Friday, 28 February 2014

Council forks-out £1.7m - for nothing

North Ayrshire Council has spent £1.7m over the past six years on ‘indexation’ charges related to the local authority’s controversial Schools PPP (Public Private Partnership) Project.

Indexation describes the amount by which a sum changes and, with regard to the North Ayrshire PPP Project, refers to additional payments made every year to the private consortium that won the contract to build four schools. The figure represents an annual increase applied to the ‘base unitary charge’ agreed as part of the contract, signed in 2006, but the Council receives absolutely nothing in return.

The shocking figure was revealed at last week’s meeting of North Ayrshire Council in response to a question tabled by Ardrossan’s Independent councillor John Hunter.

The contract for the Schools PPP Project was signed by Labour councillors in North Ayrshire’s previous administration, which was voted out of office in May 2012. However, as the contract to build and maintain four schools has a duration of 30 years, the Council’s current SNP administration has been left to deal with the consequences of Labour’s actions.

Prior to being elected in 2007, John Hunter and his fellow Independent Ronnie McNicol (Saltcoats & Stevenston) helped lead the Laighdykes Residents Group, which campaigned against the Labour councillors’ plan to build a new school on Laighdykes Playing Field. The Group also opposed PPP contracts in general, highlighting the potential for private contractors to make excessive profits from the public purse.

North Ayrshire’s Labour councillors ignored public opinion and pressed ahead with a PPP contract that early figures showed would cost local taxpayers in the region of £380m. However, John Hunter’s question has now revealed that the amount the Council will be forced to pay-out in relation to the controversial PPP contract will continue to rise. In total, indexation payments alone over the past six years have cost the local authority £1,770,193.

Replying to Cllr Hunter at last week’s meeting, Cllr Ruth Maguire, SNP Cabinet member for Finance, Corporate Support and Housing, confirmed the local authority receives nothing in return for the increased payments, saying, “Indexation is a contractual requirement, which does not result in any additional services.”

The ‘contractual requirement’ of indexation, agreed by Labour councillors, will see North Ayrshire Council continue to fork-out increased payments every year for the 24 years that remain of the Schools PPP contract. In the last financial year alone (2013/14) the additional ‘indexation’ payment cost local taxpayers £250,193.

John Hunter told the3towns, “It seems from the figures given in response to my question that the cost to the Council, and local people, will rise inexorably.”

Two senior Labour representatives who played a significant part in agreeing and signing the Schools PPP contract are still serving North Ayrshire councillors. Peter McNamara (Ardrossan & Arran) leads the Labour Group, while David O’Neill (Irvine West), the Labour Leader of the Council when the contract was signed, is now also President of the Confederation of Scottish Local Authorities, making him Scotland’s most senior elected councillor.

Questions over 'inflated' repair costs

Questions are being asked over how North Ayrshire Council reached a figure for renovation works at the ‘high flats’ in Saltcoats.

In April 2008, the then Labour-run local authority contacted residents of Lambie Court and O’Connor Court, indicating there was a need for essential works to the fabric of the buildings and that each of the property-owners in the blocks would have to pay £29,790 as their contribution to the overall cost.

By November 2010, the3towns reported that the Council had revised the figure and that each of the property-owners in the blocks were told they would have to pay around £16,000. Some months later, following the intervention of Saltcoats & Stevenston Independent councillor Ronnie McNicol and a further ‘competitive market test’ carried out by the Council, the bill to owner-occupiers again fell dramatically to £8,830, excluding VAT.

However, in response to a question from Cllr McNicol at last week’s meeting of North Ayrshire Council, the local authority’s SNP administration, which replaced Labour in 2012, confirmed that the total cost to each resident of the ‘high flats’ would be just £708.63, inclusive of VAT – a reduction of more than £29,000 from the original figure.

The two blocks of flats received new cladding and windows in July 2012. North Ayrshire Council still owns 60 of the flats at O’Connor Court and Lambie Court, while 34 have been sold and are now in the hands of individual private owners.

Speaking to the3towns, Ronnie McNicol said, “The very high figures originally quoted caused real worry and concern for owner-occupiers in the flats. I sought and received an assurance from the administration that nothing like this will happen again.”

Figures revealed over school games hall closure

Cllr Willie Gibson, Leader of North Ayrshire Council’s SNP administration, has confirmed that the local authority made a deduction of £12,362.93 from payments to private contractors after the games hall at St Matthew’s Academy was closed for over two months to allow major repairs to the walls of the building.

Cllr Gibson revealed the figure at last week’s meeting of North Ayrshire Council in response to a question lodged by Independent councillor John Hunter (Ardrossan & Arran). However, the Council Leader also confirmed that K:A Leisure was due compensation from NAC of just under £3,000 because the leisure company had been unable to use the St Matthew’s campus while the games hall was closed.

St Matthew’s Academy is just six years old and was built as part of North Ayrshire Council’s controversial Schools PPP Project. Within months of the school opening, a local builder told the3towns that mortar in walls of the games hall was too soft. The experienced construction professional predicted that breezeblocks in the walls would move, over time. Last November the games hall was closed after large cracks appeared in the walls.

Willie Gibson told John Hunter at the Council meeting that the full cost of repairs had been met by contractors. The PPP Project awarded contracts to private companies to build and maintain four schools – St Matthew’s, Stanley Primary in Ardrossan, Arran High School and Greenwood Academy in Dreghorn.

