Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Shining a light on political distortion

An online petition is currently doing the rounds in Midlothian. It states "Midlothian's SNP and Green Councillors have voted to withdraw funding for the erection, dismantling, insurance and maintenance of Christmas lights across our communities", with the emotive strapline "Make the most of your lights ... they'll be your last".

To give some background, a budget was agreed last week between myself and the SNP on which not only were both parties comfortable, given the severe financial constraints, but which also contained significant overlap with Labour's proposals.

However, one line in a long list of officials' proposals which Labour wanted removed was  entitled 'Review Christmas light funding'. Note the word 'Review'. During the budget debate, this item was not raised as a priority by Labour, so its importance to them now would appear to be more by virtue of its being an emotive issue at this time of year than anything else.

However, that did not stop the Bonnyrigg Events Committee from setting up and wildly promoting a petition to 'name and shame' councillors who heartlessly voted to get rid of our lights.

That the Bonnyrigg Events Committee is run by two people who will be the Labour candidates in May should be lost on no-one, and the straying into what may be seen as party political activity by a community group is, well, unusual.

The actual budget proposal "seeks to review all funding for the provision, erection and dismantling of Christmas lights, trees, etc. This will require a specific focus on promoting greater community involvement for the erection, maintenance and dismantling of the lights, etc. The alternative is where the local community provide funding to allow this to continue to be carried out by the service".

My own view is that the review should focus on other forms of external funding - sponsorship or advertising, perhaps by companies which specialise in this kind of thing, for whom the costs would be substantially less than those incurred by the council, and would benefit from the publicity.

Because those costs are now significant - £60,000 a year, or the equivalent of about 3 learning assistants in our schools, and growing as more lights are purchased by community groups. Buying the lights is the easy part, but who pays to then check them, put them up and then take them down every year? Bonnyrigg alone costs around £20,000 a year.

As it's a review, there will be no decision to stop erecting or dismantling them until the review is complete. We do, however, have a responsibility to council taxpayers to review this escalating cost and reduce it if at all possible. If a petition is to be launched, surely the time to do that is after the review is completed and a final decision about to be taken. And yes, if there is strong feeling amongst the population that they agree with the Labour Party that this is one of the highest priorities council taxpayers hold, then the funding will be no doubt be kept.

But let me ask this of those signing the petition. Do you have any idea about the financial problems our council faces? Where do you think the £60,000 should come from? Social care? Education? Children's services? Closing libraries? Road maintenance? 

If you really are getting so animated about a £60,000 cut to a non essential service, how will you feel when the full £40,000,000 of cuts start to hit over the next five years? Yes, you read that right, £40 million.

The Labour budget proposals offered no solution. Although they, rightly in my opinion, called for a more thorough analysis of staffing costs across the council, their savings proposals were vague, involving the bringing forward of staff cuts which are far from even being identified, and assume cutting more back room staff will have no impact on front line services. I'm sorry, but all the low hanging fruit has been plucked and further cuts will hurt, no matter where they are taken from.

That's why my own budget proposals sought to bring in more income, rather than spending less, with a major investment in council owned renewable energy. And I believe we need to start looking for other income streams too.

I'm disappointed that Labour has yet again taken a confrontational position, especially when there was significant agreement across all parties during the budget debate. By working with other parties as I did, they would undoubtedly have achieved some of their aims - probably including this one if it really such a high priority for them. But this is an election year and it seems that some things will never change.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Council Budget decision and how nothing changes in Midlothian

With the ink not even dry on yesterday's council budget decision, I have already been publicly accused by one Labour councillor of "political point scoring". So here's my take on the proceedings.

Council was presented with the officers' proposals which we were asked to consider and approve. The SNP proposed a couple of amendments - to remove the proposed 15p rise in school meal charges and to delete the removal of the capital element of councillors' environmental allowances (£10k per councillor per annum - although the impact on the Revenue account is minimal). This has the effect of increasing slightly the amount required to be transferred from Reserves from the £2.6 million proposed.

