Aug 102012

Aberdeen Voice’s Old Susannah peers past the hot summer haze, smokescreens, and piles of unsold, undistributed P&Js and EEs to define the Deen’s dominant issues.  By Suzanne Kelly.

Tally Ho! The big news this past week is John Swinney: he has come down firmly on the side of the City Gardens Project. Result!

I guess I must have missed the part where we had a sound business case and where we threw out the economist’s assessment of the TIF application; I really must pay more attention.

I’d also have thought that Swinney would need a little time to digest all the evidence – but most of the digestion he did was over ACSEF ‘working lunches’ (see below).

Also on the theme of Union Terrace Gardens, we have a few upstart independent councillors about to launch a different option for the city centre’s future before the crucial 22nd August vote. 

Obviously there is only one solution, and that is the granite web to be put in place of the city’s green lungs.  You couldn’t for instance build a civic square on the site of the fortress of doom, aka St Nicholas House – where’s the fun (or benefit to one Mr Milne) in that?

No, the only answer to permanent economic prosperity, permanent career creation, jobs for the (construction) boys and eternal bliss, is the granite web.  Shame on those indies.  Now if they were part of some of the major parties, they’d just do as they were told and be done with it.

Having said that, a news item tells me the SNP and the Lib Dems are fighting again; apparently over a boundary shake-up.  The SNP wish to make the Lib Dems look bad.  Personally, I think that horse has already bolted.

Before moving on to some timely definitions, I’d like to thank the people in charge of roads at Aberdeen City Council for getting rid of all those pesky wildflowers growing on Wellington Road.  Yes, those gigantic pansies, daisies and other wildflowers have all been mowed over.

It’s good that there is no discrimination between 3 foot high grass and 3 inch high wildflowers – treat them all alike, I say.  So if the bees get even less areas to feed on and if the remaining moths and butterflies are killed, no worries.  Soon all will be covered in concrete anyway, so getting rid of the flowers before they went to seed is irrelevant.

The same anti-nature mentality must be at work in whichever department allows fireworks displays – HMT has been at it again.  In case there were any wild animals left in UTG not already scared off by Milne’s anti peregrine falcon goons, or by the previous fireworks, a brilliant (?) display of daytime fireworks was set off last week.

Someone should tell the city that disturbing the bothersome yet protected by EU legislation animals (bats, birds, etc) is not supposed to happen.

Can we please go back to having fireworks at the beach, and perhaps at night time?  Word has it that fireworks can be seen to be more vibrant and dynamic at night.

Silly Season: (Mod Eng Phrase)
Summer months during which there is a shortage of serious news stories and the media often resort to printing non-news stories, ‘cute’ items and/or tall tales.

Thankfully the ‘silly season’ is something our more serious newspapers are immune to.  While the Evening Express may have endless photo competitions for adorable babies and so on, the mainstream press keeps its sombre, serious course.

Stories such as the 7th August P&J piece on a white witch performing a ritual to raise the Loch Ness Monster are demonstrative of the mindset of the newspaper which wants us to take its word over the best future use for Union Terrace Gardens.

This might seem like a textbook example of ‘silly season journalism’ to you, but I’m sure it’s actually a very important piece on comparative religion and marine biology.  The mythical kelpie is apparently being used by some ‘creationist’ sects in the United States to prove that evolution is wrong and the bible is right about Adam and Eve.  I guess the logic at play there is just a tad over my head.

Working Lunch:
(Mod Eng Phrase)
To combine a social meal occasion with business and/or politics; a form of lobbying.

So – how did John Swinney get so interested in the future of our beloved Granite Web?  It was over a working lunch.   Or two.  After all, it was over a few friendly dinners that Swinney’s higher up, Alex Salmond, met Donald Trump and was convinced that Trump’s needs outweighed Scotland’s only movable sand dune system (a SSI) and a few troublesome Scottish people.  As above, so below.

Who took Swinney to lunch?  Why ACSEF of course – including Colin Crosby (who is a director of Aberdeen City Gardens Trust along with Tom Smith) and Mr Stewart Milne (owner/developer of the adjacent Triple Kirks site).  Any conflict of interest between what these entities stand to gain and their ACSEF roles?  Never!  .  Here is a little taster of what was on the menu back in February, 2010:

ACSEF Working Lunch with Cabinet Secretary John Swinney – 16 February [2010]

“The Chairman [Tom Smith] advised that the presentation to be made to John Swinney had been revised to take account of comments at the special Board meeting on 9 February.  He ran through the format for the presentation and discussion and advised that Stewart Milne would raise the importance of delivery of infrastructure projects and aspirations for the future, Colin Crosby the desire for Government support for TIF’s and need for innovative thinking around funding methods and Dave Blackwood the importance of oil and gas relative to renewables and also its internationalisation.”

