Sunday, 29 June 2014

Midlothian's failures shown up in one decision

Anyone wanting to analyse what is wrong with Midlothian, its council and its politics, need only look at how it has dealt with the former Bonnyrigg Leisure Centre (BLC) for some pretty stark answers.

When the new Lasswade Centre opened last year the council decided the building, along with others deemed surplus to requirements, was to be 'disposed of'. Restrictions due to its being in a public park meant  that if retained it could only be for community use and up until a couple of years ago had attracted little interest. Although the council recognises the building has over 20 years' life, it considered the cost of bringing it up to a useable state to be of the order of £200,000. Demolition seemed the most likely fate for the building and the one the council favoured. This is all well documented in my earlier posts.

When a community group, later to become the Bonnyrigg Centre Trust (BCT), decided the building would be ideal as a community centre, and with the Scottish Government's Community Renewal and Empowerment Bill being steered through parliament, the time seemed right to explore the possibility of community asset transfer (CAT) - particularly as Bonnyrigg has been growing at a phenomenal rate and is now the largest town in Midlothian. Although the new Lasswade Centre is recognised as an excellent new resource in the town, the group looked at the facilities being provided and saw there were many gaps - and as many community groups wanting to fill them (over 20 at the last count). Also, since the BLC and Public Hall had both closed, Bonnyrigg now lacks a focal point in the heart of the town centre.

From the start the council was sceptical. There was an understandable fear that the building would remain empty for a long period of time, vulnerable to vandalism, and until transferred would be a drain on the council's resources.

Instead of working with the community to help it either to draw up a viable business plan or to understand one was not possible, it treated the whole process as a commercial transaction, seeking to minimise financial risks to itself with minimal community engagement. It sought no advice from the third sector, relying on its own expertise - extensive, but only in asset disposal, not community asset transfer. It also paid little attention to the enormous long term benefits in terms of both quality of life for its citizens or indeed financial returns the improved social cohesion would eventually bring to the council.

There have been four or five 'final decisions' on this building, and each time the BCT's Business Plan has become stronger, culminating in the report to council on 24th June stating that its case was 'the only bid worthy of further consideration', and was described by Council Leader Owen Thompson as 'very strong'.

So what went wrong? In the absence of a CAT policy, the council put in place a rigid process for dealing with formal bids, insisted everyone follow that process, then when it realised that the BCT Business Plan was likely to be accepted, changed the rules and invited councillors to consider the option of accepting an alternative proposal which had never been formally submitted. Confused?

Why there isn't a CAT policy in place is a moot point. An excellent draft policy was put before councillors several months ago but was kicked into the long grass - the leader of the opposition said it needed further discussion, consultation and a seminar first. The draft policy was comprehensive and based on Best Practice. I have only been a councillor for two years and I understood it. Why did the Labour Group, with decades of experience between them find it so difficult to understand?

So we ended up with a process open to political manipulation. And behind it I believe there was a surreptitious Labour inspired campaign designed to stop the BCT getting its hands on the building. The BCT has no connections with any political party and in Bonnyrigg that's not how things are done. The leader of the BCT group was demonised.  I can't go into much detail as it would compromise the position of people involved in some community groups (which may indeed be unaware of how they were being exploited). Suffice it to say that anyone close to what goes on in Bonnyrigg knows exactly what I mean.

As there was no CAT policy, the council had to tread warily. I tried hard to bring the different groups bidding for the building together to form a single group. This was strongly resisted (not by BCT who were as keen as I was). I met with representatives of the Bonnyrigg and Sherwood Development Trust and Bright Sparks and in both cases given a firm No. I was told by council officials that as different groups were in competition it was safer for them to work with none.

The Bonnyrigg and Poltonhall Neighbourhood Plan process, running over the last year, was an ideal opportunity to identify the needs of the community and how the BLC could help fulfil many of them. Again due to political pressure, any BLC solution was 'de-coupled' from the process  - the official reason was that we needed to look at the wider picture rather than focussing on the BLC, so everyone was told to officially ignore the elephant in the room. Various community groups participating in the process were perplexed and asked it be reinstated, but were ignored.

