27 November 2008

Borders subservient to an Edinburgh Regional Assembly. No thanks!

Neither of the Councillors who represent the Scottish Borders attended yesterday’s City Region meeting, (the Joint Committee of the Edinburgh and South East Scotland Strategic Development Plan Authority). No apologies were given and no substitutes sent.

Scottish Borders Councillor Nicholas Watson, who attended as an observer, believes an important opportunity was missed. “The possibility of a Regional Assembly was discussed and this would have been the perfect opportunity to shoot it down before it got any further. I know Councillor Riddell-Carre is opposed to a Regional Assembly and judging by the reaction from other Councillors after the meeting she would have received support. But it’s now been continued to another meeting.”

A Regional Assembly was recently proposed, to the surprise of many delegates, at the Capital City Region Conference on 5th November, by Dave Anderson, the City of Edinburgh Council’s Director of City Development.

Councillor Watson, who leads The Borders Party, says “Perfectly good mechanisms already exist for working together at a regional level. There is no justification for yet another costly and unaccountable layer of government.”

Watson has also written to Tom Aitchison, Edinburgh’s Chief Executive, to ask if moves towards a Regional Assembly have been through the political process of the City of Edinburgh Council. “If they haven’t then I want to know what a council officer is doing proposing a major step of huge political significance,” he said today.

The Borders Party opposed the inclusion of the Scottish Borders in the City Region, claiming that Scottish Borders Council should not cede the role of strategic planning in the Borders to a body over which it will have little control. “But the constant plea of the administration at Scottish Borders Council was that “we must be at the table”; why on earth, then, were they not at the table on Monday? People I have told are furious. Borders councillors seem blissfully unaware of the sort of moves being made by City Region thinkers; they’d better wake up before it’s too late.”

Watson has asked SBC Leader David Parker to explain why Councillors Riddell-Carre and Davidson did not attend.

16 September 2008

Borders Railway Finally Derailed?

I've just got hold of the Due Diligence Report into the Borders Railway prepared by Cyril Sweett and it makes far from sweet reading for those who have supported the project with such fervour. Yesterday the information I had came from the Sunday Herald article but in the full report there are even more damning indictments of this crackpot scheme.

• No provision within the programme to secure and undertake the necessary modifications to link the existing Network Rail track to connect to he Borders line. Nor is there even any time allocated to this task.
• The cost estimates appear understated by approximately . . . the figure is blacked out. • The programme is overly optimistic • The management of risk is logical but the financial provision is low.

In the business case analysis things go from bad to worse.

• Mathematical and methodological errors are found in the business case
• They urge caution over the economic benefits

• There is unexplained growth in the railway's patronage up to 2016, so much so that they exceed the capacity of the railway

• Given the optimistic traffic forecasts it is worrying when they are allied to significantly higher capital costs.

This is the closing paragraph in the report that is better seen than reported (click to enlarge)

If the train was hitting the buffers this report is in danger of derailing it. Given the economic climate, the recent history of schemes that are over budget and over burden the electorate, surely it's better to stop this madness now rather than just push on blindly in an act of hope of reality? This railway has always been unfit for purpose. A cut price solution aimed at justifying the building of new homes against a background of an ill thought through economic plan by a bunch of enthusiastic amateurs. The above picture from the report is surely proof of that? All too often people find it hard, having committed themselves to something, to change tack. There needs to be leadership from the Scottish Government to stop what is, on paper, a good idea that is being addressed by the wrong solution.

15 September 2008

Is The Border's Railway Going to Hit the Buffers?

So the plans for the Border’s rail link are flawed! What have we been saying for years? According to a report obtained under FOI, “significant mathematical and methodological errors" are included in it as well as "inappropriate application of economic techniques". Now a first year statistical student or transport planner on a university course could have told them that, so why has the whole thing continued to be pushed through by Scottish Borders Council, Holyrood and applauded by a number of MSPs who ought to know better? Well of course it’s politics isn’t it, nothing to do with what is really right for the Scotland, the Borders or the people that live here.

