The first of two Spurtle hustings kicked off last night, on a showery evening, with a similar event chaired by Lesley Riddoch taking place at exactly the same time elsewhere in the city.
With 5 minutes to go and the Leith Walk candidates outnumbering the audience, some Spurtle team members were already ruing the paper's potentially ruinous outlay on cardboard name-tags.
Fortunately, a late surge saved blushes, and some 40 members of the public settled in to question and assess those who would represent them in City Chambers.
Forty members of the public hardly constitutes a throng. The turn-out perhaps reflects disenchantment among voters at this election, the late presentation of manifestos, a general lack of atmosphere partly engendered by the enforced absence of political street postering. Still, it is 40 better than none, and only 10 fewer than the number who attended last year's lively by-election hustings held at the height (or depth) of the tram fiasco.
STV Local and others live-blogged from the event: see #leithwalkhustings on Twitter. Below is a summary with one audience member's personal observations.
WHO CAME AND WHO DIDN'T
There are 11 candidates standing for 4 seats. However, to help the meeting cover a wide range of topics, Labour and the SNP which are each fielding two had earlier agreed only one speaker per party would represent them on this occasion. Nick Gardner (Labour) and Seumas Ross Skinner (SNP) watched from the audience, doubtless twitching with relief and frustration.
To the organisers' surprise, Conservative candidate Miles Briggs could not attend. He had been 'urgently called away on business in Aberdeen' 2 days earlier and had not thought to tell us. In his place came Cameron Rose, the incumbent councillor and now candidate for Southside/Newington (Ward 4). It is fair to say that – in terms of courtersy or getting his face and personality in front of the public – this was not Mr Briggs's finest hour.
However, his performance was surpassed by that of the Independent Jimmy McIntosh. Not only did the latter fail to attend, but he failed to provide any details about himself whatsoever. Despite repeated efforts, Spurtle has no idea who Mr McIntosh is, where he is, how to reach him, or what he stands for. We have yet to decide whether this is incompetence on his part or a stroke of genius. (See Letters, 23.4.12.)
John Hein, of the Liberal Party in Scotland, did not arrive despite confirming his intention to attend earlier in the day. His own priorities and those of his party can at least be found online.
Harald Tobermann, the hustings Chair, invited candidates to begin with a brief summary of themselves: backgrounds, day jobs, and 'principles ... if you have any'. Queasy smiles from candidates. All the responses below met with polite but far from tumultuous applause.
Alex Wilson (AW), Independent: Began with the classic get-out-of-jail-free card beloved of many independents – 'I am not a politician'. He comes to the election with the perspective of a businessman based in Leith and active in local public life there.
James Paterson (JP), Liberal Democrat: Local resident, sleep-deprived father of two, former wine shop owner on Elm Row. Bottom-up approach to city politics: clearing dog mess from streets and parks will engender pride in the community.
John McArdle (JM), Scottish Anti-Cuts Coalition: Local resident and disability rights campaigner, inspired in part by a friend's tragic response to losing benefits. Councils must put people first, and if necessary go into deficit before securing extra funds for the vulnerable from central government.
Maggie Chapman (MC), Green: Incumbent councillor in Leith Walk ward, teacher of Geography and Environmental Philosophy at Napier University, EIS (teaching union) representative. Core principles include: (a) greater effort to involve public in decision making; (b) stimulate local economy by creating meaningful local jobs with sustainable wages, and investing in local services and enterprises. [A third core principle got garbled and lost due to lack of time.]
Deidre Brock (DB), Scottish National Party: Incumbent councillor in Leith Walk ward, Convener of Culture and Leisure Committee, mother of two, local resident for 16 years. Previous 5 years had involved many tough decisions, but good things too had emerged. Stressed closeness of SNP relationship at Council and Holyrood levels. Much more could be done immediately ('shovel-ready' building projects) with additional funds from Westminster.
Cameron Rose (CR), Conservative: Reported that the unavoidably-absent-on-business Miles Briggs had lived in Ward 12 for 10 years, was 29 years old, and works in the Scottish Parliament. Edinburgh had managed quite well in the recession thanks to Tourism and Financial sectors. [Member of public who asked Question 3 below later described this assessment as 'not in touch with reality' and 'breathtaking complacency'.] Encouraging Business and Environmental improvement would bring further benefits. CR was opposed to inefficient use of public resources and delivery of public services.