Previously, John Hunter and fellow Independent Ronnie McNicol (Saltcoats & Stevenston) revealed that Labour councillors in North Ayrshire’s previous administration had pressed ahead with signing a £380m contract despite the fact only one credible and viable bid had been submitted. The one other bid came from a company with no filed accounts, no office, no experience in building or maintaining schools and which had share capital valued at just £2.00. At the time, Labour councillors insisted the second bid had provided “genuine competition”. This was despite the Council’s own external advisors stating that the second bid was “materially non compliant”.

MP condemns benefits sanctions

Local MP Katy Clark has spoken of her anger at the impact benefit sanctions are having on local people.

The UK Tory-Lib Dem Government has introduced a new sanctions regime that has seen the sole income removed from thousands of Jobseekers, often for relatively minor breaches of Jobseeker Agreements. At Saltcoats Jobcentre alone over the past 12 months, a total of 1,309 local unemployed people had their benefits stopped as a result of a sanction.

The increased use of sanctions has been a factor in the numbers of people turning in desperation to foodbanks. Figures from the Department for Work and Pensions reveal that, across the UK, there were 874,850 Jobseeker Allowance sanctions in the year to September 2013, the highest figure for any 12 month period since the unemployment benefit was introduced in 1996. Sanctions can be applied for anything up to 3 years.

Katy Clark told the3towns, “The increase in the number of people receiving Jobseekers Allowance or Employment and Support Allowance who are being sanctioned is deeply worrying.”

The MP for North Ayrshire & Arran said, “These sanctions strip the primary source of income from some of the most vulnerable people in society. Over 50,000 adverse JSA sanction decisions have been taken against lone parents, and one in five people sanctioned are disabled.

“Disabled people are also particularly hard hit by the increase in ESA sanctions. ESA is the primary income replacement benefit for disabled people. Alarmingly, sanctions have shot up by 125 percent in a twelve month period.”

Ms Clark pointed to a recent report by Citizens Advice, which highlighted some of the reasons for sanctions were “spurious or overly-punitive”.

The Labour MP said the UK Government’s sanctions regime is “cruel” and “needs to be immediately suspended and replaced by a system fit for a civilised society in the 21st Century”.

Burgess blasts Tories' "moral mission"

Margaret Burgess MSP has slammed Prime Minister David Cameron over his claim that UK Government welfare reforms are part of a ‘moral mission’.

Mrs Burgess said any claim that the introduction of the Bedroom Tax or cuts to child benefit were moral was “bizarre”, adding, “These Tory welfare reforms have caused untold harm”.

The local MSP said, “There has been searing condemnation of Westminster’s welfare reform agenda from church leaders, with the Archbishop of Westminster pointing out that many people were left in hunger and destitution. Yet David Cameron claimed that his government’s policies offer ‘new hope’. It is bewildering how anyone could describe policies that have plunged people into poverty and attacked the most vulnerable in society as offering ‘new hope’. It shows just how out of touch David Cameron's Tory government is.”

The MSP for Cunninghame South, which includes Stevenston, pointed out that the latest Scottish Social Attitudes Survey showed 63% of people living in Scotland agree that the Scottish Parliament should be responsible for welfare. “With Westminster attitudes like this, no wonder people want decisions on welfare taken here, in Scotland,” said Mrs Burgess.

The SNP MSP noted, “It has become increasingly clear that there are no plans for devolution of the welfare system in the event of a ‘No’ vote in the Independence Referendum. Only by voting ‘YES’ can we ensure that vulnerable people in Scotland no longer need to suffer as a result of David Cameron’s so-called moral mission.”

Fundraising for cervical cancer charity

Generous customers of the B&M store in Stevenston have raised £171.96 for the local branch of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust.

Suzanne Fernando who helps run the North Ayrshire group of the cancer charity said she and everyone involved was very grateful to B&M staff and customers. The money was raised through donations deposited into collection tins at the store’s checkouts.

Suzanne, herself a survivor of cervical cancer, explained what the Trust does, “We are there to provide support to women and their loved ones affected by cervical cancer and cervical abnormalities.

“There are moments that stand out in life: getting a letter through the post informing you of an abnormal screening; being told you will need treatment; receiving news that you’ve been diagnosed with cervical cancer. We’re here to help people through those moments by providing accurate information and opportunities to meet others in a similar situation. Our support groups offer an opportunity for women living with or beyond a cervical cancer diagnosis to meet each other locally for information, friendship and mutual support.”

Suzanne added, “I’m so proud of our group in North Ayrshire, and so grateful for it. It continues to be, and always will be, vital and instrumental in helping women move forward in their lives after cancer. We offer support, comfort, strength, information, a sense of belonging, but most of all friendships for life.”

The group can be contacted at: josayrshiregroup@gmail.com or through the website here.

Contract awarded for community hospital

NHS Ayrshire & Arran has announced Balfour Beatty as the preferred bidder for the new Acute Mental Health and Community Hospital to be built within the grounds of Ayrshire Central Hospital in Irvine.

The facility will provide 206 beds for people who need a level of care and rehabilitation that can only be provided by a stay in hospital, including adult acute mental health; mental health and addiction rehabilitation; elderly mental health; long-term care and rehabilitation for older people; and outpatient clinics and treatments.