The latest report into the folly of the ‘tram to Gala was compiled by Cyril Sweett, a London-based international construction and property consultancy. The report highlights the fact that the costs of the project had been underestimated, the management had been inadequate and vital information is missing. "The technical and financial elements of the business case are not considered as robust as they should have been. They go on to say that "a number of potentially significant flaws", are contained in the plan and it is. " Overly optimistic and not robust in its structure." This includes,

• The cost of land or the effect of inflation.

• No provision seemed to have been made for buying land necessary for connecting the Borders line to existing tracks.

• The rail link plan rested on "significant unexplained growth" in demand for new homes in the Borders, the report argued.

• Assumptions implied rush-hour trains would become overcrowded, with some expected to be carrying double their maximum capacity by 2035.

Perhaps most astonishing of all are reports in the Sunday Herald that quote a member of the Waverly Trust who are supporting the line’s reopening.

"Many of the criticisms in this report are valid. We've long had doubts about the way this scheme has been managed. To survive and prosper the Borders rail link needs to be rethought, and we're hopeful that under the new management of Transport Scotland that will happen."

So here we are then, the Waverly Trust helped push through a scheme they thought was flawed, probably knowing full well that if the correct figures and information were laid before Holyrood et al then it would have hit the buffers before we even got started. However, according to a Transport Scotland spokeswoman. “The report did not reflect the most up-to-date information, for example on patronage levels, train timetabling and expected housing developments.” So why didn’t Transport Scotland give them the most up to date informant having commissioned them to do the report? Apparently the agency therefore overhauled the business case, which improved the project's cost/benefit ratio. "

In my world that means they fudged the numbers.

The absurdity of this situation is beyond belief. We have a plan approved by parliament based on dodgy numbers. When it final gets under way the budget will be way over the £295 million that they are currently working on. The obvious questions about how on earth can this project make money remain. Even more so given the revelations that the railway line has passenger forecasts that are way too high. Don’t forget, even with the high passenger numbers it was still set to fail to cover its operating costs.

In 2000 the costs of restoring a railway to Tweedbank was estimated at £73m. When MSPs voted to restore it in 2006 the costs quoted were £155m. Next we were told that the costs will be £178M - but don't worry. According to local MSP Jeremy Purvis "detractors of the rail project had been proved wrong, and maintained: It will be delivered on time and on budget." Apparently the reason for the increase were due to a, "much more detailed technical assessments. These identified that significantly more work was required on structures such as bridges and tunnels than originally estimated. In addition, costs have increased due to general increases in track, signaling, earthworks and other factors such as environmental mitigation, some land acquisition and design and management. In addition to inflation, there are also new costs such as landfill tax that has now been built into the revised cost estimate. 

When the scheme was approved the SNP Transport Minister Stewart Stevenson said the cost had increased because of additions such as an extra station at Stow. Increasing land costs and extra strengthening work on bridges on the line.

All this proves it’s a railway built on the politics of creep. Many people have a vested interest in seeing this line built because it supports their political aims, they have investment riding on the project, jobs depend on it and egos are at stake. However, whether or not it’s a good thing for the Borders, and Scotland seems to be getting lost in the mix. We need to stop this madness and the latest report is a timely reality check.

18 August 2008

VisitScotland and the Real Definition of Green Marketing

It's either the silly season or VisitScotland have finally tipped over the edge. You'd think in this difficult times for marketing Scotland to the world, with a strong pound vs. the dollar and in these troubled economic times that the organization charged with increasing tourism would be focused on the main job in hand. Not a bit of it, they've now decided to introduce yet another marketing scheme. According to their latest scheme. "Hotels, guest houses, restaurants and visitor attractions will be challenged to change long-standing habits, adopt new energy-saving measures and promote eco-friendly initiatives. Guests will be urged to 'go green' on holiday by ditching their cars, hiring a bike or going on a walking trip, and cutting down on the amount of water they use."

Among VisitScotland's ideas to help businesses improve their environmental record are collecting rainwater for re-use, installing low-energy lighting systems, recycling all glass, cans and plastic, and installing water-efficient toilets. Apparently once a business has signed up to the new "Going Green" initiative they will be coached throughout the year by experts at VisitScotland, with the aim of securing accreditation to the organisation's Green Tourism Business Scheme. Then they will get a little green plaque to go with their VisitScotland rating's plaque.

