DCSIMG

Scottish council elections: The battle for Scotland’s cities

Recent Labour defections have unsteadied the ship for the party in Glasgow. Picture: Robert Perry

Recent Labour defections have unsteadied the ship for the party in Glasgow. Picture: Robert Perry

NORMALLY the bridesmaid of UK politics, councils get their day in the sun in two weeks’ time, when the country goes to the polls to elect its local representatives. With no national election to divert attention, all eyes are on the local battlegrounds.

In Scotland much of the focus will fall on who can win the big cities. A strong presence here is the key to national success. With a referendum on independence coming soon, ownership of city chambers is hugely important. So how are the council elections shaping up? And who will come out on top on 3 May? Scotland on Sunday’s reporters across Scotland have been taking the temperature

EDINBURGH

CURRENT MAKE UP OF COUNCIL

The council is run by a Lib Dem/SNP Coalition. The Lib Dems currently have 16 seats, Labour has 15, the SNP 13, Tories 11 and Greens three. The coalition has lasted since 2007, despite having the same number of councillors as the joint opposition.

CITY AT A GLANCE

One of the wealthiest cities in the UK, thanks to its buoyant banking, financial, tourism and services sectors. The crash of both RBS and HBoS may have dented that reputation, but its financial services sector has recovered strongly and the city’s status as the UK’s second city of money has been maintained.

KEY ISSUES

The much-maligned trams project, now likely to come in at a cost of more than £1bn. Both the cost and the disruption to traffic caused by the work have become major bug-bears for the city residents. The project is due to be completed in 2014, but in the run-up to the election, councillors have suggested it could all be wrapped up by next year. The council has also been hit by allegations of fraud, with claims that its property conservation unit has been involved in bribes.

KEY PERSONALITIES

With the man many tipped to become the city’s next leader, SNP councillor Tom Buchanan, recovering from surgery for a brain tumour, it leaves the path open for his colleague Steve Cardownie, who defected from Labour in 2005 and now heads up the SNP group in Edinburgh. He is up against Labour’s Andrew Burns, who is pledging to remove power from council officials and put it into the hands of residents in a bid to win back the city for Labour.

WHO WILL WIN?

Most of the money is on the Lib Dems and the SNP swapping positions after May, with Cardownie taking over at the top, with the Lib Dems as the new junior partner. However, no-one quite knows how far the Lib Dem vote will drop from last time, nor where exactly it will go.

Labour remains an outside bet to beat the odds and emerge as the largest party; more likely it will come second to the SNP and head for opposition again.

GLASGOW

CURRENT MAKE UP OF COUNCIL

Despite recent defections, Labour has 39 councillors to the SNP’s 20. There are now six “Glasgow First” councillors, who quit Labour earlier this year after being deselected. The council is completed by six Lib Dems, five Greens, one Conservative and two independents. Despite Labour’s lost councillors, it remains in sole control of the City Chambers.

CITY AT A GLANCE

Glasgow continues to be home to the highs and lows of urban life. The economy and population is now growing, with the city turning over around £17bn annually. Its big financial and business services, retail and public services sector employ many. But only a short walk from the city’s polished centre, however, are some of the worst areas of deprivation in western Europe.

THE KEY ISSUES

Victory would give the winner the right to preside over the Commonwealth Games in 2014 – just a few months before Alex Salmond’s planned independence referendum. Tied into that are the massive regeneration efforts in the east of the city. There is also the pressing need to refurbish or rebuild dozens of primary schools. The SNP is hoping to pressurise Labour over its commitment to a council tax freeze, which lasts for just two years.

THE KEY PERSONALITIES

Since the fall of Labour’s Stephen Purcell, Gordon Matheson, his successor, has steadied the ship, and sought to get back on the front foot. Facing him is an SNP buoyed up by its astonishing performance in Glasgow last May, when it won a series of previously impregnable Labour seats, led by Councillor Allison Hunter Many, however, see Nicola Sturgeon as the real leader; it is her face which smiles out from the party’s election leaflets.

Other well-known figures involved include former Labour MSP Frank McAveety, now standing as a councillor. However, talk that he may usurp Matheson as leader of the Labour group are off the mark – the best placed man to do that is the well-connected councillor Stephen Curran.

WHO WILL WIN?

With neither the SNP nor Labour likely to return a full majority, it may come down to a few seats to separate the two. There would then follow coalition negotiations. The problem for Labour is that, with the mood up for change, the smaller parties may be reluctant to prop them up – especially as relations between them and Labour are not said to be close. An anti-Labour coalition could therefore be formed to keep them out. Labour needs to build some bridges.

INVERNESS

CURRENT MAKE UP OF COUNCIL

It consists of 25 independents, 21 Lib Dems, 18 SNP and six Labour.

AT A GLANCE

Centred in Inverness, Highland Council is the largest local government area in the UK. Inverness now has a population of around 60,000, is one of the fastest growing cities in the UK and is ranked fifth out of 189 British cities for its quality of life, the highest in Scotland.

MAJOR ISSUES

Council housing and the lack of affordable homes available. Also transport links – particularly duelling of the A9 to the Central Belt and the A96 to Aberdeen – and renewable energy, with a big focus being put on redeveloping former fabrication yards at Nigg and Ardersier.

