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.

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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.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

The roundabout economics of Sheriffhall

The announcement this week that Transport Scotland has awarded a £200,000 contract for a feasibility study into Sheriffhall roundabout is welcome news. As the only roundabout on the Edinburgh by-pass and a major intersection with traffic between Edinburgh and Midlothian, it is a notorious bottleneck.

It is also a major headache for anyone foolish enough to try and cross it on a bicycle. Last year I heard that Midlothian Council had already received £802,000 over ten years ago from the Scottish Government to help resolve this. So why hasn't it been fixed?

So in November 2012 I started asking questions, the first of which I directed at the leader of the council. Whilst it is still unclear if the funding was just borrowing consent, original reports implied grant funding. Nevertheless, money was finally there to do something.

After a bit of digging, I managed to unearth some council documents which show that the council's commitment to cycling in Midlothian was, to say the least, half- hearted. To cut a long story short, the tenders came in over budget and Midlothian decided to spend the money on the Todhills Park and Ride instead.

Perhaps the most useful piece of information I found is the very last paragraph of the Cabinet report of 26 October 2004, where the council "c) provides the Scottish Executive with assurances that pedestrians and cyclists will be catered for in any future developments around the Sheriffhall junction".

So how will those assurances be honoured? Whilst the roundabout is the responsibility of Transport Scotland, I expect at the very least that Midlothian Council will be applying pressure, and perhaps some funding, towards its original stated aim "to provide a foot/cycle bridge across Sheriffhall Roundabout to allow safe passage for vulnerable users at this junction". Will that happen?

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Will Midlothian's commitment to the community end up in ruins?

"When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?". It is a quote attributed to John Maynard Keynes, and one which some councillors and officials on Midlothian Council would do well to reflect on from time to time.

A couple of months ago I changed my mind on the issue of whether the Bonnyrigg Leisure Centre should be demolished, and I did so because the facts, and to a large part the presentation of them, had changed and, indeed, continue to change.

A few years ago, a public consultation exercise was carried out as part of the plans for the new Lasswade High School hub, and this included what to do with the building which would be surplus to requirements. The main use of the building comprises the Gym and swimming pool and these facilities would move to the hub. Community organisations were not interested in taking on the building as we were told it would cost £250,000 to bring it up to useable standard and a similar amount annually in running costs.

As the building is in a King George V Park, it can not be sold commercially and if retained must be for community use. It has been suggested that the council was not aware of this until after consultation had closed and that Fields in Trust, who regulate such parks, was not informed.

Midlothian Council decided at its meeting of 23 February 2010 (see 9th item and within which, Para 15(d)) to 'dispose' of the building. Although demolition is one form of disposal, this has never been explicitly agreed by the council and no record can be found of any reference to it in any council documents, including those associated with the consultation exercise. Yet references are being made to 'a decision to demolish'.

Nevertheless, with no one willing to take on the building, and the alternative being a derelict and potentially vandalised building on the council's hands, I could see demolition to be the only practical solution at the time.

Within the last year, the Bonnyrigg & Sherwood Development Trust came forward with a plan to use the back hall of the building and negotiations have been taking place for this to be retained and the remainder of the building demolished.

Further, demolition, we were told, had been incorporated into the council's contract for the new High School and a decision not to go ahead could involve additional costs should demolition subsequently be required.

Fast forward to a few months ago, when local resident Darius Namdaran, previously unaware of the plans, and concerned that a sound building with about 20 years' life was to be pulled down, decided to investigate. This revealed that the £250,000 'repair' costs were in fact a little over £90,000 (most of which is cosmetic, the remainder being up to £30k). The running costs include £75,000 for heating a swimming pool (no longer needed) and about the same in rates (which are not applied if the building is run by a Community Trust).

However, I still had my doubts. £30,000 for priority repairs is achievable, but £100,000 a year running costs with no Business Plan? The solution to this is what ultimately changed my mind. Social Enterprises such as this normally break even in 3 - 5 years, and with a cash strapped council, some lateral thinking was required. The centre currently runs profitable soft play in the front of the building with parties in other parts of the building. So why not keep the front of the building up and running with income from soft play and vending machines, supplemented by continuing with the parties? Running costs would be low, the building might be viable from Day 1 and the community can decide over the next 12 months how to develop the rest of the building.

