Oct 032014

Previous administrations sold off property at a fraction of real value (funny, no one can find the details of the police investigation that was meant to happen – watch this space). They also wrote off £11 million in unpaid debts. Here is a snapshot of where you tax money was deployed last year. The trend of arms’ length bodies, quangos, quasi-charities, consultants and private companies hiving tax money off continues apace. Here is a small snapshot of where some of your money has gone. By Suzanne Kelly

brucepicCongratulations to Sir Ian Wood, lifetime achievement winner of a Northern Star business award. How wonderful.
A ceremony was held this past week; dignitaries ate dinners, media bodies were hired (Fiona Armstrong, compere) to appear and/or film this event, run by the Chamber of Commerce.

As self-congratulatory beanfeasts are concerned, this is not without precedent. But perhaps you should realise that you are helping to fund all these events at least in part, while being told there is little in the way of funds to keep schools open, to help the homeless, to provide round-the-clock care to those who need it and so forth.

Figures for this year’s awards are not made public, nor are they ever likely to be completely transparent, as there are now so many entities taking a slice of the pie.

Last year charity Station House Media Unit received some £2,300 for filming this event. The Chamber of Commerce has received a huge sum of money from us this year. During the Union Terrace Gardens referendum, it sent invoices between ACSEF unnamed contractors and the city council footed the bill.

When asked to name some of these suppliers – for instance whoever it was who received £150 (give or take) for a photo commissioned to show that UTG was ‘inaccessible’ (there is a huge sloping entrance by His Majesty’s Theatre), the Chamber wrote to say it was a private entity, and as such was not required to explain a thing.

A long, long time ago if you paid your tax, the government would directly use your money to buy goods services and employ people. Alas, this led to huge problems – such as your being able to clearly trace how much of your money was spent and where it went.

This is the age of the devolved responsibility entity, of quangos, special purpose vehicles and other entities which serve to obscure where your money goes and make salaries paid to those who act in these middle-man bodies invisible.

Tax money here in Aberdeen flows rather steadily to bodies such as Aberdeen Inspired, ACSEF, Aberdeen Chamber of Commerce, Station House Media Unit, and a host of consultants large and small.

While some of these bodies undoubtedly do good work – did they really provide value for money in 2013? And those that are social enterprises – does that put them above scrutiny? Does doing charitable work or providing training mean that any transparency as to how taxpayer money is spent should go out the window?

Here is a brief outline of how Aberdeen taxpayer’s money was employed in 2013 in a few situations.

A Tree For Every Citizen.

With great pride, Councillor Aileen Malone explained that this scheme had to be done in the most cost-effective way: it was only fair to the taxpayers seemed to be her approach. She was the convener of the Housing & Environment Committee, and pushed this scheme through claiming shooting the existing deer on Tullos was the only affordable thing to do for this great scheme (see Aberdeen Voice issues past).

In 2011 the taxpayer coughed up some £40,000 pounds to kill deer, raise fences and spray pesticide on the trees.

Here is a look at the invoices paid in 2013 for keeping the Tree for Every Citizen scheme going (note – this may not be a full list of costs):

Company/Consultant Invoice date Brief Description Amount inc. VAT
Bryan Massie 19/12/13 TFEC – Site management, weeding 2493.49
Bryan Massie (invoice 629) TFEC – Tullos maintenance 9,943.98
Bryan Massie 17/5/13 TFEC – herbicides – St Fitticks, Westfield, Seaton, Balgownie 4303.80
Bryan Massie 17/5/13 TFEC – Tullos ‘beating up’ and tree shelter 16,682.04
Bryan Massie 12/2/13 TFEC – Tullos 28,968.00
Sub Total 62,391.31
C J Piper / Chris Piper (noted for report claiming only a ‘vociferous minority’ objected to the TFEC scheme, said report not mentioning the tens of thousands of pounds he would be paid) 1/10/13 Preparation of strategy; time at £375 per day 12,000
C J Piper / Chris Piper 26/9/13 Scoping, survey, spatial plans 6,000
C J Piper / Chris Piper 26/7/13 Professional fees £950; travel 675 6,000
Sub Total 24,000
Minimum cost to taxpayer 2013 for Tree For Every Citizen Scheme 86,391.31

