I’ve never organised a hustings before. But I may well do so again.
Southside/Newington hadn’t had a hustings at all: Steve Burgess, Gordon MacKenzie, and Cameron Rose, three out of the four incumbents, had been invited to speak at other non-local hustings. (And Rose had also subbed in for the Tory candidate for Leith Walk in the Spurtle hustings.)
This is by no means a formal, full, neutral report – I don’t take shorthand, there were two or three hyperlocal questions where neither question nor answer was fully comprehensible to someone from outside the area, and in all honesty, I took more detailed notes where the candidates’ answers interested me and rested my hand when the speaker wasn’t holding my interest. Politically, tribally, I’m pro-Labour and Scottish Green, anti-Tory, and (at least prior to the UK coalition) was prepared to consider voting LibDem and equally prepared to consider SNP, certainly in a council election. But in general I found at this hustings that my interest was held by the speaker rather than the party.
Place: The proprietor of the Braidburn Inn donated the use of his function suite and a few plates of sandwiches, very welcome since the hustings began at six. (I was last there for a Christmas Day lunch with family in the 1990s, but it’s the local pub/guest house for our chair and for Gordon Murdie. We could probably have fitted five dozen people into the room and it was small enough that microphones were not needed.)
Chair: Owen Dudley Edwards. He is a marvellous speaker and well-experienced in keeping a meeting pleasantly in order and keeping candidates to time. (One member of the audience said to me afterwards “He just radiates calm…”) Though I had to borrow an heirloom wristwatch off Gordon Murdie to let OWD keep time – I use my mobile phone for occasions like this, and Owen Dudley Edwards does not do digital technology.
Who Came And Who Didn’t: The hustings was organised on a week’s notice, on Tuesday 1st May, in order to give as much notice as possible while not using up a candidate’s time on the last night before election day. Proper hustings etiquette would have been to contact all candidates before fixing the date, but sheer pressure of time made that really impossible.
All of the election leaflets available for this ward are listed at Liberal Sellout.
Margaret Lea, Liberal Party in Scotland, and William Black, Scottish Anti-Cuts Alliance, had neglected to provide contact details, and did not show.
Steve Burgess, Scottish Green, had excused himself quite reasonably on the grounds that his wife is having a baby, which is the sort of thing that takes clear priority over a hustings. I had told Owen Dudley Edwards this when we were chatting over coffee beforehand, and so in the Chair’s opening remarks, Steve Burgess and his wife were wished every happiness and good fortune in the birth of their child. (Audience, startled but pleased; “Hear! Hear!” and a round of applause. I think Steve had just picked up several votes for not being there, which is unusual at a hustings!)
Gordon MacKenzie, Liberal Democrat, had excused himself on the Monday night on the grounds that the invitation had come in too late and the hustings had not been organised by a local group and he had canvassing plans. (Audience: “Missed his tram, did he?“) According to Cameron Rose, MacKenzie was knocking on doors in Priestfield on Tuesday evening with Willie Rennie. GMc added “would have been a pleasure to debate the issues with you and the other candidates”. So there’s that.
Because Owen Dudley Edwards had set out the name cards in alphabetical order by surname, all of the absent candidates were to his right and all of the attending candidates to his left: he asked us not to draw any political meaning from that coincidence.
Gordon Murdie, Independent, standing for the first time. (GM) (Gordon MacKenzie, when referred to, will be GMc.) Spoke about how he’d been driven to standing because of his strong feelings about the statutory notice scandal and, of course, the trams.
Jim Orr, Scottish National Party, also standing for the first time. (JO) I felt he was the weakest speaker of the four, the one least experienced and most nervous: I also found when looking back through my notes that I’d taken fewer notes when he was talking because he tended not to hold my interest.
Ian Perry, Labour, who has been on Edinburgh Council for 23 years. (IP) Good clear speaker: made the excellent point that about 65% of council decisions are non-contentious and that energy should be reserved for political fights on the contentious 35%. Said he wanted “a new kind of politics”, with more community involvement.
Cameron Rose, Conservative, who has been on Edinburgh Council for 5 years. (CR) Spoke for privatisation, claimed “one of the parties had got cold feet”, and repeated the tale that this would have saved £130,000. Has a blog.
