LIVELY COWAL HUSTINGS
EIGHT of the nine candidates for three seats on the Cowal ward of Argyll and Bute Council faced the electorate on Monday evening.
A hastily-arranged hustings meeting at Uig Hall, Benmore saw the candidates face stiff questioning from the public, and debate with their fellow hopefuls.
Meeting organiser and chair Dave Dewar began proceedings in the busy hall by saying the meeting was important, telling voters: “This is a good chance for you to talk to them.”
Mr Dewar then drew lots for a speaking order before the candidates introduced themselves.
Russell Weir (Independent) said that he has already represented Cowal as a golf pro and that he wanted to do his best to maintain and respect our local environment.
Alex McNaughton (Independent) said that he had worked hard for Cowal as a councillor and that people found him easy to talk to.
Chris Talbot (Independent) told the meeting that since his retirement from the Royal Navy he had been studying at the University of the Highlands and Islands, taking a year out to act as president of the students’ association.
Bruce Marshall (Independent) said that he was not political, and that he cares deeply about Argyll, Scotland and particularly Cowal.
Gordon Blair (SNP) said that when he used to work for Argyll and Bute Council he was instrumental in the introduction of yellow school buses and, while he was working with Renfrewshire Council, realised that the people of Argyll and Bute were being short-changed.
Lewis McDonald (Conservative) told of the need to focus on jobs for the area. He said that a prosperous Cowal can be achieved by encouraging young families to move here.
Ron Simon (SNP) said that Cowal’s population has declined by 2.3 per cent and decline was projected to continue. He said that to keep young people in the area we need housing, training and job opportunities.
Stephen Johnstone (Independent) said that he had been an activist for years. He said that in the last four years the council has gone downhill under the present administration and, without a change, the area will sink.
Mr Dewar then devoted ten minutes of the meeting to the thorny local issue of ferries.
A question from the floor asked what candidates intend to do to regain a vehicle ferry service from the centre of Dunoon to Gourock.
Chris Talbot said that councillors needed to work together to persuade the Scottish Government to invest in Cowal and Bruce Marshall said: “That is what we are doing just now.”
Stephen Johnstone said: “I think the talking is over. It’s time for peaceful protests on board the Ali Cat.
Gordon Blair said: “We have to get this issue resolved. We need two new boats, let’s build them up the Clyde.”
Alex McNaughton said: “The boats just don’t feel safe. The Scottish Government has let us down badly on this one.”
Ron Simon said: “I was as disappointed as anybody with what was imposed. The people have spoken quite clearly and it is our job to give them what they want.”
Lewis McDonald said: “The council needs to be a thorn in the government’s side - we should take them to court, even though we may not win.”
Question from the floor: “There is an abomination just off Ardentinny - Coulport. Mr Marshall, you are big on the environment - would you scrap Trident?”
Mr Marshall replied: “The base was a cornerstone of our defence over the cold war period - if we didn’t have it the Russians might have attacked.”
The next question was: “How do the panel regard the demise of Cowal Music Club because of the introduction of Public Entertainment Licences? Some councils have waived this.” (See the Standard on Friday April 27 for a full report on this issue).
Bruce Marshall said: “I have been involved in this. I have asked the head of corporate services what we are going to do about it.
“All clubs should have complied before now. After the election this will be a priority.”
Ron Simon said: “I don’t care who is implementing this, it is absolutely disgraceful. If Cowal Music Club goes into demise it will only be the tip of the iceberg.”
The questioner said: “Both creative Scotland and Nicola Sturgeon have said that councils don’t need to implement this. It is ironic that, in the Year of Creativity, councils are seeking to quash creativity.”
The next question was, again, for Bruce Marshall. “You have stated that if Dunoon does not want the proposed joint primary campus it will not happen.
“I have seen people on national TV, in the local paper and in the council’s own reports saying they do not want it.
“Will you now stand by your word and make it stop?”
Mr Marshall replied: “I can’t make it stop, but the people of Cowal can, by speaking against it.”
The questioner said: “They have.” Mr Marshall replied: “No, they haven’t. There will be a consultation.” Asked if that involved a public meeting Mr Marshall responded: “There will be public meetings.”
The next question was:“Given the constraint on council budgets, how will you prioritise the care of the mentally ill?”
Chris Talbot said: “We are all part of the same society and should be treated as equals.” Ron Simon said: “I’m very uncomfortable with the way funding works for the disabled and elderly. Their needs should be met.”
Discussion then moved to the Ardentinny bus service. Bruce Marshall said: "I hope that anybody at this table who fills my shoes will continue to fight to maintain the Ardentinny bus service.”
Dave Dewar interjected, saying: “They don’t run on a Sunday evening to Ardentinny - why?”
Councillor Marshall said: “There was no demand.”
Gordon Blair said: “If there is a small number of people, why use a 52-seat bus? There are plenty of council buses sitting empty of an evening.”
Bruce Marshall replied: “The driver is the biggest expense. A big bus doesn’t cost much more than a small bus.”
Lewis McDonald said: “It’s a false logic, to cut a shoddy service then wonder why people don’t use it.”
“That is absolute nonsense,” blasted Bruce Marshall. “You obviously don’t use the service. There is an hourly service to Glenfinart.”
A debate on the merits of councillors free from party affiliations evolved into a bad-tempered exchange about last year’s attempt to close rural schools.
After Ron Simon sang the praises of the SNP Bruce Marshall said: “It was the SNP education spokesperson who took forward 26 school closures. Mike Russell said to me privately that there are nine schools we could close easily.”
Ron Simon retorted: “You re-write history. FOI requests prove Isobel Strong was not privy to information. The SNP voted for a review of the school estate.
“Voting for any school to go forward for consultation put that school at risk of closure. You voted to put Strone Primary at risk - twice.”
Mr Simon’s remarks drew the only spontaneous applause of the evening.
Lewis McDonald said: “If you close a small school you can destroy the community.
“Use it as an asset. Let the local policeman do his paperwork in an unused classroom.”
Gordon Blair said: “The suspension of the communications manager - what’s that all about?” and Bruce Marshall said: “That’s nothing to do with schools.” He continued: “The council is working well since (CEO) Sally Loudon arrived.”
A discussion on windfarms polarised opinions. Arguments for and against were made. Lewis McDonald said: “Personally, I would rather see a nuclear station hidden away in a glen than a windfarm.”
Jaws dropped. After a stunned silence one audience member quietly reminded Mr McDonald of the recent tragedy in Japan, and pointed out that contaminated debris from the incident was only now beginning to arrive in Alaska.
Russell Weir restored the conversation, saying: “Tourism is important to the area - visitors don’t want to see windfarms.”
A discussion, mainly among audience members, about speeding vehicles on the A815 at the Ardentinny junction ensued, with most panel members agreeing that the 40mph limit be extended towards Rashfield.
So how did they do? The debate wasn’t exactly stimulating. The existing councillors on the panel seemed a little desperate to hold on to their seats. A couple of the candidates looked to be out of their depth.
As people drifted out of the hall at 10pm the talk was of a desire to see change in the council. How this will translate into votes is anyone’s guess.
• Candidate Chris Lambert was unable to attend due to work commitments.
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