Mar 202015
 

11 February, 2015: Former Aberdeen City Chief Executive Valerie Watts, is called as an important witness in a Standards Commission hearing taking place in Aberdeen’s townhouse. Seven elected councillors are accused of using council facilities for political ends concerning a letter sent to residents. Despite a month’s notice of this hearing, despite agreeing to participate (and the ability to join from Northern Ireland via video link), Watts fails to join.

Watts gives the excuse that she has a meeting with the Permanent Secretary in Stormont which clashes with the hearing. The Aberdeen hearing is thus stalled.

Aberdeen Voice researched Watts’ diary conflict claims, and learned there are :  “…no records held in the Department that indicate that Valerie Watts had to attend a meeting on 11 February 2015.” (letter to S Kelly from the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety 19 March 2015). So why didn’t she participate in the hearing when she had previously agreed to do so? Suzanne Kelly reports.

marischalpic

Background

During the independence referendum,  Aberdeen City Council sent a letter to city residents advising them the council had voted to back the ‘No’ Vote.
It was a heated time; many residents were angered, feeling the city should not have mentioned the referendum issue at all.

The Standards Commission decided that a hearing was required into the matter, and on 11 February 2015 it summoned many of those involved to a hearing at the Town House.

The city’s legal advisors, officers and elected councillors (several of whom were the subject of the hearing) all turned out as requested.

One of the Commission’s witnesses was to be Valerie Watts. Watts had been the £148,000 per year Chief Executive of Aberdeen City Council; the hearing expected her to participate via a video link. She had after all indicated her willingness.

Watts did not appear at the hearing. She called off, apparently claiming she  needed ‘to meet with the Permanent Secretary’ on the day instead. Watts is back in Stormont where she earlier worked, now in The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. There was apparently very little notice given to the hearing organisers, and no explanation of why a video link was not viable.

With no testimony, the matter is unresolved – no one is cleared, no one is exonerated. The ball has been kicked into touch – until after the elections in May. Considering the hearing was to be into whether or not council materials had been used for political purposes, the hearing’s delay  until after the election seems rather ironic.

The local newspaper the Evening Express reported:

“The hearing was due to run for three days but has now been deferred as former chief executive Valerie Watts, who was to give evidence via video link from Northern Ireland, cancelled at the last minute as she had another meeting.

“Ian Gordon, the hearing chairman, called her late call-off “disrespectful” and “bordering on contempt”.

“Ms Watts could not be reached for comment.”

The Evening Express’ sister  paper The Press & Journal confirmed this excuse involved the Permanent Secretary:

 “After the morning session, Ranald Macpherson, representing the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life, said Mrs Watts had been called away “to a meeting with the permanent secretary””

When Ms Watts refused to explain this scheduling conundrum, freedom of information requests were launched. When did she know about the hearing?

witnesses were expected to attend by agreement

When did she know about the apparent clash with the Permanent Secretary’s meeting?

Does the Permanent secretary call last minute ad-hoc meetings?

Why wouldn’t Watts simply have explained to the PS that she was expected to join a hearing in Scotland by Skype on the 11th February? Was there in fact a clash at all?

As further information is released shedding light on the matter, it looks as if the excuse given for this disrespect has been somewhat disingenuous, perhaps even misleading.

Invitation to a hearing.

Aberdeen Voice has obtained documents which seem to clearly indicate that Watts had a one month advance notice of this meeting, and she appears to have agreed to give her evidence by video link. The office of the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland advised Aberdeen Voice on 16 March:

“Arrangements for the hearing were made by the Standards Commission. Although the Commission has power to require the attendance of witnesses, the position in this case was that witnesses were expected to attend by agreement. This office was responsible for the arrangements made with Valerie Watts. Any communications with Valerie Watts was both by telephone and by email… 

“Ms Watts was given one month’s notice of our intention to call her as a witness at the hearing on 11 February 2015. Ms Watts agreed in telephone conversations in advance to give evidence by video-link at 4pm on 11 February 2015.

