Meghan Gallacher: Scottish Conservatives want to give planning decisions back to local communities

8 Feb

Cllr Meghan Gallacher is the Leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Group on North Lanarkshire Council.

For years, the SNP has slowly diluted the roles and responsibilities of councillors throughout Scotland. Gone are the days of local government powerhouses where decisions could be made locally, based on the authority’s geography and needs. However, after 13 years of SNP authoritarianism, they have attempted to turn Councils into admin offices. Their prime role? To implement SNP Scottish Government policy.

Without sounding too critical, Councils can bring positive change to local communities, but it is entirely based on how ambitious and outward thinking the individual local authority area is. But, more broadly speaking, it is a sad state of affairs, especially if you are an opposition Councillor and the administration has no real appetite to challenge the SNP.

When talking about an SNP power grab, I mean that Councils have been stripped of their basic ability to implement decisions taken during a formal committee meeting. There are many examples I could use but for the purpose of this article, I am going to talk about planning applications. Planning applications can be contentious at the best of times, especially if there is opposition to the proposed development. I have witnessed many community campaigns over large scale developments where they cite loss of environment and pollution, for example, as their reason for submitting an objection. It is the duty of all councillors to remain impartial, listen to both sides of the argument, then make an informed decision based on what they have heard and what is best for the area they represent. But what really sticks in my throat, is that when planning applications are thrown out by councillors, should an interested party wish to appeal the outcome, they can run off to the Scottish Government for a second opinion. The problem I have with this, is, that the Scottish Government tends to overturn decisions made by elected councillors. This, in my view, is an attack on local communities, the democratic process, and decision-making of Scottish Councils.

If we take North Lanarkshire Council as an example, data supplied by the Planning and Environmental Appeals Division (DPEA) Annual Review 2019-22, shows that 44 per cent of appeals reviewed by the Scottish Government were approved. Other areas, such as Moray, were considerably worse, as 60 per cent of appeals were approved against the Council’s wishes. It makes you wonder why councils have planning committees when decisions can be overruled by civil servants? SNP Ministers have failed to respect community decision-making and have not listened to serious objections on many applications.

Recently, our Party Leader, Douglas Ross, announced new policies which would give the power over planning applications back to local communities. The policy itself, would ensure that local authorities have the final say on planning applications, removing Scottish Government interference. This is something I have supported for a long time as I do not believe that the Scottish Government is best placed to make decisions on behalf of local communities throughout Scotland. This is a simple, but effective policy and one that a number of my constituents would support.

Should the Scottish Conservatives be successful in May this year, this pledge to prioritise local views in the planning system would go some way to restoring the damage the SNP Scottish Government has inflicted on Councils throughout Scotland. There are still other huge issues which need to be addressed by the Party in relation to Local Government, but I am content that we are moving in the right direction, putting communities first, by giving powers back to councillors, undoing the SNP power grab.

Meghan Gallacher: The shambolic new restrictions in Scotland are a blow to the hospitality sector

15 Oct

Cllr Meghan Gallacher is the Leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Group on North Lanarkshire Council.

Last week, Nicola Sturgeon announced tougher lockdown restrictions across the Central Belt of Scotland, due to the stark increase of COVID-19 cases. As of 6pm on Friday 9th October, licensed premises, pool/snooker halls, casino/ bingo halls, and indoor bowling clubs, need to close their doors until 26th October. These further restrictions could be the final blow to many businesses, who have endured unprecedented hardship since the beginning of the pandemic.

As a councillor in North Lanarkshire, I am frustrated by the First Minister’s announcement. Local businesses have spent thousands of pounds renovating their premises to adhere to social distancing measures, which has meant reducing the number of people they can accommodate each day. They have also stuck to the rules, by taking customer details for track and trace purposes and asking people to comply by wearing a facemask and using hand sanitiser when entering and leaving their business.

To add to the woes of many business owners and staff, the Scottish Government’s new lockdown measures are as clear as mud.

Initially, when Nicola Sturgeon announced the new restrictions in Holyrood, she said that cafes with an alcohol licence must close. This guidance then changed to allow cafes to open but not sell alcohol, creating confusion to many business owners as to what constitutes a café. However, the confusion does not stop there. During a BBC Radio Scotland interview, Jason Leitch – the Scottish Government’s National Clinical Director – stated that it would be left to Scotland’s already overworked environmental Council officers to determine the definition of a café and to enforce these restrictions. I should add that this was the same Clinical Director, who, this time last week, was asking “the guys to look into it” to allow pubs to stay open beyond the 10pm curfew, should the Scotland vs Israel game go to penalties (which it did!). It’s clear that the Scottish Government do not have a handle on these restrictions and prioritise a football game over the livelihoods of others.

