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.