Friday, 30 November 2012

Public WILL be consulted on possible school closures

North Ayrshire Council’s Cabinet member for Education, Cllr Tony Gurney, has repeated his promise to consult the public on whether or not four local schools should close.

Cllr Gurney originally gave the commitment in response to a question tabled by Ardrossan’s Independent councillor, John Hunter, at the November 7th meeting of the full Council.  Cllr Hunter had asked if the local authority would comply with all provisions contained in the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act 2010, which stipulates that consultation must include asking the public’s view on whether or not schools should be closed and merged.  Previously, Council statements had given the impression that consultation would be limited to the location of a new Three Towns campus and what the school should look like.

The SNP administration of North Ayrshire Council has secured £22.5m in funding from the Scottish Government towards a projected total cost of £42.5m to create a new campus somewhere in the Three Towns.  It is proposed that the facility would accommodate secondary pupils from Ardrossan Academy and Stevenston’s Auchenharvie Academy, alongside separate provision for children with special needs who currently attend James McFarlane School in Ardrossan and Haysholm School in Irvine.  The four existing schools would be closed to allow the merger to go ahead.

Last Thursday (November 22) saw the first of a planned series of workshops for councillors whose constituents will be affected by the closure and merger proposals.  the3towns understands a number of possible locations for a Three Towns campus were discussed at the meeting, with some being discarded as unsuitable. 

Speaking after the workshop, Cllr Gurney said, “We are considering a number of sites, which we will shortlist before reaching a preferred option to take to full public consultation.”

The Cabinet member for Education, who is also the SNP councillor for Ardrossan, added that the meeting had been “just one part of the process of listening to people’s views so that we can provide the best-possible school campus for our young people.”

Making clear his position on the issues of school closures and merger, Cllr Gurney said, “Once again, I want to stress that there will be full consultation to seek the views of all parents, families and communities.  No decisions will be made – particularly on where the campus will be sited – until those consultations are complete.”

the3towns last week reported how one senior Council official, Mr Mark Armstrong of the Education department, appeared to be pressing-ahead with plans that would require the closure of Ardrossan Academy, Auchenharvie Academy, James McFarlane School and Haysholm School despite Cllr Gurney’s earlier commitment to consult on the issue.  However, a spokesperson for the Council this week backed Tony Gurney, saying, “Parents, families and residents will be able to have their say on all aspects of the project, including design, closures and mergers during the extensive public consultation period expected to start early in the New year.”

Following last Thursday’s meeting and Cllr Gurney’s reiteration of his commitment to consult the public, Independent councillor John Hunter told the3towns, “I would have been much happier if consultation had been carried out prior to looking at possible site locations, but I accept that the Council requires to submit a fully-formed proposal to the Scottish Government and that it has to include a preferred site.”

Cllr Hunter indicated he is “happy that the consultation exercise will include closure and merger, not just site location,” adding, “Councillor Gurney said at the last Council meeting that full consultation would be carried out and I’m happy that this is now going to be the case.”

A spokesperson for the Council said, “Staff and parents from all four schools and the associated primary schools have been kept advised of the proposals since the successful funding bid was approved in September.  Initial information and feedback sessions have taken place with parent councils, with further regular meetings planned.”

Uncertain future for Ardrossan church

The future of a historic Ardrossan church is in doubt due to the high cost of repairs required to bring the building up to standard.

For the past year parishioners of the Barony St John’s Church on the seafront at South Beach have been holding services at the nearby St Andrew’s Church.  The decision to move out of Barony St John’s was taken after serious concerns were raised regarding “cracks in the hall ceiling and in the vestry corridor”.  Subsequently, additional problems were highlighted in relation to “levels of damp penetration in the classroom and kitchen, the condition of the kitchen and toilets, the rot in the main hall floor, and the external fabric of the building (roof and stonework)”.

A Minute of the Barony St John’s Kirk Session from last year stated, “Given the practicalities of raising finances and the estimated prolonged timescale for any renovation of the halls, a motion was proposed by one of the Elders present not to proceed with the renovations. This was accepted and the Elders moved to a vote, as follows: for the motion 8; against the motion 7. Given that the vote was so close, the Minister indicated that further discussions on the renovation proposals were required and that a further meeting of the Kirk Session would be arranged for this purpose”.

However, the3towns understands that a meeting of the Kirk Session, held last month, heard the estimated cost of repairs to Barony St John’s now stands at £391,000.  The Minute of the meeting states, “it may be possible to raise about 50% of the estimated costs through grant funding, but the congregation would have to raise the rest”, and goes on to question whether this would be “practical or possible”.

The Minute continued, “No work can begin on restoring the halls until all funding is in place and it is estimated that it will take between 18 months and 3 years to secure grant funding alone. How will the congregation deal with another 2-3 years worshipping in St Andrew's? How will we encourage people to maintain their commitment during this time?”

In a communication to church members, Barony St John’s Minister Dorothy Granger said, “It was clear from the feedback received that Elders and office bearers are very concerned about the future, about retaining members and there being no clear end to our current situation. There were concerns expressed about spending such a large sum of money on an old building and a realisation that yet more money would have to be found in the future to maintain the building once it was renovated.”

Reverend Granger continued, “There was also an acknowledgement that the congregation is getting smaller and older all the time and there are fewer and fewer people available to actively help with fundraising or with the day to day requirements of running the congregation.”

As a result, Reverend Granger told parishioners it had been agreed to explore a union between Barony St John’s and the New Trinity Church in Saltcoats, prior to a final decision being made on the future of the building in Ardrossan’s Arran Place.

The Minister has now written to the Church of Scotland’s Presbytery Business Committee asking for clarification on timescales for the exploratory talks with New Trinity Kirk Session.

