Sep 092016
 

Suzanne Kelly looks back at a variety of City issues involving Peter Leonard, Director of Housing Environment and Infrastruccture. She concludes, while he is on sick leave following vacation, that in her opinion, it’s time for him to go.

marischalpicMany people in Aberdeen tend to think the councillors are to blame for all the many, many mistakes, flawed plans, waste of money, and bad decisions that take place.

The truth is that they only get to vote on reports put before them by officers, and officers can and do drive agenda and stop plans they don’t like. Staff too are controlled by the officers.

They are vilified for complaining or resorting to whistle-blowing when complaints to managers fail.

Aberdeen Voice is aware of more than one case of staff being micro-managed and having their work time scrutinized to the last minute. There are many people who, while worried about being discovered, want to talk about negative experiences with officers, and that includes Pete Leonard.

Head of Housing & Environment Pete Leonard has been implicated in a catalogue of bad decisions.

Having just missed a chance to apologise to the public over the cremation scandal so he could holiday, he is now off sick. Reports suggest he will remain out of the office – until terms of his final severance package can be ironed out. Many find his continuing in his post is now untenable following the cremation report – and the public has not seen the report commissioned by the Chief Executive.

My long-running interaction with him over the destruction of the Tullos Hill is no secret. He insisted on deer slaughter: when established consultants offered free help, they were rejected.

The slaughter was called ‘abhorrent and absurd’ by the Scottish SPCA in the circumstances. The expensive, unsuccessful attempts to establish trees on the hill are his responsibility – he declared in formal reports the scheme would be cost neutral. (Tullos is a former waste dump with little topsoil; the government’s own departments have written that establishing trees there is unlikely. However, it’s made quite a bit of money for consultants, suppliers, and deer stalkers).

Leonard’s insistence to the Housing & Environment Committee that the Tree for Every Citizen Scheme would be ‘cost neutral’ has cost well into a five-figure sum (and caused more than 36 deer to be culled needlessly) and may result in further expense to taxpayers soon. A councillor’s proposal to keep the hill as a meadow with deer was quashed before it could be voted on: by  Pete Leonard.

One of many ponderous reports flogging the dubious benefits of the Muse development of Marischal Square bears Leonard’s name. On 2 March 2016 this report recommends against asking the public for any further input on Marischal Square because the public might experience ‘consultation fatigue’ and may result in a ‘negative customer experience’.

Heaven forbid. Customer experience didn’t attract the council’s attention when, despite 3,000 citizens and 3 community councils demanding the deer be spared were ignored.

The idea was to have a temporary place under the arches where people could buy coffee and snacks

As to consultation fatigue, I think more people would prefer the chance to have their say and risk ‘fatigue’ than winding up with the monstrous white elephant at Marischal – where the Press & Journal will now call HQ for one year free – courtesy of the taxpayer.

By the way, after suggesting ‘consultation fatigue’ was real, the report goes on to steamroll the reader with jargon about including citizens to ‘participate in the development, design, and decision making services [how does a citizen participate in a decision making service??] to promote civic pride, active citizenship and resilience.’

Leonard has, in effect, proposed not fatiguing us with consultations while wanting our participation. Sounds like quite a balancing act; no wonder ‘resilience’ is also suggested.

There are many Aberdeen Voice readers who have fought to get basic housing repairs, fought to have housing suitable to the needs of the elderly and disabled, or even to have safe, habitable places to live. Some suggest the head of Housing & Environment needed to have a more hands on approach.

Who scotched the Cafe 52 plan to have a self-sustaining cafe in Union Terrace Gardens?

The idea was to have a temporary place under the arches where people could buy coffee and snacks, the Bothwell family were going to pay all the set-up costs, and volunteers were going to run it, as I recall. I do recall that the profits were all going to be churned back into improving the gardens. The departed Maggie Bochel even recommended this go through, and several councillors as well as many members of the public supported the plan.

Is it possible that a city council officer stepped in to stop this simple plan, and if so why? This may be a small side issue, but hopefully by now the point has been made that directors and officers can, and do, guide how and what a councillor gets to vote on.

As such, we need directors who are competent, who are capable, who are without bias, and who are accountable.

Where does the city most fall down? In its management of communities, housing and (obviously) infrastructure.

Who has been the responsible Director for Communities, Housing & Infrastructure for years? Pete Leonard.

Pete Leonard chose not to attend the public meeting that took place last week

Leonard is on a salary adjacent to £112k per year, plus a generous pension contribution. If he is allowed to remain in post following the various reports (public facing and secret) into the scandal of Aberdeen’s crematorium operations, something is drastically wrong.

Bereaved parents were told for years there would be no ash following cremation of their deceased children. In fact, the crematorium, under Leonard’s remit, was mixing the remains of children with those of unrelated adults, and in effect lying to parents.  This went on for years.

Some of the parents impacted by this cruel deception are calling for those responsible to be let go. I join that call

Pete Leonard chose not to attend the public meeting that took place last week; he was on holiday. It was disappointing to the bereaved that he was not there; his non-attendance sent a strong message.

The report into the long-running contempt shown both to the deceased and bereaved and severe managerial failure can be found here. It makes damning reading. Here are some highlights:

A damning summary:

“There was no overall strategic management of the crematorium. Aberdeen City Council had significant challenges elsewhere. Pete Leonard, Director of Communities, Housing and Infrastructure since 2010, explained to the Investigation,

“…in terms of the focus of senior management attention, you focus on the things that you know need fixing and you focus on the things you know to improve and areas where you need to make savings and you’ve got to try and bring the public and elected members with you, that’s very much a focus.”

“It was clear during the Investigation that the current Environmental Manager, Steven Shaw and those above him [that would include Leonard – S Kelly] had remote and ad hoc involvement in the management of the crematorium or the staff. The Investigation was told by the current Crematorium Manager, Angus Beacom, that,

“…staff felt that, in their words, not mine, they had been somewhat neglected by senior management”

“Pete Leonard, Director of Communities Housing and Infrastructure told the Investigation,

“I guess I was fairly light touch in my management in terms of, I don’t think I had visited the site for some time.”

“Pete Leonard confirmed that the purchase of new cremators was an expensive capital project and that he “was more focused on keeping track of that“,

“I guess the crematorium for me was a case of things seem to be going ok so a light touch management was ok and I wasn’t really getting involved.

The crematorium, I guess, never really featured on my radar. I wish it had, but it never featured on my radar so it was kind of left alone.”

“The Head of Services, Mark Reilly, told the Investigation,

“…Now there was a gap between Steven (Shaw, Environmental Manager) and Derek Snow (Cremation Manager) that I didn’t particularly care for. I wanted to really look at the structure of Bereavement Services and crematoria and how that works and get one manager overseeing both.”

“The Investigation found that despite issues about infant cremation coming to public attention following the media coverage about Mortonhall Crematorium in December 2012, no changes in practice were instigated at Aberdeen until November 2013 and July 2014.

“Pete Leonard, Director of Communities Housing and Infrastructure, told this Investigation,

“And we had lots of conversations, so we’d be saying, well if some people are saying that they’re recovering ashes, how is that? Are they using different temperatures and all this? There’s a lot of speculation about ‘well, we’re not sure how they’re doing it, but they’re probably doing things like turning the ovens off at night and leaving the baby in to ‘slow cook‘ and do we really want to be doing that and what if the parents found out about that?‘ and there were issues being thrown in around emissions and if you turn the heating down then you might be breaking the emissions law. There didn’t seem to be any shared industry knowledge or best practice.”

“There was no evidence that any effort was made by anyone at Aberdeen City Council to clarify at exactly what age or stage ashes were available. The senior managers did not challenge what they were told despite the information emerging from Mortonhall Crematorium nor did they seek information from Seafield Crematorium, or even closer, Parkgrove Crematorium, to ascertain how these crematoria could have been obtaining ashes despite the Aberdeen position that none existed until the age of eighteen months to two years.

“Pete Leonard told the Investigation,

“Around about that time we received a letter from Sue Bruce (then Chief Executive of City of Edinburgh Council) with the scope of the inquiry that she had asked Dame Elish to perform and I had a conversation with Valerie Watts then Chief Executive of Aberdeen City Council. I said I’d been to see the crematorium team, they assure me everything is okay but I really think we need to get some objective people in to do an audit and investigation into some of the processes and ask them questions. That led PwC to do an investigation, which was very much process based. At the same time, myself and Mark Reilly went to visit the team, got more behind the scenes.

“I think not getting ashes had been for as long as they could remember. Certainly with the new cremators they didn’t. With the older ones I don’t think they did, but I think they said previously they may have done in the dim and distant past, there might have been something. I think they gave some examples there, but I can’t really recall.

I think it pretty much reflected what the guys said and looked at the records. On reflection I think we didn’t focus enough on behaviour. When subsequently things changed in terms of what people’s story was, my own reflection on myself was perhaps I could have been a bit more challenging around some behaviours.

I drew up the terms of reference for the report and cleared these with the Chief Executive but it was based on what Sue Bruce had sent through, it was very similar terms of reference.

