Saturday, 30 November 2013

Concern over cracks in school walls

the3towns understands access to the games hall at St Matthew’s Academy in Saltcoats is to be restricted pending an investigation of cracks that have appeared on the structure’s walls.

The school was opened just 5 years ago as part of North Ayrshire Council’s highly-controversial Schools PPP Project, which saw the local authority’s previous Labour administration accept a price tag of £380m for four schools with a capital value, when new, of just £80m.  The balance of £300m represents the cost of a 30-year maintenance contract - £10m a year for just four schools.

The North Ayrshire Schools PPP Project became notorious within local government circles after it was revealed the then Labour-run Council had proceeded with awarding a multi-million pound contract despite only ever having one credible and viable bid.  A second bid, claimed by the Council to represent ‘genuine competition’, had come from a company with no filed accounts, no office, no experience in building or maintaining schools and issued share capital of just £2.00.

This week, a Council source told the3towns that concerns over cracking in the walls of the games hall at St Matthew’s Academy meant use of the building would be limited until structural engineers could be brought in to investigate the extent of the problem.

However, concerns regarding the St Matthew’s games hall are not new.  In February 2009 the3towns revealed that Ardrossan builder Alistair McKenzie had discovered mortar between concrete blocks was soft.  Mr McKenzie’s company had been contracted to carry out repairs to the school, which, at the time, was just two-years old.  The builder told the3towns in 2009, “We worked at the four PPP schools doing repairs for months, with much of what we had to do being correcting faults that were left from when the schools were built.

Of the St Matthew’s games hall, Alistair McKenzie said, “The condition of the walls at the gym are a disgrace.  They are built with five-inch concrete blocks and they were being pushed back by kids kicking balls against them.  The mortar holding them together is soft; there has not been enough cement in the mixture when the school was built.  There are basketball goals and climbing frames attached to these walls and they are coming away because the mortar is too soft to hold them.

However, a Health & Safety Executive inspection following a complaint from Mr McKenzie found there to be no “serious” problems at the school.

Ten-months later, in November 2009, a staff member at St Matthew’s Academy sent the3towns a photo, taken inside the school’s games hall, which clearly showed cracks emerging between concrete blocks in the structure’s walls.  According to the staff member at the time, the cracks had been painted over on a number of occasions.

Ardrossan pub licence refused after police report

Plans to re-open the former Britannia Bar in Ardrossan’s Princes Street were rejected last week by North Ayrshire Licensing Board, after a Police report revealed one of the people involved had previously served a lengthy prison sentence for drug-related crimes.

The Board, meeting last Tuesday (November 19), considered an application for a Transfer of Premises Licence in the name of Ardrossan woman Marian Small.  However, Ms Small was not in attendance at the meeting and the application was supported by Mr Gary McKenna. 

At the September 30 meeting of the Licensing Board Mr McKenna had been granted a Variation of Premises Licence in relation to the bar at 69/71 Princes Street, Ardrossan.  The variation to the licence principally involved allowing bar meals to be sold, changes to the previously-agreed layout of the premises and a change of name to ‘Latrobes’.  The Britannia, which had also traded as Watt’s Bar and the Lord Carson, has lain empty for a number of years.  Works to renovate the property began a couple of months ago.

A report from legal officers to the Licensing Board in September explained that a Premises Licence had been granted to Tyne & Tay Taverns Ltd in January 2009, and that this was subsequently transferred to Abacus Estates Ltd in October 2009. 

The officers’ report also stated, “This Variation application is not made by the Premises Licence Holder [Abacus] but by Gary McKenna who has the authority of the Premises Licence Holder to do so.”  It was then recorded that, as of September 12 2013, “Mr McKenna was not currently the tenant of the Premises, but it was expected that a lease would be signed in a few days.  Once a lease is in place, Mr McKenna will seek: (a) a Transfer of the Licence from Abacus to him, and (b) a further Variation, so as to nominate a Premises Manager.”

However, when Mr McKenna returned to the Licensing Board last week, he was made aware that Police Scotland had submitted a report raising concerns over his suitability to be involved in the running of licensed premises.

The Police report revealed that in April 2005 Gary McKenna had been sentenced to 13 years and 9 months in prison after being convicted at Guernsey Royal Court of importing onto the island £200,000 worth of the Class A drug Ecstasy.   An accomplice, Christopher Taylor, was sentenced to 9 years and 6 months for acting as a ‘minder’ for McKenna.  Both men were convicted of possession with intent to supply the drug.

After receiving the Police report, councillors sitting on the Licensing Board agreed to refuse the application for a Transfer of Premises Licence in relation to the former Britannia Bar.  Applicants have the right to appeal.

Gary McKenna is originally from Teeside in the north of England.

Cash injection for 'early years' care

North Ayrshire Council is to receive an extra £1,262,000 from the SNP Scottish Government to provide additional childcare and nursery places.

The funding was announced as part of an overall £50m injection of funds to help deliver more free and flexible ‘early years’ provision across the country.

