Q&A with Shona Haslam, Conservative leader of Scottish Borders Council
Holyrood asks the new Scottish Borders Council leader about her experience of the role so far
Councillor Shona Haslam, Scottish Borders Council
Why did you choose to become a council leader?
Shona Haslam: Ah well, now there is a story. So, I was a newly elected councillor in May, having never stood for election before. I have been involved in politics for a number of years and was a manager in several charities. In true Yes Minister style, my phone rang on the Sunday after the election, it was our chief whip asking if I would consider taking on a portfolio in the new council and if so where my skills lie. I replied that I would consider and set out my background in health and social care. He then casually asked if I would consider being the leader.
Now bearing in mind that I was out for my mother-in-law’s birthday at a Toby Carvery, I was somewhat distracted and replied, ‘yes’. There was then a meeting on the Monday, which I was not able to attend, where I was duly nominated as leader. Moral of the story, never get distracted at a Toby Carvery, and never miss a meeting. However, having said all of that, the story would have been no different if I had thought about it more or attended the meeting. I am a great believer in grabbing life's opportunities and I relish the opportunity to bring change to an area that I love.
Has being leader of the council been like what you expected so far?
SH: Well, given my story I had absolutely no expectation at all. I was thrown in at the deep end and had to swim. One thing I have been surprised at is the amount of support and the professionalism of the officers that we work with. It is definitely more Sir Humphrey than Malcolm Tucker. I am loving the experience though, from opening primary schools to presenting the trophy at the recent Tour of Britain. Arguing the point in council meetings, to helping constituents, it is a fantastic job.
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How are you learning from your predecessor?
SH: I am very lucky to have my predecessor as the convener of the new council and in the office next door. Without that support it would have been much more difficult. The main area that I need help with is the mechanics of the council, how to get things done, and his expertise is invaluable in that.
What are you aiming to do differently from the previous administration?
SH: I am passionate about democracy being accessible. People should know, understand and engage with the council on every level possible. That often means that the council has to change its approach and its language.
What key changes have you set your sights on achieving?
SH: Teenage mental health service is the area where I want to make a difference. I want to see every teenager who needs someone to talk to have access to that in a timely manner.
What are the biggest challenges you are expecting in your area over the next few years?
SH: Without a doubt the budget. Everyone is feeling the squeeze, from household budgets to the government. The challenge will be to continue to deliver the services that we need to deliver, where costs are rising, but still achieve the change that we want to see.
How have you found it so far being in coalition? Is it a challenge to find common ground?
SH: There is always common ground, sometimes you just have to look harder. All councillors no matter what party they are want the same things. Better roads, the bins emptied, improved schools and efficient services, it is the ‘how’ that brings the debate. And of course there are times when I often feel there are arguments for the sake of argument, and I do find this frustrating.
There is still a significant gender imbalance in councils. How would you encourage more women to become councillors?
SH: Being a councillor is a full time job, and should be viewed as such. At a council induction I asked what expenses were available for childcare. There were none. Many employers recognise that if you ask women (or men) to work out with normal hours, then you need to cover child care expenses for that.
If you were completely free to reform local government in Scotland, what would you change?
SH: I would probably bring back single member, smaller, wards and pay councillors a full time wage. I would like to see a stronger link between communities and their representatives, with more accountability and responsibility.
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