WDC spin class…

Sometimes, when there is an absence of evidence in a situation, people fall into the bad habit of wishful thinking, filling the blanks with apparent ‘no-brainer’ assumptions that are hoped for rather than deductively constructed.  Hands-up – I’m certainly guilty of it from time to time.

Argumentum ad ignorantiam, or an ‘argument from ignorance’ is used to describe an argument that is made illogically, on the basis that if something has not been proven to be true, it is therefore false – or vice versa (the Latin is fair flowing today…)  It is normally seen when empirical evidence just isn’t available, for example in consideration of whether there is a God.

But what about when evidence IS available, but it is being withheld or manipulated to skew the debate towards one particular outcome?  What’s the fancy name for that?  Well, I call it ‘living under a vulnerable and poorly led Council administration’.  Sorry it’s not in Latin.

There have been several communiqués from West Dunbartonshire Council about the proposal to redevelop the sports facilities on Posties Park, and they have been singularly positive in tone.  This is perhaps unsurprising, as investment in community facilities is typically good news.  However, in this case, the Council are only providing half of the story, and the bit they are omitting is critical to fully understanding the change ahead.

Let’s have a look at the official statement that was issued on the Council Facebook page after the IRED Committee gave this project the green-light :

WDC Facebook announcement

WDC Facebook announcement.jpg

I’ve highlighted a few sections.

Whilst the overall gist of this statement is accurate, there are some key parts which are erroneous.

First of all, it states that the new facilities will be “for the whole community”, but, sadly this is just not true.  The current facility is indeed universally accessible, but, although this proposal purports to be a “direct replacement”, the new facility is to be limited mainly to schools use, and pay-to-use in all other cases.  None of the bulletins that the Council put out, either before or after the IRED Committee, explicitly stated that the new facilities would be pay-to-use, and they only admitted this after being directly challenged by members of the public. However you dress up the language, the fact remains that, levying a charge for a previously free facility, is a net loss to the whole community, and will, in fact, exclude some of the most marginalised and disadvantaged members of our society.

Perhaps the Council might argue that they were just exercising a flowery use of language and that my point is getting into semantics.  So let’s then consider paragraph four of the statement above :

“The development will be created directly on top of the current track so will have no impact on the open space area of Posties Park…”

This statement isn’t just disingenuous – it is completely false.

Firstly, let us be completely clear about one thing : the current proposal would see the removal of access rights to a part of our park which is currently fully accessible. It is therefore completely untrue to say that there will be no impact on the open space. Part of Posties Park – all of which is currently designated as open green space on our local plan – would be fenced off and would no longer be accessible except by payment of a fee/Council permission.

Next, let’s consider the claim that “the development will be created directly on top of the current track”.  This is another one of those half-truths, it would seem.  The proposal is indeed for a new running track to be laid on top of the old one, but what about the rest of the proposed development – the new changing pavilion building and the car-park?  Where are those going to go?  They certainly won’t be on the land where Marinecraft currently sits, as, under this proposal, it is to be sold off to become part of the Sandpoint Marina estate.  Therefore, the only other option would see the building and the car-park being sited on what is currently green space.  I wrote earlier about how every part of Posties Park has been re-surveyed this week, at a cost of £20,000 from Council coffers.  Enquiries made to the Council confirm that these surveys were indeed in respect of the forthcoming funding application to sportscotland and that “a large proportion of the works are focussing around both existing and proposed properties on the site”.  And yet, nowhere in any of the Council bulletins on social media or local press, nor indeed within the papers provided to the IRED Committee, do we see any detail on these “proposed properties”, which will, almost certainly, further restrict the available green space at Posties.

In actual fact, we don’t even know for sure whether the new building will be a small changing pavilion, like the one at Dumbarton Common, or whether it will be a new gym to replace Marinecraft.  Both options are apparently on the table, yet currently undecided and dependant on external factors.  We don’t know if the proposed car park will be for six cars or sixty, although it will almost certainly need to be large enough to accommodate the coaches which will be bussing “thousands of school children in on a daily basis” from the local schools.  Do the Council have these details?  Of course they do, or they wouldn’t be investing thousands of pounds of Council money on professional services and staff time.  Yet, have any of these important details made their way into the public forum?  No, they have not.  Instead, we get statements like the one shown above, where material omissions mislead and confuse.