I also discovered that there is no contract for demolition in place; funds (up to £100,000) have been set aside for the job and if the building is retained long term, the council saves the money.

Probably the most disappointing part of this whole saga was the response I received from a council official when I asked if the council could go through the figures with the campaign group (the council, after all, will know if simply continuing those existing services would be feasible). The response? "It's not our job to put together a Business Plan for this group; they need to do it themselves". Community Empowerment and Development?

So much for the figures. What about the intangible benefits? This it seems is where Midlothian Council thinking fails to join up. Soft play will not be provided at the new Lasswade Centre. Longer term plans for the Leisure Centre could include a youth drop-in centre (and there is huge demand in the town for this). Following closure of the Public Hall, Bonnyrigg Seniors' Forum no longer have a place to meet. Many people have come forward with ideas, from community groups, schools' parent councils, school children, parents, and that's before any formal consultation.

Working with the Bonnyrigg and Sherwood Development Trust, I believe this could be a thriving community hub, in a building which will last 20 years and which would cost millions to build from scratch.

Ironically, within a month of the proposed demolition, Midlothian Council will begin consultation on the Bonnyrigg Neighbourhood Plan. This involves asking as many individuals and community groups as possible what facilities they would like in the town. Wouldn't it be ironic if the one facility the community says would provide most value has been reduced to rubble before they were even asked? A consultation on this basis would be a sham and would be seen to be a sham.

At this week's Petitions Committee, Mr Namdaran presented a compelling case. I proposed that before the council makes its decision on 25 June, council officers work closely with the Keep Bonnyrigg Leisure Centre group and the Bonnyrigg & Sherwood Development Trust to look for a low risk solution to keeping the building alive for 12 months - to give the whole community breathing space to decide how it can best be used.

My proposal was defeated on the casting vote of the chair. The reason? Because consultation closed years ago and you missed your opportunity. When consultation closed, no-one was interested in the building; today over 600 people have 'liked' the group's Facebook page, 248 people have signed a petition, as a ward councillor I've received about two dozen emails, Bonnyrigg & Lasswade Community Council has given its unanimous backing, and the chair of Fields in Trust has written to the council.

The facts have clearly changed, so isn't it about time some minds did too?

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Newbattle plans prompt a new battle for localism

It's a strange thing but the subject which has sparked by far the most number of emails in my inbox in the last two weeks isn't even happening in my ward. However, it is an issue which will ultimately be decided by all 18 councillors - the planned replacement for Newbattle High School and, more to the point, what will happen to existing facilities like libraries, leisure centres and swimming pool in the communities of Mayfield, Newtongrange and Gorebridge.

The cynicism of your average voter towards politicians is well known and often justified, but at Monday evening's public meeting on the issue, held at the current Newbattle High, I was struck by how embedded the feeling was among the 250 or so people present, that both officials and councillors had already made up their minds to close local facilities.

Now unless I've been sleeping through council meetings (I haven't, I assure you), then I'm absolutely sure no formal decision has yet been made on this by councillors. However, reading the consultation brochure, I do worry about the way the options are being presented.

The council has come up with four possible scenarios -  (1) Build a new High School and 'Hub' (i.e. containing combined community facilities) and close all existing facilities in the three communities, (2) build a new school only and keep all existing facilities open, (3) build a new High School and Hub and also keep all existing facilities, and (4) the same as scenario 1 but to 'explore' the provision of local facilities by community groups.

These can be readily narrowed down to two - option 3 simply ain't going to happen in the current economic climate, although there is the possibility of keeping some facilities in Gorebridge given its distance from the new school location in Easthouses. Option 4 would be great in an ideal world, but I'm afraid Midlothian is a long way from the level of maturity in Community Capacity Building and Empowerment (despite my prodding) required for this to be realistic in the time scales involved, particularly given the range of facilities we're talking about. I also think that promoting it as a viable option at this stage has added to people's cynicism, and not without reason - specifically as it puts the onus on the community to fill the gap while the council takes the credit for providing spanking new facilities at the hub.