KEY PERSONALITIES

The Lib Dem council leader, Michael Foxley, recently won the award of local government politician of the year, for campaigns on reform of the Crown Estate and against cuts to Coastguard stations. However, he is not seeking re-election. Nor are three SNP councillors, two of whom – John Finnie (Inverness Ness-sire) and Jean Urquhart (Ross-shire) – were elected as MSPs in the Scottish Parliament elections. Independent councillor Sandy Park, the council convener, is also retiring. That paves the way for fresh faces to emerge at the top of the tree. The SNP group is led by councillor Dave Fallows.

WHO WILL WIN?

One of the major factors is how the Liberal Democrats will fair. SNP figures believe they can capitalise on UK cuts. A sign of the Lib Dem plight is shown by the fact there are fewer Lib Dem candidates seeking election in 2012 than there are currently sitting members. There is likely to be another coalition administration, but who will be prepared to share this role with – most likely – the SNP, is debatable.

DUNDEE

CURRENT MAKE UP OF COUNCIL

Following the 2007 elections, Dundee City Council was controlled by a Labour/Lib Dem coalition, with informal support from the Conservatives. However, in 2009 the SNP – who were already the largest single party – seized control following a by-election win.

CITY AT A GLANCE

Jute, jam and journalism were once held to be the keystones of the Dundee economy. Now, only the latter remains, with the city instead moving into biosciences and video gaming. The majority of Dundonians are now employed by public sector bodies.

LOCAL ISSUES

The key issue in Dundee is the regeneration of the city’s waterfront, which is not scheduled to be completed until 2031. The project was originally put forward when Labour still had control of the city, but two SNP councillors are now the sole political representatives on a board specifically designed to bring the plan to completion. Council officials have suggested the initiative could bring an extra 9,000 jobs to the wider Tayside area, but many local people remain sceptical.

THE KEY PERSONALITIES

There is no love lost between SNP leader Ken Guild and his Labour counterpart Kevin Keenan. Although Guild, who is 65, suffered a stroke last summer, he is understood to have made a full recovery and is determined to retain control of the council. Keenan’s Labour group has been marred by in-fighting in recent years, following the 2009 resignation of Lord Provost John Letford from the party. The move allowed Letford, a former trade unionist, to keep his job – but incurred the wrath of his former comrades. He will not seek re-election this year.

WHO WILL WIN?

The SNP would need 15 councillors to achieve an overall majority in Dundee – but strategists believe it is possible, especially as Letford’s place on the council has now become vacant. Labour returning to power, even as part of a coalition, is believed to be unlikely, and the SNP looks set to increase the number of its seats.

STIRLING

CURRENT MAKE UP OF COUNCIL

The council is made up of eight Labour councillors, seven SNP, four Conservative and three Liberal Democrats. The council presently has a minority SNP administration.

CITY AT A GLANCE

Known as the “Gateway to the Highlands”, Stirling has diversified into retail, financial services and tourism. The entire Stirling Council area is home to more than 80,000 people.

KEY ISSUES

The council has just gone through a bitter spat over its 2012 budget, after both Labour and the Tories rejected the SNP’s plans, and then imposed their own alternative, cutting council tax by 1 per cent. The row led to ill-tempered shouting matches across the council floor and accusations that Labour figures have been “jumping into bed with the Tories”. Other major local issues include the plans for the Beauly-Denny power line, which is set to run through Stirling. Efforts to have the line buried underground were rejected by SNP ministers late last year, a decision which could trigger a backlash at the polls.

KEY PERSONALITIES

SNP minister Bruce Crawford is the local MSP and kicked off the party’s campaign earlier this month, alongside the council leader Graham Houston. On the Labour side of the fence is MP Anne McGuire. The city is also home territory for Tory MSP Murdo Fraser.

WHO WILL WIN?

With Alex Salmond launching his party’s local government campaign in Stirling on Friday, the SNP clearly feels confident of becoming the largest party. Relations between the SNP and the Tories in the council are said to be relatively good, so a coalition is a possibility.

ABERDEEN

CURRENT MAKE UP OF COUNCIL

Coalition of 15 SNP and 11 Liberal Democrat councillors. Also eight Labour, three Independent Alliance Group, four independents and two Conservatives.

CITY AT A GLANCE

Economy dominated by a buoyant North Sea oil and gas economy which has shielded Aberdeen from the worst of the recession. The city has a global span, with its engineering skills sought after across the world, best exemplified by the enormously successful Wood Group.

LOCAL ISSUES

There is the divisive plan to turn Victorian Union Terrace Gardens into a futuristic city centre park. Backed by up to £85m of funds from Sir Ian Wood, the new square will be a “cross between a grand Italian piazza and a mini Central Park.” The election is likely to decide whether or not it goes ahead – with Labour candidates among the main sceptics. Aside from that, there is the continuing uncertainty about a starting date for the long awaited Aberdeen western peripheral route.

THE KEY PERSONALITIES

Lots of colour. The SNP’s Callum McCaig, the young leader of the council, recently faced claims he was no longer talking to his Lib Dem deputy Aileen Malone. The two groups were left bitterly divided on plans to outsource jobs. After peace talks the two groups agreed to stagger on until the May elections. The local Tories are also fractious: one leading Tory rebel, Councillor Jim Farquharson, hit the headlines when he was cleared of accusations that he branded Councillor John Stewart, then the openly gay leader of the council, a “faggot” during a furious row in a council corridor.

WHO WILL WIN?

It’s extremely unlikely that any of the three major parties can seize control. A coalition is therefore a near certainty. But trying to work out at this stage what form that will take is anyone’s guess.

 

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