Friday, 26 April 2013

Councillor's concerns over schools merger

Ardrossan & Arran Independent councillor John Hunter has urged “all interested parties to participate fully in the consultation process” regarding controversial plans to merge Ardrossan Academy and Auchenharvie Academy.

As previously reported by the3towns, North Ayrshire Council has identified the current site of Ardrossan Academy as the preferred option for a new Three Towns campus, with pupils from Auchenharvie in Stevenston travelling to Ardrossan for their secondary education from August 2016 onwards.  The proposed new campus would also house a facility for pupils with additional needs, bringing together children who currently attend Ardrossan’s James McFarlane School and Haysholm School in Irvine.

However, John Hunter this week voiced concern over the number of pupils who would attend the proposed merged secondary and the effect this would have on academic attainment, telling the3towns, “There are any number of studies which demonstrate that large schools perform less well than smaller schools.”

Cllr Hunter’s comments come in the week that SNP-controlled North Ayrshire Council published details of five public meetings at which the merger proposals will be discussed.  The local authority’s Cabinet member for Education, Cllr Tony Gurney, stressed his belief that it is important for the Council to “speak to the whole community from the very start,” adding, “We do recognise there will be some change for pupils at the schools. It is important, therefore, that we speak directly to pupils, parents, staff and the wider public about the plans and ensure that we take their views onboard.”

But John Hunter has reservations over the Council’s impartiality in the matter, saying of the public consultation document, “I strongly recommend that all who are interested in this proposal read it very carefully.  It is a fairly extensive document and it will come as no surprise to anyone that it is heavily biased towards acceptance of the proposal.”

Two-weeks ago the3towns revealed the question asked by the Council in its formal public consultation document contains a form of words previously rejected by the independent Electoral Commission, which considered them to be leading respondents towards a particular answer.  The Commission’s decision related to the proposed wording of the question to be asked in next year’s Independence Referendum.  Originally, the SNP Government had wanted to ask “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?”, but following an established assessment process, the Electoral Commission found “the words ‘Do you agree’ potentially encourage people to vote ‘yes’.”  As a consequence, the leading element of the question - ‘Do you agree’ – was dropped and Scots will now simply be asked “Should Scotland be an independent country?”.

However, the question asked by North Ayrshire Council in its public consultation document is: “Do you agree with the proposal to create a new educational campus in Ardrossan by amalgamating Auchenharvie and Ardrossan Academies and Haysholm and James McFarlane Schools?”  Applying the Electoral Commission’s previous decision, such wording would appear to lead respondents towards accepting the merger proposal.

The planned Three Towns campus is projected to cost £42.5m, with North Ayrshire Council contributing £20m and the balance being supplied by the SNP Scottish Government.

Details of the five public meetings announced this week by the Council to discuss the merger proposals are:

May 7 - Haysholm School (7:00pm)
May 9 - Ardrossan Academy (6:30pm)
May 14 - Auchenharvie Academy (6:30pm)
May 15 - West Kilbride Primary School (6:30pm)
May 16 - James McFarlane School (10:30am)

Public submissions on the proposals must be received by North Ayrshire Council no later than mid-day on Friday, June 14.

SSP build resistance to Bedroom Tax

The Scottish Socialist Party is to hold another public meeting in North Ayrshire to build resistance to the hated Bedroom Tax.

The meeting on Tuesday (April 23) at 7:30pm in Irvine’s Castlepark Community Centre is the fourth such event organised by the SSP to bring together local people faced with cuts to Housing benefit and possible eviction because of the UK Government’s ‘under-occupancy’ reform.  Under the Bedroom Tax, which came into force on April 1st, anyone deemed by the UK Government to have an ‘extra’ bedroom in their home will see their Housing Benefit cut by 14-percent: should a household be deemed to have more than one ‘extra’ bedroom, their benefit will be slashed by 25-percent.

The likely outcome of the measure is that people will be unable to pay their rent, due to the cut in Housing Benefit, while the lack of one-bedroom properties in North Ayrshire means downsizing is not possible. 

Following pressure from Scottish Socialist Party activists and local people, including lobbying recent Council meetings, it is understood that most North Ayrshire councillors are likely to support a policy of ‘no evictions’ for local people who get into rent arrears as a result of benefit cuts due to the introduction of the Bedroom Tax.

However, it appears that North Ayrshire Council’s SNP administration may only support such a move for one-year, while still requiring tenants to make arrangements to clear rent arrears, even where they have been built-up as a consequence of the Bedroom Tax.

Speaking to the3towns, SSP Regional Organiser Richie Venton, a veteran of the anti-Poll Tax movement, said, “After the success of our previous public meetings in North Ayrshire, we are determined to extend the network of resistance to this hated Tory tax.

"As working class communities across Ayrshire and Scotland curse the day Maggie Thatcher was born, we need to build a movement to stop the vicious theft of incomes from the poorest by the richest being carried out by Thatcher's spawn, David Cameron.”

Mr Venton said the Tory Government led by Margaret Thatcher had “turned Ayrshire into an industrial desert, with minimal rights at work, mass unemployment and despair for a whole generation,” adding, “Now Cameron and his Eton-educated cronies are out to repeat this history of naked class war through their attacks on wages, jobs, services and benefits, spearheaded by the Bedroom Tax. They must not succeed.”

The long-standing SSP activist said, “Those of us who experienced and led the defiance and defeat of the Poll Tax, and the downfall of its architect Thatcher, are determined to unite with communities and workforces to scrap the Bedroom Tax.  We are fighting to evict the Tories, not tenants.”

