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30 June 2006

£320,000 on travellers’ toilets
The decision by Argyll and Bute Council to cut some school bus services in order to save around £30,000 from its budget has been thrown sharply into context after it was recommended at a meeting last month that around £163,000 of council funds should be spent on refurbishing ‘amenity units’ at two travellers sites in Argyll.
The refurbishment of the units on travelling persons sites is on Argyll and Bute Council’s agenda, and a Scottish Executive grant of £158,000 has been carried into this financial year in order to upgrade facilities on two of the three sites provided in Argyll.
The total cost of the work on the units, which include washing, bathing and toilet facilities, is £321,437, with the council contribution being some £163,437. The vast majority of this spend - £203,875 - is planned for the site at Duncholgan, near Lochgilphead, with a further £117,562 being earmarked for Ledaig near Oban. The units at Torlochan in Sandbank are in better condition than the other two and work here is being deferred until additional funding becomes available.
The sites at Duncholgan and Ledaig have several long-term residents, while the one at Torlochan was reopened last year after a temporary closure due to low usage.
A Dunoon resident, who wished to remain anonymous, contacted the Observer after reading the minutes of last month’s Strategic Policy Committee on the council’s website. He said: “I cannot believe that this is the best use of council tax payers money, particularly when we have had the situation in the last few weeks of the council not having enough money to pay for free care for the elderly and trying to save £30,000 by removing some of the free school buses.
“Surely some of the money being earmarked for the refurbishment of these sites could be better used to benefit a larger number of Argyll residents.
“If, by their very nature, travellers travel around from place to place, do they actually have to pay council tax?”
A council spokeswoman confirmed that travellers did pay council tax but that it is charged only when a pitch at a recognised site is occupied on a long-term basis - for six months or more - and is set at Band A. The majority of travellers, she said, received housing benefit and council tax benefit and this covered the majority of their liability.
She continued: “The council’s aim is to provide a wide range of services to all members of society and it seeks to recognise the diverse needs of the multi-cultural society in which we live.
“The three official sites help the travelling community to express their cultural identity alongside the settled community and also significantly reduce the number of unauthorised encampments.”
The spokeswoman added that the amenity units had not been upgraded for some years and would require complete refurbishment, hence the large sums of money involved.
If finance for the project is approved, it would allow the council to provide for the needs of travellers in accordance with the guidelines issued by the Equal Opportunities Commission Committee of the Scottish Parliament.


MSP raises suspicions over ferry tendering announcement
AN announcement on the future of the Dunoon-Gourock ferry route - which was supposed to be made in the spring - is still not forthcoming, raising fears that the Executive is deliberately holding it back. An opposition MSP believes that the announcement will be made during the imminent summer recess to prevent it being scrutinised by Parliament.
The SNP MSP Jim Mather, who is the party’s Enterprise spokesman, voiced his fears that the Executive might be deliberately stalling.
He said: “I’m worried that they will make an announcement during the recess, in which case any decision will not therefore be subjected to Parliamentary scrutiny and debate.
“Such an outcome could mean that they settle on a scheme that is flawed and will cost the people of Dunoon and Cowal dear in the years to come.”
He continued: “I believe that the whole process is being handled in a cavalier manner that could damage the overall service and run the risk of falling foul of EU law.
My major worry though, is that the Executive are telling me that they believe that “there is no need to consider, nor do we intend to consider, issues arising in relation to Public Service Obligations (PSOs) on this route.”
The absence of PSO designation, he said, leaves the door open for other operators to compete and cherry-pick on routes that are not so designated.
He went on to say: “That is not what the people of Dunoon and Cowal need as this can only damage any hope of having a properly functioning, highly efficient and integrated transport system.
“The people deserve better and we need real scrutiny. Otherwise we will miss out on the boost that a first-class service would have to the local economy.”
The tendering process so far has hardly been the jewel in the Executive’s crown; beginning with the shambles of the North Isles contract, closely followed by the failure to secure any tenders for the Kintyre route. There are also reports that the only contender for the main CalMac routes ‘bundle’ is CalMac, which means that a process which began back in the twentieth century and cost a great deal of money has proved to be a complete waste of time.
In view of Mr Mather’s comments, we thought it appropriate to give Mr George Lyon the opportunity to comment on the matter, given that he is a government minister, and Mr Tavish Scott, a fellow Liberal Democrat, has responsibility for transport.
We e-mailed him and asked if he could clarify the situation regarding the delay in the tendering announcement, and that he might wish to respond to Mr Mather’s view that it was deliberately being held back until the recess.
His office replied within the hour, and relayed his suggestion that we should contact the Press Office at the Scottish Executive for an update.
The Executive spokesman said: “Our target is to issue the Invitation to Tender (ITT) to short-listed bidders by the end of July. It has been important that we took the time to ensure that the drafting of the tender documentation reflects, where possible, our understanding of local aspirations.
We hope to select and appoint an operator before the end of the year, allowing the new Contract to begin in Spring 2007.”


Council reverses on buses
ARGYLL and Bute Council gave way to public pressure at Kilmory on Wednesday following an outcry about plans to change the school transport system to save £30,000.
The plan caused an unprecedented reaction across Argyll and Bute, with school boards, teachers and parents united in their condemnation of the move. A petition organised by two parents at Sandbank was signed by over 600 people in a matter of days.
A planned Liberal Democrat motion on the issue was withdrawn in favour of an amendment by Argyll and Bute Council leader Allan Macaskill and Councillor Dick Walsh to return to the status quo.
This means that the position on school transport will remain unchanged when the new term begins in August.


Plans to bring INNELLAN pier back into OPERATION
South Cowal Community Council is behind an ambitious plan to improve the centre of Innellan, including the possible restoration of the pier. It has been suggested by the community council that an independent campaign should be launched to reinstate the Victorian structure, with pontoons for small boats, and infill some of the land to one side of it as part of the creation of a new village centre.
The project forms part of the community council’s ‘Vision Statement’ which also includes such ideas as getting the old construction yard at Ardyne cleared up and put to good use, possibly as the terminal for a new ferry service to Bute.
The centre of Innellan once bustled with businesses, with a bank, two garages, a cafe, several shops and the Royal Hotel. Most of the shops, along with the pier, the bank and the hotel, are now gone and it has been suggested that the new development would provide Innellan with the equivalent of a town square.
The old pier, which was built around 1850 and extended some 50 years later, was a popular stopping-off point during the days of the Clyde steamers but the demise of trips “Doon the Watter”, brought about by the introduction of the Mediterranean package holiday, also sounded the death knell for many piers around the shore of the Clyde, including Innellan, which finally closed in 1972.
The pier re-opened to water-borne traffic for seven months in 1974, when Sir Robert McAlpine’s opened an oil rig construction yard at Ardyne Point in Toward, but after the road was upgraded, the pier closed again, this time for good. Only three rigs were built at Ardyne Point and, by the end of the seventies, the yard had also closed.
The wooden structure was eventually demolished, and one by one the businesses around it closed, with the Royal Hotel being destroyed by fire and most of the shops turned into homes.
There is a sketch of the pier proposal on the South Cowal Community Council website where you can also e-mail your thoughts on the idea to them. The website address is www.southcowal.org.