Angela Blacklock (AB), Labour: Incumbent Leith Walk councillor, local resident for 17 years, mother. Council and the city had starved for the last 5 years. 'Politics as usual' is no longer an option. Council must better consult the public, e.g. through parent councils. Committed to new Budget Committee, Petitions Committee, and minimum wage.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
Question 1: 'Angry of Leith' began with a loosely reasoned account of everything, everywhere across all human history. After repeated interventions by the Chair, his question boiled down to: Will you represent Leith as well as Edinburgh?; and What are you going to do about the trams?
JP: Trams are a huge mess. Will campaign for them to extend all the way down Leith Walk.
JM: Trams fiasco showed a disgusting lack of transparency. Better communication required. In favour of further cut in business rates for Leith Walk. Waterworld should not close.
MC: Would absolutely represent Leith Walk ward. Trams are necessary, sustainable, clean, anti-congestion traffic solution. But present situation is clearly not just. All recent councillors bear some responsibility for the problem. Better management required. However, arms-length organisations have proven very good at hiding things from the Council and public.
DB: At hustings here 5 years ago she had been heckled for opposing trams. SNP response to local disruption had been: (a) popular Business Hub at McDonald Rd Library; (b) Scottish Government's reduction in business rates; (c) Scottish Government and Council working together to attract new businesses locally (e.g. Gamesa – 800+ jobs); (d) Town Centre Coordinator working with Leith Business Association.
CR: Miles Briggs is innocent, OK? Unavoidably-absent local resident had not been on the Council and so was not responsible for trams. Coalition Administration is to blame.
AB: Yes – represent Leith and Edinburgh. Blame lack of leadership in delivering trams for fiasco. Want a public enquiry. Would now prioritise Leith Walk improvements.
AW: Edinburgh used to have a 'perfect' bus service. Did not need trams. Trams would never be economically viable. Should be scrapped. Use money to tidy up this 'Great Idiocy'. [Greeted with loud applause.]
Question 2: The 'Da Vinci Rapist' has been housed in Leith Walk ward. Lack of 24-hour supervision was reportedly a decision based on budget. What action would you take?'
JM: Situation is absolutely unacceptable. People want to live with dignity and in safety. [Rambled off topic about a ballet dancer living in Kensington.] Maintaining frontline services is essential. 'I'd make damn sure it wouldn't happen.'
MC: Such budget-based decisions are typical. Need to consider those affected. Lothian and Borders Police now considering other ways to address this particular problem.
DB: This decision was made by Midlothian Council. [Neat footwork.]
CR: Lothian and Borders Police deny this decision was based on budget. They say it was based on a downrating of risk. All this stems from a failure of the justice system: 'Da Vinci Rapist' should have been locked up for longer. [No mention of unavoidably absent Miles Briggs.]
AW: Funding for supervision of criminals out on licence should come from central government.
JP: Shocking. 'I have nothing further to add'.
Question 3: Where do you stand on privatisation of public services?
MC: Alternative Business Model (ABM) was an 'absolute outrage'. Cost £3m. Greens always knew it was rubbish. Told you so. Greens also opposed to privatisation of health, social care and housing. 'Public services must remain public services'. [Loud round of applause.]
DB: It's nothing new – 65% of services already in private sector. Desperate need to find savings in order to protect frontline services.
CR: Agree with DB. Quite a lot of privatisation began under Labour. The new Internal Model will not achieve ABM's promised apprenticeships, improved cleansing, and £120m savings over 7 years.
AB: CR's summary of savings is nonsense. 'People don't pay Council Tax to pay private businesses'. [Slight, fractious exchanges between AB and CR. Cry of 'Hypocritical!' from unidentified member of audience aimed at unidentified candidate.]
AW: [Inaudible response involving the word 'trust'.]
JP: Divergence from party line. Annoyed by privatisation's devolution of responsibility when something goes wrong ... no-one takes blame. Starting under Gordon Brown, Public Finance Initiatives have proved 'vastly more expensive'. [Rustle of applause]
JM: 100% against privatisation. 'Right-wing people's way of giving business buddies a slice of the pie.' For savings read cuts. We're all being robbed. Would crack down on tax avoidance by big business to raise revenues. Stand up and fight! [Loudest round of applause so far.]
Question 4: Splashback campaigners in favour of saving Leith Waterworld want the Council to retain ownership and responsibility. They do not want to run the facility themselves. Would you support that if elected?'
DB: All parties except Greens supported decision to close Waterworld. Council officials and Edinburgh Leisure would help Splashback to make a community bid. [Questioner looked as though he had been offered a cold brussels sprout.]
