Apr 232015
 

With thanks Esther Green, Tricker PR.

Clarklogo2A North-east firm has been ranked among the top managed service providers for IT in the world, according to a global guide published this month.

For the fourth year in a row, Clark Integrated Technologies (IT) features in the annual MSPmentor 501 Global Edition award listings.

And as well as its place in the MSPmentor 501 list, Clark IT appears on the Top 50 for Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) for a second time. Only one other Scottish firm has made it onto the EMEA Top 50.

Reflecting on the firm’s achievement, Austen Clark, Managing Director of Clark IT says:

“It is fantastic to be recognised again by MSPmentor, and it is a great achievement for the team to be ranked in the EMEA Top 50 for a second time.

“We are committed to working in partnership with our clients to deliver support and solutions to drive efficiency throughout their business.”

Each year, MSPmentor gathers information for its annual rankings through the participation of managed service providers and IT service providers in their annual survey.

The survey was conducted from December 2014 through January 2015 and rankings are based Penton Technology’s unique criteria for MSPs, such as annual recurring revenues, total revenues and more.

This year the top MSPmentor 501 companies recorded higher recurring revenues than ever before. Combined, the total annual recurring revenues for all of MSPmentor 501 2015 companies was up by 26.5% year over year.

Marcia Parker, Executive Director, Penton Technology Group says:

“We want to congratulate Clark Integrated Technologies and look forward to covering their growth strategies in the year ahead.”

Jessica Davis, Editor in Chief of MSPmentor and Executive Editor at Penton Technology, adds:

“Thank you to all the companies who participated in this year’s MSPmentor 501 survey, and congratulations to the companies that ranked on our lists.”

Clark IT has over 20 years of experience in providing industry leading support and delivering business-class technology. The company’s integrated solutions provide industry leading services, productivity and cost effective IT platforms for business growth.

Clark IT has a client base in both Aberdeen City and Shire, and a recent development has seen the expansion of the company into the Inverness area.

Founded in 1991, Clark Integrated Technologies (Clark IT) is one of Scotland’s leading independent providers of managed ICT solutions to a broad range of corporate and commercial clients across Scotland and beyond.

With a wealth of technological and commercial experience, supported by an established reputation, Clark IT offers clients reliable and honest strategic advice on all aspects of Information and Communications Technology.

For more information, see the firm’s website at www.clark-it.com

Dec 132013
 

You might think that if someone came onto your land, damaged goods and removed property – and you had a video which could hold vital evidence, the police would want to look at the tape. You would be wrong, if you were called David Milne and living on the Menie Estate. On behalf of David Milne, Suzanne Kelly tried to find out why there was no follow up and why no one would so much as touch the videotape.

TrumpoliceAfter waiting several months for information requests and a Scottish Information Commissioner review, all we know is the information is too sensitive and too secret to reveal.

Put yourself in David Milne’s place. You’re living in a beautiful, protected environment; a sparsely populated coastal area north of Aberdeen. Then, Donald Trump arrives, with plans for a massive development (two golf courses, hundreds of homes, a clubhouse and hotel), and includes the homes and property of you and your neighbours in his development plan.

The national and local governments welcome Trump, and his promises, with open arms.

Next, the police create a special policy for policing the area; they claim to want to deter and detect crime at Menie. Security Guards then appear, randomly demanding identification from fellow residents. They spy on properties from their vans, and signs warning of CCTV recording go up.

Gates are erected and locked shut. One of your main access roads, formerly a well maintained dirt road is turned into an impassable rutted mess, undoubtedly due in part to construction vehicles. Months go by before it is repaired.

Next, Trump claims in the press that his property is being vandalised (which makes you wonder just why his security guards are watching the residents while vandals caused damage).

Police start to visit your neighbours, the Forbes Family, and eventually arrest Michael Forbes for taking property markers from land he is using and believes to be his – he is charged, but the case is later dropped.

Journalists you’ve met and have talked with are arrested and charged with ‘breach of the peace’. Their offence seems to have been asking the site manager when the residents can expect their water back on – it had been off for 7 days.

Photographer Alicia Bruce is dissuaded from making a police complaint although a violent-tempered Trump groundskeeper has threatened her and threatened to smash her camera.

In October 2010 someone has gone onto your property, caused damage, and removed property; someone who just might be linked to the Trump development – which soon erects a cheap fence and sends you the bill for it.  You have a video which shows some, or part of, the potentially criminal activity.

You report the matter to the police. Surely, given their area policing policy, they will be swiftly investigating, and bringing someone to justice.

Only, the police are letting the matter drop.

michael-and-policeWho decided the incident wasn’t worth following up? Why wouldn’t the police look at a video showing the possible criminal activity, if they were willing to charge Forbes with theft and journalists with breach of the peace? How can a petty removal and return of border flags be worth an arrest, and actual damage to your property not be important?

You want answers, and a freedom of information request is launched with Grampian Police.  The police then decide to answer some, but far from all of your questions.

You ask them to reconsider; you ask them for an internal review. You still don’t get the answers.

The next step is to approach the Scottish Information Commissioner’s office. Months go by, and one or two emails ask further clarifications of you.  Then the decision comes out.

There is some good news – information will (eventually) be released concerning correspondence on area incidents.  But the reasoning and procedures used to stop the police investigation are not forthcoming. This is pretty much the end of the line for most of your questions, and back to square one for other questions.

