Calls are growing for a formal investigation into Argyll and Bute council in the wake of the collapse of one of the biggest community buy outs in Scotland.
Last week, it was confirmed that Castle Toward on the Cowal peninsula will be sold on the open market after Argyll and Bute rejected a community bid of £850,000 for the dilapidated Victorian property.
A number of campaigners involved in the proposed community buy out – which had the support of the Scottish Government and Highlands and Islands Enterprise – have made formal complaints to Audit Scotland about the council’s decision to turn down the bid.
Yesterday local MSP Mike Russell called for a full investigation into Argyll and Bute council.
“The whole standard of governance is very poor. I think there should
be extreme scrutiny of Argyll and Bute council’s actions and decisions. Audit Scotland needs to become more active in the matter.”
Russell accused Argyll and Bute council of stymieing the attempted buy out which it was estimated would have created 80 jobs and annual revenue of £1million. Russell called
“No local authority should be behaving in this way. It brings the whole idea of local authority into disrepute,” Russell told The National.
“There are clear steps by which a failing council can be called to
account, this is a failing council and needs to be called to account,” he added.
Argyll and Bute council has faced criticism from Audit Scotland in the past about its financial arrangements. Concerns have previously been raised about the council’s failure to sell public assets.
At the centre of the dismissal of the community buy out was a discrepancy over the value of the site. The local authority had valued Castle Toward at £1.7 million, whereas a valuation by estate agent Savill’s commissioned by campaigners put the price at £750,000.
Alan Stewart from the South Cowal Community Development Company, the group behind the community buy out, said that a decision had not been made about whether to make a formal complaint to Audit Scotland about Argyll and Bute council’s behaviour but he said that the council had done everything in their power to block the proposed sale.
“We were dumped on from a huge height by our council,” says Stewart.
“I have no idea why a council would turn down basically 80 jobs. They have thrown away £1m a year for 10 years and this is a council that is desperate for money.
Last week a motion to accept the Castle Toward community’s bid was rejected at a council meeting after it was found to be “incompetent” after it failed to mention a relevant regulation.
A motion was also passed calling for a review of “the behaviour of elected members” on the council that had actively supported the Castle Toward buy out.
“The whole thing is politically vindictive,” says Michael Breslin, one of the most vocal supporters of the buy out on the council.
“They just don’t want scrutiny.”
Kirsty Husband, a community councillor near Dunoon, accused Argyll and Bute council of “working against” the community buy-out.
“Instead of working to find a solution they have used their officers to work against it. Their attitude has been essentially to try and kill it off,” Husband said.
Husband said Argyll and Bute council’s size and sparse population make it particularly difficult to administer.
“It is such a difficult council to deal with. Everything is so remote. It’s an hour and half drive to the council offices.
“As a council it is unmanageable. This just highlights all of that.”
On Sunday evening, around 50 local residents from the newly formed Castle Toward Supporters group met.
The Castle Toward community buy-out received widespread local
support. Turnout in a ballot on making the purchase was over 50%, with
a record 95% voting in favour.
At present, Castle Toward is so run down that it is costing local council taxpayers more than £20,000 a month in security and maintenance charges.
Mike Russell says that he intends to bring forward amendments to the Community Empowerment Bill to make it more difficult for councils to stand in the way of community buy outs.
“There needs to be an appeal process for when a council is determined to frustrate a community. There needs to be a mechanism to overrule that.”
Argyll and Bute council leader Dick Walsh rejected claims that the council had stood in the way of the Castle Toward buy out.
“It is simply not true to suggest that we stymied the buyout. We spent a lot of time looking for a solution to help make the buyout happen.
“The proposed buyout was considered at several council meetings. We made every effort we could to secure the best possible outcome, not only for people in Cowal but for Argyll and Bute as a whole.”