June 28th 2017. This date doesn’t really hold any political significance. The Local Election and General Election are all done and dusted. The campaigners, candidates and activists have took a short break and hung their raincoats up for a little respite. Today may not bear significance for some but today was massive for the North Ayrshire SNP Councillors. Today was the day they fought back and held the Labour administration to account.
It was last night, Tuesday 27th July that I received a phone call around 6.30pm. I had just finished work. The person calling me was Kilwinning Councillor for North Ayrshire, Scott Davidson. He asked me my plans for tomorrow and told me that the Council were holding a meeting. He never said anything more than that but I could hear enthusiasm and determination in his voice.
He’d asked me if it would be ok to pick up his son. Also called Scott. So I made my way over to pick him up and we made our way to the Council building at 1.30pm. The meeting started at 2pm but we wanted to be early as we knew there were limited seats.
Once we reached Cunninghame House, we could see two flag poles. One with the Saltire and the other with the Union flag. We walked past them as we made our way to reception. The friendly receptionist had to make a few phone calls as she was unaware that the meeting was open to the public and due to recent atrocities, she wanted to double check.
She confirmed it was ok so we sat back down in the foyer waiting to see when we would be allowed to go in. Just at that we saw Cllr Scott Davidson and Cllr Alan Hill make their way to the door that lead to the chambers. We shook hands and followed them in.
It was a different set up from last time I was there, one month ago. The public seating area this time was much smaller and the room was smaller due to the sliding panel cutting off 1/3 of the room. This made it more intense, personal. There were two rows of seats so we sat on the back row. We were close and directly behind the SNP councillors.
The same gentleman last time stood up and told us all to rise as the provost and deputy provost were to make their way into the chamber. We did this and then the Provost sat down then so did the rest of us.
The Provost (Ian Clarkson) started proceedings by giving us a detailed report on what he has been doing since he was reappointed Provost at the Local Elections in May. He told us that he had attended various events across North Ayrshire and that he had sent his condolences on behalf of North Ayrshire to the Mayor of London and Manchester for the recent atrocities.
After the Provost report, the Provost asked the Leader of the Council and head of the Labour group Joe Cullinane to read out his detailed report of what he has been doing since becoming re elected as Leader. He stated that he had visited various events and attended the new Garnock school with the deputy First Minister John Sweeney.
After the Leaders report, Elma Murray (Chief Executive) of the Council spoke to the members about amendments and resignations on port folio holders and if they could take some time to go over which positions need filled.
John Glover, Conservative Councillor was newly appointed vice chair of Police and Fire rescue. Councillor McLung and Councillor Angela Stephens were appointed to the Licensing Committee. This went on for around twenty minutes and all members agree with no interjections.
As I sat there, I thought to myself that this was going really well. There had been no arguments or heated debates or the usual mumblings from anyone. This was going to be a quick afternoon. Or so I thought…
Elma Murray had stated to the members that there were one last port folio up for place and she had three nominations for it. I could see a Tory Councillor and an independent Councillor having a whisper to each other and then the Independent Councillor (McNicol) asked Mrs Murray why there were three and not four for this role. He wanted another nomination place to be implemented. One of the Tory Councillors then shouted that this Council were split three ways. When actual fact it was split four ways and later the same Tory Councillor had voiced that he was indeed an ex maths teacher.
Things got back on track and all port folio holders were now agreed.
It was at this point that I looked round and saw a blonde haired woman enter the chamber. She sat on the far side of the room directly behind the Labour group.
Elma stated that the Head of Finances was going to read out her report from the previous year. This would detail income an expenditure for the whole of North Ayrshire Council.
She started by telling us that the audited reports were very complex and it can be found on the North Ayrshire Council website. She addressed that there was a deficit within the Council budget and money had to be found elsewhere. She told us that the Council tax had risen by 3% and renting costs had went up by 2.7%. It was also mentioned that the Labour administration had left £6.4m in reserves. Which is the lowest recommended amount.
After the finance report, Elma had asked if anyone had a question.