The Barony Church – originally called the New Ardrossan Parish Church – was opened in December 1844.  In 1985 the Church of Scotland decided to close St John’s Church on the corner of Ardrossan’s Barr Street and Montgomerie Street.  Parishioners from St John’s were welcomed into the Barony in 1987 and the church was renamed Barony St John’s.

Man arrested at Council headquarters

 Proceedings at a meeting of North Ayrshire Licensing Board were dramatically halted last Wednesday (November 21) as officers from Strathclyde Police grappled with a member of the public.

The incident occurred as the Board, chaired by Saltcoats & Stevenston Independent councillor Ronnie McNicol, was considering an application in relation to music being played in the Waterside bar in Largs.  As legal representations were being made, a man sitting in the public gallery rose and indicated he wished to make “a point of order”.

Cllr McNicol indicated that the Board’s Standing Orders did not permit points of order to be raised by the public during meetings and requested that the man resume his seat.  However, the individual stated his intention to remain standing and suggested that Largs Tory councillor Tom Marshall, a member of the Licensing Board, should “declare an interest” in relation to the Waterside bar.  Cllr Marshall responded by saying he had no such interest.

As the member of the public continued to disrupt the meeting – including by stating that he had a personal interest in what happened at the Waterside because “I drink in the pub” - police officers in attendance at the Board to speak on other matters intervened.  However, the protestor still refused to resume his seat and the officers took action to remove him from the meeting.

the3towns understands the man removed by the police is an elected member of Largs Community Council and that he may now face charges relating to breach of the peace and resisting arrest.

The issue of music being played in the Waterside bar was continued for further consideration at the December meeting of the Licensing Board.

Independence meetings

Local supporters of Scottish independence are stepping-up their campaigning with two meetings in Ardrossan over the next few days.

‘Yes Scotland’, the umbrella organisation bringing together different strands of the independence movement, will hold its inaugural North Ayrshire meeting this Sunday (November 25) in Ardrossan Civic Centre, Glasgow Street at 2:00pm.  The meeting, open to all supporters of an independent Scotland, will be addressed by ‘Yes Scotland’ Director of Communications Susan Stewart.  Ms Stewart was formerly First Secretary (Scottish Affairs) at the British Embassy in Washington DC.

The following Tuesday (November 27), the Scottish Socialist Party is holding a public meeting in the same Ardrossan venue, beginning at 7:00pm.  The topic for discussion is the Socialist’s distinctive vision of an independent Scotland.  Addressing the meeting are former local MSP Campbell Martin, Denise Morton, a lifelong socialist and anti-war campaigner, and Lindsay Webster, a student and socialist activist.

Campbell Martin explained the purpose of the public meeting: “The Scottish Socialist Party is more than happy to join with others, such as the SNP, in campaigning for an independent Scotland.  But it is vitally important that the general public know an independent Scotland doesn’t have to be what SNP says it wants.

“The SNP would retain the Queen as Head of State, would keep the capitalist system that has brought the country to its knees, would be a member of nuclear-armed NATO, and would continue to put first the interests of multi-national corporations.  The Scottish Socialist Party backs independence, but not the SNP’s limited vision.  We want an independent Scotland to be a democratic republic, free from control by bankers and financial speculators.  We would have nothing to do with NATO and would remove nuclear weapons from our shores.  We would also restructure Scottish society so that the interests of the people come before the profits of multi-national companies.”

The SSP meeting on Tuesday night will set-out the party’s alternative vision of an independent, socialist Scotland.  Speakers will also take questions from the public.

Harbour repairs completed

Works to repair a gaping hole in the seawall at Ardrossan Harbour have been completed.

Clydeport, owners of the harbour, brought in contractors to carry out the work – a full 13 months after the3towns first revealed the breach in the sea –defences.  Major damage to the foundations of the harbour’s lighthouse – caused by storms last December – has also been sorted (see above photos).

However, long-standing – and worsening – damage to the facility’s breakwater has yet to be addressed by Clydeport.

The hole in the seawall – first reported by the3towns in October 2011 - led to concerns that the structure of the quay could be undermined.  The internal area opposite the hole was adjacent to the busy car park serving the Arran ferry.

Following the3towns’ report, divers were called-in by Clydeport to carry out an underwater inspection of the damaged area - on both the seaward side and within the dock area – but it took a full year before remedial works finally began.

In the last full-year accounts posted by the harbour owners, pre-tax profits of £10.4m were recorded.  Clydeport also paid a £12m dividend to its parent company, the Manchester-based Peel Ports Group.

Burgess tackling homelessness

New Scottish Government legislation means that anyone facing homelessness in North Ayrshire, through no fault of their own, will have a right to ‘settled accommodation’.

The new regulations, which come into force on December 31, were introduced by Housing Minister Margaret Burgess, Member of the Scottish Parliament for the local constituency of Cunninghame South, which includes Stevenston.

The change to the law means councils will have to provide ‘settled accommodation’ to anyone who is unintentionally homeless.  Currently, only certain groups identified as being in priority need, such as families with dependent children, qualify for such housing.

Mrs Burgess told the3towns, “This is a significant moment in our efforts to tackle homelessness in Scotland.  It enshrines in law the clear principle that anyone who loses their home through no fault of their own is entitled to settled accommodation.”

The Housing Minister added, “In Scotland we have been clear that people who lose their home through no fault of their own must be helped through what is a time of crisis. They now have that right written into law.  Local authorities, their partners and the Scottish Government have worked closely to ensure that the target for reducing homelessness is achievable.”

However, indicating she is not prepared to rest on her laurels, Margaret Burgess said, “We must now redouble our efforts in this area to ensure that these changes work in practice.”