What the Commissioner Found (or didn’t find)

The decision the Information Commissioner came to can be found here. It is appreciated the law says that no information can be released which might reveal police procedure or might undermine public confidence in the police. However, several points arise when reading the decision.

1.  Right to reply while the investigation was live

Should there have been a right to comment on the Police Scotland representations when the decision was still in the draft stage?  In an investigation made by the Scottish Information Commissioner regarding Stewart Milne, there were regular updates, and opportunities to comment on Aberdeen City Council’s representations to the Commissioner.

If there hadn’t been this opportunity, the city’s claim the information was too expensive to get would have been allowed to stand – this claim was disproved by keeping the petitioner informed of the council’s claims, and allowing the petitioner to comment on them.

Other opportunities for involvement in the Commissioner’s investigation were reflected in passages such as:

“If you would like to make any further comment regarding the Council’s reliance on section 33(1)(b) of FOISA for this information then please feel free to. Any comments you make will be taken into consideration in reaching a decision on this case”.
http://www.itspublicknowledge.info/ApplicationsandDecisions/Decisions/2011/201100822.aspx

and

“In order for me to thoroughly investigate your case I would appreciate it if you could provide me with a submission as to why you consider that there is a public interest in disclosure of information.” (IBID)

2.  No info blackout?

Relevant information was found exempt from disclosure because it contained third party data.  Surely some form of redaction of this personal third party data might have been possible – local and national governments issue ‘redacted’ documents (documents with passages blocked out) all the time.

This suggestion could have been made to the Commissioner during the investigation. It might or might not have been acted on, but the case for redacting the ‘sensitive’ information could have been made.

3.  Public Image: Limited

With regard to the need to maintain ‘public confidence’, is it possible that the lack of transparency is exactly what is eroding confidence.  When it seems, in cases such as this one, that laws are being applied unevenly – particularly where there is a specified local policing strategy in place, you might think the police would be eager to explain apparent disparity.

4.  Investigation?  What investigation?

There are parts of the decision which call for almost line for line comment; below are some points (marked with letters in square brackets) and relevant comments.

In Points 19 through 25 of the Decision, it is established that the

[a]“…withheld information was held in files of investigations into allegations of criminal conduct which were carried out under the statutory obligations of the Police (Scotland) Act 1967″ and that the Commissioner accepts that the police

[b] “held the withheld information for the purpose of an investigation…” and therefore she

[c] “must conclude that the exemptions apply.”  The police claimed that:

[d] “disclosure of the requested information would entail releasing information gathered for the purposes of an investigation, which would involve details of investigatory processes and other issues considered as a matter of course during an investigation” and they also claimed

[e] “disclosure of the information would reveal processes showing how allegations are investigated which could prove useful to criminals and those intending committing a crime.”

[a,b] Had there been the opportunity to comment during the investigation, it would have been pointed out that no investigation took place – how could there have been an investigation when potentially crucial videotape evidence was not examined?  Therefore Police Scotland’s claim its data was “.. for the purposes of an investigation” looks just a bit shaky.

As they had written on 29 March 2013:-

“The solicitor gave advice to the officers dealing with the matter and based on his advice, they made the decision that the incident was not a criminal matter.”

[c] Perhaps the Information Commissioner would have still sided with the police, but there should have been a chance to throw reasonable doubt on their reason for withholding the information.

[d] It can be argued that the information the police had was not gathered for the purposes of an investigation; the evidence they have must be  largely what David Milne gave to them directly. This refusing potential evidence is a move which hopefully is without precedent.

The refusal leads to the question: Was a decision taken that the special policing policy invented expressly for the Menie Estate did not apply to David Milne but only to the developer? The policy was to:-

“Maximise safety; minimise disruption; facilitate lawful protest; deter, detect, detain and report those responsible for unlawful behaviour.”

Disclosure of the thinking behind the lack of investigation seems clearly to be in the public’s interest  – if laws are not being enforced and/or criminal activity is not being investigated, the public would have serious concern. At present, it certainly looks as if Justice decided to peek out from under her blindfold and engage in a bit of favouritism.

[e] It seems a bit of a stretch to claim that telling Milne why his vandalised property didn’t warrant proper investigation would jeopardise Police Scotland’s secret investigative procedures and help criminals.

At present, there are dozens of police documentaries and docu-dramas, from Crimewatch UK to several specific programmes which give a great deal of information on how the UK and Scottish police investigate (or do not investigate in this instance) criminal activity.

As well as a sizable list of crime documentary/procedural shows, there are books such as ‘The Police Procedural’ by George N Dove – which leaves little left to be revealed on points of police procedure.

Stating at Point 30 of the Commissioner’s decision that:

“it will not be in the public interest to disclose information if this would undermine the confidence of the public in that part of the justice system or the confidence of police officers gathering information for such investigations”

There was no investigation, so it is hard to see how this point of law is applicable in this situation. With all due respect, withholding information as to why this incident was not fully investigated is precisely what might erode public confidence in the police.

5.  Whodunnit?

At Point 36 of the Commissioner’s Decision it again becomes regrettable that there was no opportunity to comment on the draft decision before its release.  This point states

“… the decision not to pursue a prosecution was not made by their solicitor, but by the officers investigating the matter who considered that the incident was not a criminal matter.” 

This brings up two important issues.

Firstly, there is a large contradiction in what was originally released by the police and the Information Commissioner’s conclusion. The Commissioner has been advised at some point in her investigation that it was police officers who decided the matter was not a criminal one. However, on 29 March the police wrote in a letter:-

“ The solicitor gave advice to the officers dealing with the matter and based on his advice, they made the decision that the incident was not a criminal matter.”

