Jun 172016
 

Old Susannah turns her head awa frae Aberdeen this week as her lugs pick up gunfire in the States – again. By Suzanne Kelly

DictionaryLand of the Free, Home of the Brave, Bastion of Gun Worship; Americans witnessed another senseless bloodbath this past week. It was an American born Muslim extremist

in Orlando, Florida, with an automatic assault rifle in a nightclub. Which politicians will try to use these deaths to score points and whip up a bit more hatred (give you three guesses as to one of them)? Where will it be next time?

America needs some new slogans. ‘Land of the Free, home of the brave’ just doesn’t cut it anymore.

It seems to me that no one’s genuinely free. Minority groups, women and the poor have one set of laws to govern them, and freedoms are more than a little limited.

There is now an expression specifically for spurious, racially-motivated arrests, ‘Running (or driving) while black’.

The more money you’ve got, the better illusion of freedom you can afford, and the better protected you will be. Policing is biased in many places, and as we’ve seen from the Brock Turner rape case, Justice peeks from behind her blindfold, and can tell when there is some gold on her scales. Law and law enforcement have long since gone their separate way from Liberty. ‘Truth, Liberty and Justice for All’ no longer reflects the reality.

Aside from if you were a Native American, it all seemed such a good idea at the time.

The American experiment if taken literally would see people today free to choose where and how to live, collecting their own rainwater without fear of prison, living off the grid if they felt like it, and dare I say it – using whatever plants (including cannabis) however they chose to.

Funny, no one wants to take the freedom, equality and rights-concerned sections of the Constitution literally – but the NRA certainly wants to ensure that we take very literally ‘the right to bear arms’ (which of course was in the context of having a militia and when muskets ruled, not semi-automatics and Saturday Night Specials).

In the USA there are those who take the bible literally too, and are at great pains to prove the world is only 6,000 years old and the righteous will float up to heaven in the Rapture (NB this is a US invention, not that most of the bible belters will admit that). The only parts of the bible they don’t want to take literally (while they build ‘creation museums’ showing dinosaurs romping with humans) is the ‘love one another’/ ‘do unto others’ bit.

What a selective species we can be. Interpretation of Truth and Liberty have been warped by special interest and greed to the point they’ve broken.

When I moved to the UK from New York people would ask me why, and I’d half-jokingly reply ‘because I don’t want to get shot’. Some would look at me funny; I’d explain handgun proliferation and gun culture to the interested. But no one I met in the UK could really understand why some Americans are dead set on ‘protecting’ themselves with guns.

From all the evidence (accidental misfire killings and wounding;, parents shooting children arriving home late, etc), I don’t understand how a gun ‘protects’ the average Yank either.

One reason I’m going to try and write on this topic (once more) was a post Nick Tesco (a founder of The Members, but you know that) made on Facebook in the wake of Orlando:

“Dear American friends, do these mass murderers see children, church goers and gay people as tools of the tyranny that they’ve been obliged to take up arms against as demanded by your Second Amendment and like your NRA say? Or is that something you might need to take a look at when you’ve finished giving women a hard time about abortion?”

21st Century – Still tribal after all these years.

In his post Tesco seems to be asking for an American re-examination of values, guns, the meaning of freedom, and where the focus of securing freedom should be.

Tesco’s since qualified his post; he well knows that not all Yanks are the problem, and if you look at the UK through a similar lens, you might not see a pretty picture either.

For instance there is some unnecessary, ugly violence going on over the beautiful game in France at present. Nationalistic fans clash with nationalistic fans in the streets and bars of France on some primitive tribal quest to prove who’s the most warlike (and I suppose to their minds this makes them superior, manly, desirable). Things aren’t different in the US. Scenes at pro-Trump rallies make thinking-people cringe, and that’s before the violence starts.

What is the American Republican/Democrat push-pull if not mindless tribalism? Everyone wants their side to win, and most people stick with whichever party their parents belonged to. No one looks at what their elected officials’ backgrounds are or what entities fund them and chooses – just whether the elephant or the donkey wins.

You might be living in a trailer park on benefits in America, but if mom and dad were Republicans, you’re likely to vote for a billionaire because he’s in the Republican livery, however exploitative he is of you and your fellow poor Americans. The ingrained desire to be a ‘winner’ overrides logic, fact, and common sense for some.

There is a lot to love about America – most of the people, the environment, and the idea of liberty.

How, when and why did a country which declared the notion of freedom being its core value turn into a racist, sexist, elitist police state governed by the rich for the benefit of the rich and their richer multinational masters? Perhaps being formed on top of, rather than along side of, Native American rights and values, and on the back of slavery meant the American dream was always going to become a nightmare, but the bloodshed and inequality has to be countered before it’s too late.

Ultimately I don’t think it’s too late to turn it around (or I’d not bother writing about it) but this must happen now before more ground is lost to the crooked cop, the bent judge, the lobbyist-controlled congressman and the multinational.

An observation which may or may not be a non-sequiter came to mind. I’ve a good number of intelligent American friends and acquaintances; most far more intelligent than I am. A few have put their brains into music, art, politics; the majority have harnessed their talents to making money. I can’t help but think if they hadn’t been conditioned to think that money equalled success that such talent could have been applied to creative, political and humanitarian ends.

I also can’t help but think for some people, they’d be a lot happier if they hadn’t been worried about being a lot richer.

You might think you are freer in the US than in other places. Gun-loving Americans clutch their guns and decry they will use them to guard their freedoms. They think this is freedom; they think it is a free country. I beg to differ. Here are a few thoughts on how freedom is doing these days.

Free Elections?

Turning back to gun violence, there are many worthy groups fighting to get guns under some form of control. Why don’t people just vote for congressmen who will deliver gun control, and that will be the end of the problem?

In order to run for office, a candidate needs millions of dollars. Perhaps candidates start out with high hopes and best intentions. I respectfully suggest that with a few notable exceptions, by the time they raise this money, they will get their hands dirty. They will owe favours. Will they owe the National Rifle Association, arguably the most powerful lobbying group in America? More than likely.

“According to OpenSecrets, a site that tracks money in politics, the NRA spent $984,152 on campaign contributions during the 2014 election cycle. It also spent more than $3 million on lobbying in both 2013 and 2014. The NRA also spent $28,212,718 on outside political contributions during this period, which includes ads paid for directly by the NRA. That makes it the tenth biggest spender when it comes to such political spending.”
http://fortune.com/2015/12/03/san-bernadino-nra-political-spending-gun-violence/

Voting is a right people fought for, but not everyone uses. About 40% of the country will either not bother to turn out for a presidential election – or do not vote for more sinister reasons.

There are those who want to vote – but get turned away in increasing numbers for spurious reasons. Names go missing from electoral rolls. Last minute demands for photo ID sends some away. In a paradox, questions were raised about some of the votes delivered from Florida by Governor Jeb Bush to clan Bush member Dubya – were all of those who voted: alive, able to vote, received postal votes themselves that they alone completed – questions remain.

Can elections be rigged? Of course. Does that only happen in the third world? Of course not.

So, we are not free to select the best candidate to run for office; we are selecting from candidates pre-selected by vested interest groups who give their candidates enough money to run. We are not free to vote if we are turned away because of unconstitutional practices, and racism does still stop people from getting to the ballot box:

“Thousands of black electors in Florida were disenfranchised in last November’s [2000] election by an electoral system tainted by “injustice, ineptitude and inefficiency” a leaked report by the US civil rights commission says. It accuses Governor Jeb Bush, the president’s brother, and his secretary of state, Katherine Harris, of “gross dereliction” of duty, saying they “chose to ignore mounting evidence” of the problems. 

“The eight-strong commission, whose report will be published on Friday, found that black voters were “10 times more likely than white voters to have their ballots rejected”, and pointed to the use of a flawed list of felons and ex-felons to purge the voting rolls. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/jun/06/uselections2000.usa

Freedom fail.

Tesco also once posed on Facebook that everyone should vote; this is true up to a point. Not that I take all my political leads from musicians, but Jerry Garcia is attributed with having said (I paraphrase again) ‘If you vote and choose between two evils, you are still choosing evil.’

So – while I must vote for Clinton – as a vote against Trump – it is not because of any woman solidarity, and it’s certainly not because I approve of her Monsanto links.

She is clearly the better choice over Trump. A nation of 260 million people – and it comes down to this. I might well write in George Takei who has always spoken out against violence and intolerance, or for heroic filibustering senator Chris Murphy whose stamina has forced a congressional vote to ‘close the terror gap’.

In the end, I will vote for Clinton, to avoid the Trump presidency, and the catastrophe that would spell. (besides which, I’d like to be able to visit the US in the next 4 years without winding up in a boiler suit on my way to GitMo). As far as I know, unlike Trump, Clinton’s not racked up 3,500 lawsuits, hasn’t opened a fleecing operation posing as a ‘university’ and doesn’t want everyone armed. She’s no plans to ‘take out’ people related to terrorists, or to ban Muslims / American Muslims from travel.

Free to have guns.

Anything you need to know about the illogic and insanity of having automatic weaponry freely available can be found in Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine documentary. The sad thing is that this film was made in 2002. Oh, and the wealth and power of the NRA tells you why the country is like this.

Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Happiness.

At the same time we Americans are telling ourselves how ‘free’ we are, and how we want to bring freedom to other countries (frequently those with resources NB), liberty is getting a beating at home and abroad. The same ilk of senator who will keep automatic guns on sale is legislating to give American water not to Americans, but to sell or give it to companies like Nestle, which is bottling it up and signing lucrative deals to take water in states like Oregon.

Want to collect rain water on your own property? In many states that will land you in prison – like Oregon, which is giving your water to Nestle.

Nick Tesco is right in his Facebook post when he alluded to abortion, but it is actually worse and worsening for any woman who wants control over her body and life. Have a spontaneous abortion – don’t do it in certain states, or you’ll go to jail for failing to carry full term.

There are places where you will be mauled by a police dog, beaten to a pulp or beaten to death – or shot for offences like having a tail light out on your car, driving too slowly, running, or just being non-white in a white area. The police are brutal in some states. There is no other way of putting it.

And Justice for All? 

Some police officers are people who want to make the world better; however, organisations like Police the Police are proving time and again that the police force today includes Ku Klux Klan members, paedophiles and sadists. They largely seem immune from prosecution – while the guy collecting rain water or trying to live ‘off the grid’ will spend years in prison. In some states, growing marijuana can lead to decades in prison.