Let me make one thing clear; I am very pleased for Bright Sparks - the charity does a tremendous job and if it is given the go-ahead to use the building it will be a great boost for the valuable work it does and for the community. But why can it not be part of a bigger solution? It's a big building which can accommodate everyone's needs. Why have their needs been presented as being in opposition to the community's when they are complementary and in many ways overlap? The Bright Sparks petition was signed by many people who thought it was indeed part of the BCT bid - a petition which notably did not make any mention of the need to demolish three quarters of the building. The petition was the only one publicised widely on social media and distributed personally by local Labour Party members. Those supporting the BCT bid were invariably criticised for attacking Bright Sparks, despite universal denials (see the comments on Midlothian Council's Facebook page). In the Midlothian Advertiser of 19 June I said' "Whilst I very much support the work of Bright Sparks, demolishing most of the building would be a betrayal of the community's expectations",  to which Cllr Derek Milligan responded, "Councillor Baxter should be ashamed of his attack on Bright Sparks".  What on earth is going on?

At least with the Labour Party I know where I stand. With the SNP it's not that simple. The Midlothian SNP Group has been gripped by its own Project Fear. Never mind the fantastic long term opportunities this could bring, let's look at the risks. Alex Salmond would be mortified.

Bonnyrigg SNP Councillor Bob Constable had previously told the BCT that if council officials came up with a recommendation which said their proposals were viable then he would support them. So what changed, Bob?

Council Leader Owen Thompson told me a couple of weeks ago that he thought giving the BCT six months to prove they could get sufficient funding was something he could support. So why didn't you, Owen. When I asked Owen why his group were backing the Bright Sparks proposal he said 'We've looked at both options and that one seems the better of the two". This was also the only argument he presented at the full council meeting.

Other SNP councillors were very reluctant to provide council funding to the venture - none was asked for (and an awful lot has been given to other similar projects elsewhere in Midlothian - one significantly into six figures). Now we have the real possibility of the council sinking more money into a building (who knows how much more), three quarters of which the council will also have to pay to have demolished.

One SNP councillor told me privately, months ago, that he could not understand why his group were not backing the community on this. Three months ago, SNP councillor Lisa Beattie bravely voted with me on a proposal to give the BCT six months to prove itself. A zero risk option for the council which, if it failed would have committed me to agreeing to demolishing the building. She voted against her group and now faces disciplinary measures from her own party. Is this what the SNP in Midlothian is reduced to? Its major selling point in Midlothian used to be that it wasn't Labour. What is it now?

There is only one other councillor who has consistently looked beyond the politics on this issue, has been prepared to put his faith in the community and to take some risks and that has been Independent Peter de Vink. Ironic isn't it? The one councillor I am furthest from politically, and will never agree with on some issues, is the only one I can say I have any confidence in.







Sunday, 8 June 2014

How Planning works in Midlothian

I sometimes wonder why Midlothian Council bothers with a Local Development Plan. Perhaps it's because it has to, I imagine. Because whenever the sniff of development appears before our councillors, it might as well not exist.

The most worrying example was Planning Committee's decision on Cauldhall Opencast mine, where even Planning Officers recommended acceptance, even though the area concerned was not designated for mineral exploration or extraction in the plan (though the exact boundaries of the proposed mine curiously appear in the draft plan, at the time still at the consultation stage). When I asked why officials were recommending something which contravened the Local Plan, I was criticised by fellow councillors for suggesting officials were not doing their job. Surely they should have been asking the same question as I.

Despite coal mining not being one of the seven key economic sectors identified in the Midlothian Economic Development Framework, councillors argued for acceptance on the basis of the jobs Cauldhall would bring (which is not a Planning consideration, and anyway something I disputed, given the number of workers laid off by Scottish Coal when it went into administration). Tourism, however, is one of the key sectors, yet Cauldhall will be seen from many vantage points across the county! So perhaps I should also be asking why we have an Economic Development Framework when councillors seem so keen to ignore that as well.

In two days' time, the Scottish Government is expected to announce that its targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will be missed for the third year running - so why did the SNP Council Leader (of all people) propose the motion that Cauldhall should be approved?

At the most recent Planning Committee meeting on 27 May, we considered an outline application for up to 60 houses at Fordel, outside Dalkeith. Officers this time recommended refusal as the area was not included for development on the current or draft plan. It is also nearly a mile from the nearest bus route, along an unlit track (councillors argued "if we build the houses, buses will come" - yes, and on what planet?). The site was described as Brownfield (on the site visit, I would say half the site is very much Greenfield with hedgerows and trees in evidence). I proposed refusal but as usual I lost the vote.