This again reinforces that there was no investigation – so the reasons given for not releasing the desired information because it was the subject of an investigation is something of a Catch 22. It would be very interesting to know if it was on the solicitor’s advice or on the police’s own judgment that the video was refused.

6.  Policy

As previously raised, the police invented a specific, Menie-based strategy. The following question had been put to Police Scotland in the original request:-

“…in Spring 2009, following the announcement of a number of strategic economic and infrastructure developments, Grampian Police established a short life Critical Incident Preparation Group (CIPG).

“… a generic, local strategy, relevant to Menie Estate (was) developed. This has been determined as; Maximise safety; minimise disruption; facilitate lawful protest; deter, detect, detain and report those responsible for unlawful behaviour.”

In light of this stated policy, do the police consider that its handling of the incident at the Milne property in October 2010 fits in with the strategy of ‘…detect, detain, and report those responsible for unlawful behaviour’? If the policy was not applied to the trespass, theft and damage at the Milne property, then whose decision was it that the policy did not apply?

In any event, it seems clear that the police do not want to explain why this policy was not used to protect Mr Milne.

Later on, as Trump operatives moved onto land that was subject of a civil dispute, police enabled Trump’s employees to take the law into their own hands, enter disputed areas and even cause property damage, while helpless Forbes was told he couldn’t do anything to stop it.

In that case it is possible the police were not correctly applying law and arguably going against their own invented local code for most of these incidents. As the saying goes, “there is one law for the rich, and another for the poor”.

8.  Of No Interest (?)

At Point 24 the Decision notes the Police claim “there was no significant wider public interest”. This is simply untrue, not least because of the outcry at the treatment meted out to Menie resident Michael Forbes, who was initially charged with theft for taking marker flags out of his field, which he then handed over.

The arrests of journalists Anthony Baxter and Richard Phinney also throw light on what confidence in the police the public may have, and certainly these incidents show there is local, national and international interest in policing at Menie.  Point 24 should not have been allowed to stand without my right to reply as applicant.

9.  Contradiction?

David Milne had also accomplished the impressive feat of getting some 19,500 people to sign a petition to Holyrood asking for a public inquiry into the goings-on at Menie. This was, unsurprisingly, turned down: the Petitions Committee’s procedure was to ask the agencies in the firing line if they wanted to be investigated. To a one, they said no.

This lack of transparency regarding the Milne property vandalism brings back the spectre of the aborted public inquiry: at present we’re being told information can’t be released, but at the time the inquiry was possible, the police wrote that there was nothing left to disclose.

Despite that claim to the Petitions Committee, there certainly seems to be fair amount of information regarding Mr Milne’s case which the police haven’t, and won’t disclose after all.

This rather raises some interesting questions about the accuracy of the police representation to the Petitions Committee, which reads in part:-

“Police Scotland remain completely neutral on all matters concerning the development of the Menie Project with our focus remaining on ensuring that officers approach their duties with integrity, fairness and respect for all parties involved, and only taking action where appropriate to address behaviour which breaches the criminal law. 

“It is our position that all officers involved in the policing response connected with this development have carried out their duties in an impartial and transparent manner.”

Some people beg to differ.

Flaw and Order

At the heart of the refusal to supply information there is the carte blanche, the all-encompassing get out clause for FOI requests put to the police:  it seems releasing this kind of information just might “undermine the confidence of the public in that part of the justice system.”

Recent restructuring of Scotland’s regional police forces into Police Scotland spelled the end of Grampian Police. This had to be a good thing; the local police force didn’t exactly have an untarnished recent past. Its former top policeman Ian Patterson is going to prison for sex offences.

Two officers of what was the Northern Constabulary were recently convicted of a bizarre, wholly unlawful abuse of two troubled teenage girls, taken from their care home to a remote farm, frightened and forced to walk without shoes through horse manure.

But it was a new low for the police force of Grampian and Scotland when the documentary ‘you’ve been trumped’ captured the moment that Baxter and Phinney were abruptly, roughly – and to any rational person’s judgment – unjustly arrested at the Menie Estate. The arrest shocked the world, and the documentary showing life at Menie has travelled the world, winning awards.

The Police Scotland reorganisation was meant to improve the police’s operations and public image, but scepticism continues.

Judging from the response David Milne had to a freedom of information request, this scepticism, if not mistrust and lack of confidence in Police Scotland, may be around for a good long while yet.

In an article on 23 November 2013, the Herald raises some doubts:-

“One national force, it was argued, would not just save on costs, but would also improve accountability. This has not transpired, at least on the evidence of a refusal by Police Scotland and the Scottish Government to release details of the KPIs being used by the new force. As we reported this week, both bodies rejected our Freedom of Information request on the topic.” 
http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/herald-view/police-accountability-at-important-junction.22755317

The Herald wasn’t able to obtain information on how the police operate, and so largely it proved for Milne.

Yet the Information Commissioner has partially sided with Milne. He will not be getting all of the information (or indeed much of the facts sought), but he will be receiving – in January – further details about police cautions issued at Menie.

The police decided that when asked for information ‘since 2010’ they could merely give information from 2011, even though the original information request told the police to ask questions if they were not sure what was meant.  This information will be of some use, but it won’t really address the big picture.

If the idea is to maintain confidence in Police Scotland, perhaps accountability and transparency (as the Sunday Herald article suggests) would be a good start.