Taking any funds from Reserves to balance the books is something to be avoided - as it simply puts the problem off to next year. However, as Labour points out, Reserves are currently quite healthy by historical standards and due to John Swinney's very late decision to cut 3.5% from grants to councils, in this instance I believe it is justified.

Let's be clear. It would be in Labour's interest to put off the biggest cuts to next year - to be announced as we head into a local election campaign, and that, I'm sure, was at the forefront of their minds as they argued that cuts right now are 'unnecessary'.

As I've pointed out repeatedly, the Labour Group on Midlothian Council does not speak to me. It lives in a world where it thinks it's one by-election from taking back power, where the national opinion polls don't apply and one day very soon, their boat will come in. Indeed, I am convinced it much prefers to lose every vote in the chamber than seek out my support and at least have a chance of winning one or two.

However, I do keep trying to open a dialogue. In previous years, there has been significant overlap between Labour's and my budget proposals. So I suggested to the Labour Group Leader, Cllr Derek Milligan, that perhaps we should set up a meeting and explore the options. Yet again, no-one came back to me, and depressingly, Labour played out its time-honoured charade of tabling its amendments by handing round a sheet of paper in the middle of the council meeting.

I described this at yesterday's meeting as 'neither professional nor adult' as a way to proceed. By contrast, when I last produced a formal budget proposal, I emailed it to all councillors 48 hours before the meeting. So why do Labour continue to behave like this?

I listened to Labour's proposals and agreed with them that the cut to community policing is a step too far. I expressed disappointment that they did not see fit to discuss their other proposals with me (it would have been in confidence) in advance, but I was not prepared to react to a gun placed against my head at the council meeting. Cllr Milligan's response was that they had only received information from officials at short notice so didn't have time. Which is pretty weak, considering I had been sitting in my office the previous day and Derek has my mobile number. What important information they had received on the afternoon before the meeting to prevent this they didn't say.

So in the light of the information presented, I proposed a removal of the cut to Community Policing, funded from Reserves (in addition to the SNP amendments), to allow a year to examine the alternatives. I may have supported more of Labour's proposals had they bothered to speak to me in advance, but I wasn't going to be intimidated into doing so. I asked for a seconder to my proposal, which (as expected) was not forthcoming, and then abstained on the full motion.

The critical point for me was that Labour highlighted the Community Policing cut as their overriding concern, with an impassioned speech on how bad it will be. I offered them a clear opportunity to get my backing on that, which they rejected in favour of their usual entrenched isolationist position.

So while I agree there is political point scoring, it's pretty clear to me who is doing it.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Bizarre planning decisions and who benefits

Hot on the heels of my last post, on a hotel application approved in the Pentlands Regional Park, comes another bizarre and worrying decision by Midlothian councillors.

A site referred as to the the 'Former Arniston Gas Works' sounds like it's an old industrial site which would benefit from being cleaned up and turned over to something prettier and more useful like housing, but a site visit reveals something very different.

Viewed here on Google Maps (it's just to the left of the A7, adjacent to the track and Borders Rail line), it's clearly only about 20% brownfield, comprising some hard standing, holding a few skips and containers. The rest is woodland and open ground with shrubs and bushes. It's also very much in what would be called a rural location.

The proposal for ten luxury houses (full details here - Item 7a) was rejected by planning officials as it contravened the current and proposed Local Plans and was inadequately served by public transport.

When an application determined by officers under delegated powers, as with this one, is refused, the developer has a right to appeal. The appeal is heard by the Local Review Body which comprises ten of Midlothian's 18 councillors. Also, only those members of LRB who attend a site visit prior to determination are allowed to vote on the appeal.

In this instance the following councillors were eligible to vote - Cllrs Baxter, Bennett, Bryant (chair), Constable, de Vink, Imrie, Milligan and Montgomery.

As far as I recall, only two arguments were presented in favour of upholding the appeal - that this is a Brownfield site and that it is adjacent to the area known as Redheughs, designated for some 700 houses in the proposed Local Development Plan.