Conservative Councillor Billings started the debate by asking the Head of Finance as money was carried forward from last year ‘what would of happened to the projects this year, should that money not of been carried forward’? She replied that those projects would not be going ahead if that was the case.
Councillor Billings went on to discuss the Arran toilets and asked how they could be reopened but was quickly shot down when Elma had asked him if he would taken money from elsewhere to pay for this. Councillor Billings said that he no longer wants to debate.
Councillor McNicol interjected on the topic of Arran. He stated that Arran’s ‘The String’ road is getting £190,000 asphalt resurfacing on it. His question was – “There are many pot holes at this side of the water. Why can we not get that money?” The auditor at the back of the room quickly stated that the asset management approach to resurfacing roads were prioritised and the Arran String Road was on the list before anyone else. Myself and young Scott looked at each other in amazement. It almost touched on a school playground argument but this was just the beginning.
Questions were starting to be put forward to each port folio holder. I could see the SNP group preparing themselves for a good debate. As none had gone greatly so far. Tories would put forward a question and the Labour Councillor Bell would blame the SNP Scottish Government. This went on for some time.
Elma asked SNP Councillor Scott Davidson to formally ask his question to the education portfolio holder Councillor Bell. As I looked over at the blonde woman again I could see that she had been wiping tears from her eyes. Councillor Davidson took a glance over at her and gave her a nod of reassurance.
He said “My question is to the education portfolio holder – “I have with me in this room a mother of a boy who for other reasons I will name as ‘John’. Now John is going into Primary 7 this year. ‘John’ has Autism and has the learning capacity of a Primary 2 pupil. Throughout the years ‘John’ has been unable to learn properly and becomes very anxious when his routine is deflected. The past couple of years have been very helpful to ‘John’ as he was getting additional support from classroom assistants and was started to make good progress. In your manifesto it states that you will protect support staff in our schools. Can you confirm for me the number of classroom assistants that were employed in August 16 and how many will be employed in August 17?”
The room went quite as this was really the first proper, personal question that the chamber had seen today as it was a direct holding of accountability to the Labour group but also with the boys mother in the room, it was vital she got answers.
Councillor Bell switched on his mic and said “I would just like to thank Councillor Davidson for his question and congratulate him on being the first SNP councillor to ask a question in 8 months.”
I could NOT believe my ears and neither could the rest of the room. Even the Tory councillors were shaking their heads.
This woman had came all this way to sit in a room full of people that could make a massive significant change to her sons life. Instead this man chose to gain political point scoring. There were mumblings around the room and from the question was answered you could see he and the rest of Labour were on the back foot.
He responded by saying that where some classrooms assistants would be lost in some schools, they would be gained in others. He then went on to blame the SNP Scottish Government again. He spoke about not enough funding being trickled down to Councils and the SNP throwing money at closing the attainment gap wasn’t going to help things. Which totally contradicted his previous statement. He never answered the question properly and he never gave ‘Johns’ mother any hope nor did she get any answers.
The Provost had asked if Councillor Davidson would like to respond. He responded first by thanking Councillor Bell for replying but not giving a direct answer and told him that if he was indeed the first SNP Councillor in 8 months to ask a question then “Get used to it!” He also stated that the Labour group were very rusty in their responses and that the SNP group will shake that rust off.
Councillor Scott Davidson then asked about their manifesto and the fact that it states clearly in the ‘Better Education’ section that they would reject any cuts to additional support staff in schools. Labour also took a desperate stab at saying there were cuts under SNP. Even though it was actually SNP protected education. ‘We promise to protect these services and educational staff’.
Councillor Bell replied again reaffirming his stance on the SNP Scottish Government and their lack of funding for Councils. It became clear at this stage the Labour group had no real desire to make any change or listen to others wanting change. They had their own plan and they were sticking to it no matter what!
It is important to remember that this was Labours own local manifesto which was made when they were already in power, knowing the budget for the coming years while stating that they will protect frontline public services including educational staff. Now that they are back in power, they have now cut 67 classroom assistants.
More questions were being asked before it got back to the SNP group but when it did, it was to create an atmosphere the Labour group had not of hoped for.