  • Comments enabled – see comments box below. Note, all comments will be moderated.
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.

  • Comments enabled – see comments box below. Note, all comments will be moderated.
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.

  •  Comments enabled – see comments box below. Note, all comments will be moderated.
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.

  • Comments enabled – see comments box below. Note, all comments will be moderated.
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

  •  Comments enabled – see comments box below. Note, all comments will be moderated.
Jun 072012
 

Voice’s Old Susannah comments on current events and enlightens us with definitions of some tricky terms with a locally topical taste. This week, more ABZ ‘A to Z’, some ATOS, and thoughts on the sad loss of a Voice colleague. By Suzanne Kelly.

Tally Ho!  It’s all been happening up and down the country, and whatever you think of the Jubilee, isn’t it grand that our ConDems have got the unemployed something to do.  Not only have they apparently been given important (albeit temporary) jobs as stewards at Jubilee events, but our government employment arm has combined this great work experience with a holiday.

Lucky invitees from the ranks of the unemployed enjoyed several days in London, camping under the stars (and a tiny bit of rain) to help run Jubilee events.  I have nothing against the Jubilee itself, and it is great to see people getting back to work.

Soon some of our lazier unemployed, including MS and cancer patients, will be given suitable jobs too; all thanks to our Coalition and ATOS, the kind (foreign) organisation which assess who’s fit for work and who’s not (and gives work to absolutely all of these people anyway).

While the layabouts got to layabout in lovely tents in London, it’s come to our attention that Conservative co-chairperson MP Lady Warsi was roughing it as well.  While this frugal woman would apparently stay in cheap B&Bs or kipped on a friend’s sofa  (as befits someone of her office), she’d put in expense claims for the maximum amount allowable, and seems to have travelled to Pakistan with a relative/business partner in tow.  Result!

Nothing wrong with having a bit of an earner now and then, as long as you’re not unemployed.  Voice readers might like to know Warsi’s never won an election.  Interestingly she was a ‘community cohesion’ guru of sorts (I’ll have to define ‘community cohesion’ sometime), despite some allegations that her election material was homophobic.  It is a funny old world indeed, and we are extremely generous taxpayers.

Old Susannah was up in the lovely town of Helmsdale for a long weekend.

This pretty coastal town is missing several tricks however.  There are no concrete high-rise buildings, no development plans, and not even a ring road.  There are several grassy areas with no granite webs planned, and the seashore doesn’t have any bingo halls, amusement arcades or huge factories.  And somehow, without so much as a single shopping mall, the people were friendly, cheerful and happy.

I met a lovely man nicknamed ‘Klondike Davy’ who took me panning for gold.  I say he is nice, but one or two people in the town have ridiculed him in the past apparently.  You see, he’s given prizes for the region’s highland games in the form of the valuable gold and garnet gemstones he’s found while panning.

The criticism from a minority, quite rightly, is that he’s given valuables and his time and efforts away for nothing.  People like that, or who give money to charities, run parties in Victorian Gardens and so on just aren’t stimulating the economy and are obviously mugs.

Apparently some of the lovely schools are in the wrong place, even after all the 3Rs strategic planning and expensive consultants

We don’t need great acts of generosity, children having fun, family days in parks with music – we need to encourage businesses to come to Scotland.  This can only be done by getting scroungers to work and by building granite webs.  Perhaps in 20 years’ time people will still remember having a great day out or winning a unique, valuable gift of gold.

Or perhaps in 20 years’ time people will still remember people being generous to a fault.  I know which I think is more likely.

Before we continue with our romp through ACC’s A to Z of its spectrum of services, spare a thought for our school children.  Apparently some of the lovely schools are in the wrong place, even after all the 3Rs strategic planning and expensive consultants.  I think we should close them all down and build new ones.

But if the children aren’t busy worrying about the unending cycle of exams they are expected to take, like so many dogs jumping through flaming hoops, another worry looms.  No, not lingering asbestos in Walker Road School, now completely clear of contaminants (I’m sure).  I can reveal that Aberdeen Football Club plan to give schools more unsold/unsellable tickets for the home games.

In this heart-breaking development, inconsolable youngsters were given the news they’ll be expected to pack the empty seats.  One young person, close to tears, told Old Susannah

“It’s bad enough to know that AFC is our team and that soon we’ll build an even more empty stadium near Loirston Loch, but to actually have to sit through a match will be torture.  Not to mention the cost of a coke and burger.”   

Reports that child welfare agencies may step in are as yet unconfirmed.  A further rumour suggests unemployed might be forced to attend games – but those surveyed so far have expressed a preference for sleeping in tents in the rain along the Thames.

Finally, Willows Animal Sanctuary needs help (the government only has funds for consultants), and it was such a pleasure to see a big help arriving in the form of Paul Rodgers and wife Cynthia.
(See article – ‘Willows Name New Patrons Paul Rodgers And Cynthia Kereluc’ in this weeks issue. )

The last time Old Susannah had seen Mr Rodgers (or ‘Paul’ as he said I should call him) was in the late 1980s, backstage at a concert for the Firm (if you don’t know – you should – Tony Franklin, Chris Slade, Jimmy Page and Paul Rodgers).  John Bonham’s son Jason was the opening act (if memory serves this band of his was called ‘Virginia Woolf’ – but don’t quote me).  Good times.

The couple are animal lovers to serious extremes, as I’ll describe next week.  It was a pleasure to meet them and to visit all the animals at Willows (although I did forego the exotic insects).  PS – The New Ark also could use our support.