– from ACSEF Minutes

I’m sure that over a tasty meal, (although probably not at Nando’s, or Starbucks) Mr Milne and Mr Crosby must have left a clear impression that everyone in Aberdeen wants a granite web.

No doubt over the brandy and cigars the alternative points of view (if any) were also made clear and the importance of the EU protected trees and animals, the web’s probably carbon footprint and that little matter of where to find a spare £90,000,000 were put in perspective.  We should thank all concerned for throwing this little lunch I say.

Who paid for any such working lunches?  Why you and I did:  ACSEF is publicly funded.   Bon appétit!

Smokescreen:  (noun; Eng)
Something that obscures or deflects attention away from another thing in an attempt to mislead, or confuse.

The previous administration made lots of noise about its ‘transparency’ – but most of us saw straight through that.

Callum McCaig has accused the independent councillors of putting up a smokescreen.  McCaig seems to imply that the Indies’ belief in a possible alternative to the Granite Web is just a smokescreen.

Old Susannah has sought local examples of smokescreens to help define this tricky term.  There is, for example, the noble attempt by Council employees who served up smoked deer.  Anonymous ACC operatives gave an ACC letter to the P&J, which became a news story claiming that ‘two deer were found dead ahead of the (Tullos Hill) cull’.

The implication was that the deer were suffering and dying (which all relevant animal charities hotly contested) and shooting the deer dead would help them (a concept I’m still working on).  This story might have successfully deflected attention away from the other issues (there are many), but alas the attempted smokescreen failed.

The deer did die in advance of the cull all right – two years in advance in fact (and of causes unknown).  Deer live about 6-7 years and do actually die, believe it or not.  Smokescreen FAIL.

Searching for further whiffs of smoke, I must thank Mr Tom Smith (of ACSEF, the Aberdeen City Gardens Trust, etc. etc.) for providing me with a recent example.

Just before the referendum (coincidentally), he was on the front page of the P&J with the sad story that he had been the victim of illegal computer hacking as well as harassment.    Tom put the blame for this clearly illegal hacking activity on those who wanted UTG left without a web.

This apparent victimisation of Tom created sympathetic feelings for him (didn’t we all feel his pain?), just in time for the referendum.  Is  there any chance that this allegation of crime being committed against poor Tom, coming to light just before the referendum  as it did, could have been a smokescreen?

A smokescreen might have been useful to sway the vote, deflect attention away from other issues such as the actions of the ‘unofficial’ pro web group, which was free to publish what it wanted and spend as much as it pleased, operating outside of the referendum’s limits ?  Surely not.

There must have been hard, cold, direct evidence proving Smith had been hacked.  Otherwise the Press & Journal would not have run such a story, just like they wouldn’t publish a news story about a kelpie and a white witch without concrete evidence.  Yet when I asked Smith, ACSEF and the police for details of the crime committed, I was told it was ‘private’.  Funny, how this public story quickly went private; just one of those things I guess.

Sadly, Mr Smith, Chair of ACSEF, may be able to influence how public money is spent – but the public are not permitted to send him emails directly.  The public must instead email Rita Stephen of ACC, who acts as intermediary.  Ms Stephen explains that Mr Smith’s email address is ‘personal data’.

I never did find out how a publicly-funded body like ACSEF would have its members’ emails protected by the Data Protection Act.

I had written for info on the allegations of illegal hacking of Smith’s emails.  I eventually received a reply concerning anonymous letters and something to do with pornographic pictures on social network sites (did any of you know there were naughty pictures on the internet?).

Did I get a response to my direct question about email hacking crime?  No.  It was almost as if Mr Smith’s reply to me was a smokescreen covering up the smokescreen of the P&J article alleging a crime.

Shockingly, it seems no illegal hacking has taken place.  I don’t find anything in any subsequent P&J articles on the matter and I can’t find court publications to say anyone had been charged with email hacking.  This crime could carry a custodial sentence and/or a fine (under Computer Misuse legislation).

I think the smoke is clearing.  Should Mr Smith get in touch now to say exactly who was charged with what hacking crime, I’ll get back to you.  But it’s starting to look like some small exaggeration took place with conveniently strategic timing.

One last thought; the smoke may clear completely in the near future.  Audit Scotland has been asked to look at some of the financial intricacies of the interesting way in which work is commissioned, invoiced and then paid for regarding our sparkly granite web.

Audit Scotland may not prove so easy to put off and they seem more than a little interested.