When a Planning application is refused, an appeal may be lodged by the applicant. This is determined by the Local Review Body (LRB), on which I sit. Usually, a site visit takes place prior to the meeting and only those councillors attending the site visit are allowed to take part in the decision.

Some degree of flexibility from the strict regulations regarding planning decisions can be expected at LRB and in general, common sense prevails. For example, I've often found myself supporting appeals against refusal to install double glazing units in conservation areas, provided they look reasonable in the context of their surroundings.

At last week's LRB meeting, however, the 'Development at all costs' mantra reared its head again amongst my fellow councillors. This resulted in a decision to bulldoze around 500 square metres of maturing woodland beside the Butlerfield Industrial Estate, despite advice from Planning officials that it would 'detract materially from the character and amenity of the area, contrary to the adopted Midlothian Local Plan Policy'.

Further, I queried why councillors were not advised of the Biodiversity impact of losing this. As usual, I was greeted with blank looks.

Probably because Midlothian no longer has a Biodiversity officer, and as we heard at the following day's Special Performance, Review and Scrutiny Committee, when I asked, the person now responsible for biodiversity has other more pressing priorities.

The Main Issues Report for the draft local plan went out to consultation last year. It will be interesting to see how the council reacts to the overwhelming opposition to its proposals to effectively duplicate the A701 and give the green light to massive development in Straiton and that area of the Green Belt. Given Midlothian's past record, I expect that opposition to be ignored, and even if it's not, councillors will ensure that tarmac and concrete are the order of the day. And when I object, I'll lose the vote; and when I ask why, I'll get blank looks.



Sunday, 20 April 2014

It's not about flags, labels or the past. A Yes vote is about the future.

A poll in today's Scotland on Sunday suggests that English born Scots currently intend to vote 2:1 against independence.

I was born in England and I will once again be supporting England in this summer's World Cup finals. Having moved to Scotland 38 years ago, I think of myself as neither English nor Scottish, defaulting to 'British' when asked my nationality.

But independence is not about flags, labels or the past. It's about the future of the country I call home and below is a transcript of a speech I gave at a recent public meeting organised by Yes Midlothian spelling out why I am passionate about independence and will be voting Yes on September 18th.

- - - - - -

It is now less than six months to the referendum. Looking back to six months ago, I was to say the least, lukewarm towards Independence.

Yes, I felt it would put Scotland in a place it belonged and one day it would happen anyway - it just seemed to be the direction we were heading.

I was never in doubt that we could manage economically and surviving as an independent nation was never an issue for me. Now that even David Cameron has said the same, it is no longer an issue for anyone.

Six months ago, while I supported Independence, I was not passionate about it, simply because I had other priorities. 

However, it was only when listening to Robin McAlpine, who gave a presentation to the Scottish Greens’ conference in October, that I began to realise that the changes I want to see can only happen in an independent Scotland.

That’s not to say they definitely will happen but that as things stand, they definitely won’t as part of the UK.

So what priorities do the Greens have?

We live in a world with finite resources. If humanity is to survive, we need to manage those resources better.

The pie isn’t getting any bigger and if anything it will need to get smaller if catastrophic destruction of the planet is to be avoided.

Importantly, we need to look at how we share out what we already have rather than relying on a fragile model of exploitation of resources and people to fuel a wasteful and consumer obsessed world.

And this can only be achieved by reducing inequality.

 Reducing inequality also brings many other benefits.

Anyone who has read ‘The Spirit Level’ by Wilkinson and Pickett, will be convinced that reducing inequality is also the key to reducing many of the social problems we face - their study looked at 

Level of Trust
Mental Illness including drug & alcohol addiction
Life expectancy & infant mortality
Obesity
Children's educational performance
Teenage pregnancies
Homicides
Imprisonment rates
And social mobility

They looked at all of these across over 20 countries and across each of the states in the US (to show it’s inequality, not the wealth of a country which is the problem). In all cases there was a close co-relation between all of these problems and inequality. Reduce inequality and each of these problems diminishes. 

We’ve heard a lot about the Nordic countries in the independence debate and how countries like Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland have lower levels of inequality, and as the Spirit Level shows, these countries display lower levels of social problems like those I’ve described.

