Last year I got involved in the controversy surrounding the building of a new visitor centre at Lochore Meadows Country Park.
Although its neighbouring communities perhaps use the Meedies more than others on a daily basis, and have almost a family connection to the place since the fathers and grandfathers of many residents of Benarty, Lochgelly, Kelty and Cowdenbeath worked in the mines that shaped its landscape, the park is enjoyed by an annual 650,000 visitors from across Fife and further afield. It is a unique, much-loved park which has been rightly described as a jewel in Fife’s crown.
A broken promise
My interest was sparked by family members who live near the Meedies and have played in it over two generations. I attended a public meeting about the new visitor centre in Benarty just over a year ago at which I made a comment about the extremely disappointing response of local councillors. They were unable to appreciate, let alone match, the ambition and passion of local people for the Meedies as they tried to fob them off with a new centre which was ugly, smaller than the existing centre and plainly not fit for purpose. There had been no consultation with the local communities over the project, and by the time the communities got wind of it, it was at an advanced stage. Unable to ignore the furore of protest, a local councillor and Chair of Cowdenbeath Area Committee made a promise that it would not go ahead without consultation and unless the community wanted it.
Consultation was a farce, with a community action group having to use the press to force meetings with the leader of Fife Council David Ross and the Chief Executive Steve Grimmond. The local councillor broke his promise and the project was pushed through a meeting of Fife Council’s Executive Meeting thanks to the Labour administrations’s inbuilt majority. The reasoning was that while “mistakes had been made”, it was too late to restart the project with the community on board and “lessons would be learnt”. In recognition of this, the Executive Committee referred the matter to Fife Council’s Scrutiny Committee to investigate and come up with recommendations for how similar mistakes could be avoided in future.
No scrutiny after all
But these were the dogdays of the last administration, and with a new administration, all be it a Labour-SNP coalition, in May, came new committees and a backroom deal which saw the number and power of the Scrutiny Committees reduced and former Chair Dave Dempsey replaced in a backroom deal between Labour/SNP and the LibDems.
And so the promised Scrutiny of the lies, Council arrogance and incompetence which were revealed last year has fallen by the wayside, and the “mistakes” quietly forgotten. The local Labour councillor who fronted the lies has disappeared from public life, and in a coalition which depends on collective amnesia, the Labour/SNP administration is conscientiously pretending that everything is different now.
Boat house consultation
A few months ago I became aware of a proposal to give St Andrews University a 40-year lease for a boat house by the loch at the Meedies which would enable their boat club to store boats and use the water for intensive training. When Benarty Community Council expressed dismay about this, St Andrews was persuaded to provide a consultation event at Benarty Centre on August 22, which I attended.
I don’t know how many people came – there were complaints on social media that it was difficult for working people to make the time – and I spent a good 20 minutes there when no one else came in. The consultation was not like other consultations I’ve attended (eg. for housing developments or the new Madras). There was a very limited amount of information, focusing on the plan for the boat house and the club’s Olympic-level ambitions. This extremely modest exhibition was accompanied by five men in suits including a couple from St Andrews University responsible for sport, the club’s trainer and the boat house architect. Although I am sure they wanted to be as helpful as possible, the way their presence was arranged will have put quite a few people off, even from entering the room of the exhibition itself.
I spoke to the St Andrews people at length, keen to discover what was in the project for local communities. It turned out that no specifics could be promised as to working with local people or schools. They promised to come up with a proposal in writing of what they could offer, but this has yet to materialise despite being chased by Fife Council officials.
After the exhibition, I wrote to Fife Council to discover the state of play on the lease, and whether elected members would get the final say over the project. The answer was negative as the signing of the lease is delegated to officers (under the Scheme of Delegation, which allows officers to make whole rafts of decisions, eg. about Council Tax, roads etc, in the name of elected members). When this news hit social media, locally elected members were quoted as having denied this at a recent meeting of Benarty Community Council. But they stayed aloof from the discussion on facebook and failed to state categorically that the decision would not be made by delegated authority.
So I issued a press release which duly produced articles in the local press with a response from Councillor Linda Erskine, one of the local members for Benarty and Lochgelly and the Convenor of the Cowdenbeath Area Committee. This is what she said:
“It’s important to note that the university rowing club is already a member of the Lochore community sports hub. They’ve been using the loch for 18 months.
“There’s no suggestion of the university having exclusive use of the loch. They practice in a certain area early on Saturday and Sunday mornings, and a mid-week afternoon, which brings more footfall to the country park.
“I’d encourage people to take a walk through the Meedies at the weekend and watch the boats; it’s a lovely sight and something I’ve heard local people saying they’ve enjoyed over the past 18 months.
“A 40-year ground lease has been proposed for a boat house but nothing has been decided yet.
“There’s an ongoing process and negotiations over the terms of any lease are on hold at the moment until we hear the findings of a public consultation exercise.”
Local councillors and community councillors had been informed, she said, and the area committee would want to be involved in plans as they developed.
What Cllr Erskine didn’t say
This is a fudge of the first order. It completely ignores the key issue of whether councillors, rather than unelected officials, will have the final say over the lease.
Cllr Erskine also does not answer the charge of de facto privatisation. Instead she introduces a straw man – the charge that St Andrews would have exclusive use of the loch – in order to deny it. But even that denial is based on the boat club’s present use of the loch, and there is no explanation of how that might already be infringing on other loch users and crucially no guarantee that St Andrews’ future use will be restricted or required to make room for other activities on the water such as fishing, sailing or even rowing by other clubs. In any case the University’s use of the boat house compound as well as its boats will be 100% exclusive.
The public is invited to believe that “a public consultation exercise” will be allowed to affect the lease since it is “on hold” until the results are known. What “public consultation exercise”? Surely Cllr Erskine cannot mean the self-serving and poorly attended exhibition the University put on for an afternoon in Benarty? Why aren’t the results of this already known and public? In any case, who will trust the results as they hardly come from a neutral or disinterested source? And how can there be credible public consultation when both councillors and the wider public have been denied knowledge of the precise terms of the lease (including rental, times of loch use and community payback/participation) on the grounds of commercial confidentiality?
If instead Cllr Erskine means a new full and open consultation by Fife Council, why on earth doesn’t she say so and set out the terms? She might at the same time say explicitly if, as a result of the consultation, the community rejects the proposal, Fife Council will not go ahead. Presumably if she made such a promise in the papers, she would not dare break it as her predecessor as Chair of Cowdenbeath Area Committee did last year with his promise at a public meeting about the Meedies visitor centre.
Finally, Cllr Erskine broaches the issue of the involvement of local councillors – they are being kept “informed” and the area committee “would want to be involved in plans as they developed”. “Informed” of what exactly? And the area committee might wish to be involved but it’s all a bit late as plans, including the terms of the lease, have already been fully developed.
On the evidence here, Fife Council, as represented by Cllr Erskine, seems to have learnt nothing from last year’s debacle over the visitor centre. It could hardly be more remote, or more shifty, when it comes to dealing with the communities it is supposed to serve.