However, if you are white, privileged – and a good swimmer – raping an unconscious woman will get you a few months in a cell at most.

I’d add a description of how Native Americans have been treated past and present – but I cannot do it justice at all. Here is a good place to look at one issue though – the veritable kidnapping of Native children who are chemically coshed and placed with white, extreme ‘Christian’ families for no good reason other than money is made from it, and families and culture is destroyed in the process. This is the tip of the iceberg for Native issues.

It’s lunacy, and as far as the eye can see, the root causes are greed and self-interest.

Does this make me a conspiracy theorist?

Does it serve the interests of those in power when these incidents happen? It doesn’t always hurt. You’ve got Trump insisting if everyone had a gun, Orlando wouldn’t have happened (so no hostage or crossfire casualties in his world I suppose). When the serial killer in question is non-white and non-Christian – then the authorities insist we have an Islamic jihad problem that can only be served by the rest of us giving up more of our freedoms and… by panicking the suggestible into buying guns to protect themselves.

We know how well that works out.

CODA

Just as I finish this piece, Jo Cox MP has been shot and stabbed; she supports the Remain campaign, and works to help Syrian refugees. Allegedly the assailant yelled ‘Britain First.’ [17 June:  Jo Cox has been murdered. Britain First’s Facebook page has a BF ‘news’ item that the murderer didn’t shout ‘Britain First’ – they shouted ‘Put Britain First’.  A trivial distinction which ignores the fact she is dead, and those who have worked tirelessly to ratchet hatred up several notches are at least in part culpable.]

If the reports prove true, and they are a Britain First supporter, they have shown BF in its true light. Despite its many Facebook posts using click bait such as veterans, dog fighting, elderly issues – they are only nationalistic, white supremacist violent thugs. If this is how their followers try to advance their cause, let’s ensure we stop sharing their posts at the very least, and let’s make sure they don’t get a foothold.

The US is rapidly becoming ruled by gunpower – let’s ensure that never happens here.

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Jan 162015
 

On 7 January 12 members of French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo were gunned down in their offices.   This was a premediated, cold-blooded assassination by radicalised people claiming somehow to have ‘avenged the Prophet Mohammed’.  Following the massacre of the journalists – and others in France unlucky enough to have crossed the path of the murders, worldwide, pan-religion condemnations were issued and rallies held.  Aberdeen, with its considerable French population, joined in with its own rally, organised by Frog in Aberdeen and especially Julie Tchao.  Suzanne Kelly talks to those who attended.

je_suis_charlie_by_Suzanne_Kelly

There were many families present, many with French origins. Picture credit: Suzanne Kelly.

Aberdeen’s Castlegate filled up last Sunday with people of all ages and nationalities to stand together in solidarity for those who lost their lives in Paris, their families and friends. Several hundred people rallied, carrying the flag of France, posters, and signs proclaiming ‘I am Charlie/Je Suis Charlie’ – the ‘I am Spartacus’ slogan adopted for those who express solidarity with the magazine and its use of satire and humour to mock the powerful, corrupt and dangerous.

A small shrine was set up with a candle; a book of condolences was readily filled with comments – it is being sent to Paris.

People also wore pencils on their coats as a symbol of the power of the written word and of satire – a representation that ultimately the pen is mightier than the sword or gun.

Organiser Julie Tchao said:-

“I think it is really excellent the turnout we had today, not only from the French community which is good, but also from Scottish and British people who are like us  shocked and horrified by what happened.  It is really great that on this occasion everyone could gather around a good cause and a peaceful event and share our sorrows but also share the fact we say no to terrorism and yes to freedom of speech.   

“I am really touched by the turnout from a small city like Aberdeen.”

Also attending the event was Domenic Bruce; he commented:-

“I think what has happened is very inhumane and a huge distortion of what Islam is as a religion.  I think all we can do is hope that love and light can diffuse the situation and people come together to help the victims’ families – and well the whole world really.”

There were many families present, many with French origins.  Natalie and here family were one such group.  She commented:-

“We decided to come as a family to show our solidarity with what happened in Paris – the atrocities – and to demonstrate that we want to keep our freedoms.”

Her partner Nick added:-

“It’s too easy for the silent majority to stay silent and that’s why we wanted to be here – remembering what happened – not shouting about it – but quietly supporting the people of France, and supporting freedom.”

The historic Castlegate has seen many events over its many hundreds of years as a gathering place, but no one could have imagined it would be used for such an international, interfaith display of unity as it did that Sunday; the dignity on display and the kindness people showed to each other brings hope.

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Dec 172013
 

nelson-mandela-longBy Bob Smith.

Madiba he’s bin laid tae rest
His lang journey it is deen
Beeriet in his hame village
Es Freeman o Aiberdeen

His story is worth tellin
Bit a widna even try
It needs a bodie far mair versed
In Sooth Africa’s freedom cry

Ess “Tata” o Sooth Africa
As Madiba he wis weel kint
Fer fechtin agin apartheid
Tae prison wis eence sint

Tata Madiba yer noo free
Amang angels ye can rest
Kennin fine fin on ess earth
Ye did mair than try yer best.

Nelson Mandela fareweel tae thee
Nae mony can tak yer place
A mannie fa focht fer justice
A credit tae the human race.

©Bob Smith”The Poetry Mannie” 2013
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Jun 102013
 

How the unelected quango that is Scottish Enterprise, with ACSEF’s blessing, put business before our environment and won the day for Trump is the question. However, getting information about what happened is a bit like pulling teeth.  Suzanne Kelly reports on her recent bids to obtain information from Scottish Enterprise about its engagement with Trump.

Scotland is well and truly open for business.  We will wine and dine with you, fly you round our protected environment in helicopters, create feasibility studies at taxpayer expense, and give support recommending existing environmental protection is overlooked.

Well, we’ll do that if you are a foreign billionaire.

Much has been written about the relationships between Scotland’s First Ministers McConnell and Salmond, Scottish Enterprise and Donald Trump.  There have been dinners both sides of the Atlantic with these key players.

The Ministerial Code prohibiting such blatant support for pending planning applications was certainly bent if not broken.

New information has come to light through Freedom of Information requests.  A letter from Scottish Enterprise’s Jack Perry to Trump following their dinner is the sort of love letter that would have made Dame Barbara Cartland blush. The new FOI requests have also raised some important questions.

Anomalies between the disclosed information and the facts do not always seem to add up.

Love-letters Straight from the Heart

Scottish Enterprise – an unelected, taxpayer funded quango provided support to the Trump organisation.   It is clear the organisation should deal with foreign investors.  Why, however, it should have recommended – and successfully so – overriding environmental protection status to create a golf club is a mystery.

Another mystery is why the taxpayer should have spent over £30,000 on a feasibility study, or provided £40,000 helicopter flights over Menie to a billionaire.

After meeting in New York for dinner with Trump, this is what then head of Scottish Enterprise, Jack Perry wrote a letter to the Donald, which can be found here:  http://menie-estate-report.yolasite.com/

The letter raises a few points as well as raising the bar in obsequiousness. In order of appearance, these include the following.

1.  Perry put pressure on the head of the Shire council in the form of a letter ‘registering his profound dismay’.  Scottish Enterprise could either have suggested new potential, less contentious locations for a course.  It could have stayed out of the political side of things. It chose to write to the head of regional government to ‘register dismay’.

2.   More importantly, Perry puts it on the table:  The Scottish Government favoured the plans.

“We concur with the Scottish Government’s contention that this is genuinely a project of national importance to Scotland.” 

The rejected planning application was called in by the Government, who had let its support of the plan be known in December of 2007.  With this predisposition noted by close government quango head Perry, how could there have been any chance of a fair outcome?  What exactly was this partiality based on?  Was it the extremely favourable business projections – which now seem rather unrealistic to say the least?

3.  Perry lobbies the other parties’ shadow ministers.  As he put it:-

“I have tried to make it clear in these discussions that the impact of Aberdeenshire Council’s decision goes far beyond the immediate issues of the Trump development but has much wider implications for Scotland’s International image and reputation as a country which welcomes investment.”

Is it really part of the remit of Scottish Enterprise to not only lobby, but to lodge a veiled threat that saying no to this project would have ‘wider implications’?

The head of a multi-million pound quango and the influence of ACSEF, Scottish Enterprise’s Regional Advisory Board – itself unelected but taxpayer funded – could be very intimidating indeed.  Indeed, Patrick Machray, then head of ACSEF, was singled out for praise in the support he lent to the Trump project, and was copied on this letter.

Perry closes his letter:-

As Scotland’s principal economic development agency, we at Scottish Enterprise wish to see your development proceed. We will continue to do what we can to help.”

And indeed they did.

Do we really want to be funding unelected bodies, Scottish Enterprise and ACSEF, to act in a manner that sidesteps or pressurises our elected officials?  It seems we do.

Freedom of Information Conundrums

Getting information should be easy, and responses to FOI requests accurate and complete.  The recent replies received from Scottish Enterprise raise as many questions as they answer.  Here are some issues arising.

1.  Hospitality

A fairly comprehensive question was posed as to any hospitality/gifts that might have been received from the Trump organisation:-

“3.  Details of any hospitality (event, gift, accommodation, etc.) offered to any member of Scottish Enterprise or Visit Scotland  from Trump International (including Donald Trump, Trump International Golf Links Scotland, Trump International, and The Trump Organization) which pertains to the Menie Estate, Balmedie, SSSIs, setting up business in Scotland, environmental laws, finance available for golfing ventures in Scotland).”

The answer sounded reasonable enough at first:-

“In accordance with Section 17(1)(b) of FOISA, I can confirm that Scottish Enterprise holds no information relating to any gifts or money received from Trump International, or the other related parties listed.    To comply with Scottish Enterprise’s Code of Conduct, the organisation maintains a register of gifts and hospitality received by employees from companies.   I confirm that a search of the register has been undertaken and no entries relating to gifts or hospitality from Trump have been registered.”

However, Jack Perry’s letter to Donald Trump opens as follows:-

“You may or may not recall that I had the pleasure in October 2005 of joining you for lunch in the Trump Tower with the then First Minister, Mr Jack McConnell….”

