Democracy in an apolitical council 23 May, 2014
The Orkney Manifesto Group was conceived in order to stimulate the politicisation of the OIC, which historically has been a council of independents. Such a process can only happen if it is initiated by political parties - whether new or established - and ultimately sanctioned by the electorate. It cannot be initiated by the OIC itself.
The OMG believes that on grounds of accountability, legitimacy, transparency, quality and diversity, party-based representation would offer more robust democratic governance than does the current council of independents.
With the promise of the “Our Islands Our Future” campaign to secure greater autonomy for Orkney, the issue of strengthening local democracy has taken on even greater importance.
How the “independent” council works
The election process
Prior to the election each candidate declares and stands as either an independent or sponsored by a political party. Independent candidates are obviously self-selected and go through no screening process.
The electorate is free to vote for either independent or political candidates. Orkney has a history of very few political candidates standing, and even fewer (possibly none) being elected.
The last election was something of an exception since four candidates were sponsored by the Scottish National Party, and one by the UK Independence Party. None, however, was elected. The Orkney Manifesto Group fielded three candidates, all of whom were successful. However, the OMG was not operating as a registered political party at that time, and the three candidates stood formally as independents.
There may be a preference among Orkney electors for a council made up of independents but this has not really been tested. The SNP and UKIP failure to secure any seats at the 2012 election cannot be attributed necessarily to their status as political parties. The stature of individual candidates or the thrust of their policies may have been sufficient reason for their rejection by the electorate. The Liberal-Democrat Party declined to field candidates, although the move was actively considered by them.
For the OIC to become politicised in the normal sense, a strong field of party candidates would need sufficient support from the electorate to gain a significant number of seats. With there being 21 seats on the council, a single party would need to secure 11 seats to gain control of the council.
As long as there are enough political party candidates standing, it is the electorate which determines whether the council is independent. There is no constitutional arrangement which makes it so.
Appointment of the Convener and committee chairpersons
Very shortly after the election there is an initial statutory meeting of the council. The main business transacted is the election of the Convener for the life of the Council, and the election of the chairpersons of the various standing committees, to serve for a two-year period.
Without party affiliations or a controlling party organisation and hierarchy, candidacy for these positions is completely open to all members. The members act as an electoral college to choose from among self-nominated candidates of their number.
At this very early point in the life of the council, there is only a very limited information base on which members can choose their leaders, since the track record, experience and skills of the candidates may be little known to new members, and the political position of none of them has been declared in any detail, if at all.
The lack of transparency into the process is exacerbated by the activity of unacknowledged, informal groupings of members which have no political identity, but which operate in concert in various contexts throughout the life of the council. From the perspective of the electorate these groups are effectively operating as cabals.
In terms of democratic process, therefore, the Convener and committee chairpersons have dubious legitimacy. The electorate has no direct or indirect role in their selection, since there is no indication during the election as to who may aspire to these offices or what support they might have. Yet these office-holders are potentially in a position of considerable influence.
In a party-based council, the process of the statutory council meeting is the same. However, there is a strong likelihood that the leader of the winning party will take on the role of Convener since he will command the votes of his party membership. Similarly, the chairpersons are effectively appointed by the leadership of the party coming into power.
In this case, the office-holders derive their legitimacy directly from the electorate, which has elected them in the full knowledge of their politics and the roles which they are likely to play in an administration. This will be true especially if candidates already held a party position of spokesperson for a particular portfolio.
Developing a programme
In a council where a single party has gained control following an election, there is a ready-made mandate for the new council to implement. It is simply the election manifesto on which the successful party stood.
Where two parties have agreed to form a coalition, there is a process of negotiation between the parties to develop a programme, based on combining and reconciling their two manifestos in the light of their relative strength and what is logically possible. This is generally a fairly rapid process since the two positions to be reconciled are well-defined.
In either case, the largest party or coalition of parties forms an executive to deliver the programme, giving direction to the council officials on an ongoing basis.
The above arrangement is very familiar from the Westminster and Holyrood parliamentary model. It is also the system followed by all other local governments in Scotland, but for the Western Isles, which operates like Orkney, and Shetland, which has its own unique arrangements.
