Empty shops and the ongoing row over plans to re-draw council ward boundaries in Argyll and Bute are the dominant features in this week’s crop of your letters to The Buteman.
If you’d like to comment on any of the topics raised, or any subject of interest to Bute, drop an email to firstname.lastname@example.org by 5pm on Monday at the latest - though as always, the sooner we hear from you, the better are your chances of seeing your views in print.
Please keep your letters as brief as you can, and remember to include your name and address for publication. We also need a daytime contact phone number in case we need to check any details at short notice, though this will not be printed.
* * * * * * * * * *
Trust’s bid to tackle empty shop fronts
The Isle of Bute Trust (IOBT) has been investigating the issue of empty shop units in Rothesay, in response to concerns raised by local residents.
At present, we have identified at least 17 empty shop fronts in Rothesay and Port Bannatyne. A full list, and map, is available on our website at www.isleofbutetrust.org.uk.
It may be helpful for your readers if I report our findings so far.
The empty shops fall into three broad categories.
Some are very presentable, and these premises seem to be re-let or sold quite quickly. These do not present a problem. This is normal business.
A second category is where the owner has either gone out of business or become ill. Gaining access to the property to improve it on a voluntary basis is proving difficult.
Given that, in the case of a bank or receiver, one would expect they would wish the property to be moved on quickly, this is surprising - but we’re working on it.
The final, and most damaging, category, in terms of the appearance of the town, is where it seems that properties are being neglected to discourage them being rented. This establishes a track record of vacancy.
Once this has happened, the owner applies for ‘change of use’ and converts the shop for residential use.
While these owners are perfectly within their rights to do this, the impact on the town of this process is damaging.
By definition, the shop has to remain empty or out of use for many months (in some cases, years) before change of use is granted.
Thus, a hole is created in the retail landscape.
Further, once the shop is turned into a dwelling, some of the property owners do not appear to be too choosy as to what sort of tenants are selected.
So, what is to be done? We call upon Argyll and Bute Council’s planning department closely to scrutinise any ‘change of use’ applications and ask the question “why was this shop not able to function as such?”
We call upon the landlords concerned to exercise more social responsibility – presumably they have to live here too?
Most importantly, the community has a huge part to play. The next time you see a planning notice near to where you live, have a look and ask yourself if the planned development is what you want!
I write on behalf of the Trustees of the Isle of Bute Trust(IOBT).
Alisdair Johnston, Ian Villa, Academy Road, Rothesay
Memorial bench for a special person
On behalf of Isobel Johnstone’s family I would like to thank everyone who helped raise money for the memorial picnic table and bench outside Rothesay Leisure Centre. Isobel will always be in our hearts, and it’s nice to know she touched so many more.
Joe Johnstone, 1 Ballochgoy Terrace, Rothesay
Island pulled together for memorial
On behalf of Isobel Johnstone’s family, and all the staff at Rothesay Leisure Centre, I would like to thank everyone who came along to the unveiling of the new picnic table and benches in Isobel’s memory on Saturday morning.
The amount of people who turned up was a reflection of Isobel as a person and it was lovely to see so many there.
I can’t say thank you enough to everyone who donated what they could, to Provost Len Scoullar for his generous offer to pay for the plaque, to Joe McCabe and his team for doing so much work for us in one of their busiest weeks of the year.
To raise the money required in the space of four weeks was unbelievable, and it is another example of how this community pulls together.
John Digney (senior duty officer), Rothesay Leisure Centre, High Street, Rothesay
MSP ‘hell bent’ on attacking local council
(Copy of a letter to community councils in the Bute and Cowal area)
I note that Michael Russell MSP has issued a statement about the proposed Boundary Commission changes to local wards. I know that local community councils are very interested in this issue. Because of that it is important for people to know the council’s true position and, more importantly, the facts, because the motion that Mr Russell has submitted is inaccurate.
I find it regrettable that yet again, Mr Russell has chosen to perpetuate misinformation and inaccuracies in what can only be seen as his increasingly desperate attempts to attack Argyll and Bute Council in any way, shape or form and at any cost.
If Mr Russell looks at the Local Government Boundary Commission’s website he will find a copy of the council’s response to the ward proposals, dated 16th June 2015 and clearly stating that we are opposed to the proposed structure presented by the Commission.