Who exactly paid for this lunch?  While much has been written about the subject, it is not at present clear whether the taxpayer paid for the lavish meal (steaks and shrimp in Trump Tower are not exactly inexpensive), or whether Trump did.  If it was the taxpayer, how extremely generous of us, particularly when McConnell should not have been there anyway.

If it was Trump, then the cost should have appeared on Jack Perry’s hospitality details:  Scottish Enterprise are saying no hospitality had been registered.

2.  Funding

An excellent article on this meeting can be found in the Scotsman at http://www.scotsman.com/news/scottish-news/top-stories/how-jack-of-clubs-came-up-trumps-for-donald-1-1411884

It mentions two helicopter flights paid for by Scottish Enterprise– the Scottish taxpayer picked up the tab.  The Scotsman article reports:-

“The billionaire’s golf company was lavished with attention. Two memos released by SE show that – at a cost of £4,800 to the public purse – the agency paid for two helicopter tours of Scotland, taking in the golf course site, as they showed off the country to their deep-pocketed American friends.

“A further e-mail shows they offered to meet the £40,000-50,000 cost of a feasibility study into the Menie Links site. Trump’s people were impressed, “raving” in August last year about the way enterprise agency officials were courting them. All was set fair for a deal.”

However, when asked a fairly clear question about funding:-

 “2. Details of any funding applied for, granted, or rejected for Trump International (including Donald Trump, Trump International Golf Links Scotland, Trump International, and The Trump Organization) which pertains to the Menie Estate, Balmedie, SSSIs, setting up business in Scotland, environmental laws, finance available for golfing ventures in Scotland) by Visit Scotland and Scottish Enterprise.”

The reply ignored these flights:-

“I can confirm, in accordance with Section 17(1)(b) of FOISA, that Scottish Enterprise holds no information within the scope of your request.   SE has not received any applications for funding, and has not granted, or rejected any applications for funding for Trump International, or the other related parties listed.”

It seems fairly evident that supplying flights worth c. £40,000 would have constituted funding granted.  Money was spent in connection to the Menie Estate.

3.  Time Warp

A FOI question pertained to the quote from Jack Perry appearing on the Trump website.  This quote reads:-

“As Head of Scottish Enterprise, Scotland’s main economic, enterprise innovation and investment agency, I welcome the progress on Trump International Golf Links’ development in Aberdeenshire. The overall aim of Scottish Enterprise’s Tourism strategy is to achieve higher value add through the development of such premium resorts and experiences for visitors.

“We value the commitment which the Trump organisation is demonstrating by commencing work on the site at Menie, as this type of new resort development, will deliver modern, high quality accommodation and facilities to Scotland. This is critical to our ambition to help Scotland realise more value from our tourism assets. The development will attract higher spending visitors from across the UK and overseas and will further support Scotland’s position in the global market as the Home of Golf.”

“Jack Perry, Chief Executive, Scottish Enterprise”

The website did not pre-exist the course.  The quote refers to work commencing on the site.

Scottish Enterprise would have us believe, however, that no correspondence took place between it and Trump. The FOI had specified that correspondence from 2008 onward was being requested.  Bearing in mind the pre-approval letter from Perry to Trump was from December 2007.  This was the FOI question:-

“1.  Copies of correspondence to and from Visit Scotland and Scottish Enterprise on the one part and Trump International (including Donald Trump, Trump International Golf Links Scotland, Trump International, and The Trump Organization) on the other part, pertaining to the Menie Estate, Balmedie, SSSIs, setting up business in Scotland, environmental laws, finance available for golfing ventures in Scotland).”

In February this was the answer to that question:-

“We have carried out a search of our files and can advise, in accordance with Section 17(1)(b) of FOISA, that Scottish Enterprise holds no information within the scope of your request.”

As it seemed unlikely that a quotation from Perry got onto the Trump website with no correspondence taking place; a new FOI was launched.  The question SE was now asked included the quotation taken from Trump’s website.  This simply could not have been made before 2008 – not with the reference to work commencing.

The December 2007 letter to Trump from Perry was before the subsequent government approval of the scheme.  It was time to ask Scottish Enterprise to explain, and the following questions were sent;-

“2.1 Given the answer supplied below, that no correspondence took place between Scottish Enterprise and the Trump Organisation, please explain how the above text was sent to the Trump organisation, under what circumstances, and at whose instigation.

“2.2 Please also explain the apparent inconsistency with your previous reply that there had been no correspondence between the two entities.

“2.3 If it now seems that there was correspondence between the two entities, please now submit such correspondence.”

When thus virtually cornered, SE replied:-

“Following an extensive search of files, I can confirm, in accordance with Section 17(1)(b) of FOISA that SE does not hold any information to respond to your question.  Any communication officers that could have dealt directly with the Trump Organisation have since left Scottish Enterprise and, in accordance with our retention policy, we would no longer hold files which would allow us to confirm how the quote referred to above was provided to the Trump Organisation.

“Your previous FOI requested information held from 2008 onwards.   The response provided was therefore accurate within the scope of your request.

“Please find attached a letter from Mr Perry, former CEO of SE, to Donald Trump dated 7 December 2007.    I confirm that this is all of the information held within the scope of your request.”

The correspondence ends with the statutory advice that an investigation of how the FOI request was handled can be requested.  It is a fair bet to assume it will be.

If an organisation like this quango doesn’t keep correspondence – including that sent on behalf of its CEO – then accountability simply doesn’t exist.

Does Scottish Enterprise have carte blanche and a blank chequebook?  We could be forgiven for thinking so.

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Mar 212013
 

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

Tally Ho! Apologies for the late running of this column.

For one thing I’ve been a bit tied up with issues at the Menie Estate.  I’ve compiled a report covering some of the little issues people have with the galaxy’s greatest golf course and Mr Trump. Leaving aside boring issues such as the quality of life for residents, visitors and wildlife, it was a huge honour to be one of the first people to see the brand new plaque by the course’s temporary (?) clubhouse.

This plaque tells you the course has been ‘weaved’ through the ‘largest dunes in the world’.

Of course it has.  I wonder whether The Donald wrote this brilliant prose himself, or if one of our BiG local PR agencies devised it for him.  It is very inspirational – I just won’t tell you what I felt inspired to do.

While at the course I had hoped to interview some of the thousands of new employees working in the promised golf jobs, and ask what was going on with the millions of pounds of income generated.  I couldn’t find these new employees – perhaps they were all out counting their money.  However, I was lucky enough to see one of the rarest forms of wildlife, the lesser-spotted Sarah Malone-Bates.

It was wearing a bright pink blouse (which was interesting, as the rest of us needed coats, hats and gloves).  She must have been cold, but a little suffering is the price of beauty.  (I note that there are a few beauty contests coming up in our area; isn’t it great to know how important looks are, and what humanitarian ends beauty contest winners can get up to.

Some say beauty is skin deep; others that beauty is as beauty does.  I wonder what Mrs Maloney-Baloney thinks.  They also say you get the face you deserve by the time you’re 40.  I wonder what Mr Trump thinks on that score).

Other than that, there has been so much activity of late that it’s hard to know where to start.

First, a thank you to the nice people at Lunan Farm Shop & Cafe, who helped me when my mobile phone got lost.  I was quite put out, worried I might miss a call asking me to join ACSEF, or offering me a vice-presidency job at Trump International.  I have my phone back now, and am awaiting those calls which should come any day now.

What Lunan and the Farm Shop/Cafe lack in connectivity and vibrancy, they make up for in other ways and then some.  Like being nice and serving real food.

As per usual an amazing visit to BrewDog; their man Fisher has painted an amazing black and white mural there, and starting 25/3, the walls will feature artwork from up and coming area residents.

What’s clean air and wildlife compared to someone somewhere making money?

When I go jogging around Nigg Bay, there are more and more other joggers to be seen, as well as walkers, cyclists, golfers and wildlife spotters.  We’re all thrilled to think the Harbour Board wants to ruin the last stretch of coastline with potential harbour expansion.  Money before environment has worked really well in Aberdeenshire.

We’ve got a great situation at Menie, with compromised SSSIs, we’ve got some of the top ten most polluted roads (funny that includes roads near the harbour), and a sewage plant.  Let’s just finish the job, deal nature a final blow, and turn Nigg Bay into a money-maker, too.  What’s clean air and wildlife compared to someone somewhere making money?

Before getting to some definitions,  there is some sad news.  A gentle giant, humble, meek and softly-spoken has left Aberdeen City Council (no, not Pete Leonard.  Yet).  Perhaps you’d best sit down (if you’re not already):  Gerry Brough has left – resigned.

Without Gerry, we couldn’t have spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on the City Garden Project, which brought so much harmony to our city.  His timid, mild behaviour at meetings might have made him easy to overlook, but let’s look at some of his many accomplishments.

Without Gerry, we might have had a chance to vote ‘No’ to building in UTG when presented with the shortlist of ‘designs’ for turning UTG into shops and parking.  Where would we have been then?

He selflessly ‘donated’ about 11 hours per week of his own time to sit on various City Garden Project committees, with no thought of eventual reward, disregarding EU work-time directives.  I’m sure his family felt deprived of his sunny disposition.

Some might say this free work done by Brough Trade was a smokescreen to make it look as if the project didn’t cost anything to the taxpayer and to help him get in with the ACSEF mob or the odd billionaire.  But I knew he had a good heart.  A heart of granite.

For some strange reason, several of the shops have folded, and one became an internet business

Who else will represent Aberdeen in Houston and Grenoble? We flew him there for very important meetings and conventions last year.  If those important meetings coincided with cuts to services for the elderly and school facilities, it was worth it.  Then there was the way he was fair to both sides of the garden referendum debate.

His involvement in how the referendum question was worded was sadly not appreciated by the Friends of Union Terrace Gardens.  Gerry said at the time the FOUTG were trying to ‘undermine’ the process.

If by undermining it he meant not accepting 11th hour wording changes or being railroaded into a lamely-worded question, Gerry was right. (see also https://aberdeenvoice.com/2011/12/utg-referendum-question-already-soured/ ).

He also helped give us ’Retail Rocks!’ in Torry.  On the one hand, it brought shops back into use.  Well, for a few months anyway.  Even if this rocking scheme created unfair advantage for the new shopkeepers over existing businesses, and took tens of thousands of taxpayer pounds in the process, it’s what Gerry wanted. I think this was really just his way of helping to stimulate the economy (for consultants and shopfitters).