The development, costing £47m, is being funded through the Non-Profit Distributing model, which is managed by the Scottish Futures Trust on behalf of the SNP Scottish Government.

Staff from NHS Ayrshire & Arran will now work with Balfour Beatty's Design Team to finalise plans for the development.

Derek Lindsay, Director of Finance and Senior Responsible Officer for the project, said, “After a robust procurement process, we are confident we have made the right decision. Balfour Beatty's final tender offers a high-quality design and therapeutic environment. We are looking forward to working with them to provide the people of Ayrshire and Arran with the very best facility possible.”

Stephen Gordon, Scotland Director for Balfour Beatty Investments, added, “The company is delighted to be announced as the preferred bidder for the new Acute Mental Health and Community Hospital. We very much look forward to working with NHS Ayrshire & Arran in developing our proposals further and delivering the new facility for the community of Ayrshire and Arran.”

Scotland’s Health Secretary, SNP MSP Alex Neil, welcomed the latest development in the project, saying. “The announcement of Balfour Beatty as the preferred bidder for the new community hospital in Ayrshire is a key milestone in ensuring the local community have access to state of the art facilities.

“This new hospital will help NHS Ayrshire & Arran achieve its goal of shifting the balance of care towards the community, so that patients can receive quality care as close to home as possible. Investment in health is a top priority for the Scottish Government and this development is part of a £750m programme of new health infrastructure across Scotland.”

Construction of the new hospital is due to start this summer, with the facility expected to open in spring 2016.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Saltcoats storm damage

Recent storms have left areas around Saltcoats harbour and the town’s east promenade looking battered and bruised.

North Ayrshire Council has erected barriers preventing cars from driving onto the quay at Saltcoats, while the prom between the town and Stevenston has been closed to vehicles and pedestrians for weeks.

Cllr Ronnie McNicol this week told the3towns that officials from North Ayrshire Council are examining the extent of damage in the harbour area. In addition, the local authority is understood to be in liaison with Network Rail, which has some responsibility for the structure of the east promenade due to the adjacent Glasgow-Largs-Ardrossan Harbour line.

Major repairs were last carried out to the prom in January 2012. At the time, the3towns reported a storm in late December 2011 had caused damage that resulted in seawater breaching the structure, scouring-out backfill material leading to the surface collapsing in some places.

the3towns also revealed that, as far back as May 2008, Saltcoats Community Council raised with North Ayrshire Council concerns over a lack of general maintenance at the promenade, even going as far as asking the local authority if the area would “benefit from more sea defences being put in place to break up the tidal force.”

Hunter's PPP questions

North Ayrshire Council’s SNP Education portfolio-holder, Cllr John Bruce, will this week face a series of questions on costs associated with a Public Private Partnership (PPP) contract entered into by the local authority’s previous Labour administration.

The SNP opposed the North Ayrshire Schools PPP Project but have been left to administer the 30-year contract after the Labour councillors who signed the deal were subsequently ejected from office by local voters.

In questions tabled for this week’s meeting of North Ayrshire Council, Ardrossan’s Independent councillor John Hunter seeks answers on the costs of recent repairs to the games hall at St Matthew’s Academy in Saltcoats, one of the four schools built under the PPP contract, and the financial implications of ‘indexation’ payments contained in the contract.

Prior to election in 2007, John Hunter and Ronnie McNicol led public opposition to Labour councillors’ plans to build a school on Laighdykes playing fields. The two men also investigated the terms of the PPP contract signed by North Ayrshire Council, exposing a long list of serious concerns.

As part of their investigation, Mr Hunter and Mr McNicol revealed that Labour councillors had pressed ahead with signing a £380m contract despite the fact only one credible and viable bid had been submitted. The one other bid came from a company with no filed accounts, no office, no experience in building or maintaining schools and which had share capital valued at just £2.00. At the time, the then Labour-controlled Council insisted the second bid had provided “genuine competition”. This was despite the Council’s own external advisors stating that the second bid was “materially non compliant”.

Last November the3towns revealed the games hall at St Matthew’s Academy had been closed after large cracks appeared in walls. The facility remained out of bounds for two months.

As part of the PPP deal, private contractors maintain the fabric of the school and must pay compensation to the Council if all or part of the facility is unable to be used. However, the Council, in turn, must compensate the local leisure company, K:A Leisure, which uses the school campus for a range of activities.

John Hunter will this week ask how much of the £9,603 penalty levied on the PPP contractor for the non-use of the games hall was subsequently paid by North Ayrshire Council to K:A Leisure. Cllr Hunter will also ask if the local authority had to meet any of the repair costs for the games hall in a school that is just six years-old.

With regard to the £380m PPP contract, John Hunter will ask, “how much has been paid in 'indexation' payments over and above the unitary charge, and is the addition of the 'indexation' cumulative?” In a second question, the Independent councillor enquires, “Notwithstanding the contractual obligation to pay 'indexation' uplift on the PPP unitary charge, what does North Ayrshire Council actually get for the extra money?”

Call for defibrillators in schools

Saltcoats & Stevenston Independent councillor Ronnie McNicol will this week ask that North Ayrshire Council looks at introducing potentially life-saving medical equipment to local secondary schools.

