Friday, 16 September 2011

Hole in sea wall raises fears of subsidence

Issues over a lack of maintenance at Ardrossan Harbour have again emerged with the shocking photo (above), which was passed to the3towns this week.

The photograph shows a massive hole has emerged in the harbour’s sea wall, with water appearing to have ‘hollowed-out’ part of the structure.  The person who took the photo told the3towns, “This isn’t a small hole, it’s huge.  It has taken a while for seawater to cause that sort of damage, so you have to question how long it has been since Clydeport has even carried out an inspection of the sea wall.”

Raising further concerns, the person continued, “It looks as if the sea has hollowed-out part of the structure behind the wall, which means that the pier could be undermined.”

the3towns has previously highlighted the lack of maintenance at the harbour breakwater, which now has gaping hole in it.  This latest revelation, with the sea wall, raises serious questions for Clydeport, owners of Ardrossan Harbour.  Previous approaches to Clydeport by the3towns, seeking answers regarding the lack of maintenance at Ardrossan, went unanswered.

Speaking after being shown the photo of the damage to the sea wall, an Ardrossan community activist commented, “It’s an absolute disgrace, but doesn’t surprise me.”

The man continued, “Clydeport aren’t interested in spending money in Ardrossan, they are only interested in making money from it,” a reference to the company having sold land for housing developments around the harbour basin and from the creation of a yachting marina.

Recently Ardrossan Independent councillor John Hunter was angered to discover stones from the town’s historic Customs House had been ‘dumped’ on a pier at the harbour, rather than having been stored securely so they could be used in a planned new development of offices and flats.  Part of the consent granted to Clydeport that allowed demolition of the 150 year-old Customs House was that stones from the building’s curved facade were to be incorporated into the new-build development.

Reacting to the evidence of damage to the sea wall, Cllr Hunter said, “Unfortunately, this is another example of Clydeport’s lack of maintenance to the infrastructure at Ardrossan Harbour.  The photo shows what appears to be a substantial hole, which causes me concern regarding the stability of what lies above the damage.  If the pier has been undermined, then there are Health and Safety issues that could present a danger to the public.”

Cllr Hunter indicated he would raise the matter with Council officials.

Councillors told to repay money

the3towns can reveal that  a number of North Ayrshire councillors have been told they must repay some of the money they claimed in expenses.

Following an investigation by this newspaper, which uncovered a series of claims that should not have been paid, officials at North Ayrshire Council carried out an audit of all charges to the public purse made by councillors.  the3towns understands that, once the audit was concluded, letters were sent to individual councillors detailing the amount of money they had to repay, and setting out the reasons why claims had been judged invalid.

A Council officer, who spoke to the3towns on condition of anonymity, said, “There are some very unhappy councillors.  Even where the amounts to be repaid are quite small, some have been arguing about it.”

The official continued, “A few just aren’t prepared to accept their claims were wrong and they have to pay back money they shouldn’t have claimed, but the facts speak for themselves and they weren’t entitled to the money in the first place.”

the3towns further understands that investigations by Strathclyde Police and the Public Standards Commissioner into claims submitted by Labour councillor Alan Munro (Saltcoats & Stevenston) are continuing.  

SSP leader to speak in Ardrossan

Colin Fox, leader of the Scottish Socialist Party, is to speak this week at a public meeting in Ardrossan.

Mr Fox, a former MSP for the Lothians, will team up with Campbell Martin at Ardrossan Civic Centre on Wednesday (September 21) to outline the party’s alternative to the cuts being imposed by the UK and Scottish governments.

Said Colin Fox, “Along with Campbell, I’ll be explaining why the SSP totally rejects the argument that ordinary men and women have to pay the price of bailing-out millionaire bankers.  We’re told we have to accept cuts to jobs, wages and public services, but that isn’t the case.  There is an alternative, the socialist alternative that puts people first, and we’ll be setting out that alternative in Ardrossan.”

Campbell Martin, a former SNP councillor and MSP, added, “I’m delighted Colin has agreed to come to North Ayrshire.  We have the highest unemployment and some of the worst poverty and deprivation in Scotland, yet local people are bearing the brunt of the cuts being imposed to cover debts run up by the spivs and speculators of banks and financial institutions.”

the3towns can reveal that the public meeting will also be addressed by a representative of local Quarriers staff who last week took strike action against management proposals to slash wages and conditions, and a member of the Coastguards’ union currently fighting plans to close the Clyde Coastguard facility.

The Public Meeting at Ardrossan Civic Centre on Wednesday, September 21 begins at 7:30pm and will be chaired by Colin Turbett (Chair – North Ayrshire Branch UNISON) in a personal capacity.

O'Neill says teachers' main role is NOT to teach

The Labour leader of North Ayrshire Council, Cllr David O’Neill, has signed-up to a statement that tells teachers their “primary responsibility above all others” is the wellbeing of children, rather than teaching.

Cllr O’Neill’s actions were revealed at last week’s meeting of the Council when Ardrossan & Arran SNP councillor Tony Gurney asked the Labour member to reconsider the statement and, instead, give his backing to local teachers by confirming their primary responsibility “should be to educate our children.”