So I thought I’d do a bit of that ‘filling in the blanks’ process that I referred to in my opening paragraphs.  Based on the sites that JB Engineering were asked to survey, and working on the assumption that the Council won’t want to diminish their current lettings portfolio of three pitches on Posties, I have posited that there are a few potential target areas for the new building(s)…

Posties potential sites

Posties potential sites.jpg

I’ve highlighted in red the current Marinecraft site that is to be sold off to give an idea of the footprint of a new building, should the decision be to build a new gym.  Obviously, this doesn’t include any car-parking which would probably at least double the square footage, and, of course, there may need to be an access road constructed, so keep all of that in mind.  The most likely sites, in terms of size, would seem to be on the lower field, where the road begins to bend round (marked X in blue), and on the upper field to the side of the current football pitch (again, marked X in blue).  I’ve also highlighted (with X in white) the other smaller green spaces where a small pavilion might be feasibly built – although it should be noted that there are trees either directly on these sites or encircling them, so this may limit construction.  Bear in mind that the lower field is a functional flood plain, and that SEPA had concerns about construction on this site – as did Ramboll who cited potential ‘cost implications and programme delays’ in trying to build here.  Remember also that the perimeter of the entire Posties site is to be part of the proposed future Riverside development, and have a pedestrian walkway all around it.

There are, clearly, potential sites on Posties which might conceivably hold a new gym or a changing pavilion, but all of these will diminish the available park-land (except, of course, if the Council holds onto Marinecraft, and re-uses that site – which is currently NOT being proposed.)  The concerning part is that our Council is not transparently sharing their plans and inviting open public discussion, despite knowing how fiercely the people value this space. £20,000 of public money has already been spent this week on a barrage of surveys of Posties Park, but the public have not been consulted at all, nor indeed even given the full facts upon which to make a decision.

It’s time for our Council to treat the community with respect and stop insulting our intelligence.  Remember – the Councillors work for us.  If they really believe that the current proposal is, on balance, the best possible option, then they should share ALL of the facts about this development and stop hiding behind half-true sound-bites.  They should be prepared to stand up and defend their decision, and to have a fair and democratic consultation with all of the interested parties, and genuinely try to find a solution that works for everyone.

It’s time for this ‘spin’ class to end.

-MAx

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The return of the Ramboll report…

Déjà vu.  That’s what it feels like to see geotechnical surveys underway on Posties Park again.  The exact same contractor who carried out coring and sampling in autumn 2013 for the Educational Services Team has now been brought back by the Infrastructure and Regeneration Team to do exactly the same again.  And presumably the subsequent report will be an exact facsimile of the last one.

I’m relatively sure that West Dunbartonshire Council doesn’t have great scads of cash to throw about on a whim, so I do hope that another round of extensive testing on Posties is nothing less than critical and can be evidenced as such.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Haven’t I seen you somewhere before…?

So, as the Council sets its subcontractors to carry out their survey work on every part of Posties Park both upper fields and the lower field/functional flood plain – for the second time in just two years, we’ll just have to trust that they have good reason to:

(a) commission a whole new round of tests rather than re-using the data from 2 years ago, and;

(b) extend their testing well beyond the apparent parameters of their redevelopment proposal to upgrade the running track.

The very friendly and chatty surveyors said that they didn’t know why they’d been asked to take core samples from every part of Posties Park rather than just the running track – they were just following Council instructions.  Whilst we ponder the reasoning behind these instructions, and wait with bated breath for the next production of the Ramboll report, let’s just hope that our Council doesn’t move the goalposts… and, for the first time ever, I mean that literally and metaphorically.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Taking samples from the lower field at Posties Park.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The aftermath of yesterday’s sampling on the Clyde-side field facing the Castle.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Taking core samples from the land between Posties running track and Levengrove Park.

–  MAx

Health makes good propaganda…

Mind the gapThere is a correlation between disadvantage and poor health, and the levels of poverty and deprivation in some parts of our country mean that Scotland leads the league table on a wide range of ‘lifestyle’ diseases.