In the case of the Orkney Islands Council, where councillors have been elected or re-elected on the basis of personality, perceived track record or a brief election pamphlet - and a very few on the basis of a fuller policy statement amounting to a manifesto - the process of developing a programme is much more difficult and time-consuming.
The process is facilitated by OIC officials through a number of workshops, and results in the production of a five-year “Council Plan”, some six to eight months after the election. A political party undertaking the equivalent process would begin with values and high-level principles and work down to objectives and policies. The Council Plan is created by a bottom-up process, starting with the combined laundry list of proposed policies of all of the members. Priorities and higher-level objectives emerge as a consensus is reached.
However, because of the way it has been created, the document represents the lowest common denominator of the positions of the disparate group of independent members and it does not distinguish levels of priority. There is no process to test whether the various positions represented by the independents are reflective of the opinions of the wider Orkney population. However, there is public consultation on the draft Council Plan as a whole at the end of the process.
The publication of the Council Plan represents the end of formal political input into the council programme until the next council is formed. There is limited review of the Council Plan during the term of the council.
In most local authorities, whether controlled by a single party or a coalition, delivery of the programme is steered by the political executive. They determine the policies to be debated and the agenda to be followed. There is continuous political control of the process throughout the life of the council.
When policies are debated there is a built-in advantage to the controlling party or parties, which gives them a good chance of delivering against their mandate. The other parties act as a loyal opposition, critiquing proposals and helping to knock them into shape.
In the case of the OIC, the Council Plan is used by council officials as a reference point and touchstone for the development of policy proposals during the life of the council. Control of the agenda largely passes to the Chief Executive and his/her officials once the Council Plan has been agreed.
The role of councillors in this system is to review policy proposals produced by the officials and to agree or reject them, often selecting from a range of options, from among which one is usually recommended by the officials. This arrangement effectively casts the officials as the executive and councillors as mere scrutineers, or sometimes a (usually divided) opposition.
Each issue tends to be approached in an ad hoc manner by each councillor since there is no informed and accountable party line for him or her to follow. Even after two years of getting to know them, it is often difficult to predict how some councillors will vote.
If a committee chairman has a good working relationship with his/her corresponding director then he/she may successfully influence the development of policy. However, since the chairmen, historically, have always been independents they have hardly been politically accountable. The opaque method of their appointment has already been mentioned.
The current council of independents lacks accountability. The councillors rely on OIC officials to develop detailed policy and provide continuity of approach to local issues.
Having been elected largely on the basis of personality rather than on a policy manifesto, the councillors have no executive mandate for any particular course of action. Councillors have no real individual or collective accountability as a result. The Council Plan is not democratically tested. The councillors act, therefore, as delegates, rather than representatives of the people.
When the elections come around we have to evaluate councillors who are standing again on the basis of personality and reputation. We cannot inform our vote based on the individual councillor’s debating or voting behaviour in the council chamber since there is no full transcript or broadcast of debates, and very few votes are recorded. Unless we can attend each and every public meeting of the council and its committees we have no way of knowing in full how we are being represented.
In an independent council, if a large number of councillors stand down at the end of a council term, there is a loss of continuity of experience, without any compensating political continuity.
Under a party-based system, when elections come around we know which party to reward or punish on the basis of performance. There is group accountability. This is not possible in Orkney.
Although some of the councillors on the OIC truly act as independents, many of them are independent in name only, and belong in fact to one informal grouping or another. With the exception of the Orkney Manifesto Group, these groupings are unacknowledged, have no political identity and operate in an opaque and undemocratic manner.
One of the frustrations of the public is that there is little or no public political debate on contentious issues prior to formal decision-making. The use of closed members’ seminars and unpublished briefing notes to pass information from officials to councillors is a cause for criticism. In a sense these practices amount to necessary education, but they also constitute a key opinion-forming process. The equivalent process in a political context would happen within the parties. There would almost certainly be more open public debate as well.
The lack of transparency could be ameliorated in a number of ways. Web-casting has been championed by the OMG as one method. Unfortunately, a majority of the current council is camera-shy and, unbelievably, has voted to introduce audio-casting instead. Audio-casting will require each member to be identified prior to speaking. The protocols surrounding this have yet to be worked out.
Recording and publication of members’ voting would not only assist transparency and accountability but would provide a more robust democratic process. A more proactive communication strategy across the work of council would also greatly improve transparency.