Tony Gurney disclosed that David O’Neill, as leader of North Ayrshire Council, had endorsed the “teachers’ role not to teach” statement as part of a submission made by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (CoSLA) to the McCormac Review into teachers’ pay and conditions. 

In response to Cllr Gurney’s question, Cllr O’Neill claimed “I don’t recognise what you’re talking about,” adding that he believed the SNP member’s view of the CoSLA statement was “an obscure interpretation.”

However, Tony Gurney’s position was supported by teachers and parents.  The Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association (SSTA) branded the CoSLA statement “stupid”, with the organisation’s depute general secretary saying, “CoSLA is so far off the beam it defies description. The role of a teacher is to teach.”  Scotland’s largest teaching union, the Educational Institute for Scotland (EIS), added, “If you ask any parent what should be the role of a teacher it would be to teach their children.  There is some bonkers stuff in this CoSLA submission – it is short-sighted and could take us back 20 to 25 years, which was not a good time for Scottish education.”

A spokesperson for the Scottish Parent Teacher Council confirmed, “Parents think that the teachers' primary role is absolutely to teach.”

Despite Cllr Gurney’s request that the leader of North Ayrshire Council reconsider his endorsement of the CoSLA statement, Cllr O’Neill reiterated his view that the primary role of local teachers was not to teach, but rather simply to oversee the wellbeing of children.

£16,455 to tell us when to put our bins out

Calendars reminding local residents when to put out their bins have cost a whopping £16,455.

The figure was revealed at last week’s meeting of North Ayrshire Council by Environment portfolio-holder Cllr Tom Barr, in response to a question from Saltcoats & Stevenston Independent Ronnie McNicol.

Cllr McNicol indicated he had been approached by a constituent who said the Council ‘must have taken leave of their senses’ to have posted calendars to every household in North Ayrshire.  Addressing Labour councillor Barr, Ronnie McNicol asked, “How much has it cost the taxpayers of North Ayrshire to supply and deliver these calendars?”

In response, Cllr Barr said, “The calendars are issued on an annual basis to advise residents of the appropriate collection days for general waste and recycling services,” before conceding that the calendars just issued do not contain information about changes to what can be placed in blue recycling bins as “these have yet to be finalised.”

The Labour Executive member also revealed the Council had employed a private company to produce and deliver the calendars.

Broken down, the £16,455.45 total cost represented: £1,300 to design and print the calendars, £3,916.45 to address envelopes and insert into them the calendars, and £11,239 for postage.

Ronnie McNicol indicated he was “shocked” at the cost, but Cllr Barr insisted it was a good use of public money as it was part of an initiative to reduce the amount of waste that goes to landfill, for which the Council is charged £54.00 per tone.  However, Cllr McNicol responded, “And how many of the calendars and envelopes will end up in landfill?”

Katy wears it pink for breast cancer campaign

Katy Clark, Member of Parliament for North Ayrshire & Arran, is joining forces with Breast Cancer Campaign to raise awareness of its biggest fundraising event, ‘wear it pink’ day.

On Friday, October 28 supporters in schools, colleges and businesses throughout the country are being encouraged to wear something pink and to each donate £2.00 to help fund innovative, world-class breast cancer research.

Last year hundreds-of-thousands of people took part in ‘wear it pink’ to help improve survival rates for the one-in-eight women who experience breast cancer during their lifetime.

Katy Clark said, “Every year in the UK, around 48,000 new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in women.  Although it is rare, men can also suffer from breast cancer, with around 340 men diagnosed each year.  I know people who have lost friends and family members to the disease, and I would like to encourage everyone in North Ayrshire and Arran to support ‘wear it pink’ on October 28, to help raise valuable funds for breast cancer research.”

To take part in the UK’s original and best pink day visit and register to receive a free fundraising pack.

Anger over North Ayrshire councillors' attack on Community councillors

A furious row has broken out after three North Ayrshire councillors blamed a lack of investment in local towns on Community councillors ‘doing nothing’.

As previously reported by the3towns, North Ayrshire Council, in consultation with the Irvine Bay Regeneration Company, has produced a document that flags-up possible projects for local towns that could attract funding from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA). The NDA is required by law to consider the socio-economic impact on local towns of decommissioning nuclear plants at Hunterston.

The Council document – ‘An Investment Framework in Response to Hunterston A Decommissioning: Opportunities for North Ayrshire – Our Economy and Our People’ – sets out a plan that seeks “to secure up to £2m in investment per annum from the NDA to support a planned programme of projects within key areas of North Ayrshire affected by the result of decommissioning of Hunterston A Power Station (and future Hunterston B Station) for an initial period of five years.”

In addition to possible NDA money, Council officials anticipate “matched funding by local and national partners...and investment from the private sector,” which “could represent an investment of over £50m into the North Ayrshire economy.”

However, when the document was presented to councillors at last week’s NAC meeting, North Coast SNP member Alan Hill complained that the matter had been “entirely driven by officers”, with councillors not even consulted.

Cllr Hill also revealed that Community councillors from local towns had rejected the proposals when they had been considered at the Hunterston Site Stakeholders Group (HSSG), which also has North Ayrshire councillors as members.

This then led to amazing attacks being launched on the Community councillors who sit on the HSSG, with Labour Council Leader David O’Neill saying the Group had not been “doing the work,” and that “if [North Ayrshire Council] officials had not produced the report, then nothing would have been done.”