I am asked if the auditors looked at records as opposed to wider processes. Yes, that was the case. I am asked if anyone was examining the actual operational processes of cremation itself. No there was not. I think the years picked for audit were aligned with the different types of cremators from what I can see. I think there were different changes to the record keeping and we kept records up to a certain date. I think somebody had written to say they’d had some issue around 2008 and that they received ashes so on the back of that, we said can you go further back and examine what the practice was then”

“Pete Leonard told the Investigation,

“Around about that time we received a letter from Sue Bruce (then Chief Executive of City of Edinburgh Council) with the scope of the inquiry that she had asked Dame Elish to perform and I had a conversation with Valerie Watts then Chief Executive of Aberdeen City Council. I said I’d been to see the crematorium team, they assure me everything is okay but I really think we need to get some objective people in to do an audit and investigation into some of the processes and ask them questions. That led PwC to do an investigation, which was very much process based. At the same time, myself and Mark Reilly went to visit the team, got more behind the scenes.

I think not getting ashes had been for as long as they could remember. Certainly with the new cremators they didn’t. With the older ones I don’t think they did, but I think they said previously they may have done in the dim and distant past, there might have been something. I think they gave some examples there, but I can’t really recall.

I think it pretty much reflected what the guys said and looked at the records. On reflection I think we didn’t focus enough on behaviour. When subsequently things changed in terms of what people’s story was, my own reflection on myself was perhaps I could have been a bit more challenging around some behaviours.

I drew up the terms of reference for the report and cleared these with the Chief Executive but it was based on what Sue Bruce had sent through, it was very similar terms of reference.

I am asked if the auditors looked at records as opposed to wider processes. Yes, that was the case. I am asked if anyone was examining the actual operational processes of cremation itself. No there was not. I think the years picked for audit were aligned with the different types of cremators from what I can see. I think there were different changes to the record keeping and we kept records up to a certain date. I think somebody had written to say they’d had some issue around 2008 and that they received ashes so on the back of that, we said can you go further back and examine what the practice was then”

“An audit by the company PwC LLP was duly commissioned and terms of reference agreed in March 2013. The auditors reported on 9 July 2013. This audit was limited in scope and did not look at the actual cremation operational processes but rather traced a sample of cremations to the supporting records and administrative process in respect of the cremation of stillborn babies and infants under the age of two.

“The audit report describes its work as to ‘undertake a data collection exercise and review the current procedures in operation to better inform the Council Officers’ understanding of arrangements and practices.’ The report was based on the documentation available but there is no indication of the Council seeking audit of the actual cremation working processes by a suitably qualified cremation industry expert or body such as the FBCA.

“Pete Leonard, Director, told the Investigation,

“There had been a conversation about use of trays and what have you and I was very nervous about health and safety and I guess I placed a lot of reliance on the internal audit which we scoped out in March and it reported in July 2013.”

“There was no evidence given to the Investigation that after the production of this audit report the Council challenged Derek Snow’s assertion that there were no ashes to be obtained from babies less than eighteen months old. At the very least the information provided by PwC should have alerted the Council to the inconsistency between their public position and what the audit disclosed from the past.

“There is no evidence of the contents of the report being probed or checked to ascertain the reason for the different outcomes in the sampled cases. This information should have been of particular interest given the Council’s public position that ashes did not exist for babies under eighteen months to two years.

“Derek Snow, the Crematorium Manager added,

“When I started in 1986 there was no written procedures or guidance for babies. As far as I know there’s still nothing like that at the moment.”

“Steven Shaw, the current Environmental Manager, said that it was clear to him that,

“we didn’t have written up simple guidelines. I pushed for them to write up the procedures.”

“Pete Leonard said,

“When we started speaking to the guys, it was very clear then that there were no practices which made me nervous. “

“Staff also had access to manufacturers’ manuals for the cremators they were using. Aberdeen City Council’s response noted in the 10 July 2013 PwC LLP internal audit report was that they would be formalising their written policy and would consider any findings that came from the Scottish Government’s review.

“However, when staff were interviewed by the Investigation in February 2015 there was still no formal written procedure, guidance, instruction or local training manual available to staff at Aberdeen Crematorium despite

  • the recommendations of Lord Bonomy in his report of May 2014,
  • the Mortonhall Investigation Report April 2014,
  • the PwC internal audit recommendation of July 2013,
  • interest expressed by the Scottish Parliament,
  • press and extensive media coverage of the issues surrounding the cremation of babies throughout the period 2012-2014.

“Neither did the receipt of an anonymous letter result in such action. This letter indicated that the reason baby ashes were not being returned to families at Aberdeen was because babies were being cremated alongside the coffins of unrelated adults. Members of staff were still working on drafting the crematorium’s first Operational Procedures Booklet in early 2015.

“It was put to Pete Leonard, Director, that Derek Snow had suggested that he was only really a manager when it suited his line managers to treat him as such, that he was given very little scope to manage and was not given the opportunity to attend training. Pete Leonard replied,

“I couldn’t really say. I am asked if he ever made a complaint to me about the way he was being managed. No not at all, he seemed to be happy in his work.”

“This is in stark contrast to what former Environmental Manager, Sandy Scott said about Derek Snow wanting to leave since 2006. Sandy Scott told the Investigation,

“Derek Snow did not want to be at the Council. He made it quite clear he wanted to leave and I did some investigating and spoke to my Head of Service but we felt we couldn’t let him go at that point. It was always a feature of our one to ones as he wanted to bring it up with me.”

“Pete Leonard, Director of Communities Housing and Infrastructure said,

“I guess I felt really let down and right from the word go, what we’d said to the guys was ‘we’re not going to judge you on what’s happened, when you’re in an industry and you follow historic practices, sometimes you might find yourself doing something that culture accepted before. Something which might look horrific but you’re caught up in the middle of that and you’re just doing what you’ve always been told.

“So this is about understanding what’s going on’. We had said, ‘if there’s anything, anything at all, now’s the time to get it out, you’ve got our full support’. We couldn’t have emphasised that more and so to then find out that the guys were lying and they’d been so convincing …I was bloody angry to be honest but really upset. Then I was really upset because of the impact on families.

“I’ve got young children myself and you can empathise. So then we had to move into trying to figure what happened and I wasn’t looking at punishing anybody, I just wanted to figure out what had been going on and we don’t really know. I mean, having gone through the experience of believing what they said before, to be honest, anything they said, I took with a pinch of salt.

“Could be true, it maybe isn’t true and there was no real way I got that mechanism to get to the truth. The investigation may have more success.”

“this was a section of the City Council working in almost complete isolation without any strategic direction, development or quality control of the service, so far as it related to babies, infants and non-viable foetuses. There was little knowledge by Senior Management of the service provided to the families of these babies.

“There was insufficient interest taken or leadership shown by management

“much of what was learned by Cremator Operators at Aberdeen was received wisdom from more experienced peers. The extraordinary belief that there would be no recovered ashes from babies up to the age of eighteen months or two years was contradicted by what was known to be recovered in many other crematoria as well as in Aberdeen itself in earlier years

“The cremation of babies along with unknown adults is an unethical and abhorrent practice which will offend the sensibilities of the wider community and cause great distress to those whose babies were cremated there. It will also cause profound concern to the next of kin of unrelated adults who may have collected and continue to retain ashes of loved ones cremated at Aberdeen which also contain the ashes of a baby or one or even several non-viable foetuses

“When obliged to consider this issue with the commencement of the Mortonhall Investigation and during the separate opportunity to explain their position to Lord Bonomy and his team the true picture at Aberdeen Crematorium was not disclosed. The Infant Cremation Commission was misled about the practices taking place.

“It was clear from the interviews of staff in early 2015 that despite the passage of time since the Mortonhall Report, the report of the Infant Cremation Commission and extensive media coverage of the circumstances at Mortonhall Crematorium that staff had not yet been properly briefed or briefed at all to allow them to have an accurate understanding of the physiology of the bones of foetuses, stillborn babies and infants.

8. The most senior level of management at Aberdeen must provide strong leadership and now take full responsibility for the effective management of the crematorium. It must also ensure that immediate and appropriate training takes place and that effective and ethical practices are maintained. This relates not only to a change of working practices but to an assurance that the culture of the organisation and the knowledge and understanding is such as to prevent any future abuse of the trust of those families who have placed the remains of their loved ones in their care.

10. As with other crematoria there was a total absence of any local written instruction or guidance. This remained the case even in 2015 after an audit report of 2013 which highlighted the lack of written procedure. This meant that the actual practices employed in the crematoria were not documented and available for inspection by normal quality assurance procedures. Had such written guidance been available it may have alerted Cremator Operators to the deviant nature of their practices.

11. By allowing the predicted outcome rather than the actual outcome to remain in the disposal column Aberdeen City Council created a situation where the inaccurate information was allowed to remain on the Register. Although the inaccuracy was identified no steps had been to correct the accuracy of the Register. This casual and careless approach to a statutory obligation is of considerable concern.”

My conclusions

There is contradiction about Leonard’s position in the Muse report (do we not consult people so as not to ‘fatigue’ them or do we involve them in the design, etc).

Leonard contradicts himself again in his testimony here.  At one stage we’re asked to think of him as being a father who’d be concerned about the families; and then we have the inexcusable on the appalling choice of words about ‘slow cooking babies’ and ‘what if the parents found out’. Either you are a caring, empathetic parent – or you use that kind of language and seek to keep your parent peers in the dark.

Claims that there was no way to find out about any industry best practice or operational standards are debunked within five minutes by anyone with internet access. A search would swiftly find  The Federation of Burial and Cremation Authorities(FBCA). This organisation told me:

“The Federation of Burial and Cremation Authorities(FBCA) represents all but two of the operational crematoria in Scotland and around 85% of crematoria in the whole of the UK.