It is hard to argue against the view that the OIC – officials and members together – tends to close ranks in the face of criticism, and uses the defence of “reputational risk” too readily to justify a lack of openness.
Quality and Diversity
The knowledge, skills and experience of candidates standing for election to the OIC is mixed.
If political parties were to participate in local democracy, the best of them would be able to encourage members to stand. They would screen candidates and only sponsor those who would be expected to perform creditably for the party.
However, there is also an issue of remuneration, which affects all councils in Scotland, not only Orkney. In order to meet the demands of the role, the job of a councillor has long been a full-time one. The level of remuneration is not commensurate with that.
Salaries for elected members in Scotland were introduced in May 2007. The basic salary for backbench councillors when first introduced was £15,454, this increased to £15,838 on 1 April 2008, and £16,234 from 1 April 2009. No further increases have been made. This places full time councillors on a pay-scale below the minimum for a police constable or a probationary teacher.
Out of the 46 candidates who stood at the last election, at least 36 were either retired or self-employed. We should also address the fact that of those 46 candidates 37 were male.
We need to broaden the base of representation by making it affordable for potential candidates to give up their employment to take on a full-time job as a councillor. If we are to have a chamber that truly reflects the community which they serve, we also need to look at the factors that deter a greater number of women, young folk and minority groups standing for council, and address these.
A reduced number of local councillors on a full-time salary-level equivalent to the mean salary of the white collar worker in Scotland would cost no more than the current representation and would, at the same time, encourage a much wider base of potential councillors from all walks of life to run the gamut of local elections.
The remuneration and expenses of councillors is set by the Scottish government, as advised, until February 2013, by the Scottish Local Authorities Remuneration Committee (SLARC).
It is very unclear what the intention of the Scottish government now is on this issue.
The parties set up to fight OIC elections needn’t be local branches of the national political parties. Indeed truly local parties would avoid the opprobrium attached to the national parties.
The advantage of using existing entities is that they have the resources to support local candidates in the development of a manifesto, in screening candidates etc. They are also recognisable by what they stand for, the values that they bring to consideration of any issue.
Given time, local parties could match this capability. The Orkney Manifesto Group has already registered as a formal political party, unaffiliated to any national party but with a liberal-left-leaning approach to politics.
We would welcome some competition.
Kirkwall Business Improvement District 15 May, 2014
The Orkney Manifesto Group supports various activities which are directed towards regeneration of Kirkwall town centre. Our manifesto proposed the pursuit of a Townscape Heritage Initiative (THI) for Kirkwall, which is now nearing a reality. We also welcomed the introduction of a Kirkwall Business Improvement District (BID) and are concerned that its future is now under a cloud.
Here Councillor Bill Stout, currently acting chairperson of the BID, shares some thoughts on the achievements and future potential of the BID.
Town centres across the UK are currently undergoing transformation, as retailing channels move more and more to the Internet and to out-of-town supermarkets and shopping centres.
For some town centres, sadly, the result has been desolation. The physical fabric of some has slowly become derelict and fallen into ruin. This process has been exacerbated by local economic decline on top of a struggling national economy.
Some town centres have responded to the challenge and reinvented themselves, with new specialist businesses springing up, and established businesses finding new niches to exploit.
What will be Kirkwall’s response to the challenge?
Kirkwall’s main streets have seen many changes since the nineteen-sixties, when retail activity was at its height.
Since that time, Victoria Street, for example, has lost two butchers, a baker, two fishmongers, a greengrocer, a fish and chip shop, a men’s and a women’s draper, a jeweller and a shoe shop – and more.
It is worrying to see an increasing number of empty commercial premises on the main street. Those which have Ba’ barricades permanently in place look especially forlorn.
On the other hand many new businesses have sprung up, and some of the old ones are prospering outside of the main street, at Hatston, for example.
Many of the changes have been driven by the supermarkets on Pickaquoy Road, which have replaced main street food retailers almost completely. It is pretty difficult for the main street to compete with the supermarkets on the convenience of one-stop shopping (with easy parking), on product choice, given the range of goods they have on offer, or on (selective) discounted pricing.
Yet it would be wrong for us to demonise the supermarkets. No doubt they divert money from the Orkney economy to benefit their shareholders. However, they do provide access to a lifestyle which Orkney folk want; and the supermarkets provide income for their many local staff.