Cllr O’Neill was backed by his Largs Labour colleague, Cllr Alex Gallagher, who commented, “The Site Stakeholders Group made no progress. Community councillors talk a lot but don't do anything.”

The attack on the volunteer Community councillors then became cross-party when the SNP’s Willie Gibson (Saltcoats & Stevenston) added, “I agree with Councillor Gallagher. Community councillors dominated but achieved nothing.”

The Council meeting agreed to ‘pause’ progress on the funding proposals until North Ayrshire councillors were able to make contributions at a seminar.

However, Community councillors have reacted angrily to the comments made by North Ayrshire councillors O’Neill, Gallagher and Gibson, with one member of the Hunterston Site Stakeholders Group telling the3towns, “I cannot understand why they would want to say this about us. Members of the HSSG are unhappy that we are being belittled by councillors, even members of the nuclear industry were shocked and could not understand why they would say this - Community councillors have put in a great deal of work.”

Another Community councillor said, “You have to wonder who in the first place put the idea of the HSSG not doing the job of securing socio-economic funding into the head of the hardworking, intelligent David O’Neill? I'd put my bets on the company most likely to benefit if their bid gets into the report to go to the NDA.”

The community volunteer continued, “Since David O’Neill has never attended any of the 24 HSSG meetings or, to my knowledge, Willie Gibson, how can they possibly pass judgement. As for Alex Gallagher, who does attend the HSSG, it's understandable that someone whose contribution to important scrutiny of the nuclear industry amounts to ‘you’re either for it or agin it’, signifies an unwillingness to fulfil some of the aims of the Group.”

Concluding, the Community councillor said, “Apart from Robert Barr, the other NAC councillors who sit on the HSSG are probably not there through choice. Could this explain why one member falls asleep during meetings and another is usually a no show? Mrs McLardy seems to be the only North Ayrshire councillor conscientious enough to put any effort into the HSSG.

“The true reason that NAC have not yet secured funding from the NDA is that, to date, no robust project fulfilling the NDA criteria has been put forward by anyone. This includes the report that was discussed at last Wednesday’s Council meeting.”

Quarriers staff forced to take strike action

Local staff employed by social care charity Quarriers took strike action last Tuesday (September 6) after talks between bosses and trade union Unison broke-down.

The workers, from three sites in Ardrossan and Saltcoats, felt they were faced with no option but to withdraw their labour after Quarriers attempted to impose pay cuts and reduced working conditions. The company claims its hand has been forced by local authority cuts to funding provided for the care of vulnerable children and adults. Staff ensured emergency cover was provided during the strike in order that those receiving care were not affected.

In addition to cutting pay by between 10 and 23-percent, Quarriers also proposed to make any future pay rises discretionary. One striker told the3towns, “They said pay rises would only be given when they made a profit, but Quarriers is a not-for-profit charity organisation.”

Changes to working conditions would also mean cuts to sick and maternity pay, and increased workers’ pension contributions.

A ballot of Quarriers staff, carried out by Unison, produced an overwhelming 76-percent vote for strike action. Local Unison Quarriers branch secretary, Stephen Brown, said, “Taking strike action isn't a decision we've taken lightly and we want to be back at work doing what we do best - providing vital services to some of the most vulnerable people in society. But the cost of utilities, food and transport are all going up and yet Quarriers expect our staff to take a pay cut of up to 23-percent in some cases.”

Staff on the picket line in Ardrossan were determined to defend their pay and conditions, pointing out that Quarriers’ proposals could see some local workers lose as much as £400 per month. Said one woman, “If Quarriers get away with this, I won’t be able to afford to pay my mortgage. What am I supposed to do then? This is a charity that looks after children, but their plans would put my children out of their home.”

The Scottish Socialist Party’s Campbell Martin joined the picket-line at Seafield School in Ardrossan to support staff taking strike action.

Said Mr Martin, “Quarriers management should be ashamed of themselves. They have forced dedicated, hard-working staff to take strike action. None of the people on the picket-line want to be on strike. They want to be at work, looking after vulnerable children, but management are attempting to impose savage wage cuts that could see some staff lose hundreds of pounds. Not only that, bosses also propose detrimental changes to working conditions and to increase the amount workers pay towards their pensions.”

Campbell Martin, a former MSP for West of Scotland, concluded, “It is ironic that an organisation formed to support the poor and vulnerable is attempting to impose poverty wages on its staff.

“Quarriers has certainly gone down in my estimation, but the committed staff I met on the picket-line deserve our full support. They do a great job in looking after the children in their care, and it is a disgrace that Quarriers are attempting to cut their pay.”

A spokesperson for Unison said there were no immediate plans for further strike action, adding, “We are hoping to get Quarriers management back around the table to talk again, but if nothing is resolved, then we will have to cross that bridge when we come to it.”

Town Hall answer contradicted in Council report

Controversy over Saltcoats Town Hall continued at last week’s meeting of North Ayrshire Council when Labour Leader David O’Neill answered a question from Independent councillor Ronnie McNicol by stating that a private company had been provided with keys to the public asset simply to “carry out a survey”.