“Ms Watts was informed on 12 January 2015 that she was required to give evidence at this hearing.”
(email to S Kelly from the office of the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland

Meetings with the Permanent Secretary

Of course now that Watts is back in Northern Ireland, she must prioritise her engagements, and meeting the Permanent Secretary would be an important meeting.  Watts could reasonably have been expected to tell the PS’s office she had a long-standing agreement to give evidence at a hearing.  Whether or not the PS knew of the hearing is still unclear.  What is clear is that this is the official list of engagements involving Watts and the PS as supplied following a FOI:

“Permanent Secretary meetings in 2015 that Valerie Watts was invited to attend:

Weekly Thursday morning meetings, 9am – 10am, with other attendees, (exceptions of 15 & 22 January and 5, 19, and 26 February), organised by telephone in advance;

14 January, 10am, without other attendees, organised via telephone;

22 January, 2pm, with other attendees, organised via e-mail;

23 January, 2:30pm, with other attendees, organised via telephone;

23 January, 3:30pm, with other attendees, organised via telephone;

13 February, 12:30pm, with other attendees, organised via telephone; and

3 March, 9:30am, with other attendees, organised via telephone.

“As per your e-mail of 4 March 2015, confirming that you were content that your request for a review of DHSSPS/2015-0017 be treated under the response to DHSSPS/2015-0026, I can confirm there are no records held in the Department that indicate that Valerie Watts had to attend a meeting on 11 February 2015. 

“However, on receipt of the original enquiries from you, Valerie Watts was given the opportunity to comment (see her comments above). Copies of the e-mails are attached for information. Her response in no way had any bearing on the previous response to you.”
(letter to Kelly from DHSSPS 19 March 2015).

This crucial, not to be postponed or missed appointment with the PS comes two days before the scheduled 13 February meeting they would have seen each other at. The mysterious 11 February meeting with the PS for which the hearing was in effect jilted came 18 days after the two had last met on 23 January.

For this meeting to have trumped the Aberdeen hearing and yet not have made it onto any record supplied under Freedom of Information requests is remarkable.

If there is no record of Watts being required by the PS on the date of the Aberdeen hearing, and also having a meeting with the PS on 13 February (these meetings do not seem like rare affairs), either there was no meeting, or whatever business was to have been discussed by Watts and the PS on 11 February was not as important as the Aberdeen hearing, set one month in advance.

Watts the story?

Watts was asked by her own department to help them answer freedom of information questions about her non-appearance;  her suggested response includes:

“1.  The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety hold no records in relation to this matter.” and “The Chief Executive of the Care Board for Northern Ireland carries the unique responsibility for the prioritisation of commitments in relation to the responsibilities of her current post.” (emails supplied under FOI).

(For the record, it is clear from other correspondence received that information as to meeting schedules is held)

A few questions for the witness.

It would be interesting to know who in Watts’ new role in Stormont knew of her hearing appointment.

If so, when did they know about it? Who was involved in deciding to skip the Aberdeen hearing:  i.e. did the PS tell her to skip the hearing, or did she decide to skip the hearing without consulting anyone? Was this newly-scheduled PS meeting of such urgency that it meant a video link to the hearing was totally impossible? If so, who took that decision?

How much public money was spent on the derailed hearing is unknown – transport, accommodation, civil servant’s time – would be among the costs incurred; perhaps we should be told.

Summing up

Given various previous bumps in Ms Watts’ tenure as Chief Executive in Aberdeen (see https://aberdeenvoice.com/2014/03/valerie-watts-long-thanks-for-errr/ ), perhaps the various Standards and Ethics bodies may wish to turn their attention in her direction?

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

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

Sep 212012
 

By Bob Smith. 

