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Council officers slammed for dredger woes

By Alan Beresford

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"Appalling" organisation and communication at Moray Council has been largely blamed for the perceived poor performance of the local authority's dredger dredger MV Selkie.

A packed public meeting held in Fochabers Public Institute, hosted by local Conservative councillor Marc Macrae, brought together boat owners and other interested parties from the council's six harbours at Buckie, Findochty, Portknockie, Cullen, Hopemanand Burghead.

Joining Councillor Macrae at the top table for the evening were Moray MP Douglas Ross and Buckie councillor Tim Eagle.

Opening the meeting, Councillor Macrae stated that his serious concerns over the performance of the ill-starred Selkie, which has been plagued by technical and staffing issues since her launch in 2016, had stemmed from the results of a Freedom of Information request brought to his attention. Among the data from 2016-19 gleaned from the response was many harbours, including Portknockie and Findochty, not being dredged at all for sustained periods.

It was also confirmed that only 60 days had been earmarked for Moray harbours this year.

For many at the meeting, it was felt that this was woefully insufficient and that the Selkie's time should be devoted to sorting out Moray's harbours first then going elsewhere on hire once this was done. One member of the audience derided the 60-day plan, adding that the "business plan sucked".

Many of the grievances were centred around Burghead and Hopeman Harbours, including insufficient time for meaningful dredging and dredging in the wrong place in the harbour.

It also emerged that if the current situation if restricted access to Hopeman Harbour due to it requiring dredging continued, Gordonstoun School may consider ending its 85-year association with it later this year.

However, the bulk of the complaints voiced centred on issues of communication, in particular with the council's roads department, who are responsible for the upkeep of the local authority's harbours.

One audience member appeared to speak for many when he stated that there was "little confidence" in council officers, while another branded the organisation at council HQ "appalling". There were many accusations of officers not taking any account of local knowledge before undertaking dredging operations or "not listening" to suggestions from local Harbour Advisory Committees. Others expressed the view that councillors were not getting the "full story" behind the dredger's performance.

Former Moray councillor Dennis Slater said: "There's been so many broken promises; this [current situation] goes on and on and prices [harbour fees] go up and up.

"I feel terrible that as a councillor [I voted to] put the prices 50 per cent two years ago, I feel so guilty. We were promised that by doing this things would get done, but what's been done? Nothing. It's a slap in the face to me and a slap in the face to the boat owners."

Mr Slater later went on to accuse the council of being "run by officers".

Mr Ross slammed the perceived poor state of communication as "unforgivable" and that "things have to change".

"I'm encouraged to hear some people saying how well the dredger can work but it's clear that 60 days a year for Moray harbours is only going to scratch the surface," he continued.

"We have to spend to save in the long term – we need to dedicate more days to Moray harbours before sending the dredger elsewhere. We have the facility in the Selkie that can do the job is used properly.

"....During my 10 years as a Moray councillor I often felt I was shouted down by officer because I 'wasn't an expert' on a given subject."

Councillor Eagle said: "I understand that the Selkie will do the work but the thing is getting it to do the work

"I've been trying to argue that we have to prioritise the harbours this year...as councillors one of our biggest roles should be to prioritise these."

Councillor Macrae vowed to take the views expressed at the meeting back to the council.

He added: "If we [councillors] can echo your sentiments and your voice then hopefully we can get some better action and better communication.

"There're a lot of things we can take forward from tonight."

Councillor Leadbitter, the chairman of the council's economic development and infrastructure services committee which has overall responsibility for the six harbours, accepted that the Selkie had faced many challenges.

He said: "We've had issues but we're getting there.

"To be fair to the officers they're not happy with the way things are, either. We're moving in a better direction but have a way to go.

"I reckon it'll take to the end of this year for things to get properly back on track.

"It's frustrating for me as economic development and infrastructure services committee chair and it's frustrating for you guys, too."

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