For some strange reason, several of the shops have folded, and one became an internet business.  It is almost as if having a shop premise selling goods isn’t as profitable as selling goods on the intranet.  Still, this kind of forward-thinking scheme won an award of some kind.

Some people would say that service industries are a better way to go to get empty shops filled, lower rates for all ‘ma and pa’ businesses would also help, and using empty shops for artwork displays, events, charity fundraisers and so on would stimulate high street growth.  But Gerry knew best, and now, <sob>  he’s gone.

Rumours of Independent, Labour, Conservative politicians joining 99% of the ACC staff in dancing on tables and celebrating with BrewDogs are unconfirmed.  Adios Ger.

This week there are many interesting developments concerning freedom of the press:  i.e. – there might not be much of it going forward.  Here are a few definitions to try and make sense of what happened to the media, and what might happen.

Monopoly: (Eng. noun) – situation in which one person or company owns all or nearly all of a given resource or market sector putting them in a completely dominant position.

Aside from Private Eye magazine and a few quirky politicians, the UK government bent over backward to allow Rupert Murdoch to get as near a monopoly over the UK’s media, print and broadcast as was possible.  Quite right too.  It was June 2010, Rupe had the Sun, the Times, and he wanted BSB too.

What could possibly be wrong with one person controlling the majority of the media?  Why nothing.  As one professor put it:-

“It is vital to guard against just having a knee-jerk, ideological objection to Mr Murdoch – his companies produce an exceptionally large amount of very high quality content” – Tim Luckhurst, Professor of journalism at the University of Kent
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10317856

I guess I should define ‘high quality content’ sometime.

Murdoch’s empire dwarfed the BBC, and outbid them on major sports programmes which Rupert then put on satellite television, where everyone could watch for a small fee.  Or for a giant fee if you wanted to play a game in your pub or bar.  Everyone was happy.  Well, Rupert was.

The funny thing about having a monopoly and being allowed by government and the police to do whatever you want is that you might start thinking you can do whatever you want.  With the government giving Murdoch the green light for media dominance, and a few scattered police men and women having cosy meetings with News  Corporation operative, things started getting a wee bit dodgy.

The Sun started to get a little adventurous and creative when landing important stories.  Its intrepid investigative reporters devoted their time to finding sex scandals, up skirt shots, hiring private detectives to do a spot of wire-tapping, and paying the paparazzi to take all-important intrusive photos of celebrities and their children.

I’m sure those involved in these activities were free to pursue any journalistic directions they wanted, free from any controlling editors or a right-wing proprietor.  Ah, the golden days of press.  Or was that yellow journalism.

Whatever it was, we bought it.  Profits weren’t that great on the print side, but this was offset by the satellite arm of the empire.  And so it went.  Perhaps the print media also made one or two subtle political hints echoing whichever politician Murdoch favoured.  If so, it was far too subtle for Old Susannah to pick up on.

Leveson Inquiry: (Compound proper English noun).  An inquiry into a variety of press scandals, leading to recommendations for press regulation.

Believe it or not, over the years, there have been one or two scandals in British establishments.  In fact there were one or two minor issues in the banking sector not all that long ago.  These resulted in economic meltdown, loss of the UK’s AAA rating, and austerity measures (unless you worked for a bank or were in government of course).

The government acted swiftly to give the banks a stern talking to, and a few billion pounds to tide them over.  Then followed one or two other minor scandals involving sub-prime mortgages and manipulation of the  LIBOR rates.

These were swiftly followed by more slaps on bankers’ wrists, and lots more subsidies.  That showed them.  Some people point to close links between the ConDems and banking executives, but I’m sure our elected officials would never allow favouritism to cloud their judgment.

Banks weren’t alone in behaving badly for profit.  Newspapers have been involved in one or two unsavoury activities recently, too.  Don’t worry though, the police were on the case.  Or should I say the police were on the take.

Police officials and hacks met for expensive meals in nice London restaurants  Blind eyes were turned; Police and MoD officials pocketed cash from the Sun, and police detectives helped the papers with stories in exchange for money. All the while paparazzi photographers took long-lens shots at celebrities and children of same, to go with stories often obtained illegally.

News was getting replaced by celebrity gossip trash.  The public protested by buying more and more copies of ‘OK!’  ‘Hello!’ ‘I Have No Life Of My Own!’ and so on.

Things went too far; even the police and government couldn’t continue to pretend they weren’t in bed with the tabloids.

You would think that the existing laws could have been enforced at the time

Something must be done, or something had to be seen to be done. It was time for another long, expensive inquiry.  No doubt there would be some outcomes from Leveson criticising how the police were both complicit and enabling to all this phone tapping and story selling.

You could be forgiven for thinking the way forward would be to ensure that paparazzi and reporters are stopped from illegal intrusions and entrapment, and are ordered to respect privacy, especially the privacy of innocent people and children.  You would be wrong.

You would think that the existing laws could have been enforced at the time by a switched-on, honest police force.  But think again.

For the bankers, stern words and subsidies were the answer.  After all, they’ve only cost the taxpayer a few billion in bail-outs.  For the fifth estate, which is historically meant to be a check on politicians, the remedy is different.

Instead of enforcing the laws we already have, the politicians have a great idea:  the press will be held accountable to politicians.  No one is accountable for allowing the monopoly to be created, no code of conduct will be created for the police to ensure they obey and enforce laws, and stop taking hospitality from the press.

No, the entire media sector is solely at fault, not just the tabloids.  Or so they would have you think, and that’s good enough for me.

Of course the details of how regulation will work are sketchy; there are more questions than answers concerning  proposed press regulatory bodies and mandatory sign-up to a government code on the press.

There goes some 400 years of freedom, just to punish the antics of the monopoly press which got away with Murdoch for years.  It’s almost as if government wanted to get control over the entire media sector, and weren’t happy with its history of exposing crooked politicians, out-of-control MOD budgets, NHS management failures, sexed-up dossiers getting us into the Iraq war, and so on.

I for one will find the new government-controlled news much easier to digest

What will this mean to bloggers, small publishers, satire writers?  Possibly ‘exemplary’ fines, lawsuits galore, and lots of rich lawyers.  We just don’t’ know yet.  What will this mean to investigative journalism?

For years we’ve been fed a populist diet of magazines filled with celebrities who are considered too fat one day and too thin the next.  There are shots of stars who get drunk, who have ‘wardrobe malfunctions’ who go out with other stars and then break up.  It’s just as well we’ve taken these important issues to heart – going forward this might be the only kind of news we get.

I for one will find the new government-controlled news much easier to digest.  From now on instead of investigating council waste, issues at the Menie Estate and abuses of office, I can start writing about who’s wearing what, what new beauty queens have been crowned, and how thin or fat they are.

Still, there is one ground-breaking development Old Susannah is happy to share…

Augmented Reality: (modern compound noun)

New technology coming soon to an Aberdeen Journal publication near you!

There I was, wondering about the future of newspapers.  And then I saw this:-

“Make your Evening Express come to life

“App lets readers see videos and images

“Published: 06/03/2013

“Bookmark with:

Share on linkedinShare on facebookShare on twitterShare on emailShare on gmailShare on stumbleuponShare on favoritesMore Sharing Services

“THE Evening Express today unveiled a revolutionary new way of allowing our readers to interact with the paper.

“Video and 3D images can pop up from the printed page thanks to the innovative new scheme.

“Dubbed augmented reality (AR), the application involves the reader holding their phone over a “trigger” advert, resulting in a series of 3D images and videos displayed through the user’s phone.”

Can we really use our phones to augment my reality?  Yes we can!  I can see it now:  3D Stewart Milne homes, 3D views of Trump golf courses.  Then again, the photos of the Trump course in the recent P&J Golf Supplement look just a bit greener and neater than any photos I’ve managed to take to date.  Could someone be augmenting the reality of the greens?

Maybe we could have augmented reality photos of our councillors as well.  They say this technology can make people seem life-like.  For some of our elected reps, this will be quite an improvement.

Time to go find a copy of ‘OK!’ and see what’s going on in the world.  If I’m not thrown in jail, we’ll see what’s up next week.

PS – For some odd reason Labour are not happy with P&J coverage of a recent event. 

This is very surprising.  Most of us aren’t happy with their coverage of any events.  While they rammed a granite web down our throats and perpetuated the myth it was cost-free, they accidentally forgot to mention  Trump’s VP marrying their editor and skirted the slight bias this might mean.

They seem to have implied a man up in court for drug-dealing was a Labour member/activist; he wasn’t.

The P&J printed the full-page Trump anti-wind farm ad referring to Lockerbie, but refused to take an ad, pre-referendum, from the Friends of Union Terrace Gardens for being ‘too political’.  Its sister paper called those who voted against Trump ‘neeps’ and ‘traitors’.

It said that two deer had died in advance of the Tullos Hill deer slaughter (the deer died two full years earlier, of unknown causes – as wild animals are known to do on occasion).  Other than that, what’s not to like?

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Jan 032013
 

By Angus Macmillan.

Conservationists and nurseries have been quick to claim that the spores of chalara fraxinea, which is the fungus causing Ash Dieback, could have blown over from mainland Europe but are very quiet about their role in planting diseased trees from the same source.

They have known for around six years that Ash Dieback was widespread in Europe but are now blaming government for not introducing a ban earlier in the hope they will be compensated or get grants for replanting from the hard pressed public purse.

Considering the vague media references to where the diseased plantings took place and what organisations owned the woodlands, I decided to make a Freedom of Information request to the Forestry Commission to reveal this information in detail.

They replied saying, they were not prepared to release this information at this time and that, whilst it might be of interest to the public, it was not in the public interest to divulge locations and owner organisations as it could deter other owners from reporting the disease. The Forestry Commission obviously has a poor opinion of those who plant trees and possibly quite rightly so.

Following a newspaper report that the Woodland Trust “is one of Britain’s biggest importers of ash” – and they call them “native” trees – had at least two infected properties, I emailed them to ask how many of their woodlands had Ash Dieback. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t reply.

So there we have it. Up to 80 million ash trees are at risk from disease but the Forestry Commission is quite prepared to protect its tree-planting buddies from criticism, in what must be one of the most scandalous environmental introductions from abroad by those who have been advocating the destruction of “alien” populations of both flora and fauna for years.