As previously revealed by the3towns, a meeting of Saltcoats traders last month was told by a representative of the Irvine Bay Regeneration Company that the Council was to provide them with the keys to Saltcoats Town Hall. In light of this, Cllr McNicol (Saltcoats & Stevenston) asked Cllr O’Neill to explain “why the Council appears to have transferred responsibility for a public asset to a private company”. In addition, the Independent councillor enquired “What are Irvine Bay’s plans for the facility; who did they discuss these plans with; who initiated such discussions and when; why were local members not consulted; and are there any plans for Irvine Bay to share their proposals for the Town Hall with local members and the people of Saltcoats?”

In response, Cllr O’Neill confirmed the position of the Labour administration had not changed – there was no money allocated to refurbishment of the Town Hall, and therefore no plans for work to be carried out – and indicated that Irvine Bay had been given keys to the facility in order that they could carry out a survey of the building with regard to possible future use. The Labour councillor also stated a report from Irvine Bay, when completed, would be made available to councillors.

However, Cllr McNicol made clear his anger that Labour councillors had promised a £3-million upgrade of the Town Hall before the last Council Election in 2007, only for that money to be reduced to £2-million after the election, and then withdrawn completely. The Labour administration of North Ayrshire Council closed Saltcoats Town Hall in 2009. Said Cllr McNicol, “Now we are hearing new plans for another £3-million upgrade of the Town Hall, coincidentally less than a year before the next Council Election.”

As Cllr McNicol set out his concerns over the future of the Town Hall, and again repeated his questions over what happened to the money originally allocated to a refurbishment project, Cllr O’Neill, apparently irritated over the time the Independent councillor was taking, interrupted and said, “C’mon, I’m going to Portugal on Friday.”

Despite the interruption, Cllr McNicol continued to demand answers over the Labour administration’s handling of Saltcoats Town Hall and the role now being played by the Irvine Bay Regeneration Company.

In response, Cllr O’Neill repeated his position – that Irvine Bay had been given the keys to Saltcoats Town Hall simply in order to carry out a survey. However, papers relating to another item on the agenda for the Council meeting identified Irvine Bay as the ‘lead partner’ in a proposed development of Saltcoats Town Hall, with the majority of space at the facility earmarked for office and retail use.

Council Finance Director says 'future looks bleak'

North Ayrshire Council’s chief financial officer has told councillors “the outlook for the foreseeable future is pretty bleak”.

Presenting the local authority’s Interim Financial Management Strategy 2011-2016, Mr Alasdair Herbert, Corporate Director (Finance and Infrastructure), observed that “some economists predict the slump will continue for 15 years”.

The senior official, who is soon to retire, also flagged-up his concerns regarding “restrictions” imposed on the Council in terms of raising income through the Council Tax. Since the SNP were elected to government in 2007 there has been a freeze on Council Tax. While, at first glance, such a freeze seems to benefit local householders, it has resulted in the Council being unable to use the tax to increase income, which has impacted on the level and amount of services the local authority can provide.

Mr Herbert said the Council had “not waited for a gun to go off”, but had proactively begun a ‘change programme’ to address funding and service-delivery issues. The programme, said the Finance Director, was “looking at services and how we deliver them”, which included the cost of care packages, workforce reductions and voluntary sector involvement.

In a separate report, Alasdair Herbert updated councillors on the £15 million deposited by North Ayrshire Council with two Icelandic banks that subsequently collapsed. All of the money remains outstanding, but the Finance chief said, “On April 1, 2011 the Reykjavik District Court issued a verdict confirming that local authority claims qualified for priority status under Article 112 of Icelandic Banking legislation.” This, said Mr Herbert, would mean the Council could expect repayment in full of the £10 million deposited with Glitner Bank, and around 95-percent of the £5 million invested with Landsbanki. However, it was also revealed that the Icelandic court decision had been appealed, and that, were the original verdict to be overturned, the Council was likely to receive back, at best, a total of just £5,650,000 – meaning £9,350,000 of public money would be lost.

Also contained in the Treasury Management Annual Report 2010-11 was the revelation that the Council’s external borrowing had increased by £15 million over the year, from £195 million in March 2010 to £210 million twelve months later.

'Bizarre' answers on unbalanced budget

Last week’s meeting of North Ayrshire Council saw Labour Group Leader David O’Neill attempt to bluster his way out of answering an extremely important question regarding the ‘unbalancing’ of the local authority’s budget.

Cllr O’Neill faced a grilling from Ardrossan & Arran Independent John Hunter over a previous answer from the Council Leader, in which he said there had never been an occasion when either an officer or councillor had taken action that led to a budget being manipulated or unbalanced. Cllr Hunter had also asked the original question.

At last Wednesday’s meeting, John Hunter asked David O’Neill to reconsider his original answer in light of audit documents – previously reported in the3towns – that showed how staff within the Social Services department made pre-payments in the financial year 2009/10, which were subsequently repaid in the next financial year, a practice that manipulated and impacted on the Council’s budgets.

Despite Cllr Hunter’s question making direct reference to a 2009/10 Audit Scotland report, and subsequent Internal Audit reports of October 2010 and February 2011, all of which highlighted budgets being unbalanced, Cllr O’Neill’s reply was, “Councillor Hunter’s question isn’t very specific. Accordingly it is difficult for me to respond.”

