Lively debate at Newbattle Hustings

Thursday April 27th 2017

Newbattle Conversation Hustings Candidates

From left to right: Ann Southwood, Principal, Newbattle Abbey College; Ian Baxter (Green); Ken Brown (Liberal Democrat); Kelly Parry (SNP); David Lee, event chair; Brian Lister, Chair, Newbattle Abbey College; Robin Traquair (Conservative); Derek Milligan (Labour).

Article written by Newbattle Conversations

The next council administration in Midlothian could be the most unpopular ever as a result of the funding cuts it will have to make, a hustings event at Newbattle heard.

Derek Milligan, a former Labour leader of the local authority, said the new ruling group would need to make savings of at least £4 million and up to £8 million in the 2017-2022 session.

He stressed that finance would be the big issue for the next Midlothian Council term. The local authority has already saved £2 million in 2017/18, but Councillor Milligan said further annual savings of up to £8 million from a total budget of under £200 million was “one heck of a task”, adding: “The next administration could be the most unpopular ever.”

Councillor Milligan also warned of the social care challenge – not a ‘ticking time bomb’, but an issue for now – and said it was increasingly difficult to get staff to fill posts to ensure care packages were delivered to vulnerable people.

The hustings, held in the drawing room at Newbattle Abbey College, included detailed discussion about the significant housing development coming to Midlothian – with around 6000 homes to be built – and the lack of infrastructure to support it.

“The transport, the doctors’ surgeries, the schools, the broadband, it is just not there,” said Ian Baxter, a Green councillor in Midlothian for the last five years. Ken Brown, a Liberal Democrat candidate in Penicuik, said housing was already putting a strain on services and had led to “gridlock” at peak times in parts of Midlothian.

Councillor Kelly Parry (SNP, Midlothian West) agreed with a question from the audience that new development offered an opportunity to inject more dynamism into Midlothian, and said there should be more appreciation of the positives of the area, including its rural beauty.

Councillor Parry, the youngest-ever female member of Midlothian Council when elected in a September 2015 by-election aged 32, said she would campaign passionately for Midlothian West if re-elected: “There are lots of people just managing and lots not managing at all and the SNP has very clear priorities to help them.”

Robin Traquair, a Conservative candidate in Dalkeith who runs a farm at Millerhill, promised to bring “thrift and diligence” to the council if elected and said he would focus on trying to drive up the low rate of business start-ups in Midlothian.

Mr Traquair was criticised for his party’s support for the so-called ‘rape clause’ as part of its benefits package – an indication of the challenge facing candidates seeking election to local councils on May 4th, just five weeks before the snap general election called by Theresa May.

All the panelists said it was difficult to get people to focus on local issues in the face of the general election, Brexit and a potential second Scottish independence referendum. Ken Brown said local elections should be about local issues, but the difficulty was highlighted when a question from the audience asked the panellists how they voted in the EU referendum and why. Robin Traquair voted leave, citing bloated bureaucracy and slow decision-making, as did Derek Milligan, who felt Europe had done nothing for the working class.

Ian Baxter, Ken Brown and Kelly Parry all voted to remain with Parry saying she was staunchly European and that EU funding has supported many infrastructure projects in Midlothian.

There were mixed views on the Borders Railway line and its benefits to Midlothian. Derek Milligan expressed concerns that it had not reduced traffic at peak times, with trains often full to bursting before reaching Eskbank & Dalkeith. Ian Baxter said a more joined-up transport strategy was required, with the potential for ‘spur lines’ from existing rail links as well as light rail.

Newbattle Deputy Principal Marian Docherty asked the panelists what they would do to support adults wishing to return to education part-time or full-time, especially the most vulnerable. Derek Milligan said childcare and transport assistance were often vital, especially for single parents, while Kelly Parry voiced her strong support for lifelong education.

Event chair David Lee said it was all to play for in Midlothian, with the 2012-17 council make-up including 8 SNP, 8 Labour, one Green and one Independent councillor. With another coalition likely after the May elections, Ian Baxter and the other serving councillors stressed that collaboration was crucial to ensure decisions were made in the best interests of local people and not party politics. However, several panelists returned to the challenge of funding, with Derek Milligan concluding: “We have to do what is right, not what is popular.”

Newbattle Abbey College Principal Ann Southwood opened the event by saying the Midlothian Council hustings was part of the Newbattle Conversations series. The five-year programme promotes academic debate and public discourse on Scotland’s history and its recent political awakening – and features annual lectures, seminars, hustings and other relevant events. The series culminates with an international academic conference in Spring 2020 to celebrate the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath, which was drafted at Newbattle.

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