So when, as champions of local retailers, we say “Shop Local” we must be realistic. Retailers cannot expect to be patronised out of loyalty alone, although loyalty still has a place. They have to provide products and/or value-added services which the supermarkets are not as well placed to provide. Customer service is a big area of opportunity for differentiation, for example.
We can all think of retailers in Kirkwall who are doing this right, finding a niche, providing service with helpful product advice, delivery or installation - or just with a bit of cheeriness, and justly earning a share of wallet. We can probably also think of some who are not getting it quite right.
The Internet, similarly, has changed the shopping habits of many of us beyond recognition. The main competition is with non-food retailers. We have to acknowledge that Internet shopping is of huge benefit to rural communities (even when delivery charges are taken into account). The access to choice of products is just staggering.
The other side of this coin is that Kirkwall businesses can use the Internet to their advantage too.
Many are doing that very successfully. Export of unique local products and local produce is an obvious example of direct sales over the Internet.
There are other more subtle and innovative ways of using the Internet - as an information resource to aid retail activity.
In spite of the changing commercial landscape, there’s good reason to be optimistic about the future for Kirkwall. A considerable element of the retail sector is under direct pressure from the sales channels discussed here. However, our eating and drinking establishments, service providers and hotels are relatively secure from direct competition, even if there is vulnerability to knock-on effects.
Many Kirkwall businesses also benefit from the tourism dividend, including the retail sector – and not only from craft and local product sales.
Where does the Kirkwall Business Improvement District fit into this picture? The stated objective of the BID is “to keep the heart in Kirkwall”. It wants to sustain life in the main street by encouraging increased “footfall”, essentially encouraging people into town as a matter of choice – creating opportunities for retailers and other businesses to draw custom when they arrive.
The BID has been operating for only one year but already it is well known to the general public for the events it has mounted: the Lammas Fair, the Girls Day Out, the Easter Egg Hunt, the peedie Christmas tree competition and various Discount Days.
Important as events like these are in increasing footfall and providing direct benefit to some businesses, the BID is not just about events, indeed not even mainly about events. There have been four other strands of activity: marketing; cross-selling among BID members; volume purchase; and working together with other agencies, especially the Orkney Islands Council. Potentially all BID members can benefit from these activities.
Marketing is essential for retailers in the street. Even if, as some retailers say, “folk ken where I am”, potential customers will not have much idea what exactly is on offer, in terms of either products or value-added services unless you tell them. Agility in positioning is wasted without promotion.
The BID has been running or hosting advertisements for its members in The Orcadian and on the BID FaceBook page since its inception. (See https://www.facebook.com/PeedieGuide )
An Internet site has been developed which will be the core of the marketing strategy if the BID continues. It is only three weeks away from going live. In addition to a directory of members, there is provision for each member to create their own marketing channel very simply. Members will have immediate access to potential customers in Orkney and around the world.
Cross-selling among BID members has not yet developed very far and there is a lot of potential to be pursued.
Similarly, joint purchasing to achieve better discounts has taken only the first tentative steps. There is a lot of potential in this area too.
The Orkney Islands Council has played a major role in the BID, which was set up under statutory provisions introduced by the Scottish government. A ballot was held in Kirkwall in January, 2013, when 64% of eligible businesses took part. The vote was 83% in favour of setting up the BID, the highest positive vote for such an initiative in Scotland.
A vote of the full Council gave the go-ahead for the BID. The BID members’ levy was set at 1% of rateable value, with a minimum of £50 per annum, the lowest level permitted under the Scottish BID regulations. (In Lerwick the levy varies from 3% to 6%, depending on the rateable value band. The minimum levy is £200 per annum.)
The BID has proven useful to the OIC in representing a business view. In turn, the BID has been able to pursue various requests with the OIC. The provision of one hour of free parking has been a success which might not have been achieved without the close relationship between BID and OIC. 112,180 free tickets were issued across six car parks in Kirkwall and Stromness between 1 October, 2013 and 18 April, 2014.
Another success was a negotiated delay in increasing the charges for uplifting commercial waste, which was originally timetabled for 1 April 2014, and will now be delayed until autumn 2014 at the earliest. Other initiatives are in progress, for example on street lighting, designation of civic event spaces and public toilet provision.