In West Dunbartonshire, levels of deprivation remain high, with most of the local ‘datazones’ scoring within the most deprived deciles in the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation 2012.  Consequently, our health outcomes are generally below the Scottish average.

The social determinants of health are complex and multi-faceted, but it is widely recognised that exercise and physical activity play a major part in health creation.  Just ask the man who held the most senior role in healthcare in Scotland for almost a decade, Sir Harry Burns, who cites physical activity as being “…the single most important thing you can do for your health.”

In 2010, Professor Sir Michael Marmot published a report on his review of health inequalities in England, and the results were highly lauded across the UK by public health practitioners and policy makers alike.  One of his key recommendations was for a shift in Government health policy from a focus on some sections of society, to what he termed ‘proportionate universalism’ – where policy is designed to help everyone in society, but with an increased scale and intensity for those in greatest need.

So with West Dunbartonshire being disproportionately represented in the deprivation scales, you’d expect that the Council would be making every effort to ensure that everyone in the community is given fair access to the resources necessary to engage in physical activity – and with a particular focus on those of us in greatest need.  Instead,what we see is our Council proposing to restrict access to one of the very few free sports resources in Dumbarton; taking something that is free and accessible to all, and limiting its accessibility to only some sections of society, namely school-children and those who can afford to pay.

West Dunbartonshire Council is, quite simply, widening the opportunity gap and making it even harder for the most financially excluded people in our community to have fair access to facilities.  It’s Robin Hood in reverse.

This retrograde proposal to commercialise a part of one of our parks is being broadcast by Council spokespeople (elected and unelected) all over social and traditional media using the language of propaganda that West Dunbartonshire Council has become so adept at spouting. They say that the facility will bring huge benefits for the whole of Dumbarton, which is a deliberately misleading statement.  They are hoping to blind the electorate with promises of large financial investments, and all the while keeping their fingers crossed that nobody scrutinises the small print.  And they’d be forgiven for thinking that they’ll get away with it, because our elected officials on the IRED Committee set the standard for scrutiny failure when they green-lighted this proposal without a single reference to equity of access.

So I thought I’d help these hard-working local politicians out by reminding them of some of their own organisational and Party positions on equality, just in case they’ve forgotten what they stand for.

Firstly, for the Labour Councillors who hold the majority on the IRED Committee and who are trumpeting this proposal as an excellent example of Labour leadership – the Labour Party manifesto has this to say :

“We are the Party of equality.  We believe that no person should suffer…a lack of opportunity.  The decisions we take in government will always be taken with this in mind.  The policies in our manifesto will remove the barriers that stand in the way of greater equality.”

It goes on to make the following declarations about health :

“A greater emphasis on prevention and public health is essential, not just to improve outcomes and tackle inequalities, but to ensure the NHS remains sustainable… We will set a new national ambition to improve the uptake of physical activity…”

Okay, so that doesn’t sound very well aligned with a local decision to restrict fair access to free sports and exercise facilities.  Perhaps the WDC Labour cohort are dancing to their own tune (probably the Circus theme tune, as mentioned previously.)   But let’s not forget those SNP Councillors on the IRED Committee who waved through this proposal without any question.  The SNP manifesto has a bold overarching aim, which is :

“It’s time to put fairness and equality back at the heart of government.”

Fairness and equality.  Or, the opposite of what is being proposed here in West Dunbartonshire.  Nicola Sturgeon, in the run up to taking on the leadership of SNP, made a promise to focus on inequalities in Scotland, and to strive to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor.  Too bad that the West Dunbartonshire SNP group seems quite happy to increase the gap here on our own doorstep.

We know that our Council has a stated aim to improve health and reduce health inequalities through the work of the West Dunbartonshire Community Health and Care Partnership. We also know that ‘physical activity’ is one of their key programmes of work – they tell us so here. So, where does this proposal, which clearly seems to be misaligned with both the organisational and Party objectives of the decision-makers involved, fit in?  Could it be all about the Benjamins?  Do Council and Party principles go out of the window when there’s an opportunity to screw a bit of cash out of the electorate?

Well, not according to our Council Leader, Martin Rooney, who waxed lyrical on his Council’s commitment to tackling structural inequality just a few months ago, citing the need for “…a fairer share of available resources.”