This is madness! A plethora of initiatives continue to flow out of the national tourist organization from people who clearly have little idea how marketing tourism works. VisitScotland's much-vaunted web site revamp still leaves me, and probably many others, cold. Just take the Scottish Borders, forty one places are listed in their place guide to the region, of which nine, 22%, have in their description." A full description of this location will be added shortly." It's been like that now for years and still nothing new. But it gets worse. Under Kirk Yetholm there's this picture. It's probably closer to twenty years old than ten! The fact is that until someone gets a hold of visitScotland and addresses its fundamental weaknesses will continue to drag it down – they should start with their dull and boring, clunky website.

25 July 2008

The Chimes of Freedom?

The chimes of freedom are no longer going to ring out in Gala because of Scottish Borders Council. The environmental health officers of SBC have decided to silence the bells between midnight and 7.15 a.m. because they have received one complaint from a local B&B owner. According to the council they are just "moving with the times". Their spokesperson added: "The council had a legal obligation to act based on the findings of environmental health and consultation would not have changed that fact." How is affecting our health? Is it Quasimodo who complained?

The clock stands above a statue of a Border Reiver and the war memorial carries the names of 635 men from Galashiels who died in World War I. Yet SBC decided that the complaint was “not unreasonable.” What has that got to do with environmental health grounds? It’s like someone saying, “I hear what you say.” It normally means they are about to ignore you. According to the spokesperson “The clock dates back to the time when most people would not have had clocks at home and relied on the chimes to help them tell the time, day or night." Oh please! Who are they kidding? So for £850 we’re going to silence the bells. I can think of a lot better ways to spend the money….and that’s not counting how much it cost to investigate the whole affair.

09 July 2008

The Hypocrisy of Wind

All we ever hear from the renewables industry and the Scottish government is how building windfarms is good for Scotland's economy; how they boost jobs, bring untold wealth into Scotland. Well how do they explain what's happening here in the Lammermuir Hills. Work is about to begin on the extension to the Crystal Rig II wind farm. The 51 turbine site will create one of the largest windfarms in Europe when it's added to the existing Crstal Rig turbines. The company that owns the wind turbines is Fred Olsen Renewables, a Norwegian company, and they've awarded the £16.5 million contract for the infrastructure to a Welsh civil engineering company.

05 July 2008

Education Education Education

Time we started a blog debate on this very important topic.

The Borders Party ranks include several professional educators. I agree that this is an important area and that for many people the education provided to their children is the most crucial council service.

It has suggested that public meetings be held to consult. But before that we can chat online and hopefully folk interested in education in the Scottish Borders will join in. This will at least help to identify the areas of greatest concern, before any public meeting.

I feel that the new SBC policy, yet to be adopted, of saving money by combining headships and reducing the number of promoted posts will save small sums at the expense of risking the culture in well run schools by spreading management too thinly. It will give financial savings on paper but may lose value in terms of educational outcomes.

Is this a Borders Party theme? To take account of value rather than just cost?

It is much easier for the Council to listen to the bean counters and look narrowly at cost, but a Borders Party administration will look more widely at value for money, which involves listening, thinking and making balanced judgements.

Already, parents are reacting angrily to Transforming Children's Services as cost cutting dressed up as something else. Surely, it is all too typical of modern government, local and national, to try to hide the truth under a layer of spin.

Another favourite tactic is to bewilder the public by providing such a weight of argument as to defy all opposition. That's weight as measured on the scales rather than in the halls of debate. I have been sent a pile of Transforming Children's Services documents as part of the public consultation exercise and I guess I'll have to try not to get bogged down thinking about how much it cost the council taxpayer to print and distribute these glossy 48-page tomes and start ploughing through.

Borders Party thoughts on education hitherto have been:

a) to retain local schools in rural areas wherever possible

b) to oppose entering into Public Private Partnerships, which entail long-term debt

c) to stress value above cost.

Of course the council has to take account of cost but it is just as important to recognise value. As has been said elsewhere, flinging money at education has clearly not worked. This has been true nationally in the last ten years or so, where expenditure has risen enormously, standards are seen by many as falling and teachers feel so wrapped up in targets and testing that they cannot teach! I'm told of a sign in a teacher's office which read 'The more I test, the less I teach. Soon I will know with absolute certainty that they know nothing!'