And it’s not in the public interest to reveal who they are?

The “con” in conservation is truly exposed.

Further reading –  The_Rise_and_Fall_of_Biotic_Nativeness_- A_Historical_Perspective

Oct 182012
 

Voice’s Old Susannah looks back on the week that was, complete with Zeppelins, BrewDogs, and a bad smell coming not from the Torry sewage plant, but a whiff of scandal from Edinburgh. By  Suzanne Kelly

Tally  Ho!  By the time you read this, I’ll have been to the Led Zeppelin film ‘Celebration Day’ at the Belmont.  Am counting the minutes.  Another major highlight of this week was  BrewDog Aberdeen’s second birthday party.  I celebrated with great people, great beers, food and a lovely cake.  Happy Birthday to Brew.

I also took in a bread-making course at Nick Nairn Cookery school; it was a great course, not least because of the lovely breads I got to take home (including the tutor’s lovely white loaf).

On the down side of this week, a dog has disappeared from its garden on Holburn Street.  Grampian police downplayed earlier Facebook posts warning of potential dog thieves in our area. 

The police issued a Facebook post about a week ago, saying dog-napping worries were just rumour-mongering, and several FB posters chimed in to ridicule the people worried about potential thefts.

The cops categorically claimed no such thing was going on. Fast-forward to 16 October, and a dog has mysteriously disappeared from its back garden in Holburn Street.

Unless the small dog, not tall enough on its hind legs to reach the lock, undid the lock, went away, and decided never to return again for food or shelter, it looks like theft is a possibility.  However, the police refuse to treat this as a theft.  There is no evidence you see.

Perhaps they had expected a smoking gun, guys in striped shirts wearing masks holding bags of swag?  I wonder whether they even checked the gate for fingerprints – they certainly could have done so.  The moral is – keep an eye on your pets as much as possible, and report anything like thefts or suspicions straight away to the Scottish SPCA – and/or email stop.dogfights@yahoo.co.uk.  PS – dogs, cats, handbags, Led Zeppelin CDs , etc. are not safe left alone in cars for any length of time, either.

Common Good Aberdeen reached its financial target of £15K for a children’s play area in Union Terrace Gardens with ease, expect a play area in UTG sometime soon, hopefully with a volunteer-run, cafe, too (with all profits going directly on UTG).  No one could object to putting a play area in a city centre park, could they?

But perhaps best of all this week was sharing joyful commuting stories with fellow bus travellers.  To a man we’re all thrilled to bits at the reduction in routes.  We are of course waiting for the corresponding reduction in bus fares, which must be just ‘round the corner‘.  How wonderful that the No. 21 bus is no more, just as those wonderful Milne homes are going up in Cove.

  I’m wondering  exactly what kind of ‘independence’ Alex is actually offering

It must have been my imagination (and the imaginations of a few dozen other people), but it seemed as if quite a number of scheduled buses (no. 3s, 1s, etc) didn’t actually materialise when they should have.  I got to learn a few more new words from fellow travellers while waiting for a No. 1 bus on Monday evening.

In the wider Scottish environment, this was the week that Cameron and Salmond signed up to a yes/no referendum (wish we’d done so over the gardens –  but never mind).  Alex smiled from the covers of most newspapers this past week, and he told the press:-

 “I didn’t want to look too triumphant.” 

Don’t worry about that, Alex, you didn’t.

In fact, Alex is starting to look like a man with Ninety-Nine Problems.

Old Susannah is looking at some of these minor worries.  All things considered, I’m wondering  exactly what kind of ‘independence’ Alex is actually offering.  For openers, once you consider some of Alex’s  pals, you come to one inescapable question:  How independent exactly is Alex himself?

Is he offering Scots independence or perhaps a form of government that is just a little bit older?

Feudalism: (Eng. noun) – A system of governance/land steward ship prevalent in the middle ages in Europe where a small minority of wealthy property holders wielded power over those with less money, and a great gap existed between the haves and have-nots.

Believe it or not, it was not only the English who were oppressing the Scottish people throughout history, many Scottish nobles did so, too.  Clan warfare, theft, battles, treachery, wife-stealing, drunkenness, cruelty – these are not just part of the daily grind at Holyrood.  Indeed, there were many forms of Scot on Scot violence in the bad old days, too.

In the feudal societies of the past, a rich man owned everything in his territory and all those below him fell in line in accordance with his wishes.  If this ‘lord’ (or sometimes the noble was given the title ‘Sir’, as in ‘Sir Ian Wood’) wanted a castle, a bit of land, or say a granite web, his lackeys ensured he got what he wanted by hook or crook, or compulsory purchase order or by an arm’s length management company or Aberdeen City Gardens Trust.

Thankfully, the days of the rich man dictating the future of the land to the common man are gone.

Alex Salmond will ensure that no rich men can possibly dictate policy, seize land (or public parks), bend Quangos to their will, shield their gold from the taxman via offshore schemes, etc.  No, Alex won’t in any way favour the rich or help them gain unfair advantage.

If he did do so, say for a Murdoch (to whom he seems to have offered his services at one point), a Wood (whose web he favoured) or a Trump (who got permission to ruin the only moveable sand dune system on the UK mainland), then we would not have a free republic.  We would have feudalism.

Intervention: (Eng. noun) to take action in a situation to try and prevent an undesirable outcome.  Interventions can be legal or not.  In Scottish politics – usually not.

When Aberdeenshire Council said no to Donald Trump, Alex’s Government weighed in and  said ‘we’re open for business; c’mon over’.  Thanks for the intervention!

But now it looks as if when Scottish Futures Trust (SFT) didn’t give the beautiful, sparkly granite web the thumbs up, Alex intervened again.

The cat is out of the bag, the chickens have come home to roost, and so on.  No doubt with the best interests of Aberdonians at heart, Alex seems to have put the £140 million web into position to get TIF funding.  Where would we have been without him?

This little intervention raises just one or two questions.  Firstly, I wonder what first attracted politician Alex Salmond to Billionaire tycoon Sir Ian Wood and his Wood-Wide-Web?

How could Scottish Futures Trust (SFT) criticised Wood’s wonderful web?  Well, for openers here is how it scored ( click on table to enlarge ):-


http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Topics/Government/Finance/18232/FOI/TIFScoring

“…further detail / clarity could have been added in relation to:

  • The potential level of private sector activity created (in terms of NDR creation) and its likelihood
  • The underlying enabling nature of the assets themselves – i.e. why are these the right assets
  • The potential level of retail activity in comparison to the overall activity enabled by the TIF
  • The rationale for the redline
  • The key milestones of the project
  • The consideration of risk and risks beyond those detailed in the submission”
    http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Topics/Government/Finance/18232/FOI/TIFComments

The SFT/Government fought tooth and nail (whatever that means) against Steve Vass of the Herald getting this information made public.  For one thing, the SFT claimed people weren’t smart enough to understand their findings.  Quite right.  They argued people would not understand  that Scottish Futures Trust and its reports were only meant to guide the Government, which was then free to ignore the report and do whatever it chose to do.  Funny, this method of government consultation seems perfectly obvious to me.

You are of course as surprised and disappointed as I am that our web didn’t get higher scores.  It’s hard to imagine SFT deciding there were some financial and risk elements.

We should have sent them some of those lovely glossy brochures from Vote for the City Gardens Trust –  you know, the ones that promised 6,500 permanent jobs and £122 million flowing into Aberdeen every year if we got us a web.  That would have swung the balance.

Some  voters may well wonder why this SFT  information wasn’t  shared in advance of any referendum vote.  I’m sure it was for our own good and not to confuse us with facts.  However, if you  are angry we had a referendum with crucial facts withheld deliberately, Go Ask Alex.  Just drop him a line to find out who was playing at what, and why anyone thought we weren’t clever enough to understand a short report.

  No doubt Alex is confident that an independent Scotland will demand a granite web

Perhaps this is all too complicated for us non-Government mortals after all.  I’m so confused I’m thinking the Government wanted a trial run of the referendum system to see what the pros and cons were in advance of the Independence Referendum.

The pros?  You can put anything you want to in a glossy brochure, true or not as long as you remain anonymous.  Result!   You can also hide the voting record from any scrutiny, as was done in Aberdeen.

The Cons?  I think there were plenty of ‘cons’ involved, don’t  you?  In fact, I’m fighting the urge to list the cons by name.

You could also be forgiven for wondering  why the SFT report was prepared in the first place, if the Government had its own ideas about what should or shouldn’t be given a TIF loan.  (Old Susannah heard an unconfirmed rumour that Alex told Sir Ian to ‘leave his money on the table’ for a year.  No doubt Alex is confident that an independent Scotland will demand a granite web.  We could put it on the back of the new Scottish Banknotes).

So, Alex is going to try not to look too triumphant.  If it helps, Alex, just think back to some of your finer moments:-

  • Testifying to the Leveson Inquiry – Alex claimed the Observer had hacked his banking account in 1999 (no evidence was found) – almost as if he were trying to deflect attention from the revelation that Mr Salmond’s adviser (Aberdein) – had agreed that the first minister would call Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt “whenever we need him to” on Murdoch’s behalf.
  • intervening in Aberdeenshire planning permission and giving Trump carte blanche to bulldoze the SSI, make life a misery for the existing residents, and run the area with heavy-handed security
  • Asking Donald Trump to back the return of Megrahi to Libya
  • Spending c. £48,000 to go to the premier of the film ‘Brave’ with an entourage
  • Claiming a sum adjacent to £1,800 per week for food and drink (four year period May 2007 onward)
  • Meddling in the future of the Granite Web, and elevating it over other areas’ projects
  • Cutting money to charities while allowing unelected quangos to thrive…..

It might not amount to quite 99 problems, Alex, but you’re getting there.  Give it a week.

Teflon: (mod Eng.noun) a non-stick coating often applied to pots and pans.

Bill Clinton lurched from sex scandal to Whitewater financial scandal and back to sex scandal again, yet he escaped relatively unscathed.  People called him ‘the Teflon President’:  nothing stuck to him.

Not that our First Minister would ever do anything untoward of course, but it is almost like he’s using deflection techniques – sorry to even think it!  Just because he showed up at Leveson with counter claims that he had been hacked when he was there to testify as to his relationship with Murdoch is no reason to think he’s a slippery character.