Cllr McNicol has tabled a Motion to be heard at a Council meeting on Wednesday (February 19), in which he reveals that no public buildings in North Ayrshire have been provided with defibrillators. The machines are used in cases of cardiac arrest where the heart has stopped pumping blood. Defibrillators deliver an electric shock to the heart, potentially re-starting blood flow. Survival chances of those affected by cardiac arrest decrease by 10% for every minute without defibrillation.

Ronnie McNicol’s Motion asks that Council Chief Executive Elma Murray investigates the provision of defibrillators and provides a report to the local authority’s ruling SNP Cabinet in relation to the costs of putting the machines into North Ayrshire secondary schools and the area’s two schools for children with additional support needs – Ardrossan’s James McFarlane School and Haysholm School in Irvine.

Last year North Lanarkshire Council became the first local authority in Scotland to install defibrillators in its secondary schools. The £70,000 cost was split between the local authority, NHS Scotland and private contractor Amey.

Burgess welcomes extra cash for NHS

Margaret Burgess MSP has welcomed a real-terms increase in funding for NHS Ayrshire & Arran.

The SNP MSP described the news as “a further demonstration by the Scottish Government of the importance placed on protecting the NHS”, as opposed to the policies of the Tory-Lib Dem UK Government, which are resulting in large swathes of the health service being privatised in England.

In the next financial year, NHS Ayrshire & Arran will receive £890.3m from the Scottish Government, an increase of 2.6%. In total, the overall budget for Scotland’s 14 regional health boards will rise by £248m in 2014/15.

Margaret Burgess said, “I am delighted to welcome this new increase in funding, not only for NHS Ayrshire & Arran but for health boards throughout Scotland.

“These above-inflation increases are vital to ensure our health service has the resources it needs to treat people. The critical work the NHS does to look after the health of people in Scotland is valued incredibly highly by everyone, which is why it is so important it is resourced as well as it can be.”

Mrs Burgess, whose Cunninghame South constituency includes Stevenston, said, “In the face of savage budget cuts from Westminster, the Scottish Government has made protecting the NHS one of its top priorities. This latest increase in funding means that, between the SNP taking office in 2007 and 2015/16, an extra £2.1bn will have been invested in NHS Scotland’s resource budget.”

Margaret Burgess said the SNP Scottish Government “will always do everything it can to safeguard our NHS because, unlike Westminster, we recognise the importance of maintaining it as the publicly-funded service that is valued so highly by the public.”

Clark demands action on energy bills

Local MP Katy Clark has questioned the Lib Dem Secretary of State for Scotland on the cost of household energy bills.

During Scottish Questions in the House of Commons, Ms Clark highlighted the increase in prices since May 2010 and the impact on rural and island communities. A long-standing campaigner against price hikes imposed by the ‘big six’ energy companies, Ms Clark called for a radical reform of the sector and a freeze in prices.

Speaking later, the MP for North Ayrshire & Arran said, “Energy prices have risen dramatically since the coalition came to power, with rural and island communities paying an even-greater proportion of their income on fuel.

“Unfortunately, since taking office the coalition has failed to stand up to the interests of energy companies, no matter how they have acted. As prices have increased, so have profit margins. Citizens Advice Scotland says there was a seven-fold increase last year in people approaching it for advice on mis-selling in the energy sector.”

The Labour MP believes radical reform of the energy sector and a price freeze are needed, adding that the Tory-Lib Dem UK Government is “unwilling to take the action necessary to keep household bills stable and affordable”.

Streamlined hospital facilities

NHS Ayrshire & Arran has approved a £27.5m programme titled Building for Better Care.

Major developments at Crosshouse and Ayr hospitals are expected to begin in May, with Phases 1 and 2 providing what the Health Board describes as “new, modern, fit-for-purpose facilities at the front doors” of the facilities. ‘Front door' is the term used to describe the point of entry for patients attending hospital for any reason other than a scheduled appointment. An NHS spokesperson described the planned developments as making it possible for patients “to get rapid assessment by senior clinical staff at the earliest point of their arrival in hospital”.

Included in the new facilities will be the Development of Combined (Medical and Surgical) Assessment Units (CAUs) at Ayr and Crosshouse, in line with the requirement of the Royal College of Physicians that all hospitals should have an acute medical unit to deliver safe and effective emergency medical care, and a redevelopment of Ayr Hospital’s Emergency department (A&E) with resuscitation bays, high care areas and cubicles, fully integrated with the minor injury unit and NHS Ayrshire Doctors on Call (ADOC).

Dr Crawford McGuffie, NHS Ayrshire & Arran’s Associate Medical Director, explained, “Today, patients who come into hospital either by GP referral or who turn up themselves, come in through the Emergency Department. They are frequently admitted until a decision can be made about their diagnosis and treatment. This puts pressure on the Emergency department and on the wards to which these patients are admitted. We recognise this adds to the time people have to wait in the Emergency department, and that it has an impact on the number of beds available in our hospitals.

“The focus of the CAU will be to provide rapid investigation and senior decision making, provided by a team made up of a range of disciplines - doctors, nurses, pharmacists and Allied Health Professions such as physiotherapists - working together.

“The aim will be to assess and treat patients in the appropriate environment and then either discharge them or admit them to a specialty ward if they need further care and treatment. The result will be that more patients can be assessed and discharged safely, with appropriate treatment and support, where previously they may have been admitted.”

