Trusting the new coalition
10 May 2012
The largest group in the newly-elected Highland Council is the Independent group, with the SNP overtaking the Lib Dems for second place in spite of two prominent SNP candidates failing to be re-elected.
The Independent councillors increased by one to 36 and were expected to retain control of the new administration in coalition with Labour. However, when it emerged that the SNP would be sidelined by this arrangement, a coalition of the smaller parties emerged instead.
The public has elected Independent members to resist the political party machine in local councils, but this new coalition will circumvent this. The SNP had complained about being excluded by the Independents from the administration, although they were the largest party, but this seems rather hollow when they seem happy to be part of an alliance from which the largest grouping is being excluded.
This will be the first experience of a full party-political coalition in control of the Highlands. It will be headed by SNP group leader Drew Hendry, with Lib Dem leader David Alston as the new depute leader and Labour’s Jimmy Gray as the next council convener. The previous administration consisted of an Independent-Lib Dem-Labour alliance. The coalition will be ratified when the full council meets for the first time on 17th May.
This power struggle among elected councillors is not the only power struggle in the Highlands. There is also a struggle between national politics, council officials, councillors and the public represented by their community councils. This is illustrated by planning decisions. At the strategic level of planning for Inverness and its environs, there is a distinct impression among community councils that the views of the public are being over-ridden by officials, elected councillors, developers and national politics. This is possibly why so many Independents continue to be re-elected - but will the public have their say?
The most manifest example of the conflict between officialdom and the public is the choice for crossing the river Ness and the Caledonian Canal. Another example is, in spite of the claims of co-operation, the conflicting views about the management of traffic by Transport Scotland, the Highland Council, HIE and the community councils in the developing Beechwood campus and environs. The Inner Moray Firth Local Development Plan is an opportunity to have a city-wide strategic vision for the development of the city of Inverness, but Transport Scotland seems ready and willing to do its own thing irrespective of the wishes of the public, and Highland Council seems willing to play second fiddle to Transport Scotland.
The problems with planning decisions in and around Inverness are both national and local. The planning procedures favour national politics rather than local opinion, which was highlighted at a recent meeting of the Association of Scottish Community Councils. There are national planning policies, which Independents cannot influence, that favour development over local objections, such as the wind farm debate. Locally, there are problems with officials and developers having more effective authority and expertise than elected Independent councillors, with which party machines are better able to cope.
At the bottom of this is trust – whom do the public trust most to develop the city and the Highlands with vision rather than vested interests? The public have elected Independents in an attempt to have the local voice heard above or at least along with these other vested interests, and the new administration needs to recognise this.
The SNP claim to have a higher interest in Scotland than the other parties, and this should now manifest itself in listening to the wishes of the local people in Highland. Drew Henry, as the leader of the SNP opposition in the last Council, expressed dissatisfaction with the option chosen over the river Ness. Now that the SNP hope to form the main part of the administration, we hope that the SNP will seize the opportunity to re-open the decision about the river Ness and Caledonian Canal crossing. If Aberdeen City Council can re-open and reverse an issue ‘decided’ by referendum, then Highland Council can re-open this decision. After thirty years of agonising about the route for this crossing (because there was no money), this was used as an argument to hasten a decision which was made within about thirty days. Thirty weeks or months would have been more appropriate in view of the number of options. The public did not trust the process which was seen to be taken behind closed doors only months before the local council election when prominent decision-makers were not standing for re-election.
The public voted overwhelmingly in a poll in The Inverness Courier against the route chosen by this cabal. This undermines trust in the process. There is the perception that local planning decisions are really a developer’s charter rather than reflecting the wishes of the public. This also undermines trust.
The original five choices of crossing were increased to eight after public consultation, undermining trust in the capacity of officials to consult properly in the first place. The consultation process is generally now deeply distrusted by community councils, as discussed in a recent meeting of the Association of Scottish Community Councils.
As decision time approached and minds were concentrated on the problem, four new proposals emerged - a medium-height bridge proposed by John West, who stood for the council on ‘the crossing ticket’, and who secured about as many first four preference votes as the elected councillors; a ‘cut and fill’ tunnel under the river and canal proposed and illustrated by local businessman Brian MacGregor; a low level bridge further south proposed by Inverness Civic Trust; and the beginning of a ring road solution round the north and west of the city which is still at the drawing board stage. It has emerged that officials had not considered the ‘cut and fill’ tunnel option and had supplied details for a boring operation with larger costs and technical difficulties, and there have been claims that the high-level bridge chosen by over 80% in the poll was deliberately inflated to price it out of the competition, and that Option 6 which was finally chosen had its price artificially reduced by excluding the extra associated costs of relocating affected premises. There is sufficient reason to think that the final decision has been made on misleading costings and information. This also undermines trust.
In the medical world, there is an adage that if there are many tablets for a disease, then none of them work - because the one that works would drive the others out of the market. We now have 12 options for crossing the canal and river Ness, four of which have not been seriously considered - but the decision has been made.
The Highland public put its trust in the Independent group to deliver for the Highlands. The Independent group needs to consider that this fiasco arose on its watch. It is time for the new Council with a new administration to take control of this process, to reconsider, re-open and re-evaluate the solution before the tendering process goes too far, too quickly.
Whom can we trust? This is one of the main messages of the Scottish Christian Party. The public has put its trust in the Independents - is it well-placed? Time will tell. However this is not good enough. We need better principles for trust than mere hind-sight. We need trustworthy dealing by trustworthy people with trustworthy procedures. There is large scope for this failing. The public feel that it is playing catch-up with powerful, paid personnel, who are not listening to its wishes.
Some of these Independents are Christians. Will they fall foul of the same party machine as Christians in other parties? Will they be allowed to speak with a distinctly Christian voice or will this be curtailed in the interests of the Independent grouping/party? Do these Christians want to speak with a distinctly Christian voice? This is why the Scottish Christian Party exists - to bring Christian principles back into public life and public policy.