IT SHOULD have been an opportunity for Angus Council’s ruling administration to put any doubts over their handling of the Town Centre Regeneration Fund to one side.
And it could have been an opportunity for the SNP opposition to upturn some gold nugget to further embarrass their political opponents.
But, in truth this public meeting did neither.
While it could be argued that a strong defence of the council officer’s handling of the TCR cash was given a robust defence by Steve Wilson from the council’s economic development team and director of infrastructure services, Eric Lowson, there seemed to be plenty cries off derision after the meeting reached its conclusion.
Opening proceedings, chairman Jim Milne said: “The purpose of the meeting this evening is to present the factual information regarding the regeneration project.
We will then take questions from the floor.”
First up was Eric Lowson, who highlighted the key processes and aspects that the local authority went through.
“As many people are aware, this funding became available through the Scottish Government’s desire to tackle regeneration in various town centre projects.
“And the council was one of those local authorities from the length and breadth of Scotland who took advantage of the millions of pounds made available by the Scottish Government.
“The time-scales for the initiative were always quite tight. However, these were published in 2009 and we were fully aware of the tight time-scale we had to work to.
“The council was also aware that successful bids would be seen as those which had a direct effect on helping to improve, enhance and increase employment opportunities in the local communities.
“We felt that the best approach would be a mixed one, which would see a number of properties which hadn’t been utilised for some considerable periods of time in some cases, brought back into use.
“We tried to engage with businesses, local groups and organisations where possible.”
The meeting went on to hear from Steve Wilson a detailed time-scale of how two bids for major properties were made a subsequently failed.
Mr Wilson also made reference to the owner of Flicks being quoted in the press as saying he wanted to sell and that he didn’t know what the council were doing.
“The same day we had an e-mail from the owner saying he was trying to get the deal done. From the beginning of December we did look at other projects. We did look at another residential property, which was on our radar.”
Eric Lowson added: “There has been some comment made on the roles played by the council and the Scottish Government in this bid. I want to make it very clear that both the Minister and his senior civil servants were very supportive. They could have brought down the shutters after we missed the first deadline, but they didn’t do that.
They continued to work with us and continued to support us.
“We both worked tirelessly to try and ensure this project was delivered for Brechin.”
The first question from the floor came from David Adam, former vice-convener of the Brechin Community Council.
He said: “I was involved on the Brechin Community Council at this time and in your presentation you mentioned community consultation. I cannot remember a single request for ideas. Can you remind us all what lengths you went to to consult with the people of Brechin and what was done to bring forward ideas, be it through public meetings or any other measure that would have led to a practical approach in ensuring town centre regeneration?”
Eric Lowson’s reply clearly came as a surprise to many of the former community council members assembled. He said: “I am not saying we held a meeting with the community council, but we did hold discussions with their members.
“When we normally do town centre improvements they would normally go through a whole programme of consultation.
“We tried to contact as many community groups as we could to see what their views were.”
Former Councillor Joy Mowatt asked: “Can you confirm that the first time the Brechin City Hall was mentioned was in January, almost a month later the December deadline? This was despite sustained appeals from the community to take this project forward.”
Councillor Bob Myles replied: “When the plans for the project were being put to us, we were informed of what sort of projects could and couldn’t be put forward under the TRF.
“One of the main criteria was that they had to have economic and financial benefit for the local communities involved. It was felt that while the City Hall had considerable historical benefit, the economic benefit would be limited.
“The guidance we had at that time from the officers meant that, had we put the City Hall in, it may not have been accepted.
“It was only at the 11th hour and possibly the 13th hour that the government suggested they might have accepted a bid on the City Hall.
“One of the aspects in our favour regarding the City Hall was that it was in our ownership. When I first spoke to the Minister (Alex Neill) he did not completely rule out the possibility. He asked me to write to him and, a fortnight later, he confirmed that the monies previously available had all been utilised on other projects.
“Finally only on Tuesday of this week, we received communication from the Scottish Government which suggested that we would be allowed to conclude the under-spend and we thought yabadabadoo!
