THE six candidates hoping to represent Bute after next month’s local authority elections set out their stall to the public at The Buteman’s hustings on Thursday night.
Around 90 people attended the United Church of Bute’s church centre in Rothesay to hear what Labour’s Adam Bellshaw, Peter Wallace for the Conservatives, Hugh Cole of the Scottish Christian Party and incumbent councillors Len Scoullar (Independent) and Robert Macintyre and Isobel Strong (SNP) had to say on a variety of local issues and what they hoped to do if elected.
Here’s a taster of some of the evening’s questions and answers...
Morals and ethics
Ardbeg Baptist Church minister Ron Rye began by questioning the candidates’ moral and ethical motivation for standing, in particular asking Hugh Cole to expand on his Scottish Christian Party credentials and how they related to his stated intention to tackle “cronyism” in Argyll and Bute and to progress proposed building developments.
Mr Cole said he would not pursue planning matters alone if elected, but confirmed his view that the planning department of the council was, in his experience, “horrific”, and that it had driven him to decide to put the former Free Church building in Rothesay’s Chapelhill Road – the focus of his frustration – up for sale.
All the candidates confirmed, unsurprisingly, that they saw themselves as taking a positive moral and an ethical approach to their lives; Adam Bellshaw said he had seen the signs of decline in Rothesay, and that he was not standing for any personal gain but simply wanted to give something back to Bute, while Peter Wallace said his faith shaped his beliefs and judgements and would have an impact on any decisions he would take as a councillor.
Len Scoullar said he had tried to live by high moral and ethical standards throughout his life, and that his principles were “in no way shaken or bent by politics”; Isobel Strong said that while she was not a church member, she still tried to live by Christian principles by helping the vulnerable and keeping the powerful in check.
Robert Macintyre used the question as a chance to express the hope that voters would elect “right-minded people” to run the council after May 3, and that the worst exponents of behind-the-scenes “shenanigans” in Kilmory were the members of the Alliance of Independent Councillors.
Reeni Kennedy-Boyle, from North Bute Primary School’s parent council, asked what the candidates would do to improve management of the council’s finances, in light of the discovery that many estimates for repairs to the North Bute buildings were, in the parent council’s view, wildly overstated.
Robert Macintyre said he had become frustrated by some of the recommendations made by full-time council officers to elected councillors who were not experts, and said some of the financial estimates relating to the North Bute school buildings bore “no relation to reality”.
Len Scoullar said council employees were “human beings who can make mistakes as well as the rest of us”, but that he hoped any constituent who discovered what they felt were examples of mis-spending would alert their councillors.
Hugh Cole gave the example of a hole he had made in a wall near his Chapelhill Road church building, no more than five or six square feet, and had been told by the council it would cost £40,000 to fix.
Isobel Strong said that when she had been the council’s education spokesperson, she had experience of being given incorrect information by officers, but that it was sometimes hard for councillors to be sure whether the information given to them by full-time officials was correct or not.
Adam Bellshaw said he believed those spending public money should be made more accountable for their actions, and called for greater community consultation on budget proposals.
Peter Wallace called for much closer examination of the detail of proposed spending plans, and said he believed too much money was being spent on simple things that could be done for a fraction of the price.
The Crown Estate
Tim Saul asked whether the candidates would support a recommendation from the House of Commons’ Scottish affairs committee that revenue generated by the Crown Estate Commissioners for use of the sea bed should be devolved to local level.
Isobel Strong said that in her view the Crown Estate got “money for old rope and that their income should be devolved, but that there was “still a debate” over whether local authorities or the Scottish Government should get the cash.
Addam Bellshaw said he was not an expert on the issue, but that anything which could bring money back to local communities and help create jobs would get his support.
Robert Macintyre said he doubted whether the Westminster coalition government had any intention of acting on the recommendation, but if it did, the proper way to divest the money was to give it to the Scottish Government for onward distribution – though a sceptical audience appeared to doubt whether the Scottish Government would really pass the money on to the communities where the fees had been raised.
Len Scoullar said talks with Westminster on the issue were ongoing, but he felt it was likely the Scottish Government would want to control the distribution of any devolved funds.
Hugh Cole suggested that if money raised on and around Bute – such as from moorings laid on the Kames Bay sea bed – did indeed find its way back to the island, a priority could be the rebuilding of Rothesay’s sewer system.
Martin Catlin quizzed the candidates on what they planned to do to boost local trade and to improve what he called “dilapidated recreational facilities for families” in Rothesay.