CR: I commend ingenuity and initiative of campaign. Waterworld had operated at considerable loss. Neither Miles Briggs nor CR would support a buy-in without seeing the plan, but would approach positively. Would not support running Waterworld as before. [Questioner swallowed another cold sprout.]
AB: Agree with CR. [Intake of breath from audience. Deafening silence, broken only by metaphorical swallowing of third cold sprout in a row.]
AW: Great shame. Economic case a 'big hurdle'. Waterworld a huge resource which should not have closed. Don't have sufficient details to judge.
JP: Don't have enough details to judge. Loss of local resource where I taught my child to swim. Would approach bid positively. [Yum, another sprout.]
JM: 'Completely unacceptable neo-liberal decision' to close. Some resources are worth subsidising. [Muddled figures about extent of financial bail-out for banks followed.] Collect revenue from the wealthy. Stand up to big business. [Loud round of applause.]
MC: More than a swimming pool – a social resource. Would support a community buy-out and subsidy. [A cold sprout by any other name would smell as sweet.]
Question 5: The elderly, vulnerable and disabled need support. Will you have the guts to stand up to the neo-liberal cruelty of cuts?
CR: Some in-house services are very well run. But when they're not, let's do best for people of Edinburgh by using the private sector. [No mention of Miles Briggs, who is in Aberdeen.]
AB: Labour prioritise local people and the vulnerable. Hope we have protected in-house services for the future. [Deafening silence.]
AW: We're all living longer. It costs. I have no ideological angle. I want to live with dignity and respect. We must face up to the cost.
JP: I agree. But why is care so expensive – sometimes £600+ per month? Is this the result of private sector's involvement?
JM: [Rambling tour round Glasgow resource centre, car park and Commonwealth Games exemplifying 'barbarism'.] Subcontracted care agencies provide inferior service at great expense using very poorly paid and treated staff. Frankly, a disgrace. Supports fully funded care service and independent auditing to ensure statutory obligations are fulfilled. [Loud applause.]
MC: For-profit firms win contracts with unrealistically low bids. Then treat staff appallingly. Care quality poor. Must build up communities from the grassroots and that means supporting communities. [Er, what?]
DB: The answer is independence for Scotland so can set own agenda. [Angry of Leith interjects angrily but incomprehensibly.]
Question 6: How would you restore trust in the statutory notice system?
AB: Many concerned constituents. Must wait and see results of investigation. Any new system must be transparent.
AW: Experience of 'incompetent disaster', 'criminal management' 'licence to print money' on own roof. A scam. Shut it down.
JP: Personal experience of £3K–£15K price hike. Would retain the department as useful in maintaining shared properties. But would instigate register of interests and public scrutiny of Planning and Statutory Notice departments.
JM: Second-hand experience of £5K–£40K price hike. Council should employ its own workers not private companies. Need transparency.
MC: Cannot be transparent yet for fear of compromising investigation/prosecution. Council should start: (a) bond system, so properties can be maintained promptly rather than incurring expensive delay; (b) Services for Communities should support tenant/owner/neighbour negotiations.
DB: Deeply frustrating. Cross-party agreement that Council must do better.
CR: Very big public service scandal/failure. Requires: (a) significant compensation as soon as possible; (b) prompt upgrade of staff resources to help public. [No mention of unavoidably absent Miles Briggs.]
Question 7: Where do you stand on the recently approved West Princes Street Gardens Ferris wheel?
AW: Should have been in Leith.
JP: In favour.
JM: Don't know anything about it. Am in favour of arts and culture. If fun, great. More concerned about children.
MC: If it were permanent, would be a problem. But OK for 6 months. Rental should have gone to the Common Good Fund.
DC: Bit of fun. Temporary.
CR: I voted in favour of it on the Planning Committee. See how it goes. Decide later whether it could return. [No mention of unavoidably absent Miles Briggs.]
AB: Wish it had been in Leith. Voted in favour, even though know of 6 places nearby where you can see the same view for free.
Question 8: Leith Walk is one of the top 10 most dangerous streets to cycle on in the UK. What would you do to improve it?
JP: Prioritise repair of potholes. Slow down traffic to 20mph. [Applause.]
JM: Leith pavements are neglected and should be brightened up. Council has not done its job.
MC: Leith Walk has been neglected. Repair potholes. Restore trees and insert planting boxes. Don't allow sites to remain boarded up and empty for too long. Support local businesses in use of frontages and community spaces outside them.