But now, just a short while after, Councillor Rooney seems to have had a change of heart.  He now feels that it is acceptable to exclude poor people from using municipal sports facilities, and that it is in fact “tremendous” to do so.

So please, if you happen to run into our Council Leader, do take a minute to ask him about which of his published standpoints he is choosing to align with on that given day.  And perhaps also remind him, in case he’s somehow forgotten, that all voters are equal, and that we are 18 months closer to the next round of local elections than the last time he was forced to re-think a proposal restricting access to Posties Park.

-MAx

The definition of insanity…

Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  This is, according to many, the very definition of insanity.

Well, it would seem that West Dunbartonshire Council’s Infrastructure, Regeneration and Economic Development Committee are in need of an intervention from Nurse Ratched, as they voted today to approve the first stages of a plan to develop Posties Park into a pay-to-use managed leisure facility.

Did these Councillors and officials learn nothing from the last time they proposed to take the park away from the community?  Just over a year and a half ago in the Denny Civic Theatre, in front of an audience of hundreds of concerned citizens, the very same Councillors issued a motion to dismiss the proposal to develop Posties, saying :

“[We] have taken into account the lack of support for the building of a new school on Posties Park; and the strong public desire to retain the open space.”

And yet, here we are again, facing another proposal to turn the open space into a restricted access site for school use during the daytime, and fee-paying club and group use in the evenings and weekends.

Of course, our Council leader-cum-spin-doctor sells this development to us as a “tremendous” proposal benefiting the “whole of West Dunbartonshire”.  We’re all winners, apparently.  And not one member of the IRED committee disagreed, with back-pats reverberating all around the room, even when it was made clear that your average Joe would no longer be able to trot around Posties for free, at anytime of the day.  There was no mention of the losers in this proposal; the hobby-joggers who would rather fly to the moon than join an athletics club; the people who exercise during the daytime, but who aren’t still in school; and most importantly of all, those who just don’t have the money to shell out on a pay-to-use facility, and who rely on our parks being free and accessible.

Park Wars logo editedSomebody coined the phrase ‘clowncillors’ to describe some of our local elected officials, and after today’s vote, I am left wondering how many of them have the Circus theme tune as their ringtones.  I’m certainly developing a case of coulrophobia from just observing Council meetings.

I’ll post more details from the meeting in due course, including how the proposal to offload the Council-owned Marinecraft site to a local businessman for redevelopment sailed right through committee without a single question.  Right now, I’ve got letters to write…

#dejavu

– MAx

99 problems but a pitch ain’t one…

This blog entry is an epilogue to the story of the Save Posties Park campaign, which had its final chapter on 8th January 2014, when West Dunbartonshire Council (WDC) voted not to build a new school on the park.  Since then, the Executive Director of Educational Services, supported by other Directorates within the Council, has apparently been working tirelessly to review the original scoring matrix on suitable locations, scour the region for other potential locations and assess and score these, and, ultimately, undertake a fresh consultation process. And all in just five months!

And today, Thursday 26th June, at a special meeting of the Educational Services Committee (ESC), the fruits of all this labour were, in turn, expounded, debated, questioned, challenged and ultimately approved when WDC signed off on an official siting for the new Our Lady and St Patrick’s (OLSP) school – the formal residential high-rise site in Bellsmyre, which is currently being demolished and cleared.

Confirmed site for new OLSP - Bellsmyre

It’s official! Bellsmyre is confirmed site for new OLSP.

Readers who followed the Save Posties Park campaign until its victory in January may be scratching their heads and wondering when the Bellsmyre site came into consideration. And rightly so, for this site wasn’t mentioned or considered at all for the new school during the first consultation, despite its impending demolition and consequent availability being approved several years ago.  It would seem that the penny didn’t drop until one enlightened consultee suggested it in their response to the first consultation, at which point the Executive Director presumably re-checked his extensive analysis of all available sites and said, “oops…”

By the time the March ESC meeting came around, the following explanation emerged :

“The Bellsmyre site was not previously considered for the new Our Lady and
St Patrick’s High School because originally the demolition of the high flats
which currently occupy the site was scheduled for completion by November
2014, several months after the anticipated commencement of construction of
the new school.”