Peter Wallace said he fully supported initiatives such as Project Playpark, which plans to establish a new playpark near Rothesay Leisure Pool and to improve existing play area, while Adam Bellshaw suggested that improving recreational facilities would be an ideal way to spend the £100,000 allocated for Rothesay capital projects in Argyll and Bute’s 2012-13 budget, and said he had looked at possible redevelopment of the tennis courts at the Meadows in his position as a Member of the Scottish Youth Parliament.
Len Scoullar said the council was already encouraging voluntary organisations such as Project Playpark, and he would urge the authority to continue doing so. He also said that following recent discussions about the condition of the playing surface at the public stadium in High Street, the council hoped to start work on the drainage system soon, and was also sympathetic to the provision of a ‘4G’ all-weather surface in place of the current 2G facility at Rothesay Joint Campus.
Isobel Strong said she too supported the aims of Project Playpark and the development of the Meadows and the tennis courts as a facility suitable for all ages; Robert Macintyre admitted that the provision of sports facilities on Bute was “poor”, while Hugh Cole suggested an indoor activity centre would be an ideal use for the former West Church building.
On a related subject, Graham Leonard asked how the candidates would arrest the decline in the number of tourists coming to Bute.
Isobel Strong said there were two priorities; the first was ensuring there are enough attractions to draw people in, and spoke on the embryonic proposals of the Bute Conservation Trust, which she chairs, for an activity and heritage centre, bunkhouse, observatory and training facility at Meikle Kilmory.
She and all the other candidates, however, agreed that the other major priority was to tackle the cost of travelling to the island; the proposal in the Scottish Ferries Review that could see Bute being one of the last islands to benefit from fares based on road equivalent tariff (RET) was widely criticised, with Robert Macintyre stating the proposal was “a mistake” by the Scottish Government.
Hugh Cole, however, departed slightly from the general line by suggesting that Bute had a “marvellous” ferry service – albeit one he was glad not to have to run.
A fair slice of the cake
Pointing out that only £100,000 had been set aside for Bute capital projects in Argyll and Bute’s 2012-13 budget, Sandy Long asked the candidates how they would ensure the island got a fair slice of the cake in future.
Len Scoullar said Bute had received major capital investment in recent years, for the inner harbour, Ardencraig Gardens, Rothesay Joint Campus and the flood prevention scheme, and the new budget was simply a case of other areas receiving the attention given to Bute in the past.
Robert Macintyre complained that a new primary campus for Dunoon – which people in the town did not even appear to want – had ‘jumped the queue’ of spending priorities, a claim Cllr Scoullar flatly rejected.
Adam Bellshaw and Peter Wallace both pledged to work with whoever was in power at Kilmory after the election – Mr Bellshaw was another who stated that Bute had had its fair share of major spending in the recent past – although Hugh Cole admitted that he could not give a full answer without knowing whether Bute really did get its fair share of cash, and could not know that unless and until he was elected.
Isobel Strong said the SNP was fielding 17 candidates across Argyll and Bute, and hoped that if the party was involved in running the council after election day, she and her colleagues would work with other parties to ensure every area received its fair share of money, and that the allocation of cash was nor based on “who shouts the loudest”.
Peter McDonald asked the candidates to select one thing they could change for the better on Bute.
Adam Bellshaw said: “The creation of jobs on the island. There are wastages in the job centre and people are being sent away to the mainland to look for work. We need a programme for people who are currently in long-term unemployment.”
Care for the elderly was the main priority of Peter Wallace, who said it is unfair that some elderly and infirm have to leave the island for care due to the lack of facilities on Bute.
Cllr Strong tied those two points together - the construction of the Ascog care home, she said, would help generate jobs locally and will also offer support for the elderly upon its completion.
“I’d like to see us getting going with the restructuring of the town,” said Hugh Cole. “If we did up all the existing buildings on the island, it’d produce more jobs. And certainly, care for the elderly.”
Cllr Scoullar said that as an attendee at NHS locality meetings, he had expressed his concerns over care in the community on Bute due to the lack of local back-up
; he said that he, too, would like to the care home at Ascog become a reality.
Cllr Macintyre stated he’d want to influence the Scottish Government to do something with the current pricing structure at Caledonian MacBrayne.
Bute’s renewable future
Tony Edwards asked the panel how they saw the future of renewable energy on Bute, given that a number of communities in Scotland have used modern methods to generate income for their communities.
Adam Bellshaw said that having recently seen the three turbines at Ardbeg, he was in support of anything which works towards a zero-carbon Bute.