Friday, 14 February 2014

Council boss on managing budgets and welfare reforms

North Ayrshire Council Chief Executive Elma Murray has warned local authorities will continue to find the next few years “challenging”, but also described what local government officials are doing to address budget constraints and the impact of welfare reforms.

Ms Murray made her comments to Holyrood magazine as she stepped-down from the role as Chair of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) in Scotland. Speaking of how councils will attempt to deal with overall reductions in available funding as a result of central government cuts, Elma Murray said, “I think there will be more councils trying to set budgets over a longer period of time. Most of us profile our budgets and set indicative levels. A number of councils have now started much longer-term financial planning, with five and ten-year plans. Looking back a few years ago, that wouldn’t have been particularly usual.”

North Ayrshire’s most senior official said much of forward planning by local authorities was about “managing expectations, about helping elected members and communities to understand just how challenging the next few years are going to be and therefore while things might not feel too bad in a number of cases this year, there’s lots more we need to do.”

Ms Murray believes one of the big challenges around the current financial situation is “trying to change the focus from one where people are continually thinking about reductions in services and cuts and almost turning that on its head.” Citing North Ayrshire Council’s experience, the Chief Executive said, “Over £300 million is spent on local service delivery, so we have to ask what is the best form of local service delivery in our area, what are the priorities, what matters most to us. We are all much more conscious about mapping-out the way ahead and helping councillors and communities to think hard about what their long-term priorities are. The starting point is to look at the financial implications over the longer term and ask what does that mean for the type of communities we’re going to have and what services we’re going to need to support them.”

Setting-out the reasoning behind the new strategy being adopted, Elma Murray explained, “It’s about looking at what we can change so we’re not spending money on the things which don’t get a return for local people. Prevention and early intervention are very important. In the time I’ve been in local government, this has taken off as being a priority and everyone is focused on it. There won’t be a council now which doesn’t talk about prevention and early intervention, and who have a number of strands which are trying to make that happen much more rapidly.”

Reflecting on her year as Chair of SOLACE, Ms Murray said, “Being able to take on this role is probably one of the best opportunities I’ve had in my career.

“Welfare reform has featured in almost every single SOLACE meeting we’ve had over the year and the lead for that, David Dorward [Chief Executive of Dundee City Council], has done an outstanding job in making sure we’re all up to date about what’s happening.

“Welfare reform directly affects the people and communities in our local areas [and] our focus has been to look at the longer-term impact of welfare reform. This means we’re managing not just the immediate problems of there being less money in communities and people having difficulties paying their rent but also thinking about the longer-term position around getting more people into work and sustainable employment.

“A lot of the people affected are our most vulnerable people. A big job for councils is to help them understand what’s happening and what we can do to help them. We have done a lot of work knocking on doors and seeing people, helping them do calculations, explaining to them about the financial support the council can give and where else they can apply to for support.”

Gibson backs SNP budget

Local SNP MSP Kenneth Gibson says the Scottish Government budget, passed last Wednesday (February 5), will “boost Scotland’s economy, help with the cost of living and deliver vital action to mitigate Westminster’s disastrous Bedroom Tax”.

In addition to the headline-grabbing move that will see millions-of-pounds made available to protect some of the country’s most vulnerable people who have seen their Housing Benefit slashed as a result of the Westminster-imposed Bedroom Tax, Mr Gibson said the SNP Government is “Delivering free school meals, extending childcare and protecting the Council Tax freeze, which will save hundreds of pounds for households across Scotland.”

Included in the SNP Government’s budget are plans to continue the small business bonus, protect free education, extend free school meals to every pupil in Primary 1 to Primary 3, and expand childcare provision to 600 hours for 3 and 4 year-olds and for vulnerable 2 year-olds. In addition, investment in infrastructure projects is to be supported to the tune of £8 billion over the next two years, which it is expected will create in the region of 50,000 full-time-equivalent jobs.

Kenneth Gibson, whose Cunninghame North constituency includes Ardrossan and Saltcoats, said, “This is vital action to help people during difficult times and will be warmly welcomed by people across Scotland. What is also particularly welcome is that even more action is being taken to help people affected by Westminster’s Bedroom Tax.

“The money has been put in place to mitigate the Bedroom Tax and the only thing standing in the way of immediate action is Westminster. Of course, far better than attempting to mitigate the deeply unfair Bedroom Tax would simply be to abolish it altogether. Only a ‘YES’ vote in September will give the Scottish Parliament the power to abolish the Bedroom Tax, and will ensure that Scotland’s welfare system reflects the priorities of people in Scotland, rather than the Westminster Treasury.”

Plans to mark outbreak of war

North Ayrshire Council’s ruling SNP Cabinet is this week expected to put in place plans to mark 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War.

The war, which, for Britain, officially started on August 4 1914, ultimately claimed the lives of 16 million people, with an additional 20 million wounded, making it one of the deadliest military conflicts in human history.

Records show there were 995,939 military and civilian deaths from the United Kingdom and a total of 1,663,435 British wounded. British Commonwealth forces, particularly from Australia and New Zealand, also suffered high rates of dead and wounded. Figures for the German Empire record 2,476,897 military and civilian deaths, with 4,247,143 wounded.

