SNP council leader accused of 'nepotism' after husband's company given £1 rent deal

AN SNP council leader is at the centre of a potentially damaging nepotism row - after her husband’s company was given a local authority property for a rent of just £1 a year.

Susan Aitken leads the nationalist group that runs Glasgow Council - and has recently championed a scheme where empty shops owned by the council in disadvantaged areas are rented out for next to nothing.

Known as Meanwhile Spaces, the taxpayer-funded initiative aims to breathe new life into run-down parts of the city.

However, it has been revealed that the first organisation to benefit from the scheme is run by Ms Aitken’s husband, businessman Gordon Archer.

Susan Aitken leads the nationalist group that runs Glasgow Council. Picture: John Devlin

An arts magazine of which Mr Archer is director has taken over a shop in the Saltmarket area of Glasgow and has set up a gallery where artists are charged to exhibit their work and where copies of the magazine are on sale.

Politicians are now demanding reassurances over that no rules had been broken.

Meanwhile neighbouring businesses claimed it was unfair they were having to pay high rents for their properties while the gallery was being given space almost for free.

Annie Wells, Scottish conservative Glasgow MSP, said: “There will be a lot of raised eyebrows when the people of Glasgow read this.

“This seems awfully cosy and of course questions will be asked about why such a deal was given first to Glasgow Council Leader’s husband.

“Other businesses and taxpayers must be reassured by the Council Leader that all due diligence and transparency was followed.”

And shopkeeper Margaret Morrison-Macleod who sells organic aromatherapy products from a shop across the road from the controversial gallery, said: “I have to work all week to pay the council rent on my shop.

“Yet here we have the husband of the council leader walking into a fully-refurbished shop at a cost of just £1 a year.

“To be honest, I am devastated at the sheer unfairness of it all.”

The ‘Meanwhile Spaces’ scheme was championed by Ms Aitken as far back as September last year.

Hailed as a success in London and Paris, ‘Meanwhile Spaces’ is designed to hand vacant council-owned shops to arts groups and business start-ups until a rent-paying tenant can be found.

A committee document in Councillor Aitken’s name proposed: “There is a risk that, should these organisations not receive support and assistance to grow, they may not fully each their potential.

“Advice and guidance from professional advisers is also critical to help businesses make informed decisions about their existing and future property needs.”

Her suggestion added: “City Property will be inviting applicants for Meanwhile Spaces projects who can help deliver local regeneration and place-shaping activities, meeting local vision and community need.

“Under the terms of the project, monthly leases or weekly licences will be granted up to a maximum period of one year, with an option to review thereafter.

“The rent for the first year will be £1 per annum.”

As part of the programme, the council spent £345,000 refurbishing and decorating 11 empty premises.

Launching the scheme recently, the council announced that the participants would include SOGO Arts Magazine who took over a double-fronted vacant shop in the Saltmarket following an extensive refurbishment.

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There was no mention in the news release that SOGO’s chair is Gordon Archer, a former Labour and SNP councillor and the spouse of council leader Susan Aitken.

Mr Archer later tweeted: “SOGO Arts opens on Sunday September 8th, with our first exhibition, a retrospective of David Pratt’s war photography.

“We’ll be open six days a week in our new home on the Saltmarket.”

His wife also used social media to encourage people to visit the gallery. On September 5, Ms Aitken tweeted: “Just fab to see our @Glasgow Meanwhile Spaces project, led by @AngusCMillar becoming a reality with this wonderful exhibition of @foreigncorr1 stunning heartbreaking war photography in sogo_mag gallery in the Saltmarket. Get along to see this extraordinary body of work.”

Ms Aitken has not declared her husband’s involvement in the Meanwhile Spaces project on her official register of interests.

But last night the council said that she was not under any obligation to declare it on the register - but suggested that Ms Aitken would openly declare her husband’s involvement at any future meetings where the Meanwhile Places scheme was being discussed.

The Code of Conduct compiled for councillors by the Standards Commission for Scotland insists that the financial interest of a spouse has to be declared orally if the matter is being discussed at a committee involving the councillor.

However, there is no obligation to include the interests of a spouse in the written register of interest a councillor has to produce.

Susan Aitken and Gordon Archer were rising stars of the Labour Party before both defected to the nationalists. Mr Archer is hardly a ‘start-up’ businessman. He has been director of no fewer than seven companies which have been dissolved. Another one is in liquidation and a ninth is in administration.

The new gallery in the Saltmarket sells the SOGO arts magazine, prints of pictures and receives sponsorship from other businesses.

A spokesman for Glasgow City Council said: ”Organisations took part in a Submission Assessment Process, with applicants scored on their quality of answers and their impact on delivering the aims of the High Street Area Strategy.

“SOGO, a non-profit community interest company, was chosen by City Property after scoring particularly highly.”

Asked if Ms Aitken should have declared her husband’s involvement, the spokesman replied: “It is not a registerable interest.

“Section 4 of the Code of Conduct for members states explicitly that it is not necessary to register the interests of a spouse.

“This is separate and distinct from Section 5, which covers declarations of interests in a meeting.

“To be clear, circumstances have not arisen where any such a declaration should or could have been made.”

The city administration is already reeling from the departure of Lord Provost, Eva Bolander, who made lavish clothing claims on her civic allowance.