Right – on with some more listings from the Aberdeen City Council’s matrix of services.

H is for Housing: – but to examine the city’s housing services, policies and expenditures – to say nothing of properties sitting empty – will take a bit more than a column to sort.  Consider this on hold for now.

I is for Insects: – Yes, you guessed correctly – the link takes you back to the list of extermination services mentioned last week.  I wonder if in the jungles on the equator so many insects and forms of vermin exist as must do here in Aberdeen.

J is for Jobs: – Yes, you can work for the council, and as an added bonus, the city will give you its beneficial assistance when it comes to knowing what you can and cannot complain about in public.  The city has apparently told its employees not to get involved with protests over school closures, park destruction, turning Hazelhead into a recycling centre and so on.

The city kindly warns its employees what will happen if they turn whistle-blower, yet somehow seems not to tell them in what circumstances they are meant to be whistle-blowers (as covered previously).  I would have expected to see a great deal of jobs for exterminators and pest controllers given the coverage this issue gets on the website, but no such jobs appear this week.

There are jobs for trainee planners (which may interest some of our recently unemployed ex-councillors), and indeed a few vacancies for Freedom of Information Officers – hopefully filling these FOI posts will speed things up.

K is for Kerb: – Old Susannah wondered what would pop up when I clicked on the link for kerb:  would it be a reference to the wonderful, smooth, well repaired and dog mess free kerbs we enjoy?  Would it be a reference to our former councillor who was arrested for kerb crawling?

No – there is a procedure for changing your kerb.  Do you want to go wide?  Do you want to change it?  Well, there is a dedicated person and procedure.  Sleep well tonight in this knowledge.

L is for – actually lots and lots of things: – ‘literacy and numeracy’ spring up (good to know the city is numerate, even if it can’t keep track of its millions or the employees who have embezzled hundreds of thousands over the years), as does my favourite ‘Lord Provost’ (I wonder if the new one will be as frugal – and portrait-worthy as the previous?).  L is for Local Plan, Local Development Plan, Local Transport strategy and so on.

But L is for litter.  If you’ve wondered why our streets are the envy of Europe, it’s because of our policy:-

“…it is an offence to drop or leave litter in any public place even if thrown from a vehicle. City Wardens assist the local community in maintaining a clean litter free environment and are authorised to issue Fixed Penalty Notices should the need arise.” – Aberdeen City website

Well, I doubt the need will ever arise for a warden to issue a fixed penalty notice, but if you should ever encounter the rare spectacle of someone littering – like the guy wearing a council badge (he had dark hair and a beard) last Thursday evening who put his trash in the doorway of a closed store on Union Street), then call the city, the wardens will spring into action, and the litter will be cleared away.

But that’s enough for now on the alphabet.  Time for something a bit serious and sad.

One of the Aberdeen Voice Team has passed away; you might have seen something about this on Facebook or elsewhere in the Voice.  She will be sorely missed by friends, colleagues and her family.  It was an unforeseen tragedy.

Can I please please urge anyone who is starting to be unhappy for any reason at all or dissatisfied with their life to open up about their feelings at an early stage.  There is a friend, colleague or relative who wants to help you, I promise.  They would be devastated if they lost you – believe me.   If you’re too proud or too afraid to talk to someone in your life (which is totally understandable), then talk to a counsellor.  But don’t let things get worse.

Like any problem, the best thing to do is get on top of it while it is still small.  If things are already on top of you, then I’m begging you to do something constructive about it today.

A great deal has been done to break down the outdated stigmas attached to depression and other forms of mental illness.  It is not a sign of weakness; it is not a sign of inferiority.  Above all, it is something that can be dealt with.

Whoever you are, whatever side of the political or economic divide, you are valuable, you are needed, and you have contributions to make.  Do please remember that.

  • Readers are invited to add their views on any issue in this article in the comments box below. Note – all comments will be moderated.
May 312012
 

Voice’s Old Susannah comments on current events and enlightens us with definitions of some tricky terms with a locally topical taste. By Suzanne Kelly.

Result!  I am sure we have all been dancing in the streets as our benevolent UK coalition Government has decided NOT to introduce a tax on heated Cornish Pasties!  What a relief!  I feel much better now about the Government writing off millions of pounds in tax owed by Vodaphone (and others).  You can’t say the ConDems didn’t look after us.

And here in Aberdeen, the P&J have launched a fantastic survey proving beyond any doubt that people still want the web at all costs (well, £140 million at a minimum).

We were blitzed by hugely expensive print and radio advertising saying the web will improve our lives, make us rich, and give us thousands of permanent jobs.

We were asked to pity poor Tom Smith (of ACSEF, City Gardens Trust, etc. etc.) who the press said had been the victim of harassment and illegal spying in the run-up to the referendum.  We were not allowed to examine the voting records for evidence of potential fraud (even after people joked/boasted about selling votes) – but the referendum should be obeyed at all costs.

We don’t have the actual visuals showing what the web will look like when the ramps’ security features are up – but don’t let that worry you.  We don’t have either a business plan, or architectural plans, and we can’t afford it – but let’s just go ahead anyway, as that will make Sir Ian happy.

Of course Labour always said they did not want a referendum and they pointed out it is not legally binding.  Labour also said that if elected they would scrap the CGP – and miraculously they got elected.