That surely must be what we aspire to.

The UK is the fourth most unequal country in the world.

The top fifth of people in the UK earn around 14 times that of the bottom fifth.

Where the five richest families are now wealthier than the bottom 20% combined.

London is the most unequal city in the developed world.

So I ask myself, is a more equal society more likely in an independent Scotland or is it more likely to come from Westminster?

In the UK, inequality has steadily risen over the last few decades - even under Labour governments.

Witness the rise of the food bank.

Westminster MPs voted last month to cap the total Welfare bill in a race to prove to likely Tory or UKIP voters that their party will continue to bring down the deficit by austerity.

At Westminster, the debate on taxation revolves around whether the richest pay 45 or 50 pence in the pound on their income. Commitments on the Minimum Wage revolve around whether or not it should be increased in line with inflation.

 The Bedroom Tax, like the Poll Tax before it, was imposed by a Westminster government against the will of the vast majority of Scots.

Surely we can do better than this.

In Scotland, the emphasis is different.

Here, we were the first to oppose the Poll Tax. We seek to extend the Living Wage and abolish the Bedroom Tax.

We introduced the Right to Roam, we’re giving more rights to communities in land reform and we embraced proportional representation for both our parliament and local councils.

Yes, the emphasis is different here.

Voters and politicians in many political parties in Scotland share my desire to reduce inequality.

Independence would give us the chance to work together to do that.

The most exciting change politically is that the Labour Party would be re-invigorated and could once again become the force for change it once was.

No longer shackled to following the opinion polls of Middle England, it would be freed to work with all of us in this country who want to see the benefits of a more equal society.

 But it’s more than a more equal society that we could work together for.

We’ve heard of Devo Max, Devo Plus, Devo Nano. Whatever powers are promised, they will not enable us to do other things that I, and I believe, the majority of Scots want to see.

It would not remove the obscenity of nuclear weapons from our shores.

 While we can regulate for home insulation but we cannot regulate our energy companies.

We would have greater control over the levers of our economy.

But we are told that if we use Sterling, we might not have any control over monetary policy.

Ten years ago, the debate in Scotland was that interest rates were too high and were hurting the Scottish economy. The Bank of England told us they had to be high to dampen the housing boom in the south east of England.

And we are told that Scotland is too small to bail out failing banks.

Is Scotland too small, or the banks too big?

If we fix the bank problem, then the country problem goes away.

We can regulate rail fares, but cannot bring the railways back into public ownership where they belong.

Our cherished postal service has just been sold off cheaply to the delight of City of London investors.

I, and I believe most of Scotland, want it back.

We have no written constitution and an unelected House of Lords

I would like a head of state not chosen by God, but elected by the people.

Of the four elections we vote in, only one is not by a fairer proportional system - yes, the one to Westminster.

Then we’re told that an independent Scotland’s status would be diminished on the world stage.

Conservative minister Kenneth Clark recently told the Scottish Tory conference that an independent Scotland would have the same influence as Malta.

Malta, with a population less than Edinburgh, has five Members of the European Parliament.

As part of the UK, Scotland currently has six.

Finland, Denmark and Slovakia, on the other hand, with populations roughly the same as Scotland, each have thirteen.


Six months ago I was lukewarm about Scottish independence because I didn’t see it as a priority. Now I am passionate about Scottish independence because all my priorities depend on it.






Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Leisure Centre can kicked down the road again

It was no surprise that Midlothian councillors decided yesterday not to accept officers' recommendations that Bonnyrigg Leisure Centre be demolished. Given the overwhelming publicity in the media and opposition by MSPs Alison Johnstone and Colin Beattie, to do so would be electoral suicide for councillors voting for it, not to mention the prospect of images of people chained to the building as the bulldozers arrive featuring on national television (a very real possibility, according to my sources).

The council instead agreed the following motion:

"Midlothian Council welcomes the report by [the] assessment panel on bids for [the] former Bonnyrigg Leisure Centre; accepts the recommendations of the assessment panel not to accept either the bid from Bonnyrigg Centre Trust or Midlothian Fitness Academy; considers that in order to support recommendation iv, demolition of the former Leisure Centre be postponed to allow consideration to be given to use all or part of the building; requests a report to the June meeting of Midlothian Council to present outcome of these considerations; and instructs the Chief Executive to write to each of the two bidders to inform and explain the reasons for the decision of the council".