Then, even when presented with more specific information in Cllr Hunter’s follow-up question, the Labour Leader of the Council’s response was to blame the Scrutiny Committee – chaired by John Hunter – for apparently not preventing the Labour administration’s incompetence in overseeing a situation where unelected officers of the Council unbalanced the budget previously agreed by elected councillors. Understandably, Cllr Hunter voiced the opinion that David O’Neill’s answer had been “bizarre”.

John Hunter then asked if, as is required by the local authority’s scheme of delegation, any officer had advised the Council Leader or the relevant portfolio holder – in this case Cllr Peter McNamara – that the budget had been unbalanced. However, in another ‘bizarre’ response, rather than even attempting to answer the question, Cllr O’Neill replied, “That’s something the Scrutiny Committee should have considered.”

The audit documents referred to by Cllr Hunter, and previously reported by the3towns, clearly show Council officers did manipulate and unbalance agreed budgets. However, the evasive answers provided by Cllr David O’Neill to John Hunter’s questions last Wednesday, mean it is still unclear how much, if anything, the ruling Labour Executive new about the matter, despite those councillors receiving additional financial payments for ‘running’ the Council.

Questions over Hayocks postal votes

A breakdown of votes cast at each Polling Place in the Three Towns, for the last North Ayrshire Council Election, has revealed a remarkable number of postal ballots in the Hayocks area of Stevenston.

A Council insider who spoke to the3towns on condition of anonymity said, “This could be cause for concern. The significantly higher number of postal ballots recorded at Hayocks stands out like a sore thumb, compared with other Polling Places in the Three Towns.”

Analysis of the voting breakdown shows 660 of Hayocks’ total electorate of 3,554 voted by post, which translates to 18.5-percent. At the two other Polling Places in Stevenston, Glencairn recorded 256 Postal Votes from 2,232 electors (11.4-percent) and Ardeer 139 from 1,424 (9.7-percent).

Postal votes at Polling Places in Ardrossan range between 11.9-percent and 12.6-percent, while in Saltcoats the lowest and highest postal votes were both at Dykesmains, where one area was on 11.9-percent and another came closest to Hayocks on 15.3-percent.

Taken as a whole, but excluding Hayocks, the total postal votes in the Three Towns was 12.3-percent of the electorate – more than 6-percent below the figure recorded at Hayocks.

The Council insider who spoke to the3towns stated, “There have been numerous instances where people have tried to manipulate elections by using postal votes. While there is no evidence that such manipulation has taken place in the Hayocks area, the fact the number of postal votes is so much higher than anywhere else, or in the Three Towns as a whole, does ring alarm bells.”

Anyone who submits a postal ballot paper must also provide their date of birth and a specimen of their signature. However, electoral returning officers are only required to verify the date of birth and signature on as few as 20-percent of postal voting statements.

Clark concern over rising unemployment

North Ayrshire & Arran MP Katy Clark has voiced concerns over the latest Labour Market statistics, which show the local area still has Scotland’s highest unemployment, with the position continuing to worsen.

The official figures reveal that the number of people in the North Ayrshire & Arran constituency claiming Jobseekers Allowance rose to 3,929 in July, an increase of 272 from the previous month, and up 8.2-percent on the same period last year. There are now 20 Jobseekers for every vacancy in North Ayrshire.

Commenting, Katy Clark said, “These figures show just how damaging the Tory-Lib Dem Government’s policies are to our local communities.

“Unemployment in North Ayrshire continues to increase, and for the vast majority of people looking for work, the jobs simply aren’t there.”

Ms Clark continued, “Further cuts to public spending and benefits mean that the situation is likely to get worse, with many local people facing severe hardship.”

The Labour MP stressed she would “continue to do everything possible in Parliament to fight the Government’s harmful cuts and urge them to change course on the economy.”

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Anger over lack of action on Customs House stones

Photographs taken in the last few days by the3towns (see above) clearly contradict claims that action would be taken to protect stonework from Ardrossan’s historic Customs House.

Following the3towns’ revelation that what remains of the building had been ‘dumped’ on a pier at the town’s harbour, Independent councillor John Hunter raised the matter with North Ayrshire Council planning officials, who were told by Clydeport, owners of Ardrossan Harbour, that action would be taken to ‘wrap’ the stones to protect them from the elements.  However, when the3towns visited the location last week, the stonework was still lying scattered on an overgrown part of the harbour.

The Customs House, a Catagory ‘B’ Listed Building, stood on a prime site at the junction of Harbour Street and Dock Road for over 150 years, but was demolished in March 2010 after a Scottish Government official overturned the decision of North Ayrshire Council’s Planning Committee to reject an application from Clydeport, which sought to knock-down the structure.  A requirement of the consent to demolish was that the curved facade of the Customs House must be retained and incorporated into a proposed new development of office and residential space.  The stonework was to have been numbered and stored safely until work on the proposed development commenced.

However, many of the stones lying on the quayside at the harbour no longer have any identifying numbers and there is no way of telling if some have been removed or thrown in the nearby water, all of which makes it unlikely that the curved facade of the Customs House could still be incorporated into the new-build structure.

