In my last brief post on the HelpGov blog nearly three months ago I forswore the mention here of Scotland’s independence referendum. Well, as will be obvious to all but the most news-averse reader ‘indyref’ as it became universally dubbed on Twitter has been and gone. I got the result I wanted (see the blog formerly known as No Thanks! but now renamed The Nation says No Thanks!) and my mind is relatively clear to return to the meat of public service issues.

Now there’s a slight cheat here because the subject of this first-post-for-three-months arises directly from said referendum I said I’d forswear.

Regardless of the result one of the features that everyone must have noticed was the high participation in the Yes and No campaigns and the high turnout: 85% of the electorate voted. There was also a burst of voter registration in the period running up to the deadline as these figures for Scotland show

  • Registered electorate 2012 – 4,060,000
  • Registered electorate 2014 – 4,280,000

Some of those on the new register were the 16 and 17 year olds who could vote for the first time. But many were older people who registered to vote for the first time, or at least the first time for many years.

And that’s the trigger for this post.

A number of councils have said they will use the new up to date and expanded registers to find residents who owe them money, in particular council tax and the long-gone poll tax. The charge seems to have been led by the last council I worked for, Aberdeenshire.

Instant outrage has followed.

A typical example was a local spokesperson for a group called Women for Independence, who is quoted in today’s Press and Journal as saying

The reason many people, particularly from poorer and disadvantaged backgrounds, stayed off the register was because of a suspicion that they would be targeted by councils for debts arising from the now-scrapped poll tax. Not only is this targeting the poorest but smacks of retribution for those people daring to find a voice in our democratic process.

The outrage is of course complete tosh although less polite words are available.

The facts are

  • it is entirely legitimate for a council to seek to recover debts owed to it, whether for the poll tax, council tax or any other reasons
  • those other reasons for debt range from business owners who disappear leaving business rates unpaid to housing tenants who do a flit owing rent
  • debts owed to a council are in effect debts owed to all of us as citizens
  • councils have always used as many sources of information as they efficiently can to recover debts
  • people who decline to pay their debts to a council do so for many reasons. A past political act in relation to the poll tax may be one but a not insubstantial proportion are people who won’t pay rather than can’t
  • poor people don’t have to pay all their debts off in one go but can come to an arrangement to pay in manageable instalments
  • no evidence has been presented to say that new entrants on the electoral register in 2014 are either so poor they cannot pay their debts or are more likely to owe their council money than any other electors
  • old debt is not somehow forgivable because it is old. The only criterion that should be used to write it off is an excessive cost of collection.

I am pleased councils are using every feasible means to collect unpaid debts. More power to their elbow.


A dump of snow, the schools close, outrage ensues. The media’s full of people complaining this is health and safety gone mad, the impact on business is unacceptable, teachers aren’t dedicated like they used to be, even – on the radio today – ‘teachers want to exchange the 3 Rs for a bit of R & R.’

An easy reaction but too glib. Here are nine reasons schools should close in bad weather

1. It’s all about the children

Schools are there for children and their education. They’re not like adults, able to take responsibility for their own safety. Even if their safety can be ensured in school they’ve still got to get there and back. Students may be 17 or 18 but they’re also as young as five – younger if the school includes a nursery.

2. Teachers can’t get in

If teachers have a class of 25 normally is it reasonable or effective for them to take, say, 50? If they teach English is it feasible to ask them to take a physics class? If they normally teach the 11 year olds can they cope with a class of five year olds, perhaps without a classroom assistant? The space may not be there to combine classes. And since it’s not always predictable which teachers will be able to get in, planning for how to combine classes may be impossible.

3. Other staff can’t get in

Those other staff can include technicians, essential to the running of some science/technical subjects, catering staff, even the janitor. Operating without them can make as much sense as asking the MD to pop down to the shop floor, sweep the snow from the delivery bay, switch the heating on and get the production line going with half the workers missing.

4. The school itself is unsafe

A roof has collapsed, snow has got in, the heating’s off, the water tank’s burst, the entrance is covered in ice.  OK, maybe some of it shouldn’t happen, but it can, even in the best maintained premises. And if the staff can’t get in maybe the gas engineer or water company can’t either.