Audience: About 20 people. Mostly over-fifties, some older, two or three younger. My impression was a very local group of people. The proprietor said afterwards he was sorry not to see more people, but I think 20 is quite a respectable number for a hustings in these council elections – I hear that Inverleith hustings only had 6 people plus the candidates themselves, which must have made it more like political speed dating than a hustings.
Owen Dudley Edwards told the audience they could direct their questions to one or more of the candidates specifically, but that all of the panel could give an answer if they wished: any non-directed question would go to the whole panel, and he would direct the order of replies.
Nobody’s replies are given verbatim unless enclosed in “inverted commas” to show direct speech. I was taking notes rather than transcribing. I apologise if anyone feels that I’ve given the sense of their remarks wrong, and will correct any errors if they’re made known to me.
Q1: Views of the candidates on fortnightly refuse collection.
CR: Want the most efficient method of refuse collection. Not averse to fortnightly.
IP: I now recycle so much that my standard green bin is half empty when the van comes. Recycling done at home means multiple vehicle visits. There has to be a cost-benefit analysis. We already have fortnightly collections for all sorts of things.
JO: We want more recycling. Mentioned a huge landfill site – less should go to landfill. Nobody wants unhygienic odours coming from bins. [Yes, he really did say “unhygienic odours”.]
GM: Asked the questioner: What isn’t suiting you? What are your concerns? (Q: I don’t want fortnightly.) Mentioned the new lockable bins for food collection, cited the small amount being collected using them. – It was noted this was a Scottish Government policy rather than a local policy.
IP: We have weekly collections for different things. The green bins, the brown bins, the recycle boxes. We need to schedule this – important not to have vehicles paying multiple visits.
JO: We’ll not push through any insanitary policies. Difficulty of balance – different requirements.
GM: Broad minds rather than fixed policies.
Q2: Balancing books is badly needed. How much budget is the council free to spend?
Both incumbent councillors said it was complicated and would not give figures.
CR: It’s not simple. Council tax is 24% of budget. There’s a capital amount from government.
IP: We should do budgeting together as a council. More efficient.
JO: Scope for further investment by working with the Scottish government.
GM: An interesting question. I think there must be figures. For example the council overpaid contractors £39 million. And £174 thousand spent on bottled water. And £600 thousand spent on a day out. (There were other figures. GM had evidently been doing homework.)
Q3: Are all departing councillors being given iPads?
OWD directed the question to the two incumbents, who both looked startled/amused the way you do when someone quotes an urban legend at you.
I think both then explained that the council had decided that the incoming councillors should get iPads – and that for the next four years, all agendas, minutes, briefings, instead of all the hundreds of thousands of bits of paper a councillor has to take to meetings, a councillor would be provided with electronic copies and expected to bring their iPad to meetings instead of a stack of print-outs.
[Which, I say as a tech lover, struck me as a sensible and quite economic decision: saving paper, cost of printing, cost of disposal, cost of space, and hopefully, mean councillors can be kept better informed and better in touch – the iPad is acknowledged the best e-device for reading and sharing everything from emails to book-length PDFss. Plus, it could improve their vocabulary.]
Q4: Is Meadowbank Stadium going to be upgraded for the Commonwealth Games? As the Commonwealth Pool was upgraded for the Olympics?
[I regret to say that I got quite interested in CR‘s and IP‘s answers to this, and scribbled down the information they provided to the meeting without noting exactly which of them said it. They were both clearly well informed/interested and as a long-term member of Edinburgh Leisure it’s a topic I’m personally interested in.]
There are no plans to upgrade Meadowbank Stadium, the only Olympic events that will be held in Edinburgh are water events in the Commonwealth. Edinburgh Rugby has proposed an idea publicly that they might make use of Meadowbank Stadium and share in the costs, but they haven’t come forward to the Council with a proposal. Someone raised the issue of Leith Waterworld being closed down, and CR noted fairly that every swimming pool in Scotland requires a subsidy – he’d been in favour of knocking the Commonwealth Pool down and starting again.
JO: Mentioned possibility of investment from Cashback for Communities.