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Feb 172012

Voice has learned that Aberdeen’s allotment holders may well be close to resolving their long- running dispute with Aberdeen City Council. The swingeing increases imposed in the Council’s 2008 and 2009 budgets have added 152% to bills in a 12 month period for some gardeners. With thanks to Frank Taylor.

Readers may recall that Finance Minister John Swinney confirmed to local MSP Dr Nanette Milne that a local authority would not be entitled to collect rent under regulations which had not been formally confirmed by Scottish Ministers in terms of the Allotment (Scotland) Act 1892.
Regulations made under this provision have no legal effect without ministerial confirmation.

Aberdeen City Council maintained that legally it can to choose whether or not to make regulations for its allotments. Allotment holders do not dispute this, but when the Council claims it has chosen not to make regulations, allotment holders do dispute this.

The allotment holders feel that irrespective of what the Council says it has chosen to do, it has in fact made regulations, but by choosing not to have them confirmed by ministers, the Council has no legal right to enforce these.

The dispute is now at the Sheriff Court as the Council has raised proceedings against Frank Taylor, secretary of Bucksburn Allotments Association. Mr Taylor eventually lost patience with the Council, withheld the rent for his allotments and challenged the Council to raise proceedings against him for recovery of rent and possession to allow the Court to clarify the issues.

Mr taylor told Voice that he did not encourage the Council to raise proceedings against him ‘without a great deal of thought and soul-searching’. There are extremely serious consequences for him should the Court find against him. He may have to surrender possession of his allotments and be found liable for the Council’s costs as well as his own.

He is, however, extremely confident in the merits of his arguments.

The term ‘regulations’ is not defined in the allotments legislation and it is a well-established legal principle in such circumstances, that an undefined word shall be interpreted according to its normal and ordinary meaning.

‘Regulation’ is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘a rule or directive made and maintained by an authority’. Aberdeen City Council is a local authority.  So, has ACC made any rules for the management of its allotments?

Before being granted tenancy, Aberdeen allotment holders are required to indicate their acceptance of a list of conditions in the Council’s ‘Conditions of Let’ letter. Mr Taylor has provided us with a copy and points out that ‘rule’ is a synonym of ‘Condition’ in the Oxford Thesaurus of English.

That seems to put the issue beyond doubt, especially since the Council in its own Condition 9, refers to that condition as ‘a rule’.
To reinforce his views, Mr Taylor says it is evident that the conditions imposed upon him are used to

  1. Set the rent payable in terms of the contract and the date on which the initial rent is payable
  2. Make a direction as to when the rent shall be reviewed and the dates on which future rents shall be payable
  3. Govern the circumstances under which the landlord is entitled to resume possession
  4. Direct who shall be entitled to assess compensation to a tenant on outgo and restrict the right of any other person to input into that process
  5. Direct how the tenancy may be terminated by a tenant
  6. Restrict the entitlement of a tenant to transfer the tenancy
  7. Limit the use to which a tenant may put an allotment and restrict him/her from keeping livestock
  8. Regulate the dimensions and type of hut that a tenant may seek to erect and control where it may be situated
  9. Direct that a tenant may be removed if he does not achieve the required standard of husbandry.

The terms used – ‘manage’, ‘administer’, ‘set’, ‘govern’, ‘restrict’, ‘limit’, ‘direct’ and ‘control’ – are all synonyms of ‘regulate’. There is no doubt that every condition in the Conditions of Let letters regulates, or has the effect of regulating, matters pertaining to the management and administration of allotments owned and let by a local authority.

So has Aberdeen City Council made regulations for its allotments? Has the Council made a regulation by setting a rent? Will a Court disagree with Mr Taylor? He is confident of winning the case..

The Council’s Court Action has been founded on Conditions or an alleged breach thereof.  If the Court decides that these Conditions are Regulations, then the local authority’s Court Action will automatically fail.

Sep 142011

Scotland’s Parliament is gearing up for a special screening of the award-winning documentary You’ve Been Trumped today, but First Minister Alex Salmond has declined an invitation to attend, sighting ‘long standing ministerial commitments’. 

Also absent from the Holyrood event will be Scotland’s Finance Secretary John Swinney MSP.  In a statement, Mr Swinney’s office said he was unable to attend due to ‘prior commitments’.  Mr Salmond has previously declined invitations to several presentations of the film across Scotland, including the green-carpet premiere in Aberdeen and subsequent screenings in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

 Scotland’s Government was responsible for giving Donald Trump’s controversial golf development the go-ahead at the Menie Estate in Aberdeenshire.