This was accompanied with the news that this previously unconsidered site was, in actual fact, highly suitable for the new school, scoring as it did higher than any other option and looking to be significantly cheaper on the public purse.  Well, quelle surprise.  And so it was that this site was selected to go forward for consideration through another public consultation process.

Now I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m somewhat dismayed that the people running our Council didn’t take a slightly more strategic perspective in the first place. Consider the facts :

  • They knew that the Scottish Futures Trust funding for the new school has a time limit of March 2018.
  • They knew that a new school development would have a construction time of 12-24 months.
  • They knew that the Bellsmyre site would be cleared and available by, at latest, November 2014.

Why then weren’t they able to anticipate the potential here?

This, for me, really throws into doubt the assurances by the Executive Director that “every possible site in the area was considered and evaluated.”  Can we really believe that, or did he and his team really just look for the quickest and easiest off-site option and pin their colours to that? This is an important question, because a great deal of public money was spent on the first, fruitless consultation and a huge amount of distress and upset was stirred up within the local community in the process.

The Administration has been full of praise for the Executive Director’s management of the search for a new school site and will not entertain any notion that the process was flawed or mishandled.  Indeed, when one Councillor dared to voice concerns over the Executive Director’s performance he was reported by the Administration to the Commissioner for Ethical Standards. Well, I remain unconvinced that the time, money and public anxiety spent on the Posties Park/Castlehill consultation reflects good practice. I’m not the pitchfork-wielding type; I’m not after a scalp. But I do think that the Council needs to take a step back and fully consider the appropriateness of publicly citing this process as a success.  The community at large don’t consider it a win to have hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money wasted because someone didn’t take a strategic view, and neither should our elected representatives.

 

Anyway, now that we have a confirmed site, should we presume that it is absolutely perfect for the new school? Well, as I mentioned, it certainly scored higher than any other site in the revised feasibility study, although, from past experience, the scoring in these studies doesn’t always seem to reflect common sense. It’s fair to say that the Bellsmyre site proposal wasn’t universally welcomed, but there appeared to be a significantly lower number of objectors, and indeed generally less public engagement in the debate, with only 54 responses to the consultation (compared to 515 during the first round).

There are however, as the title of this blog suggests, a number of potential problems with this site, and these were listed in the consultation report, and duly dismissed by the Executive Director in his own inimitable style (which is to say, by taking a slightly superior stance and with an subtle overtone of passive aggression).  His presentation at the ESC meeting today included an overview of his consultation report, and he took the opportunity to re-iterate his response to the list of problems.

As you might imagine, with a proposal which moves a school from one end of the town to the other, there were concerns about travel and transport problems.  There were concerns about increased volume of traffic in the Bellsmyre area. And there were concerns about road safety – both locally at Howatshaws Road and further afield at the A82 crossing.  All of these concerns are valid, and the Executive Director gave some recognition of this validity, particularly relating to traffic management, where he described a need for additional planning. However, some concerns were effectively dismissed as non-issues (eg walking distances for children are within accepted tolerances), or simply refuted on the basis that they would apply to any new siting (eg crossing the A82). This didn’t go down particularly well with the public gallery, and there were some low-level heckles to illustrate this.

There then followed a discussion about the safety of the Bellsmyre site apropos its reputation as an area of high crime and social unrest, which was a concern raised by one of the group consultees.  The Executive Director quite rightly attempted to dismiss this concern, and in order to do so, he chose to compare Bellsmyre to the current school site in Castlehill, suggesting that they were similarly matched in their social profile.  Except what he actually said was, “Let’s be honest, Castlehill is hardly a leafy suburb”, once again bringing his own brand of tact and diplomacy to the debate.

Then, in an already heightened atmosphere of tension, the discussion moved on to the issue of potential health hazards, both through the proximity of electrical pylons and the presence of asbestos in the demolition materials.

It is important to recognise that current scientific evidence suggests that there is no real risk from the proximity of the electricity pylons at Bellsmyre. It is equally important to accept that the council has commissioned expert asbestos removal contractors to undertake the specialist demolition work.

However, there are people who believe that there is a risk and they are intent on lobbying for an alternative site where this risk is not present. They posit that the study of the impact of pylons on human health is an emerging science, and illustrate how science evolves by comparing the scientific advice given around cigarette smoking in the 1950’s with today’s understanding. They feel that any risk, even a tiny one, is a risk too far in this respect, particularly when other sites are available.