The FBCA has existed since 1924 and represents the owners and operators of cemeteries and crematoria in the UK.

All members of the FBCA have to confirm that they operate in accordance with our Code of Cremation Practice on an annual basis.

The process of cremation is regulated by Sepa and there are parameters which have to be maintained throughout each and every cremation, whether adult or infant, however it is important that special measures are taken during the cremation of very young babies to ensure that the conditions within the cremator provide the best possible opportunity for the recovery of ashes at the completion of the process..

We provide the training and examination process used at the majority of crematoria in Scotland and we strive to ensure that Best Practice and the highest standards are met at all times. “
– email from R Powell of FBCA to S Kelly 5 September 2016

For someone with a director’s mandate covering the crematorium, ignorance of this easily-found knowledge is bad enough; it is compounded by the evident lack of interest in pro-actively seeking for it.

Changes were to have been made in documentation for procedures; this went un-remedied for years. Should the buck have stopped with Leonard?

The curtains are drawn:

It should be noted that there is a Customer Services Standards document – but it is being updated, and requests for a copy of the current one have gone unanswered.  Aberdeen Voice also made an appointment to view the Officers’ register of interests – and hours before the appointment the city cancelled on the grounds ‘personal data’ would be in the records.

The legal team decided that a Freedom of Information request would be needed, and that while councillors’ records are all electronically available, the records for officers and directors were off limits.

Let’s hope the wait to see the records won’t take too long (all FOI requests I have made to the city have been just to the deadline or have been late).

Enough:

I watched as the arrogance and assurances from Leonard led to the destruction of a herd of deer that had lived on Tullos for decades without needing any cull. I watched as he stubbornly refused free advice on non-lethal culling, refused to take on board the soil report saying that trees are unlikely to establish while approving hundreds of thousands of pounds on consultants, fencing, trees and deer hunters.

I watched as a friend whose stillborn child was told there would be no ashes to scatter after cremation some years ago. I worried as I helped arrange a cremation fairly recently as to what was going on.

I watched as the hated Muse project was foist upon a largely unwilling, certainly poorly consulted public – who will  now subsidise the Press & Journal with a year’s free rent.

I watched as parents were further disrespected by Leonard deciding not to face them at the crematorium public meeting as he chose to vacation instead.  I’ve listened to complaints of people with health issues in housing inadequate to their needs.

I’ve heard from people who waited months and months for simple housing repairs.  I’ve heard from people living in housing where anti social behaviour runs rampant because the city keeps no residential staff to ensure safety. I’ve heard from staff who have felt bullied under his regieme.

I now want to watch as Leonard leaves his post with as small a remuneration as legally possible, and leaves quickly.

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Aug 262016
 

In this week’s satirical offering from Suzanne Kelly aka Old Susannah, she delights in Aberdeen’s generosity to the Press & Journal, and is happy to brush aside any minor qualms there might be about use of taxpayer money, conflict of interests and ethics; she also spares a few words on an advert for a US gun festival – in Orlando – featuring a skeleton wielding a semi-automatic weapon…(Psst – any non-Aberdeen readers, you might want to skip directly to the last few paragraphs of this column, cheers).

DictionaryTally ho! Another week flies past in Aberdeen. The original BrewDog bar (Old Dog – Gallowgate as opposed to New Dog – Castlegate) have hung up some of my recent paintings and just hosted another successful, fun, packed Drink and Draw session. Their ‘Live Dead Pony’ – it’s the addition of live yeast to their popular brew Dead Pony Club makes it ‘live’ – has proven popular as well.
So for those who can’t stand this small shareholder (one of over 10,000) talking about Aberdeenshire’s most successful start-up company, please feel free to send in a diatribe as to why I shouldn’t be allowed to talk about things I like, even though I’ve disclosed my shareholding since the first mention.

Otherwise, the BrewDog team are looking for further artists’ work to hang, so get in touch at the Old Dog.

For those of you with bigger fish to fry, it’s been quite an interesting few weeks in the Granite City.

The crematorium ash scandal is not a suitable topic for satire, but it needs to be addressed.

The remark made by the man in charge, Peter Leonard, displays all the contempt you’d expect from the man’s previous form, but this belies far more callowness than even seasoned Leonard-watchers have come to expect. If you missed it, the BBC reports (and the council haven’t asked for a retraction which speaks volumes) Leonard saying to/in front of inspectors:

“we’re slow-cooking babies.”

How can anyone who lost an infant or child and was caught up in the crematorium scandal can be expected to work for, with, or have to communicate with this lizard? Why are we keeping him in his job?

My interest in the man goes back to his report which condemned the Tullos Hill deer to massive culling. He told the council the tree-planting scheme was completely cost neutral and would succeed – if we shot the deer and kept the weeds down. Lib Dem councillor Aileen ‘Ho’Malone was at the helm of the relevant committee which pushed the scheme through.

She’s just the sort of person you could convince to wipe out a meadow full of flowers and a herd of deer to plant trees on top of rocks and industrial waste where there is no topsoil.

‘A tree for every citizen’ they called it. They deliberately left the culling and the £43k penalty out of the initial public consultation (correspondence proves they knew a cull was planned – but they wanted to ‘manage’ the public which they knew would object. The city tried to deny the £43,800 penalty it paid for the previous failure, too – that’s what we call open government; but I digress).

Peter’s cost neutral scheme? Looks like it’s cost nearly half a million, with £100k alone going to the consultant Chris Piper.

So, Leonard sits in his highly-paid post having been out with his estimates by half a million pounds of taxpayer money, and having insulted everyone with his ash scandal remark, and has not been bounced out of office. Blame the elected officials for bad decisions if you must – but it’s the officers like Leonard who create the reports the councillors have to vote on. Has he stuffed up one too many times?

Any member of staff who’d blundered like he has would have been disciplined and/or let go. Maybe the powers that be will keep him in place. By many accounts, should Mr Leonard be sent packing, there are a fair few staff who will not shed any tears.

Apologies for the lack of humour to this point, but that needed to be said.

Perhaps a few words on the happy event everyone’s talking about will change the mood. It’s not just that the Marischal Square building project is proving to be a breath-taking beauty (I hear people gasp when they look at it). It’s even better than that: everyone’s favourite newspaper, The Press and Journal, is to grace the building with its presence. Better still: the paper won’t have to pay any rent for a whole year. Result!

I’m thinking of starting a petition so that they’ll never have to pay any rent ever. After all, we’re supposed to be trying to attract smart, successful, vibrant, dynamic, forward-looking businesses to the beating heart of Aberdeen.

What better way to cheer us all up each morning than the sight of Damian Bates rounding Broad Street in his Maserati after dropping Sarah Malone off to her job as Trump’s spokesperson? I can barely wait! And with that, it’s time for some timely definitions.

Limousine Bull: (Proper Scottish Noun) – a Torry-based artists collective which had education, training, exhibition services for people in the south of the city. Closed for lack of £10,000.

These art types; just can’t balance the books. Perhaps if they had gone on one of the city’s cultural (?) ‘speed dating’ events they could have begged the rich for funding and kept going.

Alas, the city’s uber-rich wanted to build granite ramps and parking spaces; spending money on an actual arts and education service for the less advantaged was never going to get a look-in. And thus it was that after years of having a small warehouse space with studios for artists, Limousine Bull had to close. As their website reported:

“When we discovered ACC had given details of a new round of funding, with applications to be submitted just 6 weeks after our rejection notice, we put together a greatly revised funding proposal and were due to apply for just £1,700 of the £10,000 available to our category.

“On the day and almost exact time of the deadline for this, Carrie messaged the rest of us on the committee, saying she had decided not to submit the application, as she thought ACC’s demands upon applicants were too strict to follow for such a small amount of funding.” – LB website

Perhaps the people who wonder why we couldn’t win the ‘city of culture’ accolade (or is that poisoned chalice – cities that have won have often found themselves in debt afterwards) might think that getting rid of small groups like this might have made us look smarter and more successful to the judges. The people who submitted our exciting CoC bid had no use for Limousine Bull – they wanted to have ‘Gigs on Rigs’ instead.

How exciting that could have been– flying rock bands to play to offshore oil installations where, er, the footage would have been beamed back to shore. Only the worst kind of philistine would have asked ‘why not just have them play on shore?’. What musician wouldn’t rather do survival training, fly to an alcohol-free oil rig in the chilly North Sea than play a few sets in nightclubs and hotels? But I digress.

Back to Limousine Bull – Old Susannah’s not surprised it went under; after all £10,000 is a lot of money (about one fifth of the amount we had to pay back to central government for the first Tree for Every Citizen failure on Tullos. Or, about one 14,000th of the cost of the granite web. But I digress again). Maybe someone in ACC is offering Limousine Bull a chance to resurrect itself rent-free at Marischal Square?

If so, I’ve not heard of it yet. And funnily enough, for some reason Aberdeen Voice’s invitation to a rent-free office suite at the taxpayer’s expense hasn’t come in the post just yet.

Ethics: (archaic term) Morality, knowledge of right and wrong.

We all know what ethics are (well, you do if you’re not in ACSEF … or whatever it is called this week) – the sense of a common morality that would stop a man making crass remarks about deceased children. It’s that sense of right and wrong that would stop people in power from crushing the weak while, for instance, using public resources to subsidise a newspaper thereby gaining control and advantage.

