Former Labour councillor’s claims challenged as Western Isles school row brews

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By Martin Kelly
 
A row is brewing on the Western Isles after a former Labour councillor claimed that a request to split a contract to build six schools had been refused by the Scottish Government.
 
In a promotional video for the local elections, Donald MacSween has claimed that the Scottish Government prevented the local authority from splitting the contract to build the six schools, a move which would have helped local businesses tender for work.

The six brand new schools, including a replacement building for the famous Nicolson Institute, have recently been completed or are nearing completion.  All six are due to accept pupils by the start of the new academic year in October 2012.
 
Speaking in the video, Cllr. MacSween says: “A major disappointment, of course, in the last five years, was the way the Scottish Government would not allow us to parcel up the schools in individual packages to give local companies an opportunity to tender and to secure the work. They were quite emphatic that that could not happen, they didn’t allow us to do it and it caused quite a lot of controversy in the community.”
 
However, Newsnet Scotland has been told by a local SNP insider that the Scottish Government in fact played no part in the tender process or timescale of the project and that a bid in 2008 by the SNP group to persuade the council to adopt a plan to build each school in parallel, starting with Balvannich, was voted down by all 27 non SNP councillors.

Newsnet Scotland also understands that no official request to the Scottish Government was ever made on behalf of the council to split the contract and that the council’s leader was angry when he learned that the SNP group had made their own informal approach.
 
According to Donald Manford, leader of the SNP group, far from blocking the idea the Scottish finance Secretary was very supportive of their suggestion.  Mr Manford said: “When I suggested staging the building programme to John Swinney, he was very supportive of the idea “.

A last ditch attempt in February 2008 by the SNP group to split the contract ended in failure when not one of the opposition councillors backed the amendment.

It has also emerged that the SNP amendment had been omitted from official minutes of the meeting published on the council’s web portal and only inserted last month after complaints to the Chief Executive.
 
A recent enquiry by the leadership of the Western Isles SNP led to the following statement by a Scottish Government spokesman, “The Western Isles Schools Project was tendered by Western Isles Islands Council.  Scottish Government and Scottish Futures Trust did not play any part in the tender process, including the timescales of the project, and it was the Council’s decision to award the contract to FMP.”

At the time of the tender process the council consisted of 2 Labour, 4 SNP and 25 independent members, Mr MacSween being one of the independents.  Newsnet Scotland understands that most of the independent councillors have links to the Labour party.

In 2010, Mr MacSween was the Labour candidate at the general election, coming second to the SNP’s Angus McNeil.
 
FMP, a firm from Northern Ireland, eventually won the bid and brought their own people across to the island to carry out most of the work.
 
It meant that over £50 million of project spending was made off island, from a total budget of £80 million.
 
As a result, several long-established island building firms went bust and over 70 local tradesmen were registered with the local JobCentre Plus (There are 90 Irish contractors on the project).
 
The larger of the surviving local contractors started chasing smaller projects, forcing the smaller businesses down market in turn, and squeezing the self-employed tradesmen out of the market completely.
 
There have been claims that a dominant group of councillors, independents who were mainly members of and/or activists in the Labour Party, wanted to be able to boast about completing the schools project when up for re-election.
 
According to a local SNP candidate there is anger that some of these councillors, who voted against the SNP group proposal back in 2008, are now claiming it was the Scottish Government who blocked splitting up the original contract.
 
Bob Duncan, campaign organiser for the Western Isles SNP, and a candidate for Stornoway South, the ward in which the Nicolson Institute is located, said that thus far the SNP’s opponents had failed to produce a single document in support of their claims against the Scottish Government.
 
Mr Duncan said:

“There is tremendous anger in the community that the ruling group in the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has, either deliberately or through incompetence, allowed so much money and so many jobs to be lost to the islands.
 
“This £80 million project will not be repeated in our lifetimes, and the opportunities it offered have been lost to us for ever.  Our kids have gained new schools a little faster than they might have, but at the pointless and unnecessary cost of the jobs and livelihoods of their parents.
 
“The schools would have been rebuilt either way, but now the fragile local economy will need to be rebuilt too, and this may take us decades.
 
“It is no wonder there is so much anger in the community and no wonder that the old guard of the Labour Party are facing annihilation in these elections.  Theirs has surely been the most expensive, damaging and dishonest election stunt in Hebridean history.”