In fact I’ve  written to Salmond to ask for his comments on some of these little trifling issues.  As soon as he answers, I’ll let you know.  Until then, just keep waving the Saltire, chant ‘Freedom!’ and believe everything you’re being promised.  Would Alex ever steer you wrong?

Just one little thing to remember:  sooner or later that non-stick pan stops working, and it gets thrown out.

Next week:  A wee update on council finances, and an old FOI of mine updated.

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Sep 212012
 

Voice’s Old Susannah  takes a look over the past week’s events in the ‘Deen and further beyond ( including the murky depths of ‘local’ cyberspace ). By Suzanne Kelly.

Across Aberdeen this past week most of us have enjoyed the last warm(ish) days of summer, and the sunny days and early evenings. Others have been glued to their computers waging a curious battle over a protest planned for tomorrow (Saturday 22nd September).

In the quest to win new friends and influence people, the ‘Protest Against Aberdeen City Council’ Facebook pages have entertained a wide variety of opinions, and a wide spectrum of humour (I am using the term ‘humour’ loosely).

Somewhere between 12 and 500 people will appear at 1pm tomorrow in front of the Marischal College  building (which will be deserted, as it’s Saturday), to protest against Aberdeen City Council, Labour, and the death of the granite web.

An interesting report is to go before the Audit Committee soon; it is by an independent reporter who finds that both the councillors and the officers of Aberdeen City Council need to think about how they interact.

Anyone who read about this report in the Press & Journal would have been shedding tears, assuming this bullying was 100% by mean councillors against poor but honest officers.   Indeed. More on that later.

But the real talk of the whole country is around the most fundamental question of all, which is dividing the Scottish nation, setting brother against brother, and causing an affa bother:  is the deep-fried Mars bar a national treasure or not?  Earlier on, the Mars company reportedly disowned the creation;  other sources later claimed the Mars business had embraced the calorific snack.

This crucial question will no doubt be the subject of several independent consultations, a referendum, Holyrood debate, health & safety analysis, a PR campaign by the BiG partnership featuring Morris the Monkey, and more than a few bar room fights.

Some people claim that the original, unadorned Mars bar was good enough as it was, and should be retained.  Others claimed it wasn’t 21st century enough unless it was covered with a web of deep fried flour and grease.  Not since Culloden has such bickering been seen in this part of the world.  Old Susannah hopes resolution is possible.

There have been a few amusing news stories across the UK as well.

  Just tell that to your boss next time you need a few grand on your company’s credit card; I’m sure they won’t mind

Seems some of those nice people at Scottish Enterprise have been very enterprising indeed.  Old Susannah never realised what a generous employer SE was, but it is kindly allowing staff to take SE credit cards and take out nice big, fat juicy cash advances (in a variety of currencies), and paying the amounts back as and when.

As a taxpayer, I’m so pleased we can help out the less fortunate SE employee with the odd £10K loan or two.  It’s alright though, as the employees always intended to pay the money back.  Just tell that to your boss next time you need a few grand on your company’s credit card; I’m sure they won’t mind.

It’s almost as if proper financial controls were not working 100% at SE – which is a bit unfortunate in such a tiny organisation; they still operate on a mere £750,000,000 or so per annum (much of which is salary – which Old Susannah finds difficult to reconcile with the cash advances the cash-strapped staff seem to need).

And in England, a woman has been sentenced for hijacking a ferry boat, telling her pursuers ‘I’m Jack Sparrow!’ and sailing away until finally caught.

Readers will find it hard to believe, but she was high on drink and belladonna (deadly nightshade to you and me, which is quite poisonous).  I prefer the odd BrewDog and crisps, myself.  After two days of drink and hallucinogens, she felt ill for some reason or other, and called the paramedics.

When they arrived she was, naturally enough, on a moored ferry boat, as you do.  She ‘didn’t mean to untie the craft, but the ropes kept getting under her feet’.  Fair enough – could have been any of us really.  The ferry boat’s owner told the BBC this incident was a:-

“total one-off bizarre incident which we have never experienced before”.

Old Susannah should hope so, too.

I’m afraid the definitions this week do involve the web; don’t worry – this too shall pass.

Carrot or the Stick: (English saying) to offer an inducement – reward and/or sanction to gain support or agreement.

Any movement needs to recruit new members.  Those nice Scientology people give out free books on  Oxford Street, and tell you how clever you are.  Next thing you know, you’re married to Tom Cruise and waiting for the mothership.  The Moonies used to give out flowers; various missionaries would trade a square meal in exchange for preaching at you.

The Friends of Union Terrace Gardens and Common Good Aberdeen – two forces with the same ultimate goal of saving UTG from development have web presences, hold meetings, and hold the odd demo or two.  New members and the curious are welcome.

Speaking of odd demos, there is a group called ‘Protest against Aberdeen City Council’ holding the demonstration I mentioned before, taking place tomorrow.  They too have a web page and embrace open debate.  And what a debate it has been.

The finest minds in all of Scotland’s past pale into insignificance against the rhetoric, logic, self-restraint and persuasive skills of a small number of the posters on this page.  I’m surprised we’ve not all been convinced the web’s the way to go by this bunch.

The page’s administrator, who apparently lives in the United States, has allowed a wide raft of comments to go unmoderated, which I’m sure doesn’t mean they are encouraging trolls at all.

Usually when you want someone to come around to your way of thinking, you offer them some reason to do so – the proverbial  carrot and the stick.  The Big Partnership, recently rendered silent on the topic of the web, used both the carrot and the stick to get us to join the granite web fanclub.

  There is an explanation of why the English Defence League has nothing to do with hate or violence

The carrots were ‘build the web and 6,500 new jobs appear’, ‘two hundred million pounds will magically flow into the city annually until the year 2023 (not 2022 or 2024 – 2023) AND the added incentive that Morris the Monkey and Jake the Ghost want the web convinced us in the thousands.

The sticks used to try and beat us into submission?

‘No one will come to Aberdeen’, ‘we’ll look silly if we don’t take Ian’s £50 million and do what he says with it’ and ‘people will think Aberdeen is ‘closed for business.’

I always liked this last ‘closed for business’ argument.  It was supposed to make me think of a vibrant and dynamic shopping mall, doing lots of business.  Instead, it made me think of an indiscriminate callgirl who would do anything with anyone if the price was right.

How are the ‘Protest against Aberdeen’s’ members and posters winning hearts and minds?  Reasoned argument?  Supplying facts and figures?  Welcoming newcomers?  Parrying dissent with rapier-like wit and friendly banter?  Absolutely!

Please do go and visit this page yourself – it has all the relevant facts you need to know to make an informed decision to support the web.  These include colourful postings such as the following:-

*  There is an explanation of why the English Defence League has nothing to do with hate or violence;

*  there is a woman being insulted because of her looks;

*  there is a man who says he’s no longer onside with the protest because of the abusive comments made by protest supporters – so he’s attacked as being a ‘plant’;

*  a man who was abused as a child is asked if he was ‘a little sh*t who deserved a clip ‘round the ears’;

*  there is a woman who ‘has it on good authority’ that all the bills the taxpayer has already picked up for the web were really somehow not paid by the city council (who the invoices were made out to), but Sir Ian really picked them up; and

*  a hilarious joke about building a mosque on UTG (alas; Old Susannah is unable to appreciate the witticism or the point being made)

People against the web have in several instances risen to the bait and argued back.  But whatever side of this issue you are on, have a look at the comments made by people like Sandy M, George S and others.  They’ll have won you over with their carrots and sticks before you know it.

Readers of a sensitive disposition may, however, wish to stay well clear.  https://www.facebook.com/events/456202784419418/

Cautionary Tale: (compound noun; English) A story intended to impart advice by showing someone else’s error.

This new Information Commissioner is taking no prisoners – well, actually she might be, as the police have been called in to enforce the law.

This kind of development in Aberdeenshire is extremely worrying!  The local authority seems to have accidentally denied it had information and accidentally deleted the information it denied having.  It was almost as if there was something to hide, and as if the law came second to what the local government mandarins wanted.

This story, covered in this past week’s Press & Journal (really) implies that Freedom of Information requests have to be answered with the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  Old Susannah is reassured that there won’t be any such issues here in our city.

Even if the Information Commissioner’s office is reportedly auditing the work our FOI office does, it’s not as if information has ever been withheld from me, or anyone else, is it?  (Unless of course you count requests about Mr S Milne, the deer cull, cost of Marischal college…)

Pre-emptive strike: (compound noun; English) a form of defence or deflecting attention  by attacking one’s opponent first.

Well, a report going to the Audit Committee next week seems to imply that councillors had in the recent past not been treating officers courteously and had asked difficult questions.  Naughty!

No real naming and shaming was done.  I hope no councillors asked awkward questions of Pete Leonard for instance.  Mean councillors in the past may have asked him why he kept representing that the deer-culling, tree-planting scheme was completely cost neutral, even though he knew for months that phase one failed, and ACC had to repay £43,800 for the dead trees.

He recently tried to deflect this irritating fact by reportedly saying £43,800 referred to something in the 1990s.  Just because the money was paid in March 2011, when he was saying the great scheme was cost neutral to the Housing Committee, is no reason to think he wasn’t accurate or completely open, is it?

A cynic could think this report’s suggestions that councillors should show more deference to officers like Leonard is a pre-emptive strike.  Did the report authors know about all the assorted little machinations of Leonard and his ilk?  I’d love to know.  At least one person must have come out of this untarnished:  the softly-spoken, always calm and rational Gerry Brough, kindly volunteer to the City Gardens Project.

Now that this report has come out, I hope city councillors will be warned by this pre-emptive strike not to ask any tough questions!  Hope that’s settled then.

And there we leave it for now.

Next week:  I will attempt again to escape from the granite web – unless Zoe finally writes back about those CGP radio ads, promising us the web for free.  Will keep you posted.

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Sep 132012
 

By Suzanne Kelly. 

‘Undemocratic!’ is the cry coming from various people in Government and some Aberdeen residents concerning the death of the granite web scheme.

The truth is that democracy took a beating in the way the referendum campaign was waged, in the secrecy over the TIF ranking the scheme received, and in the statements made by ministers who should know they were overstepping their bounds.

