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The Secret Seven – a few things that public servants in Argyll and Bute kept private in 2023

Publication: The Lochside Press

From waterfront plans to library use, some things that were kept hidden this year.

Faslane on the Gareloch, seen from the Peaton Hill
Faslane on the Gareloch, seen from the Peaton Hill

The start of year is always a time for lists, so as 2024 begins, we’re looking at some of the instances where public bodies were strangely reticent.

Some things are rightly kept private of course – contract details, defence technology, the amount of Baileys consumed in December – but there have been all too many occasions when people whose wages are paid by taxpayers have been more tight-lipped than necessary, often despite it being clearly in the public interest for more details to be revealed.

So with apologies to Enid Blyton, here’s our Secret Seven of 2023 – seven stories where a range of public bodies proved far from forthcoming.

7: Argyll and Bute Council and the ‘indicative plan’ for Helensburgh waterfront

Back in January 2023, a key site in front of Helensburgh’s new £23m leisure centre was put on the market by the council ‘with favourable planning status’.

It was the first time that a visualisation of how the ‘grey area’ on the waterfront could look – this was freely available on the agents’ website but a watermark on the indicative plan stated that it should not be reproduced without the council’s consent.

A caption on the image states that is it for illustrative use and there is no requirement to build in that form, but two things are very clear – there is no skate park, which has to be provided as a condition of planning permission, and all 1.38 acres was being offered to buyers.

6: Defence Minister James Cartlidge and RAAC concrete at naval bases

In August, schools and other public buildings all over the UK were closed at short notice after it was discovered that they had been built using Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete, which was commonplace in the 1950s and 60s.

It’s strange then that in November there was no clear answer to a question in the House of Commons about an assessment of the condition of buildings at Faslane and Coulport which were constructed wholly or partially by RAAC concrete.

Faslane on the Gareloch, seen from the Peaton Hill:

The question by MP Dave Doogan was answered by James Cartlidge, Minister for Defence Procurement, who said surveys were ‘currently being conducted to identify buildings which may have been constructed with RAAC on MoD land’.

Really? Given the potential danger, it seems rather unlikely that such details were not on any records, and that in the intervening months no-one had managed to find out.

5: Argyll and Bute Council and ‘Kilcreggan Harbour’

A remarkable amount of ‘confidentiality’ was applied in previous years to plans for new infrastructure for ferries at Kilcreggan, and when the £9.3m preferred option (below) was finally revealed it was greeted with considerable anger.

It was a shame then that the online consultation was bodged so badly – it had to be reworded not once but twice, with people initially being asked if they were from Kilcreggan, Rosneath or a ‘non-Dunoon-Cowal resident’.

The consultation was extended until March 26, but the results have still not been made public, which is odd since the results of an equivalent consultation in Dunoon were made public after a few weeks.

We’ve now been waiting nine months for the results of the Kilcreggan survey, while it’s almost three months since councillors endorsed a report saying consultation results should be published ‘on a timely basis’.

4: LiveArgyll and Rosneath’s library

The public library in Rosneath closed at the start of the first lockdown in March 2020, as did all others in Scotland.

Unlike most others, it never reopened, leaving residents with a choice between the volunteer-run community library in Cove or the library in Helensburgh, which would be a two and half -hour return bus journey.

Argyll and Bute has handed over all its libraries and leisure centres to LiveArgyll, a trust which is chaired by a former councillor and has two serving councillors on its board.

LiveArgyll’s website says: “We are absolutely delighted to advise that all of our libraries are open and browsing is no longer limited.”

However the website also states that Rosneath library is closed.

In July 2022 a spokesperson said that LiveArgyll was ‘looking into the future’ of Rosneath library, but an inquiry three weeks ago has received no response.

It’s fair to say that LiveArgyll’s board does not operate in the most open manner, despite the organisation having a turnover of £7.3m last year.

According to its website the board has not met for nearly two years, while every meaningful item in the minutes is marked as ‘restricted’. That’s a lot of privacy surrounding public facilities.

3: The mystery of Faslane’s structures 22 and 23

In October it was revealed that significant new development was planned for the Royal Navy base at Faslane – but the plan were not on public display.

The proposal was advertised, but with no statement as to what it actually is, and anyone wanting to see it has to email to make an appointment at an unnamed location.

Unusually, the press office at Faslane did not respond to repeated requests for information, so all we know is there will be two structures, but not what they are or where they will be, let alone how much they will cost.

It may well be that they are entirely benign and unobtrusive – but having to make an appointment just to find out what they are is unacceptable.

2: The MoD’s dereliction of duty with historic buildings

 The Ministry of Defence owns two B-listed buildings in Shandon – the former St Andrews School, which was bought in 1989 for the equivalent of £8.5m today, and the South Lodge of West Shandon House, which had been occupied as a home until the MoD paid £180,000 for it in 2014.

Both have been empty ever since, with the MoD saying the former school (above) was being ‘appropriately maintained’ despite part of the roof falling in.

Six years ago the MoD said “The MoD is continuing to evaluate options for the sites in question.

“While the evaluation is ongoing the buildings continue to be appropriately managed in order to ensure that they are protected from weather damage.”

That evaluation seems to have taken a while – no options have been forthcoming, while the statement in 2015 that the lodge (below) would be ‘a useful addition to the base footprint’ looks far from honest.

After decades of neglect, why can’t the MoD finally come clean and say both buildings were bought to prevent anti-nuclear campaigners acquiring property so close to Faslane, and that for many years its aim has been to demolish the former school?

1: CMAL and the new Dunoon ferry design

Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL)’s online consultation on its design (below) for a new Dunoon ferry closed nearly two years ago, but the results were kept secret.

Initially the state-owned company wrongly claimed this was because the survey was qualitative, then it said that making the results public would ‘prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs’.

Six months later, and after the intervention of the Scottish Freedom of Information Commissioner, CMAL relented and released part of the results – showing to no-one’s surprise that the public were not keen on the design: 55% did not agree with the recommendations made in an online presentation and only 41% were satisfied with the features of the recommended vessel.

But only part of the results were released, with CMAL still claiming other sections should be confidential, citing data protection and saying other information ‘is being withheld as disclosure is highly likely to inhibit the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation’.

Respondents’ comments were still withheld and Kilcreggan ferry users’ views ‘removed’ from the results, despite the survey itself stating it was ‘open to all interested individuals who travel via the Dunoon passenger vessels or have an alternative interest in the project’.

The enormously controversial design for ‘Kilcreggan Harbour’ (see number 5, above) was largely justified by the need to accommodate the new Dunoon ferry, which would act as back-up, so Kilcreggan residents had a very clear interest in the design.

Two years after the consultation closed, the full results are still secret, with an appeal to the FOI commissioner ongoing.

So that’s a publicly-owned company, using public money to ask the public about public transport, then trying desperately to keep the public’s inconvenient opinions secret.

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