GM: The Commonwealth Games will use a pool specially built in Sunderland, at a cost of £1.5M, or what it cost Edinburgh Council to bring Deloittes in to investigate the statutory notices, and they won’t use the Commonwealth Pool for anything but diving because it’s not to standard.
Q5: Royal Mile is now like a new disneyland. What can the council do about that?
GM: Cheap souvenir tat. People selling good-quality souvenirs can’t get a pitch, while people can sell a £1.99 kilt.
JO: Less concerned about the tat shops and more about the boozing – a little too much in Edinburgh.
IP: Not a fan of these shops, but need to be careful how we do it – the shops exist because of the free market.
CR: I always worry when I hear you defending the free market, Ian. Yes, the council does own quite a few properties on the Royal Mile. [Audience: Sixty!]
IP: I’m not trying to defend the tat. But it’s there because people buy it – wanting low-priced things to take home.
Q6: Edinburgh is not a safe city to cycle in – this year two cyclists have been killed. How can cycling be made safer?
GM: We should have proper segregated cycleways. Not cheap, but neither were the trams. You can’t just paint in a little white line and call it a cycleway. You see a cycleway running along the side of the road and then you see a parked car.
JO: We almost have to redesign the city. When restructuring pathways, make sure infrastructure is usable.
IP: Segregated cycleway is the way to go. How? Do you take away a lane for the cyclist? Don’t put motorist against cyclist. In the medieval city, it’s difficult to find a solution.
CR: Supports King’s Buildings to George Square cycleway. Mentioned Ratcliffe Terrace and structural segregation. Noted that while there are more deaths, the more cyclists on the roads, the lower the casualty rate.
Q7: Utilities should have to apply for a licence before digging up the roads, synchronise the roadworks. Now the roads are a shambles (mentioned several local examples).
IP: I agree with you. National legislation [was UK, now devolved, as JO pointed out] gives utilities and cable a right to dig up roads. We don’t have the ability to stop it, we didn’t have the ability even to get them to go back and fix substandard repairs where they’d failed to make good.
CR: Tory manifesto has nothing on roads.
GM: How is it that commonsense can’t prevail? There needs to be a proper permit system.
IP: You try to get the utility companies to tell you what their plans are, well in advance. We can put a hold on for up to 10 months, try to get roadworks synchronised. Obviously if there’s a gas mains fault, that’s an emergency.
CR: The administration needs to take a proper grip on it. I’d love to take a grip on it.
[I note here that both Ian Perry and Cameron Rose were clearly absolutely on the same exasperated page – Ian with nearly 20 years more experience – of the problem of utility and cable companies having the legal right to just dig up roads which are then the responsibility of the local authority to make good. It made sense of Ian’s comment at the start that 65% of council business is non-contentious.]
Q8: Three years of waiting for the parking system.
This was clearly a hyperlocal question – all four of the candidates joined in the discussion, and the audience were nodding along. GM had some detailed costing figures. I didn’t understand it – too much reference to local landmarks and locally-known problems, and I don’t even own a car and gave up taking notes. The two incumbents provided some information about the delays and the timeline.
I liked this point, though:
IP: People want to park in front of their house but don’t want to buy a permit.
There was another hyperlocal question Q9 about right turns on West Mains Road – led by my experience on parking, I didn’t even try to take notes. I wish I did have shorthand – I might have understood the discussion when I read it back. Anyone know of a night class in journalistic notetaking skills and shorthand?
Q10: Apathy about council elections. People are fed up with the big political parties – come down to a local level. How far do you dare to be different? What ‘blue sky’ thing would you do if you could?
IP: The council can’t do anything about the utilities. How would you say you’re free to be different? What’s a blue sky question? (Ian, as far as I remember, said the last question thoughtfully, as if he were considering his answer, and OWD gave him a moment and then directed the question on to CR.)
CR: I’m Conservative because it’s closest to my philosophy. I think I’ve influenced my party on cycling/ I am within the group of 11 Conservative councillors, and arguing within that group.
IP: We need a different type of politics – people are getting more apathetic. Proportional election coalitions are dishonest politics. We’ve got to turn that system upside down. Cross-party politics, we should work together for the 65%, fight for the 35%.
