Bute MSP hits back in ward boundary row

Argyll and Bute MSP Michael Russell.
Argyll and Bute MSP Michael Russell.

Argyll and Bute MSP Michael Russell has hit back at the leader of the local council as the row over plans for a major re-drawing of the area’s council ward boundaries rumbles on.

Mr Russell responded after council leader Dick Walsh accused him of spreading “misinformation and inaccuracies in what can only be seen as his increasingly desperate attempts to attack Argyll and Bute Council in any way, shape or form and at any cost”.

Councillor Walsh, in a letter to the community councils in the Bute and Cowal area, was replying to Mr Russell’s accusation that the council was failing to stand up for local residents by properly opposing the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland and its plans to increase the size of council wards and reduce the number of Argyll and Bute councillors.

Mr Russell’s latest response, in full, reads as follows.

“I have seen Dick Walsh’s letter to all community councils regarding the boundary commission proposals and I feel that I must make three brief points in response though I really do not want to get into a spat with him about this.

“Firstly as a former member of the Arbuthnott Commission on boundaries and voting systems I know that local government boundaries are largely determined by population.

“The failure of Argyll and Bute Council to maintain population and the current situation in which we are losing population faster than any other area means that a recommendation of this sort was inevitable.

“Proposing a swathe of school closures, refusing to sell Castle Toward to the community, leaving the Castle Lodge [in Dunoon] unroofed and awarding council contracts to outside companies at higher prices than local bids are the type of things that have the effect of further driving down population.

“All have happened on Cllr Walsh’s watch as council leader.

“Secondly whilst at least one council in Scotland has threatened to go to court over the recommendations all we have had so far from the leadership of Argyll & Bute, after a period of secrecy, is words in an official paper.

“In addition some councillors in wards affected by the proposals weren’t properly consulted, a fact that Councillors [Michael] Breslin and [Bruce] Marshall will confirm.

“Thirdly I am happy to work with anyone who wants to resist these changes. There is already a ground swell of opposition which includes several community councils, the local MP Brendan O’Hara, most opposition councillors and all the affected local SNP branches.

“I have tabled a hard hitting motion in the Scottish Parliament (given below) and I will happily make common cause with other communities and with the council leader and his administration if they wish to join in.

“If any community council wants a copy of the objection I will submit in September, my office will be glad to provide it when it is complete.

“Finally I suspect what has riled Cllr Walsh is not so much my criticisms of the council - which I find necessary to make given my case load is always full to overflowing with complaints about the local authority - but my support for smaller councils that are closer to those they are meant to serve.

“The effect of these latest proposals will be to put even more power into the hands of senior officers at Kilmory and into the hands of the leader of the council at a time when Scottish councils are already some of the largest and most distant in Europe. Many believe, like me, that this would be unacceptable.

“I am of the view that we need stronger, more effective local democracy , a view increasingly held across Argyll and Bute as the recent ‘People’s Council’ event in Oban demonstrated.

“Argyll and Bute opposition councillors Breslin and [Vivien] Dance spoke at that event and there is a growing feeling that change is essential if people are to be properly served. I know that this threatens the present cosy power structures but I make no apology for that.

“Argyll and Bute, at leadership level, is a failing council. It is already being investigated by Audit Scotland and this latest issue is, alas, symptomatic of its failings.

“But the solution is not to shoot the messenger. It is to deliver the right message.”

Mr Russell’s Scottish Parliament motion on the boundary proposals reads as follows.

That the Parliament notes the changes to local government wards in Argyll and Bute that have been proposed by the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland in its 5th review; is concerned that Argyll and Bute Council has failed to fully consult its members regarding these changes, including members in wards adversely affected by them; regrets that the council’s current administration has apparently not offered any significant opposition to these changes; understands that the reason for these changes, which include the only loss of a full ward in Scotland, lie in the greatest part in the failure of the council to tackle effectively the depopulation of the area; urges communities affected to submit their views to the Local Government Boundary Commission before 22 October 2015; is particularly concerned at the loss of a ward in Cowal, the loss of three councillors from the current total of 36 in Argyll and Bute, the inclusion of parts of Cowal in the Lomond ward contrary to patterns of local communication, settlement and transportation, the inclusion of parts of Cowal in the Bute ward contrary to patterns of local communication, settlement and transportation, the change to ward boundaries in mid-Argyll contrary to patterns of local communication, settlement and transportation and what it considers the unnecessary focus on the boundaries of the Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park; and calls on the commission to take more note in its recommendations of the desire by communities, particularly in rural areas, for geographical and community identity and solidarity rather than continue to emphasise parity in electoral numbers.