AFTER numerous complaints about alleged misconduct involving councillors and officials, Argyll and Bute District Council is once again under investigation by Audit Scotland, the public spending watchdog for local government.

The National can reveal that despite two previous Audit Scotland reports calling for improvement of working relationships within Argyll and Bute, there are now more formal complaints by councillors against councillors – including leading members – and by officials against councillors than ever before.

Among issues complained of are claims and counter-claims by officials and councillors about a businessman’s use of Rothesay Harbour and the free use of council property in Dunoon by local groups.

The biggest cause of complaints, however, is the ongoing saga of Castle Toward, the former residential school on the Cowal peninsula which Argyll and Bute Council agreed at a secret meeting last month to sell to developer Denice Purdie for a sum believed to be £250,000 less than the £1.75 million asking price – the prospective purchaser has until September 30 to pay a first £1m instalment.

The campaign by local people to take control of the castle for community use through the South Cowal Community Development Company (SCCDC) continues despite the council decision, and The National has learned that local MSP Mike Russell and SCCDC chairman Alan Stewart have both lodged a series of questions with the council over the deal.

In addition, an online petition which has Russell’s backing is to be submitted to the council demanding a full and independent investigation into allegations of bullying and intimidation at Argyll and Bute Council, some of which have been reported in The National.

The petition, started by Trevor and Susan Chandler of the Castle Toward Supporters Group, calls for an investigation “of, among other things, a culture of bullying and intimidation of staff, past and present within Argyll and Bute Council.” The petition has amassed over 2,000 signatures on the campaign website 38 Degrees.

The timing could not be worse for Argyll and Bute as Audit Scotland has already made appointments to interview numerous councillors and officials. Four of the latter have formally complained to the Commissioner for Ethical Standards about alleged misconduct by Councillor Michael Breslin who campaigned strongly for the community buy-out of Castle Toward.

There are fears in some sectors of Argyll and Bute that complaints raised against elected members, either by other councillors or officials, are a tactic to stop open debate on vital issues such as Castle Toward, as once a complaint is made councillors are bound by a strictly-enforced confidentiality clause.

One councillor, who spoke to The National on condition of anonymity, said that councillors were “kept in line by raising complaints with the Standards Commission as it ensures we cannot really speak out until the complaint is finished.

“The confidentiality clause ties our hands. It is a very effective way of silencing the opposition.”

Previous reports into Argyll and Bute by Audit Scotland referred to “difficult working relationships” between some councillors and officers.

One report stated: “Senior officers need to consider what further they can do to ensure they are effectively supporting councillors to fulfil their roles and responsibilities. This includes how they support councillors to make the difficult decisions that lie ahead.

“This will require councillors to have a clear understanding of their respective roles and responsibilities and for officers to ensure that councillors get the information, guidance and support they need.”

In its findings on the October 2013 report, the Accounts Commission said: “The quality of leadership of the council has been inadequate. We urge the elected members and the corporate management team to work together to provide stronger and effective leadership of the council. Effective working relationships between elected members, and between members and officers, need to be based upon mutual trust, respect and transparency.”

Last July the Accounts Commission issued a second report following an investigation by the Controller of Audit – this was before the Castle Toward buyout began.

It stated: “The Commission is encouraged that the council is making progress against our previous findings of October 2013. “But we note in particular the Controller of Audit’s view that it is too early to assess the effectiveness of plans being implemented. We conclude that there is still much work to be done by the council to secure the improvements that we required in our previous findings.

“The Commission therefore requires the Controller of Audit to report on progress by the end of 2015, with particular focus upon the effectiveness of the following: Political management arrangements; Scrutiny; Roles and relationships, including between members and officers.”

An Audit Scotland spokesman told The National: “We are continuing to closely monitor wider issues in Argyll and Bute. Audit work will shortly be under way for a progress report by the Controller of Audit which is due by the end of this year.

“Last July, the Accounts Commission asked for this report to focus particularly on the effectiveness of political management arrangements, scrutiny, and roles and relationships, including between members and officers.”

Council Leader Dick Walsh told The National: “Audit Scotland representatives are making a follow-up visit to the council to find out more about the wide-ranging improvement action we have been taking as part of our ongoing Best Value audit. We look forward to a productive visit and any additional opportunities our work together brings.

“This council is meeting challenges and achieving progress and is focused on working constructively together where possible with all those who truly have Argyll and Bute’s best interests at heart.