Many companies have ethics policies governing what freebies, advantages, and hospitality can be accepted without compromising the company. If as an employee you are going to accept a gift or hospitality, say a hamper of food or a few bottles of wine, most companies would expect you to declare it or decline it.

You see, accepting something might put you in a position where you would be indebted to the person giving you a gift. If one company were to offer another company something valuable these days – a weekend at a hotel, a trip, or say a year’s free rent for your business in a brand new suite of offices: you’d be expected by your code of ethics to turn it down.

Otherwise you would be either asked to do something in return for the largess, or even if you weren’t asked to do so, there would be an expectation of a ‘quid pro quo’ situation. In other words, there is no free lunch. And for that matter, there are also laws about using public money unethically, laws about public institutions ensuring ‘value for money’ is sought, and avoiding conflict of interests.

Then again, that kind of thing never hampers the truly creative Aberdeen spirit.

I come back to my friend Peter Leonard again. While the deer cull protest raged (several community councils, thousands of residents, the Scottish SPCA all objecting to the plan), an article appeared in the Evening Express:

“TWO DEER FOUND DEAD AHEAD OF CULL”. 

This story was planted by someone in ACC, although surprisingly, no investigation was held to find out who the ‘leak’ was. The intrepid reporter either didn’t ask, or omitted to say when the dead deer were actually found: and it emerged (after AV asked about it) that the deer were found dead two years before the cull.

The city’s insinuation that to stop deer from suffering starvation or possible accidents was not to supply more grazing land and erect fences – but to stop their lives being blighted by taking their lives away. But, shall we say, some readers found the absence of that little gap of several years somewhat misleading. To some people, this little episode might seem ethically bankrupt. However, I’m sure nothing misleading has been printed before or since by AJL.

I’d never insinuate that an organisation like the ACC would or could ever corrupt an organisation like the P&J – how could it? Sadly, other observers have made a few unfortunate remarks about the free rent offer. I think some of these people need shaming:

“If this if it goes ahead, (and all the hall markers suggest it will) it can but only be seen for what it appears to be – a covenant between the ACC and the P&J/EE. So where now lies objectivity, impartiality, indeed freedom to report and print news on anything that objects to the working of their landlord?”
– A MacDonald

“Don’t they realise that the continuing fall in readership is due to their biased approach to local stories in aberdeen. lets remember too that they are not a local paper anymore but another D. C. Thomson, Dundee rag. I for one cancelled my evening express as soon as it was made public that they were in talks to secure office space in Willies folly and i would suggest that others do the same”
– C Duguid

“Many readers were of the impression that the Press and Journal supported the opposition to the Muse development as evidenced by the publication of numerous stories relating to the opposition to Marischal Square and the scores of letters from the public over the past couple of years… It therefore case as quite a shock to many to learn that Aberdeen Journals themselves are to take up office space in Marischal Square.

“Many of your readers saw that as a betrayal…. Surely any deal that did not deliver the projected returns on the council’s investment would be seen as a failure by the council to secure its financial position and deliver on the promise of sustainable rental profits to fund essential public services.”
– a Mr W Skidmore, who is waiting patiently for this letter to be printed in the P & Poo (an affectionate term I’m told). I trust he isn’t holding his breath.

I hope these people will feel suitably ashamed at their negative words, which strike at the very beating heart of the civic district of the Granite City. It’s always sad for Old Susannah to see such cynical, suspicious minds at work criticising our beloved institutions which have done so much for us.

Perhaps the honesty, integrity and wisdom the council is known for will eventually rub off on such harsh critics. I’m sure we’re only talking a few hundred thousand pounds anyway, and it’s not as if there’s anything better to do with the money.

Conflict of interest: (English compound noun) an unethical condition wherein a person or entity owes allegiance to two opposing forces.

Can the P&J continue to claim the moral high ground it has rightly held these many years if it is now Aberdeen City’s bitch – sorry — tenant?

Perhaps we should mention a potential conflict of interest that’s been brought up on social media. For some reason, there are people who see something wrong with Aberdeen Journals Limited taking a year’s free rent in Marischal College from Aberdeen City Council.

I’m trying to figure out why this bothers some people. Sure, the P&J might in the past have called the development ‘controversial’ in its articles: that just shows that they’re not afraid of standing up to the city council!

I’m sure that fighting spirit, and love of investigation we love in the P&J won’t be compromised just because they will have had their bacon saved by ACC. What an insinuation! I think by now the values the P&J have are clear to us all. And, they win awards so we can tell they’re great.

No, I for one don’t think we will see any change to their usual ethical standards. Where would you be without the tiny tots baby competition? Without photos of the Menie Golf course and MacLeod House to look at every day?

An aside….

orlando ad for gun eventI’m sometimes asked, ‘don’t you miss America?’

There are things I don’t miss. I think the whole machinery that’s created a school to prison pipeline for the disadvantaged and minorities (where police brutality runs riot in schools) stinks. I hate the system that allows mega pharmaceuticals to ruin people’s lives for fat profit margins and where drugs and care can be priced out of the reach of those most in need.

I hate it that a woman can take a device like a medi pen, raise its cost through the roof, and pay herself an 18 million dollar bonus.

I hate it that the alleged founding principle of individuals having a right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ is not as fought for as the right to have a well-trained militia which has been torqued into the invented ‘rights’ of anyone to have a semi-automatic weapon.

There are many things I love about my country of birth: the majority of people, the land, the wildlife, the pre-existing culture and our potential. However, we’ve decimated the original inhabitants, the native Americans – and yet now they are leading the fight against our corporate greed. Native Peoples are campaigning on horseback and on foot in the face of the fury of the government and its armies over pipelines which can only devastate the environment.

This is a country where people who were brought in chains on slave ships can eventually see their descendants become professors, leaders, successes in all areas and icons.

We’ve seen heroes like the late great Mohammed Ali and Jesse Hagopian, an educational reformer who was teargassed on a peaceful protest, but still pursues his dream of fair education for all nonetheless.

It’s a country where ancestors like mine came fleeing from famine to find signs in New York’s windows and doors reading ‘no blacks, no Irish and no dogs’ and yet in a few generations, one such Irish catholic descendant became a president.

This is a country where a young American boy of Japanese ancestry can be imprisoned without due course or rights in an internment camp in World War II and somehow still come out of the experience with a wicked sense of humour to emerge as a voice for tolerance and forgiveness.

There is natural beauty (cross your fingers) and biodiversity.

There are also people who will take that right to have a well-armed militia, and exploit it until we have bloodbaths like the recent slaughter in Orlando. And why?

Ultimately to make money for the gun manufacturers. Gun manufacturers do not care who gets killed. Statistically we know that you are more likely to have an accidental shooting at a home with a gun in it rather than your successfully shooting a would be burglar.

The image above belongs to the Orlando Weekly, which sees nothing wrong in advertising a semi-automatic shooting event … with an image of a skeleton. Now, I’m possibly not the most sensitive person in the world, but I see something very wrong in printing an ad like this to a city which is still mourning.

So America, as dearly as I love some things about you, please start worrying more about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and less about this supposed right to have guns. You are locking up people for collecting their own rainwater, for growing herbs – such as ginseng – and you are criminalising people who want to pursue a different life/liberty/happiness than the status quo. That’s not what was meant to be.

Look at this ad. Does this say responsible, sober gun ownership and respect for life to you – or is this nearly the lowest appeal to base nature (save the videos with bikini clad girls firing automatic weapons) and lack of empathy for the dead of Orlando (and the wider country) that can be imagined?

If not for the likes of those who emerged from hardships in the US, I’d despair completely.

The editor of the Orlando Weekly is Graham Jarrett. At first he tried to claim he was forced to print the ad; it was pointed out that no one can force a news publication to take an ad. We’re waiting to hear what you are going to say and do next Mr Jarrett.

(Want to fight against this kind of gun happy propaganda? On Facebook seek out and join One Pulse, a closed pressure group with the fanciful aim of making people want to stop shooting other people. I’m honoured and happy to be a member).

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May 022016
 

Suzanne Kelly visits Tullos Hill – years after the Tree For Every Citizen scheme saw its herd of deer destroyed to protect tree saplings, though the destruction was never going to guarantee successful tree growth. It’s not just the deer that have been destroyed. Story and photographs by Suzanne Kelly.

DSC00908If you visited Tullos before the city and its expensive consultant Jamie Piper got their hands on it, you would have found an area rich in wildlife including deer. Gorse provided habitat for deer, small mammals and birds. A huge portion of the gorse is gone – and so is the wildlife.

Paths have been excessively widened – you can now easily drive a SUV down them – and that meant further loss of habitat and path side plants and fungi.

Other councils in the UK are worried about damage to their wildlife sites; Staffordshire has a report warning of the damage caused by the tactics Aberdeen employs.

You can’t see the forest – but not because of the trees:

It’s one of the few reasonably clement days we’ve had in a while when I visit Tullos. On my walk to the entrance I am struck by how much the area has been transformed by the Wood Group building. We lost the land, houses were torn down, and we must have lot part of Tullos Hill if we lost the approach to the hill.

The city says that this path was narrow and difficult – or words to that effect. The path was far more like what you would find in an area that wanted to give habitat to wildlife rather than to make comfy recreational access at the expense of wildlife habitat. I think of the people who lived in the caravan park who would feed the deer. The people and the deer are gone now, and the Wood Group building and its parking facility tower over the cairn. This is progress.