5. Children can’t get in

A pretty obvious reason when children travel by car, public transport or school bus to school. The head teacher can command none of them to run a service.

6. Lunch can’t be provided

OK, so would you let the kids go without food? It may not only be the catering staff who can’t get in, suppliers might not be able to deliver food.

7. The logistics of part-opening don’t always make sense

Well, you might say, if they can’t cope with the younger ones, why not tell the older ones to get in? If some are revising for, or even taking exams, tell them they’ve got to get in but let the others stay at home. Ever heard of a logistical nightmare? Check some of the other reasons why school should close to see why part-opening may not be a good idea.

8. Schools are there to provide education, not a child sitting service

If they genuinely can’t provide an education when the weather is bad, all schools will be offering is a basic child minding service. The poor old schools get enough dumped on them in the way of solving society’s problems. Why should they take on an added burden of parental responsibility or help sort what is at best a temporary problem for (some) other employers whose staff have to take time off to look after their children?

9. The weather might not be bad now but it’s forecast to get dangerously worse

You look out the window, it’s not nice but the roads are passable. Why’s the school closing? Check the weather forecast. The head teacher will. And if it’s going to get a lot worse during the day it’s not a good idea to have a building full of children unable to get home mid-afternoon.

Sometimes schools just can’t overcome the impact of snow and ice. What they can do of course is make sure parents get good information as soon as possible about likely closures – online, text messages, local radio. Maybe the situation’s easier in those parts of the UK where Gove-ism hasn’t driven schools from the arms of the local authority and they can do a bit of co-ordination.

In Scotland many local authorities have great online information about school closures. Take a look at Aberdeenshire’s web site for example, where as I write 123 schools in their large rural area are closed or partly closed. The head teacher’s responsible for getting information about their school online and it’s updated all the time. And you can get the information on a map, by RSS feed, Twitter or subscribe for e-mail alerts. That’s what I call a good service.

Oh, and the same council (I used to work for them) instructs teachers who can’t get in to work to go to a more accessible school that’s open, if there’s one, failing which to work at home. So much for ‘R &R.’

Cross about the whole thing? Don’t worry, in a few days it’ll all be forgotten until the next spot of bad weather when the same old finger-pointing will start up all over again.


I nearly wrote this two days ago when Donald Trump issued his latest statement about the offshore wind turbines he believes will blight his new golf course at Menie in Aberdeenshire.

The not-always sensible gene in my brain told me ‘Wait a day or two otherwise you’ll write something you regret.’ It also saved me getting confused with another news story that day, headlined by The Scotsman as

Man who arrived in Scotland with rare fever transferred to London hospital.

Sadly, it wasn’t about the noisy Trump-et but a poor man who has since died of the rare disease he had.

It’s best to let Trump speak for himself. Here’s some of what he said.

  • Their [the RSPB’s] name should be changed to RSKB – “Royal Society for the Killing of Birds” to reflect their pro-wind turbine position
  • Military radar will be totally affected by these massive, ugly and inefficient turbines…..wind turbines compromise national security
  • They are doing it strictly because Alex Salmond wants them to, and Alex Salmond has a death wish for Scotland
  • The golf course I have built is already considered, perhaps, the best in the world
  • The hotel I am planning would likewise be far superior to any hotel in Scotland, England, Ireland and, hopefully, anywhere in Europe
  • Restaurants, hotels and stores are packed to the rafters because of the success of our great golf development
  • Alex Salmond, whose greatest contribution has been to let a Libyan terrorist go home to his friends after bombing Pan Am flight 103
  • Almost as importantly as the destruction of the Scottish environment and landscape, taxes will be raised massively for Scottish taxpayers to pay for Alex’s folly.

It’s difficult to know where to start in analysing this meretricious nonsense. Put at its simplest it re-tells the old, old story of Trump’s superiority in every way to anyone who might threaten his business.