Call for youth parliamentarians

Young people from across North Ayrshire are being encouraged to stand for the Scottish Youth Parliament and raise the issues that matter to them.

The Youth Parliament gives a voice to young people across Scotland, campaigning on the issues that matter to them, giving a national platform to air their views and a chance to influence decision-makers.

The Scottish Youth Parliament elections – to be held in March 2013 - are open to young Scots aged between 14 and 25.

North Ayrshire Council’s Cabinet Member for Education, Attainment and Achievement, Cllr Tony Gurney, said, “It is important that young people have an effective voice.  As a Council, we are committed to engaging with our young people on the issues that matter to them.  The Cabinet meets North Ayrshire Youth Council on a regular basis, while young people have also attended our own meetings.  This relationship builds on the success of the Scottish Youth Parliament, which has had excellent representation from North Ayrshire in recent years.”

The SNP councillor for Ardrossan urged “young people who feel they have what it takes to become a Member of the Scottish Youth Parliament should consider standing in next year's elections.”

Nominations are now open and must be received by December 14. To register an interest visit www.syp.org.uk/elections.

Grant Costello MSYP, Chair of the Scottish Youth Parliament, said, “In the last two years the Scottish Youth Parliament has had a huge impact on Scottish civic life.   Campaigns on Equal Marriage and Votes at 16 have been successful, helping to create a more progressive and inclusive Scotland.  Those successes are down to the hard work, dedication and ability of the Members of the Scottish Youth Parliament.  If a young person in Scotland wants to make a difference they should seriously consider standing for election to the Scottish Youth Parliament.”

Keep warm this winter

As winter weather begins to bite, local MSP Margaret Burgess is urging constituents to use a Scottish Government helpline for advice on keeping warm over the next few months.

Mrs Burgess spoke-out after a new survey revealed almost 80 per cent of Scots are concerned about the cost of their energy bills, with many householders indicating they don’t currently have loft or wall insulation in their homes.

The SNP Government’s Home Energy Hotline offers advice on how to make homes warmer, but only 29 per cent of people responding to the new survey said they have claimed the free home insulation to which they are eligible.

Margaret Burgess said, “I would strongly encourage anyone concerned about their heating bills and keeping warm this winter to take advantage of this excellent facility.

“Everyone can get help.  The Scottish Government’s Hotline is a one-stop shop for energy advice and support.  One call is all it takes for people to find out what they are eligible for.  Advisors can provide details of free offers, discounts and other support available to help everyone have a warmer, affordable and greener home this winter.”

Of the survey, Mrs Burgess said, “Almost half of Scottish adults have not checked their current home’s insulation levels for at least a year, even though nearly two out of three Scottish homes that have lofts don’t have enough insulation.  With the cold months upon us, planning and preparing now for the drop in temperatures will ensure a warmer home that costs less to heat.”

The SNP MSP for Cunninghame South urged constituents to contact the Home Energy Hotline, “particularly anyone who has not looked at loft or cavity wall insulation, or who is looking to replace their old and inefficient boiler.”

The Scottish Government’s Home Energy Hotline is a free-call on 0800 512 012.

Lennon bombers appeal conviction

Two North Ayrshire men jailed for sending suspect packages to Celtic manager Neil Lennon and two high-profile fans of the club have lodged an appeal against their convictions.

Neil McKenzie, from Saltcoats, and Trevor Muirhead of Kilwinning were each sentenced to five-years after being found guilty of sending through the post devices they believed were capable of exploding and causing injury to Neil  Lennon, former Labour MSP Trish Godman and the late Paul McBride QC. 

The sentence, handed down at the High Court in Glasgow on April 27, was backdated to May 2011, the time both men were arrested.  However, lawyers acting for McKenzie and Muirhead have now lodged an appeal against the convictions, arguing the packages could never have exploded and that it therefore was “unreasonable” for the jury to have reached a guilty verdict.

A hearing will take place on December 19 and if judges decide to allow the appeal, both men could be released from prison.

Sentencing McKenzie and Muirhead in April, Lord Turnbull said, “It is incomprehensible that two such family men in their forties would engage in such reckless and serious forms of criminal conduct.  Even the sending of a parcel bomb as a hoax would always be a serious offence that would in itself be likely to end in a custodial sentence.”

The judge indicated evidence presented in the trial showed that, despite the two men believing the devices were capable of igniting and exploding, “it [was] perfectly clear they could not in fact do so, the intent could not have been achieved”.

The two North Ayrshire men were jailed for five-years, with McKenzie receiving another 18 months on a separate charge of sending a hoax bomb, but this was ordered to be served concurrently.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Council PPP bill - £127m in interest alone

Figures contained in North Ayrshire Council’s Annual Accounts for 2011/2012 show the cash-strapped local authority will fork-out a staggering £127m to meet interest payments in relation to its notorious Schools Public Private Partnership (PPP) project.

The previous Labour administration of the Council signed the contract that ties-in the taxpayers of North Ayrshire to meeting the costs of a 30 year programme of build and maintenance for just four schools – St Matthew’s Academy in Saltcoats, Stanley Primary in Ardrossan, Arran High Scool and Greenwood Academy, Dreghorn. In its Annual Accounts the local authority anticipates the total cost to the public purse of the Schools PPP Project will be in the region of £348m – the capital value of the four schools campuses, when new, was put at £80m.

In the financial year 2012/2013 alone, interest payments due to be paid by the Council for this one project stand at £5,235,000.

The news comes as the current SNP administration, only elected in May, is believed to be facing what one councillor described as “Armageddon”. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the councillor told the3towns, “Labour got away with things by delaying cuts to jobs and services, but there is no way of avoiding them now. All the chickens are coming home to roost at the same time.”