The first, as I've said, is simply not true - and was backed by the Forestry Commission, which has stated that if planning permission were to be refused, it wanted to return the whole site to natural woodland. The Forestry Commission had also complained that illegal tree felling had already taken place at the site.

The second is, well utterly bizarre - we have a local plan process to designate areas for housing and boundaries are boundaries. That process involved wide consultation with the public, community councils and others. It decided the boundary for housing, but councillors in this case and without good reason overruled it.

I proposed that we support our planning officials and reject the application. All other councillors present (except Cllr Milligan who declared an interest) decided otherwise and I could not find a seconder.

This is where the story gets interesting.

Getting planning permission for a site not in the local plan for development - particularly in the countryside - can be a highly lucrative business. Without permission, the land value is quite low. With permission it can go sky high.

The developer for the Arniston site is a company called Pegasus Flooring, based at Dalhousie Business Park in Bonnyrigg. A little investigation (e.g. here) identifies a director and, as far as I understand, its owner, to be none other than James McHale (aka Seamus).

Those with long memories will recognise this name from the scandal surrounding the council's missing £37,500, meant to pay for a new car park at Bonnyrigg Rose Football Club but as far as we are aware, still missing (reminders here and here).

Now I don't know if anything untoward has been happening, and certainly have no hard evidence, but I doubt if I'm the only one who is puzzled by it all. And this is not the first time I have complained that applications for housing contrary to the local plan have been successful (see reference to Fordel application here), and they are far from isolated cases. So what on earth is going on?

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Building a reputation for destruction

At yesterday's Planning committee meeting of Midlothian Council, the contentious item was supposed to be the proposal for two small wind turbines at Springfield Farm near Leadburn (voted down, in the main by SNP councillors, despite my pleas for Midlothian to step up to the plate on our - and the SNP government's - carbon reduction targets).

However, it was an application for a hotel in the Pentland Hills Regional Park which troubled me more. Within the boundary of Hillend Country Park and in an area designated as an Area of Great Landscape Value, the site is also in the Pentland Hills Special Landscape Area in the proposed MLDP, "assessed as being of high value in terms of scenic quality, enjoyment and naturalness". The site includes a large number of mature trees and shrubs.

So on an elevated site, viewed from much of the Damhead area, what currently looks like a small woodland will be replaced by a three storey hotel and holiday chalets.

The response from the Scottish Wildlife Trust, referring to the woodland, is littered with phrases such as "should as much as possible be left intact" and "if possible, continuous strips of woodland should be retained". I won't be holding my breath.

Edinburgh Council's response asks what alternative sites had been assessed and discounted to justify the location in a sensitive site (none as far as I know), pointing out that the tree removal "will impact adversely on the character of the landscape", suggesting any tree replacement would be "a long term prospect" and highlighted the site's prominence, with concern about lighting from within the site. You could argue that Edinburgh Council is unlikely to welcome new hotels just across the border, but you can't argue that the points they make are not valid.

It seems that the rationale behind Planning officials recommending approval is that the hotel would 'complement' the adjacent Snowsports centre. In what way? It suggests there is a need for people to be accommodated close to the centre - despite it lying beside the terminus of the number 4 bus which takes all of 25 minutes to arrive from Haymarket.

At the Planning meeting, councillors repeatedly referred to 'demand' for a hotel. The original application included four houses on part of the site (since amended to holiday chalets). If the project is expected to be profitable, why the need to boost its income with spinoff houses? More importantly, if there is clear demand for a hotel close to the Snowsports centre, whatever happened to applications 09/00614/PPP (hotel and restaurant/bar, approved 19 June 2012) and 10/00529/DPP (hotel, approved February 2011)? Both sites are a matter of yards from this one, in one case directly across the road. Both, it should be said, are in much less sensitive sites and, crucially, neither development has been progressed.

During the debate, one Labour councillor said he was "absolutely amazed that anyone would oppose this application". The SNP, with one notable exception, fell in to line, bleating about how this was needed to boost the local economy. As I pointed out when I voted against adopting the proposed Midlothian Local Development Plan, the council is fond of using the term 'sustainable development' while either not knowing what it means, or willingly setting out to deceive. It is only when applications like this come forward that it gets found out.

