Striving for success
An elected council member since 1995 and a community councillor before that, the interests of the people she represents remain at the heart of everything Rhondda Geekie does.
“I love meeting with people, even though some of the meetings can be difficult,” she told Holyrood.
“I like being able to make a difference and when you can see something you’ve suggested or discussed with others, which has made a difference locally, when I say locally, I mean right throughout East Dunbartonshire. Seeing our policies enacted is great, especially when you sit down and write out your manifesto before elections, and you sweat blood over it to ensure everything is in there. When you actually see that coming to life and seeing it making a difference, that’s what drives all of us.”
However, Geekie, who has been leader since 2007, is no stranger to making tough decisions. She added: “Anybody who thinks that the decisions councillors make and the things we have to do just now are easy, that’s not the case. No councillor comes into this to cut services but unfortunately, that’s the position we’re in. Sometimes the public don’t think we have any understanding but they have to remember councillors live locally and they see their constituents day in and day out.”
Asked what aspects of being a councillor she finds frustrating, Geekie points to the budget constraints all local authorities are currently facing across Scotland. She said: “For most people, when you say you’ve got to cut millions from a budget, it’s difficult to get them to understand what that means. People think councils have plenty of money so they should be able to find the savings. Unfortunately, because we’ve been [making savings] for so long, whatever we are doing now really does make a difference. In February we made a number of cuts and every one of them has been challenged and there are petitions coming in. But the problem is if we don’t make those savings, what do we do? People don’t want to see things changing and we understand that. We’re proud of the services we provide, as are the officers but at the moment, it is becoming very difficult.
“A lot of people want us to protect education and social work. Nobody could argue with that, it is absolutely the right thing to do but unfortunately, because it is such a big part of our budget, if you did that, you would actually wipe out some of the other services altogether. It is a very difficult concept so we’re doing a lot of work right now, we’re consulting and meeting with people and talking them through it. We’ve got an online simulator which actually shows people when you take out a budget saving, what the consequences are. It’s a very good piece of software and we’re encouraging people to have a look and use it. It’s a good tool to use so the public can see just how difficult it is going to be.”
Currently East Dunbartonshire is working to rationalise its primary school estate, to address under-occupancy and future sustainability issues. Like many other councils across Scotland, this means school mergers and closures.
She said: “An issue within East Dunbartonshire which we’ve not tackled so far is the fact we’ve got too many primary schools for the number of children we have. At the moment we’re trying to merge schools. This is one of the most difficult things any council has to do in Scotland and most councils have done it in the past, we’re one of the very few who haven’t. We’re trying to merge schools and also to build new schools. At the moment we’ve got one merger agreed and we’re working on another three. During our budget consultation, everyone agrees it is the right thing to do because it doesn’t make sense to have half empty schools but no one wants their schools to be closed.
“People think we’re not listening but we are. We’ve tried to do as well as we can do but it’s a big change for people and they don’t like it. Every council and councillor who has gone through it knows how hard it is.
“However, there is a lot of capital investment going on locally. What we’re trying to do is have fewer buildings but invest in those that we have. We’ve got a town hall which has been mothballed for a number of years and we’re trying to bring it back to life. We’ve got external funding, really successfully and we’re investing in that. We’re investing in the town centre at the moment but we’ve also got a BID which has happened in Milngavie. There’re a lot of positives going on.”
As one of only two female council leaders in Scotland, Geekie knows there are issues about getting more women involved in politics. She said: “In 2007 there were more women leaders than there are now. There was a while I was the only woman leader but now there are two in Scotland.
“There are a lot of women involved in trade unions, so there are plenty of strong women about but when you go around knocking on doors, asking women’s opinions on politics, often they still look to the man, which I find astonishing in this day and age. It is women of all ages who do that, they don’t seem to have the same interest in politics that men have, whether that’s local or national. It is disappointing because there are really good women out there who could certainly do the job but whether the interest is there is another matter.”
Geekie has personally experienced some of the more negative attitudes which make it harder for women in the political world.
She said: “If I go along to an event, especially if I’m with a male officer, if someone says, ‘this is the leader of the council’, they will turn to the man, even now. I still get that. It can be from women as well, not just men. Years ago, when I was standing as a new councillor, people would look to my husband who was campaigning for me and they would still speak to him. He would say, ‘you’re speaking to the wrong person, I’m not actually standing’.
“Even now, when you speak at events, for instance at COSLA, it can be daunting when you are one of the very few women. It is often still the case where you will still find that you are the only female there or the other women in the room are officers, not politicians.
“You do get used to it but I have challenged COSLA a number of times about equality, especially just now because the president is a man, the vice president is a man and every spokesperson is a man. When we set up the Commission [on Strengthening Local Democracy in Scotland], it was very male dominated and I challenged that, and I ended up doing one of the jobs, though that wasn’t exactly the point I was making. I was saying you have to ensure it is equality proofed, whether it’s ethnic minorities, people with disabilities or gender, you need to look at equality.
“In this council, for instance, you’ve got a woman leader and the deputy leader is from an ethnic minority background. We are probably different from most councils, and are quite unusual. Ashay [Ghai, the deputy leader] and I have had that conversation a number of times. It’s also not just getting people to put themselves forward but ensuring that they are in winnable seats so they stand a chance of being elected, that is important.
“I’m not a big fan of all-women lists but I recognise to actually make a difference it is something we have to do. The reason I’m not a big fan of it is because you’ll then get people saying, ‘she only got elected because she is a woman’. You will get that line thrown at you.”