The Donald’s noo bin telt
Yer advert wi div deplore
Showin some rottin win turbines
Fit warna near Scotia’s shore

The advert wis misleadin
Says fowk fae the ASA
The photo wis o turbines
In 50th state o theUSA

Noo Trumpie he protested
Sayin we telt far t’wis teen
The affa sma print in the advert
Suggestit it wisna near Aiberdeen

Na Na min said the billies
Fa look intae sic like capers
Ye shudna hae pit it in
The bliddy local papers

Dinna dare use it ony mair
Weel nae in it’s preesint form
Use photos of turbine types
Nearer tae Scotland’s norm

Noo iss begs the simple question
Fit wye the P&J printed the ad
There is advertisin standards
Tae be adhered tae in iss land

Nae doot the auld excuse
Eence mair will be trottit oot
We took the advert in good faith
An it brocht us some mair loot

So fit noo Donald we maun ask
Tae the ASA wull ye buckle?
Ye dinna like bein telt fit tae dee
An gittin rappit ower the knuckles

Iss turbines row is biggin up tae be
A fecht wi Eck, Trump’s auld bosom pal
Wull it be  a showdoon at dawn
Like the “Gunfecht at the OK Corral”

©Bob Smith “The Poetry Mannie” 2012

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.”

Apr 062012
 

A report on the UTG referendum was discussed at a meeting of full council on Wednesday with a view to it being approved before being sent to the Scottish Government. Friends of Union Terrace Gardens chairman Mike Shepherd was permitted to give a deputation. Aberden voice presents Mike’s deputation in full.

“I was allowed to give a deputation here in January when I said that the FoUTG would agree to take part in a referendum if it was fair.

We agreed to the referendum in spite of the shameful behaviour of this council in ignoring the result of the public consultation two years ago. We agreed for two reasons.

First, we saw the CGP as a juggernaut pushed through relentlessly by business and a friendly council. There were only two options to stop this; either through the referendum or legal action. We chose the referendum.

Secondly, we chose this route through public spirit. We were only too aware of the poisonous attitudes building on both sides of the issue. Aberdeen was at war with itself. A fair referendum was the only way of killing this beast.

I also told the council that the referendum would have to be fair because implicit in taking part was that we accepted the final result, whatever it was. This was said in good faith.

THIS WAS NOT A FAIR REFERENDUM!

We do not accept the result. The process was flawed. Internet and phone voting should not have been allowed as without signatures, this was open to fraud. The Green party have also asked me to complain about their shortened message in the information pack that was sent out.

The City Garden Project supporters were allowed to spend tens of thousands of pounds on PR, newspapers, leaflets and radio ads. This money spent on advertising bought a marginal result for the referendum.

The ads were often misleading and in some instances blatantly so. We were told of a bogus £182M investment, consisting of a bogus £15M of private investment and a bogus £20M Art Gallery grant which didn’t exist. One misleading ad is under investigation by the Advertising Standards Authority.

This council also misled the public. The claim that a new park could create 6,500 jobs was utterly ludicrous. They did not explain the risks of borrowing through TIF properly, even when Audit Scotland expressed their concerns about the long term implications for the Council’s finances.

You are £618M in debt, you cannot afford the risk on further borrowing.

The council were partial to one side of the referendum. The ACGT were allowed to show a video in the Art Gallery, council property, yet we were excluded until after several days of complaint on the matter.

This was a dishonest referendum. The public were misled right up the City Garden path. The council should vote to ignore the result. Furthermore, this report should not be passed onto the Scottish Government as suggested. The proposal to spend valuable investment and infrastructure money on something as trivial as a new park is a disgrace.

We do not accept the result of the referendum and we intend to carry on campaigning to save Union Terrace Gardens. Thank you.”

Evening Express report here.  http://www.eveningexpress.co.uk/Article.aspx

Mar 152012
 

With thanks to Suzanne Kelly.

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

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

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

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

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

Langley was quoted at the time as saying:

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

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

many feel the media bombardment influenced the vote

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suzanne Kelly commented:

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

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

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