Combined with previous expenditures of £83,598 known to have been spent on the scheme, perhaps we could have let the meadow and the deer stay. (note: a petition asking for full disclosure of the costs, and a moratorium on shooting more deer until population figures are known at the least is awaiting approval from the city for its wording; it will be launched soon. This petition will also ask for a ‘comfort letter’ from the SNH/Forestry Commission: the city had to pay £43,800 back for the failure of Phase 1).

So £83,598 added to the above £86,391 makes £169,989. How the procurement exercise for our experts was carried out likewise remains a mystery.


But if Aileen Malone insisted fences were too expensive back in the day she had the deer shot as being an economical solution (in logic defying animal welfare charities such as the Scottish SPCA and Animal Concern) – she did have a point: fencing is rather expensive. Here is a summary of invoices received from Alpha Fencing in 2013:

Alpha Fencing.

Invoice date Brief Description Amount inc. VAT
26/314 (included in 2013 accounts) Airyhall 20,333
26/3/14 8,205
30/8/13 Duthie 4,671
22/8/13 Glashieburn 2,185
4/2/13 8,939
12/8/13 7,875
Total 52,208

Perhaps there are other fencing contractors; Alpha catches the eye as they were involved in work on Tullos. If other fencing contractors likewise earned money from the taxpayer last year, perhaps we will be told what companies are involved.

Big Loser.

One area in which money was saved concerned the loss of the Big Partnership contract. Despite having operatives charging between £40 and £65 per hour, the invoices were not huge, and stopped c. May 2013.

Stewart Milne.

Stewart Milne’s companies have not done too badly out of the Aberdonian taxpayer. There was the small matter of land in Westhill sold to one of the Milne companies for a pittance, with the understanding that any profit would be shared with the city. That never happened and the Milne entity took the city to the highest courts in the country before losing (cost of this legal action unknown).

At the same time, the Milne machine won work worth nearly £10 million. In 2013 invoices submitted for contracts with Milne were as follows:

Brief Description Amount
Hayton Road 30,044
Bryon Park 47,130
Rorie Hall 28,097
Total 105,271

Aberdeen Inspired

Perhaps someone from Aberdeen Inspired will be inspired to share with the business rate payers – i.e. the consumers – precisely what it does with all of the money it is given from the council. We’ve had bunting; the city has stumped up extra money for those trash compactors dotting the street. (nb – is there no waste segregation in these bins and if not, are we not just adding to landfill by using them?).

Inspired has also decided to use mobile phone signals to trace our footfall in the area; tracking how much time is spent inside a shop for instance. Data protection lobbyists are very concerned about the technology involved; Inspired insists it is completely anonymous.

At any rate, what is kept secret is how much anyone connected with Inspired is paid, how their procurement process works, and who is making the decisions. In case you think there is nothing more to Inspired than small change for craft stalls and banners, here is what they received from ACC last year:

Invoice date Brief Description Amount inc. VAT
2/10/13 Bid Levy Collection, both outstanding and collection, plus VAT 148,326.32
2/7/13 715,292.94
14/2/14 (in 2013 accounts) 30,038.73
12/8/13 28,235.52
29/3/13 21,695.80
2/10/13 9,550.00
Subtotal re Bid Levy 953,139.31
4/12/13 Trash bins 18,489.60
25/10/13 Trash bins 18,489.60
(date unclear) Ice rink 12,000.00
(date unclear) ‘wayfinding project’ 31,830.60
Subtotal non Bid Levy 80,809.8
Total invoiced by Bid/Inspired to ACC 2013 1,033,949.11

It would be interesting to see where all of this money has been used, what the overheads including salary are, as the tattered bunting blows in the breeze. No doubt some good work has been done – but what is the cost, what has been done with this consumer-generated, taxpayer-supplied million pounds: and has it resulted in increased sales for those who voted the scheme into existence?


