Simon Noble gave an update on River Community Council’s proposed social enterprise organisation “River Enterprise” at the organisations meeting on Wednesday night in the URC hall. He had news that basically sounded the death knell for River CCs plans to take over the town’s grass cutting and grounds maintenance from Highland Council. He said in relation to the entire project:
“We are anticipating being in a position to report on the recommended form for the social enterprise at our next meeting together with an outline business plan which will set out how we propose to implement the enterprise and what work in terms of project work we will actually start with.”
He then went on to talk about River CCs involvement in using the Community Challenge Fund to try and take on the town’s grass cutting and other grounds maintenance activities. On that he said:
“The significance of it is much wider than Nairn River Community Council and Nairn River Enterprise. We had, finally, a statement from a Highland Council officer last week where he gave us for the first time chapter and verse on what the procurement rules are and what the threshold for procurement is in relation to any work currently undertaken by Highland Council. The significance of the threshold is that it has a direct implication for any proposed Community Challenge Fund project – that is right across the whole Highlands and people may or may not be aware; I think that there has been maybe one, possibly two, successful applications to the community challenge fund in the two years since it was launched.
The Community Challenge Fund is intended to provide opportunities to enable local communities to take on work in their communities for the benefit of their communities and typically what Highland Council was proposing was to transfer work that they currently undertake into the hands of local community groups. What we now understand is, and this is only from last week, is that it is impossible for community groups to achieve that transfer without it going to open tender, in other words going into public competing tenders for that work. The threshold for Highland Council is £12,500 for a year’s worth of service. Whilst that might enable local communities to take on certain small pieces of work, it certainly doesn’t facilitate serious transfer of services – of any kind of service in my judgement. I was absolutely staggered that it has taken two years for this to be spelt out – to us, never mind anybody else and that we have had consultations and discussions with representatives of Highland Council over, certainly as far as Nairn is concerned, approaching 18 months, and whilst they have made references to anxieties and concerns that procurement rules might have a bearing and whilst they have also told us at one point they might not have a bearing they are now telling us quite clearly that we would not be able to accept a direct transfer of services where they were valued at more than £12,500 for a year’s worth of service and the indications that we have, and we only have ballpark indications, we’ve got no breakdown from Highland Council so far. The indications are that the value of the service that we have expressed an interest in were substantially higher than that.”
[...]We have asked some follow up questions but the indications from this are, to me, first off that the Community Challenge Fund is not a serious policy and cannot be, because it cannot be implemented in any kind of serious way. So Highland Council may have set out with the intention of transferring of enabling and empowering communities in transferring services to them but they simply cannot, on the basis of what they are told, achieve that and they must have know this for some time at some place within the Highland Council. That would be my surmise on the basis of what we have now learnt about the procurement threshold. As far as Nairn River Enterprise is concerned, unless they can come back to us and describe pockets and packages of work that might fall below the threshold and we wait to hear that, I would anticipate that the community challenge fund element will cease to be the heart of our project plan.”
And so what looks like the end for something that started out as an exciting and popular community-led initiative that looked like it might bring back at least the local grass cutting into community control. This observer believed at the time that with the enthusiastic support River CC initially got from our Highland Councillours that that organisation would find a mechanism to allow this idea to succeed. Two years later and it turns that everyone, community councillors, Highland Councillors and officials, a consultant employed by River CC, have all been wasting their time. It is sad and appalling that so much effort has gone into something that looks like it will achieve nothing. The Community Council’s social enterprise off shot “River Enterprise” could have a future beyond this though although there were strong opinions about this from the floor of the meeting on Wednesday night – more on this later this weekend if time permits.