The councillor said it was “inevitable” that significant cuts will have to be made across Council departments and services, adding, “It is falling to the SNP to clean up Labour’s mess.”

the3towns understands that in one briefing session in relation to the budget for the coming financial year (2012/2013), which will be set by the Council next February, the staggering cost of the Schools PPP Project was raised, with one councillor asking if it would not be cheaper for the local authority to ‘buy out’ the contract from the private consortium that built and is maintaining the four schools. However, such a move was ruled out: the Annual Accounts for this year make clear that, “The Council only has the right to terminate the contract if it compensates the contractor in full for costs incurred and future profits that would have been generated over the remaining term of the contract.” The Schools PPP contract still has 25 years to run.

Officer presses ahead with schools merger despite promise to consult

Just a week after North Ayrshire Council’s Cabinet member for Education, Cllr Tony Gurney, gave an assurance that there will be public consultation on whether or not four schools should be closed as part of plans to create a new Three Towns campus, an official from the local authority’s Education department has issued a letter indicating they “will seek to recruit a Head of Campus for the new school” by June of next year.

Mr Mark Armstrong, Head of Service (Education & Skills), made the statement in a letter dated November 14, just seven-days after Cllr Gurney told a meeting of North Ayrshire Council that “all provisions of the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act 2010 will be followed”. As the Council’s plan would require the closure of four existing schools – Ardrossan Academy, Auchenharvie Academy, James McFarlane School, and Haysholm School – the Act stipulates there must be public consultation on the issue of closure to facilitate a merger of pupils.

Mr Armstrong’s letter also reveals the Council has appointed a new Acting Headteacher of Ardrossan Academy. Steven Quinn, currently Headteacher of Auchenharvie Academy, will take over the Ardrossan post when the present Head, Mrs Mary-Rose Martin, retires.

In addition, Mark Armstrong indicates parents and carers of pupils affected by the proposed closure of the four existing schools and the creation of a Three Towns campus will be kept “informed of progress”, but no mention is made of consultation to seek public views on the proposals.

the3towns revealed in September that Mr Armstrong had already ruled-out ‘revamping’ Ardrossan Academy and Auchenharvie Academy, rather than closing them as part of a merger.

In a letter to a parent of an Ardrossan Academy pupil, the Education official said, “The possibility of investing any future Scottish Government support in ‘revamping’ the existing school [Ardrossan Academy] does not fit with the national school estate strategy, the climate change act or overall value for money both qualitative and quantative [sic].”

Mr Armstrong added that Ardrossan Academy “would present a huge challenge to enable it to continue to meet the needs of the Disability Discrimination Act in creating a totally inclusive school.” However, in documents secured by the3towns under Freedom of Information legislation, the Council says of Ardrossan Academy that “anticipated works likely to be required over the next twenty years” would cost a total of £500,000 – equivalent to £25,000 per year. The biggest individual cost - £200,000 - was listed as the installation of lifts in both the ‘old’ and ‘new’ buildings at the Ardrossan school.

Costly football pitches are 'unplayable'

The condition of football pitches at Laighdykes playing field in Saltcoats were this week described as “atrocious” and “unplayable”.

The boss of one of the local amateur teams that use Laighdykes told the3towns, “The pitches haven’t been right since they built St Matthews [Academy]. They dug up the whole field then and we were told we were getting the best of pitches. One [Labour] councillor even told me it would be like playing fitba on a bowling green, they were going to be that good.”

The manager continued, “It’s a farce now. The pitches don’t drain. They’re saturated. Stand in one of the goalmouths and you will be up to your ankles in mud. There is no way a goalkeeper can move around, they just slip and slide.”

Laighdykes was ‘upgraded’ as part of North Ayrshire Council’s multi-million pound Schools PPP Project, which saw St Matthew’s Academy built on what had been open, green space. At the time the PPP deal was signed, Labour councillors promised new state-of-the-art sports facilities, including Grade ‘A’ football pitches.

Last August the3towns revealed that Members of Parliament at Westminster had backed views long-expressed by two Independent councillors representing the Three Towns.

John Hunter (Ardrossan & Arran) and Ronnie McNicol (Saltcoats & Stevenston) had warned for more than six years that developments funded by the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), latterly renamed Public Private Partnerships (PPP), were extremely poor value for the public purse, and would cost taxpayers dear. However, it was just last year that the influential House of Commons Treasury Select Committee issued a report stating PFI/PPP “can not be relied upon to provide good value for money”.

John Hunter and Ronnie McNicol were originally elected to North Ayrshire Council in 2007, having previously played prominent roles in the Laighdykes Residents Group, which opposed Council plans to use scarce, public open-space to build a new school. The two men also raised serious doubts over the then Labour administration’s decision to embark on a Public Private Partnership scheme to design, build and maintain four new schools, including St Matthews Academy in Saltcoats and Stanley Primary in Ardrossan. Ultimately, Labour councillors signed a contract, which the3towns this week reveals will cost local taxpayers over £5m this year in interest payments alone.

The North Ayrshire Council Schools PPP Project attained notoriety after it was revealed the local authority actually only had one credible and viable bid. The Council maintained, and still maintains, that a second bid provided competition. However, the second bid came from a company with no office, no accounts, no experience in building or maintaining schools, and paid-up share capital of just £2.00.

Katy calls for action on Israeli weapons deals

Katy Clark MP has called on the UK Government to tighten restrictions on military co-operation with Israel in light of developments in Gaza over the past few days.