Recommendation iv relates to the panel having identified a need for Soft Play facilities in the town as this was available at the Leisure Centre but is not available at the new Lasswade Centre.

This motion was agreed on a vote by 14-2 (Peter de Vink and Peter Boyes were not present). I proposed an alternative, supported by Cllr Lisa Beattie, which I will come to later.

As I explained at the meeting, I could not support the above motion for two reasons. Firstly, it stipulates that the building will be retained in order to support recommendation iv. This means that all other potential uses, of which the community has identified many, will not be considered valid reasons for keeping the building. It therefore means that when the council comes to assessing bids in June, those which involve providing Soft Play and only Soft Play, will be given equal weight in terms of the Community Benefit they provide to those which incorporate Soft Play within the many uses the building could be put to.

For example, cycle and skateboard repair space (to complement the adjacent skate park being built), youth club, dance classes, community rooms, a function hall, social enterprise desk space, climbing wall, art studios, cafe, after school and sports clubs; none of these will be assessed as being of community benefit as the council has stated that the stay of execution is only to support recommendation iv.

The second reason I couldn't support it is because in three months' time there is no guarantee we will be in a different place from where we are now. By the end of June the building will have been mothballed for a year, at a significant cost to the council. I believe this is largely because the council has refused to sit down with the bidders to try to come up with a Business Plan which the council would have confidence in. I have asked for this to happen, but was told that as there was more than one bidder, they were concerned that one may be seen as being favoured over the other and the safest approach was to co-operate with neither. Yes, questions were answered and information provided to both, but what I would describe as community engagement simply did not happen.

This could have been overcome by simply accrediting the Bonnyrigg Centre Trust (BCT) (whose Business Plan is generally accepted, certainly by me, as the one offering much greater community benefit) with 'Preferred Bidder' status. This would allow council officials to work through the council's concerns with BCT to come up with a plan which councillors could have confidence in.

Secondly, and crucially, it would allow BCT to obtain funding offers, conditional upon its gaining ultimate ownership of the building, thereby overcoming another of the council's concerns, namely that no funding was in place. BCT had been advised by funders that their applications would not be considered without either ownership of the building or Preferred Bidder status.

Frustrated at the lack, yet again, of an end point to this whole process, I therefore lodged my own proposal. This involved accepting the BCT offer to buy the building, with a handover on 22nd September 2014 provided two conditions are met.

The first condition is that a Business Plan is presented to the council which has been appraised by an independent body to have a good chance of success when measured against Third Sector criteria. The second is that funding of at least £60,000 has been secured. If both conditions are not met, then the building will be demolished on or after 23rd September 2014. This would address the concerns the council has about the proposal whilst providing a clear end point to the process.

So in three months' time, councillors will be asked to decide once again on the fate of this magnificent building. After yesterday's debate, my guess is that instead of the community getting a thriving community hub with much needed facilities for a growing town - now the biggest in Midlothian - it will offer a few crumbs in the shape of retaining the back hall for Soft Play and reduce the huge bulk of the structure to rubble.


Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Opencast exposes council's sham commitment to action on climate change

Below is a transcript of my speech to today's Planning Committee on the Cauldhall Opencast mine application. My proposal to reject the application was defeated by 9 votes to 5.

- - - - - - 

There are a number of issues concerning this application which give me cause for concern.

Perhaps the most worrying is the cavalier acceptance by officers that we can ignore the Local Development Plan currently in force and override the democratic process by which the next local plan is to be adopted. Let us be clear; this application is contrary to the local plan currently in force, and as we can’t be sure what may come along in the future, rejection should have been recommended on that basis alone.

The Midlothian Economic Development Framework identifies seven key economic sectors to support a target of 10,000 new jobs by 2020. Mining is not one of them.

We cannot allow our policies in relation to local planning and economic development to be drawn up on the hoof.

The arguments put forward for the application itself are questionable.

Paragraph 8.63 claims that 230 jobs will be created in Midlothian. This does not square with experience in other open cast mines in Scotland, and the Airfield proposal, rejected unanimously by this committee in 2010, expected to provide only 50 jobs on a site producing half as much coal as Cauldhall, at a time when the economics for coal were much healthier. Moreover, since Scottish Coal went into administration, there are now several hundred skilled and experienced people, principally in Lanarkshire and Ayrshire, with the incentive to commute to jobs at Cauldhall. I also question how much indirect employment will be created when Scottish Coal leased nearly all its equipment from a wholly owned subsidiary company.