When it came to the vote, I proposed rejection of the application. To his credit, SNP councillor Andrew Coventry seconded my proposal. Every other councillor, Labour, SNP and Independent, voted for approval.

Whether it's small scale wind turbines or building in sensitive areas, someone needs to explain to Midlothian's Planning Department and its councillors either what sustainable development means, or remind them they should be adhering to it.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Return of the one party state?

As I've often reminded people, Midlothian used to be called "the one party state". A legacy from its mining community days, for a while Labour had 17 of the 18 councillors, held on to its Westminster constituency - solidly - since its inception in 1955 and likewise the Holyrood constituency before it was split in 2011.

All that started to change in 2011, when both the 'Midlothian North and Musselburgh' and 'Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale' Holyrood constituencies went SNP. Labour then lost control of the council in 2012 and now this.

Just two General Elections ago in 2005, Labour and the Liberal Democrats picked up over 70% of the Midlothian vote between them. Ten years later it was just 32.5%. Who knows where we'll be ten years from now.

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. The political landscape in Midlothian is changing so fast, and unless those lessons are quickly learned, history will indeed repeat itself, but not in the way many people think.

Midlothian is in danger of becoming a one-party state once again, this time in the colours of the SNP, but would that be good for democracy, or for the people of Midlothian?

In November of last year, it did look like a Labour revival might be on the cards when Kenny Young won the Midlothian East by-election, but as I wrote in a previous blog that particular campaign was unusual. The result this month seems to confirm it's business as usual for Labour's decline in one of its heartlands.

In an article in today's Scotland on Sunday, former Labour MP Ian Davidson put Scottish Labour's decline down to the four 'C's - complacency, conservatism, cronyism and careerism. Is that also true in Midlothian? I don't know for sure, but I would certainly say complacency has played a big part.

I still fail to grasp why the Labour group on the council continues to boycott two committees after three years. The Business Transformation Steering Group (comprising 2 SNP, 2 Labour, 1 Green) was set up to oversee a programme of change to address the budget gap over the next few years. So that committee now sits with only three councillors, and the official opposition intends to play no part in addressing how we provide much needed services with greatly reduced income and rising costs.

The Safer Communities Board (previously Police & Fire liaison) also sits without its two Labour representatives. Why? Apparently because they don't agree with those services being restructured by the Scottish Government. For the record, neither do I agree with it, but we have to play with the cards we're dealt, I'm afraid.

Instead of building trust and acting like a potential ruling administration, Labour continues to act with a 'Labour good, Nats bad' rhetoric which does nothing for politics, and it does nothing for the people of Midlothian, whose interests we're all here to represent.

I had hoped for better from Kenny Young. Kenny is bright, he's young and he's articulate. He has potential. However, he too has adopted the tribal mentality of his peers with relish.

I don't know what Kenny learned from the bubble he worked in beside Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown, but deleting Facebook comments and blocking people on Twitter just because they challenge your views is not the stuff of grown-up politics.

I am particularly disappointed that he hasn't apologised for going into a Twitter frenzy over the Nicola Sturgeon/French consul alleged conversation when this has now been found to be a fabrication. Sometimes we screw up, Kenny. When we do, admit it, apologise and move on. Saying nothing and blocking people who challenge you doesn't look good.

I certainly don't want to go back to the days of the one-party state, of whatever colour, where all parliamentary representatives belong to one party - with huge majorities; where that party runs the council with a significant overall majority; and where huge numbers of voters feel there's no-one there to represent them.

What's clear from this month's election result - across the UK - is that people want change. And people want politicians to change too. What they don't want is to replace one lot of complacent politicians with another.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

A wake-up call to the SNP in Midlothian East

So why did Labour win the Midlothian East by-election? More to the point, why did the SNP lose it?

Technically, this was a Labour hold, but Labour hold it wasn't - it was a Labour gain, with significant implications.