Now, I have a great deal of sympathy for these people, most of whom are OLSP parents, who are incredibly worried by any potential risk to their childrens’ health. It is staggeringly obvious that there are some people who are very seriously concerned about this, and some of them were in the public gallery today.  I felt that the Executive Director’s handling of this matter was callous and failed to acknowledge their very real concerns. He described them as scaremongers. This was, unsurprisingly, very upsetting for some of the people in the public gallery, and there was a period of significant heckling that ensued.

The tension was increased further when Council Leader, Martin Rooney, attempted to assuage any public concerns about the consultation process being rushed (just 5 months!) rigged or decided in advance. In one of his famous ‘foot-in-mouth’ gaffe moments, he assured the room that “…the Council didn’t care where the school was built…”  This resulted in an uproar from the gallery with many of the objectors feeling that, perhaps, this had been a Freudian slip from the Leader. A quiet word from Councillor David McBride, and Mr Rooney did the right thing and apologised for causing offence.

For me, one of the highlights of the meeting came when ESC member, Josephine McDaid, representing the EIS trades union, took the Executive Director to task over his public questioning of EIS protocols and processes.  In his report, the following paragraph appended a description of the EIS consultation response :

“(Note: the submission from the EIS claimed to be the unanimous view of the 75 members of the branch; however, it was later confirmed that only around 30 members had attended the meeting at which the submission had been discussed and the final submission had not been shared with EIS members within the school or with the WDC EIS Secretary prior to submission.)”

Ms McDaid stated that the Executive Director had overstepped the bounds of fair reporting to call into question the processes of the EIS branch, and she expressed her deep regret that he had chosen to make such an inappropriate attack on the union leadership and membership.  She took the time to explain how due diligence had in fact been done in the submission of the group response.  The Executive Director, sitting opposite her, remained dispassionate throughout her commentary, and did not apologise or offer any explanation. It’s perhaps just as well that Ms McDaid is an appointee and not an elected official, or she may well have been reported to the Commissioner for Ethical Standards for daring to question the performance of the Executive Director…

But after all the debate and discussion, when the motion to build on the Bellsmyre site eventually went to vote, all but two members of the committee supported it.  No Councillors opposed it, although it should be noted that only two opposition Councillors were present at the meeting, with Councillor George Black serving a two-month suspension and Councillor Jonathon McColl absent.

Aside from my aforementioned concerns about the site search and selection process, I’m not sure what to think about today’s decision. There is a part of me that thinks that a new school in Bellsmyre will be great for the local community; it will help the local Church and will hopefully act as a catalyst for new housing development and investment. However, the opposite is also true when it comes to Castlehill.  With the school being removed, this already deprived area runs the risk of falling into further decline.  It’s very true to say that the West end of Dumbarton doesn’t enjoy a bounty of local resources, and withdrawing the school from the area means, of course, one less.

Above all, I’m disappointed that the school won’t be built, partially or wholly, on the convent site at Clerkhill, which I feel is its spiritual home, if such a thing exists. The combined land mass of the Clerkhill site and the current school site is significant, and I had always hoped that a dual-campus arrangement would be considered, with either sports facilities and/or car parking on one side, and the main school buildings on the other.  When I asked the Executive Director about this, he advised that this couldn’t be done without a footbridge being built over the dividing road. How surprising then to see the Bellsmyre plan, which has the school divided from its football pitch by a busy main road…and no mention of a footbridge, of course. I was further surprised to hear the Executive Director explain today that sports time-tabling means that children will always be marshalled across the road to the football pitch, thus minimising any risk.  Alas, there was no such declaration when I asked about Clerkhill/Castlehill.

So unless a subsequent committee, such as Planning, put the kibosh on the ESC decision, it would seem that a new era of Catholic secondary education will be dawning in Bellsmyre in the not-so-distant future – on a site which is not without its problems. At least we have Terry’s assurance that the pitch ain’t one of them…

 

– MAx

 

Footnote : Let me know in the comments box what YOU think about the Bellsmyre decision. Thanks!