DB: Public-realm improvements delayed by waiting for delivery of trams. [Lost train of thought.] £3.2 million would pay for resurfacing once utilities had been upgraded. Would welcome public suggestions and involvement. [Angry of Leith shouts 'Ye're waffling! Ye're not daein anything for Leith!' DB replies, 'Yes we are, we're jumping up and down.' Angry of Leith replies 'No you're not'. DB replies 'Yes we are'. Audience, enjoying the panto, joins in. Chairman intervenes to restore order.]
CR: Road surface must be made good for all users as soon as possible.
AB: Leith Walk also considered one of the top 3 most important streets in Edinburgh. Get the clock back, planters down the middle, improve uneven pavements. Councillors must argue for more money.
AW: 'Leith Walk: Welcome to Kosovo!' [Laughter, applause.] Make it a grand boulevard. Spend whatever it takes.
Question 9: Are you prepared to stop supermarkets ruining local shops?
JP: I totally agree.
JM: Supermarkets are 'a cancer in our society'. Now taking over pubs. Workfare schemes a disgrace. We want sustainable communities.
MC: Greens seeking change in planning legislation to distinguish between different kinds of retailer. Should also stop unfair subsidy of out-of-town supermarkets whose car parks are not taxed as retail space. [Ripple of applause.]
DB: I opposed opening of the Coop on McDonald Rd, only 200 yards from a Tesco. SNP have helped local shops through: (a) Business Hub; (b) shopfront competition; (c) exemption or reduction of small business rates; (d) Leith Walk Coordinator.
CR: Conservatives supported help with business rates. Individuals must use or lose local shops.
AB: Planning/Licensing system is skewed in favour of chains. Labour would help small businesses with legal advice and in other ways.
AW: Not much more to add. 'Leith Walk to me is Edinburgh's avenue to the world.' Deserves equal status with Princes Street and the High Street. In absence of trams, start improving it now.
SO HOW DID THEY FARE ON THE NIGHT?
There was a notable absence of blood on the carpet after this hustings. No candidate landed or even attempted to land a telling political blow. No candidate wandered into the event with a man-trap, set the jaws, and jumped into it. It was a low-key, mostly friendly affair from which all present emerged with some credit.
On the basis of the performances here, this observer suspects the three incumbent candidates – Blacklock, Brock and Chapman – may reasonably expect re-election. The real contest will be for the fourth seat. I cannot read which way that will go.
Angela Blacklock: Far more confident than the tongue-tied first timer of 5 years ago, but unfortunate tendency to recite from notes in a monotone. Occasionally left audience bemused. Comes over as a reliable party representative rather than free-thinker or impassioned local representative. However, seems sincere and straightforward.
Miles Briggs: Aberdeen is not in Ward 12 and neither was he. [Cameron Rose: perfectly smooth, affable and polished. If he were a car he'd be a Jaguar, and some of us would feel slightly guilty for enjoying the leather seats.]
Deidre Brock: Inevitably took the most flak as an influential member of the Coalition Administration. Mostly assured, professional and concise. Backed up claims with a concrete if finite list of local initiatives. Her trump card – the usefulness of a close working relationship between SNP councillors and an SNP Government – could one day come back to bite her.
Maggie Chapman: As in last March's Holyrood hustings for Edinburgh North and Leith, a confident, businesslike and articulate performance which did much to dispel notions of unrealistic, flakey Green idealism. Good command of detail. Slightly creepy and irritating habit of thanking each questioner by forename. Arguably the best speaker of the evening.
John Hein: Like staring at thin air.
John McArdle: A surprise success. Started nervously but did not lose fluency and soon warmed to the task. He injected an element of genuine, heartfelt anger at the physical effect on vulnerable individuals of budgetary decisions made at a distance. Did not have the widest or most detailed grasp of other policy areas.
Jimmy McIntosh: Less substantial than a vacuum flask.
[Since writing this criticism of Mr McIntosh's absence from the hustings, it has been pointed out that he has a distinguished record as a disabilities rights campaigner. A link to his election flyer can now be found at Breaking news, 30.3.12. No personal slight was intended and I apologise if any has been taken.]
James Paterson: Pleasantly posh. Best dressed person on or off the platform. Seemed energetic, well-intentioned and refreshingly frank about not claiming to know more than he really did or having more to say than had already been said. Might prove useful.
Alex Wilson: A necessary and worthwhile champion of local business, he spoke the kind of attractive commonsense which Independents often speak in the absence of a party line or facts and figures.
These opinions are those of one person. Spurtle does not have a party-political affiliation. You are welcome to send us your own impressions of the evening for publication.
The next hustings will be for the City Centre (Ward 11) in the same venue at 7pm on Wednesday 25 April. All welcome.
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