In October the leader of Fife Council David Ross said working together with communities “should be the corner stone of everything we do in Fife Council”. Because, he went on, “by giving local people the opportunity to shape and change what’s important to them, public services become more meaningful for everyone.”
It is a great pity that Cllr Ross and officers at Fife Council missed Monday night’s public meeting in Benarty over the Meedies where 100+ local people gave a textbook demonstration of what happens when they are denied the opportunity to shape what’s important to them.
The subject of the meeting was Fife Council’s sneaking through of a planning application for a new £1.2 million Visitors’ Centre which many felt was over-priced and fell unacceptably short on the design front, lacking both aesthetic merit and adequate provision of facilities.
There had been effectively zero public consultation until public demand forced Councillor Hood into a promise to stall the project last month to allow a 3-week consultation period before a second public meeting. At this meeting, people became angrier still when it emerged that the Fife Council officers responsible for the consultation and design had been ordered not to attend the meeting for fear of being recorded. Despite continued fudging by Councillor Hood, it emerged that Purvis had already been promised the £1.8 million contract and that demolition in the guise of asbestos removal had begun even before planning consent was formally granted. The extent to which Fife Council had listened to the community’s concerns could be seen in the sole change that was on offer – the community could pick the colour of the exterior paintwork!
The two councillors present, Cllrs Mark Hood and Alex Campbell, condemned the no-show from Fife Council officers as “scandalous” (who, it turned out, lacked even the courtesy to decline invitations from the community consultation group). They said “mistakes had been made” and they were “ready to put their hands up”. Then after a lot of “we are where we are” and “we have to move forward”, we got to the nitty-gritty: blackmail.
If the community insisted on rejecting the new visitors’ centre, the new football and golf facilities, which were piggybacking on the proposal, could only be uncoupled into a new tender at a cost of £50,000 and the risk of losing an £80,000 grant from SportsScotland. This shameless attempt to split the community fell flat, as did the councillors’ further suggestion that if the community rejected what was on offer, they might never get a new or refurbished visitors’ centre.
Despite the anger in the hall, the embattled councillors were not confronted with two harsh truths. First, passing the buck to conveniently absent Fife Council officers was shoddy and dishonest: the councillors are paid to make sure Fife Council does right by communities, and if officers didn’t consult and the proposal was so far from what the community wanted, why on earth didn’t the councillors know and intervene in good time? This applies not just to Cllrs Hood and Campbell but all the local area councillors whose communities have an interest in the Meedies. Hands were ready to go up to stop heads rolling.
Just as no apology was forthcoming from the councillors, so there was no willingness to bear any cost: only the community would have to pay by losing future funding for upgrading the facilities at the Meedies. But if the mistakes were Fife Council’s, then the very least it could do is assume the cost of putting them right.
I hope it is not too late for Cllr Ross to find the leadership at Fife Council to run with the vision and ambition which the Meedies excites in its community.