 

Thank you and goodnight…

There are a lot of happy people in Dumbarton tonight, and none more than me!  After months of agonising uncertainty and bitter debate, West Dunbartonshire Council’s Education Services Committee decided to listen to the people and vote down a proposal to build the new Our Lady and St. Patrick’s high school on Posties Park in Dumbarton.

It was the outcome that Save Posties Park campaigners had fought for and prayed for, but didn’t dare to hope for. All evidence suggested that a different outcome was likely today. When the results of the ‘schools consultation’ came out in December, and the majority of respondents stated that they didn’t want the school on Posties, it was horrifying to then hear Council officials and elected members say that the volume of responses didn’t matter. Director for Education, Terry Lanagan, repeatedly said that the consultation wasn’t a referendum and that the quality of the arguments shaped his recommendation, rather than the public opinion.  Today, he said that no new or compelling arguments had been raised during the consultation process; that all the points that campaigners carefully researched and evidenced had already been considered and accounted for before the consultation even began. This possibly explains why his outcome report was just a regurgitation of the heavily biased document he produced at the beginning of the process. I do find it concerning that he didn’t consider any of our arguments to be significant enough to merit caution, but I am however delighted that the Committee ultimately saw sense.

I’d like to try and describe the scene today for any readers who weren’t there, and who haven’t seen any of the footage. When I arrived at just after 9am, there were already about three dozen people gathered with banners and placards, and STV were on site, filming. Quickly, the crowd began to grow, and by around 9:30am, there were perhaps 70 or 80 people gathered. Passing cars (and Council vans!) honked their horns in support, and then our amazing piper, Colin Lawrie, started up and everyone’s spirits raised with the music.

The Director for Education arrived and was roundly booed by the crowd, and a chant of ‘Save Posties Park’ went up immediately, drowning out his attempt to address the assembled campaigners.  Rose Harvie intervened and asked the campaigners to give the Director a chance to speak. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he squandered this chance by using the lull to criticise the campaign strategies, although he did exclude the two Community Council Chairs from his criticism. He was booed off.

By the time everyone began to filter into the Denny Civic Theatre at around 9:50am, the crowd had grown considerably. I took my seat, and then watched as hundreds of people came through the door, filling the theatre to capacity, with some standing. I hope that Councillor Michelle McGinty reflected on how she handled the initial venue change requests back in early December, when she dismissed any notion of needing a bigger venue – despite the campaigners showing evidence of a potential large crowd wanting to attend. I reckon that there were around 350 people in the Denny Civic today. If Mrs McGinty had not seen sense at the last minute, around 300 people would have been left standing outside of Garshake Council offices…and probably not particularly peacefully!

It’s fair to say that emotions ran quite high in the theatre today, but I feel that the campaigners conducted themselves well, and any heckling was, in my opinion, relevant and appropriate.  There wasn’t much love shown for the Education Director, or Council Leader Martin Rooney, but a great deal of appreciation was shown to Councillor David McBride for tabling the amendment to remove Posties Park from consideration for development.

The biggest cheer of the day went up when Councillor George Black walked onto the stage. It is broadly recognised that Cllr Black and his fellow opposition Councillor, Jim Bollan, have consistently provided a platform for the campaign to broadcast its message, and the crowd’s gratitude for this was clearly evident. The West Dunbartonshire Opposition Councillors’ Facebook page is now ‘bookmarked’ in many a campaigners browser, including of course, my own.

After the meeting, as the crowds flowed out of the theatre, there were smiles, whoops of delight and I’m fairly sure there were even some tears of joy. As we exited into the fresh air, a huge rainbow filled the sky in front of us, and it certainly seemed like an appropriate sign from the Heavens.

And so, with our Park saved, it’s time for me to retire this particular blog, but I’m not going to delete it because it serves as a reminder of what the Save Posties Park campaigners have come through in recent months.  We all want to make sure that Posties is now taken off the table for any future developments of this type, and I’m going to keep this blog archived, just in case any other hair-brained schemes are dreamed up by over-reaching Councillors or officials.

To everyone who has supported this blog, thank you. And to the campaigners who I have been privileged to stand with over the last few months, give yourselves a huge round of applause.  You did something great today.

Over and out,

– MAx

Posties from above 2

What do Councillors know…?