For those who really care about ‘Democracy’ and how it has been chipped at by those insistent that the web goes ahead, here is an overview of some newly emerged issues.

  • TIF Application:  Information Wrongfully Withheld

Last Sunday 9 September, the  Sunday Herald  carried two articles pertinent to how undemocratically the granite web has been pushed.  The first piece by Steven Vass was entitled FOI Victory Over Aberdeen Project’.  Vass explains that the Scottish Government and the Scottish Futures Trust have been criticised by the Information Commissioner.  These two organisations are refusing to release information on Aberdeen’s TIF bid, in particular how it was ranked against other projects. 

TIF is meant to be used for deprived areas.  Our city centre needs improvement, and a good place to start would be practical assistance to local businesses which now must compete with multinationals in our shopping malls (which have far more financial power than the little guy does). 

We are not, however, a deprived area; businesses are continuing to set up shop here, our housing prices are good, and our standard of living has on the whole been found to rank highly in the UK. 

So why can’t we find out more about the TIF application?  Is it possible that our TIF application was one of the lower-scoring ones? (It was ,after all, soundly criticised by an independent accountant.)  If it was not a high-scorer, then was it given priority unfairly over other projects? 

In the interests of democracy, whatever side of the debate you are on, you have to agree that withholding critical information which could help evaluate the facts is undoubtedly undemocratic.  The information Commissioner has concluded as much , and hopefully on 22 October the truth of the situation will be revealed.  Either that, or the Government and the SFT will appeal to the Court of Session. 

It will be interesting to find out who was involved in this non-compliance with the democratic principle of Freedom of Information, and to find out what they have to hide.  It will be interesting as well to see if the Government refuses the Information Commissioner’s decision and lodges a Court of Session appeal.  

There is legislation saying this information should be supplied, and yet it is being withheld against the Information Commissioner’s decision. Verdict:  Undemocratic

  • Above the Law?  How BiG Partnership and an Anonymous Group of Businessmen Seized the Airwaves with Propaganda

The other article in the Sunday Herald brings us to an even more serious issue.  This article, entitled ‘How to get ahead in the race to the White House…by advertising’ explains how voters are bombarded with election propaganda and how important it is to spend on adverts.  It also brings us to the decision just released by OFCOM against the radio advertising that took place during the referendum.

The Herald article explains the vast sums spent on TV and radio ads to try to secure election victories in the US.  The article quotes Erika Fowler, the associate professor running the Wesleyan Media Project:

“  Campaigns are not going for efficiency, they are going for moderate voters in the centre who have not made up their minds.  There are going to be many, many people tuning out the messages, but in a competitive election cycle, you really are going for that last one or two percentage points.  So the parties and the interest groups… are going to do whatever it takes to get a competitive advantage.”

And as the article says,

“That means spending money…”

The American spin doctors and PR firms know, as do their UK counterparts, that advertising works.  And OFCOM, the communications regulator, knows it as well.  It exists to prevent the public being misled, and it has come down hard against the aggressive saturation campaign and adverts placed by The BiG Partnership on  behalf of the anonymous VFTCGP members- what do they have to hide?

As a referendum campaigner who had to obey stringent rules and spending limits, I was astounded that an unelected and anonymous group, ‘Vote for the City Gardens Project’ were allowed to place a huge volume of radio and print advertising.  Not only did they have a degree of media saturation which I couldn’t have hoped for – but the contents of their ads were misleading.  Why do I say that?  Here are two direct quotes from the ads and my comments on each:-

1.  Quote:  “I’m voting yes because of the £182 million of investment to the city centre – and it’s all coming from grants and private donations so it won’t cost the taxpayer a penny.”

“The City Garden Project won’t cost you a penny, it will be paid for through private donations and business rates.”

http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/enforcement/broadcast-bulletins/obb213/obb213.pdf – see Pages 6 and 7

Comment As demonstrated by invoices paid by the City Council, taxpayer money has ALREADY been spent on this project for advertising, PR and ‘stakeholder engagement’ in the region of at least £200,000.  What is galling is that the BiG Partnership, working closely with ACSEF would have known this.  In fact, it is still a mystery what agency or agencies carried out the PR, advertising and photography:  was BiG a recipient of taxpayer money?  If so, how democratic or ethical was this agency acting when it submitted these ads for broadcast?

2.  Quote:  “It will create twice as much green space in the City Centre.”  (reference as above)

Comment We have a green park – when I say green, there is a deep, rich fertile layer of soil supporting wildlife and ancient trees. (Democracy fans note – there are trees and species in this park which are protected by UK and EU law, even though the past administration allowed fireworks displays in the gardens). 

If you build underground structures and have a layer of topsoil over them, you won’t have the same environmental quality as we do now. 

If you chop the trees down, and build a 5,000 seat outdoor theatre on formerly rich soil, then there is absolutely no way that you are going to double the amount of green space. 

Layers of turf over the concrete theatre’s roof and making similar turf-clad structures does not mean you can claim you are doubling genuine green space. 

By the way, the idea of building an outdoor theatre in Aberdeen makes very little sense indeed weather-wise.  Building a theatre in front of where a theatre already exists raises questions about the ‘non-displacement’ concept – rules are  supposed to prohibit using public resources to build something that will compete with or take away from an existing business – but this is being conveniently overlooked. 

Aside from my opinions on the accuracy of these ads – Aberdonian citizens were bombarded with over 200 ads on Northsound 1 and 2, and Original 106 played ads over 100 times  between 16 and 29 February.  ( In contrast, Mike Shepherd had one ad played a total of 26 times).

The point is that if so much as one person heard these hundreds of ads, assumed they were true (after all, the trusted radio stations continued to run them) and voted for the web based on these spurious claims (no cost to the taxpayer, double (??) the green space magically created), then the commercials and the big money behind them unduly influenced the referendum result.

What really beggars belief is the behaviour of the BiG Partnership.

They were involved with ACSEF to push the web scheme.  They know that invoices were paid by the taxpayer for consultation, PR, ‘stakeholder engagement’, photos and the like (even including a photo for about £150 meant to show how ‘inaccessible’ the gardens are). 

They knew that the web was already costing the taxpayer money, yet they were involved with creating and placing advertisements on radio saying the taxpayer wouldn’t pay a penny.  Whatever your position on the web is, don’t  you agree this is unethical?

  People would have been influenced by hundreds of ads

BiG also appear to have placed these ads apparently without getting full advice and clearance.  Reading OFCOM’s decision, it is easy to conclude the ads would not have been deemed acceptable had clearance been asked for in advance.

How does an organisation as big and experienced as BiG explain itself to the regulator?  This is what they said:-

“Northsound told us that this organisation was set up by a group of private individuals who supported the re-development project. They were not a formally constituted organisation, the Licensee said, and had “no legal status”. This advertiser appointed The BIG Partnership, a public relations consultancy, to run and manage its campaign.

“The BIG Partnership made the following comments through the Licensee:

“This campaign was set up a by a group of private individuals who wanted to see the project go ahead. They were not a formally constituted organisation. They have no legal status. They got together and appointed The BIG Partnership to run and manage the campaign and they provided funds for that campaign. The City Garden Project, as part of the wider city centre regeneration scheme, will be funded by private donations and a TIF scheme whereby Aberdeen City Council borrows money to pay for the regeneration and uses the new business rates generated by new business across the city as a result of the regeneration to pay back the loan. It will not be financed by Aberdeen City Council’s annual revenue budget and therefore not have an impact on local council tax payers or on the delivery of public services. The group behind the campaign is not political. The campaign aimed to influence the outcome of the referendum by communicating the facts and the benefits of the project to the public. The objectors to the project also ran similar advertisements.”

If there is even a single person  who voted for the project based on these radio ads, which should never have been aired, or has a friend or relative who was taken in by these ads, then they should come forward now and say so.  (Write to me if you wish; I can keep your details anonymous if you prefer  sgvk27@aol.com)

An anonymous group of people, via an experienced agency,  placed ads which should never have been aired .  The ads contain spurious claims, but at the time the regulatory bodies were unable to intervene.  The regulator has found the ads in breach of code. 

We need to know who the VFTCGP members were to see whether there were any conflicts of interest.  People would have been influenced by hundreds of ads, the contents of which could not be contested at the time. 

Whatever side of the issue you are on, if you care about law, democracy and fairness, you must admit these ads should not have aired and would have influenced the voters who heard them.  Verdict:  Extraordinarily Undemocratic

( Note –  BiG has not answered questions on this issue at the time of going to press. )

  • Local Newspaper Coverage:  Lacking and Slanted

Unfortunately our local hard copy tabloids, the Press & Journal and its sister, the Evening Express, are clearly in favour of the web going ahead. 

Their coverage in the past has seemed one-sided.  However, they have chosen to exclude the news item about the information Commissioner’s verdict re. the TIF details.  They have covered other Information Commission decisions in the past, and this one certainly has local importance. 

More importantly, at the time of writing, no local tabloid has mentioned the OFCOM decision, and instead have run pieces critical of the Labour administration.  The BBC and the Herald have decided these two stories were newsworthy enough to be published.  The local press did not find room for them, but do have articles on a new chocolate shop opening in the mall, and a photo of a black swan. 

Note –  The local press has not answered questions on this issue at the time of going to press.

Is it possible that our papers are slanting coverage to please their advertisers?  It just might be possible.  Verdict:  Newspapers can take any side of an issue they want; that is democracy.  However, do you want a paper that gives you one side of an issue, or one that covers all ground?

  • Democracy:  Labouring the Point

This is a good time to discuss Labour and Democracy.  When the referendum was announced, Labour said at the outset it did not agree with holding it, and explained they were already legally representing their constituents.  They also pointed out that the referendum was not a legal vote that had to be adhered to; it was in law always just a consultation (like the one we had before which rejected the city square). 

Labour told the people that if elected, they would scrap the City Gardens Project, which by the way was still in its infancy.  Some people seem to feel the web was a done deal.  It had not had TIF approval yet – it lacks details (we don’t have anything other than fanciful artist drawings which ignore necessary architectural and safety features which would make the thing look far different from the concept art), and it had to go through planning.

