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.