Friday, 14 September 2012

Scratching the surface

After I made several phone calls to the Procurator Fiscal's office a couple of weeks ago, the Crown Office suddenly announced last week that information provided by the police on the payments by Midlothian Council for the Bonnyrigg Rose car park 'did not disclose a crime'.

What 'information' I don't know, but I was told only a few weeks ago that the police had only asked the PF for advice and had not submitted a detailed report. I suspect therefore that the council's internal audit report never landed on the PF's desk either, despite the police holding on to a lot of information for well over a year.

However, now that police involvement is complete, the council has agreed to release its internal audit report to the public (Item 16 part 2, from this list). The five page Executive Summary is well worth a read and the report itself raises a number of questions.

Was the work signed off by the council? If not, why not, and if so then on what basis? More importantly, if, as I believe, the football club did not benefit, then who did? And why is the club not going after those (outside the council) who are responsible? After all, it had a contract with a building firm which has clearly not been fulfilled. There are 32 items on the detailed invoice. If any of these were not fulfilled by the builder, why has the club not taken action?

Under Item 4.3 it seems the club's committee were largely unaware of transactions regarding the car park, decided apparently at a committee meeting for which no minutes were taken.  Why was the club run 'almost exclusively on a cash basis' (page 151) and the Social Club kept unaware of proposed developments on its land (page 142)? Was no-one on the committee asking these questions or talking to the Social Club?

There is a lot of talk about openness and transparency in local government and I think Midlothian Council has been commendable in investigating what went wrong at its end. I know there are people associated with the club who have not been happy with my investigations, but hopefully after reading the report they will see that it too has been a victim of this sorry mess. I would hope that, realising they have been kept in the dark about various aspects of it, they too will start asking questions. Only then can the whole truth come out and we can call closure on it all.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Power to the people!

The Scottish Greens' policy on Local and Community Government begins "The Scottish Green Party strongly favours decentralised government. Government should be carried out at the most local tier possible".

With only 32 councils for a population of over 5 million, Scots are more remote than anyone else in Europe from their own 'local' councils. Contrast this with 36,000 councils in France and you see what I mean.

We do, of course, have community councils. However, with most attracting insufficient interest to hold elections and with little influence let alone power to do anything, they are largely seen as platforms for people with particular interests, agendas or budding political careers. I know, I was one of them. And with turnout at all elections on a downward spiral, politicians need to do something fast to re-engage with people - and that engagement needs to be a two-way process.

Thankfully this has started happening. Edinburgh City Council, led by Labour council leader Andrew Burns, is endeavouring to make the city a Co-operative Council. Many councils across the UK are now webcasting their meetings, with Edinburgh currently running a pilot scheme. I have been promised cross-party support for a motion I will be presenting this month to Midlothian Council to do the same. Also the Scottish Government is consulting on its proposed Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill.

All of these measures will, it is hoped, give individuals and communities the information and tools to start influencing decisions - and more importantly, get involved in the running of some of the services which directly affect them.

We also need to change the culture inherent within the decision making process. Instead of asking what can be done, we need to ask why can something not be done. This week I managed to borrow a map of the Bonnyrigg ward showing land owned by the council. It's disturbing how little is still left in public hands - after discounting areas used by council housing, schools and public buildings there are a few parks and that's about it.

Also, with much of the ward already designated for housing (and currently being built on) and land towards the Borders Railway considered a high priority for housing, the future looks grim if simply left to the god of 'Economic Development' to make decisions for us.

With the Midlothian Local Development Plan up for renewal shortly, now is the time for communities to get organised and to say what they want before it's too late. I've already been speaking to the local Community Development Trust to see how we can work together to ensure as much land as possible is earmarked for green spaces and community use, but this needs to happen across the whole of Midlothian. If we wait until the plan is agreed, it could be 2032 before we get another chance.

I'm currently reading Andy Wightman's book The Poor Had No Lawyers, which gives a detailed history of why most of Scotland was essentially misappropriated by "legal" means. Today the same thing is happening but in a different way - land which should be available to communities as recreational space is being lost in the name of economics. When land is lost to development, the 'planning gain' always contributes towards further development - new schools and roads. That's not a bad thing in itself, but why shouldn't it also be in the form of protection from further development - park land, community woodland and the like?

Decentralised government does not mean stopping at Scotland's 32 local authorities. It means  decision making at community level with everyone having a voice and those voices being listened to.  Let's make sure this happens.