Local MSP Margaret Burgess welcomed the initiative, saying, “The funding for North Ayrshire Council will pay for more nursery care for local children, including all three and four year-olds, and the most vulnerable two year-olds.”

The Cunninghame South MSP said the SNP Scottish Government is working hard to help families, adding, “This move will provide parents with an annual saving of up to £700 per child, at the same time as the UK Government takes away from families, cutting their benefits by an average of £700.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said the new ‘early years’ funding is “designed to help families manage household costs without compromising the quality of care their children receive or forcing parents to make difficult choices about whether they can afford nursery or other necessities”.

As part of the programme, parents are to be offered more choice.  Margaret Burgess explained, “Together with the extra hours, this could mean two full days of nursery a week instead of a few hours a morning or afternoon – giving mums, in particular, more choice and supporting more women back into work or training.  This adds up to the best nursery care ever given to Scottish families.”

Mrs Burgess, also the Scottish Government’s Minister for Housing & Welfare, noted, “We are doing a great deal with the powers we have, but we want to do more.  We want to have a childcare system among the best in Europe.  The Scottish Government’s Children and Young People Bill is a first step towards this, but while the UK Government remains in control of tax and welfare, we will always be fighting the impact of decisions taken elsewhere.

“That is why the Council of Economic Advisers has been asked to consider how we can use the powers of an independent Scotland to give an even better deal for children, parents and our economic future.”

Katy backs Charter to end payday loans rip-off

Katy Clark MP has backed a Charter aimed at ending the ongoing ‘Payday Loan Rip-off’.

 The Charter calls for tougher regulation of so-called ‘payday lenders’, companies offering loans that come with very large interest rates - sometimes as high as 4000% - resulting in many people being plunged into substantial debt as repayments are ‘rolled-over’ with additional interest charges applied.

Organisations supporting the Charter include some of the country’s biggest debt-management, consumer and anti-poverty bodies, such as Which?, Citizens Advice, StepChange (debt charity), Church Action on Poverty and the Centre for Responsible Credit.

Over 70 MPs in the UK Parliament have so far backed the Charter demanding an end to the payday loans rip-off.  Members of the public can add their support at 

Katy Clark, MP for North Ayrshire & Arran, said, “I’ve signed the Charter because payday lenders are ripping-off millions of people, trapping them in spirals of debt.

“The Financial Conduct Authority’s proposals for regulation are a step in the right direction, but they don’t go far enough.  This is a once in a generation opportunity to get the proper regulation and enforcement of payday lenders that we badly need.  If the opportunity is missed, then payday lenders will be able to carry on exploiting people.”

The full text of the Charter to Stop the Payday Loan Rip-off reads:

We believe irresponsible payday lending and other high cost credit is damaging the health and wealth of our country. Payday lenders are exploiting millions of people across the UK, trapping them in spirals of debt, and the problem is getting worse.

Payday lenders are breaking promises they made in their own customer charter. Self-regulation has failed. We call for effective regulation of payday lenders and high cost credit, which is properly enforced, to:
·         Stop them giving loans to people who can’t realistically afford to pay them back
·         Stop them repeatedly rolling over loans and creating spiralling debt
·         Stop hidden or excessive charges
·         Stop them raiding borrowers’ bank accounts without their knowledge and leaving them in hardship
·         Stop irresponsible advertising and instead provide clear and transparent information
·         Require lenders to promote free and independent debt advice, and ensure they co-operate with other services to help people get out of debt.
We also want action to support the growth of credit unions and other forms of more responsible lending; we want banks to increase the availability of credit to people on low and middle incomes: and we want new research on capping the total cost of credit undertaken now.

SNP legislation will tackle 'blacklisting'

Moves to ban from public contracts any companies that have been involved in ‘blacklisting’ workers are to be given legal backing.

SNP legislation currently progressing through the Scottish Parliament – the Procurement Reform Bill – is to include provision to ban such companies, a measure welcomed by local MSP Margaret Burgess.

Blacklisting is a practice where employers, particularly in the construction industry, compile a list of workers they consider to be ‘undesirables’.  A person’s name can appear on a list for reasons such as raising concerns about issues of health and safety on sites or being an active member of a trade union.  Once on a list, workers have, in the past, been prevented from gaining employment within entire industries.

 “New guidelines for public bodies require companies seeking public sector contracts to disclose whether they have been involved in the practice,” said Mrs Burgess.  “If a company is found to have used a blacklist, a bidder will have to show it has taken appropriate remedial action.  This gives a real impetus to efforts to address the deeply unfair practice.”

The MSP for Cunninghame South, which includes Stevenston, noted that “Blacklisting has blighted the lives and livelihoods of all too many people in Scotland and there is absolutely no justification for it.  People’s rights have been trampled simply for being part of a trade union, and that is totally unacceptable.”

Mrs Burgess said the Procurement Reform Bill “sends out the clear message that blacklisting will not be tolerated and that Scotland’s public sector will show real leadership in standing up to companies who engage in it.”