I got Labour out of Midlothian but the SNP has let me down

I got Labour out of Midlothian but the SNP has let me down

by Peter de Vink
article from Wednesday 30, November, 2016

IN NOVEMBER 2011 I was unwise enough to put myself forward as a Conservative Council Candidate in the May 2012 election. Early in 2012 I came out as saying that Scotland could actually become an independent nation and I was unceremoniously removed as a Candidate.  I then stood as an Independent and against all the predications of Malcolm Rifkind and Alex Salmond I managed to slip in by 19 votes. Had I stood as a Conservative I would not have had a snowball’s chance in hell to be elected!

There were 8 Labour, down from 12, and 8 SNP, up from 4, then 1 Green and myself. The Green would not sign up to a coalition but I thought this would be my chance to end 84 years of disastrous Labour rule.
When I signed the agreement with the SNP Group in May 2012 we had just experienced a freeze of all the Council’s government grant and Council Tax income that had lasted 4 years.  I had no idea that there would be another 5 years of biting cuts facing us.  

When I started to question the gigantic cuts in the budget Midlothian was facing, £8M in 2017/18 and £40M in 2020/21 and suggested an increase in Council Tax frozen for more than 7 years I was told that touching that would simply be electoral suicide.  Can I just point out that Midlothian has to fulfill all its roles on a mere £70M net of payroll expenses.

I pointed out that our payroll (£124M) was a staggering 64% of total income (£194M) for 4,100 FTE while in the Border Council with 3,700 FTE it is a mere 35% and the Highland Council with 7,700 FTE has 39% payroll cost to total income. Having cut our services so severely we simply had to cut the payroll. I was then sternly reminded of the manifesto undertaking.  When I pointed out that there were today totally different circumstances then there were 5 years ago I was assured that the No Compulsory Redundancies policy would NOT be included in the next SNP Manifesto.  

How morally distasteful is that approach, as next year it is too late since we need the budget cuts this year?

I then advocated that the Switch system, which Midlothian had used to fudge Compulsory Redundancies, should be dramatically expanded.  Again there was no support and I decided to speak out as someone who has had a background in private enterprise and finance.  I found it fundamentally wrong to put the interest of the 4,100 FTE hard working Council employees ahead of the 83,000 customers that Midlothian is also responsible for.

My views were sadly not shared amongst any of the SNP Councillors whose enthusiasm for the party line and the SNP’s diktat far outweighs their interest in the wellbeing of Midlothian and its customers.
In the midst of our deliberations the Scottish Government (SG) suddenly allowed us to increase the Council Tax on just the top bands where there fortunately are not too many SNP voters.  This would raise £1.7M in Midlothian, a pitiful amount on our £194M total income. But then came the surprise, the SG announced it would allocate £1.2M for Education outwith Midlothian, in Glasgow and Dundee, to be exact. This was to come from the £1.7M. Of course, this outraged not just me, but several of my erstwhile colleagues in the administration. My ward includes Mayfield where education is as deserving as it is anywhere in Glasgow or in Dundee!

The administration leader, Catherine Johnstone (pictured),Midothian leader Catherine Johnstone having given us an undertaking to write to the Government to appraise it of our disquiet on this inexcusable grab, then reneged and informed us that she would after all not be writing as she did not want to be the only SNP controlled Administration criticising the SG. My protestations that Midlothian was a SNP / Independent administration fell on deaf ears and I realised that I had been elbowed out by the party machine.  I was pushed before I could jump, but I will now turn into the administration's fiercest critic who is sufficiently well equipped to challenge them with their utterly reckless financial management which is solely based on SNP dogma.

The SNP group is now in a most disingenuous manner trying to suggest that I wish to attack the hard working employees of Midlothian Council; in fact this is a malicious slur.  Midlothian requires to have a healthy turnover of its staff.  Currently this is 5% Vs 15% in the private sector.  This tells one that the conditions in Midlothian are out of kilter with the private sector.  If people are reluctant to leave we should retrain those whose jobs are no longer in existence and stop hiring from outwith the Council.

Finally, Leadership is an art, but finance is a discipline and both are in woefully short supply amongst the elected Councillors in Midlothian.  This is not, for me, a resort to personal insults it is simply an observation that a quart does not fit into a pint pot. If we do not cut the wages bill, Midlothian is doomed.  Hopefully the Midlothian electorate, which is far from stupid, will see through the folly of the SNP policies at next May’s ballot box.  I hope we will then see people elected who will put Midlothian Council’s interest before party interest.  I am working closely with the Conservative Party in Midlothian to assure that they get 5 new Councillors, a target that is definitely achievable.

I cannot wait to stand down from the only job I have had that I never enjoyed so in April next year I will clear out my room with relish and it is up to the 5 Conservative candidates to take on my baton. 

One day I will happily describe how I would put a crow bar under Midlothian but in the 5 years that I will have been a Councillor we have achieved a much greater Customer Services approach, a much more inclusive dialogue with the Local Community Councils, evaluate the many volunteers much more, as well as much greater financial discipline and a more commercial approach.  We could, however, do so much better still.

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