Ombudsman Complaint Against Highland Council Upheld re Town Centre Project -a joint statement by Nairn Community Councils

Nairn River Community Council and Nairn West and Suburban Community Council welcome the Scottish Public Service Ombudsman’s findings and decision in relation to the Highland Council’s decision-making, funding and delivery of the town centre new housing/offices building.
The Ombudsman’s verdict is unequivocal. Highland Council got it wrong:
• the Council failed to follow appropriate process during decision-making on the Nairn town centre project and its funding;
• there was no evidence that suitable projects were invited, identified and considered;
• the taking of decisions in closed Ward Business Meetings was inappropriate, contrary to good governance and lacking in transparency;

These conclusions echo very closely the comments and objections originally raised by local Community Councils and others – which were ignored and dismissed at the time by Highland Council.

This outcome shows that these local concerns were fully justified, and that it was right to submit a formal complaint to the Scottish Public Service Ombudsman (SPSO)

We believe those responsible ought to be held accountable for the failings now identified.
This is not a minor oversight or a matter of procedural detail. It was not an error by a single individual. There was a systemic failure.

The Council did not comply with its own rules.

Those who took the decisions on the spending of a substantial Town Centre Fund allocation in Nairn were neither open nor transparent.

Instead of using the funding to “repurpose existing town centre buildings… to improve access and infrastructure”, they ignored the existing agreed and approved Town Centre Regeneration Plan and channelled the available money into an entirely new build, a project which the Ombudsman has pointed out, was “unsupported by documentation”;

The SPSO report highlights the fact that “no other project options were invited, explored or considered.” At no stage were any other proposals assessed or ranked – as required by the Council’s own policy guidance – in the Nairnshire Area Committee.

Indeed the Ombudsman notes that the principles of the Council’s localism agenda – bringing decision making closer to communities – were observed by other Area Committees, but not in Nairn. In commenting on the process in Lochaber (which the Council had cited in its own evidence) the SPSO verdict points out that

“…It was precisely this sort of decision-making which was lacking in Nairn. Rather than add weight to the Council’s position, this evidence instead highlights what was wrong with the decision-making process in Nairn.”

The SPSO verdict spells out that the Council’s conduct was “contrary to good governance”.
• In plain language, what happened in Nairn was a stitch-up, decided and delivered
behind closed doors.
• Nairn’s elected Councillors, and the officials involved, failed to observe the principles,
and the practice, that the rules require and that we have the right to expect.

The SPSO decision requires the Council to apologise for this failure, and to take steps to improve the way they operate.

That is about the least we might expect. But what remains, in the centre of our town, is a lasting monument to the unsatisfactory conduct and actions of our elected representatives and the local authority.

It is even more disappointing that those in Highland Council who were responsible for monitoring the process and applying agreed procedure not only failed to do so, but were actually complicit in the actions and decision-making which the SPSO has found to have fallen short.
We believe that those who did not comply with proper procedure and those who are responsible for, or sought to excuse, the shortcomings identified by the SPSO ought to be held directly accountable for those failures.

Without such accountability, it is difficult to see how public trust in the integrity of the Council’s decision-making can be restored.

Nairn West & Suburban CC
Nairn River CC
February 2022

Full text of the 16 page Ombudsman decision sent to the complainant 10 February 2022 is here subject to final review. The final decision will be laid before Parliament and published online on the SPSO website

see also coverage in Inverness Courier 15 February 2022

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