Stornoway Trust - an elected body - but must operate by different rules

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For almost 100 years it has been looking after the business of the Stornoway Estate for the wider good of the people who live within its boundaries.

For most of that time the way it has conducted its business has not concerned the people who live on the estate, however these days the Stornoway Trust has come under particular scrutiny.

In recent years some have questioned the benefits of its business decisions to the community it serves and they demand greater transparency from this organisation, whose members are democratically elected, but yet, it remains free of the rules which apply to a public body.

The Trust, which has been described by themselves, as a ‘civic and social organisation’, does not invite the press to its meetings, it does not publish information from meetings and, in fact, it rarely communicates its aspirations, or actions to the wider community via formal information releases to engage the public in its work, in the way that is commonplace with other Trusts, or businesses.

It is perhaps this lack of engagement which has fostered a sense of suspicion around the dealings of the organisation and seeds critical stories about the Trust and its members.

This week that suspicion was again highlighted when concerns about the governance of the Trust were raised thanks to a local blog-site claiming that even Trust members are unaware of some of the business which is conducted within the body.

The site ‘Hebrides Writer’ (http://www.hebrideswriter.com/2019/02/18/stornoway-trust-breakdown/) managed by journalist Katie Laing, sets out the position that some Trustees - particularly those ‘most likely to ask awkward questions’ - are unaware of all of the business of the Trust.

The article quoted Trustee Colin Maclean, who described how he had not received an email about an aspect of the Trust’s business, and while this information had gone out to other Trustees, he only learned of the matters involved two weeks after the event.

The Gazette asked the Stornoway Trust to answer the points raised about transparency and its obligation as an elected body to the public and to its members.

MISCHIEF

In reply, Trust Factor Iain Maciver was adamant that the organisation is doing everything correctly and operates as far as the rules on business confidentiality and data protection will allow.

He said: “The Trust meets monthly and all the business that comes in - correspondence, applications, responses to previous ongoing business gets presented to the Trustees at the monthly meetings for their deliberation. The outcome is then delegated to the office to deal with.

“I know that it has been stated on numerous occasions that items come in and it is hidden from Trustees, but that is totally incorrect and has no basis whatsoever, but it is part of the mischief which is being claimed against the Trust.

“All the Trustees who attend the meetings are privy to everything that goes on and have an opportunity at these meetings to state their case and make their position clear and that has been the case with the Trust for as long as I can remember.

“Clearly there is a an effort being made to discredit the Trust, because of what the Trust is doing (in regards to wind farm development) is not finding favour in certain quarters.”

Mr Maciver went on to describe how the press used to regularly attend the Trust meetings, but explained that the Trust is not a public body, but a business and that it deals with individuals and companies and, at times, sensitive information.

He continued: “That is one of the benefits of having a landowner that is sensitive to the needs of the tenants within the estate. They can come to Trust in the knowledge that their business is not going to be discussed on the streets of Stornoway.”

When asked about how the reporting of Council affairs, which also deals with business sensitive information, and the Trust differs, he reiterated the position of the Trust being a business - not a public body - and it being constrained due to rules about sharing information.

He added: “Nothing is done behind closed doors, the Trust stands and falls by its decisions, decisions, which are taken to be in the best interests of the Trust and the wider community. The Trust is nearly 100 years old and it is only in recent times that this has come up as an issue.

“The Trust is happy to share with the press when the occasion requires, by issuing press releases and statements on things that are of public interest. The difficulty we have is in the nature of the business that we deal with.

“If anyone comes into the Trust office for advice - for making applications etc - they can do so in the knowledge that it is a piece of business between themselves and the Trust.

“If it goes beyond that, if someone needs planning, that goes into the public domain through the planning system, if it is someone wanting to assign a croft that goes into the public domain through the (Crofting) Commission, but it is not for the Trust to go and share with a third party.”