The applicant is unclear where the market is for Cauldhall coal. Much of it has a high sulphur content – the highest in Scotland. Even when blended with low sulphur coal from the site, large amounts of imported low sulphur coal may still be required, and transportation to power stations in England has not been ruled out, with no impact assessment made of these routes, contrary to Policy MIN1 of the Local Plan.

I am concerned about the environmental impact. 20% of the site is in a designated Area of Great Landscape Value, highly visible from the Pentlands, Moorfoots and other viewpoints across the county. One and a half hectares of ancient woodland will be destroyed.

Paragraph 8.69 acknowledges that the proposed restoration will “alter the landscape to a potentially detrimental effect”. Scottish Natural Heritage states that there could be long term and significant negative impacts upon local landscape character.

Traffic levels along the proposed route will rise markedly, and levels at the Mayshade roundabout on the A7 are already causing concern without an additional lorry every three minutes.

On site restoration, paragraph 8.37 is worrying – that “the planning authority would wish to assure itself that the restoration is the best that is achievable ” is hardly a bold statement. What is meant by ‘achieveable’? And what confidence can we have in a company with a track record of complying with only its minimal obligations with respect to restoration on sites it has acquired from Scottish Coal and ATH? Assurances were made by Scottish Coal and councils thought restoration bonds were secure, but as we know, all legal contracts have loopholes and I have no doubt that once planning permission is granted, those loopholes will be exploited.

And finally, we cannot ignore the elephant in the room – climate change. Last week, the most powerful hurricane ever to make landfall hit the Philippines. Only yesterday, Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework on Climate Change, said “most of the existing coal reserves should be left in the ground”.

Scotland has one of the most demanding CO2 reduction targets in the world. In 2007 this council signed up to the Climate Change Declaration. Are we going to walk away from our responsibilities and legal duties under the Climate Change Act? Coal extraction alone would release significant amounts of CO2 and methane into the atmosphere and Cauldhall would become the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Midlothian.

In summary therefore, I believe the risks involved in approving this application are too great; to our communities, to our landscape, to our economy (not least tourism), and to both the finances and reputation of Midlothian Council.



Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Say Yes to a more equal society



In two days' time, the Scottish Greens launch the 'Green Yes' campaign in Edinburgh and I will be there. Until recently, when asked my opinion on Scottish Independence I would reply that I am in favour but it's low on my list of priorities, with climate change way ahead at the top.

Although independence has always seemed to me a natural destination for Scotland, I couldn't see that it would be much different from what we already have - especially given Alex Salmond's 'reassurances' of retaining the monarchy, Sterling and membership of NATO. I was rather hoping for an elected head of state, a guarantee of ridding ourselves of nuclear weapons and using a currency over which we had at least some influence. Add to that the SNP's vision of an oil based economy with a race to the bottom on Corporation Tax, I was beginning to wonder what all the fuss was about.

However, although climate change is still way ahead in importance, something happened to move the need for independence rapidly up the charts - probably to the number two slot.

At the Scottish Green Party conference in Inverness last month, I listened to presentations from Professor Mike Danson and Robin McAlpine both of the Jimmy Reid Foundation on the Common Weal project. Between them they convinced me that if we really want a better society we need a less unequal one. Moreover, the statistics show that the Nordic countries (principally Scandinavia and Iceland), by reducing inequality and focussing on social cohesion, have come closer to achieving high marks in everything from welfare and education to economic well-being, productivity and competitiveness.

So what has this got to do with Scottish independence? Let's look at where we are and where we are heading as part of the Union - austerity cuts, tax reductions for the better off, and a general move towards centralisation; do these make for a more equal society? Laying the blame on others (whether it's the poor, unemployed, immigrants, Europe, take your pick); does this make for a more equal society?

We're continually told by the UK Government that we need to be more competitive and this means lower top rate tax bands. However, in the Nordic countries, personal taxes are relatively high (though business taxes relatively low), yet these countries score well in terms of productivity and competitiveness globally.