Old Susannah would like to end any ambiguity regarding issues on which public opinion matters:

Public opinion does not matter on: Loirston Loch, cuts to services for the elderly or specially abled, school closures, policing, street cleaning, community centre management, programmes for young people; Tullos Hill and its deer; common good land; Redmoss green spaces; grounds of Cove Bay FC; Don Crossings and Union Terrace Gardens improvement.

Public opinion matters on:  Putting a granite web over Union Terrace Gardens and chopping down its trees

I hope that helps.

Aside from Poor Mr Milne having problems with his fans revolting and Portlethen trash accumulation, the sun shone, and people in their hundreds flocked to the FUN Beach, in order to leave litter, barbeque grilles, paddling pools and rubbish in the sand.

Old Susannah asked a guy to dispose of his empty redbull can the other day; all I can say is at least he didn’t curse me out and just ignored me instead.  Here’s to the people who join the organised beach cleans, and to the people who keep places like Torrymelinos clean on their own.

Now that we’re back to our usual weather, it’s time to get on with a look at Aberdeen City Council’s internet pages and its A-Z list of services.  Visiting the Aberdeen City Council website and trying to find a service?  You can easily look up any information you want alphabetically.

Old Susannah takes a romp through the city’s website listings and brings you highlights :-

A is for ‘3Rs’  – (NB: I make ‘3’ starting with a ‘T’. But let’s not split hairs). This great 3R scheme sees the city doing yet more PPI-type deals in which private companies perform a service or build something (like a school) and lease it back to the City for massive sums of money.  It’s as if I sold you my flat for a fraction of its value, paid you to fix it up for me, and then paid you to rent it back to me for 10 times its value.  Bargain!

Most of the rest of the UK has moved away from this disastrous concept (invented in part by our dear ex-Treasurer, ex-PM Gordon Brown in order to keep debts off the books and make the financial picture look rosy).  But here in the Deen, we’re still embracing it, with our ex-Lord Provost seemingly quite proud of his services to the 3Rs (3Rs stands for Readin’ Ritin’ and ‘Rhithmatic – to use the spelling taught in the new PPI outsourced schools).

B is for Bats – Normally you might expect a city council proud of its environment to tell you that bats are a unique and endangered species it is proud to have within its city limits, and that bats are protected by EU as well as national laws.  But the A-Z tells you nothing of the kind.  It tells you about pest control, and how much the city wants for getting rid of all sorts of critters:-

  • Insects £56 + VAT
  • Rodents [Domestic] £78.50 + VAT per course of treatment
  • Rodents [Commercial] £56 + VAT per visit
  • Bed bugs £74.50 + VAT per visit.

I suppose the difference between domestic and commercial rodents are whether or not they have ACSEF membership.

Of all the city’s money-making, nickel-and dime schemes, this one seems to be both expensive and extensively recommended, as you will see.

Aberdeen seems happy enough to scare and scatter bats in Union Terrace Gardens by allowing HMT to throw massive fireworks displays at Hogmanay.  (What was wrong with the beach as a venue one wonders?)  Doubtless the rangers were consulted and saw nothing wrong with lighting fireworks over UTG.

Then again they are happy to plunk a 21,000 seat stadium in an SAC at Loirston, and happily arranged for the eradication of our pesky deer.  So what if bats, the peregrines,now ‘discouraged’ from their usual roost at Triple Kirks by Mr Milne, and other animals living in the park were exposed to fireworks?

We might be about the only town centre with this mix of animals anywhere in Europe, but we’ve got webs and offices to build, so let’s use subtle tactics like fireworks to get rid of our annoying wildlife. Again, using any of the tons of empty offices buildings isn’t nearly as important as ensuring construction companies can make lots of dosh.  So – mind the bedbugs.

Sadly, the council omitted to say how much it charges to kill your deer.

C is for Civic Receptions – like the one we just held for the outgoing Provost.  I never did get my invitation to this £4,000 tradition, which could not possibly have been cut back on.  Then again, me and another independent candidate never got our passes for the vote count.

C is also for Cat – the link on the City’s website will for some strange reason take you back to the page where you can get pest control to get rid of your rodents.  Hopefully our more bloodthirstier council personnel haven’t started exterminating cats just yet.  (I can’t wait to get to ‘R’ to see if there is a ‘rats’ listing – but it looks so far like it is politically correct to say ‘rodent’, not ‘rat’).  Note ‘C’ is also for ‘complaint’ – but doubtless no one needs to complain to the city about anything.

D is for Debt Counselling – Old Susannah is not sure she’d take financial advice from a city which hadn’t known it was over £50,000,000 in debt some years back, which had written off £11 million in bad debts in the recent past, and was cutting back on essentials but buying portraits and sending Lord Provosts off to Japan.

However, if you are a football club owner and builder who needs to know how to stop losing money when your team plays or needs help shifting ‘luxury’ flats – do feel free to use this service.  D is also for ‘dog’ and ‘dog fouling’ – at least the ‘dog’ link didn’t take me to the pest control site again.  As to dog fouling – as I stay in Torry, I really have no idea what this means.

E is for Earwig – yes you guessed it – which takes you back to the vermin control pricelist.  Quite frankly, I would probably look in the yellow pages before I went to the City’s site for info on earwigs.  Speaking of earwigging, Old Susannah is hearing some very interesting stories emerging from LibDem HQ.  Can the Liberals lose any more members?  Maybe it can.

E is also for Environment – Were you expecting info on air pollution, the polluted burn at East Tullos (more on that next week), EU environmental projects and protection placed on animals?  Well, the link for ‘environment’ takes you to:

And what does it say about conservation areas?  “Conservation areas are designated by the planning authority as being areas of special architectural or historical interest.” – so it’s only the build environment we seem to be concerned with at the council.  That would explain quite a lot.

