FIVE of the six candidates hoping to be Argyll and Bute’s next MSP made their pitch to Bute’s voters at The Buteman’s hustings at Rothesay Pavilion on Monday.
Alison Hay (Liberal Democrat), Jamie McGrigor (Conservative), Mick Rice (Labour), Michael Russell (SNP) and George White (Liberal) were quizzed on a variety of issues of great local importance, from ferry fares and school closures to elderly care and energy, with chairman Dan Edgar ruling over proceedings with a firm but fair hand to keep everything under control.
Here’s what the five candidates (the sixth, independent George Doyle, was unable to attend) had to say on the subjects raised by members of the public during the evening...
Local independent councillor Len Scoullar put the first question of the evening, asking Mr Russell how much money had been allocated by the SNP to pay for the extension of ferry fares based on road equivalent tariff (RET) to the Clyde and Argyll islands.
Mr Russell said £10m had been allocated to pay for the RET extension from 2012-13. As the discussion widened to take in the merits of RET and ferry fares in general, Mr Russell acknowledged that RET did not work everywhere, but where it would help, “it needs to be applied”.
Lessons, he said, had to be learned about RET in the area most disadvantaged by the previous fare structure, hence why the Western Isles was chosen for the pilot.
George White said it was “disgraceful” that Argyll and Bute had not been included in the RET pilot, and suggested Mr Russell’s “road to Damascus” had come “a wee bit late”.
Jamie McGrigor said it was not yet clear how the extension of the Western Isles pilot was going to be funded, but agreed that there needed to be “fairness over where people take their holidays”.
Alison Hay said RET had not been “altogether the wonderful thing we thought it would be”, citing the example of haulage companies who had benefited from cheaper fares but had not passed those discounts on to their customers.
“We need to look at a fairer system,” she said, “rather than just RET.”
Mick Rice said he was concerned that CalMac had “no plans to improve capacity if RET were introduced to the Clyde”, and added that he would be in favour of the use of more dynamic ticketing arrangements.
Local government finance
Local SNP councillor Isobel Strong asked what CoSLA – the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities – had done for Argyll and Bute, in the wake of a news report that day quoting the organisation’s chief executive criticising party pledges to freeze council tax.
Alison Hay, who is a CoSLA spokesperson through her position as a Liberal Democrat councillor, said “there was a mistake made by government officials” about the grant Argyll and Bute Council should receive and argued that CoSLA and the council had fought against that and eventually got the money back.
Mick Rice said the issue of local government finance “has to be addressed”, and suggested it would be impossible to continue the council tax freeze indefinitely, because “we can’t keep cutting council jobs and services”.
George White suggested that if CoSLA really was doing a bad job it would have been shut down by Scottish ministers, but Jamie McGrigor pointed out that under CoSLA’s watch Argyll and Bute had lost its Special Island Needs Allowance and that the organisation had “not been a very effective tool for getting money from Argyll and Bute Council”.
Michael Russell said council tax in Argyll and Bute had risen by 75 per cent between 1997 and 2007, and suggested it was “outrageous” that CoSLA officials were “telling Scotland’s parties they can’t have views on local government”.
Reeni Kennedy-Boyle asked for the candidates’ views on Argyll and Bute Council’s review of its school estate – or, as she put it, their “policy of closing local schools”.
Jamie McGrigor said he agreed that local schools were the focal point of communities, and said that additional statutory protection for rural schools had come about through a Conservative private member’s bill.
“It’s a policy that hasn’t worked,” Michael Russell said, “and if you have a policy that isn’t working what you tend to do is stop implementing it.” He also described the events of the last six months as “a complete farce”.
From the floor local SNP councillor Robert Macintyre reminded the meeting that the council stood to lose a substantial sum in grant funding by closing North Bute, “the cheapest school in Argyll and Bute”, while Jennifer Sutcliffe pointed out that Port Bannatyne would also lose its village hall if the school closed, since the hall receives 75 per cent of its income from school bookings.
Alison Hay said SNP councillors had been heavily involved in the estate review until their decision to leave the council’s ruling coalition in November, and said that if the authority did not make savings in education, cuts would hit other services even harder.
The council’s estimate of £807,000 to repair the school was questioned more than once, while George White said the whole affair had been “a complete and utter shambles”, and suggested the whole issue should be put on ice and made a central issue of the 2012 local council elections.
Mick Rice said he believed it was a mistake to assume, as “someone in Argyll and Bute Council” seemed to have done, that bigger schools meant better education, and claimed that the criteria used by education spokesperson Cllr Ellen Morton in choosing the current list of 12 at-risk schools was “complete whimsy, and is challengeable in the courts.”
Liam Walsh asked the candidates what they would do to enliven economic activity on Bute.