So which direction are we more likely to follow as part of the Union and which direction if we go independent? If we vote No next year, it is clear to me that inequality will increase - on past record even a Labour government will not address the fundamentals, but if we vote Yes, then at least we can decide for ourselves. In Scotland the culture already favours inclusivity (witness the introduction of proportional representation for local councils and the rejection of UKIP's message).

The referendum really does offer us the chance to create a better Scotland. On Friday the Greens will launch the Green Yes campaign with its vision of what that Scotland should become - one which I have no doubt will have equality at its heart.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Incompetence comes to the rescue


Campaigners to save Bonnyrigg Leisure Centre were delighted when Midlothian councillors decided yesterday to defer a decision on demolition for five months. This is to give the local community the opportunity to come forward with alternative proposals through the Bonnyrigg and Poltonhall Neighbourhood plan consultations, both due to start this month. I too was delighted, as this is something which I seem alone amongst councillors in thinking an obvious thing to do - especially given all the lip service paid to community involvement and asset transfer.

So why the change of heart? Well, actually there hasn't been one - and that was clear from yesterday's debate. What has changed is that Midlothian Council discovered just a couple of weeks ago that the building cannot be demolished without the permission of Fields in Trust (FIT - formerly the Playing Fields Association). Herein lies the problem for the council - earlier this year, FIT's UK Chief Executive, Helen Griffiths, visited the building and wrote to the council requesting that the building be retained for 12 months to "allow local residents time to make a combined community decision and to conduct a feasibility study on future possible uses". The reaction of one Labour councillor yesterday was to ask officials what the repercussions would be of pulling down the building anyway!

Of course, 5 months is not 12 months, but if properly co-ordinated, sufficient feedback from the Neighbourhood Plan consultations should provide enough indication of support to put together a robust Business Plan by December for the council to make an informed decision. Reducing the time scale also reduces costs as well as risks associated with maintaining a building which is not currently in use. The estimated cost to the council of the five month delay is £41,000 - about half the money which the council would save in demolition costs if a long term future is found to be viable; a point lost, it seems on those who would rather the bulldozers had already done their job.

To be fair, not all the other 17 councillors are in agreement - of those who spoke yesterday, Cllr Lisa Beattie (SNP) said that the community's proposals bear closer examination, and other SNP councillors, as well as Independent Peter de Vink, have privately expressed surprise that the administration is so opposed to listening to the community before taking action. The Labour Group, on the other hand, shows no signs of listening to anyone on the matter.

These were the arguments presented yesterday, and I'l, er, demolish them one by one...

1. The council cannot afford £41,000 and the figure may escalate.

This was stated time and again by Labour councillors - the same group who earlier this year presented a budget with a £1.5 million black hole, and subsequently presented proposals for food waste management involving hundreds of thousands of pounds annual costs - all uncosted. Both times I asked them where the money was to come from and each time they said it was for council officials to find it. Similarly, in June, the SNP administration forced through a decision to build the Newbattle school hub as well as retaining local facilities, resulting in an estimated £600,000 unbudgeted annual deficit. So why the sudden concern over £41k? What about the saved demolition costs? What about the savings in social work and child and family support costs accruing over many years when the new community facilities start to have an effect?

2. Consultation was carried out years ago and no-one was interested. 

The Bonnyrigg Leisure Centre Initiative group carried out an online survey which found that only a tiny proportion of those asked found out about the demolition proposals over a year ago, and the vast majority only in the last 3 months, no doubt due to the recent publicity.

So, only two 'arguments' presented, neither of which stands up to scrutiny. In fact most of the debate was taken up with councillors asking why FIT had not been consulted years ago - concern it seems that boxes had not been ticked rather than "why do we want to do this?".

Interestingly, the Bonnyrigg & Sherwood Development Trust, which had previously been in favour of only retaining the back hall, now has plans which involve retaining the whole building. So we now have two community groups opposing demolition, and a consultation which will no doubt bring forward much more interest in using the building. The task now is to bring all those with a common interest together through the consultation process and present a single Business Plan to the council in December. If by then we fail to build a compelling case for keeping the building, then at least we will have tried, and then the building can come down. However, I'm confident that will not be the case, and we will look back on yesterday's decision as a turning point in what has been a long and hard fought battle by our community to have its voice heard. A voice which, finally we hope, will be heard by the politicians.