Thursday, January 20, 2011

Talking ‘arm’s length’ blues

The West folk’s ‘pulling power’ was demonstrated again last night as they had the privilege of three of our four Highland Councillors supplementing their, once again, strong turnout on the public benches although perhaps folk were primarily there to raise concerns over a planning application concerning the Claymore – more on that if time permits later this week but for now let’s examine all this ‘Arm’s Length Organisation’ stuff.

Oor Sandy introduced this item, highlighting how ALO companies have taken over Council facilities elsewhere and given the severe budget pressure how Highland Council were moving towards this goal themselves with an ALO proposed to take over the Swimming Pools, the libraries, museums and other facilities. Sandy left the meeting in no doubt that much of what happens in the future will be down to the community and he said:
“Even as we go through this process we still have to get over and over very strongly that our swimming pools and all our leisure facilities have to be used, if we don’t use them we will certainly lose them.”

And then it was over to the Mannie from Glenurquhart Road, Ian, sorry Sir, the Gurn reporter didn’t catch your surname. Members of the public were spared the usual Highland Council full screen ‘death by powerpoint’ torture and given a printout of the slides instead.

Ian told the meeting that savings were going to have to be made and one way of doing this was to place facilities into an outside organisation. Presently facilities have to pay non-domestic rates and if they were to receive charitable status then they could apply for a reduction of up to 100%. It wasn’t a tax dodge or a loophole but a tax treatment that was being used across the country. The rates bill for Nairn Swimming Pool was about £38,000 and for the Highland Archive Centre in Inverness £186,000 and across the Education Culture and Sport department approx £1,000,000. The speaker went into how the process was proceeding with the council and how the public’s relationship with the ALO would work. If one had a problem that couldn’t be solved locally. For example, then that could be raised with the Council HQ who would be administrating the contracts.

About 1,000 employees would be affected (the equivalent of 460 full time jobs) and they would be transferred with their existing terms and conditions protected under TUPE legislation. The ALO would take out a 25 year lease on the buildings and would not own them. The Council has 19.4 million pounds worth of cuts to come from the budget this year and on February the 10th the full council will decided on which savings are to be made and which will be rejected. A final decision on whether to go ahead with the ALO or not will be made in March.

Sandy then intervened and asked Ian to point out how local accountability would work. The ALO would be a council owned company but the level of responsibility needs to be a board not dominated by the Council. There would be four councillors but eight independent members. The independents would have business, property and leisure backgrounds etc and be spread out as much as possible to cover the Highlands. It would be sensible if someone from Nairn put themselves forward to make sure that at a basic level, Nairn opinions were made available to the board. Ian continued: ’There has been a big welcome push for Nairn Pool to be saved from the cuts procedure, it that evolves into some sort of stakeholder group that feeds into the board of this company then that would be welcome.”

Rosemary Young was slightly perplexed by the fact that the business rates were paid to the Highland Council anyway. And Ian replied that they were but they ended up with the UK treasury. Ian then went into some detail about this procedure and tried to allay concerns about the potential of this charitable status being withdrawn one day. He pointed to David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ and stated that even Edinburgh government were keen on downsizing councils. He pointed out that the whole charitable sector relies on this rates relief and without it, it would collapse.

Brian Stewart thought that this kind of process was inevitable and he admired the way the Council officials were trying to grasp with the problem and it was clear to him that a huge amount of ‘damn complicated’ work was going on. He admired the effort to persuade, convince, reassure the public about the implications then he added: “If however, you were a preacher, I’m not sure how many people would be following you down this road.” Brian went on to outline concerns that not enough was being done to bring in people that were passionately involved with facilities already: “I don’t detect that there has been widespread public debate and effort to mobilise those people engaged with the facility to bring them into the framework that you are designing.”

Graham Vine was a little startled at the notion that:”This is essentially robbing one pocket to pay another within the public finances, and not going to save the country a penny.” He went on to ask,”Are we going to be making savings in the Highland Council middle management – are there lots of middle managers that are no longer going to be paid by Highland Council or are we duplicating tiers of management? Is it going to cost more money to run?”
Ian replied that £130,000 of management will be taken out and there would be two less managers than there are now.
Graham then asked about what would happen if a facility would suddenly have a huge repair bill, would Highland Council say to the ALO tough it’s your job?
Ian indicated that there would be a separate property agreement, the ALO would have to give back facilities in decent order but that would be dependent on the amount of money the council had to give them do any jobs necessary.

Towards the end of the debate Liz stated: “I’d just like to say as a trustee of the Common Good I wasn’t aware until this report came out that they were actually considering Common Good land as well, in relation to the cricket ground and pavilion, the paddling pool and the leisure park. I hadn’t been informed as a trustee of the Common Good that this was going to be in the report.

Cllr Mike Henderson of River CC was also in attendance and asked if all employees would be transferred to the ALO. “If you work in Nairn Swimming Pool, Nairn Library, without question you will transfer,” came the reply but Ian was unsure of the total percentage of folk that would transfer across the Highlands however and he indicated that it would be above 95%.

So that’s that then Gurnites, the brave new world of the ALO is just around the corner, this observer wonders what everyone will make of it when the first 25 year contract expires.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

One of the messages which came over loud and clear was "Use it or lose it". However much we moan about Highland Council officials and councillors actions a lot of it is in our hands. If you value a facility such as the library and swimming pool it's up to each and everyone of us to get out there and "use" it.