Councillor Aileen Malone promised Aberdeen that shooting the deer, clearing the gorse, (while giving Piper £100,000 plus expenses now a five figure sum at last glance) would give us a forest. The Liberal Democrats had the twee-sounding ‘Tree For Every Citizen’ scheme as its election pledge last time around; some laugh at the fact the only pledge they did uphold was the one everyone asked them not to – killing deer to plant trees on a rubbish tip unlikely to sustain trees.

DSC00903This was my first visit to the Hill in a while; in particular I wanted to see how the trees and weeds were doing. I was struck by how wide the paths are – clearly the intention is to turn a former wildlife area into someone’s idea of a suburban recreation area suitable for vehicles.

There is the bench. There are the parking lot signs with their cheery squirrel and trees.

There is something prematurely self-congratulatory and smug about these items which is very much removed from the reality of what the hill looks like and its use for wildlife at present.

I did see one bit of wildlife – a bee was on a gorse flower. Gorse flowers year long providing food to bees; most of us seem to understand the importance of providing food for bees, which are under a variety of threats, not least loss of habitat like this. Pesticides were used on Tullos; finding a specific record of who was paid what to use which chemicals is not a simple task. Fungi which used to appear alongside the narrower paths have not been seen (at least by me) these past few seasons since the clearing and culling began.

No, I didn’t see any trace of a deer or any small mammals on the hill. There was barely any bird song, either. Some 10 years ago several species of bird were to be found; some of which were increasingly rare in the wild. I don’t’ see them nesting in this area again in numbers any time soon.

The pictures do show some trees have grown. There are also fairly new tree guards – far taller than any used previously. We were once told tree guards had ‘negative visual impact’ so we were not going to use them when we could kill the deer to stop them browsing the young trees instead. Where there are trees that have grown taller, even in the light wind on the day of the visit, they could be seen moving considerably in the breeze.

Experts previously told the city that trees which do establish will be subject to wind toss – there just simply is not good rooting material on this former waste tip – the roots won’t be sufficiently anchored to stop strong winds blowing the trees over.

how-do-you-blame-a-deer-for-this-30-april-2016-skelly2Some trees have no growth at all, despite being in intact tree guards – no deer has damaged them. On the other hand weeds choke many of the trees around and inside of the tree guards.

The city has already been warned that the job they did is not good enough for the funding received. It may not be too much longer before we see Aberdeen City hand back another tranche of money to the government for failing to grow trees on the rubbish tip of Tullos Hill.

As the old saying goes, ‘insanity is doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different outcomes’. The City planted here before. Weeds killed the trees which did not thrive in the poor soil conditions.

The City blamed deer, and instead of using non-lethal methods (tree guards, fencing, choosing plants deer would not eat), The City slaughtered over 40 animals, then planted trees again. The trees are being killed by weeds, the trees are not thriving in the poor soil conditions.

The only people thriving from this sad state of affairs are those seeking to build their reputations (despite the actual facts) by proclaiming this to be a success – them, and the ones pocketing money for expertise (?), fencing (which originally we said we could not afford), herbicides and trees.

As part of the money he earned, Jamie Piper branded the thousands of citizens who signed a petition against the scheme and the 4 community council objectors as ‘a small but vociferous minority’. Who but a small and vociferous minority now says the hill is better off than before? No one other than those who gained say that the hill looks better now and is home to more wildlife.

There is no forest, and all the signs are there won’t be one. The city may have erected a new parking lot with signs to the ‘diamond woods’ – but calling Tullos a wood is hardly trades-description accurate.

DSC00891A View from the Cairn – of Wood Group’s new HQ:

Tullos had its paths widened.

The city also seems to have surrendered an access point and a large area adjacent to one of the three ancient cairns for the footprint of the Wood Group’s new HQ (a building and car park that by all accounts are underused).

The car park looms over the cairn, and the remaining wildlife is hardly going to benefit from the air pollution resulting from the construction and the uses (even if minimal) of the new parking.

What did the City say about losing the parking and the access?

“It would appear that in recent years the Council failed to maintain the car park and that the previous owners of the land (before Argon bought the site last year) have restricted access in order to stop unauthorised encampments from occupying the land. This has resulted in the car park falling into disrepair and access to the hill becoming overgrown, although it was still possible to walk from the car park onto the hill.

Whilst the proposed office building could be constructed and site laid out with the existing public car park remaining in place, Argon expressed a desire to have the car park removed, in order to allow more extensive landscaping to be provided around the development.”
– email to Cllr N Cooney of April 2014

So, we couldn’t maintain one parking lot on land gifted to us, directly adjacent to the Hill’s entrance – land coincidentally useful for this development. However, the city is confident it will be able to maintain the new parking lot.

near the entrance to the hill 30 april 2016 skellyAs to the quality of landscaping referred to in the email; other than having the Wood Group building and its parking making a negative impact on Tullos and the cairn, it’s hard to see what landscaping they are talking about.

As an aside, the email in question admits that air quality on Wellington Road falls short of desired standards.

A new building and its parking will hardly help improve things.

A few changes, none for the better:

More trees have been planted; some of the new guards dwarf the previous tree guards. This is likely the result of a recent warning from the government to ACC that the trees aren’t sufficient either in number or condition, and there is a chance the grant may have to be returned. I wonder how much this new work has cost.

Not content with the area cleared for the tree scheme, gorse clearance continues apace. It is as if there were some pressing need to get rid of this important plant when the reality is they cannot control the trees they have planted – perhaps watching the gorse grow effortlessly is an affront to the egos involved.

gorse destruction 30 april 2016 skellyOverall the effect is one of dead and dying gorse separated from empty tree guards, all surrounded by weeds. It is as if a man balding in patches were desperately trying to implant new hair – then again, I’ve been concerned lately with the Trump campaign – and this is probably where that image came from.

If you go down to the woods today, you won’t be going to Tullos. Bring back the deer.

Remember – the people who insisted this was cost neutral and must go ahead are Liberal Democrat Aileen Malone and the rest of her party: are you going to vote Lib Dem this year? NB – the price of this ‘cost neutral’ scheme so far (less any new planting) is estimated at £600,000 – and no officer or supporter has been called to account for this remarkable mismanagement to date.

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Dec 032015
 

deershotfeat2With thanks to Suzanne Kelly.

Recent figures obtained under Freedom of Information show how a controversial, unpopular cull of deer on Tullos Hill has spread to city wide persecution of roe deer. Despite claiming the cull will reduce traffic accidents involving deer the City Council refused to provide data to back its claim that deer cause a road accident every week.

The information which has been released shows that since 2011 Aberdeen City Council has spent £28,930 on shooting deer.

The City initially started the cull on Tullos Hill, the former waste tip where the City is attempting to establish a large forest.

Government reports suggest that due to the poor soil matrix it is unlikely trees will thrive on Tullos Hill. Those that do reach any height may be blown over due to the lack of deep, firm soil to support tree roots.

Aberdeen City Council pressed ahead with this scheme ignoring the huge public outcry over the deer cull and despite losing £43,800 when a previous tree planting project on the Hill failed. Deer and weeds were blamed for that failure. Today weeds tower over many of the new saplings and the City has been given a list by the Forestry Commission of numerous ways the plantation is failing.

The deer cull was as unpopular as it was deemed unnecessary. The City refused to listen to free, expert advice on how to have trees as well as deer on the Hill. Instead hired marksmen were used. Astonishingly no signs were erected to warn that high powered rifles were being used. The City promised that signs warning of ‘forestry operations in progress‘ would be replaced by signs clearly warning recreational users of Tullos Hill that shooting was taking place.

Visitors to Tullos have seen no such signs erected during these past five years. A new FOI request will try to ascertain what, if any, warning signs were produced and where they were placed.

The Roe deer, which seldom live longer than 6 or 7 years in the wild, were a popular attraction for visitors to Tullos Hill.

The City recently told its Housing & Environment Committee that a deer a week was involved in a road accident in Aberdeen. Information obtained by campaigners did not support this figure. Repeated requests for their raw data have been ignored by the City and the Chief Executive.

Campaign spokesperson Suzanne Kelly addressed the Housing Committee’s last meeting and was given an assurance that there would be no further culling until both humane alternatives and a proper count of remaining deer took place. The last SNH count came up with about 20 animals.

Across the City huge scale building projects have removed habitat from deer and other animals. Campaigners expect that there would be a spike in fatalities, not least because the City is only now agreeing to put up signs. Peter Leonard, a City official who backs the cull and tree planting scheme told Kelly in an email that once land is sold for development the fate of the deer is no longer the City’s concern.

Kelly said:

“The cavalier attitude to wasting money on a doomed scheme and to killing animals needlessly has to change. The City’s policy has been to shoot and ignore non-lethal options since Liberal Democrat Aileen Malone first pushed this scheme through when she headed the Housing Committee. At the time she actually asked residents to raise over £200,000 for fencing – or the deer would be shot. 

“The small number of people who pushed this scheme seem to me to be motivated by many factors such as political point scoring and saving face – but none of the people insisting deer must be culled or Tullos must be a forest seem motivated by the wishes of taxpayers or the needs of the animals already here. The SNH guidelines they invoke are just that – this city got along just fine without needless culling. 

“I am glad that we have assurances that there will be proper scrutiny of this expensive, wasteful, cruel policy before any more damage is done. The city’s officers relied on figures about road accidents they are unwilling to share – could this be because of inaccuracies in the reporting? 

