windy for trees to be established in great number)?   Is it possible the situation could be as severe a problem as the forest fires that plague the US and Europe?  What are the correct figures for the arson attacks?
A final summary

Last week a media contact asked me to supply the statement below, which sums up my conclusions and reflects the opinions of the vast majority of the people I have spoken with:-

The public have in no way given up on stopping the deer cull on Tullos Hill. Tullos is an important and beautiful ecosystem as it is, and the deer population has been stable for many years.   

Putting up signs to warn motorists that deer are in the area is sensible; putting 40,000 trees on this arson hotspot is not sensible.  Four Community Councils have told the Council they do not want the trees if it means a cull – these elected councils represent thousands of people. 

The City had to repay £43,800 for a planting on Tullos that failed due to deer browsing AND weeds.  The City initially omitted this when I asked for clarification- and I patiently await sensible answers to this and other questions. The tree planting was a Liberal Democrat election promise – it is amusing that it is this unpopular promise they are so stubborn about keeping. 

Finally, Peter Leonard has written to say that the Community Councils don’t understand the issues and they only know what they got from the media.  I find his remarks unbelievably patronising and insulting, particularly when it was down to the Council to communicate the details of its scheme in the first place. 

The Council kept the deer cull out of the phase 2 public consultation and is now claiming people don’t have the facts.  This is wholly unacceptable, and I am pleased that my sources tell me there is a great deal of unrest, with an official calling the situation ‘a hot potato’. 

Unfortunately the lack of timely, sensible answers looks to many people as if the City is stalling and hopes to get away with a cull.  There will be no cull without repercussions at the ballot box in May.

I am creating a presentation to give to any community council that wants it, particularly aimed at those councils which will have the City’s experts present their side.  Direct action is being considered by some animal rights/concern groups.

If you have any feelings one way or the other, then I urge you to contact your elected representatives (you may also wish to contact Scottish Representatives Roseanna Cunningham and Stewart Stevenson who are backing the proposal). 

Good luck to the roe deer and the wishes of the people of Aberdeen in the face of our government.

 Image Credit: Roe Deer Standing Still © Catalin Pobega | Dreamstime.com

Apr 082011
 

Chris Gough, of Kennoway in Fife was moved to comment on the recent Aberdeen Voice article about the proposed deer cull on Tullos Hill and the revelation that the cull had been planned in advance of the public consultation regarding Phase 2 of the ‘Tree for every citizen scheme’.

What an excellently presented article by Suzanne Kelly. She has hit the nail on the head so many times and it has sad echoes of our fight to save the deer at the Diageo plant in Fife a year ago.

These deer had been part of the local wildlife scene for more than twenty years and were loved equally by the general public and the staff at the Diageo plant.

Indeed they were fed by members of the staff of DCL (an earlier occupier of the site) for many years and the company had a vet carry out visual checks on the condition of the deer. Photographs of the deer were even displayed on the boardroom wall.

All this came to nothing when the present company, Diageo, decided to extend their plant. The Deer Commission for Scotland ( DCS) was consulted and came up with the “only humane solution” of a cull to remove the deer that had now become an embarrassment.

Untruths about the health and condition of the deer were published through the local media to justify the decision for a cull on “animal welfare” grounds. Advice and assertions that there were alternatives to a cull were rejected, so sadly our beloved Diageo deer were not saved in spite of valiant efforts by so many agencies.

At least the Tullos deer are still with us and so they should remain. The SNH hide their true colours behind their name- Scottish Natural Heritage – which implies to the general public that they CARE for all things natural when in truth they are in league (indeed they are now merged under one flag) with the Deer Commission for Scotland.

They in turn are in league with the land owners who want their land “managed” to suit their own purposes e.g. grouse moors, deer forests etc.

The SNH seem obsessed with the idea that there are far too many deer in Scotland and that for their own good they must be culled. As someone who has holidayed in rural Highland Scotland for the past 35 years I ask one question – Where are all the deer?

the deer should be left to come and go and the trees protected with biodegradable tubing as happens in many places around us in Fife

I regard myself as lucky and privileged if I see more than half a dozen wild deer – Red or Roe in a summer.

The SNH would have us believe that every rural community is over run by deer and heaven forbid they are now invading city centre parks as well.

The very fact that they use behind closed door meetings to discuss their strategies is an indication of how aware they must be that their actions are at odds with the public’s perception of what should be happening. Aberdeen City Council clearly must also be aware of this in their complicity. ACC are now going to take the line that they have taken advice from the ‘experts’ and have made their decisions on the basis of this information.

The easiest, although not an ecologically sound solution, is without doubt a deer cull but this will not be a “one off”, but a repeated exercise over the next three to five years to allow the trees to become established. I also concede that deer are determined creatures of habit and will not be easily kept out of what has become a customary feeding ground. Roe deer are particularly good at lifting fences to gain access, so fencing the area is probably not a viable option. Unless the cull could then be justified on the grounds that the deer are causing damage to the fencing as well as eating the trees!

The truth of the matter is that the deer should be left to come and go and the trees protected with biodegradable tubing as happens in many places around us in Fife.

Biodegradable means no litter problem. The tubes just disintegrate and disappear. As for the damage by vandalism I think this is a very large red herring.

In my experience  vandals have much more entertaining targets than some trees planted on a hillside in Aberdeenshire.

As long as the Tullos Deer are alive there is hope. The one point which ACC would take well to note is the irreparable damage the destruction of these deer will cause to their (apparently) already tarnished reputation.

The public will not easily forget – just ask Diageo!
The world is watching.