Commenting after seeing that the stones are still lying scattered at the harbour, an angry Cllr Hunter said, “This whole thing just gets worse.  Clydeport gave the impression that the stonework from the Customs House was stored safely and would be incorporated into the proposed new development.  Then the3towns revealed the stones were just dumped at the harbour.

“After that, Clydeport told planning officials that the stones would be wrapped to protect them, but that hasn’t happened and they are still lying on the pier.  It is completely unacceptable.”

the3towns understands Cllr Hunter is to again raise the matter with Council officials.

McNicol questions why private company has keys to Town Hall

Ronnie McNicol, Independent councillor for Saltcoats & Stevenston, is to seek answers over how the Irvine Bay Regeneration Company came to ‘have the keys’ of Saltcoats Town Hall.

Cllr McNicol has tabled a question to this week’s Council meeting, which asks the local authority’s Labour Leader to explain “why the Council appears to have transferred responsibility for a public asset to a private company”.  In addition, Ronnie McNicol will ask David O’Neill, “What are [Irvine Bay’s] plans for the facility; who did they discuss these plans with; who initiated such discussions and when; why were local members not consulted; [and] are there any plans for [Irvine Bay] to share their proposals for the Town Hall with local members and the people of Saltcoats?”

Three weeks ago the3towns revealed that a meeting of Saltcoats traders had been told by a representative of Irvine Bay that the Council was due to “hand over the keys” of the Town Hall on Monday, August 8.  The private regeneration company was also designated as ‘Lead partner’ in a proposal to turn the Town Hall into ‘a hub’, to include office and retail space, in addition to 600 square-metres of “community letting space”.

The redevelopment plan was listed as one of a number of bids for funding that ‘might’ be made to the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency.  Projected costs were detailed at around £3-million, the same amount initially set-aside by North Ayrshire Council for a refurbishment of the Town Hall.

The previous £3-million commitment to renovate Saltcoats Town Hall was made by Labour councillors prior to the last Council Election in 2007.  However, after the election, the funding was reduced to £2-million, and was then completely withdrawn.  The Town Hall was closed by the Labour-run Council in April 2009.

Cllr Ronnie McNicol has consistently pursued answers over what happened to the £3-million previously promised by Labour councillors.  Only £1-million was reallocated – to a community centre in Largs – and Cllr McNicol has consistently challenged Labour Council Leader David O’Neill to explain what happened to the other £2-million.

Hunter challenges Council Leader over 'unbalanced' budget

Ardrossan & Arran Independent councillor John Hunter will this week challenge Council Leader David O’Neill over the Labour man’s previous claim that North Ayrshire Council had never experienced a situation where a councillor or official had ‘unbalanced’ a budget.

Cllr Hunter’s question to Cllr O’Neill will be taken at this week’s meeting of the full Council (Wednesday, September 7), and comes after the3towns reported how staff within the Social Services department made pre-payments in the financial year 2009/10, which were subsequently repaid in the next financial year, a practice that manipulated and impacted on the Council’s budgets.

the3towns understands a member of staff at North Ayrshire Council has confirmed to senior officials that the substantial pre-payments were made in the belief this was what a department manager wanted, and so that the department’s spending would not come in on budget.  The pre-payments are believed to have created what appeared to be an ‘overspend’, which resulted in the department receiving more money in the following financial year.

One pre-payment of £150,000 was paid by the Social Services department to a Housing Association but no goods or services were received in relation to the payment.  The money was then repaid in full, but not until the next financial year.

The senior official whom staff believed had sanctioned the payments has since retired from the Council.

John Hunter’s question to Council Leader David O’Neill reads: In light of the September 2009/10 Audit Scotland report, and the subsequent October 2010 and February 2011 Internal Audit reports, would the Leader of the Council care to reconsider his response regarding the ‘un-setting or unbalancing’ of the budget which was raised during the presentation of a motion on the revocation of the amendment to Clause 19.1 of Standing Orders at the full Council meeting of the 18th May 2011?

St Peters Primary could be new Ardrossan Polling Place

Following a review carried out by North Ayrshire Council chief executive Elma Murray, Ardrossan could see an increase in the number of Polling Places in the town on election days.

A report to Wednesday’s (September 7) meeting of the Council will hear that the Representation of the People Act requires the local authority to look at electoral arrangements every four years.  One of the issues considered was Ardrossan having just two Polling Places, compared with four in Saltcoats – until the Town Hall was closed in 2009, Saltcoats actually had five designated places at which people could vote.

At a meeting of the Council prior to last May’s Scottish Parliament Election, Ardrossan & Arran SNP councillor Tony Gurney asked that the lack of Polling Places in Ardrossan be reviewed on an urgent basis.  At that time, the Council chief executive, also the Electoral Returning Officer, indicated it was unlikely a review could be carried out before the parliamentary election, but that the issue raised by Cllr Gurney would be considered in the overall assessment of electoral arrangements in place across North Ayrshire, the outcome of which forms the basis of the report to be submitted to councillors on Wednesday.

One proposal put forward to address the lack of Polling Places in Ardrossan is to reduce the number of electors voting at the Whitlees Community Centre.  Councillors will be asked to consider if it would be better to create a new Polling Place at St Peters Primary School in South Isle Road, with a section of electors from the north of the town using the new location instead of the Whitlees.