George White said he believed money should be ring-fenced for economic growth in specific areas, and suggested that Rothesay might be a good location for a science park which would attract skilled jobs to the island from elsewhere.
Jamie McGrigor said a key step would be to get the biodiversity of the island back into production by supporting the farming and food industry, and suggested the renewables industry would be key to the future prosperity of Argyll and Bute in general.
Mick Rice suggested relocating government jobs to Bute and giving Argyll and Bute its own economic development council to plan how to attract investment and employment to the area.
Michael Russell said he believed the ‘interventionist’ economic model had not really worked in Argyll and Bute, and said some of the best innovation on Bute in recent years had been the result of people saying “we have to do something for ourselves”.
Alison Hay said the regeneration of Bute would largely depend on local people saying what they want to do, and that a reduction in bureaucracy would be crucial to help new small businesses.
Pat Hayler asked the candidates what they would do to improve integration between bus, train and ferry services.
All five candidates said they felt a much better job could be done than at present; Mick Rice said allowance should be made for late running connections rather than operators being forced to run strictly to time.
Alison Hay said much greater use should be made of ‘through ticketing’, but suggested that if there was an easy solution to the problem of combining integrated transport with the need to make sure services ran on time, it would probably have been found by now.
Michael Russell kept it simple - “I would just tell them to do it”, he said – while Jamie McGrigor recalled that 12 years ago the Scottish Parliament had been promised an integrated transport policy, and it still hadn’t become reality.
George White said he would get all the relevant transport operators together in a room to “bang some heads together”, though Reeni Kennedy-Boyle recalled that in a previous role as chair of the Bute Ferry Users Group, she had attended just such a meeting, organised by Jim Mather – and that though the meeting was very positive, “nothing very much” had happened since.
Dawn Collis asked the candidates how they saw Scotland’s energy policy developing over the next four years
All five said they saw great potential for renewable energy, though several were careful to add the caveat that wind farms should be “appropriately sited”; the requirement for improved grid capacity and grid connections was also mentioned more than once.
Linda Mellor then asked the candidates to state their position on nuclear energy; Alison Hay began by saying she had been a long-time opponent, and wasn’t about to change her view, “no matter what my party might say on the subject”.
Mick Rice said that while Labour believed in a “mixed energy” policy, he personally did not agree with that, and would fight against any expansion of nuclear power – though he felt the SNP commitment to Scotland generating all its electricity from renewable sources by 2020 was “a tall order”.
George White and Michael Russell both stated they and their parties were strongly opposed to any further nuclear developments, while Jamie McGrigor said he “hoped very much” that Scotland could do without nuclear energy, but that the important thing now was keeping the lights on for people and businesses.
Alcohol and opposition
Donnie MacLeod combined two issues into one when he cited the debate over minimum pricing of alcohol in the last Scottish Parliament as an example of what he saw as “irresponsible opposition”.
George White agreed that the opposition parties’ approach on the issue was “completely hypocritical”, and said Scotland had “reached the edge of the abyss” over its problems with alcohol.
Alison Hay said minimum pricing was another issue over which she disagreed with her party, and that she regretted their decision not to support the SNP; Mick Rice, on alcohol pricing, suggested banning its sale in supermarkets altogether, a move which, he hoped, would help improve the fortunes of local pubs.
Michael Russell said his best experience as an MSP had been working with politicians of other parties during his time on the parliament’s education committee, and his worst as education minister, when his Labour opponent “disagreed with everything”; on the alcohol issue, he said he agreed with the view of the Lord Advocate that Scotland faced “an apocalypse” over the effect of drink, and that minimum pricing would stop irresponsible drinking.
Jamie McGrigor, however, took a very different view, saying he got very cross with politicians – he singled out the SNP’s Kenny Macaskill – who say “we are drinking too much”, and suggested the focus should really be on tackling the deprivation which leads to alcohol and drug abuse.
The last question of the night came from Argyll and Bute’s Liberal Democrat MP Alan Reid, who said one of the biggest Bute issues in his postbag was the future of elderly care provision and asked for the candidates’ views on the future.
Jamie McGrigor said any move of elderly residents in need of care to places off the island would be “really disgraceful” and said there was “absolutely no reason” why the council could not afford to provide care locally.
George White said it was a question of how spending was prioritised - “there’s plenty of money,” he said, “and how we look after our elderly people is a mark of our society.”
Mick Rice said he and his party favoured the establishment of an integrated care service to work in parallel with the NHS; Michael Russell pointed out that health spending was the only area of the SNP government’s budget not to have been cut, and said his party had no intention of cutting back on the provision of care in the community in rural areas.
Alison Hay agreed that it was “really important” that elderly Bute residents should not have to leave the island to receive care, and said she would support local authority staff in the continued operation of Thomson Court.