The by-election was held under the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system. The only problem that exists with STV is that it doesn't retain proportionality in a by-election. So although the 2012 election resulted in 1 SNP, 1 Labour and 1 Independent, and that's the way it is now, if we look at the underlying figures, this is a seat the SNP should have won, and won easily.

For simplicity, if we just look at total first preference votes, in 2012 the SNP received 1,777 votes compared to Labour's 1,478. In rough percentage terms, the SNP were at 43% and Labour 36%. Given the anti-Labour sentiment nationally since 18th September, not to mention the SNP's membership surge (and therefore potential activity level), the cards were stacked firmly in the SNP's favour. So what went wrong for them?

Before answering this, let's look first at the idiosyncrasies of this seat. In 2012 we had Independent candidate Peter de Vink, a pro-independence ex-Tory (though most voters didn't know this at the time) who was elected on 461 (11.1)% of first preference votes, and in this by-election we have Robert Hogg (community activist, Labour leaning and well known in Mayfield/Easthouses), who received 780 (19.9%) first preferences. There were other candidates too. So I'd like first to examine their influence in reverse order of votes.

Euan Davidson was the Lib Dem candidate. I have known Euan for a good few years and have a lot of respect for him, particularly as his Green credentials far outweigh those of most non-Green candidates out there.  Although Euan isn't well known in the ward, in 2007 Midlothian East elected a Lib Dem councillor, so for them to get less than 2% of first preferences (68 votes) it must have been pretty devastating. We all know that the Lib Dems are toast nationally. Locally, this result has set off the smoke detector. Second preference transfers from Euan were very evenly spread across the remaining candidates.

Bill Kerr-Smith was a great candidate for the Greens. Yes, I know you'd expect me to say that, but he was. Born in Dalkeith, brought up in Mayfield, lives in Eskbank and active on the local community council he ticks all the boxes. We put out an excellent leaflet, concentrating on support for communities, anti-fracking and other things we'd been doing locally (downloadable here - and managed to do some canvassing. Bill got 197 (5%) of first preferences; respectable for a first attempt at contesting the ward but hardly ground-breaking. It still only matched the percentage we got in Penicuik and Midlothian West in 2012, where we fielded candidates with no leaflets or canvassing. Clearly we need to do a lot more if we are to have any chance of winning a seat here in 2017.

About half of Bill's transferable lower preferences (87) went to SNP, with only 33 going to Labour. This could be an Indyref thing.

Andrew Hardie is a veteran of elections for the Tories, although he didn't stand in the ward in the previous two. With Eskbank and the rural areas fertile ground for them, this is one of their better performing wards and in 2007 gave them their best result at 14.1%. In 2012 that declined to 9.1% and this time 8.4%. Given that Peter de Vink would have attracted a good few of their first preferences in 2012, their decline appears to be continuing at pace.

The remarkable thing about Andrew's transfers was that nearly half (100) went to Labour, 83 to Robert Hogg and only 27 to the SNP. Naturally the SNP are linking this to Indyref and saying that as the extra 73 votes Labour received as a result of this is greater than the 69 votes by which Labour eventually won, the Blue Tories ensured the Red Tories won the seat. However, even in 2012, twice as many Tory transfers went to Labour than to SNP, so I suspect much of it reflects a long standing anti-Nationalist sentiment amongst the Tories.

Robert Hogg is chair of Mayfield and Easthouses Community Council, covering about half the ward's voters. He has also been heavily involved in M & E Development Trust and chairs the Midlothian Federation of Community Councils. Robert's near 20% of first preferences would, on these figures, suggest he will be elected in 2017 should he decide to stand again. His 468 transfers went more or less equally to Labour and SNP, suggesting his impact on the SNP/Labour first preference split was minimal.

In summary therefore, the overall impact of having different non-SNP/Labour candidates between 2012 and 2014 is not material. There must be something else happening.