Councillor Christina Larsen took to her microphone and asked the Leader of Finance which is also the Leader of the Labour group, Joe Cullinane. She proved with this question that the SNP group were not just there to make up the numbers but there were there to take over.
“Can the finance portfolio holder answer what the pay rise is for public sector workers when he has given himself and other portfolio holders a 6% pay rise from tax payers money?”
Joe Cullinane looked angry at this. You could also hear a change of direction in his voice. He replied with audible pauses – “The pay rise for Public Sector workers has still to be agreed”. He then went on about the rise and how it was justified and that even she would benefit from it.
Now I know Councillor Christina Larsen, she puts others first. She could of sat there quite and not interjected against these inequality ridden benches of the Labour group and the Tories but she chose to stick up for the public sector workers and call the administration out on them benefiting from a rise when others weren’t. Christina is an absolute credit to the SNP group and this question and with her determination to do what’s right reaffirms that.
The next debate really made me question the sanity and the purpose of the Tory group. More than usual.
The Provost had asked Councillor Scott Gallagher to ask the question that he wanted to ask to go ahead. Now as you might see in my blog that his name has not been mentioned yet. That’s correct. This is the first time he chose to speak.
He turned on his mic and asked if he could put the motion forward for the Union flag to be flown outside Cunninghame House at all times next to the Saltire. Now I really don’t have a problem with that. Put both of them together it doesn’t really matter. What bothers me here is that he chose to raise this motion when there are 35% of children in his ward that are living in poverty. The debate went on for over 45 minutes. At each sentence he made, you could hear mumblings from the SNP group as they were disgusted and frankly embarrassed at this motion.
An independent Councillor stood up and said “I’m going to formally abstain from this motion as it is complete nonsense.”
A Labour group Councillor read out an amendment to the proposal. Before the amendment was read out he stated their views on the matter. He told Councillor Gallagher that schools are understaffed, kids are living in poverty, unemployment is a major issue, libraries are closing, public toilets are closing making it discouraging for people to go to our beaches but here you are asking your first question on a flag.
Councillor Gallagher had a screensaver face on and did not flinch. He would not retract his motion. 30 minutes prior to this ridiculous debate, the mother of ‘John’ had left. I was relieved at that because if she had heard this debate it would of been a slap on the face to her and her sons education and future.
The amendments came from SNP m, who chose to go with the status quo and have the Saltire flying at all times and the Union flag on specific occasions.
A vote on this matter then took place. SNP voted for amendment. Labour abstained with the vice provost voting for the motion. I was watching the vice provost throughout the meeting and it is apparent that the provost role was not so impartial on today’s proceedings. He would shake his head and snarl at any time the SNP group spoke. I really hope someone looks into that. The votes were 11-11. With the Tories’ motion being propped up with an Independent, a few Labour and the vice Provost. Yes you heard that right. It was to go to a card cut.
Councillor Gallagher went first and picked out a 6. Councillor Marie Burns went last and picked out a 3. It was not looked upon as a defeat. It was more a defeat for the people of North Ayrshire that had just had 45 minutes wasted on a flag. Because of this debate it has now been decided that both flags will no longer fly outside the Council building.
It was at this point young Scott and I left the chamber. Gave a wave to the SNP Councillors and made our way to the car. We chatted the full journey on our shared disbelief at what just happened and made us even more determined for change.
The debates carried on and on for the next few hours. The usual narratives from Labour was that the SNP Government were to blame for all their failings. The Tories argued for savings and to take money from other places and give to other places. The SNP were the only group to sit there and raise real important issues but it’s difficult when your up against red Tories and well… Tories.
The SNP were fantastic and it made me extremely proud to sit there and watch those hard hitting questions and Labour on the back foot. The Tories showed themselves for what they really are. With their silly debates and lack of respect for the electorate.
What I took away from this is that change is coming and coming fast. The SNP group are not there to lie down and roll over. They are certainly the voice of the people and the next five years will be interesting to say the least.
TO BE CONTINUED…