F is for Freedom of Information – yes, the council are proud to explain what your rights are, and what the law says.  I cannot tell you how swiftly, accurately, completely and transparently all of my FOI requests have been answered.  But do watch this space.  I am expecting some more info soon – hopefully sooner than my request about property sold to Milne-related companies and contracts these companies also won from the city.

That only took a  year and the Information Commissioner’s involvement.  Sadly, the FOI team at the city were found to be in the wrong on five different counts on that one.  Yes, F is also for five.  F is also for ‘feral cats’.  Yes, you have guessed correctly – the council’s website  for ‘feral cats’ takes you back to the pest & vermin control site.

There must be an awful lot of killing planned for this town.  Yes, F is also for fleas, flies and foxes – all of course linking to the vermin control page.

G is for ‘Green Space Audit – believe it or not, green spaces are open, usually green (! really!) spaces  in and around city centres.  We have a strategy.  One which is supposed to …

“…  provide attractive and appealing places throughout the city, particularly in those areas identified by the open space audit as low in quality. However within a context of serious financial constraint, it promotes innovative and radical ways of maintaining and managing these open spaces.”

Presumably within our serious financial constraint to manage our green heritage there is a fair amount of room for turning meadows into barren rocky hills,but no doubt Tullos will be tree-covered soon, even if it is a few months since the gorse was largely destroyed, shooting deer (and lots of other things too by the sounds of it), and especially borrowing 90 million pounds to put a granite web over a valley, and turn its earth into a stadium, with seating from the destruction of ancient trees.  Yes, that’s quite a strategy.

Well, that’s enough alphabet for now.  I’m going to go celebrate with a Cornish pasty, heated as hot as I can make it.  Oh, and a new BrewDog prototype beer:  American Saison.  This delicious offering is made from leaves and berries (like the Cair No Mohr wines I adore).

Next week:  more of the city’s website alphabet – and some head-scratching over the city’s wiping £26 million of debt off for the AECC.  Hmmm.

  • Feel free to add any comments below. Note – these will be moderated.
Apr 062012
 

If you are of the opinion that the City Garden Project controversy was all about what flavour of city centre park Aberdeen should have – think again. There seems to have been a much bigger picture involved here, and the politics are murky.  Mike Shepherd writes.

The power of the print media in shaping opinion

The public referendum has been held, and the City Garden Project won by the smallest of margins: 52-48%. Feelings are still poisonous in the city, as it is clear that a marginal result was swung by dubious means.

On the City Garden Project side, unregistered groups spent a disproportionately large sum of money on campaign material, whereas the officially registered groups were restricted to spending about £8,000 only.

Some of the claims made by supporters of the City Garden Project were outrageous and substantially misleading. One newspaper advert is now being investigated by the Advertising Standards Authority.

Even Aberdeen Council were responsible for punting a justification for the City Garden Project with the questionable claim that a new park could create 6,500 new jobs in the city.

The local papers showed a bias in favour of Sir Ian Wood’s project and framed their reports to show one side in a much better light than the other (“Yes, vote for change” or “No, don’t vote for change”). Ludicrous claims were accepted uncritically – such as oil companies leaving Aberdeen if the scheme did not go ahead.

I had been advised by an expert that:

 “Newspapers are very powerful at shaping public opinion”

and:

 “You will need the support of a PR company during the campaign.”

It was very good advice, but in practice not something that a campaign group of limited influence and funds could realistically put in place. Yet, it was clear from canvassing in the street that the combined effort of relentless advertising, the glossy brochures and the press bias was having an effect.
Whereas many would stop and give me a considered analysis of how they would vote, a large minority were reflecting City Garden propaganda back at me, phrases recognizable from glossy brochures or Evening Express headlines.

Our society today is witnessing a battle between democracy and political lobbyists / PR companies. Out of this, democracy is not doing that well. It’s a shock to see this writ large in Aberdeen, but at least the Gardens Referendum result has made this crystal clear to any thinking person in the city.

Local politics

After two years of campaigning to keep the Gardens, I have been able to observe how local politics works. It is clear that the current council administration is very business friendly and they will tend to make decisions that primarily favour business interests. At just about every council meeting you will hear the phrase “Aberdeen is open for business.”

Local democracy commonly involves a conflict between what business wants and what is in the interests of the general public. For example, if Aberdeen Airport is allowed to land flights at night, Dyce residents will get woken up by the noise. The conflict between business and public interests came to the fore after the consultation on Sir Ian Wood’s scheme two years ago. Over 50 local businessmen wrote to the council asking for the result to be ignored:

‘due to misunderstanding of the project among the public’

and an ‘inability’ to appreciate its impact. The council – to their shame – did this. The current Council administration (an SNP / Lib Dem coalition) appears to favour business almost every time.

There are a number of reasons why business gets its own way with the council. Many councillors are instinctively business friendly and will tend to support projects that are favoured by local commercial interests. This is certainly true of the Conservatives on the council and of many councillors from the other parties too.

There is also a powerful business lobby. Businessmen make up two thirds of the Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Forum (ACSEF), a “public-private partnership that drives economic development in the region”. Funded by both Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Councils, ACSEF is a non-elected body that have been given a significant degree of control over local economic policy. There is no doubt that ACSEF exerts power and influence over the activities of both councils.

  advanced societies work by a system of checks and balances between moneyed interests and the public regard

ACSEF were involved with the City Garden Project in the early days and described it as one of their flagship projects. Two of the board members, including the Chairman Tom Smith, are directors of the Aberdeen City Garden Trust, the group that organised the architectural competition and who hope to take the project forward to completion.