Cllr Strong said: “We have great resources in Scotland for renewable energy but I think that the harnessing of such resources should be done in appropriate places. I’d like to see fairly small developments for community benefit, not for individual gain.”
At this point, chair Dan Edgar asked for a show of hands from the audience on the desirability of wind turbines - and found the majority present were in favour.
Cllr Macintyre stated that fossil fuels will run out eventually, and that having wind turbines in our (windy) climate would be an advantage and he would give them his wholehearted support.
Cllr Scoullar said: “I am very much a supporter of renewable energy. Wind turbines - in the right place, where they don’t spoil our beautiful landscape - can be an asset.”
Peter Wallace said he would also support wind power, if turbines could be sensitively positioned. He added that he would definitely support any form of mico-generation.
Hugh Cole said: “I support renewables and recycling. I find it difficult to recycle here, and it should be made much easier.”
Asked if the candidates had answered his question, Tony Edwards suggested that perhaps the show of hands should have been done after all the candidates had offered their opinions, so they could be uninfluenced by the majority view. then there would’ve been no possibility of having been influenced by what the majority were in favour of. Dan Edgar conceded.
Haste ye back
The candidates were asked how they would encourage young families to return to the island, especially when job opportunities were so few and far between.
Cllr Scoullar said he could foresee difficulty, especially since the council itself was struggling to keep its own people employed; Adam Bellshaw countered that perhaps if the council hadn’t given Fyne Homes a loan of £1.9m, more work placements could’ve been created.
In response, Cllr Scoullar said the money was rigidly controlled by government, and was solely for housing purposes.
Fyne Homes had spent £4.5m to do up the Old Courthouse and, for one reason or another, the flats had failed to sell. As a result, Fyne Homes would have had to borrow money from the bank, therefore incurring increasing interest costs, etc. “Fyne Homes are paying it back,” he added.
Councillor Strong said she was convinced that Bute Conservation Trust’s proposals for Meikle Kilmory would create local jobs.
“Although we are in the early stages, we’re quietly confident of what we can achieve,” she said.
“Discover Bute Landscape Partnership Scheme have also run a lot of events over the last few years which have encouraged people to the island. It’s the long-term economy of Bute which needs to improve.”
Hugh Cole said that we need to stimulate the economy locally, and local projects are needed to create jobs.
Peter Wallace said that through his involvement in Bute Community Council, he had written to the Ferry Review Board asking for later sailings on the ferries, but as far as the creation of jobs was concerned, more can and should be done to help - particularly in helping local businesses tender for work in the community.
Cllr Macintyre said he was annoyed by seeing vans and lorries from the mainland undertaking work here which could be done by local firms.
“My hope is that the penny will drop, and we will stop being ruled by ‘that wee man in Dunoon’,” he said.
Regeneration of Rothesay
Iain Gillespie called Rothesay “a dull and dismal wee place”, and asked how the town had been allowed to get into that state and when it would be improved.
Cllr Macintyre said he did not agree with that assessment of the town. “It’s easy to knock the island,” he said, “but we’ve got three excellent schools, a new flood defence system, and a new innerharbour.”
He added that money must be pulled together to get the work at the Pavilion started so it can be restored and used to the full
Cllr Scoullar said: “I think the economics of the holiday and tourism industry have affected us. With the advent of holidays abroad, tourists coming to Bute has been in decline. I don’t think things are as bad as Mr Gillespie paints it.”
On the Pavilion issue he said both he and Cllr Strong had been working hard on the economic case for the building with various consultants, but that it would take time for the work to come to fruition.
Robert’s comment over the Pavilion is unwarranted. We’ve been appointing officials and Isobel and I have been working hard on this with various consultants to make the case. It takes time.”
Hugh Cole said: “The town needs a power-wash, and maybe a bike track which goes around the island. We need to brush this place up.”
Peter Wallace said: “We’re moving towards a new type of tourism. Discover Bute Landscape Partnership Scheme have invested £2.3m in walks and trails. We shouldn’t be complacent, however, as there is always room for improvement.”
Cllr Strong said: “One thing which used to be the case for most places was that the back of the town was the area which was quite bad and required work. However, this area has been much improved and now the front is in need of improvement. It does take and I do understand Robert’s frustrations. The Pavilion is a valuable building and things are improving.”
Adam Bellshaw said: “It’s fantastic news that wer’re getting £500,000 [from Historic Scotland’s repairs fund for the Pavilion]. Also, with Townscape Heritage Initiative, it’ll be wonderful to see the town done up. “However, if you want to bring tourists to the island, there’s a need to tackle the ferry fares.”