A total of 147,609 Scots lost their lives in the four-year-long conflict between 1914 and 1918. At the time, Scotland’s population was 10% of the UK, but Scots made up 20% of Britain’s war dead. In a figure that still shocks today, 26% of Scots who went off to fight in the First World War did not return.

Virtually every town and village in Scotland lost some of its young men to the ‘Great War’ and memorials bearing their names form central parts of remembrance services held every November – the armistice ending the First World War was signed on November 11th 1918.

A report for this week’s meeting of the Council’s SNP Cabinet states, “Through working with individuals, communities and the Royal British Legion, a number of events and an educational programme are organised to take place to commemorate the anniversaries of the start of WWI and WW2 during 2014 and beyond. The Council's 23 War Memorials will be prepared and presented to the highest possible standard being complemented by colourful floral decorations to commemorate the significance of 2014.”

This year also marks the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of World War 2.

Included in a whole range of activities, large and small, to mark the historic events are a North Ayrshire-wide ‘Adopt a Hero’ initiative, in which school pupils will be encouraged to adopt a serviceman or servicewoman from their local war memorial and research his or her life in their local community prior to their military service. Final research projects will be displayed in local libraries in November 2014.

Temporary classrooms for Ardrossan school

Temporary accommodation is to be located at James McFarlane School in Ardrossan to meet the needs of a projected increase in pupils attending the facility, which caters for young people with severe and complex needs.

North Ayrshire Council’s Pre School Assessment Team has identified that 5 children will require a Primary 1 placement at James McFarlane in the new term beginning in August. A further 3 pupils will begin Primary 1 at Haysholm School in Irvine. None of the existing pupils at the two schools is expected to leave until 2016.

Earlier this year the local authority’s SNP administration dropped a controversial plan to accommodate pupils from James McFarlane and Haysholm within the campus of a new mainstream secondary school serving the Three Towns.

Councillors are this week expected to agree a plan put forward by officials from the Education department, which will include the hiring of “stand alone temporary accommodation until the outcome of the strategic review of Education and Skills is known”.

The temporary accommodation at James McFarlane School will have set-up costs of around £27,900 with the weekly hire charge being in the region of £690. The Council also intends to set-aside £30,000 for internal alterations to the existing school building. Council papers for this week’s Cabinet meeting state, “Given the technical complexities of undertaking the required internal alteration and extension works and the ongoing review of the school estate, it has been agreed that the most appropriate solution at this time is to provide additional teaching space via rented modular accommodation and by undertaking modest internal alterations.

“The provision of this unit will ease pressure on the existing accommodation, allow for a more flexible use of the internal spaces to accommodate the increase in pupil numbers and in turn increase the overall capacity of the school for now and in future years.”

Officials indicate the proposal has been designed to cause minimum disruption to pupils and staff, and would be undertaken during the six-week summer break.

The modular accommodation unit is to be located on hard-standing ground adjacent to the school’s Sensory Garden and is to be linked to main building to ensure security and maintain the integrity of the facility.

The total capital investment required to implement the proposal at James McFarlane is expected to be around £57,900. There will also be a revenue outlay of £36,000 per year for the rental of the modular accommodation.

The headteachers and Parent Councils of James McFarlane and Haysholm schools are understood to have been consulted on the Council’s plans.

Almost 6,000 homes with no-one registered to vote

With just seven-months until the Independence Referendum, local MP Katy Clark has revealed there are a staggering 5,854 properties in North Ayrshire at which no one is registered to vote.

The figure was supplied by the Ayrshire Valuation Joint Board, which has responsibility for compiling the Electoral Register for North Ayrshire. Anyone whose name does not appear on the register will not be permitted to vote.

In addition to the referendum on Scottish independence, this year also sees elections to the European Parliament, which take place on May 22nd. In order to vote in this election a person must have their name on the Electoral Register by May 6th.

For the Independence Referendum on September 18th, voters must be registered by September 3rd. The Electoral Registration Office for Ayrshire is located at 9 Wellington Square, Ayr KA7 1HR and can be contacted on 01292 612221.

Commenting on the high number of ‘empty’ properties in North Ayrshire, Katy Clark said, “Almost 6,000 properties do not have anybody registered to vote in them. This is an alarming figure and although I recognise that places like Arran and Millport have a great number of properties that are second homes, I am concerned people are being disengaged with the political system. People should make sure they are registered.”

Ms Clark, Labour MP for North Ayrshire & Arran, noted, “The right to vote was not won easily. This year, with the referendum on the horizon, it is even more important that everyone is engaged in the debate over our future. I would call on everyone to ensure they’re registered to vote. There is still time to get on the register.”

Nominations for Provost's Civic Pride Awards

The nominations for the Provost's Civic Pride Awards 2014 have been announced.

The prizes, recognising contributions made by individuals and groups who have promoted or demonstrated civic pride in North Ayrshire, will be handed-out at a charity dinner in the Seamill Hydro on Friday, March 21st.

Votes can be cast online here, with the closing date being 12-noon on Thursday, March 13th.