Station House Media Unit engages in training, and helping disadvantaged area residents interested in the media; it publishes brochures for and/or with the council. Last year SHMU was criticised when it used photographs created by people who had not given advance permission and who had not been offered payment for their work – this would be a standard business practice for any publisher.

SHMU reacted badly to exposure of this situation; it may well be a charitable institution doing good work – but that does not put it above scrutiny.

Considering that so much of its funding comes from the public, it would be interesting to see what salaries are paid, what the overheads are, how procurement is done, etc, etc. – but again, this is a body that while funded largely by the public is not accountable to the public under Freedom of Information legislation.

Here is a selection of some of the funds SHMU received last year: the Council had 43 pages of documentation pertaining to funds sought / funds released to SHMU:

Invoice date Brief Description Amount
29/11/13 Pertains to community support fund grant offer; 1,624
31/5/13 Filming Start Awards (Chamber of Commerce award ceremony to business; Sir Ian Wood received a lifetime award in 2014) 2,300
Quarterly funding of 13,750/quarter 55,000
Winter 2013; Spring 2014 7 community magazines 11,929
4/12/13 Additional cost for 7 magazines 1,624
(date unclear) Training 8,500
7/12/13 Connecting communities through community media 16,750
Sub total for this selection of SHMU invoices 97,727

There were a number of youth employment-related invoices as well.

But far and away the biggest earners of the invoices examined were the Chamber of Commerce and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Secret Chamber.

The Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce acted as a de facto go-between during the Union Terrace Gardens referendum; ACSEF would commission work across a wide spectrum of services and price brackets. This would be invoiced to the City Council via the Chamber of Commerce.

Invoices of this type seen by Aberdeen Voice did not disclose who or what organisation performed the work undertaken. What procurement procedures were followed and if any ACSEF members directly benefitted from these invoices remains unclear at present: there seems to be no obligation ACSEF or the Chamber of Commerce to say how taxpayer money was spent.

Thirty one documents were presented by the City Council’s finance office covering invoices and funds paid to the Chamber in 2013. Some were for miniscule amounts such as breakfasts. Some were just a bit larger:

Invoice date Brief Description Amount
 29/11/13 Sponsorship of transport to Rio £542.48
30/4/13 2112.00
28/6/13 2112.00
13/11/13 324.00
29/11/13 542.48
18/6/13 Northern Star 7,800.00
1/10/13 Membership 2,838.00
6/8/13 Offshore Europe Breakfast 588.00
28/2/13 Research 4,560.00
31/12/13 Research 4,560.00
28/2/13 1080.00
31/12/13 540.00
29/11/13 2,160.00
29/11/13 7,020.00
20/2/13 1,140.00
Total for approx. half of the 2013 invoices £37,918.96

Beancounters Beanfeast.

The accounting firms have done quite well this year. KPMG made a tidy £10,740; this was positively modest compared to PricewaterhouseCoopers.

PwC may be remembered for its projections during the UTG referendum: its projections for the web’s construction and associated prosperity were, shall we say, enthusiastic. As per an earlier article on the subject:

“PricewaterhouseCoopers have come up with some grandiose projections including the creation of some 6,500 permanent jobs and £122 million flowing into Aberdeen every year until c. 2023: all because of the granite web. PricewaterhouseCoopers were first paid £41,000 and change for TIF-related work in March 2010. Other invoices followed, and so far I have been shown by Scottish Enterprise £71,000 worth of PwC invoices.”

The firm still enjoys the generosity of the Aberdonian taxpayer. Its consultants received hundreds of pounds per day each; its invoices covered a spectrum of services from the (scandal-hit) crematorium to fraud work. Here is a list of their 2013 invoices to ACC in round figures:

Invoice date Brief Description Amount
15/7/13 Pinewood 1,800
3/2 170,949
20/3/13 HMRC 1800
15/7/13 9,600
15/10/13 5,200
9/7/13 2,400
3/12/13 33,270
17/7/13 30,229
16/9/13 (included c £19K for crematorium) 78,142
15/4/13 165,889
18/12/13 59,281
21/11/13 86,540
8/11/13 13,678
1/5/13 2,940
29/5/13 11,206
6/8/13 Letter to HMRC 900
Total to PricewaterhouseCoopers 2013 673,824

Summing Up.