Extensive networking appears to go on amongst the “great and the good”. Politicians, local businessmen, council officials and senior figures in local organisations turn up and meet at parties, functions, charity events and business meetings. One Freedom of Information request gives an indication of how much hospitality is provided to council officials for instance:
http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/76531/response/199821

To the worldly wise, this will not come as a surprise. However, advanced societies work by a system of checks and balances between moneyed interests and the public regard. This does not appear to be working too well in Aberdeen.

The SNP and the City Garden Project

The SNP have been intimately involved with the City Garden Project since its inception. Alex Salmond was present at the project launch  in 2008.
http://www.eveningexpress.co.uk/Article.aspx/933616

But only recently have both Alex Salmond and Callum McCaig, the SNP leader in the council, explicitly endorsed the City Garden Project.

Yet, the majority of SNP councillors have supported it throughout (the notable exception being Clr. Muriel Jaffray). This is clear from the voting records every time the project has come up for debate in the Council. The SNP support has been instrumental for the progress of the City Garden Project through successive council votes.

  Major businessmen such as David Murray, Brian Souter, Jim McColl and Martin Gilbert have now endorsed the SNP.

The SNP have a reputation for populist politics and it may seem surprising that they have embraced such a controversial project for the city. I believe that there is a much bigger picture here, and one that takes precedent over local politics. The SNP are essentially a single-issue party; they want independence for Scotland. The realpolitik of the SNP is that much of what they do is focussed towards this end.

A key aim for the SNP has been to secure the support of major business figures in Scotland. This is partly financial; the party has no natural source of funds apart from membership fees, but they are also trying to secure influence leading up to and beyond any independence date. Major businessmen such as David Murray, Brian Souter, Jim McColl and Martin Gilbert have now endorsed the SNP.

Sir Brian Souter, founder of the bus company Stagecoach, caused controversy when he donated £500,000 to the SNP in 2007. Shortly afterwards, the SNP dropped an election commitment to bus re-regulation, although they denied that there was any connection to Sir Brian Souter’s donation.

Sir Ian Wood has not given open support to the SNP, yet the SNP continue to court the billionaire’s favour. Not only has Alex Salmond given his own backing to the City Garden Project, the machinery of Government has also been used to bankroll the scheme.

Scottish Enterprise funded the public consultation two years ago and also allowed grant money to be used for the technical feasibility study. Although the public rejected Sir Ian Wood’s project in the consultation, it didn’t stop Scottish Enterprise from giving Aberdeen City Garden Trust £375,000 of public money from its available funds for major infrastructure projects.

Another niggly problem has been the concerns of Audit Scotland

The Scottish Government are keen to provide investment money for the project through TIF funding. Yet it has been established that the initial proposal did not rank very highly by comparison to other investment and infrastructure projects elsewhere in Scotland.

The Scottish Futures Trust, who carried out the ranking, has refused to make their calculations public in spite of Freedom of Information requests to do so. Another niggly problem has been the concerns of Audit Scotland, who have questioned the long term capability of the indebted Aberdeen Council to pay back a risky loan for the project.

The proposed use of valuable investment and infrastructure funds for something as trivial as building a new park is shocking. The business case is dubious and the council can’t afford the risk. Political considerations seem to have taken precedence to a strict business evaluation on the Aberdeen TIF case.

Sir Ian Wood discussed independence recently and gave an indication of what he wants from the Scottish Government:

“The Wood Group will not endorse a Yes or No vote on independence. But Sir Ian added: “What’s key is the extent to which our clients, and to some extent ourselves, anticipate that a Scottish Government would continue with a similar oil and gas policy to the UK.

“The suggestion right now, from the discussions I’ve heard, is that there’s a lot of overlap between the present Scottish Government’s thinking on the development of the oil and gas industry and the UK government’s thinking.”

He went on:

 “What’s important – and I think the First Minister realises this – is that they must provide as much clarity as possible over the next two years towards the vote in 2014, so that we minimise the uncertainty.”
http://www.scotsman.com/captains-of-industry-and-finance-join-clamour-for-clarity

I have no doubt that this will happen.

The SNP are hoping to secure a majority at the council elections on May 3rd. This is possible, but as a one-issue party they tend to do better in national elections than local elections. They are also heavily identified with the Union Terrace Gardens issue and this appeared to have cost them votes in the Scottish elections last year.
https://aberdeenvoice.com/2011/05/the-election-the-utg-effect/

If they do not get a majority, this raises the intriguing possibility of an administration run by a Labour-SNP coalition. The Lib-Dems are likely to see their vote collapse outside the West End of the city. The Labour group are vehemently opposed to the City Garden Project and it could be that a condition for agreeing to form a coalition is that the scheme is dropped.

The “Union” in Union Terrace Gardens refers to the union of the United Kingdom and Ireland in 1800. Perhaps it is ironic that the park has ostensibly become a pawn in the big game of Scottish independence. It would be immensely sad if this was the case. Aberdeen’s heritage could end up sacrificed for the sake of political wheeling and dealing.

This would not bode well for a future Scotland. As Paul Scofield, playing Thomas More, said in A Man For All Seasons:

“I think that when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties, they lead their country by a short route to chaos.”