Around 120 people filled the Thomas Morton Hall at Leith Theatre last night for an event billed as the Save Leith Walk (SLW) hustings.
For a by-election on the brink of trams, budget cuts, and Brexit, the atmosphere was remarkably calm and good-natured.
This mood was fostered in part by a celebratory presentation at the start of the evening, which outlined highlights of the (so far successful) campaign to oppose Drum’s development at Stead’s Place, and pointed the way towards future community pro-activeness on planning and a range of other issues.
Of the 11 candidates standing on 11 April, only seven took the stage. The others had announced their intentions too late for the organisers’ administrative cut-off point around a week ago. Hence, we did not hear from: Stephen Alexander (UKIP); Tom Laird (Scottish Libertarian); John Scott (Independent); and Paul Stirling (The For Britain Movement).
The hustings began with each candidate enjoying (if that’s the right word) four uninterrupted minutes to introduce themselves and/or dig a hole and self-inter. What follows is an impressionistic account, with asterisks in square brackets based on measurements made using Spurtle’s unreliable +/- sensation-clapometer.
Robb Munn (RM), SNP, began. He came to live in Leith in the 1980s and stayed. He recognises the area’s chronic lack of housing, overcrowding, and homelessness – problems worsened recently by the rise of AirBnB-style short-term lets. He admires and seeks to protect Leith’s social cohesiveness. He has had experience as a campaigner (e.g. against Forth Ports’ proposed biomass plant) and (Leith ward) councillor in the past, and has served on the Council’s Planning Committee. He now works for Ben Macpherson MSP. RM has shown himself willing to listen to the community in the past and to defy party lines. His would be a strong, experienced voice in difficult times. [Applause**]
David Jacobsen (DJ), Socialist Labour Party, noted Leith as the second most densely populated area in Britain. He would stand up for local people, whom he urged ‘not to overestimate or underestimate’ the rise of fascism and racism across Europe. Locals should attend Saturday’s UN Anti-Racism Demonstration in Glasgow. He has worked for 13 years in the NHS, most recently managing waiting lists at the Eye Pavilion. SNP policies in government have resulted in private companies being brought in to reduce waiting times. Many NHS staff are poorly paid, while very well-paid top consultants take time out to treat private patients. If elected as a councillor, he would invest in the NHS. [Applause***]
Dan McCroskrie (DM), Scottish Conservative & Unionist [greeted by pantomime intake of breath from audience], acknowledged he has less experience of Leith than others on the platform, having lived here only two years. He prefers Leith’s strong community feel to that in Morningside, where he was before. [Laughter/sneers*] He lives in Stead’s Place, and so fully realises the potential negative impact of Drum’s proposals – irrespective of this by-election result, he hopes to become involved in the Save Leith Walk campaign in future. He opposes trams for being too expensive, and likely to cause havoc in neighbouring streets. He would invest the money instead in schools (e.g. Trinity Academy) and public services. He agrees with much of what RM said [Laughter*] about housing. [Applause**]
Nick Gardner (NG), Scottish Labour, has lived and worked for 30 years in Leith, most recently as a plumber’s mate. He served for five years as a councillor, and has been active in Leith Central Community Council, Leith Festival, the Save Canonmills Bridge campaign, and others. His politics is based on four principles: (1) Socialism; (2) Respect for local government; (3) Love of the planet; (4) Need for freedom of movement. He is committed to sharing resources fairly, and defending local interests against Big Government and Big Business. He sees opportunities for local authorities to resist the commercial sector on green space, and by buying up/repurposing vacant spaces to meet local needs. [Applause****]
Lorna Slater (LS), Scottish Greens, praised her party’s straightforward approach. She cited Cllr Alex Staniforth travelling by bus with a stepladder to check on trees behind hoardings at Meadowbank. ‘Unfortunately, he’s a short-arse and still couldn’t see over. But he really tried.’ [Laughter***] She praised SLW campaign’s success and exceptional leadership. She is a molecular mechanical engineer working on tidal power generation. She has lived 10 years in Leith, and supports trams [directed evanescent old-fashioned look at DM]. She says Greens apply ethical principles instead of waffling political rhetoric. ‘We do exactly what it says on the tin.’ [Applause**]
Kevin Illingworth (KI), Independent (Save Meadowbank), says he originally hails from Newcastle ‘as you can tell as I’m the only one on the stage in a T-shirt’. [Laughter**] Obesity is a huge health problem for the UK, but the Council has knocked down Meadowbank (without providing figures for underuse or financial losses) and has unclear plans to partially replace it with (perhaps) a hotel and student housing. If elected, he would try to reform Scotland’s Planning law and the Council’s Planning system. Unimpressed by Council efficiency – getting rubbish uplifted from his street had recently taken two weeks, whereas replacing his passport had taken only nine days. [Applause**]
Jack Caldwell (JC), Scottish Liberal Democrats, began by thanking and praising former Ward 12 councillor Marion Donaldson, who has stepped down. He has lived in Leith since 1998 and works locally. He wants more social and affordable housing, and more timely uplifts of rubbish. He favours low emission zones for more breathable streets, and will continue to support the SLW campaign wholeheartedly. We must tackle the 24% material poverty rate in Leith. Leith Walk is European – we’re on the side of European nationals! [Applause***]
Questions were now invited from the audience, two at a time.
1. How can we oppose SNP austerity cuts?
2. How can we stop rather than manage Council cuts to public services?
LS: The choice is between reducing spending and increasing revenue. I would increase revenue by: reforming Council Tax banding (unchanged since 1994); introducing a Workplace Parking Levy and Tourist Tax.