Tuesday’s public meeting will discuss ways to fight-back against the Bedroom Tax and to protect local people who will be affected by it.

Progress on community hospital

NHS Ayrshire & Arran has reached a key stage in planning for a new mental health and community hospital in North Ayrshire.

Three consortia have been shortlisted for the £46m contract to design, build and then maintain the new facility, which will be constructed within the grounds of the existing Ayrshire Central Hospital in Irvine.  The project is being funded using the SNP Scottish Government's Non Profit Distribution Model (NPD).

Balfour Beatty Investments, You in Mind (Bilfinger Project Investments Europe)  and Eglinton Care (Morgan Sindall Investments Limited) will now be invited to take part with NHS Ayrshire & Arran in the 'competitive dialogue' stage of the process, which is expected to run until approximately the end of 2013.  The three bidders will then bring forward designs that will form part of their final tenders.

Jim Crichton, NHS Ayrshire & Arran’s Director of Primary Care and Mental Health Services, explained, “Our staff will be working closely with the three shortlisted companies during the next seven months.  We want the best possible hospital for our patients and service-users, so this part of the process will ultimately be one of the most important.  Once this stage closes we would expect to appoint the preferred bidder in February 2014 - with construction starting a few moths later at the end of the summer in 2014.”

Scotland’s Health Secretary, SNP MSP Alex Neil, said, “Having the right facilities in the right place is important to people across Scotland and this brings us one step closer to the new North Ayrshire Community Hospital.

“This purpose-built facility is a prime example of how continued investment in our NHS is benefiting patients, by providing them with quality care as close to home as possible.

“Investment in health is a top priority for the Scottish Government and we have committed to spending over £2billion on improving NHS infrastructure over four years.”

MP's anger over inadequate Minimum Wage

Local MP Katy Clark has expressed her disappointment that increases to National Minimum Wage rates, announced by the UK Government last week, are below current inflation levels, meaning they are actually real-terms pay cuts. 
The Government announced that from October 2013, the National Minimum Wage will rise by 12p an hour to £6.31 for adults over 21, by 5p to £5.03 for 18-to-20 year-olds, 16 and 17 year-olds are to get an additional 4p an hour, taking their rate to £3.72, while Modern Apprentices are to receive an increase of 3p to £2.68 an hour. The new rates are below current inflation levels - Retail Price Index (RPI) inflation stands at 3.3-percent and the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) at 2.8-percent. 

Katy Clark said, “I am disappointed that the increase in National Minimum Wage rates is below current inflation levels.  This comes at a time when the UK Government is claiming it wants to make work pay.  It is completely unacceptable that millions of workers on low incomes will be facing a real-terms cut in their wages.  I am also concerned that the Government is using slow wage growth as an excuse to slash benefits but is, itself, holding wages back with below-inflation minimum wage rises.” 

Ms Clark also flagged-up what she described as a “discrepancy” between the increase in youth and adult minimum wage rates, saying, “It is completely unacceptable that young workers continue to be discriminated in this way.”

The Labour MP for North Ayrshire & Arran said, “I will continue to press the Government on looking to move towards a genuine living wage where a person ought to be paid enough to live decently and to adequately provide for their family.  It is vital that in-work poverty is prevented and that workers are not exploited through low wages.”

Ms Clark’s position was supported by Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress, who said, “There are still too many workers being denied a legal wage by Scrooge bosses. Ministers must get tough with the employer wage cheats and start to name and shame all those who break the law and insist on paying their staff poverty wages.”

Council bosses meet in North Ayrshire

Twenty-one Chief Executives and 50 senior managers from Councils across Scotland gathered in North Ayrshire last week for the annual conference of SOLACE (Society of Local Authority Chief Executives).

The event, held at the Seamill Hydro over April 18 and 19, also attracted representatives from other public sector organisations and voluntary groups.  Leading speakers at the conference included Scotland’s Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon MSP, and Labour’s Local Government spokesperson, Sarah Boyack MSP.  A debate on the future of local government from a national perspective was chaired by BBC Radio Scotland presenter Kaye Adams.

Other topics covered over the two-days included creating stronger local service delivery, engaging with staff, reducing health inequalities through prevention, and growing the economy.

The conference was opened by North Ayrshire Council Chief Executive Elma Murray, who is also Chair of SOLACE Scotland.  Ms Murray later said, “It was fantastic to see so many of my SOLACE colleagues gathered at this year's conference in North Ayrshire, at a time when local authorities are facing significant challenges, with increased demand for public services and reductions in public sector expenditure.
"The two-day event gave us the opportunity to step back and reflect on the issues and discuss and share ideas on how we can adapt and develop new approaches, to ensure that we continue to deliver quality services to our local communities.”

On the conference being held in North Ayrshire, Elma Murray remarked, “It gave us the opportunity to showcase some of the wonderful scenery and natural beauty we have in the area and to talk about our ambitions and aspirations for the future, positioning North Ayrshire as the place to be.”
Following her keynote address to conference, Nicola Sturgeon said, “Since 2007, this Government established a new relationship with local government, based on mutual respect and partnership, to improve the lives Scottish people.
“We have worked together to secure the Council Tax freeze, which has provided much-needed help to families.  We are now working together to mitigate the worst impacts of the UK Government's welfare reforms, and on the delivery of the £33million Scottish Welfare Fund to help those groups who need it most.  The Government is also working with local authorities on our planned Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill.”
Ms Sturgeon, who is originally from North Ayrshire, noted, “This kind of partnership-working serves the people of Scotland well.  However, only with independence can central and local government work together on resource, on welfare and on the economy to improve the lives of people in Scotland, and to secure the position of local government in a written constitution for our nation.”