So, the RSPB don’t exist to protect birds but the Donald does. He knows better than the UK military about radar and national security. His golf course and hotel will be the best in Scotland, the UK, Europe…the world. Restaurants, hotels and ‘stores’ in the North east are packed to the rafters already a few months after his golf course opened [They’re not]. Alex Salmond – who I hold no brief for – not only has a death wish for the country he so clearly loves above all else but his greatest achievement has been releasing a Libyan terrorist. And to pay for the one wind farm off Aberdeen that is the cause of Trump’s ill-temper, taxes [that the Scottish Parliament currently has no power to raise] will have to increase massively.

Perhaps the only other thing you need to know about Donald Trump is what I heard the director of the excellent documentary You’ve Been Trumped say when the film was premiered in Aberdeen

In three years [following Trump for the movie] I didn’t hear him say ‘Thank you’ once.


I blogged recently on the Disney-esque signs that had appeared at the entrance to Donald Trump’s Aberdeenshire golf course.  My spies passed the said entrance yesterday and lo and behold report they’ve disappeared.    Something about the fact that they were in breach of the planning permission perhaps, being a mere 83% larger than they should have been.  I hope so.

Incidentally, wonderful as the climate of North East Scotland can be (it’s a sort of contrary thing – when the weather elsewhere in the UK is rubbish it’s often good here, and vice versa) we are shrouded in intense low-lying cloud today.

I do hope the punters who’ve coughed up between £120, locals, and £150, visitors, for a weekday round today at introductory offer prices (code for it’ll cost more later) can see their balls, if you get my meaning.


I’ve resisted the temptation to blog about the big issues pro-and-con raised by Donald Trump’s Menie Links golf course in Aberdeenshire. Others have done it bigger (which is appropriate for a larger-than-life character like The Donald) and better than I can.

I did have a pop a while ago at Trump’s environmental concerns about an offshore wind farm that, if it’s ever built,  just might be visible (with binoculars) from the higher points of his golf course.

Now I see he’s in trouble with the local council planners over the sign you see here (I’ve taken it from the Aberdeen Evening Express web site without asking, naughty boy that I am.  I’ll remove it if they object, and trek out to take one of my own if necessary – I hope for his sake he’s not using G4S for his security staff these days).

The sign is instructive for a number of reasons.

First, although he was given planning permission for a sign 3.27 metres long it’s actually 6 metres in length. But what’s an 83% disparity between friends?  After all it’s only as if The Shard in London was 132 habitable floors high instead of 72.

Then there’s the question of the design, which presumably conforms to some corporate house style knocked up in Manhattan, or more likely Florida.

It’s in shiny black stuff with gold lettering and trim. Of course it is, that spells ‘class’ doesn’t it?

The material might be granite or it might be that waterproof plastic stuff they line shower cubicles with. Never mind that the North East of Scotland does a nice line in granite of its own, with some wonderful grey and pink stone easily available.

Local material might also have dictated a more genuinely classier shape than the rectangle-with-curly-bits-on-the-top that I lack the technical vocabulary to describe.

The curly bits allow space for a presumably faux coat of arms in gold to be inserted above the legend ‘Trump International Golf Links.’ Again, more class. Perhaps the Lord Lyon King of Arms could confirm whether the design has been registered.

Not being a typographer, I don’t know what the typeface used on the sign is. Like the shape of the sign it’s also curly. If it’s choice was ever brainstormed in some design studio I assume their flip chart would have been full of words like ‘hand-written’, ‘quill’, ‘bygone age’, ‘upscale’ and, oh yes, ‘classy.’

Underneath the name of the course is written the word ‘SCOTLAND’ just in case you thought you were in downtown Buenos Aires or Disney World. It’s in capitals of course so you GET THE POINT.

The whole thing is mounted on two rectangular poles, again shiny black. Other mountings are available, like the vernacular dry stane dykes (dry stone walls) that are traditional in the area and are used to great effect in many local signs.

But maybe Trump’s people think a vernacular is some kind of railway you build up the side of a world heritage mountain, improving it no end of course.

I could have taken Mr T to several undertakers in the area that have very similar signs, and to the same effect.

PS Glancing at the photo I’ve just realised that superficially the sign looks like a grand piano dumped down in the middle of nowhere. Seems appropriate.