The city has joined the ranks of other municipalities that have ‘outsourced’ functions in order to save money. This growing trend does not always stand up to scrutiny. Consultants are needed to run services which, if were previously not-for-profit when in the public sector, need to be profitable for those who have chosen to run them.

In days gone by, the reason people paid tax was that there were some functions – education, good health care, etc. – which ideally should be free of the need to turn a profit. Our taxes were meant to benefit the people and the causes that needed help.

As more and more outsourcing is done, transparency moves away. The city’s accounts this year allude to an incident of fraud. Is it possible that the more people and entities that grow around managing services, the higher the chance there is of fraud? Does the increasing lack of transparency lend itself to those who would commit fraud?

Can a private company such as PricewaterhouseCoopers that stands to make money if (for instance) a granite web is built be entirely trusted to be 100% impartial on weighing up the practicalities of a project which would benefit its profit line?

Should the city weigh more carefully how its arm’s length bodies engage in procurement? From the 2013 figures, a case could be made that the city needs to look into its financial arrangements more carefully (and that’s before we look at the costs of outsourced health care).

Audit Scotland had some strong recommendations to the council several years back. If lessons have been learnt, let’s hope we get a clearer picture in the future of where our money is going.

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Apr 062012

At the next meeting of Aberdeen CND on Monday 10th April, Jonathan Russell, Chair of Aberdeen CND and also a member of Campaign Against the Arms Trade, will be leading a discussion on the Arms Trade. The meeting will take place at 7.30pm on the Top Floor of the Belmont Cinema, Belmont Street, Aberdeen.

The arms trade is a deadly, corrupt business. It supports conflicts and human rights abusing regimes while squandering valuable resources which could be used to deal with the many social and environmental challenges we face here on Planet Earth. It does this with the full support of governments around the world, in particular the five permanent members of the United Nations  Security Council: the United States, Russia, France, China and the United Kingdom.

These are the very countries which are meant to be our global custodians, but are in fact the very countries which are feeding global insecurity and conflict.

While very few countries sell large volumes of weaponry, the buyers are spread across the world. Other than to the five permanent UN Security Council members, the largest buyers are in the Middle East and South East Asia. The arms themselves range from fighter aircraft, helicopters and warships with guided missiles, radar and electronic warfare systems, tanks, armoured vehicles, machine guns and rifles.

The common misconception is that it is the illegal trade that is damaging, while the legal trade is tightly controlled and acceptable. However, the vast majority of arms sold around the world including those to human rights abusing governments or into areas of conflict are legal and are supported by governments. In 2007 the value of legal arms around the world amounted to 60 billion dollars. The illegal market is estimated at 5 billion dollars:  many illegal weapons end up as legal weapons.

The arms trade exists to provide weapons to those who can pay for them. What the buyers do with the arms, what political approval the sales signify, and how money could be better spent appears irrelevant to the arms companies and our governments. The UK Government’s 2010 Human Rights Annual Report identified 26 countries of concern. In that year the UK approved arms licences to 16 of these.

There’s a sense that in the past we were embarrassed about supporting defence exports. There’s no such embarrassment in this Government.

David Cameron was in the Middle East on a high-profile mission to sell arms when the democracy movement started in the Middle East. Selling arms to a country in conflict whether internal or external makes the conflict more deadly and longer lasting.
If there is tension between countries or within a country, then arms purchases are likely to increase this tension and make actual conflict more likely.

Even when conflict has ended, arms, particularly small arms, may remain in large numbers (as in Libya at present), fuelling further conflicts and/or criminal activity.