JO: Well, it’s a five-party system in Edinburgh, a two-party system in Glasgow. Gay marriage – is there really a driving need for same-sex couples to get married? Gay adoption, yes, civil partnership, yes, but gay marriage? What blue sky thing – land values tax, try to fix the problem of huge swathes of land owned by absentee landlords and people living in high-rise flats.
[This about gay marriage came out of nowhere – and also sank without any reaction. It’s not at all a council-level issue, in any case. If I’d been attending the hustings as voter rather than organiser I might have asked a follow-up question about it, but as it was: I just wondered if Jim Orr had assumed a room full of older people would naturally be against same-sex marriage and he’d get a few easy votes.]
GM: Quick comment that as an independent he has a different perspective of the “five main parties” – he may even have referred to them as an amoeba. Politicians do work hard. They have a difficult time – at a meeting I had with a Green candidate, she said they need candidates who can ask searching questions. There’s a dark area in the council that needs a searchlight shone on it. If the press got it right, all of the Labour candidates have signed agreements that they will follow the party line. We need a free political process – Edinburgh council needs a policy on nuclear weapons, on the pollution caused by nuclear weapons? [Audience: Pollution from nuclear power!] Nuclear power. Does that mean I can’t keep nuclear weapons in my garage?
CR: Three quick points?
OWD: *reproving look*
CR: Very quick! Ian, we’ll see you standing as an Independent soon. Gordon – I hope you get elected – *laughs* – I know, kiss of death! But I hope you get elected, – and I hope you don’t knock me out!
[There was a third point, but I can’t read my notes on it! It’s a good moment to say that I found myself most unexpectedly liking Cameron Rose more and more as the hustings wore on – he seemed personally very charming and quite sincere, and he clearly was aware that as a Tory, he represents still the least popular party in Scotland.]
Audience: I want to make an observation. Stop apathy. Politicians in between elections have to make themselves known to the electorate. Knock on the door now and again in between elections. We never see you except for a few weeks when we can’t turn round without tripping over you!
IP: *nodding* Well, it is difficult, in such a huge ward.
Q11: Wishing Gordon MacKenzie was here. But I want to ask a question about the trams, of the two incumbents. In hindsight, do you think it was a poor idea, and knowing what you know now, would you have voted for it?
IP: We need a proper rapid transit system. It was initially funded by the Scottish Executive, the initial proposal – all the parties agreed at the time to look at a rapid transit system, and this seemed to be more popular than a congestion charge. Then we lost control of the project in 2007. But Edinburgh is getting larger by 5000 people every year. (He talked some more with some enthusiasm about the real need for a better means of people moving around Edinburgh – against a sceptical series of noises from the audience, who clearly didn’t want to hear this.) Do I think the trams are a good thing? Yes. Have they been mismanaged? Yes. Will they be good for Edinburgh? Yes.
Q: Did everyone get to look at the figures?
CR: If I’d known what was going to happen I would have voted against it. The 11 of us in the Conservative group argued long and hard. One disagreed and abstained, and there was party discipline for that. But at the time I agreed – I voted for it.
[I have my own viws about the trams – and was sceptical about the planned route from the airport to Newhaven from the first, as far as I remember. And like pretty much everyone else in Edinburgh I’ve grown increasingly resentful of the tramworks and the disruption. But I have to say, I respected both Ian and Cameron for their answers here.]
IP: The more it went on, the more nervous people got. I thought the tram line should end at Haymarket.
JO: At what point did all of the parties in Edinburgh agree?
IP pointed out that Steve Cardownie had voted for the trams when Labour, and only became a critic after he switched to the SNP. [In 2005.] We voted to agree the business plan. [“Contract” – I think this was both CR and GM] Yes, the contract. All the parties agreed then.
GM: My job is to understand contracts and civil engineering. No one’s ever asked me anything in my life for an opinion poll. But as for engineering – Douglas Johnson, a friend of mine, a civil engineer – he wrote to the Scotsman in 2007 predicting it was going to be a mess and he underestimated it, he assumed they would complete the line. It’s not very clear.
Audience: Why not use a trolley bus? Use a wire on top? (Repeated question. A trolley bus would obviously have saved digging up the streets.) Tell me what for a tram and then we shut up!
IP: A tram is not a bus – carries three or four times the number of passengers. We need a mass transit system of some description. Edinburgh’s a growing city. Airport’s bringing in ten milion people.
