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Scottish Public Services Ombudsman upholds complaint by Nairn community councillors over the way Highland Council allocated Scottish Government Town Centre Funding

By Donald Wilson

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Alastair Noble at development of the new flats and CAB building in King Street, Nairn.
Alastair Noble at development of the new flats and CAB building in King Street, Nairn.

A complaint by Nairn community councillors about the way Highland Council handled the allocation of Scottish Government Town Centre Funding to support the new CAB office in a town centre development with a block of flats has been upheld by the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman.

In its findings, which have been seen by the Courier, the Ombudsman’s office says the local authority failed to follow appropriate processes when making decisions regarding the allocation of the funding. And Highland Council has been told it must apologise to the complainant for its failings.

Nairn West and Suburban Community Council and Nairn River Community Council accused the Nairn Area Committee of taking decisions behind closed doors and not giving other organisations a chance to apply for nearly £200,000 in funding.

In a damning 16-page report on the case, the Ombudsman states: “Specifically we saw no evidence that decisions regarding the identification and recommendation of suitable projects were made during area committee meetings, to be taken forward to the Town Centre Funding Working Group.”

This should have happened in terms of the relevant governance arrangements.

In its summary, the Ombudsman states the local area committees were expected to identify and rank eligible projects for the funding. And in a further indictment on the process, it adds: “There is no public record of as to how this project was assessed as to meeting the eligibility criteria.”

The community councils complained that the Nairn Area Committee had failed to publicise the scheme, failed to invite applications, and apparently failed to discuss the funding in meetings citing a lack of transparency in their decision-making process.

The Ombudsman stated that with regard to the complaint about lack of community engagement, Highland Council said it was not operating a challenge fund and that the grant was allocated to projects in accordance with the governance arrangements agreed by its environment, development and infrastructure committee.

But while the Ombudsman acknowledged the Town Centre Funding Working Group had delegated authority to make decisions on the allocation of funding, the council had failed to follow appropriate processes during the course of decision making.

“It appeared that the decision to put forward this project had been taken during ward business meetings,” the Ombudsman said. “These are closed meetings, the minutes of which are not publicly available. We found there had been a lack of openness and transparency.

“Taking all the above into consideration we upheld the complaint.”

The community councils complained that the then ward manager had failed to inform relevant local community representatives or groups about the town centre funding and local allocation of funds and the Nairn Area Committee failed to consult or engage with relevant groups or organisations or publicise the scheme and invite applications.

They also complained that there was a lack of transparency in respect of planning.

In November 2019, a local newspaper featured a front page article for a new CAB office with 12 flats in the town centre. This was the first public mention of the project said the complainants.

The project was discussed at a ward business meeting on October 3, 2019 with a recommendation that Nairn CAB be offered a town centre funding grant of £198,976.

The Ombudsman said: “The council did not accept there was any attempt not to engage with local community groups; rather the CAB project was the project that commanded the most compelling case in the view of those responsible for coming to a decision.”

The Ombudsman also noted it was the only Nairnshire project put forward to the Town Centre Funding Working Group.

“There is no public record as to how this project was later assessed as meeting the eligibility criteria,” the Ombudsman said.

“It is contrary to the principles of good governance that decisions regarding which projects to recommend for the allocation of town centre funding appear to have been made in closed meetings. It is unacceptable that this information has only been disclosed when [the complainant] has made Freedom of Information requests.”

In its findings, the Ombudsman’s report states decision making must be carried out by the appropriate councillors and is open and transparent and the rationale for decision making is publicly available in the form of meeting agendas and minutes.

Alastair Noble, interim chairman of Nairn West and Suburban Community Council, said: “We welcome this very sensible and positive finding by the Ombudsman.

“We are very willing to work in this open and transparent way with our new councillors in May.

“It is vital for Nairnshire that we all work together and deliver this exciting regeneration of the Nairn economy.”

Highland Council has until March 10 to submit its apology to the complainant.

The local authority was asked for comment.

The flats and CAB office are already at an advanced state of construction.

Read more: Work starts for new CAB office

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