“If there were that many accidents, and the city erected no signs, no fences, no non-lethal deterrents to these accidents, then I consider them culpable in injuries to animals and culpable for the accidents as well.”

Further information – FOI request – https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/cost_and_scope_of_deer_culling_f

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Nov 162015
 

Voice’s Old Susannah takes a look over the past week’s events in the ‘Deen and beyond. By Suzanne Kelly.

DictionaryI’d have loved to say that this was another great week in the Deen and the wider world, but senseless violence has again cast shadows.

Parents are burying their son who was stabbed to death in his school. Parisiens are mourning friends family and colleagues after a brutal, barbaric attack on a city and its freedom. People are coping with these tragedies in different ways.

If I had some clever, healing words that could make it all better, I’d write them. What I will say though is violence is never the answer.

Conflicts rage around the world, between individuals and between ideaologies, races, sexes. The answers are kindness, reason, justice equality and freedom for all.

Everyone can find a way to help put these in place – whether it’s in your school, your job, your neighbourhood or your country. Do something positive; do something useful with your anger. Violence is never the answer.

As for me, I intend to keep doing what I do; to try and do more both to stand up against what is wrong, and help people (and animals and the environment). Giving up isn’t on the agenda. Carrying on is. Whatever your answer is, make it a peaceful one.

Normal services resume. Here are a few definitions from recent events here in the granite city. If you think humour is inappropriate at present, remember no one’s forcing you to read this. However, laughter, and pointing out things that are wrong whether on a local or national scale with a bit of satire helps a bit for me. Hopefully it might help another person or two as well.

Entertainment:

Isn’t it wonderful? The spirit of good will approaches, and not to be found wanting, Aberdeen Inspired is going to allow musicians to busk at their Christmas Village!

Form an orderly queue; you will be allowed to play for free! And, you can ‘put your hat out in the ‘usual manner’ – for after all, being a musician is kind of one step above being a beggar.

This will give you much need exposure. Exposure to rain, cold, wind, and exposure to pleading for money. At least by then we should have swept all the homeless and beggars off the streets – so that it will be easier for you as a musician to get a bigger share of the 5p pieces that otherwise might have gone to a homeless person.

The life of a musician’s an easy one. You learn to play a few songs (takes a day or two); learn to play in time and in tune with others (allow another day), buy an instrument or two (some guitarists have more than one guitar; I’ve never been able to figure that out, or why drum kits have more than one drum).

you’ve no overheads. And – it gives you exposure

Then, you start performing. You might even get a bass player to join your band (quick definition: a bass player is a cross between a musician and a drummer).

Money comes hand over fist overnight, and you fight off different record company offers and groupies.

Recording music costs next to nothing these days, you don’t need studios, engineers, producers; you can do it all in your bedroom and it will sound just as good. And if you want a really excellent CD cover, just get some graphic artist to do it for free, for the exposure, don’t you know?

Within a month of writing your songs, getting a band together, cutting CDs to sell, you’ll be rolling in it. Playing for free at events like Aberdeen’s Christmas Village is fine, because you’ve no overheads. And – it gives you exposure. That will increase your record sales.

Perhaps the people who’ve designed this event, who take a cut of all the business rate taxes in our fair city, are likewise going to work for free. Perhaps their suppliers and their security guards will as well. I can’t wait to see Santa, the reindeer (which really don’t belong in the wild, and are much better off being transported, kept in small enclosures and gawped at by crowds – but I digress) and Santa’s traditional security guards.

In keeping with the true meaning of Christmas, I hear the Coca Cola truck is soon to put in an appearance too. In light of all this – asking musicians to perform for free or to beg for donations, and the beverage company distribution truck, it makes me think the City of Culture bid loss was a fix. By the way, the Culture bid team bought itself a number of ipads; does anyone happen to know where these are now? Just asking.

So musicians – playing this gig will get you that lucrative record deal that much faster – sign up here: Oh, and it couldn’t hurt to get matching t-shirts with the Aberdeen Inspired logo (someone remind me – what was the cost of this logo? It’s nearly as cool as the ACSEF one, which was at least a five figure sum. In hindsight, ACSEF should have found someone to do it for free.

I wonder whether the commission could have been given to an ACSEF member, like when they commissioned photos to show that UTG is empty and hard to access. That cost us the taxpayer a few hundred quid, and well spent it was. But paying musicians? Well, you’ve got to draw the line somewhere.

Deer Population Figures:

At least the deer being transported around the area during Coca Cola Truck season aren’t (probably) in any immediate danger of being poached or culled, although the concentration of these little things in such a small area is contrary to SNH population guidelines.

The SNH think we can have a healthy gene pool and stable herd on Tullos Hill with something like 3-5 deer allowed. I think that sounds as scientific and reasonable to you as it does to me.

Here’s how the city manages to explain the deer population figures:

  • January 2014 – inconclusive

Despite SNH using their best technology such as thermal imaging, they counted 19 deer in the city area.

  • January 2013 – too few

Deer remains were found on both Tullos and Kincorth hills by walkers. The city warden didn’t think the Kincorth find (including remains of a skinned cat) were worth mentioning. At any rate. the city’s ranger service concluded the Tullos deer were so few in number that the criminals did this: they poached the deer somewhere else (you have to gut deer quickly or the meat goes bad), then decided to carry the entrails and severed limbs up to Tullos Hill.

Have you been to Tullos? It’s the most accessible, straightforward place to dump any cumbersome crime evidence. No, the city might not really know how many or how few deer are left, but they do know the crime was committed elsewhere. They said:

“The Tullos one is something we heard about from the police who are investigating this as poaching though [name redacted] and I suspect the animals could not have been taken on Tullos Hill as the population that [name redacted] has seen in recent months is less than this. SNH were due to be doing their repeat thermal imaging survey on the Tull0s Hill last night, I haven’t heard the results of how many deer they found.”

  • April 2015 – far too many

The city claims that a deer a week is involved in a road accident these past two years. They bravely withheld this information from the public and cleverly warned absolutely no one about it, waiting to spring this on the public as a reason for more culling.

However robust their data, they are withholding it. This may or may not be related to the fact their data in April included non-city accidents, and a deer found dead – in a nature reserve.

Surely they would instantly share their data to prove how accurate and scientific they are? Surely we’d be seeing a huge spike in figures as they’ve basically allowed building to take over huge tracts of former deer habit from Loirston to Kingswells? Surely they’d want to help do something to stop accidents when bulldozers come in?

Peter Leonard said ‘that’s the landowner’s issue’ in almost so many words. They have this data. They’ve been asked for it for weeks now. They’re not sharing it.

This is now a FOI request, and Old Susannah can hardly wait to see if their answer is as robust as their last FOI answer on the cost of the scheme. Told by the Petitions committee to release all the costs, they sent a spreadsheet to me – five months after being told to do so – that had at least £50,000 of costs missing from it – compared to a spreadsheet I had been sent previously.

So – depending on whether or not it fits the current situation, whether or not we have a lot or a few deer is very much a flexible question when the city’s concerned. Then again, who are we to doubt them when they’ve delivered the lush, award-winning, cost-neutral, wildlife-packed forest we all enjoy on Tullos Hill?

You see, if we didn’t destroy our deer to plant that forest, they’d have nowhere to live. Although they lived on the hill before just fine. (for more info, just search Aberdeen Voice re. Tullos Hill or deer – all feeble excuses about culling are more than covered. We don’t have to kill. But it’s a nice little earner for a few folks, and a career-booster as well).

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[Aberdeen Voice accepts and welcomes contributions from all sides/angles pertaining to any issue. Views and opinions expressed in any article are entirely those of the writer/contributor, and inclusion in our publication does not constitute support or endorsement of these by Aberdeen Voice as an organisation or any of its team members.]

Nov 122015
 
TFL staff West Affric fence(small)2

Trees for Life team inspecting a section of damaged fence in West Affric; damaged fence in West Affric

With thanks to Richard Bunting.

Conservation charity Trees for Life has launched an emergency rescue appeal to protect tens of thousands of young trees on West Affric from grazing deer.

A new generation of trees, many planted by TfL volunteers, has become established on West Affric over the past 20 years, after Trees for Life and the National Trust for Scotland created a series of 10 fenced exclosures.

The exclosures – areas from which large grazing animals are excluded – were designed to boost the recovery of native woodland by preventing the pressure of browsing deer.

But recent damage to the fences has left many of these trees vulnerable to grazing by deer, and Trees for Life is appealing to the public to help raise £20,000 for vital fence repairs to protect the emerging forest.

“This is perhaps the most urgent appeal we have ever made. We need to protect the results of two decades of positive conservation action to restore the Caledonian Forest in this area,” said Alan Watson Featherstone, Trees for Life’s Executive Director.

“The exclosures are vital to the protection of trees and vegetation from the intense damage that can be caused by deer. Repairing the fences will ensure that the young trees – and the species they support – are safe and can continue to flourish, bringing greater life and diversity back to this depleted landscape.”

Only a few scattered trees survived on West Affric before the conservation work begun in the 1990s, but the transformation of the areas inside the exclosures has since been dramatic. Vibrant young woodlands are now supporting a wealth of insects and birds, including black grouse, while many flowering plants such as angelica, primroses and bluebells are flourishing.

However, because of the challenging terrain and climate, several sections of fencing have been broken by drifting snow, allowing deer to enter the exclosures and damage some of the trees. Other smaller, slower growing trees and flowering plants are now at risk, especially with the approach of winter when there is little else for the deer to eat.

