What is life like on an SNP-run council? This end of term report from retiring Councillor Peter de Vink (pictured) sheds some light on the difficulties of being an independent and putting your electors before party.
Dear Midlothian Council Customer
Almost five years ago I was elected as the Independent Councillor in Midlothian East. It has been an honour to serve all the people of Midlothian, to get to know people better, and to witness some of the fantastic achievements of my ward members, of whom I will have many fond memories.
I was surprised to find myself holding the balance between Labour and the newly elected SNP Members. I committed myself to supporting the SNP group, since Labour had let down the county badly during its 80-year tenure. I looked around me and all I could see was failure – urban decay in our towns and villages, overspending, dissatisfaction, self-serving bureaucracy and entrenched political warfare. Our SNP / Independent Coalition made some headway, but I had not reckoned on the centralising iron hand of the Scottish Government, who attempted to control everything we undertook. I was shocked by the extent that the SNP led council favoured Midlothian staff while axing services for its citizens. Councillors are elected to serve all the people, not just Council staff nor Holyrood.
The Coalition simply could not survive.
I have served under four SNP leaders but none had the powers of leadership and drive to command respect; they have fallen by the wayside, or used Midlothian as a stepping-stone on to other things. The photo above shows how economical with the truth the SNP group is. In February they produced this photo, as if this was the team for the May elections. Of course it is not as fewer than half are standing again for the SNP. Nor is it true when they say in their election leaflet that the SNP led council has successfully managed the results of the budget cuts by the Westminster Tory Government. The truth is Westminster allocated 1.5% more to Holyrood than they did in the previous year. It was the Scottish Government that initially cut all grants to Local Authorities by £360m. They then needed to do a deal with the Greens, who demanded to reduce this to £200m. Midlothian suffered along with all Local Authorities in Scotland from the massive SNP cuts.
I know about the world of finance. I know how important it is to balance the books, set budgets and priorities and force everyone to be accountable. I know everyone who matters in the Government and in the Opposition. I am able to communicate with them all. I tried hard to bring about change for the better.
The SNP’s “fake” Midlothian News: - how they exaggerate their achievements.
I was staggered by the financial waste of Local Government. There are many examples, here is a flavour, as I step down:
Almost all of Midlothian’s elected Members are financially unskilled. That is not their fault; it is just the way it is. But the worst thing is; NOBODY WANTS TO LEARN. When trying to evaluate financial data, many Members are plainly out of their depth, especially the holder of the Finance Portfolio. She also sits on a crucial inter-county South East of Scotland Planning Board where she has never turned up. Her record attending the Audit Committee and her being in charge of finance is equally dismal.
We are well served by our officials, but what can they do when the level of discussion quickly descends into petty point-scoring of perceived political advantage. All they could talk about was that we needed another Independence Referendum, having promised the last time that it was for a generation and not knowing what Brexit really means. What I did learn from the Leader of the Council Cath Johnstone was that once there was an Independent Scotland they would dispense with HM The Queen! Our Provost turned out to be totally unsuited to his job. He is always angry. He is meant to be impartial, but Joe Wallace was not cut out for that role. Several times he was censured for his behaviour in the Council meetings where he brought Midlothian into serious disrepute.
After I had the temerity to put Midlothian First they unceremoniously ended the coalition late last year.
The SNP “fought each other like ferrets in a sack”.
I admit that I got disillusioned. Having to deal with eight fellow Coalition Councillors who fought each other like ferrets in a sack was no joy. Unfortunately nobody who was elected wanted to change anything. How could anyone remain in such a Coalition?
Just to be clear; this Administration leaves behind a £20m debt which has a poor prospect of being collected as well as having raided the Council's Reserves and cut services drastically. This really is some epitaph!
On an optimistic note, the high points and the sheer joy and pleasure of being a Midlothian Councillor has been the opportunity to meet and help my ward members with their problems. I have seen at first-hand the wonderful community spirit that exists in Midlothian.
For example, we helped to create a huge mural on a wall in Mayfield that was crumbling but had been restored at my instigation. That was a symbol of togetherness and an important one. My fellow ward and coalition member Councillor Lisa Beattie agreed to support the mural in a local Community Council meeting but sadly when subsequently asked for that contribution, the drama queen reneged on her promise. Luckily Councillor Jim Bryant helped us out and provided the missing £5,000 from his Councillors’ Environmental allowance.
The Mayfield Mural by artist Chris Rutterford who greatly motivated the Primary School pupils who helped him.
In the UK some 22% of the population undertakes voluntary work. In Scotland it is a commendable 28%, but in Midlothian it is a staggering 36%. I learned that this is because, in the 1950s and 1960s, more than half the population worked in the mines or had mining connections. In the mines, everyone was reliant on each other, so the voluntary spirit is in the DNA of the people in Midlothian. Annually some six million man hours are undertaken in Midlothian by volunteers, who are contributing with their toil the equivalent of £60m to the coffers of Midlothian (1/3 of our net turnover) The people who undertake this voluntary work are the unsung heroes who all put Midlothian First. But for them, the Council’s deficit this coming Financial Year would have been ten times the size!
Those participating in Community Councils are equally invaluable as they certainly put Midlothian First. The Chairs of our Community Councils are hugely committed and selfless in their undertaking of this important work, with no thought of reward. How powerful would that democratic lever be if they had some money to spend, instead of being forced to exist on a shoe string? I shall miss the Local Community Councils and their purposeful commitment.
Despite my disillusionment, it has been a great privilege to serve on the Council, and to be able to speak clearly about issues that I saw as important. My strong message is that with financial rigour comes the strength for a Community’s ability to really help those who cannot help themselves, achieve superior educational attainment and accomplish civic pride.
I wish Midlothian, its people, and its new Council, well, and I sincerely hope that my legacy of bringing a degree of financial discipline and a strong sense of customer service will survive.
Finally, I plead with the voters of Midlothian to be very careful with their vote in the forthcoming 4th May Elections. I would love to see Midlothian flourish as a financially successful hot-spot for entrepreneurs, housebuilders, farmers, business people of every kind and for education to be successful at every level. For anyone who chooses to settle here it is still one of the best places to live in all of Scotland.
Please vote wisely, knowing what you now know, having read this end of term report, make sure that you vote for those who really believe in putting Midlothian First.
With my best wishes and that you may all flourish.
Peter de Vink, onetime immigrant and now a proud Midlothian Citizen. Peter.deVink@midlothian.gov.uk
Photos provided by the author; portrait of PdV by Chris Bryant