Conservative estimates put Palestinian deaths at around 20, including children, as a result of Israeli air-strikes and naval gunships firing shells into the Gaza strip. Three Israelis have been killed by rockets fired from Gaza.

The current UK position is that it will not export to Israel military equipment to be used in the ‘occupied territories’ – the West Bank and Gaza Strip. However, military co-operation between the two countries remains in a number of areas.

Ms Clark is a member of the Parliamentary Committee on Arms Export Controls and believes that “in light of recent developments, the time is now right for these relationships to be re-assessed.”

Katy Clark told the3towns, “The Foreign Secretary’s response to the current situation in Gaza has been wholly inadequate. Although he has rightly condemned Hamas rocket attacks, he has failed to call for the Israeli Government to halt its escalation of the situation, despite the fact Israeli military action is killing innocent Palestinian civilians who have played no part in the violence.”

Ms Clark added, “A sustained end to violence can only occur through negotiation and the UK Government should be calling for a complete ceasefire to allow talks to take place.”

The Labour MP for North Ayrshire & Arran stated that, “Bringing an end to violence in the region must be the number one priority and while Israel remains willing to take action that jeopardises the lives of Palestinian civilians, all military co-operation with them should end. The UK does have restrictions on what it is prepared to sell to Israel, but it is a major purchaser of Israeli manufactured drones and supports funding to numerous Israeli arms manufacturers through the EU Security Research Programme.”

Katy Clark concluded, “We should not allow business to remain as usual while attacks on Palestinian civilians continue”

In 2011, Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt MP confirmed “UK policy on the export of controlled goods and equipment to Israel has not changed since the Coalition Government took office. All export licence applications to Israel are considered on a case-by-case basis against the Consolidated EU and National Export Licensing Criteria.”

Despite the United Nations stating that Israeli action against Palestinians “violates humanitarian law”, sales of British weapons and components continue. In addition to military equipment sold directly, British firms also manufacture components for US-built warplanes and tanks that are supplied to Israel by the American Government. Israel has used F-16 fighter aircraft and Apache combat helicopters to bomb Palestinian towns and villages. Both aircraft contain UK-manufactured components, including missile triggering systems.

Low wages - but more Modern Apprentices

Following its controversial decision to peg the pay of Modern Apprentices at the legal minimum of £2.65 an hour, North Ayrshire Council’s SNP administration has announced plans to support more than 400 young people in such schemes over the next two years.

The local authority’s SNP Cabinet confirmed it had allocated around £400,000 to increase the target for the number of the Council’s Modern Apprenticeship places from 90 to 180. In addition, as well as directly employing Modern Apprentices, the local authority has said it will support local businesses by paying a wage subsidy to those who employ young people.

Currently, around 50 young workers employed as apprentices at local firms have up to 50 per cent of their wages paid by the Council, with plans to expand the scheme to more than 200 during the next two years.

SNP Council Leader Willie Gibson said, “Helping young people get access to skills and training, as well as providing them with employment opportunities, are key objectives for the Council.

“Modern Apprenticeships provide training and employment opportunities for young people. North Ayrshire has one of the highest levels of unemployment in Scotland. That is why we are taking measures such as increasing the number of young people we support through our Modern Apprenticeships.”

Cllr Gibson who represents Saltcoats & Stevenston said, “The Council and our economic team are working hard to support young people and to help firms employ Modern Apprentices.”

However, while welcoming the Council's commitment to offering training opportunities to young people, Colin Turbett of public sector trade union UNISON expressed the belief that “North Ayrshire's position having the highest youth unemployment in Scotland is being used to the Council's advantage”. Mr Turbett explained, “In a situation of cuts, where other council workers are losing jobs and those who leave are not being replaced, it is inevitable that Modern Apprentices are being used to shore up services.”

The Convener of UNISON’s North Ayrshire branch added, “We want to see the numbers involved increase and we accept this is the Council's plan, but we also want Modern Apprentices to be paid a proper wage, so they feel as valued as everyone else. We are sure that residents in the area would agree.”

Richie Venton of the Scottish Socialist Party, which has campaigned locally in support of Modern Apprentices receiving the accepted Living Wage of £7.20 an hour, condemned the actions of both SNP and Labour councillors in North Ayrshire. Mr Venton said, “Disgracefully, the SNP leadership of North Ayrshire Council recently refused to even allow a discussion on Council apprentices' wages, let alone raise them from the current £2.65 an hour.”

The SSP activist was referring to the last meeting of North Ayrshire Council, where SNP councillors voted unanimously to block a Motion from Three Towns Independent councillors John Hunter and Ronnie McNicol, which called for the local authority’s Standing Orders to be suspended to allow a debate on Modern Apprentices’ pay. Labour councillors decided to take no position on the issue and abstained in the vote.

Richie Venton said, “SNP councillors should hang their heads in shame,” adding, “so, too, should Labour councillors who didn't even have the guts or principles to vote in favour of the Motion being discussed - even though it only called for a modest increase to £3.97.”

Almost 4,000 local people have signed a Scottish Socialist Party petition calling for a wage increase for Modern Apprentices. Richie Venton said the party will “continue to demand the SNP-run Council listens to the people they claim to represent,” adding, “they should end slave-wages and include apprentices in the £7.20 Living Wage, which they admit is the bare minimum required for all other Council workers.”