Overgrazing by excessive numbers of red deer – the result of an ecological imbalance caused by humans, including the loss of natural predators and the dedication of large tracts of land since the 19th century for deer stalking and sheep grazing – is a major problem hampering natural regeneration of Scotland’s ancient Caledonian Forest.

Managing deer numbers is essential for native woodland restoration. In turn, restoring the Caledonian Forest and its native woodlands will provide improved habitat for balanced populations of deer in the future, allowing them to grow larger and healthier through having more shelter and more diverse and abundant food.

West Affric is a remote 10,000-acre expanse of wild land situated at the western end of Glen Affric, encompassing the headwaters of the Affric River. The National Trust for Scotland bought West Affric in 1993 and alongside its partners carries out vital conservation work to protect its natural ecosystems.

To donate to the emergency appeal, please visit www.treesforlife.org.uk or call 01309 691292.

 

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Nov 062015
 

roe-deer-fawn-picWith thanks to Suzanne Kelly.

Aberdeen City’s officers and the Liberal Democrats pushed for the so-called ‘Tree For Every Citizen’ scheme in 2012.

A Council officer promised the scheme was going to be cost neutral, and would have income. A herd of roe deer was veritably wiped out in a move 80% of the citizens objected to. How’s the scheme actually doing three and a half years later?

Despite the desperate claims of the city, the scheme is teetering on the brink of complete failure, witnessed by photographs and Forestry Commission documents.

More penalties possible?:

A Freedom of Information request saw the Forestry Commission releasing a report from 2014 which listed a catalogue of failings, and warned that the city might have to pay penalties if remedial actions were not carried out, which included weeding. These photographs were taken in early October at different points on the hill. Clearly, the weeds are winning over the trees.

Some of these documents, photos of the weeds smothering the trees, and the city’s figures from April on road accidents can be found here.

The city pressed ahead with the scheme despite having earlier paid a penalty of £43,800 for the failure of Phase 1 of the scheme on the hill.

Forestry Commission reporting advises that it is unlikely a large scale planting on Tullos Hill would succeed. The hill was used for industrial and domestic dumping for many years, but had supported deer, small mammals, birds and a variety of wildflowers.

A councillor had attempted to keep the hill as a meadow (meadowland is considered the fastest-disappearing type of green space) – but this was turned down by the officer supporting the TFEC scheme, on the grounds that it would be more expensive to enhance the existing meadow than to plant the trees.

Far from being cost neutral, the scheme has cost several hundred thousand pounds to date. With the potential for further penalties, the city is still pressing ahead with the scheme, which may require further animal culls, and further herbicide use.

To avoid penalties, the Forestry Commission wrote to Aberdeen City:

“All areas to be stocked to the minimum density as required by the model chosen. There is no allowance for over stocked areas to compensate for any areas where stocking does not meet the specification. The species found must match the species detailed on the map

  • All required weeding to be up to date and effectively controlling all weedspecies
  • Healthy and viable trees.”

Robust figures?:

The pressure group was meant to have the complete and accurate accounts sent to it covering all costs for the Tree For Every Citizen Scheme. It was immediately apparent that there was data missing. Not all known costs appeared on the spreadsheets released by the City (Aberdeen took over 5 months to deliver information which is held electronically).

The £43,800 penalty from the previous failure was missing, as were some costs identified in a previous freedom of information request. Some of the entries, totalling thousands of pounds are marked ‘unknown’ in the description column. Kelly is still awaiting answers to detailed questions put to the city. Even so, hundreds of thousands of pounds have been spent on the Tullos Hill scheme, with the consultant, Chris Piper, receiving a five figure sum for his work and expenses.

Campaign Group’s Reaction:

Suzanne Kelly, a campaigner with the Save The Tullos Hill Deer Group said:

“Common sense has left the building, and anyone with eyes can see the weeds tower over the trees. The Forestry Commission report lists a catalogue of problems with the planting – lack of growth, lack of density, weeds, rabbit browsing, but funnily enough the spreadsheet doesn’t make mention of deer browsing, but the cover letter does. I’ve not seen a single tree guard knocked over as if browsed by deer. 

“What I have seen on my frequent visits is weeds towering over the vast majority of trees. Residents and community councils were over ruled by the city on this one, and as a result we’ve incurred hundreds of thousands of pounds in costs, and are probably looking at further penalties. I do not understand how the officer who insisted that this scheme was cost neutral is not held to account for the dismal state of the finances and the dismal state of the trees. 

“We had deer and a meadow. We now have a small number of trees that grew taller than the weeds – and per an earlier Forestry Commission report, the soil matrix is so poor they are likely to topple in strong winds. This was a waste of time, money and was done at the expense of existing wildlife. I’d be ashamed to be the consultant who earned over £100,000 for this scheme, or the officers who pushed it on an unwilling public.

“We are now told that deer account for an accident on the roads per week. However, repeated requests for that raw data are met with silence. The data I did see from the city in April was flawed in that it contained two incidents outwith the city, and included a deer found in a nature reserve car park. 

“As to the promised income? A recent Freedom of Information request says we might get some small income – if the trees grow – in 75 to 100 years. Someone should be losing their job over this in my opinion.”

In case anyone still thinks that the city actually cares about wildlife and biodiversity, the huge swathes of greenbelt given over for development puts paid to that.

So to do the comments made by Peter Leonard. In his report to the Housing commission Leonard wrote about engaging with landowners over deer management.

However, in an exchange with Suzanne Kelly, she wrote:

“There will be further animal deaths on the road – not least because of the development of wildlife habitat at Loirston Loch. As far as I can learn, absolutely no provision has been made for deer or small mammals to be relocated.”

Leonard’s reply was:

“This will be for the developer to answer.”

This hardly echoes the newly-found concern for the safety of motorists or wildlife.

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Oct 222015
 

roe-deer-fawn-picWith thanks to Suzanne Kelly.

Animal welfare activists and Aberdeen citizens opposed to deer culling have welcomed a promise that no deer culling would take place at least until a count of the animals is made.

Although the council will meet to vote on culling next week, the last official count done in January 2014 found very few of the animals in the city area.

Some 46 of the animals in the south of the city were culled for a controversial tree-planting scheme.

Councillor Neil Cooney, Communities, Housing and Infrastructure Committee, wrote to campaigners; his email reads in part:

“Any other practical non-lethal measures will also be looked at… There will be no management until a population survey is completed: we must look at the issue of population densities”

Due to loss of greenbelt land, deer and other wildlife have been forced out of their habitats. One of the largest and most controversial projects sees land at Loirston Loch released for commercial development. Previous councils had decreed the land should never be built on. A large road-building project elsewhere in the city is also destroying habitat.

Campaigner Suzanne Kelly said:

“We welcome Neil Cooney’s comments, but are concerned that in Aberdeen ‘management’ automatically seems to mean killing animals. The author of the report before the Committee is also the author of the report that led to the culling of 46 roe deer on Tullos Hill for a tree planting scheme – on a former rubbish tip which the Government says is unlikely to support a large-scale tree planting.  

“The scheme was supposed to be ‘cost-neutral’; it has cost over £600,000. Over 80% of citizens opposed this according to STV, community councils objected – but still the city pressed ahead.

“As to these road accident statistics, we’ve asked for the raw data and are awaiting it. The last spreadsheet I saw was in April. This included accidents in Aberdeenshire, and incidents which were not involving collisions. Police Scotland had been requested to supply data; this request is overdue.

“There are non-lethal ways to curtail deer populations and help prevent road accidents; the city could do more. They seem to want to shoot first and not ask questions. However, when you look at how many road accidents we have, the involvement of deer pales into insignificance.

“The report insists the city must uphold the law on deer management. We look forward to the city showing the same enthusiasm for upholding the law on improving air pollution on our roads, which include some of the worst statistics in Scotland.

“The report’s author also claims the city wants to improve biodiversity; this is a bit risible in the face of its recent planning decisions, and the threat to turn the city’s Harbour area into an off-limits private industrial harbour. Still, as the city has agreed no killing at least until a proper count is done, we see this as a victory.”

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Oct 012015
 

This is an article submitted to SHMU for inclusion in their publication, Torry’s Vision. SHMU, or Station House Media Unit is a charity as well as a limited company, largely funded by the taxpayer. They purport to want articles from people living in Torry. They didn’t want this one. However, almost every issue of Torry’s Vision has glowing reports from the city’s rangers on how wonderfully things are going on Tullos Hill. Dissent seems to be off the menu at SHMU.

No final explanation was ever given for the refusal of this article.

First it was too long; I shortened it. Next they suggested it could be included as a letter. I explained that letters hardly have the same weight as articles. Then they wanted me to contact every organisation and person mentioned. Clearly the city, Aileen Malone, etc. would not be forthcoming with permission or statements to me on the deer cull and the enormous financial cost of their ‘cost neutral’ scheme.

Imagine if other magazines and newspapers had to contact the people they wrote about? Nothing negative would ever be published.

I sent footnotes to every claim I made. I told them they could cut the sentence about HoMalone (as she is known). No one ever explained why they didn’t print this, but had room for a full page story on a SHMU party, or half a page about household tips. SHMU’s representative was sent all of the links and/or prints of all documents used to support the article’s claims.