The nominations in the five catagories are:

North Ayrshire Community Group Award - sponsored by Irvine Housing Association

• Beith Christian Action Group
• Fullarton Community Association
• Three Towns Carers Group

North Ayrshire Young Citizen of the Year - sponsored by Cunninghame Housing Association
• Sian Hughes
• Rachael Melrose
• Zoe Nix

North Ayrshire Citizen of the Year - sponsored by Marley Contract Services
• Craig Crosthwaite
• Jim and Bridie Lamont
• Hilda McDougal

North Ayrshire Arts and Culture Award - sponsored by ANCHO

• Ardrossan Castle Heritage Society
• Friends of the Harbour Arts Centre
• North Ayrshire Libraries' Computer Buddies

North Ayrshire Sports Award - sponsored by K:A Leisure

• Fitba4u
• Danielle Joyce
• North Ayrshire Table Tennis Club

Keeping children safe on the internet

If you have concerns about how safe your children are when they use the internet, pop along to the Rivergate Mall in Irvine this Tuesday (February 11) between 9:00am and 3:00pm.

North Ayrshire Child Protection will have experts on hand to give advice on keeping young people safe while they surf the web. Parents are encouraged to take along any phones, ipads, tablets and laptops used by family members.

Taking part in the event will be Police Scotland, offering advice on mobile phone security; O2, Vodafone, Three and EE who will show how to use mobile phone safety settings; NAC Community Learning and Development, focussing on social networking and how to make it a safe experience; NAC Education and Skills on tablet and ipad settings; and the Child Protection Committee offering general advice and showing videos from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre.

The stall will be at the entrance to the mall nearest to the Asda supermarket.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Labour councillors' poor attendance

An investigation by the3towns has revealed that some Labour councillors often fail to attend committee meetings of North Ayrshire Council.

Councillors are paid a basic salary of £16,234 and receive expenses to assist them in carrying out their duties. However, three Labour councillors in particular have a poor record of attendance at meetings held to discuss issues of importance to local people.

The worst 'offender' is former Labour MSP Irene Oldfather, now a councillor for Irvine East. All councillors are members of the Local Development Plan Committee, which considers a wide range of issues relating to the future of North Ayrshire. However, Cllr Oldfather has failed to attend four of the five meetings held by the Committee in the past year.

In addition, Mrs Oldfather has missed 65% of meetings held by the Appeals Committee, which meets to consider appeals made by Council staff in relation to disciplinary matters. The Labour councillor has also been marked absent from 67% of meetings held by the Police, Fire & Rescue Committee.

Also with a poor record of attendance are Saltcoats & Stevenston Labour councillor Jim Montgomerie and his party colleague Joe Cullinane (Kilwinning). Councillors Montgomerie and Cullinane recently failed to turn-up for a meeting of the Council’s Scrutiny Committee, despite having tabled a Motion to be heard that day.

Cllr Montgomerie has missed 71% of meetings held by the Ardrossan & Arran, Saltcoats & Stevenston Area Committee, which takes decisions affecting local residents in the Three Towns. In addition, Cllr Montgomerie was absent from 43% of Local Review Body meetings and 60% of Local Development Plan Committees.

Joe Cullinane has missed 10 of 19 meetings held by the Planning Committee and was absent from 60% of Local Development Plan Committees.

Following a request by Independent councillors Ronnie McNicol and John Hunter, North Ayrshire Council now publishes the attendance records of councillors.

Council to investigate payday loans

North Ayrshire Council is to investigate the impact on local people of debt created by payday loan companies charging soaring rates of interest, some as high as 4000%.

The local authority is to create a ‘short-life working group’, which it is hoped will deliver its findings by June of this year. The group will be chaired by Cllr Ruth Maguire, the Council’s Cabinet member for Finance, Corporate Support and Housing. At a previous meeting of North Ayrshire Council, Cllr Maguire, along with her SNP colleague Marie Burns, secured unanimous backing for a motion demanding the strongest possible action against ‘legal loan sharks’.

Ruth Maguire told the3towns, “North Ayrshire Council has for some time made clear its concerns that payday lending can damage local communities and families. At a time when households are under severe pressure, some payday lenders are condemning people to a lifetime of debt by failing to ensure that borrowers could afford to repay their loans.”

Cllr Maguire revealed that figures produced by Citizens Advice Scotland show more than 60% of payday loan applications are accepted by companies without any relevant financial checks, and that a majority of borrowers were not told how much it would cost to extend the loan if they could not repay the full amount in the designated time. The SNP councillor explained, “One horrific example saw a borrower paying £57 a month for 6 months, but was left still owing £437 on a £500 loan.”

The review to be carried out by the short-life working group aims to “result in action in terms of changing behaviour, minimising the promotion of payday-lending, and lobbying for change”.

Ruth Maguire said, “It's vital that the Council establishes the extent of the problem locally and also exactly what action NAC can take to assist matters.”

Civil Service jobs could go abroad

Katy Clark MP has condemned UK Government plans that could see hundreds of civil service jobs ‘off-shored’.

The Tory-Lib Dem Coalition has ‘sold’ the operation of civil service support functions to a French-owned corporation called Steria. The work secured by the company includes IT services for courts and the prison service. Last week the UK Ministry of Justice told staff that 1,300 jobs could be outsourced “within months”.

Steria, which operates in a number of countries, indicated its plans will involve job cuts and office closures, as some of the work will go overseas.

Katy Clark said, “I am appalled that the privatisation of vital civil service positions will lead to job cuts and the outsourcing of roles overseas. In these difficult economic times, the Government should be looking to protect jobs, not sell them off to the highest bidder, particularly when that bidder is seeking to move jobs overseas at the earliest opportunity.”

