A row over the appointment of a former business associate of council chief executive David Clark to carry out the independent review into the siting of a new Anderson High School has subsided as as quickly as it flared up.
Several councillors gave their backing to services committee chairman Gussie Angus, who sanctioned the choice of Andrew Laidler, a building surveyor known to Mr Clark when he was employed by Lambeth Council in London.
Only councillor Jonathan Wills, who was successful in persuading fellow members by 9-8 to back the review at last Thursday’s meeting of the committee, said he would not accept the appointment.
In an open letter to Mr Clark, Dr Wills cited the Nolan Principles on standards in public life and warned the council had to take the greatest care to “avoid even the slightest suspicion of cronyism”.
The dispute followed an extraordinary week of conflict between councillors and officials over the direction of the review, with the perception gaining ground at one stage – because of erroneous media reporting – that Mr Clark himself would carry it out.
Mr Laidler, who runs his own consultancy, Laidler and Associates Ltd., is already in Shetland and at work on a report assessing whether the Knab or Clickimin would offer the best value for council taxpayers.
On Wednesday evening Mr Clark told The Shetland Times that it was too early to put a cost on the exercise given that additional external bodies would have to be approached for feedback. He said: “Put it this way, it is not going to be cheap.” He said the cost would be made public in due course.
Mr Clark also said he was reasonably confident that the review could be carried out within the timeframe specified by councillors, ie. by September.
The chief executive said he was “entirely relaxed” about the review, which he foresees being a “rigorous and independent” process, adding that he was “very pleased” that a risk analysis would be included because “there will be different consequences depending on the decision being taken”.
However, in his letter Dr Wills stated: “To someone used to the quick decisions of the private business world, this insistence on ‘transparency’ may seem stuffy and procrastinating.
“We really cannot hire someone on the spot to carry out this important task just because our new chief executive has had business dealings with him in the past and believes him to be a reliable and effective operator.
“The gentleman may well be the pre-eminent person in his profession. But the fact that he had a previous business relationship with you makes it essential that we pause for thought before the council makes such an appointment.”
Dr Wills also alleged that despite the announcement having been made in his name, Mr Angus had told him he had informed the chief executive that he would like to meet Mr Laidler and check his references before appointing him.
Contacted by The Shetland Times on Thursday in Glasgow, where he is on business, Mr Angus said he was happy with the appointment of Mr Laidler, whom he described as a “five-star building surveyor”.
Mr Angus said he was “relaxed and positive” about the process, adding that because of the need to move quickly there would not have been time to put out a tender. The fact that Mr Laidler was an associate of Mr Clark was no problem for him: “Everybody is an associate of someone.”
Other councillors moved to support Mr Angus. Vice Convener Josie Simpson said: “Gussie [Angus] is pushing for this. If he’s happy I’m happy. You have to have confidence in the people doing the inquiry. I have no problem with it.”
Shetland central councillor Andrew Hughson said: “I’m not in a position to comment because I don’t know him, however if councillor Angus is satisfied he’s suitable candidate I’ll trust his judgement.”
Shetland north councillor Addie Doull said: “If it solves the problem it’s good news, it seems to be going round in circles.”
Shetland south councillor Jim Budge said: “If the chief executive thinks he is a suitable person I will go with his recommendation. We have to take the advice from officials.”
Shetland north councillor Bill Manson said: “I have no reason to be unhappy – I have no thoughts on the matter. I was not consulted and I don’t know the man. The chief executive has expertise in project management and I’m willing to back his judgement. I have no reason to believe he won’t be a perfectly satisfactory appointment.”
Lerwick north councillor Caroline Miller said: “If Gussie’s satisfied – that’s paramount. If he’s happy I’m happy.”
Fellow Lerwick north councillor Allan Wishart said: “I have no opinion because I don’t know him, but I can understand where David Clark is coming from because he knows his qualities and skills and the most important thing is to get on with this quickly.
“The whole question of putting the building to the Knab did not come as any surprise, it had been discussed for years but became an issue when all the planning information became known.
“The only way now is to get like-for-like information [on the other site], we need sufficient information to take it to planning. I fear it could take more than three months; it’s a huge job and David Clark moved very quickly. If we don’t get on with it, it could go into the long grass again.”
After planning permission was granted last Monday there has been growing public discontent about the wisdom of building on the Knab site, with a public meeting on Tuesday night attracting almost 90 people, most of whom were against the project.
Meanwhile, the Irish firm which was awarded the contract to build the £49 million new school on the Knab site has attacked the “unprofessional” conduct and “misleading” reasons behind last week’s decision by councillors to sanction the review.
Managing director of O’Hare & McGovern Eamon O’Hare said he was “grossly disappointed” with the decision, which came just days before the firm was due to start demolishing some of the old buildings and press on with work over the summer holidays. He said he doubted whether the timescale for the review was realistic.
Mr O’Hare said he was disappointed that his company had been caught up in political wrangling, pointing out that it was “never party to the selection of the site”. He said: “I don’t get involved in politics, but I would love to sit down with the councillors and talk through exactly what is going to happen, and I would like the opportunity to talk to those people who objected.”
He is also unhappy at what he perceives to be “misinformation” being circulated by certain councillors, especially in regard to the planning caveat that no work could be carried out on a Sunday. The firm, he said, is a “five-day-a-week contractor” which sometimes works on Saturday, but hardly ever on a Sunday except in emergency circumstances.
He took issue with a statement from councillor Allison Duncan last week that the new stipulation would add 36 weeks to the construction phase, saying instead that it would make “no difference” at all to the three-and-a-half year programme. Additionally, three-quarters of the school building will be completed in the first 22 months and the remainder in the following eight months. The final year will largely be for carrying out landscaping and other ancillary works.
A clearly frustrated Mr O’Hare said he was now keen to come to Shetland to explain to councillors and objectors to explain exactly how the building process would be carried out.
He said: “We’ve achieved this [programme of work] as a partnership – for somebody to come along and say it’s going to be 36 weeks extra, jumping on the bandwagon and saying ‘yeah, that’s terrible’, it’s very unprofessional and misleading.”
He continued: “We put a lot of arrangements in place in order to take advantage of the good weather and the summer working. The advantage of a July start here was to cause less disruption to the children [who are learning in] poor conditions at the moment. We wanted to cause as little disruption to the delivery of the curriculum as possible.”
Although he estimates the initial delay could cost his company around £100,000, Mr O’Hare is not considering walking away from the agreement with the council at this stage and hopes that, even if councillors decide to switch to the lower Staney Hill site, they could continue to work with the SIC and offer a competitive price. “I have too many commitments,” he said. “I have people who would become redundant. If it’s held off until September, at least I’ll have a chance of keeping those people employed.
“My fear is the depth of the inquiry they’ve now instigated could not be done in two months, they’re going to spend more money and come up with the wrong answers again. I really think the council should sit down and review what they did last week, to me it doesn’t make any economic sense.”
Both O’Hare & McGovern and the SIC are insisting that there is no agreement in place for a monthly retainer to be paid, contrary to rumours circulating in recent days. Deputy chief executive Hazel Sutherland said the early contractor involvement (ECI) arrangement meant that “they get paid for actual work done on the job at a rate that we agreed as part of the procurement process”.
Mr Clark said that no building work will now take place this calendar year, meaning a minimum delay of six months.
Following last week’s decision, preparatory site work – mainly to install temporary accommodation – to the value of £540,000, which had been sanctioned previously, has been halted while the review is carried out. Around £300,000 of that sum has been spent so far, with the project costing a total of £4.2 million since the turn of the century. Ms Sutherland said: “While they’re not doing any work on the project, we won’t be paying them.”