ESSO deal is unhappy one shrouded in secrecy with no way to measure success, says finance watchdogs

BILL HEANEYInvestigation by Bill Heaney

Gambling. It’s addictive. It leads to mental health problems. It can cost a person their health, their job, their house and their holidays, not to mention their family savings and leave them seriously ill and in penury.

And it’s not only folk using credit cards to pay their gambling debts who become addicts whose lives are ruined. It’s all those who chase their losses in bookie’s shops which are now “respectable” and compete in our shopping streets and housing estates from Drumchapel through Drumry to Clydebank, Old Kilpatrick and Bowling to Dumbarton, Alexandria and Helensburgh.

Who is the biggest gambler in West Dunbartonshire and Argyll and Bute? And who looks like losing the most money on the municipal puggy over the next few of years? Millions and £ millions even?

Look no further than, you guessed it, West Dunbartonshire Council. We are not talking three cross tanner doubles here. Far from it. It’s £millions and £millions.

The Council is supposed to be skint. It’s making cut after cut to essential services. It’s banned The Democrat because we regularly highlight their incompetence in regard to the way they handle council taxpayers’ money. They are hypocrites who are always telling the public how responsible they are when they’re not.

We have drawn to their attention time after time in The Democrat, the folly of gambling £6 million of public money on cleaning up the former site of the Esso tank farm at Bowling in the hope that Exxon, one of the biggest and richest companies in the world, will eventually SELL it to them. That’s correct, sell it to them.

We do all the work, all the cleaning up and then they give us the privilege of buying it from them for £millions.

No wonder then that the local authority here is often referred to as Dumb, dumb West Dunbartonshire Council. Dumb, dumb SNP-run West Dunbartonshire Council.

The SNP administration, in their Church Street £17 million not fit for purpose offices in the old Burgh Hall, have decided to invest in the (SNP) government City Region Deal. That in itself is unsurprising since they are one and the same party and reckoned to be costing £5.2 billion. And they are all in this together.

West Dunbartonshire have already handed over £3 million of the £6 million they pledged to this deal despite one warning after another to steer well clear of it.

To make things worse, they are borrowing the money to pay for this at something around 8 per cent per annum over 30 years. Work it out for yourself.

The latest amber light came on yesterday when it was revealed in a report by the spending watchdog, Audit Scotland,m that there is no clear way to measure the success or otherwise of Scotland’s £5.2 billion city deals.

City region deals are designed to encourage economic growth and create jobs.  They have seen the UK and Scottish governments collaborate with local councils on infrastructure schemes such as new rail links.

But this report by Audit Scotland warns the plans lack provisions to measure performance.

It found many deals may have already missed opportunities to meet national targets due to a lack of measures to track progress.

What is a city region deal?

Glasgow signed Scotland’s first city deal in 2014.  Under the terms of the 20-year deal, the UK and Scottish governments, as well as councils and other agencies committed £1.3bn to the Greater Glasgow area, including West Dunbartonshire.

It brought together the region’s eight local authorities to manage a programme targeted at improving the transport network, reducing unemployment and supporting the life sciences industry.

Another eight deals are in development, including Dumbarton’s, which unfortunately  involves acre upon acre of stinking swampland.  It means all areas of Scotland have signed or are working towards signing either a city region deal or, for regions that don’t have cities, a growth deal.

Each deal is made up of a number of projects based on local circumstances and priorities. The roll-out of improved broadband and mobile coverage is one priority of the Inverness and Highland deal, while the north-east focuses on the creation of a new centre to boost innovation in the oil and gas sector.

What does the report say?

The deals have enabled economic development projects across Scotland that may not otherwise have gone ahead, according to the auditors.

They have also sparked increased collaboration between councils and their partners, like universities, it is claimed.

But the report by Audit Scotland for the Auditor General and the Accounts Commission says the Scottish government has not outlined how it will measure the programme’s value for money.

It found that it was not clear why some projects were approved for funding over others and local communities have felt very little involvement.

The report added: “These factors limit transparency and the ability to hold public bodies to account for their deal spending.”

The Exxon site at Bowling in West Dunbartonshire. 

Asked time again by Cllr Jim Bollan, the only councillor of the whole 22 who has been against lending the £6 million to super rich Exxon for details of the project in West Dunbartonshire, the administration have told him the company have been guaranteed secrecy.

The auditors want this to change, and change quickly, but openness and transparency in in local government is not West Dunbartonshire Council’s strong suit.

Some would say their track record shows they are obsessed with secrecy and cover-ups.

Auditors recommend the Scottish government sets clear aims and objectives for the programme as a whole and devises measures to assess the impact of each deal.

Caroline Gardner, Scotland’s Auditor General, said: “A significant amount of public money has been committed to city deals, but the programme’s lack of aims and objectives means opportunities may already have been missed to ensure deals contribute to national outcomes.

“The Scottish government needs to show how it will measure the deals’ long-term success and work with councils to improve transparency around the approval process for individual projects.”

What does the government say?

The Scottish government spin doctors accepted the findings of the report, pledging to reflect on them in conjunction with the UK government and local authorities.

A spokesman said: “We welcome the report, which clearly highlights the positive effect that city region and growth deals are having across Scotland – strengthening relationships between councils, government, business, universities and other partners.

“Including our additional investment, the Scottish government’s commitment to deals now exceeds £1.8bn and we are already taking steps to improve how we measure the long term success of our deals programme.

“The Audit Scotland report highlights the significant part in the City Region Deals played by the UK government but the watchdog does not assess this role as it only has a remit to audit the performance of the Scottish government.”

Lights from traffic in Glasgow
Improving the transport system in the Glasgow area was a priority of its £1.3bn city deal.

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