Labour explained what was wrong with the referendum before it started, and vociferously objected to all the abuses that went on during the campaign.  They asked to be elected with scrapping the CGP as a main campaign plank:  they did what they were elected to do  Verdict:  Democratic

  • SNP Sniping

It is very interesting to see in today’s Press and Journal our Scottish Government minister for planning,  Derek MacKay, speaking out against Labour over the web – which is a planning issue.  There are guidelines which direct him not to make such statements, but he seems to be ignoring them.

Is a minister involved with planning overstepping his remit and going contrary to Scottish Ministerial Code?  Seems like it.  Verdict:  Out of Order
http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2011/12/01141452/9

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Jul 062012
 

Disillusioned and dissatisfied with the speed, quality and transparency (for lack of a better word), Suzanne Kelly sums up her dealings with Aberdeen City’s FOI officers.

In 2007 I made my first Freedom of Information request to Aberdeen City Council.  This concerned travellers’ sites (the city had the brainstorm of telling travellers to go to the Torry  Battery – I pointed out that it was an Ancient Monument which the City was supposed to safeguard).

I received a reasonable answer in a reasonable timeframe.

However, it seems as if FOI request handling is far from straightforward of late.

I have been given information late on several occasions.  I have been refused information which I should have been given (as the Information Commissioner later agreed).  I have been given contradictory information. I have even, in my opinion, had disingenuous interpretations made of straightforward requests.    A few examples will illustrate the types of failings I believe need to be addressed.

1.  How many deer were shot on Tullos Hill?

Initially the first figure of deer shot was 22.  This was later changed to 23.  The figures continue to change.  An email of 22 June 2012 from the FOI Office implies 33 shots were fired.  Yet this same reply came with a copy of a handwritten notebook, in which 35 deer were listed as  killed.

Still another document sent at the same time shows 34 deer were killed.  Even though the last animal was -we are told- killed on 9 May, June FOI requests said 23 deer were killed.

This hardly seems like accurate information management to me.

2.  CJ Piper & Co. –  A mystery to ACC

‘CJ Piper & Co.’ is an entity connected to the tree scheme and the cull.  This company co-wrote a report with ACC on the tree scheme – recommending the destruction of 22 deer this year.  ACC paid CJ Piper & Co. at least £44,000.  However, there is no ‘CJ Piper & Co’ listed with Companies House.  There may be very simple explanations for this.  Whatever the explanation, we are not likely to get details anytime soon.

The FOI officer advised me:

“ACC is unable to provide you with information on ‘C J Piper & Co’, including  whether or not this is a registered company, … as it is not held by ACC. “

Precisely how Aberdeen City can spend public money and make payments to a company without holding its details may be of interest to the Information Commissioner as well as Audit Scotland.   It must have been extremely difficult to write a report with this mysterious firm, but ACC managed it.

There is of course the assumption that Chris Piper (a known forestry expert) is the main force behind this company, but the public should have the right to know this company’s details and whether there are any other directors/shareholders.

Should someone being paid to plant trees be the same person who writes a report recommending deer should be slaughtered in order to plant trees when they stand to gain financially from the contents of the report? The relevant issues will be looked at in the next Aberdeen Voice.

3.  How much has the Tree for Every Citizen and deer cull cost? 

I have received two spreadsheets under FOI legislation on this question.  The  latest spreadsheet was meant to show all the incoming and outgoing money on the deer cull and tree scheme.  But it raised more issues than it answered, including:

  • Thirteen lines of 32 line items are classed as ‘unknown concerning ‘ – this is unacceptable
  • Who are ‘Highland Estate Services’  – did they carry out the cull?  How did they and other contractors win work on this project?
  • What exactly are the ‘interdepartmental charges’ on Line 15 for £3000?
  • Where do the accounts show  the £43,800 returned to the Forestry Commission?  Accounting for this returned grant, it would seem ACC spent £167,512 minimum on the tree scheme and cull to date
  • Where are any entries to reflect all the deer fencing that was put up, or the £480 per week site clearance charges that went on over several months?
  • One of the few income streams coming in would have been the deer carcasses which were sold to a game meat dealer.  Where is an entry in the books showing how much money the City made from destroying this herd of deer?

4.  Correspondence between ACC and the Scottish SPCA – Someone is hugely mistaken

A story in the Evening Express recently claime 2 deer were found dead ‘ahead’ of the cull (the story appeared in 2012; the deer died of unknown causes in…2010).   The ‘news’ item quoted heavily from a letter ACC sent to the Scottish SPCA.

I asked for copies of letters to and from ACC and the Scottish SPCA (which told me there were a handful of letters on the Tullos topic).

However, Aberdeen FOI office says:

“… ACC holds a high volume of correspondence with the SSPCA relating to Tullos Hill. As such, it has proven to be quite difficult in identifying the particular letter to which you refer.  … it [FOI office]  is not aware of ACC supplying a copy of any letter to the Evening Express.”

So, not only do the City’s FOI people contradict the Scottish SPCA over the quantity of correspondence, but the ACC FOI office also cannot find a letter from ACC to the Scottish SPCA, quoted heavily in a news story (a copy of which I sent with my request).

At this point I can be forgiven for asking whether there is an political pressure at work on the FOI team concerning the cull.

5.  Q:  ‘Who or which agency performed site clearing work at Tullos?’

My question could not have been more straightforward; I asked ‘who or which agency’ performed site clearing work at Tullos (work which was worth apparently £480 per week).  The answer I first got smacked of sarcasm:  ‘a private contractor’.   Somehow, I had already managed to deduce that myself.   Sarcasm is fine in creative writing, but I question its place in a FOI response.

I wrote back:

“…the name of the company / companies involved should be specified.  This should please include their Company Registration Number by which they are listed in Companies House – if not listed, then please specify”

The FOI officer replied:

 “ACC is unable to provide you with the name of the private contractor (a sole trader).  ACC considers this information to be excepted under Regulation 11(2) and Regulation 10(5)(f) of the EIRS.  Please refer to the attached exception notices”

Perhaps they should have just said they were refusing to answer the question in the first place.   I am not completely certain that a sole trader should be called ‘CJ Piper AND COMPANY’, either.

Private entity  or not, the person/company was paid with public money, and we should know who is connected with it, how it was appointed, and what other work it has done.

6.  Is the use of a present tense verb reason enough to deny that a debt existed?

Rumour reached me that the failure of the first planting had cost the taxpayer about £44,000.  I asked the FOI office:

“Is it true that Aberdeen City Council owes a sum for previous, failed planting? “

The answer came:

“No money is owed by Aberdeen City Council to any agency or organisation for the previous planting.”

When I obtained a SNH letter proving £43,800 debt for the previous failed planting indeed existed,  the Chief Executive Watts denied the £43,800 had anything to do with my FOI request.  The Chief Executive indicated the £43,800 for the failed tree planting on Tullos Hill had nothing to do with the current scheme.

In the first place, it certainly has every relevance to the phase 2 tree planting.  In the second, my question did not say anything about phase 2 – just a ‘previous failed planting’.

The FOI people also defended their answer, writing  that since the debt had been paid, it no longer existed – and therefore they considered my question was not relevant.  The debt was paid in March; I asked my question in May.

I may be alone, but I see a connection between the £43,800 repaid for the previous failed planting and the £44,000 I asked about for a previous failed planting, irrespective of my  use of past or present tense verb in  my question, it was abundantly clear what information I had wanted.

7.  FOI 10703 The Tree scheme won’t cost us anything

I asked a ‘non-factual’ question, and wondered how the FOI office would cope.   I did get an interesting reply.

I asked,

“ Why is the ‘a tree for every citizen’ project something that must be adhered to so precisely?”

The reply came:

“Elected members made a commitment in their Vibrant Dynamic and Forward Looking statement … to plant a tree for every citizen to support the ongoing development and improvement of the quality and quantity of public open space in the City.  Officers have been challenged to deliver this commitment.  

“Aberdeen has a relatively small area of woodland cover (8.8%) as a percentage of its total area.  ….   Woodland recognised to offer a range of benefits for human well-being, creating a pleasant environment for people to live and work in, as well as being of great biodiversity value. 

“Creating these woodlands … will deliver on all these points, with the additional benefit of being created at no cost to the City Council due to the levels of external funding being obtained to deliver the project.  This demonstrates that the Tree for Every Citizen is not taking resources from other services within the City.”

I have to wonder how this answers ‘why’ we must adhere precisely to a scheme which condemned the existing meadowland ecological system.  is the above answer a factual, quantifiable piece of information – or is it political waffle?  The FOI did not attribute their answer.

8.  Marischal College – on time and under budget?  Where’s the proof?

Back when the idea of gutting Marischal College to create offices (too small for the  Council’s needs) first emerged, people were telling me that the costings for alternative projects had been done very hastily and all alternatives were dropped quickly in favour of the Marischal plan.

My FOI ENQ 7172 uncovered that ACC spent £20K on consultants to look at the Marischal project.  However while I found out that costings on alternatives were done, I can’t see them .

I had asked:

“What were the costings done on the alternatives to Marischal College development?”

FOI Answer:

“ACC are of the opinion that… because the Copyright and Patents Act 1988 forbids Aberdeen City Council from copying the cost analysis on the Marischal Project without the owners consent. … ACC is not obliged under the terms of the FOISA to provide you with the information requested. “

How can ACC have paid consultants to look at costings – and the taxpayer not be allowed to know what the results are because of ‘copyright’ ?  Certainly copyright is meant to stop people profiting from the writings of other people, not to prevent the public finding out how its money could have been spent.

#                              #                              #

We are asked to have sympathy for the FOI staff and are told many of the requests they receive are ‘frivolous.’  However, the purpose of this Freedom of Information office  is to fulfil Aberdeen’s legal duties under Freedom of Information Legislation.

I haven’t counted up how many emails I received from the FOI office apologising for lateness in replying to me (all FOIs are meant to be answered within a certain time frame).  Let’s suffice it to say at least 50% of my requests are answered late.

There is also the matter of a judgment from the Information Commissioner against Aberdeen.  A FOI request concerning Stewart Milne group companies of mine went largely unanswered by the Council, which said the law was against the information coming out.  The information Commissioner had a different take, and eventually  five  errors were identified in how ACC FOI staff handled my questions were identified.

If we want FOI responses  to be accurate, swiftly delivered and comprehensive, then this department needs immediate overhauling.  I will be asking Councillors and the Information  Commissioner  to investigate further.

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