I believe there were two factors at play. The most significant was that Labour ran a smart campaign. They brought people in, knocked on a lot of doors and in short, worked hard to win the seat. On polling day they had someone outside all the polling stations all day, unlike the SNP who seemed pretty lazy about even getting A-boards out. Labour wanted badly to win the seat, SNP were complacent.

Another factor may have been the SNP's incumbent councillor in the ward, Lisa Beattie, who due to health problems has had a very low profile, certainly on the council and presumably in the ward over the last year.

And finally, where does this leave the council? Overall, we're back where we started - 8 Labour, 8 SNP, Independent Peter de Vink (in coalition with SNP) and myself as Green councillor. However, unless Lisa Beattie returns to normal duties soon, this could present the SNP/Independent coalition with a few headaches and if the Labour group has any sense, it might want to start talking to me for a change.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Solution to skatepark problems lies a few yards away

A brand new skate park has recently opened in King George V Park, Bonnyrigg and it's a fantastic facility. If I were a few years younger or could get away with no-one seeing me (difficult as it's always packed), I'd be trying a few kickflips myself.

Unfortunately, its popularity also appears to extend to a minority who are making life a misery for those who want to enjoy themselves. There are stories of bullying, drug taking and general anti-social behaviour as well as evidence of some quite unpleasant graffiti. This culminated in a well attended community council meeting this week where we were told that a young girl had attempted suicide as a result of alleged bullying. Serious stuff, and something which clearly needs urgent action.

Discussion at the meeting centred on the need for some sort of supervision. The police cannot be expected to be there all the time, although they are making regular calls which is appreciated. Council workers likewise are helping, but again there will be long spells when they won't be there. The problems, as is to be expected, are more prevalent after dark. The main problem it seems is that the location is largely out of sight and, particularly after dark, with few passing adults, mainly the occasional folk walking their dogs.

For me, however, the solution is staring us in the face, and has been for some time. When the Bonnyrigg Centre Trust (BCT) put forward its plans to take over the former Bonnyrigg Leisure Centre, its case included two powerful arguments.

Firstly, the overarching objective of community ownership was the improved social inclusion that the growing town would benefit from. If the older kids got to know the younger kids through working together in the proposed bicycle/skateboard repair shop, or recognised them, their parents and grandparents from the cafe, wouldn't that reduce the risk of bullying?

But secondly, and on a more practical level, there would be supervision - or more accurately, a presence close by. A building lit up till ten at night, toilets, a busy cafe, people coming and going, a refuge if problems did start up - or as someone succinctly put it, there'd be a buzz about the place.

Instead, we now have a reactive approach which risks alienating those who could so easily have been part of the solution; we have extra costs and pressures placed on police and council resources; the council faces extra costs in clearing up graffiti and repairing damage; in short, we're developing a bunker mentality, desperate to avoid a wonderful new asset from becoming a social liability. This is particularly sad as the risk of costs to the council were stated as the sole reason for turning down the community bid.

This is not a debate about who should get the building - it's about why the obvious solution isn't even being looked at. The building is thankfully still standing, and so long as it is, there is hope.

It's been clear to most people that there's room enough for all interested groups to have a stake. As Bright Sparks currently plans to have part of the building open to the public for soft play and a cafe, any concerns about security appear to have been overcome. It has also been suggested that part of the building may need to be demolished to provide outdoor space for Bright Sparks, yet there is plenty of space to the side (alongside, or in place of the five-a-side pitches). Sufficient boundaries between the Bright Sparks area and the community space can easily be constructed to resolve any remaining fears over security - we have these issues in all our schools.

We know that most of the community wants a solution which accommodates Bright Sparks, Bonnyrigg Centre Trust and Bonnyrigg & Sherwood Development Trust within the building. We also know there are no logistical problems with sharing the building and no need to demolish part of it to fulfil Bright Sparks' needs. Most importantly, we all know the long term benefits shared use would bring.

So why ignore the solution which fulfils everyone's needs and aspirations? Why ignore the solution which could give our more vulnerable youngsters their skatepark back? Most of all, why are so many of our councillors ignoring the voices of those who elected them?