DM: Agree with LS on need for revenue generation. Must create conditions for small local businesses to thrive, which ties into SLW campaign and Drum’s disgraceful closure of Stead’s Place enterprises.
KI: Council should build more homes for social rent. Need for greater transparency to make sensible decisions on budgets. We don’t need nuclear weapons in Leith.
NG: Need to interrogate (SNP) Scottish Government more on where Westminster’s funding goes. Edinburgh has special needs (home to Parliament and Palace, capital city). Council should invest in land, build more, and use its existing estate better. Council could provide (and charge for) additional services in private sector (as does Manchester).
JC: Favours: an Edinburgh Transformation Fund to prevent cuts in future; Council Tax Band D reform; Tourist Tax.
RM: I have experience as a councillor in dealing with cuts, and would stand up for vulnerable local individuals and organisations. Edinburgh has extra costs, despite being seen as rich by outsiders. I would use personal high-level contacts within SNP and Scottish Government to lobby for changes to local-government funding.
DJ: [Inaudible point about paper bags at McDonalds. Nerves.] Central-government’s call for austerity is a lie driven by bankers since the 2008 Crash. Need to protest against Scottish Government pocketing Westminster funding. Prioritise social care over private investment.
3. How do we tackle bigotry and hate crime?
4. Do you support Unite union’s campaign for an amnesty on local government’s £32M debt?
NG: I encourage greater reporting of hate crime. We should organise more diversity events – when people meet, their differences become less important. Helped organise the United Colours of Leith event; am enthusiastic member of the culturally diverse belly-dancing community. [Susurration of jaws dropping, minds boggling*]
JC: £520k cut in community policing has contributed to rise in hate crime. Call it out! Am actively making links across different groups in Leith. Would like to hear more about UNITE campaign. [Several candidates later claimed not to have heard question about UNITE. JC first of several who acknowledged ignorance but wanted to know more.]
LS: Upset to hear questioner was victim of hate crime. Realise that all candidates here tonight are white. We must listen and learn. Brexit has made things worse and fostered a kind of ‘repugnant Britishness’. Everyone is welcome in Scotland. At a micro level, scratch off offensive stickers on tenement stairs. UNITE campaign sounds like a good idea.
KI: I blame fake news for much of this. Sport brings people together. Would like to hear more about UNITE campaign.
DM: Cuts to community policing are important, but not full explanation. Cohesion comes from good homes, early education, and a healthy social mix. Didn’t hear the UNITE question, but am a member of a trade union myself and recognise their important role.
RM: There is no place for hate crime. I remember Rock against Racism in the late 1970s. I support an amnesty and would like to hear more about UNITE campaign.
DJ: Racism is prevalent, fuelled by homelessness, helplessness, and cynicism about politicians. Money would be better spent on local needs now than long-term trams project.
5. Do you agree students and tourists take precedence in Edinburgh, and that AirBnB is sucking the life out of cities?
6. Do you agree we need to save Edinburgh from Council Planning Department and support the introduction of third-party appeals?
LS: Green MSP Andy Wightman is spearheading land and short-term lets reform at Holyrood. A new app is being developed to penetrate AirBnB secrecy and allow ordinary people to identify local short-term lets. SNP, Labour, and Conservatives have just voted to increase number of objections it will take (from seven to 20) before councillors consider a case at the Development Management Subcommittee – thus making system less democratic. [Multiple objections from audience, claiming this last point is factually inaccurate**]
KI: Short-term lets contribute to rubbish left in wrong places. Planning should respond better to large-scale public objections.
NG: Cap short-term lets at 60–90 days per year. This would make long-term lets a more attractive option. I favour a community right of appeal, and would replace a single Reporter deciding appeals in private with a Tribunal debating appeals in public. [Applause**]
JC: Short-term lets are a real problem on Leith Walk, and are ‘ripping the hearts out of stairwells’. Greater regulation needed for whole-flat lets, with registration to ensure health-and-safety standards. I fully support an equal right of appeal.
RM: AirBnB is having a damaging effect. Council is already insisting whole-flat sublets should apply for change-of-use planning consent. Need for regulation. Planners (including councillors) are human – they make good and bad decisions, but got it right on the Stead’s Place case. Stunning unanimity in that decision makes an appeal very difficult. [Denied questioner’s assertion that he had supported Virgin Hotel in the Old Town, as was not a councillor at the time*]
DJ: I defer to NG’s and RM’s experience on these matters, and look forward to being mentored by them when I’m elected. [Laughter*] Short-term lets are partly the result of the SNP’s fixation with services and tourism over manufacturing. I would support the Living Rent Campaign’s excellent work in exposing this scourge. ‘Evict landlords, not tenants!’ [Applause***]
DM: We must protect and preserve Edinburgh’s built heritage where possible. I use AirBnB a lot, and must say that it’s not always an issue for surrounding communities. I concede that there may be a problem in Edinburgh that requires regulation. However, no blanket bans as short-term lets are welcome revenue source in some local authorities (e.g. Highlands). [Applause*]
7. Yes or no: Do you think Edinburgh should introduce a Workplace Parking Levy?
NG: Yes, but review it after 2 years.
DM: 100% no.
The meeting concluded. This was a lively and reasonably informative evening, perhaps most notable for how little was said about trams and how astonishingly polite those on the platform were to each other.
No candidate really created or took an opportunity to seize fellow high-minded idealists by the thrapple and throttle them. Perhaps because all panellists sensed that, in today’s climate, more unites Leithers in the face of outside challenges than divides them. Such consensus is unlikely to survive the transfer from Leith Theatre to City Chambers.
Congratulations to SLW activists for organising a welcoming and constructive event which ran like clockwork.