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May 3, 2022

Local democracy is not dead

There’s something odd about tomorrow’s local elections and the clue is in the name – ‘local’ elections for ‘local’ councils who deliver ‘local’ services. It’s the most ‘local’ expression of ‘local’ democracy that we have (with apologies to community councils everywhere who would be if they had any powers).  What’s odd is watching national leaders of every political persuasion out on the stump and treating these elections as if they’re little more than a proxy for their national agendas. Local democracy is not quite as dead as some of these leaders seem to think. Good piece by Gerry Hassan.

Gerry Hassan, The Scottish Review

Local democracy is not in a good way in Scotland: the atrophying of local government; the relentless centralisation of the Scottish and UK Governments and the fact that all mainstream parties fight these as ‘national elections’.

On Monday, I went to my first ever Dumfries and Galloway local election hustings, for the Dee and Glenkens ward. This large rural ward encompasses my home town of Kirkcudbright, and a number of small towns and villages including Gatehouse of Fleet, Lauriston, New Galloway, Borgue and Dalry.

Held at the impressive CatStrand social enterprise and community hub in New Galloway, there was a near-capacity and engaged crowd of over 100, mostly of senior age, but with a good sprinkling of 40-somethings and even the occasional young person.

Five years ago, this ward elected one Tory, one Independent – neither standing this time – and Dougie Campbell, then SNP who is now standing as an Independent. On paper this could be a very open contest.

The questions and exchanges over the next two hours and 15 minutes (take note, BBC Question Time) ranged across the key local issues for rural Galloway: housing, employment, tourism, young people, farming and forestry, renewables, digital connectivity, transport and the lack of a rail link between Stranraer and Dumfries.

The questions were serious and informed. One, on the issue of short-term housing lets and licensing rules coming in later this year, brings forth a nuanced debate about second homes, empty properties, Airbnb, tourism and more. All candidates recognised the need for regulation, and a ‘balance’ between competing demands, in an area which has a ‘fragility’ as one candidate said as well as many attributes.

There was a concern about employment prospects, education and retaining young people who face the ever-present temptation of moving away for more opportunities. A young person in the audience asked politely about the inadvisability of adults telling young people what to do and was listened to respectfully.

Independent Dougie Campbell mentioned being taken aback by a survey of young people in the region, ‘which showed that none of them saw their future in the area’. Green Laura Moodie used her example of young people in Kirkcudbright Primary saying they wanted a skate park, and so ‘Kirkcudbright skate park was created because young people said they wanted one and had been listened to’.

One discussion bemoaning the lack of internet connectivity drew out differences across the ward; between living in a town like Kirkcudbright as opposed to more remote places that can be blighted by appalling internet coverage with all that implies for work and life.

The most passionate debate of the evening and a subject referenced throughout the night was transport, and the lack of a rail link between Stranraer and Dumfries. This was the totemic issue which caused Dougie Campbell to resign from the SNP – and in particular the glaring lack of support in the Scottish Government’s 20-year Transport Strategy, for anything significant for the region. This included a lack of progress on a rail link via, for example, a serious feasibility study (the UK Government having spent a ridiculous £900,000 on the ‘Boris bridge’ between Scotland and Northern Ireland which was never going to happen).

People talked of the potential of the rail link as ‘transformational’; of the challenge the region faced post-Beeching when it closed in 1965; and of the massive opportunity to galvinise enterprise, commerce and tourism, and in particular, with ‘Stranraer being a major hub port due to Brexit’. This is generally seen by most candidates as more important than the A75 dualling, beloved of the UK Government, but a couple of the candidates such as Lib Dem Anthony Bond indicated that to them it is not an either/or.

Underpinning this is a positive belief in the potential of Dumfries and Galloway if it has infrastructure investment and if people here have the power to lead. Laurie Moodie stated that the area has a huge advantage in terms of tourism and attracting people as ‘it is close to England, not that far from Wales and close to Northern Ireland’.

Given the challenges the area faces, there is a tendency sometimes to talk it down. It is understandable that people call Dumfries and Galloway ‘the forgotten Scotland’, but Tory John Denerley bizarrely stated: ‘It is just not an attractive place to come to’; while the Lib Dem Anthony Bond commented: ‘When people come to the area there is nothing for them to do’ – which is patently untrue. He did, however, come up with the memorable alliteration that defines the region’s economy by three Ts: ‘timber, turbines, tourism’.

There were no real altercations or heated disagreements. The SNP candidate Andy McFarlane made what sounded like an implausible claim that the council were committed to building over 100,000 homes in the next few years. This was then corrected by a Tory councillor from another area in the audience who stated that this was a national figure – the D&G figure being ‘about 7,000 homes’.

The Tory candidates John Denerley and Susan Murdoch were personable and came across as locally committed. At numerous points in the evening, they stated a position, for example, supporting a tourism tax and restrictions on short-term lets, at odds with the national Tory Party, and seemed very unmotivated by the prevailing winds of populism and stigmatising minorities which are the hallmark of the UK Tory Government.

One striking factor in the evening was the total lack of personal disagreement and rancour. People more often than not agreed with each other or indicated that there was merit in what a previous speaker had just said. Tory Susan Murdoch said on more than one occasion: ‘I agree with Laura’, meaning Green Laura Moodie, which almost became the evening’s equivalent of ‘I agree with Nick (Clegg)’, all those years ago. This happened so many times that the chair Alan Smith eventually said: ‘Maybe you are in the wrong party’, to which Murdoch replied: ‘I am a woman, I like to co-operate’.

There was a search for common ground, consensus and desire to find solutions found across all the candidates. People here – candidates and audience – were characterised by a desire to do things and be co-operative. Most of the audience, tellingly, were genuine members of the public wanting to find out more about local issues, and not, as is often the case, political activists looking to point score and needle opponents.

There was little evidence of trying to pass the buck so beloved of national politicians everywhere. There were no major criticisms of the Scottish and UK Governments; indeed both hardly got many mentions. The names Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon and the buzz word ‘Partygate’ were not cited once by anyone, which was a relief.

Over two hours later, we staggered out of the CatStrand into the New Galloway night impressed with the mutual resilience we had all shown. This was my first D&G hustings and overall I was very impressed by the quality of debate and the good intentions of the candidates and audience.

Two big thoughts struck me reflecting on the above. First, the entire experience had a sense of goodwill and bonhomie, acknowledging the common commitment all the candidates have to Dumfries and Galloway, community involvement and public life.

I compared this to my many years living in Glasgow and the many bitter, raucous, partisan party squabbling usually between Labour and SNP and sometimes within each, often between what were obviously mediocre men trying to cover their inadequacies by invoking heated argument. All of this badly served the city, but my D&G experience leads me to the conclusion that there is something poisonous, or at least very damaged, in the politics and psyche of Glasgow.

Second, there was little to no dwelling on the constraints local government faces, such as the remorseless cuts and centralisation from Edinburgh. While that was illuminating, what was even more striking was the energy, motivation and want to make life better of all of these candidates and the belief that they could do so.

Local democracy, and even more, local community involvement, engagement and empowerment, is out there up and down the highways and byways of Scotland alive and kicking. Wouldn’t it be great if the powers that be listened and acted? Recognised that Edinburgh does not know best; that Glasgow and Edinburgh maybe are in many ways the problem. Are you listening Nicola Sturgeon, Anas Sarwar, Douglas Ross, Alex Cole-Hamilton, Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater? Are you really listening or prepared to listen to the Scotland beyond your comfort zones?