The chief executive’s report proposes no change to arrangements for the south of Ardrossan, with the Civic Centre in Glasgow Street continuing to serve that part of town.

Boundary changes introduced at the 2007 Council Election saw part of Saltcoats incorporated into the Ardrossan & Arran Ward.  Housing in the Auchanshangan and Knockrivoch developments of Saltcoats currently vote at the Whitlees Centre in Ardrossan, but the new report suggests these electors could be transferred to St Anthonys Primary School in Saltcoats’ Dykesmains Road.

Councillors will also be asked to look at possible changes in Stevenston, where the chief executive’s report suggests church halls could be used to reduce the number of voters at Glencairn Primary School and the Hayocks Community Centre.

Former SNP MSP joins the Scottish Socialist Party

The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) this week announced that Campbell Martin, former Member of the Scottish Parliament for West of Scotland, had joined the party.

Commenting on Mr Martin’s decision to re-enter the political arena after a four year absence, SSP Leader Colin Fox said, “I'm delighted Campbell has joined the Scottish Socialist Party.
“I have known Campbell for many years.  We were both in the Scottish Parliament together as MSPs. He is a hugely-talented socialist activist, widely respected and highly principled.  He was expelled from the SNP in 2004 for speaking-out against the party's move to the right under John Swinney, a path it has continued to travel under Alex Salmond.”

Mr Fox continued, “I have been a huge admirer of Campbell for many years.  Like the SSP, he is passionate about the need for an independent socialist Scotland.

“I am sure he will make a great impact in politics in Scotland.  I am also sure there are many more people like him looking for a party that puts working people first and champions the case for an independent socialist Scotland, particularly as the country's economy continues to stumble, people's living standards continue to fall and inequalities widen.”

Campbell Martin, from Ardrossan, was elected to the Scottish Parliament in 2003 as an SNP MSP.  He also served as the SNP councillor for Ardrossan North in the early 1990s.  Commenting on his decision to join the SSP, Mr Martin said, “There are very few City stockbrokers or financial speculators in North Ayrshire, but it’s our local communities that are paying the price for the collapse of the capitalist economic system.

“North Ayrshire has the highest unemployment and some of the worst poverty and deprivation in Scotland, yet we are being told our communities have to accept cuts to public spending and services, so that the millionaires who caused the economic crisis can be bailed-out and can start their financial gambling all over again.

“It’s time to fight back, protect public services and put the needs of ordinary men and women before the greedy self-interest of the spivs and speculators.”

The Scottish Socialist Party’s North Ayrshire Branch welcomed its new recruit and urged other local people to join Campbell Martin in signing-up to the fight-back for local communities. 

£5m cocaine haul seized at Hunterston

A consignment of cocaine, valued at £5-million, has been seized at Hunterston.

The UK Border Agency (UKBA) swooped on the 150,000-tonne Bulk Australia as it docked last week.  The Liberian-registered ship had sailed from Colombia with a cargo of coal.

While the UKBA declined to give any specifics about how they knew about the consignment or where it was found on the ship, the presence of specialist divers at Hunterston fanned speculation that the illegal cargo may have been welded to the outside of the ship’s hull.

Officials did confirm that 10 kilos of cocaine had been recovered, making it one of the biggest hauls ever found in Scottish waters.  Only prepared to speak in general terms, a UKBA spokesman said, “We are determined to protect society from this activity which can have such a destructive impact on local communities as well as individuals.”

A United Nations report, published last year, found that Scotland has the world’s biggest cocaine habit per-head of population.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Labour wins Saltcoats & Stevenston By-Election

Last Thursday’s (August 25) Saltcoats & Stevenston By-Election was won by the Labour Party candidate, Jim Montgomerie.

Mr Montgomerie saw-off the challenge of the SNP’s Nan Wallace, but the final result showed a staggering 75-percent of electors in Saltcoats and Stevenston chose not to vote.

The North Ayrshire Council by-election was caused by the retiral through ill health of Labour councillor David Munn.  Labour began the contest as favourites, but SNP hopes were raised when the party’s telephone canvassing of local people appeared to show them in the lead.  However, as politicians are always quick to point out, the only poll that matters is the one on Election Day, and Labour eventually secured victory by a majority of 604.

Conducted under the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system of Proportional Representation (PR), in order to win a candidate had to receive 50-percent+1 vote of all votes cast, which on this occasion was 1,965.  On the first count, Jim Montogomerie secured 1,914 – putting him 608 ahead of the SNP’s Nan Wallace, but 51 short of the figure required to win.

Under PR when no candidate has reached the winning total, the bottom-placed candidate is eliminated and their second-preference votes are redistributed to the other candidates.  This had to happen on five occasions at Thursday’s count before Mr Montogmerie secured sufficient votes to clinch victory.

As Labour had previously held the seat, Jim Montgomerie’s success means there is no overall change to the make-up of North Ayrshire Council, which remains: Labour 12 councillors, SNP 8, Independents 6, Conservative 2, Liberal Democrats 2.  The next full election to North Ayrshire Council will take place in May of next year.