(Some confusion here, as often when meetings in Edinburgh talk trams with councillors, but Ian and Cameron both stuck to the point that a mass transit system is needed for Edinburgh.)
GM: Trams, finance, council tax. Council tax is frozen. The statutory notices are building to be as expensive than the trams – could be £200M. And the cost of the trams is still underestimated – what about restoring the value of the properties on Leith Walk? Enough mistakes have been made. Council tax can’t stay frozen.
Q12: 20mph zones – why not in accident blackspots instead of all over the place in roads that have never had an accident?
CR: 20mph zones were presented as in the public interest. I was sceptical. But I did not oppose it as a pilot project.
JO: As a cyclist I favour it for safety.
IP: Well, the 20mph zones are mostly all near schools. Because there was a nasty accident, years ago, two children were killed. It’s 20mph because at 20, a child is likely to survive, but at 30, a child is not likely to survive. And people like the speed bumps. I’m unsure if drivers will really obey speed laws unless the bumps are there.
Q from Q6: I need to feel safe on the roads. Slowing traffic down a little bit in a residential area, and having a white line – makes me feel safer.
GM: So many factors – we could be here all night. Careful driving, digital signs noting car speed and saying 20 mph – thank you or 28 – please slow down.
OWD asks someone talking at the back to quiet down.
GM: It was my fault, I was boring you.
Q13: Minimum pricing on alcohol?
JO: Excellent policy – no more pocket-money pricing on alcohol.
IP: Agree on minimum pricing in principle – but not sure it’s going to work. Hope it does. I think we need to go a bit further.
GM: Control of people’s lives. Pricing – loaf of bread £1.40, 2 for £2. Why should I get a loaf of bread for a pound and it cost a bit more for someone who only needs to buy one? We can’t stop it. A lot more important stuff to be going on with.
CR: Hold people responsible for their own actions. I can say that a breach of the peace 30 years ago would not be regarded as a breach of the peace now. We should get back to drinking in pubs – social drinking.
With five minutes to the 8pm close, Owen Dudley Edwards asked the candidates to say a few final words.
IP: There should be more hustings. Huge wards – we need to get out more.
CR: Read my blog! I’m in touch with about 2000 people – I blog about local news. Vote for Gordon Murdie as second preference.
JO: Trams – hope they just go away somewhere. We need to deal with them.
GM: Thanks from the bottom of my heart. I’m a new boy on the block. You’re all good-hearted.
Owen Dudley Edwards said a few words about each of the candidates – thanked them for answering questions all evening, and thanked the audience: then the proprietor of the Braidburn Inn for lending us the room and providing sandwiches: and thanked me for organising it – and said that Gordon MacKenzie was taking Rennies for indigestion, which finished the meeting on a laugh.
I hope the candidates can forgive me for this partial account of a hustings where I’m extremely appreciative that they all came along. Next time I organise one I will arrange to have someone as neutral recorder who can get every word down, and in better time to let the candidates check it for errors before it goes live.
I really enjoyed it as an event in itself. Small room, small audience, Ian Perry and Cameron Rose clearly knew and respected each other, Gordon Murdie as an independent had no interest in partisan attacks, Jim Orr was enthusiastic, Owen Dudley Edwards a very excellent chair, all candidates quite sound on local and hyperlocal issues: I really think with no false modesty that this was quite an excellent hustings.
The questions kept going for two hours, and in justice to Jim Orr, while I fear I found his contributions less interesting and so tended to take fewer notes of them, he came across as both enthusiastic and sincere … just not as interesting or as effective a speaker as the others. He seemed like a very nice guy, but I just don’t think I would have voted for him, while all the others gave me reason to feel they’d be good councillors – though naturally I’d never vote for a Tory, even one as charming as Cameron Rose, I agreed with Owen that he’d make a much more impressive face for his party than David Cameron.
Owen Dudley Edwards is the best Chair ever. I think all the rest of us would agree.
All of the other candidates had further campaigning work to do that evening, and were shortly enough on their way to do it. I stopped in at the Mosque Kitchen on my way home for a Southside curry and rice.
Let’s do it again in four years.
And don’t forget to vote tomorrow.