So we're left with options 1 and 2. Option 1 is presented as brand new facilities with lower running costs and Option 2 with buildings at the end of their life and with higher running costs. It's not hard to see why people think there's a hidden agenda. My own cynicism here is fuelled by a recent revelation that whilst during consultation for the Lasswade hub the estimated repair costs of retaining the Bonnyrigg Leisure Centre were £250,000 the true figure was only £90,000 (this revised figure is now accepted by the council as correct).

More to the point, why no mention of the non-financial implications? Like the fact that a library is an integral part of a community, close to primary schools and somewhere people drop in for a chat and a chance to meet people? We are told that preventative spend and early intervention are high on the council's priority list. So what will be the long term impact of youngsters no longer dropping into the various book clubs and family events the council has been very successful in running, simply because their parents either don't have the time or bus fare to travel to the hub?

What about the longer term future? Have we learned nothing from the closure of the Waverley line, now being reintroduced at much greater cost years later? And ironically it's the re-built Borders railway which will bring new houses to Newtongrange and Gorebridge and with them new customers for those closed down facilities - but unlike the railway, the sites where those valued facilities once stood will be gone, sold off to developers on the back of land values inflated due to the presence of the line itself. A cruel irony indeed, and a paradox which the Green Party's Land Value Tax policy would neatly solve by putting some of those windfall land value increases to public use.

Despite the comparisons, this is no Lasswade hub we're being offered. Unlike Lasswade, we would not be simply moving libraries and leisure centres down the road, still to be within walking distance of most of the people who use them. We would be ripping the heart out of the close knit communities of Newtongrange, Mayfield and Gorebridge and forcing them to become a single suburban sprawl. The parallels between shopping locally and driving to an out of town superstore are too stark for my comfort.

I am grateful to the many people who have spent the time to contact me on this issue, not least because it's reassured me that the kind of society I want to see is shared by so many people. I will not be voting to close down your local facilities and look forward to the time when we can replace and enhance them where they belong - in the heart of the community.

Sunday, 31 March 2013

Midlothian's Carbon Mismanagement Plan

It may not sound the most interesting of committees on Midlothian Council, but Audit committee has has a habit of unearthing the most interesting information. Chaired by the able Peter Smaill (we may not see eye to eye politically, but he does the job extraordinarily well), Audit is the guard that guards the guards, so to speak, and as members we are encouraged to be as probing as possible. And so we are.

It was this committee which probed the fallout of the Bonnyrigg Rose car park fiasco and ensured we should have no repetition. It has dealt with council fuel mysteriously disappearing, inaccurate recording of performance indicators and keeps a close eye on how the council manages its finances. This is not a committee to fall asleep in if you want to keep tabs on what's really going on behind the scenes.

So it was with particular interest that I noticed this month's meeting had an item entitled 'Carbon Management Reduction/Energy Saving', in its words 'aimed at providing assurance that the Council fully complies with the CRC ESS which was introduced by the Government in 2008'.

The audit was carried out by East Lothian Council (a reciprocal arrangement where we also carry out an audit on them). The report was presented to the committee by the council's Risk and Audit Manager who said it was a very positive report. I beg to differ.

Amongst the few 'strengths' are "Appropriate Council officers on the certificate", "Billing downloads and automated meters were found to be accurate", "Energy saving targets appear achievable" and "Various energy saving initiatives are in place".

Weaknesses include that the Carbon Management Plan is still in draft form (since 2008?), no Carbon Management Board is yet in place, no reports presented to the Corporate Management Team, a lack of transparency and audit trail to be able to verify data, no independent checking of figures, all expertise and knowledge vested in a single officer, and basic procedures not even developed. Very positive? I don't think so.

