Working together

Written by on 31 March 2014 in Feature

SNP councillor Owen Thompson took over as leader of Midlothian Council in November

Midlothian Council, with a population of around 85,000 people and 18 councillors representing them, is Scotland’s second smallest council. However, despite its scale, the local authority is facing many of the same challenges as its larger peers. Thompson was elected to the top political job at the end of 2013, after then leader Bob Constable decided to step down.
Thompson told Holyrood: “Bob and I have worked together for many years, we’ve been in the branch together since about 1996 so it’s getting close to 20 years of working together in party. I think it’s a great partnership because we’ve got very different styles but we complement each other in a lot of ways. I was Bob’s deputy during the time he was leader and I was delighted Bob agreed to stay on as my deputy. We bring different perspectives to what we do but we work very much as a team.”

Thompson believes becoming leader has allowed him to move things forward for Midlothian. He added: “Yes, we need to make savings and those savings are significant but it presents an opportunity to do things differently. We’ve already seen that in children’s services, by not placing children outside Midlothian and by bringing them back to be looked after in Midlothian, we’ve saved £1 million and that was a third of all the savings we needed to make last year. That ability to be in the driving seat and push for the changes we need to see, it’s a great opportunity.

“Ideally, you would get support from across the chamber in everything we do but that’s not practical from a political sense. You’re never going to get everybody’s agreement on everything. That being said, I’m keen to have the involvement of all the members of the council. You get better decisions if you have everyone in the room.”

The current financial climate is proving to be just as difficult for Midlothian as elsewhere in Scotland.

Thompson said: “There are financial challenges for us all. We’re looking at having to find £4 million next year and £12 million in total the year after. From our budget that’s a significant amount. This is not helped by COSLA’s decision to freeze the distribution formula which means we lose out by almost £2 million in that situation, which is significant. Clearly, we’re very keen to see that overturned, I think that’s short sighted from the members who voted to do that.

“We have agreed a financial strategy at the council which has already identified savings to the extent we’re currently projecting a £600,000 surplus for next year. We’re in a place that if we can achieve everything we’ve set, next year will be OK.

“In common with many other areas, we’ve also got an ageing population and we’ve got significant demands for growth because of our proximity to Edinburgh which brings challenges of where do you put all the housing. Where there’s significant housing development, there are challenges that come from communities who have not necessarily seen a lot of development in the past.”

Brought up in Loanhead after moving there when he was seven, Thompson has always had an active interest in politics. His family were also political and he remembers leafleting for the SNP in Edinburgh with his brother and uncle when he was nine years old. “It was maybe written in the stars that I was going to end up doing what I do,” he said. In 2005, Thompson won a by-election for the Loanhead ward of Midlothian Council in 2005 and was then again successfully re-elected to the larger Midlothian West ward in 2007. At the time of his election, Thompson was not only the youngest councillor in Scotland at 27 years old, he was also the only SNP elected member on the council.

He said: “It was a steep learning curve because I was the SNP group; there were no other SNP councillors in Midlothian at the time. I have to say that in the main a lot of the Labour guys were very helpful and supportive, particularly Keith McIntosh, who was the Labour councillor who had the other part of Loanhead, he was a massive help. I’ve always tended to look at it from the point of view that if we want to make a difference to the community, it doesn’t matter who you are working with, as long as you get benefits coming through. As a single councillor, if I wanted anything agreed, I needed the support of the majority group in the council. I’m not saying that it always worked, we certainly had disagreements but because I was there by myself, I picked up the cross chamber working very quickly. I would hope that my colleagues across the bridge in opposition in Midlothian would agree that that is the approach I try to take now.”

Another big challenge for Midlothian is improving positive destinations for school leavers in the area. Thompson said: “A few years ago, we were ranked 32 out of 32 for positive destinations for school leavers. We’ve improved significantly but we’re still 29th. The starting point is clearly well behind some of the others. We’ve not changed that ourselves overnight. There’s been work over a number of years to help close the gap and we’re now in a position that by the next measure, we should be significantly advancing up the chart. Because of the size of Midlothian, sometimes small numbers make a big difference, if another 44 school leavers had ended up in a positive destination at the date it was measured, we would have been fifth rather than 29th. But we’re small enough to move quickly and we’ve had the buy in from our community planning partners.”

In terms of community planning in Midlothian, Thompson said the council and the community planning partnership (CPP) do not have two separate strategies for how they work, “we simply have a plan for Midlothian that everyone is included in which shares the key themes”.

“I chair the CPP and I’ve challenged all partners to bring draft budgets to the table rather than final budgets,” he added.

“There’s a role for us as the council to show we can do that as well. We’re not just setting our budget but allowing our partners to have sight and a say on that. We’ll all manage better if we’re able to share the resources because it’s all public money at the end of the day. Our residents don’t really care who is spending it. It’s up to us to ensure we’re doing that the best we can. If we can all take that view a bit more and get out of the silos, and look at what we can do to help and support each other, there’s probably much more we can do. Health and social care is an example of how that can work.”

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