MP leads workshop on Tory welfare cuts

Local MP Katy Clark has warned that UK Government welfare reforms “will take £2bn out of the pockets of Scots”.
Ms Clark was speaking last Saturday (November 10) at a Welfare Reform Workshop she organised to explain how people in North Ayrshire will be affected by changes being implemented by the Tory-Lib Dem Government.
Also speaking at the event, held in Dalry, was Maggie Kelly, campaign Officer with Scottish Poverty Alliance.
Of the proposed welfare reforms, Katy Clark said, “They will have a devastating effect on many of societies most vulnerable. This attack on the disabled, the destitute and the unemployed is borne of out of ideology and not sound economics. Our welfare system is there to support people in times of need and the security it has provided over many years is being ripped apart by the Coalition Government.”
The MP for North Ayrshire & Arran added, ““Thousands of local people are due to lose-out as a result of welfare changes whether it be those who under-occupy a property and who will be hit by the bedroom tax and will see their Housing Benefit cut, those being transferred from Incapacity Benefit or those in receipt of Disability Living Allowance who will need to apply for the new Personal Independence Payment.”

Burgess blasts Labour over plan to means-test prescriptions

Local SNP MSP Margaret Burgess says Labour Party plans to means-test access to prescriptions would “stigmatise elderly, vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society”.

Mrs Burgess, who represents Cunninghame South in the Scottish Parliament, is now challenging local Labour MPs and councillors to “name which health conditions they think should fall into the category of paying for prescriptions”.

Abolishing prescription charges has been one of the SNP Government’s most popular decisions, and Margaret Burgess points-out that Labour’s plan to reverse the move would mean many Scots with long-term illnesses could be faced with having to pay again for their medication. A Parliamentary Question last week elicited the answer that included in illnesses whose sufferers would have to pay under Labour plans are Parkinson’s Disease, Asthma, Cancer, Multiple Sclerosis and HIV.

Margaret Burgess said, “I am proud of the SNP's determination to protect free prescriptions.” Contrasting the Scottish Government’s position with that of the Labour Party – leader Johann Lamont said Scotland is living in a ‘something for nothing culture’ – Mrs Burgess said, “The most vulnerable and disadvantaged must be protected during these very tough economic times through Scotland’s universal benefits, like free personal care and free prescriptions.

“People need to be confident that their government is working for them – in so far as the devolution set-up allows it – in delivering policies to promote the social justice agenda in Scotland.

"Let there be no doubt, our social justice agenda is now under attack from our political opponents in the Scottish Parliament. Their targets are the range of universal benefits that this parliament has supported from the earliest days of devolution – free prescriptions, free eye examinations, free personal and nursing care and concessionary travel.”

Mrs Burgess, also the SNP Government’s Housing Minister, noted, “Means-testing as proposed by the Tories, Liberals and Labour, would have a disastrous impact on hundreds of thousands of ordinary Scots who are already experiencing immense financial hardship. It would lead to the stigmatisation of the elderly, the vulnerable and the disadvantaged in our communities and it would impose an utterly obscene ‘health-and-welfare’ tax on all citizens of Scotland.”

The SNP MSP demanded, “Labour wants to reintroduce prescription charges – an unfair tax on the ill – so it should clarify exactly what groups of people it would apply this to. We've even had the Labour Health spokesperson, Jackie Baillie, say she wants prescriptions ‘as they were before’, which would mean people suffering from a whole range of long-term illnesses would no longer be entitled to free prescriptions.”

Margaret Burgess concluded, “Scots will soon have the choice between an independent Scotland armed with the economic powers we need to create a society committed to social justice on the one hand, and on the other a Scotland harnessed to a London-based Tory or Labour government determined to dismantle the welfare state north as well as south of the border. That is why I believe Scotland will choose to say ‘Yes’ to independence in 2014.”

Local MP opposes fuel duty hike

A Labour Party Motion calling for the UK Government to postpone a 3p per litre increase to fuel duty was defeated last week in the House of Commons.

Local MP Katy Clark supported her party’s attempt to delay the hike in duty. Speaking later, she said, “I am very concerned at the damage being caused by the current high cost of fuel. I have been contacted by a large number of constituents telling me that prices of petrol and diesel are becoming increasingly unaffordable.

“At a time when incomes are being squeezed from a number of different quarters, a fuel duty rise could cause serious difficulties for households and business across the United Kingdom. Many people have no alternative but to travel by road on a daily basis.”

Ms Clark challenged the Tory-Lib Dem Government to think again, saying, “Despite voting against the motion to postpone the increase, there is still time for the Chancellor to announce he is scrapping the rise in his Autumn Statement, due to take place in December. In addition, I hope he is also willing to consider ways to ensure that in the long term fuel prices can be kept both stable and affordable.”

Consumer organisation Which? also backs a delay to the increase in fuel duty planned for January.
A survey for the group, in which pollsters Populus interviewed 2,100 adults, found 8.7 million households curbed their spending on essentials last month, while 6.4 million used savings to cover outgoings. For Which?, Executive Director Richard Lloyd said, “Rising fuel prices are the number one consumer worry and people are already telling us they're having to cut back and dip into savings just to get by.

“On the back of inflation-busting energy bill rises and increasing food prices, consumers can little afford another hit on their household budget.”

Despite voting-down the Labour Motion, some Tory backbenchers at Westminster were quoted last week saying they expect Chancellor George Osborne to “bow to demands” for the 3p hike in fuel duty to be delayed. One Conservative MP said, “There is a fear that the rise, which has already been delayed from August, will cause outrage as it coincides with New Year rail and bus fare increases and comes a week before cuts in Child Benefit.”

Friday, 16 November 2012

Anger as SNP block debate on apprentices' pay

Modern Apprentices working for North Ayrshire Council will remain on the bare minimum-rate of £2.65 an hour after SNP councillors blocked a move to even debate an increase.