However, a number of high profile politicians and key environmental figures have booked places for this evening’s jam-packed Edinburgh screening, including Patrick Harvie MSP (Scottish Green Party Co-Convenor) Stan Blackley, Chief Executive, Friends of the Earth Scotland and geomorphologist Dr Jim Hansom, University of Glasgow (who gave evidence to the Scottish Government inquiry on the Trump development on behalf of Scottish Natural Heritage).

Also present will be Menie Estate resident David Milne whose home overlooks Mr Trump’s resort.  Mr Milne said:

“It’s very important to bring this film to Parliament to emphasise to those who make the laws that it’s not abstract. It’s all about living, breathing, people who have a right to live unharrassed in their own homes, in a landscape that should never have been touched.”

Also watching the documentary unspool will be academics, golf writers and legal experts including Frances McCartney, whose client, 87 year old widow Molly Forbes, has been threatened with eviction and a legal bill of up to £50,000 by US billionaire Donald Trump.

Mr Trump’s office in New York has yet to respond to a personal invitation to the event.

Meanwhile politicians who have not booked their place are being urged to do so by Bob Ward, Policy and Communications Director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science who recently saw You’ve Been Trumped in London.   Mr Ward describes the tycoon’s efforts to build a golf resort on Site of Special Scientific Interest as ruthless in an article for The Guardian.

Director Anthony Baxter who will also be at the screening said, “We wanted to make it as easy as possible for Scotland’s decision-makers to see the film.  We await to see if any other members of the Government will attend today’s screening, to comment on what an international film jury recently described as:

“one of the worst environmental crimes in recent UK history.”

Today’s screening at the Scottish Parliament is being staged by the Take One Action Film Festival.

Nov 262010

By Councillor Martin Ford.

Yesterday (25th November), Aberdeenshire Council took important decisions about its budget for the financial year 2011/12.

It was one of the worst days I have had as an Aberdeenshire councillor.

First, the Council had to decide whether it would accept Finance Secretary John Swinney’s ‘offer’ of a funding cut of 2.6 per cent (£10.243 million) in return for the Council agreeing to a package of measures including no increase in the Council Tax.

On this the Council was unanimous – because the alternative was so much worse. If the Council refused to comply with the conditions set by Mr Swinney for a 2.6 per cent cut in funding, funding would be cut instead by 6.4 per cent, or £27.093 million.
Faced with losing an additional £16.850 million in grant, the Council effectively had no choice but to agree to meet the requirements for the smaller cut in funding.

Agreeing to freeze the Council Tax is not the same as agreeing with freezing the Council Tax – as several councillors made clear. Enforcing a Council Tax freeze on councils is wrong in principle. The decision as to what balance to strike between raising additional revenue and cutting council services is properly one for councils and not the Scottish Government.

Had Mr Swinney allowed councils to decide on the level of Council Tax next year, some of the cuts to services could have been avoided. In the case of Aberdeenshire, the Band D Council Tax is £1141. A one per cent increase, £11.41 per year or 22 pence per week, would bring in around £1.2 million to help pay for public services.

There is, though, to be no increase in the Council Tax – just a cut in government grant. Although the cut will be 2.6 per cent in cash terms, in real terms, allowing for inflation and cost pressures, the cut is 7.9 per cent. Having made the decision to comply with the conditions set for a 2.6 per cent cut in funding, the second debate at yesterday’s Council meeting was on the cuts that would be required to achieve a balanced budget.

This was a grim experience indeed.

it appears that Aberdeenshire Council has already decided on most of the cuts it will make in next year’s budget

Councillors were provided with a huge list of potential cuts and efficiencies that together were projected to save almost £27 million. The cuts identified ranged from fewer teachers and classroom assistants to reduced opening hours for swimming pools, fewer social work staff, ending grants to voluntary organisations and reducing grounds maintenance.

Councillors were warned that to make these cuts from the start of the 2011/12 financial year, work had to start immediately. Making staff redundant is not something that can be rushed.

While it was certainly necessary to authorise the Council’s management to continue preparation work so the cuts identified could be implemented if agreed when the Council sets its 2011/12 budget on 10 February, the Council’s Liberal Democrat/Conservative administration went further. Summing up the debate on the cuts options, the Council leader, Cllr Anne Robertson, made clear that agreement to proceed with work on the cuts listed was a decision to make them.

The cuts were approved by a large majority.

On this basis, it appears that Aberdeenshire Council has already decided on most of the cuts it will make in next year’s budget. Depending on the exact grant settlement the Council receives from the Scottish Government, some additional savings will need to be found before budget day in February.

We will find out exactly what the Council will get in grant funding in two weeks time.

Nov 192010

With thanks to Frank Taylor.