That Midlothian Council pays only lip service (if even that) to carbon reduction has been a depressing and common theme for years. In 2007 the council signed up to the Climate Change Declaration. In the same year it produced a Landscape Capacity Study for wind developments which determined that nowhere in Midlothian is suitable for large scale wind generation. I argued the case at a recent Planning Committee meeting, where one such development was being considered, that it is simply not acceptable to state that 'they can't go anywhere' and was tantamount to producing a local plan which stated no houses could be built anywhere. As a result, I won a commitment to have the Landscape Capacity Study reviewed.

All well and good, but that 'review', contained within the Midlothian Local Development Plan, is considered briefly in the Main Issues Report, now out for consultation, and which states (paragraph 8.16) "the Council’s preferred approach is to roll forward its current policy stance on large-scale wind energy development into the MLDP." So much for a review.

Midlothian Council is building a state-of-the art high school in Bonnyrigg. State-of-the art in all respects except for not having a single watt of renewable energy, despite the cost of solar PV installation halving in the last year. The second phase of new council housing is being built, again with solar panels not even being considered. In contrast to Dumfries and Galloway's plan to replace 24,000 street lights with low energy bulbs (reducing energy costs by three quarters and greatly reducing maintenance costs), Midlothian is reducing its annual replacement from 200 to 100.

Whilst we have a Scottish Government dedicated to building an economy on oil, we have a Midlothian Council which harks back to the golden days of coal and refuses steadfastly to move on. And so long as its Audit committee is asked to endorse a 'very positive' report which says we're doing nothing, and a local plan which recommends a future just like the past, our councillors need to be leading from the front and not just following what council officials come up with if anything is going to change.

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.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Transparent behaviour and not so transparent funding

I learned something new this week. Well, two things actually.

First, it seems that ahead of the papers for council meetings, distributed a week in advance, 'draft papers' are issued to the Administration, which others don't get to see. I don't have a big problem with this, though I wonder why it's necessary. I only found this out because a formal complaint was made by someone in the Labour Group that I had acquired some of them.

It seems I made reference to this at a recent council meeting. As council meetings are now audio recorded, I have asked for a transcription of the words I used. However, it seems that I referred to the draft budget - by which I meant the original budget drawn up by council officials and which was available to all councillors. I am conscious of course that lurking in the system there may be something officially known as a draft budget which I am not entitled to see - in which case my terminology was wrong; at no point have I received documents to which I'm not entitled.

Paradoxically, the Labour Group continues to spread the lie that I am part of the Coalition (indeed, at a community council meeting this week, the Council Leader answered my question as to why Labour had not discussed their budget with me by saying "Because you're part of the Administration"). If I'm part of the Administration as they claim, why would they be bothered that I get access to their privileged information?

The second thing I learned was that the Labour Group, even almost a year since losing power, still has no intention of trying to bring me on side. This I deduce from the fact they are so ready to lodge spurious complaints. It seems the traditional view of "if you're not with us, you're against us" prevails and the fact that if they are to regain power over the next four years they need me far more than I need them, eludes the comrades still.

This is not something I will lose sleep over. Nor indeed will I fret about the fact I'll probably be in a minority of one or two over my next attack on councillors' privileges, the little known Environmental Improvement Fund.

Each councillor receives an allocation of £15,000 a year (which can be carried forward indefinitely) for spending in his or her own ward on environmental improvements or community projects - park benches and the like. Technically, I could save this up over 5 years and have a £75,000 fund to give away in election year and publicise in my leaflets - funds unavailable to candidates who are not sitting councillors. Democratic? Needless to say, this was introduced when Labour ruled the roost with a huge majority of councillors, but the fact the SNP is lukewarm on removing this is odd, given their stated commitment to more transparency.

I don't want to get rid of the funding - just the ability of individual councillors to decide on how public funds are distributed, something which goes against the principle of transparency. A similar fund, distributed on a ward basis or across Midlothian is fine, just so long as all 18 councillors make the decisions.

As with my proposal for webcasting, it's likely both groups will gleefully exhibit some cross-party co-operation and vote my proposals down (assuming that is, I even manage to get a seconder). That's fine by me - as with the webcasting issue, the feedback I'm getting from people is that they want more transparency in how their council is run.