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Back to basics

The local government portfolio is not an easy one. The twists and turns of councils, their complicated processes, myriad issues and the sheer number of people they are responsible for can be daunting for your average layman. For politicians, coming to this brief without any prior knowledge of local authorities must be a challenge. However, this won’t be a problem for Sarah Boyack.

A seasoned Labour MSP, Boyack recently co-chaired the review of the Labour Party in Scotland with shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy MP, following the party’s disastrous Scottish Parliament election result last year. Also in 2011, Boyack lost the Edinburgh Central constituency seat she had held since 1999 to the SNP’s Marco Biagi. Fortunately for Labour, Boyack was elected on Lothian’s regional list.

Being part of the review has given her insight into what needs to change in the party and also how it needs to move forward. She said: “We suffered such a terrible defeat in May that we really needed to stand back and look at the causes of that. We needed to think about how we reconnect with people, how we shape our policies, how we campaign in local communities and how we work together as Team Labour. One of our earliest initiatives was getting our local council [election] campaigns started early last summer, getting people organised and setting up the new Labour Party leader in Scotland.

“To be given the brief of local government and planning is fantastic because it lets me continue the work I’ve been doing in terms of helping to rebuild the Labour Party, connecting us with local communities and making sure that we are actually talking to people and not just asking them how they are going to vote. With the local government elections coming up, they are the first local elections in decades which are standalone.

I think there is a huge issue about making people aware the elections are happening, really motivating people to look at the parties and choose elected representatives who are going to help their communities and their families in a time of recession.” A town planner by profession, Boyack’s first job was working in the London borough of Brent in the mid 1980s. The area had a mix of extreme poverty and affluence, which Boyack admitted was “really good experience of how you get the economy going and how planning has a key role in urban regeneration”. After moving back to Scotland and working for the then Central Regional Council as a strategic planner, she lectured on town planning at Edinburgh College of Art and Heriot-Watt University for seven years. In terms of politics, Boyack joined the Labour Party while at school and was a member of the Labour Party Young Socialists.

During her time at university in Glasgow, she was a part of the Labour Club.

A strong supporter of the campaign for devolution, Boyack was selected to fight the Edinburgh Central seat in the first Scottish Parliament elections in 1999. Following a successful campaign, she was appointed by Donald Dewar as Minister for Transport, Environment and Planning between 1999 and 2001. During this period she introduced landmark proposals including free bus travel for elderly and disabled people in Scotland and legislation to establish Scotland’s first national parks. In the Parliament’s second term she served as convener of the Environment and Rural Development Committee before being appointed Deputy Minister for the Environment and Rural Development in 2007. After 2007, when Labour was in opposition, she served as shadow cabinet secretary for environment, rural affairs and climate change.

Speaking of her time as a minister and on the back benches, she said: “It was an interesting experience because most people start out as a back bencher and then become a minister so it was a huge learning curve, but I’m really proud of the things I did as minister.” With so much experience under her belt, both with her background in local government and her time as a minister, Boyack has hit the ground running with the local government and planning brief. She added: “As we select our candidates [for May’s local government elections], we have been having local campaign launches. There is a huge appetite among our council candidates, we have got a really good mix of people with experience and a track record of either running local government or campaigning in local communities. We have some new people, not just young in age but people new to local government and more women candidates than before. It is a really good team with a mix of experience and ideas. We are also asking our candidates to set out what they would do, we want to have different local policy offers that are relevant to local communities to try and bring the local government elections alive.

“If you look at what is happening at the moment, there is a massive squeeze on local government. That makes the pressures of deciding what the priorities are really important.

For example in Edinburgh, we are in opposition, so our local council candidates are putting up a budget which would put money back into education, back into improving schools and back into library services. There will be a difference in each local authority and there will be a strong Labour message about protecting vital local services and also making sure that local government uses its powers and its capacity to help people through the recession and create training opportunities and jobs opportunities.

“People are up for a fight, we have to get our message out there, and out clearly. We have to be able to translate it to a local community level.

That is why people joined our party, to improve their local communities. I’ve been looking at the new policy ideas which are coming through, ideas for new jobs and training, councils like Midlothian putting emphasis on new sports facilities, developing the work they’ve done on building new houses. It is going to be a challenge for us to get people interested, a lot of people are looking at their budgets, they are worried about hanging onto their jobs and we have to get across that these elections are an opportunity to help them. We should be looking at the powers of local councils to improve people’s lives and help them get through the recession.” In terms of the issues facing councils across Scotland, funding is the biggest and most pressing. Boyack believes the SNP Government is not countering the cuts passed on from Westminster.

She said: “The SNP Government were given a 2.7 per cent cut by the Tory Government and they have turned it into a 6.1 per cent cut. That means there is a real financial squeeze on local government. The council tax deal is not properly funded and yet when councils sign up for that, the SNP is expecting them to deliver on police and teacher numbers. Housing has been cut by almost 50 per cent which is making it hard for councils to invest in housing. We have a huge problem of people needing affordable housing, particularly given what is happening to the labour market and to mortgages. Housing is a fantastic way to get local economy stimulated, it creates very local jobs, it creates training opportunities and you get a relatively swift pay-back in terms of a real benefit to local communities. There are missed opportunities because of the way the squeeze has been put on local government.

“Very basic, practical services such as schools and in social care are all taking a big hit and when we come to the elections, it will be those choices we will be highlighting. As a local government worker in the 1980s and 90s, you could see the pressure local government was under then from the Conservatives and at that point it was Labour councils in the front line protecting local communities. We are now facing not just a Tory government at Westminster but an SNP Government which is not giving them a fair deal but is expecting them to deliver on national priorities.” Given her prior career, planning is always going to be important for Boyack. She believes the issue of planning is about sustainable development, balancing and promoting economic prosperity locally, while also making the most of land resources and also making sure that people and environment policy are factored in.

She said: “One of the things I’ve been looking at is the capacity for planning to deliver in times of recession. People are looking for politicians to be upfront on planning, to say what they actually think, that is not about the system being party political, it is about taking good decisions at a local level and having a national framework which is balanced. I am looking forward to the next national planning framework. It was one of the main initiatives I was keen to see us have when we set the Scottish Parliament up.

“I felt we needed a national perspective to give clarity to local authorities and to give members of the public the chance to engage in the big picture. Once you set your national priorities, local authorities have to look at the local opportunities and circumstances but they have an eye on national policy. It is important that process is opened up, so that people and the parliament can hold it to account.”

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