Three Towns Independent councillors John Hunter and Ronnie McNicol had tabled a Motion to be debated at last Wednesday’s meeting of the Council, which called for consideration to be given to a 50% increase for the local authority’s lowest-paid workers. However, at its meeting the previous week the ruling SNP Cabinet had decided there should be no pay increase for Modern Apprentices. Under the Council’s Standing Orders – the rules that govern conduct of meetings – the SNP decision meant the issue could not be debated again until six-months had elapsed.

The only way round the six-month ruling was for Council to suspend Standing Orders, which is what John Hunter asked councillors to do at last week’s meeting. But, when Cllr Hunter’s request was put to the vote, the twelve-strong SNP Group voted against the proposal, while the 11 Labour councillors decided to take no position and abstained. With insufficient support to have Standing Orders suspended, Cllr Hunter’s Motion fell and the pay-level of Modern Apprentices was not debated.

Speaking to the3towns after the Council meeting, John Hunter said, “I am very disappointed and angry that the SNP administration chose to block a Motion affecting the lowest-paid workers. Even more disappointing was the decision of the Labour Group, which chose to abstain rather than vote to improve the wages of young workers.”

Cllr Hunter indicated he will bring the matter back to Council once six months have elapsed from the SNP Cabinet’s decision that Modern Apprentices should not be paid more than £2.65 an hour.

Members of the Scottish Socialist Party lobbied last week’s Council meeting, demanding the local authority honour its commitment to paying all workers the minimum Living Wage of £7.20 an hour. SSP activists had also held regular street stalls in Saltcoats and Irvine, where members of the public had queued to sign a petition supporting a wage rise for Modern Apprentices.

Following the Council meeting, SSP organiser Richie Venton told the3towns, “We totally condemn the SNP leadership of North Ayrshire Council for refusing to even allow a discussion on Council apprentices' wages, let alone raise them from the current £2.65 an hour.”

An angry Mr Venton continued, “SNP councillors voted unanimously to block a Motion from Independent councillors John Hunter and Ronnie McNicol, but in doing that they also gagged the voices of thousands of people who have signed our petition and who are disgusted at poverty pay for young people.

“The SNP promised to be different from New Labour when they were chasing votes in May, but in fact they have carried on with the previous administration’s slave-labour wages for hundreds of young workers, exploiting the mass unemployment in the area to hire cheap labour.”

Mr Venton said SNP councillors “should hang their heads in shame,” adding, “so, too, should Labour councillors who didn't even have the guts or principles to vote in favour of the Motion being discussed - even though it only called for a modest increase to £3.97.”

Almost 4,000 local people have signed the Scottish Socialist Party petition calling for a wage increase for Modern Apprentices. Richie Venton said, “We will continue to demand the SNP-run Council listens to the people they claim to represent. They should end slave-wages and include apprentices in the £7.20 Living Wage, which they admit is the bare minimum required for all other Council workers.”

Seven councillors sought to have Modern Apprentices’ wages debated by voting to suspend Standing Orders at the Council meeting: John Hunter (Independent), Ronnie McNicol (Independent), Robert Barr (Independent), Robert Steel (Independent), Liz McLardy (Independent), Jean Highgate (Independent), Tom Marshall (Conservative).

Gurney confirms merger consultation will include closures

North Ayrshire Council’s Cabinet member for Education, Cllr Tony Gurney, has given an assurance that the local authority will consult on the issue of schools threatened with closure as part of plans to create a new Three Towns campus.

Cllr Gurney gave the commitment at last week’s Council meeting in response to a question from Ardrossan’s Independent councillor John Hunter. Asked if Council consultation would cover “all relevant provisions of the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act 2010,” the SNP Cabinet member replied, “I can confirm to Councillor Hunter that all provisions of the Act will be followed.”

Previously, Council statements in relation to a planned merger of Ardrossan Academy, Auchenharvie Academy, James McFarlane School and Haysholm School had given the impression that the public would only be consulted on the location of a new campus and design of a new school. However, the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act 2010 clearly stipulates that where closure of schools is proposed to facilitate a merger, such closures must be included in consultation carried out with the public. Cllr Gurney’s commitment should mean that local people will now be asked if the four affected schools should remain open or be closed to allow a merger.

Tony Gurney, who also represents Ardrossan, told councillors, “The cabinet agreed yesterday (November 6) to accept the offer of Scottish Government funding (£22.5m). The statutory consultation process will begin early next year and it will be taken extremely seriously.”

Cllr Gurney made clear that all councillors whose constituents would be affected by the proposed schools merger will play a full part in future meetings and workshops. The SNP councillor added, “Following statutory consultation, we want to be in a position to make a clear recommendation for the location of the new campus.

“I am convinced this [the merger proposal] is the best course of action, and that new buildings and a new campus is the best option for the Three Towns.”

the3towns last week revealed North Ayrshire Council may have misled the Scottish Government over the extent of consultation already carried out in relation to the controversial plans to merge the four local schools.

Council documents secured by the3towns under Freedom of Information legislation show that in its bid for funds, submitted to the Scottish Government in June, the local authority stated, “The four schools affected by the proposals have all been consulted along with the primary schools served by the secondary schools.” However, a confidential briefing presented to senior officials at a meeting of the Corporate Management Team in May revealed very limited consultation had actually taken place, stating, “To date with the exception of the head teachers of the four schools involved there has been no Member/stakeholder engagement.”

Other documents showed the four current schools are all in relatively good condition and are mostly suitable for purpose.

Further report on fly-tipping expected

With fly-tippers in the Three Towns becoming more brazen – including dumping furniture in front of Council offices (see photo) – Ardrossan councillor John Hunter has confirmed a further report on the problem is due to come before the local authority’s Scrutiny Committee next month.