The opportunities for negotiation with the OIC have not been fully exploited, by any means. It would be most valuable to work with the OIC to find ways of making it easier for new businesses to open up outlets on the street.
Indeed the whole strategy of town centre management should be a joint effort between the local authority and the business community, represented by the BID.
The existence of the BID has been referenced in several requests for grant funding by the OIC. It is vital to demonstrate to funding agencies that there is a body which can provide business knowledge and experience to inform regeneration initiatives.
The application for lottery funding for the Kirkwall Townscape Heritage Initiative (THI) is one such case. The existence of the BID helped to secure £3.4 million to invest in the town centre.
To avoid gradual decay, Kirkwall’s built heritage must be protected and preserved. Some buildings may need to be adapted for new uses, including a return to the original domestic use in some cases. Empty, boarded up shops need to be brought back into use - as shops, when possible.
Kirkwall needs to retain its historic character, not to create a theme park experience for tourists, but to sustain the town’s unique identity and self-esteem. It will, incidentally, provide a magical experience for tourists too.
The Townscape Heritage Initiative will not by itself regenerate activity in Kirkwall town centre. The BID is a vital part of a regeneration strategy. THI will continue to be a major opportunity for partnership working between the business community, represented by the BID, and the Orkney Islands Council.
It is to be hoped that the Kirkwall Business Improvement District will complement THI in generating new commercial activity and keep the heart in Kirkwall.
Ballast Water Management
Statement to Policy & Resources Committee 14 November, 2013
No matter what approach is taken to ballast water management in Scapa Flow (other than a complete ban, that is,) there appears to be broad agreement now that there will be a low level of residual risk to the Loch of Stenness SAC. Where we differ is in our perception of the level of risk and in our level of willingness to take a chance on compromising the natural environment in the interests of making money through shipping operations.
We have been presented with estimates of the level of risk of introducing non-native species, based in part on hydrodynamic modelling. This gives the appearance of applying science and quantification to the problem. The exercise is useful in showing the relative risk of various methods of ballast water management, but it does not produce reliable absolute estimates. The absolute risk is not quantifiable, even if all of the assumptions of the model hold true.
A parable may help explain. Before the year, 1697 it would have been readily agreed that all swans are white. It was simply a matter of common everyday experience. Every time a swan was seen it reinforced the generalisation: swans are white.
What happened in 1697 was that a Dutchman, who had made landfall in Western Australia, set eyes on a black swan for the first time, becoming the first European to do so. It was coal black, with a bright red beak. Anyone from Europe seeing a black swan for the first time still feels the sense of shock Willem de Vlamingh must have experienced. The claim that all swans are white has turned out to be false. The beautiful irony was that, since classical times, writers had used the phrase “a black swan” as an expression of impossibility.
The point is: it takes only one counterexample to falsify a general universal statement made on the basis of experience. We now use the black swan as a metaphor for the fallibility of generalisations.
In 2008 there was a near-collapse of the world banking and finance systems. In spite of the billions of pounds spent on sophisticated computer modelling systems, none predicted the events which took place. Some savvy individuals knew that there was a potential problem with dodgy mortgages in the US, but the models hadn’t made adequate provision for the effects of that kind of banking.
The black swan has been used to symbolise that kind of fallibility too. The mathematician, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, published his black swan theory in 2001 in his book, “Fooled by Randomness”.
Generalisations often hold within a well-understood frame of reference but break down outside that context. Similarly, computer models are useful only as long as the built-in assumptions which provide their context hold true. Many such assumptions may be implicit and unrecognised.
When we observe that we have been doing x, y and z in Scapa Flow for many years without any untoward effect, even if true, doesn’t warrant the conclusion that we can go on doing x, y, and z in future without any consequences. The past is no guide to the future in this kind of situation. The inference from past experience is not strictly science, but a simple generalisation, which could be contradicted at any time in one of any number of ways.
You can smoke for years without suffering cancer or emphysema or any of the other terrible effects of cigarette smoke. Does that mean you’re safe to go on smoking? The black swan says “no”.