One of the problems with national targets and an over-centralised education regime is that local education authorities have less and less room for maneouvre. Our challenge is to identify ways in which resources in the Borders education service can be used more effectively for better outcomes for Borders youngsters.

Over to you.

Waste Watch

The news that our portfolio holding councillors are to get blackberry phones so that they can get email access makes me laugh. Is it really necessary for councillors to be in touch 24/7? I don't think so. This is a classic example of, 'we can so we will.' It is indicative of all that is becoming increasingly wrong in our society. Instant communication is no substitute for reasoned thought.

19 June 2008

The Waivering Waverley Line?

Does anyone really know what's happening with the Waverley line? Time just seems to drift along, all we hear are rumours about rising costs coupled with a quirky financial plan to get private investment into something that’s unlikely to ever give investors a return. How does this all make sense? Any hope of seeing this line built and operating by 2013 or 2014, even if someone is foolish enough to invest in the project, must be out of the question. In the meantime all that is happening is mounting expenditure, to which I assume Scottish Borders Council is contributing. This vanity project needs to be stopped and sensible thinking about the transport needs that are required across the Borders should begin. What sort of sophisticated bus network could have been operating by now with the many millions that have been spent on the folly of ‘a tram to Gala’?

Our Cultural Challenge in The Borders

According to the BBC web site, plans to transfer control of Scottish Borders' libraries and museums to a charitable trust could fall foul of the law. This is according to Unison, the trade union whose members would be most affected.
According to Unison, moral reasons made the plan a non-starter.
As they were unlawful, under the 1887 Public Libraries Act.

Are they serious? An act brought in over one hundred years ago when our society operated in a wholly different way should be used to stand in the way of a discussion and possible change that might allow for our cultural improvement in the 21st century?

The legislation imposed a statutory duty on councils to run library and museum services. The union said the Act had never been repealed therefore hiving the service off would "clearly breach" that legislation. Unison mounted an unsuccessful legal challenge to Glasgow City Council's decision to transfer cultural and leisure services to a charitable trust last year. The union has condemned the "uncertain future" of a "democratically accountable public service".

For me what we should be exploring is every possible way to improve and invigorate our cultural facilities in the Borders. With the internet, changing reading patterns, our ability to travel more freely and the financial demands placed upon us by our changing economy we must look at new and innovative ways to meet this challenge.

18 June 2008

Museums, Arts and Libraries in the Borders

Interesting item on the BBC web site today about our libraries, museums and the arts. It suggests that Scottish Borders Council would hand over direct control of Museum, art gallery and library services to a trust rather than directly by Scottish Borders Council. This is as part of a reshaping of education and social work.

It's similar to the system that's already in use for swimming pools and leisure centres. The proposals will be put out for public consultation and a final decision will be taken in November. Councillor Graham Garvie said it was a matter of adapting to changing needs. Running the services as a trust could mean it would qualify for tax breaks and fresh funding not available to the council. Under employment law, pay and conditions of existing staff would be protected.
But the Unison union said nationally such charitable trusts had meant cuts in leisure facilities because of reductions in local authority subsidies.

A very important debate to be had, but as important as the concept is the who will run it? The Trustees? How will funding be assured from SC and how can we seek to improve this area of Border's life not just save money?

20 May 2008

Economic De-generation

Scottish Borders Council is advertising to appoint an 'Economic Development Manager' salaried at £40,233 - £43,074, with two subordinate 'Principal Officers' at £33,373 - £35,904. Together with their pensions, national insurance, office space and other costs, these posts represent an annual cost to Borders taxpayers - and therefore the Borders economy - of at least £150,000. And that's before whatever budget it is they will be in charge of.

There's no evidence that economic regeneration policy by government boosts the economy at all - ceretainly not at the local council level. What can they possibly do with their money that would be more productivly spent than if left in the private sector? How can they possibly assume they know how Borderes should spend their money better than they do themselves?

Presumably thier budget will be spent on subsidising various business activities or providing services. Who can tell whether these are worth it, or if they wouldn't be undetaken anyway without help?

Surely the lesson of the last century is that governments are bad at economic activity. Has SBC never heard of the USSR?

That £150,000 is pure waste, taken out of hard pressed families' budgets. Economic de-generation more like!