Saturday, 2 February 2013

An inconvenient truth

"Folk queuing up to sign our petition against the SNP's decision to shut down all the public toilets in Midlothian", tweeted Labour MSP Kezia Dugdale yesterday, attaching the above photo of said petition. I have no issue with the wording on their pamphlet, which correctly identifies that the decision was made by the SNP/Independent coalition with my support. It also fairly states that alternative provision will be made, although the alleged 'lack of consultation' is an issue I will come to later.

First though, some background to the budget process.

In the face of unprecedented cuts (£5 million to be precise), Midlothian Council is required by law to set a balanced budget. Every councillor therefore has a duty to propose or support a balanced budget of some sort. Although I could present a Green budget, without a seconder I felt this would be a futile gesture. Opposing both SNP and Labour budgets would, I feel, be morally wrong, and so at the start of the process I approached both groups seeking a meeting to discuss their proposals, with the intention of trying to influence them and ultimately supporting the one I felt more at ease with.

Disappointingly, the Labour group did not even respond, and they have now stated publicly that they will not be presenting an alternative budget. In contrast, the SNP Group discussed their proposals in detail with me and I raised a number of concerns. Some of the more contentious proposals were dropped, on most I was given reassurances I could live with, and on others I received a commitment to review the impact over the next year and to revisit them if necessary.

The closure of public toilets was one such concern. However, having listened to the Administration's proposals and seeing how the proposed scheme works in Perth & Kinross and Aberdeenshire Councils, I am convinced that not only will this save money, but it will help local businesses and will offer better facilities to the public. No public toilets will be closed until alternative facilities are in place.

When the council's public toilets were introduced, pubs were not open all day, usually opening around 5 pm. There are now cafes on every street corner, and libraries, health centres and leisure centres as well as many shops now have public toilets. The new scheme will involve paying local businesses like pubs an annual payment for public use of their services, putting money into local businesses at a time when 18 pubs are closing every week across the UK due to financial pressures.

As for the lack of consultation, true this specific measure was not publicised, but people were asked what their priorities for protecting services were and of the 3,500 responses, these proposals did not run counter to the feedback received.

Not putting forward a budget is quite convenient for the Labour Group. It has already demanded that at least half a million pounds worth of cuts are removed. When asked where this shortfall would come from, their response was that council officials should come forward with alternatives. And what if they didn't like those alternatives? Labour needs to say which services it would cut to keep public toilets open - how many Learning Assistants would it remove? Social workers? Or do they want library hours cut?

Labour has already expressed concern about the council's level of reserves. Demanding a huge reduction in cuts with no proposed alternatives is not the way to boost them.  Labour's dishonest tactics over the whole budget exercise, and in particular their headline grabbing opportunism over the public toilets issue, is hypocritical and cannot go unchallenged.

If Kezia Dugdale is so confident her party's colleagues in Midlothian are offering a credible alternative administration, then I challenge her to debate this in public. Let's have a public meeting on the issue where I will be happy to expose the Labour Group for what it is. If she doesn't feel up to it, a Labour councillor would do nicely. As I am not a member of the Administration, it shouldn't be up to me to defend its actions and I could have taken the same cowardly route Labour has done by sniping from the outside and opposing everything it says and does, but that's the way Midlothian politics has operated for far too long and it has to change.