A couple of weeks ago, I had a discussion on Facebook with a fellow Dumbartonian about the proposal to build a new school on Posties Park. In summary, he and I were not in agreement on this matter.  However, he’s a citizen and voter and has every bit as much right as me to voice his opinion, so we didn’t fall out.  However, he wrote something in a message to me that I’ve thought about quite frequently since, and I will share it with you here.  He wrote :

JPN FB snip

At the time, when I first read this message, I made an off-the-cuff response to the writer, commenting on his blind faith and optimism, and reminding him of some of the recent examples of Councillors who haven’t quite lived up to their code of conduct. I reminded him of the Rev. Paul Flowers, former Labour Councillor and Co-op executive, who was candidly recorded buying crystal meth recently.  Equally, I could have mentioned SNP Councillor, Jamie Rae, who fiddled £15k worth of housing benefits, or Tory Councillor, Brian Coleman, who assaulted a voter in the street for taking a picture of him parking illegally. Or another zillion public figures in positions of trust and authority who fell from grace.  You get the picture…

The point of this post is not to attack or criticise the Facebook commentator, and nor is it to attack or demean our elected representatives.  I simply want to make one point, and it is this :

Local government Councillors are men and women from all walks of life and all backgrounds.  They are human and they are fallible.  They have pasts and life experiences, and, like every one of us, their opinions and decisions are socially constructed. They are, generally, lay people and not experts in the intricate business of local government departments.  Above all, they are not Gods.

The Facebook commentator asked why a Councillor would POSSIBLY make a decision which is not viable, safe or achievable. Well, there are potentially hundreds of reasons why this could happen, and a cursory view of the the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman statistics shows that it does indeed happen, every year.

I am not suggesting that Councillors willfully make bad decisions – I’m sure that, for the most part, Councillors take their role as public servants seriously and try hard to do good. But even stripping out any question of deviancy or malice in Councillors’ actions, there still remain potential issues of judgment, experience and preparedness that can impact on the decisions that Councillors make.

Last year, the Standards Commission for Scotland conducted a survey of Councillors to ascertain how confident and capable they feel in their understanding of the Code of Conduct, which provides a basic ethical framework for their practice. One of the key questions asked was whether or not Councillors felt any sections of the Code were complex or difficult to understand, and where they might need some further guidance. This following diagram provides an illustration of their responses :

What councillors don't know

Unsurprisingly, the ever-complex and often contentious issue of planning was identified by Councillors as their biggest development need, followed by ‘declaration of interests’ in second place.

Both of these sections of the Code are critical elements in the proposal to build a secondary school on Posties Park. It has come to light that at least one member of the Educational Services Committee, who will make the initial decision on the Posties proposal, may well have a non-pecuniary interest in the siting of the new school.  And if the proposal is voted through by the Education Services Committee, then the full Council will be required to make a planning decision on the matter.

There is no question that a Councillor’s job can be complex, particularly when it is governed by such a strict Code and conducted in the glare of public scrutiny. Think for a minute about the decisions that you make in your job and in your life, and consider the impact that these decisions have on you and on your work and family networks. Now imagine that you are making decisions on behalf of many thousands of people, and you can begin to understand the pressure that Councillors may be feeling on the eve of this important vote.  When the Education Services Committee vote tomorrow on whether or not to build a new OLSP on our valued public park, it is safe to assume that many of the members will be feeling at least some uncertainty around which decision to make, particularly given the sheer scale of the public opposition to this proposal.

To these members who are unsure or uncertain, I would say this : don’t vote for something that just doesn’t feel right. It is not too late to press the pause button, and take more time to re-evaluate other options which are financially more attractive, do not permanently destroy valuable green space, and yet still deliver an excellent new school.  Your constituents will respect and appreciate a level of circumspection in this decision, and no-one will think less of you for calling a halt to a proposal which has become hugely unpopular and a source of rancour and discontent in the electorate.  It may seem as though the challenge of going back to the drawing board is too great, but compare this to the impact of rushing through an unpopular and unwanted proposal and the effect that this will have on the morale of the citizenship.

We know it’s difficult.  We appreciate that the pressure is great, and the scrutiny is burdensome, but it’s now your burden to carry.  Please make the right choice. Save Posties Park.

– MAx