Every year the UK Government authorises the sale of arms to well over 100 countries. This is hardly surprising given that it is Government policy to vigorously support arms exports. Peter Luff, Minister of Defence Exports in the present UK Government, has stated that:

“There’s a sense that in the past we were embarrassed about supporting defence exports. There’s no such embarrassment in this Government.”

Arms companies and Government are inseparable when it comes to selling arms. The Government’s UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) department is a vital element of UK’s arms dealing. In 2008 the Government opened the Defence and Security Organisation which promotes weaponry on behalf of arms companies. There are 158 civil servants in the Defence and Security Organisation while other non-arms sectors have137 staff. This is despite arms accounting for less than 1.5 Percent of UK exports.

• Arms export jobs as a percentage of total employment:  0.2%
• Arms as a percentage of exports:  1.5 %
• UK Government Research Expenditure Spent on Arms:  27%
• UK trade and investment staff committed to selling arms:  54%

Research carried out for Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) by the Stockholm International Peace Institute assesses the level of subsidy by Government to the arms trade in the UK to be around £700 million a year.  In 2010 the UK Government issued 10,850 arms export licences, refused 230, and revoked 14.

Half of the refusals related to proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, with a maximum of 76 being revoked on the grounds that they contributed to internal repression, internal conflict or regional instability. Foreign office embassies also promote the arms sales, as do the Ministry of Defence armed services. Arms fairs are common in the UK and around the world.  The governments of host countries provides support for their arms firms.

Arms sales from the UK seem to vary from year to year:

• 2007    9651 million   (particularly high because of sales of Typhoon aircraft to Saudi Arabia)
• 2008    4367 million
• 2009    7261 million also high as included Typhoon support services to Saudi Arabia)
• 2010    5819 million

Of the 16 countries identified by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute as locations of major conflict in 2009, the UK sold arms to 12.

Columnist Will Self –  “War, the arms trade and the abuse of language”

BAE arms are the UK’s main arms company and has military customers in over 100 countries. BAE’s focus over the past few years has been on increasing sales to the US, specifically targeting equipment for conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and supplying Euro fighters and other arms to Saudi Arabia. BAE routinely supplies countries which the UK Foreign Office considers as having ‘the most serious wide-ranging human rights concerns’.

The casualties of conflict are now overwhelmingly civilian, increasing from 50% of war related deaths in the first half of the twentieth century to 90% near the end of the century.

The arms trade affects development both through the money wasted on arms purchased and through the conflicts fuelled by arms.

A study in 2007 by Oxfam of the economic cost of armed conflict to Africa estimated that Africa  loses around 18 billion dollars a year due to wars and that armed conflict shrinks an African nations economy by 15%.

As well as the direct effects of military spending, medical costs and the destruction of infrastructure, there are indirect costs on the  economy and employment suffers ( this does not take into account the countless human misery caused by loss of life and sustained injuries effecting families and friends as well as the individuals concerned).

The study estimated that the cost  of conflicts in Africa since 1990 was equivalent to the aid provided to them by major donors.

Even when conflict is not taking place money diverted to arms is a drain on government resources and takes away from vital spending on health education and infrastructure. The massive 1998 South African arms deals for aircraft, helicopters, warships and submarines cost the country over £8billion. Yet most of the population live in shanty towns and other poor housing and South Africans with HIV/AIDS were told that the country could not afford ant-retroviral medication.

Despite desperate poverty and its recent appalling history of armed struggle, the UK government is actively promoting arms struggle to Angola. The UK government not only approved arms exports to Angola it actively organised an “industry day’’ when HMS Liverpool docked in Angola waters and hosted Angolan political and military officials.

The arms trade causes countless misery in our world; it is a poor use of limited resources which should be used to make this world a better place. We need to question the thinking in the world that believes you only get what you want by force. The five members of the Security Council should start taking on their responsibilities and use conflict resolution rather than warfare to sort the many conflicts that take place both between and within countries.

Mar 152012

With thanks to Suzanne Kelly.

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

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

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

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

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

Langley was quoted at the time as saying:

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

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

many feel the media bombardment influenced the vote

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suzanne Kelly commented:

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

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

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