The Labour MP for North Ayrshire & Arran also expressed concern that the UK Government “appears to be suggesting it can transfer these jobs to Steria without going through the normal tendering process.” Ms Clark said, “Given the implications for staff, it cannot be right that any decisions are taken behind closed doors. A full, transparent and accountable process is needed.”


"Labour would hike Council Tax"

The Deputy Leader of North Ayrshire Council, Cllr Alan Hill, has launched a blistering attack on a Labour opponent, accusing him of wanting to “hike” the Council Tax bills of local people.

Council Tax levels in North Ayrshire have been frozen since the SNP formed the Scottish Government in 2007. SNP Ministers provide funding in each year’s local government settlement to cover what councils lose by not raising the local tax.

The Labour Party went into the last Scottish Parliament Election, in 2011, supporting the SNP’s Council Tax freeze, but prominent members have since attacked the measure and have indicated local authorities should be free to raise revenue by increasing the tax. North Ayrshire councillor Alex Gallagher (North Coast & Cumbraes) appeared to be one of the Labour members who supported an end to the Council Tax. Cllr Gallagher’s comments came in a letter to his local newspaper, the Largs & Millport Weekly News.

Now, Cllr Alan Hill has accused Cllr Gallagher of again making comments to the press, in which the Labour man apparently opposed the Council Tax freeze.

Alan Hill said, “Labour’s mishandling of the economy led, in part, to the current financial crisis, and hard-pressed families who have benefited from the Council Tax freeze over the last few years will not want to see a return to the days when Labour imposed above-inflation Council Tax increases on them year after year, after year.”

The Deputy Leader of the local Council’s SNP administration noted, “It’s probably worth pointing out again that in 14 short years from 1999, Labour increased the Council Tax in North Ayrshire by a staggering 119%. No one, apart from Alex Gallagher and his Labour colleagues, wants to see a return to those bad old days.”

Cllr Hill said the Labour Party is “all over the place on the Council Tax,” adding, “Sometimes they are for it and at other times against, but to give Alex Gallagher his due, at least he is consistent – he always wants to increase your local taxes.”

According to Alan Hill, the SNP did not introduce the Council Tax freeze in isolation, but, rather, had done it as part of a package of measures to assist families, students, tenants, the elderly and the disabled. “These measures include assistance to councils to mitigate against the Bedroom Tax, and saw the introduction of free prescriptions, free concessionary travel, the scrapping of tuition fees for students and free personal care for the elderly,” said Cllr Hill.

Burgess blasts Lamont's "wee things" comment

Cunninghame South MSP Margaret Burgess has blasted Labour’s Scottish leader, Johann Lamont, for describing as “wee things” issues such as the Bedroom Tax, nuclear weapons of mass destruction and young Scots being sent to fight in illegal wars, all matters still controlled by the Tory-led UK Government in London.

Ms Lamont’s comments, made during First Minister’s Questions in the Scottish Parliament, have embarrassed the Labour Party and their Tory partners in the pro-British Union ‘Better Together’ campaign.

Margaret Burgess said, “It was a bad week for the ‘No’ campaign when their scare-stories on European Union membership and a shared currency after independence were dismantled, but with the ‘wee things’ comment it got an awful lot worse. Johann Lamont should be ashamed of herself.

“Is the Scottish leader of the Labour Party really telling vulnerable families targeted by the Bedroom Tax that it is just a ‘wee thing’ and that Scotland should not have the power to abolish it?

“Our soldiers being dragged into illegal wars, weapons of mass destruction being dumped on our shores, and the means to tackle poverty and inequality – these, too, according to Labour, are just ‘wee things’.

“People in North Ayrshire and across Scotland will be aghast at this, and won’t buy Labour’s claim that Johann Lamont’s statement was just a ‘slip of the tongue’. This one comment exposes the lack of vision and ambition the Labour Party has for Scotland.”

The local SNP MSP said, “Independence will allow us to improve our economy, scrap the Bedroom Tax, remove nuclear weapons and transform childcare. These are not ‘wee things’ but are exactly what people care about and what affect people’s lives.”

MP urges locals - "register to vote"

Local MP Katy Clark is urging North Ayrshire residents to make sure they are registered to vote.

February 1st is National Voter Registration Day, marking the anniversary of the Great Reform Act of 1832, which first introduced the requirement for people to register their names in order to be eligible to vote in elections. The event is organised by campaign group ‘Bite the Ballot’, which seeks to raise awareness of voter registration and ensure people have the right to vote.

Katy Clark said, “The next couple of years will see a number of opportunities to vote that will have significant implications for the future of Scotland and the United Kingdom. This year we have elections for the European Parliament on May 22nd, ahead of the independence referendum on September 18th. A General Election will also have to take place before May 2015, so it is essential that everyone who is entitled to have their say at these elections is registered to vote.”

Ms Clark, Labour MP for North Ayrshire & Arran, said it is unfortunate that so many people who should be able to cast their vote at election time are not actually registered to do so, adding, “I am particularly concerned that at present only around half of all young people are currently registered to vote. Anyone who is not currently registered can sign up at: http://www.aboutmyvote.co.uk/register_to_vote.aspx”