These can now be found here, along with a great deal of other relevant information on the deer cull and Tree scheme. They also said that this article needed to be more interesting to the people of Torry. Perhaps if any Torry residents past or present could kindly weigh in to say if this piece is at least as relevant to then as SHMU’s barbeque, that would be helpful. One more point: the City took months to release the finances: they were incomplete. By Suzanne Kelly

darkdeerpicA petition to examine issues surrounding the scheme and Aberdeen’s Tullos Hill in particular gained sufficient public support for the city’s Petitions Committee to address the issues.

The committee met the petitioners on 21 April.
Text of their petition can be found here.

In May of 2011, campaigners wanted the deer spared and for Tullos Hill to be left as a meadow and the roe deer to be allowed to remain.

Campaigners argued that the flowers and the gorse were important habitat and should not have been removed.

The hill is a former industrial and domestic rubbish dumping ground with serious soil pollution issues. When the public found out there would be a deer cull, thousands signed petitions and several community councils objected as well. STV reported that 80% of the city opposed the scheme. The convener of the Housing & Environment Committee, Liberal Democrat Aileen Malone, demanded that the public come up with £225,000 for fencing – or the deer would be shot.

Animal welfare charities and organisations were alarmed at this unprecedented demand, and people were urged not to give into the demand. Free of charge services were offered to show the city how to grow the trees using non-lethal methods – these were dismissed out of hand. A spokesperson for the Scottish SPCA referred to the culling of the deer for the tree scheme as ‘abhorrent and absurd.’

The public were initially told the tree planting would be at no cost to them. However, a Freedom of Information request revealed that an expert C J Piper, was paid £72,212 for services to the tree-planting scheme (FOI letter EIR-13-0110 – A Tree for Every Citizen response from Aberdeen City to S Kelly of Thu, 14 Feb 2013 9:39).

Other expenses include fencing, the cost of having the deer shot, and a previous failed planting on the same hill which saw the taxpayers returning £43,800 to Scottish Natural Heritage (letter from Forestry Commission Scotland to Aberdeen City Council 2March 2011). The campaigners want to know what all of the expenses are, both historic and ongoing.

John Robins of Animal Concern said:

“Aberdeen City Council have all but wiped out a perfectly healthy herd of deer which had existed for generations on a piece of rough land which has never been suitable for anything else. Tullos Hill evolved into its own natural habitat and should have been valued and protected for what it was and not destroyed to fit in with the grandiose plans of petty politicians.

“It is extremely unlikely that any new woodland will survive on Tullos Hill,” – (John Robins of Animal Concern in email to S Kelly of Fri, 3 Apr 2015 2:05) .

Suzanne Kelly, who has written several articles for Aberdeen Voice and a report, continued:

“There may be very few deer left in the entire city according to a recent SNH count. We want to know how much tax money has gone on this scheme, we want no further culling, and we want the city to seek assurances from the SNH that we won’t see another £43,800 bill coming our way: the trees are covered by weeds in many places, no matter how many awards have been dished out.”

Torry resident Earl Solomon added:

“I don’t agree with killing the deer. I think it’s disgusting”

The city council will consider its deer control issues again in October. It voluntarily has culled the 46 deer to grow trees, saying they are sticking to Scottish Natural Heritage guidelines. These guidelines are just that – guidance and not legally binding. Other local authorities such as Glasgow decided not to kill their deer.

More information on the costs of the Tree for Every Citizen scheme will be released shortly. It is important to see how much this scheme has actually cost Aberdeen’s taxpayers.

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Aug 252015
 

Suzanne Kelly has been one of the main campaigners who tried to stop the Tullos Hill Deer Cull and who tried to stop the city wasting money planting trees on Tullos Hill. When hundreds of Aberdeen taxpayers signed a petition, the city’s Petitions Committee heard Kelly speak – and among other things agreed to release the entire Tree for Every Citizen scheme’s costs. Seventeen weeks went by – and what was finally released leaves much to be desired. Suzanne Kelly explains.

darkdeerpic

Still in the dark regarding deer numbers, road accident figures and financial details.

After weeks of chasing, reminding, and waiting, Aberdeen City finally released what was meant to be the complete financial costs of the ‘Tree for Every Citizen’ scheme. One fact is incontrovertible: This was never going to be a ‘cost neutral’ project.

For a scheme which officer Peter Leonard promised again and again was ‘cost neutral,’ waiting from the end of April through the end of August was excessive.

All of the costs are meant to be kept in electronic form.

A previous Freedom of Information disclosure from December 2011 came comparatively quickly in the form of an excel spreadsheet.

The city has had a government soil report for years advising that establishing trees on the hill – once an industrial and domestic waste tip – is unlikely. The soil is almost non-existent, and because of the rocky structure of the hill and the waste, trees that do grow (not that there is much sign of growth) are likely to simply topple over – according to the Forestry Commission.

It was immediately apparent that not all was right. A previous and well documented £43,800 payment to the central government was missing. This was for the previous TFEC phase failure on Tullos. Getting the then Chief Executive Valerie Watts to admit to this costly failure was problematic (see previous Aberdeen Voice articles).

The £43,800 seems not to be recorded in the August release of costs anywhere.

That was not the only cost missing from the information supplied.

In June 2010, according to the previous FOI disclosure, some £30,000 was paid too Bryan Massie and identified as ‘Granite City Forest Phase 1’ / weed control. The two entries relevant to this cost supplied before have now disappeared.

The expenditure of public funds is meant to be controlled and responsibly managed. When convener of the Housing & Environment Committee responsible for this scheme and the deer cull, Aileen Malone, famously demanded the public stump up £225,000 for fencing or the deer would be killed, charities told people not to give in to this ‘blackmail’ or a dangerous precedent would be set. The cost for fencing on the hill seems – with the information received – to be around £40,000.

The scheme that was to be cost-neutral may have cost taxpayers some £600,000 pound so far – with no forest on Tullos. And no deer.

The excel workbook contains a page for income. The Scottish Government seems to have been rather generous. Or should that be the Scottish taxpayer.

The ‘other expenditure’ worksheet the City released contains two invoices for which little description but the word ‘other’ has been supplied. In many instances no suppliers are named.

The big financial winner of the scheme is arguably consultant Chris Piper of C J Piper, taking away approximately £100,000 for being the architect of the deer slaughter and the tree planting. The planting cost some £200,000. It is unclear whether this lucrative contract was put out to tender or not: no cost for any tender exercises whatsoever appear on the financial information supplied. If there was no tender exercise, then the city should explain how it skirted procurement protocol.

Killing the deer cost the taxpayer some £14,000 pounds for 2012 and 2013. No information was supplied for 2014. It is believed that the herd had gone several decades without the need for hunters to control their numbers. (It should also be remembered that the remains of some 4 poached animals were found last January on Tullos).

A complaint as to the poor quality of the information released was made, and as told the city officer responsible to go back and think again. It was also suggested that an upcoming council debate on future deer management set for October should be deferred until the public are given the full picture of this scheme, have had a chance to react, and a chance to contact their councillors.

If the information on cost had come out in a timely fashion, that might have been different. One might wonder whether the delayed, incomplete information could have been a stalling tactic to give campaigners and residents little time to input their thoughts into the October discussion.

The council officer, Steven Shaw, Environmental Manager, who supplied the excel workbook wrote:

“Before I send it to you I have asked officers to have a check through to ensure that there is nothing missing and information included that perhaps shouldn’t be.”

As to the request to delay the October discussion on deer management Shaw wrote:

“With regards to the deer management report, it is not for you to decide when the report will be presented to committee. The service continues to work towards October’s committee for presentation of the report.”

The decision to defer or not should be a matter for the councillors to decide, not Shaw, particularly in light of the circumstances of the TFEC finances.

Shaw is also keen to establish how many deer cause accidents. He also provided a spreadsheet describing when deer bodies were found or when they were involved in accidents. The factors causing deer to move would have included the loss of habitat on Tullos – huge swathes of gorse (essential for a variety of wildlife) were removed for the trees. Greenbelt was lost across the city for a variety of other building projects as well, forcing wildlife to leave areas no longer habitable.

The number of incidents of deer being found dead, removed from roads, or involved in accidents is 47. Most of the descriptions supplied do not indicate what the cause of death was. The incidents are at a variety of locations and span 2014 and 2015 to date. Without information on whether the deer were involved in motor vehicle accidents, poached like the 5 deer killed last year by poachers in the Gramps, this data is very broad and inconclusive.

But it does show deer should be protected. If Shaw/ the pro-hunting league are trying to sell the idea of killing all the city’s deer on the basis that they are found dead, the public may not exactly embrace that logic – especially when espoused by the very people who destroyed their habitat in the first place, using the logic that when the forest becomes established, the deer would have a place to live.

The public have had quite enough of this kind of thinking, and comments on social media reflect that conclusion. The city seems to be sticking to the guidelines put out by the SNH which allow only a handful of deer on land that used to support much larger populations; these guidelines are merely that, and are considered to be very controversial by landowners, animal welfare groups and even some gamekeepers.

We await the number of accidents caused by weather conditions, alcohol and bicycles from Police Scotland. We are confident it will dwarf the deer figure. We point to the need to preserve what little biodiversity remains in the south of the city, and we have long campaigned for signs to warn motorists of deer crossing areas, as is done in other localities where there are deer.

When correct and complete information is made available, it will be released. For the 2011 FOI response and this August submission from Steve Shaw, visit http://suzannekelly.yolasite.com/