The First Minister has since attempted to clarify the definition of a ‘café’ by expressing that it is a premise, whose primary activity is the sale of non-alcoholic drinks and “snacks or light meals”. It appears that our First Minister managed to find time to look up the definition in the dictionary. However, in effect, Sturgeon has allowed café’s which may have alcoholic beverages on their premises to remain open, but restaurants and pubs, who sell snacks and light meals, must close. There are great discrepancies with the restrictions being announced and with only hours to go before the lockdown is in place, many businesses still do not know if they are to remain open or close.

The chaos caused over the last week by the Scottish Government will have a long-lasting impact on businesses in North Lanarkshire. Within each of our eight town centres, we have pubs, restaurants, and other businesses within the entertainment industry, which will have to close for a second time. I know many of them will adapt and run a take-away service, but for others, such as the indoor bowling alleys and pool halls, they have no option but to adhere to the restrictions enforced on them.

It is going to be a tough 16 days for businesses impacted by the new lockdown rules, and I hope that they receive the urgent packages of support from the Scottish Government that they deserve. Without our small, independent businesses, North Lanarkshire’s unemployment rate will soar as local businesses provide local jobs. In addition, it could be the catalyst which accelerates the demise of our town centres once and for all.

It is clear that the Scottish Government’s decision this week has been shambolic and will have a detrimental impact on those in the hospitality and entertainment sector. I just hope that this latest disaster does not deliver the final blow.

Meghan Gallacher: The Scottish Government must deliver a recovery plan for Councils

20 Aug

Cllr Meghan Gallacher is the Leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Group on North Lanarkshire Council.

Before the Coronavirus outbreak, Councils across Scotland were under severe financial strain due to a decade of cuts administered by the SNP-led Scottish Government, exacerbated by a 10-year Council Tax freeze throttling income generation. Local Authorities appear to be an afterthought when it comes to the Nationalists and you could be mistaken for believing that they are an inconvenience to the current Scottish Administration. However, as cases of Coronavirus increased throughout the country in March, councils in Scotland found themselves at the forefront of the pandemic, providing support to many people and businesses.

It is easy to underestimate the vast amount of work carried out by local authorities in Scotland. Councils are the backbone of the governance structure as they deliver policies approved by the Scottish Government – usually with no additional funding, guidance, or resources to implement them. Coronavirus has outlined the strength and struggles local government faces. Instead of dictating to Councils, the Scottish Government should fund them properly to allow them to make more localised decisions, based on their own individual objectives.

Take North Lanarkshire for example. My Council has coped reasonably well throughout this difficult time, despite reducing working employees to 25 per cent across the public sector. Council staff have managed to administer grants to thousands of businesses, delivered care packages to those shielding, opened facilities to assist key workers, worked successfully with the local NHS Board, and delivered a phased schools return on the 11th August. However, they have struggled with other service areas such as Early Learning and Childcare, due to the Scottish Government pulling the rug from under them by immediately pausing the programme.

As we are now in phase three of the easing of lockdown, the financial cost implications of Coronavirus are beginning to mount up. Most decisions taken during lockdown were necessary, however, we are beginning to learn of the detrimental impact this could have on services the Council currently provides. In February this year, Councillors voted to make roughly £25 million worth of savings which impacted service areas such as education, social care, and environmental services. Without the additional pressures of Coronavirus, the Council was at breaking point. There are barely any non-statutory services left to cut. Now, with added cost implications of COVID-19, North Lanarkshire Council could face an up to £40m budget gap before the end of the next financial year. This will lead to a revised budget where councillors will need to make more difficult decisions to balance the books.

North Lanarkshire Council is not in a unique position. Many other Councils throughout Scotland will have to reconsider the budget decisions they made in February, to accommodate the additional cost pressures of Coronavirus. The UK Government has delivered for Scottish Councils during this pandemic and included within their package of support was £155 million for councils to keep public services open for those that need them. However, at one point, I did not think councils would receive this funding, as the SNP wanted them to specify how they would spend this money before handing it over.

But councils need more support from the Scottish Government. The Finance Secretary, Kate Forbes, has not been forthcoming in highlighting a recovery plan for Councils to replenish their finances and instead, has flippantly told local government to use its reserves before knocking on the Scottish Government’s door for more cash. If Forbes had any understanding of local government finances, she would be aware that Councils do not have a lot of reserves left, due to the austerity inflicted on them by her own Scottish Government. This shows that the SNP do not understand Councils, their structure, or their importance.

The actions of the Scottish Government have left Councils in a precarious position. Their future is uncertain and the handling of finances before and during Coronavirus has left them more exposed than ever. The Scottish Government must stop the overbearing micromanagement of Local Government finances and fund them properly so they can prosper.

Make no doubt about it. Councils provided a lifeline during the Coronavirus pandemic; it is now time for the Scottish Government to return the favour.