“However, before our meeting on Tuesday we received further notification from the government that they had made a clerical error and that the monies were no longer available.”
Alex Johnstone MSP asked a similar question.
“When was the City Hall first considered? Why was it rejected and on whose advice was it rejected?
“Many of us are aware that Dixon Hall in Laurencekirk got £460,000 for a complete refit. Also, the own hall in Stonehaven got £180,000 for a further refurbishment. With town halls clearly at the forefront of bids up and down the country, why was the City Hall considered inappropriate?
Steve Wilson replied: “We were given a scoring criteria by the Scottish Government. Projects with a significant economic impact scored very highly, City halls were at the other end of the spectrum.”
Eric Lowson added: “There were initially four bids from around Angus and, while these ticked a lot of the required boxes, they were felt as not delivering a lot of economic impact”
SNP Councillor Mairi Evans asked: “Why was a bid for the City Hall not included earlier?”
Councillor Myles replied: “At that time we were given clear indications by the government that economic impact was the number one priority. I must admit we were unaware of the funding for the town halls in Stonehaven and Laurencekirk and I still don’t know how they were able to get funding for these.”
Nigel Don MSP asked: “Why, given that there were clearly difficulties emerging regarding the projects early on in the process, did you not look for another project then? The City Hall was surely the obvious one? The main and important aspect was that it was in your ownership and under your control.
“Surely also there are those within Angus Council that realise government funding stops at the end of a financial year? Quite simply if you didn’t know how important the City Hall is to the good folk of Brechin that is because you didn’t ask them as has been displayed very ably here this evening.”
Steve Wilson replied: “We wrote to numerous community groups and community councils in May highlighting that this TRF was available and highlighting we would be willing to discuss it with them. No one came back to us to mention the City Hall at that time.”
Alex Johnstone went on to say there was a 22-month period before the scheme was announced that Angus Council could have launched a compulsory purchase order on the Flicks building.
Eric Lowson answered: “We put in a bid in November 2009, with a deadline to spend the money of March 2010. Flicks came into the equation at that time and the government granted us a fixed extension.
“While we welcomed the further time to work in, there is no doubt that we could not have considered a CPO in this time-scale. We were aware of the possibility, but realistically it was never an option.”
Councillor Donald Morrison asked a question over the misunderstanding following the clerical error made by the Scottish Government.
Councillor Myles replied: “I wasn’t aware that Councillor Morrison had taken up a role as the official spokesperson for the Scottish Government.
“However, we saw a window of opportunity following this correspondence and with Brechin, obviously feeling aggrieved to the tune of £812,000, it was right we took up the opportunity to see if that money as still available to us.
“We thought we had a window of opportunity. We didn’t know there was an administrative error by the Scottish Government. We took it at face value in an effort to take forward other projects and utilise this fund.
“I would really have liked the support of opposition councillors on Angus Council to try and lobby their colleague in the Scottish Government in a bid to help us. We tried our best, but we didn’t succeed. We did succeed, however, in attracting almost £1 million for Brechin’s regeneration, for which the people of Brechin will see the benefits in time to come.”
Joy Mowatt said: “Whether responsibility lies with elected members or officers is a matter of opinion. But I can say shame on you. Any competent officer or official would have known exactly what was being signed up to when applying for this funding.
“Mr Lowson explained they were aware of the conditions and deadlines which were to be met. An extension of nine months was given, the only council, as I understand to receive an extension in Scotland.”
Jim Milne closed the meeting by saying; “When you look at the Scottish Government’s website you will see six bids were entered, and five of those fell by the wayside. The one thing that was predominant in all the successful bids was that regeneration created jobs.”
He also talked of the £2 million given for the revamp of Maryhill burgh halls.
“The burgh halls there include eleven offices, a children’s nursery, a meeting room and much more.
“So this instance of a project that comes under the title of a hall is a good example of how to spend regeneration money.
“Don’t be misled by some people saying they got money for burgh halls and others didn’t. In this instance Maryhill’s halls provide more than just a hall.”
Could the people of Brechin and district could have benefited in a similar manner? We will never know.