Bressay Brig: key questions (Jonathan Wills)
So now we know the size of the financial disaster from the Bressa Brig fiasco:
• £2,247,935 spent by the council for the brig that never was, including external legal fees (£409,410), consultants (£798,294), SIC staff time (£456,154) and works contract (£489,795) and sundry minor expenses;
• Plus £4,825,727 to settle Lerwick Port Authority’s claim for costs and damages after the SIC went to the Court of Session in 2005 and got a court order (called an interim interdict) to stop the LPA dredging da Nort Mooth, because it would get in the way of one of the Bressa Brig piers;
• So that’s £7,073,662 in total. But no-one is to blame.
That £7m is lost forever. But no-one is to blame. Even at today’s low investment returns, £7m could have earned us about £315,000 a year in interest and dividends.
We could have spent this income, year after year, on old folks’ lunch clubs, holidays for vulnerable children, day care for pensioners, meals for school hostel pupils, music tuition, a town bus terminal, free ferries for seniors, free waste skips, public toilets – and many other council services that, until now, have made this one of the world’s most civilised small communities.
No-one is to blame but lessons have been learned. No-one is to blame, but new procedures are in place. It couldn’t happen again. Maybe not. But why did it happen in the first place?
Most councillors just don’t want to hear any more about it. On Monday they actually voted 9-4 against asking the council’s audit and standards committee to hold an inquiry. It would cost too much to find out what it had cost, we heard. No-one wanted to rake over all this, all over again, someone else said.
The council’s vote against an inquiry was irrelevant because the internal auditors must investigate, anyway. Their independent, factual report must, under the new constitution, come to the audit committee in due course. After that, even the Accounts Commission will presumably take a renewed interest and, as usual, find either that no-one is to blame or, perhaps, that “a big boy done it and ran away”.
Here are some of the questions that will probably not now get an embarrassing airing in any court, but which the internal auditors might wish to ask:
1. Why did the council ignore the clear advice it received, over 10 years ago, that Lerwick Port Authority’s legal “duty of conservation” made it impossible for the harbour ever to agree to a bridge that obstructed the north entrance for the passage of the largest vessels likely to use it (including the Royal Navy’s ships)?
2. Whose bright idea was it to seek the interim interdict in the Court of Session, halting the planned dredging? Was it a councillor, or a member of staff?
3. What legal advice did they seek, from whom, and when?
4. What, exactly, did it say?
5. Did the legal advice point out the dangers of seeking a “wrongful” interim interdict that the council could not justify at a subsequent full hearing in court?
6. Who decided that, because there was no time to call a council meeting to endorse this expensive and perilous legal adventure, they would have to use the emergency powers that reside with the convener and chief executive?
7. Who actually exercised the emergency powers?
8. Was the then chief executive involved in the use of the emergency powers?
9. If not, was he consulted, and what did he say?
10. When the monitoring officer later reported this use of the emergency powers to the council, were members told of the huge financial risks if the court order failed?
11. Did anyone check whether the council’s insurance policy covered it for acts of negligence or folly by suppliers of advice and services, as well as by councillors and staff?
12. Why are we relying on the opinion of the insurers on the question of potential council negligence? Do they not have a vested financial interest in finding none?
We hear soothing words to the effect that seeking an interim interdict is always “a judgment call” and that sometimes people get it wrong, with the best of intentions.
Only a proper inquiry can tell us whether this was indeed an entirely excusable mistake by innocents who all deserved medals, promotions and pensions, or a foolish gamble, recklessly pursued by ill-advised political incompetents and amounting to misconduct in a public office.
Lerwick South ward