An Aberdeen gardener has asked Voice to draw to the attention of all city allotment tenants, the following statement made by John Swinney, Scottish Finance Minister in reply to a parliamentary question:

“A local authority would not be entitled to collect rent under regulations that had not been formally confirmed by Scottish Ministers in terms of section 6(1) of the Allotment (Scotland) Act 1892. Regulations made under this provision have no legal effect without ministerial confirmation”.

The regulation for Allotment rents used by Aberdeen City has not received ministerial confirmation and so the City Council is therefore not entitled to collect rents for allotments.

Frank Taylor has personally withheld rent for his allotments in Bucksburn, and is urging all his fellow allotment holders to follow suit until the Council has had its allotments regulations confirmed as required by law.

Mr Taylor told Aberdeen Voice:

“We simply cannot allow ourselves to have savage rent increases illegally imposed on us again without being able to exercise our right to have an input into the process.  The law was put in place to protect allotment holders from possible excesses of local authorities.  Any local authority that increases allotment rents by 80% and then follows that with further increases of 72% within a twelve month period has acted to excess.”

For plot holders, one of the most annoying consequences of Aberdeen City Council refusing to accept that it needs to formalise its regulations, is that those who neglect their allotments – even to the stage of a state of total dereliction – cannot be legally evicted because any legal proceedings for recovery of possession of allotments must be founded upon a regulation made in pursuance of the Allotments Acts. As a result, our own plots end up affected by weed seed and by vermin.

By the same token, in the absence of formal regulations regarding rents, the Council cannot  successfully pursue anyone who refuses to pay rent for an allotment.

The Council cannot even start proceedings for recovery of unpaid rent without a regulation (also to have been formally confirmed by the Scottish Government) which determines the due date for payment – as a tenant must by that stage be at least 40 days in arrears before these proceedings begin.

Allotment holders should note that the Council proposes to recall their allotment leases and to issue new leases containing new rules(regulations).

The regulations contained in these leases will not have been confirmed by the Scottish Ministers and will be unenforceable until ministerial confirmation is obtained. Ministerial confirmation cannot be given without publication and full public consultation and no allotment tenant should accept these new leases until the full process required by law has been completed.

Nov 192010

By Cllr Martin Ford, Aberdeenshire Council.

Following the announcement on Wednesday (17th November) by Finance Secretary John Swinney of the Scottish Government’s budget proposals, the scale of the cuts required at Aberdeenshire Council has become slightly clearer.

If the Council agrees to freeze the Council Tax and other measures, it will have its government funding cut by around £10 million. If it does not agree to freeze the Council Tax, it will lose around £30 million from its government funding support.

Effectively, Mr Swinney has re-introduced Council Tax capping, with the cap set at no increase at all. Preventing some of the threatened cuts in services by a measured rise in the Council Tax has to all intents and purposes been ruled out – although there is a strong case for taking that option. As it is, that choice has been denied to communities and their elected representatives by a Scottish Government that is showing no respect for local democratic decision-making and is forcing councils to make cuts that could have been avoided.

Freezing the Council Tax is clearly financially unsustainable and, given inflation and rising costs, is effectively a tax cut. A Council Tax freeze as a temporary measure when budgets were rising was one thing. Forcing councils to, in effect, cut local tax when their grant funding is also being reduced is quite another.

Far from reducing the impact of budget cuts arising from decisions at Westminster the Scottish Government is adding cuts of its own.

Mr Swinney’s statement has left a lot of uncertainty surrounding the funding for local government next year. It has provided no basis for forward planning for future years.

Freezing the Council Tax is clearly financially unsustainable and, given inflation and rising costs, is effectively a tax cut

As best it is possible to judge at this stage, taking into account higher costs and other pressures, Aberdeenshire Council is probably going to have to cut around £30 million from its budget for 2011/12.

Some of the savings required can certainly be achieved by finding efficiencies. But with such a huge funding shortfall, cuts in services are, sadly, inevitable.

On Thursday next week (25th November), the Council will start the process of deciding what services to cut. Council finance officers are advising that the Council will need to make savings of almost £17 million by cutting services, with the balance of savings being achieved by efficiencies and increases in charges.

The reduction in the Council’s budget is expected to result in a loss of around 900 full-time equivalent posts. This is almost 10 per cent of the Council’s workforce.

This is not the first time Aberdeenshire Council has had to make cuts in services. But this is far worse than anything I have experienced since I was first elected in 1999. The budget cut required is significantly more. And this time the option of reducing the cuts by increasing income from the Council Tax has been denied to the Council by the Scottish Government. The Council really has very little room for manoeuvre. It gets to decide what to cut, but the scale of the overall cut has been decided for it.