Last February, at the Council’s budget meeting, Cllr Hunter’s Independent colleague Ronnie McNicol said the introduction of charges for special uplifts of household items had led to a noticeable increase in fly-tipping in the Three Towns. Cllr McNicol also revealed it was costing the local authority more to remove items illegally dumped than they were taking-in from the charges for special uplifts. “Since it is apparent we are spending more cleaning up than we recover from special uplift charges,” said Ronnie McNicol, “I propose the charges are removed.”

In a controversial report authored by Ms Laura Friel, North Ayrshire Council’s Corporate Director (Finance & Infrastructure), the official claimed there had been no increase in fly-tipping since charges for special uplifts were introduced in 2010. However, elsewhere in the same report, figures showed instances of fly-tipping collected by the Council had more than doubled in the year after charges were levied.

At the February Council meeting Saltcoats & Stevenston SNP councillor Willie Gibson, now the leader of the Council, asked that a review of charges for special uplifts should also look at the local authority’s policy requiring residents to be in possession of a ‘Waste Permit’ to use amenity sites, in certain circumstances. Cllr Gibson raised concerns that the introduction of permits had also contributed to the increase in illegal dumping around the Three Towns.

For the then Labour administration, Cllr David O’Neill agreed to a review and that it should include changes to rules covering the use of Council-run amenity sites.

However, a report of the subsequent review, again authored by Laura Friel, failed to actually address charges for special uplifts and did not even mention waste permits. In light of this, Ronnie McNicol and John Hunter moved that the Scrutiny Committee should look at Ms Friel’s report to decide if its contents merited further investigation.

Following the Council Election in May, a report on fly-tipping was presented to the Scrutiny Committee, which is chaired by Cllr Hunter. After consideration, committee members agreed to recommend that the local authority’s SNP Cabinet should put in place a system to record the costs of the collection of fly tipping, and that a report on the results of the information collected be provided to the Scrutiny Committee in December.

Nine-months since decision - but no extra Wardens

Independent councillor John Hunter last week demanded answers over why there were still no Community Wardens patrolling in the south of Ardrossan – a full nine-months after North Ayrshire Council agreed £145,000 be set aside for the purpose.

Questioning the SNP administration, Cllr Hunter asked, “This was a decision of the full Council. It was agreed that £145,000 should come from reserves to fund the recruitment and training of new Wardens to patrol in Ardrossan, south of Eglinton Road and Parkhouse Road. So why has it taken so long? How many Wardens have been recruited and trained, and when will they be deployed in the south of Ardrossan?”

Responding, Cllr Anthea Dickson, SNP Cabinet member for Social Care, said she could not provide an answer for the inaction of the previous Labour administration during the period between Council agreeing to Cllr Hunter’s Wardens proposal in February and the local government election in May. However, she did indicate this had “contributed to the delay”.

The SNP councillor continued, “No new Wardens have been recruited or trained. This is partly down to the fact that a new base is needed, which requires to be a Council property with at least three bedrooms.” Cllr Dickson indicated it had proved very difficult to find a suitable location. However, the SNP councillor also revealed it had been September before the ruling Cabinet agreed to extend the Wardens team.

Of the current position, Cllr Dickson said, “New staff will not be recruited and trained until mid-December, at the earliest.”

Speaking to the3towns after last week’s Council meeting, John Hunter said, “There has been shocking inaction by the previous and current administrations of the Council.

“I can’t believe it takes ten-months to recruit, train and deploy Wardens in the south of Ardrossan, notwithstanding the reason given regarding finding a suitable base.”

The Independent councillor added, “A full year’s funding was allocated. So I want a full year’s worth of Wardens.”

SNP cite Labour hypocrisy on 'pay-day' loans

Last week’s meeting of North Ayrshire Council saw Labour councillors came under attack while proposing a Motion critical of ‘pay-day’ loan companies that charge exorbitant rates of interest – with an SNP councillor pointing out the legislation under which such companies operate had been introduced by a UK Labour Government.

Kilwinning councillor Joe Cullinane moved the Motion arguing “it is the responsibility of all levels of government to try to ensure affordable credit for all,” and asking councillors to “promote financial literacy, affordable lending and the use of credit unions, such as 1st Alliance in Kilwinning.”

Cllr Cullinane told the Chamber, “One-third of payday loans are used to re-finance existing loans. The companies call this rolling-over, but it means people getting deeper and deeper into debt.”

While some credit companies operating in the UK charge interest rates in the region of 4000%, Cllr Cullinane revealed other countries had imposed caps, saying, “In France the interest rate cap is 300 per cent and in Germany it’s 200 per cent.”

However, while supporting the intention of the Motion, SNP councillor Tony Gurney questioned Labour’s credibility on the issue, saying, “As with the Living Wage, I welcome Labour’s conversion to this cause.”

Cllr Gurney then proposed an ‘addendum’ (a paragraph added to the end of the Motion), suggesting the Council “writes to Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, asking if he regrets his party passing the legislation that allowed pay-day loan companies to operate, and urging him to commit to repealing the legislation at the first opportunity.”

For Labour, Cllr Cullinane replied that “Ed Miliband was just an MP when the legislation was passed, he wasn’t Labour leader.” But Tony Gurney called back, “He voted for it, as did Katy Clark.”

Cllr Cullinane responded, “I don’t know what you [Cllr Gurney] want to achieve by writing to Ed Miliband,” and indicated he would be rejecting the SNP addendum.

Before moving that the addendum stand, Tony Gurney said, “It’s interesting Cllr Cullinane feels there is nothing to be gained from writing to Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party.”

On a division, 13 councillors voted for the Motion with the SNP addendum, and 17 for the unamended Labour version. But, as the Labour Motion was carried, SNP councillor Alan Hill called out, “It doesn’t change the past.”