Our response mentions our significant concerns about the Boundary Commission’s plans, in particular the impact on our communities who will be adversely affected and are likely to share those concerns.
It must surely be a matter of some embarrassment to him that he did not check the council’s factual response first in his haste to criticise.
Should he check the same web page, he will find the council’s response to the earlier phase of the Boundary Commission review on councillor numbers, which took place in 2014.
There, he will see that once again, the council opposed the proposals to reduce councillor numbers in Argyll and Bute.
The only assumption possible is that he is so determined to launch another needless and unfair attack on the council that he overlooked these facts.
The facts are that the council established a cross-party group of councillors, including members from the SNP group, to consider and prepare a response to the Boundary Commission consultation.
The members of the cross-party group were unanimous in opposing the proposals and worked together on the council’s formal response.
This is a matter of fact and more details can be found in a report submitted to our policy and resources committee on August 20.
It continues to be a matter of regret that Mr Russell chooses not to work with the council, but instead seems hell-bent only on attacking the council regardless of the circumstances.
One consolation is that Mr Russell is, at least, joining us in encouraging people to share their views in the current public consultation being carried out by the Boundary Commission.
We repeat that we would much prefer to work with Mr Russell in the best interests of the people and communities of Argyll and Bute. We believe that by working together we could achieve much more for Argyll and Bute.
However, while Mr Russell chooses to expend considerable time and energy on his persistent campaign against us, we will continue to work on the real priorities for our area – growing the population and delivering services for local people.
Cllr Dick Walsh (leader, Argyll and Bute Council), Kilmory, Lochgilphead
Council leader is responsible for decline
(Copy of a letter to community councils in Bute and Cowal, in response to Cllr Walsh’s comments above)
I have seen Dick Walsh’s letter to all community councils regarding the Boundary Commission proposals and I feel that I must make three brief points in response though I really do not want to get into a spat with him about this.
Firstly as a former member of the Arbuthnott Commission on boundaries and voting systems I know that local government boundaries are largely determined by population.
The failure of Argyll and Bute Council to maintain population and the current situation in which we are losing population faster than any other area means that a recommendation of this sort was inevitable.
Proposing a swathe of school closures, refusing to sell Castle Toward to the community, leaving the Castle Lodge in Dunoon unroofed and awarding council contracts to outside companies at higher prices than local bids are the type of things that have the effect of further driving down population.
All have happened on Cllr Walsh’s watch as council leader.
Secondly whilst at least one council in Scotland has threatened to go to court over the recommendations, all we have had so far from the leadership of Argyll and Bute, after a period of secrecy, is words in an official paper.
In addition some councillors in wards affected by the proposals weren’t properly consulted, a fact that councillors Michael Breslin and Bruce Marshall will confirm.
Thirdly I am happy to work with anyone who wants to resist these changes. There is already a groundswell of opposition which includes several community councils, the local MP Brendan O’Hara, most opposition councillors and all the affected local SNP branches.
I have tabled a hard hitting motion in the Scottish Parliament and I will happily make common cause with other communities and with the council leader and his administration if they wish to join in.
If any community council wants a copy of the objection I will submit in September, my office will be glad to provide it when it is complete.
Finally I suspect what has riled Cllr Walsh is not so much my criticisms of the council - which I find necessary to make given my case load is always full to overflowing with complaints about the local authority - but my support for smaller councils that are closer to those they are meant to serve.
The effect of these latest proposals will be to put even more power into the hands of senior officers at Kilmory and into the hands of the leader of the council at a time when Scottish councils are already some of the largest and most distant in Europe.
Many believe, like me, that this would be unacceptable.
I am of the view that we need stronger, more effective local democracy , a view increasingly held across Argyll and Bute, as the recent ‘People’s Council’ event in Oban demonstrated.
Argyll and Bute opposition councillors Michael Breslin and Vivien Dance spoke at that event, and there is a growing feeling that change is essential if people are to be properly served.
I know that this threatens the present cosy power structures but I make no apology for that.
Argyll and Bute, at leadership level, is a failing council. It is already being investigated by Audit Scotland and this latest issue is, alas, symptomatic of its failings.
But the solution is not to shoot the messenger. It is to deliver the right message.
Michael Russell MSP (SNP, Argyll and Bute), 81 Argyll Street, Dunoon