The full result from last Thursday’s Saltcoats & Stevenston By-Election was
Number of votes required for election – 1,965
Turnout - 25.42%
Number of rejected ballot papers - 42
Stage 1 - All first preference votes
Jim Montgomerie - Scottish Labour Party 1914
Nan Wallace - SNP 1306
Chris Barr - Scottish Conservative 284
Jimmy Miller - All Scotland Pensioners Party 211
Gerard Pollock - Independent 114
Gordon Bain - Scottish Liberal Democrats 56
Louise McDaid - Socialist Labour Party 43
Stage 2 - Louise McDaid excluded and votes shared between the rest of candidates.
Jim Montgomerie - Scottish Labour Party 1927
Nan Wallace - SNP 1311
Chris Barr - Scottish Conservative 286
Jimmy Miller - All Scotland Pensioners Party 217
Gerard Pollock - Independent 117
Gordon Bain - Scottish Liberal Democrats 57
Stage 3 - Gordon Bain excluded and votes shared between the rest of candidates.
Jim Montgomerie - Scottish Labour Party 1936
Nan Wallace - SNP 1326
Chris Barr - Scottish Conservative 297
Jimmy Miller - All Scotland Pensioners Party 222
Gerard Pollock - Independent 123
Stage 4 - Gerard Pollock excluded and votes shared between the rest of candidates.
Jim Montgomerie - Scottish Labour Party 1963
Nan Wallace - SNP 1363
Chris Barr - Scottish Conservative 308
Jimmy Miller - All Scotland Pensioners Party 240
Stage 5 - Jimmy Miller excluded and votes shared between the rest of candidates.
Jim Montgomerie - Scottish Labour Party 2039
Nan Wallace - SNP 1425
Chris Barr - Scottish Conservative 331
Jim Montgomerie elected as a member for the Saltcoats and Stevenston multi-member Ward.

War of words between councillor and chief executive

A war of words between North Ayrshire Council’s chief executive, Ms Elma Murray, and Independent councillor Liz McLardy was ratcheted-up last week when the member for Dalry & West Kilbride called into question the conduct of the local authority’s most senior official.

As previously reported by the3towns in June, Ms Murray wrote to Mrs McLardy after the councillor sought external planning advice and ‘lobbied’ other councillors in relation to re-designating the Hunterston peninsula to include leisure usage.  In the original letter, Ms Murray raised concerns that, as chair of the Council’s Planning Committee, Liz McLardy had rejected the position of the local authority’s Planning and Legal officers and, instead, had approached un-named external ‘planning professionals’.  In light of the course of action taken by Cllr McLardy, Ms Murray suggested she should consider her position “as Chair of the Planning Committee”.

Now, a furious Liz McLardy has responded, stating the chief executive’s letter had left her feeling “humiliated and degraded”.  Cllr McLardy also makes reference to her “alleged crime” of seeking an outsider’s professional advice on the Planning Act, and states, “I was so enraged that I wrote a letter to the Ethical Standards Commissioner, seeking clarification that I had done nothing wrong.”

The Standards Commissioner’s response advised that “the seeking of a second opinion should not in itself amount to a breach of the Councillors’ Code of Conduct.”

Concluding her strongly-worded response, Cllr McLardy told Elma Murray, “Your final insult was to ask me to consider my position as Chair of the Planning Committee and in particular my relationship with the Legal and Planning Officers.  I find your comments deeply offensive as I do not require a lecture on etiquette from anyone and most certainly not from an employee of the North Ayrshire Council. 

“In your letter you had the effrontery to suggest that I consider my position as Chair of Planning.  Perhaps in view of the above you should now reflect on your conduct as Chief Executive.”

Clydeport questioned over Customs House stones

Following last week’s revelation that what remains of Ardrossan’s historic Customs House had been ‘dumped’ on a pier at the town’s harbour, the3towns understands planning officials from North Ayrshire Council have raised the matter with representatives of Clydeport.

Ardrossan’s Independent councillor, John Hunter, asked Council officers to intervene after he visited the location of the stones and saw for himself that the sandstone blocks were scattered across weed-strewn open ground, with some having been smashed and the possibility others could have been removed or even thrown in the harbour.  As part of Planning Consent allowing demolition of the Customs House, stones from the curved frontage should have been stored safely, in order that they could be incorporated in a proposed new-build development of ground-floor office space with residential properties on the upper level.

Cllr Hunter told the3towns, “I spoke with the Planning Officer for Ardrossan and he has sought clarification from Clydeport in relation to how and where the stones from the Customs House have been stored.”

The Independent councillor continued, “I have seen for myself that many stones no longer have identifying numbers.  The numbers were applied to assist in rebuilding the facade as part of the proposed new development, but with them having been erased, rebuilding would be a bit like doing a jigsaw without the photo on the box, and with some parts possibly missing.”

The Customs House, a Catagory ‘B’ Listed Building, had stood on a prime site at the junction of Harbour Street and Dock Road for over 150 years, but was demolished in March 2010 after a Scottish Government official overturned the decision of North Ayrshire Council’s Planning Committee to reject an application from Clydeport, owners of Ardrossan Harbour.

the3towns understands Council planners will seek assurances from Clydeport that the stones at Ardrossan Harbour are still in a sufficiently good condition to be incorporated into the proposed new building.