We now have from Intertek what is agreed to be the best possible hydrodynamic model of the waters around Scapa Flow. When a model breaks down it happens at the boundary – in the explicit and implicit assumptions made and how the model is used. The Intertek model doesn’t factor in human error, negligence, dishonesty, equipment failure, extreme weather, shipwreck or any other contingencies. We can’t imagine all of the possible ways in which the model might fail to have purchase. It’s in the nature of the black swan that you never know where it’s going to come from. Systems work in predictable ways but failure is chaotic.
Murphy’s Law is a compelling piece of folk wisdom. In its simplest formulation Murphy’s Law states that if anything can go wrong in human affairs then it will. An alternative formulation in the present context might be this: the more time, effort and money you put into showing that something can’t possibly happen, the more likely you are to be proved wrong.
The black swan theory captures the spirit of Murphy’s Law in a mathematically and philosophically respectable form. There is a good entry on black swan theory in Wikipedia for anyone interested.
The Orkney Manifesto Group concludes along with SNH and SEPA that it is not beyond reasonable scientific doubt that the proposal before us will have zero impact on the Loch of Stenness. Even within the assumptions and confines of the model there is a non-zero probability of non-native species reaching the Loch of Stenness. Potential risks outside of the assumptions of the model increase that probability beyond reasonable scientific doubt.
In our discussion of the proposal we have been focussing of the Loch of Stenness SAC because it is clear that the obstacle to SNH and SEPA support is demonstration of zero impact on this unique brackish lagoon. What’s more, the focus of our discussion has not been on compliance with statutory consultee advice but on circumvention.
It is very clear that the latest Appropriate Assessment has failed. The ballast water proposal can only be legally adopted if there are no alternatives or if there is an overriding reason of public interest (which can be economic or social).
We concede that the proposal reduces risk with respect to current practice. We also concede that it is the safest ballast water management protocol available to us using today’s technologies. However, the only safe alternative is a complete ban on ballast water discharge into Scapa Flow.
Can we make a case for the proposal based on overriding public interest? It’s doubtful that a case could be made on social grounds.
An economic case might be more promising. However, the Manifesto Group does not believe that a case of sufficient weight could be made to convince the European Commission. The Orkney economy is not completely dependent on ship-to-ship transfers, after all. Furthermore, there is scanty evidence that STS transfer business in the Flow will benefit dramatically from introducing the revised procedure. There are other, more constructive ways of terminating the embarrassing and unsustainable losses of the towage service. And there are alternative and competing uses of the marine resource of the Flow.
In any case, we should look at the bigger picture, beyond the Loch of Stenness. The reality is that the proposal puts Scapa Flow, and Orkney waters in general, at even greater risk than the SAC. The Flow is a natural resource which we should jealously protect for its traditional value as a fishing ground, as well as for its natural biodiversity, under the provisions of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity 1992.
In summary, the risk of the proposal before us is not quantifiable, but is bigger than projected; it could be more devastating than projected in its potential for irreversible environmental damage; and the financial return on taking the risk is unquantifiable, but smaller and less significant than projected, certainly not worth the risk. For these reasons the Orkney Manifesto Group is against the proposal.
We have spent five years and about £500,000 in trying to develop an acceptable ballast water management protocol, without, incidentally, retaining intellectual property rights in any of the deliverables produced by the consultants. It would be a travesty if today we vote in favour of the proposal partly or wholly in order to avoid the accusation that this time and money has been wasted. The decision should be made on its merits; an analysis of the decision-making process and its cost can wait until another day.
As a footnote and a contribution to some of the irrelevant big numbers which are being bandied around, please consider this: the weight of an HIV retrovirus is around one attogram; that’s a millionth of a millionth of a millionth of a gram. So the ratio of it’s weight to that of an average host is 1 in 7*1022. It takes only one of these to get past the immune system to cause AIDS. It’s in the nature of bio-systems that small things can cause huge damage, out of all proportion to their size. Bio-systems are essentially organic information systems where physico-chemical concepts such as concentration and dilution are less significant than in non-living science.
The Intertek hydrodynamic model is based on passive dispersal of inert matter. What would happen in reality is that introduction of alien species into the Flow would be followed by reproduction and colonisation near the point of ballast water discharge. This would be followed over a period of time by a spread of the population by means of swimming or crawling. The Intertek model is thus defective not only at its boundary but at its core. The process supposedly being modelled is not hydrodynamic but biological.