Local Council Election Hustings

Friday April 21st 2017

eskbank amenity society hustings

Written by Phil Bowen, editor

Last night I attended an election hustings at St John’s and King’s Park church organised by the Eskbank Amenity Society.

If you have never been to a hustings before then just think BBC Question Time but with local people on the platform and you’ve got the picture.

I would encourage everyone to go to a hustings if they get a chance, and there are likely to be some in the run up to the General Election. A hustings is a great way to see and meet the people who want to represent you and it is much better than reading any election leaflet that is posted through your door.

So what happened? Performing the role of David Dimbleby as the hustings chair was Malcolm McGregor, local advocate, and he did a very good job of keeping the candidates precise and concise as well as ensuring they didn’t meander off topic as one or two tried to do.

This hustings was for the Midlothian East ward in the local council elections and 5 of the 6 candidates were present; Peter Smaill (Conservative), Louise D’Arcy-Greig (SNP), John Hackett (Labour), Helen Armstrong (Greens) and Robert Hogg (Independent). Kenneth Baird (SNP) was not present.

Questions from the audience ranged from planning, GP surgeries, council tax, council spending, the budget as well as Edinburgh flight path changes.

On planning, John Hackett (Labour) said there needed to be more transparency of where developer contributions were being spent.

Louise D’Arcy-Greig (SNP) admitted she didn’t know much about planning.

Helen Armstrong (Green) made an interesting point that there was a need to look at where the housing need was coming from. She said people were coming out of Edinburgh to buy larger but cheaper houses and then commuting back into Edinburgh.

Peter Smaill (Conservative) said that the last SNP council did not do enough to stand up against the Scottish Government and so had agreed to build proportionally more houses than most other councils with the obvious knock on effect such as increased traffic and lack of GPs.

Robert Hogg said that as he was an independent he would not need to follow his party line and so would be free to speak up against developments when required.

There were questions on whether Midlothian Council should raise more money locally, where budget savings should be made and what financial experience the candidates have.

Of all the candidates Peter Smaill (Conservative), as chair of the audit committee for the council, appeared much more well versed in the council finances than the other candidates. He said that soon the council will run out of money and that it had not made sufficient savings this year.

Smaill said that so much of the council spending is dictated to by the SNP Scottish Government that it left the council little room to manoeuvre. He gave the example of pupil ratio and that Aberdeen council had ignored Scottish Government diktat and increased the pupil ratio in certain subjects where it felt it could without affecting pupils and as a result had made significant savings.

He said that Midlothian council had struggled to make less than a million pounds of savings this year when they had wanted to identify savings of two million. And that they were nowhere near the savings of £4m and £8m that they will have to make in the coming years.

He also said that there is a “Pensions bombshell” lurking in the council’s final salary pension scheme that needs to be addressed.

John Hackett (Labour) said that through his job at the Unison Union he had lots of experience of scrutinising council budgets. He gave the example of working with Edinbugh Council to identify significant savings and redeploying staff.

He said that Midlothian Council currently have 108 staff earning over £50k and that if that figure was reduced by just ten then that would save half a million pounds for the council.

He made the point that whoever was elected would form the most unpopular council because of the cuts that were required to balance the budget.

Helen Armstrong (Green) said that more money should be raised directly by Midlothian Council and that more should be done to even out the wealth gap.

She said that the Green Party’s policy is to replace the council tax with something like a tax on the value of a property’s value, for example 1% on the value of the property. An audience member, Robin Traquair who is a Conservative candidate in Dalkeith’s ward, queried whether people living locally in Eskbank in very large houses would stand for an annual tax of £10,000 per year. Armstrong did not have solid response to that.

Armstrong did say that the council should be investing in ways to create its own money such as the renewable energy production scheme that Green councillor Ian Baxter has successfully got the council to investigate. She also suggested that perhaps the council should buy land and develop it’s own housing so that it can profit from house sale rather than property developers.

Louise D’Arcy-Greig (SNP) gave rather disappointingly weak answers on finance. She said she has limited experience of finances other than managing the account of her community group.

She said that she was not supportive of increasing council tax again as it had only just been increased.

She did however say that she thought more money could be raised by increasing the costs of community services such as leisure centres.

Robert Hogg (Independent) said that his experience of taxation was a bit limited but he did say that he thought all councillors would benefit from mandatory financial training as he thought the majority were insufficiently experienced for such a key part of a councillor’s role.

The final question asked whether the current SNP council policy of no compulsory redundancies was sustainable given the budget issues.

Louis D’Arcy-Greig (SNP) said that it was important for all council staff to be safe and secure in their jobs. She did say it was something that she would need to look into. It should be noted that the SNP’s manifesto has reiterated its commitment to keeping no compulsory redundancies policy.

John Hackett (Labour) said that although he is Union man and it went against his natural reaction he said that he cannot make a commitment not to make redundancies. He said that the council is not sustainable at the moment.

Helen Armstrong (Greens) said that unfortunately it was something they may have to consider and Robert Hogg (Independent) agreed.

Peter Smaill (Conservative) said it was a natural part of modern working life that the profile of required roles changes over time. He said the current policy of non compulsory redundancies has meant the savings so far have been so small.

And at that Malcolm McGregor thanked everyone for their participation and called the meeting to a close.

So there you go, that was the hustings. Three councillors will be elected from each ward, so after May 4th three of these candidates will then be responsible for making crucial decisions on the behalf of the people of Midlothian.

It is very important that everyone exercises their right to vote and that they do this carefully based on comparing the candidates.

To help you make up your mind Midlothian View will be completing its candidate profiles shortly and then will publish an article for each ward containing the profiles of all candidates in that ward so that you can compare them side by side.

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