Cllr Stewart Miller is Leader of the Conservative Group on East Renfrewshire Council.
I was born and raised on our family farm on the south side of Glasgow. In fact, ours is the first farm outside the City of Glasgow, albeit we are in the County of Renfrewshire and in the local Government Council area of East Renfrewshire.
Traditionally, we were a very Conservative area with our constituency returning Conservative Members of Parliament for many years until 1997 when a relatively unknown Labour MP was elected. Unfortunately, Jim Murphy held onto the seat and, indeed, enhanced his majority until the Scottish Labour crash of 2015. But as the old saying goes “be very careful what you wish for as you might just get it”.
We Conservatives were always wishing Murphy would be beaten at the polls but unfortunately, it wasn’t the Conservatives who put him out, but the SNP. Although I worked on our local Community Council with the woman who became our MP, I never thought she would make an outstanding representative for our local area as she only moved into the area a few years prior to the election. I was very informally asked if I would consider standing for Westminster but the reason I came into politics was to try and help local people who, essentially, are my neighbours and my friends – and you can do far more to help people as a councillor than you can as an MP or MSP.
In December 2006, our local Westminster candidate approached me to ask about standing for the Council on behalf of the Conservative Party. As my father had been an independent Councillor I had some idea of the work involved and the rewards the position brings as far as helping the local community is concerned. But the first thing I had to do was to become a member of the Party.
It has to be remembered that at that time, 2006/07, admitting you were a Conservative in Scotland wasn’t the smartest career move as we were being called various unpleasant names, amongst which the Toxic Tories was perhaps one of the more printable ones.
We did manage to achieve seven Councillors in our small Council of twenty, but the Labour, Nationalists, Lib Dems and the Independents all joined together to form the administration. Our Leader at the time, Cllr Jim Swift, was very vocal in his condemnation of many of the administration’s decisions. However, by the time the next local elections came round in 2012, despite thinking we had a good story to tell, we were reduced to six Councillors to serve for the next five years under the leadership of Cllr Gordon Wallace. Cllr Wallace resigned due to work commitments after three years and was replaced by Cllr Gordon McCaskill. Unfortunately, Cllr McCaskill’s tenure only lasted ten months and as I had agreed to be his deputy, it was left to me to step up to the plate.
Even for a small authority like East Renfrewshire Council, policies that are relevant in one part of the authority might have no resonance in another part, as we have two distinct parts to the authority area. Also, last September, the Scottish Government decreed that our Council should have our councillor numbers cut by ten per cent, although our population has risen by three per cent in the last few years and is projected to rise by ten per cent over the next ten years. But the SNP Government is not noted for taking too many sensible decisions.
So now we are facing another local election in May. The most obvious national priority we Conservatives are totally against, is a second referendum, or as it is now called, a neverendum. The Scottish people were asked a “once in a generation” question in 2014, and the Scottish people gave them their answer. Here in East Renfrewshire, we had the highest turnout at 90.4 per cent, and the second highest mainland figure of over 63 per cent in favour of staying with our friends within the United Kingdom.
We have a fantastic Conservative Leader in Ruth Davidson and she is also an asset locally – I’m sure she will visit our Constituency to help.
A few years ago, David Cameron visited a couple of families in my ward and was very well received. I am quite sure that Council Tax will be in issue on doorsteps when the bills drop through the doors; the Scottish Government has decreed that houses in bands E to H should all face rises of between 7.5 per cent and 22.5 per cent – and then councils have the option of adding an EXTRA three per cent on top. This is because the SNP have had a Council Tax freeze for the past ten years and councils are finding it increasingly difficult to find any further savings. I find it strange that when it’s Labour or SNP reducing costs, it’s always savings, whereas when it is Conservatives doing exactly the same, it’s “Tory cuts”.
Holyrood have also embarked on a major house building programme but it appears it is small councils like ours that are having to build a disproportionate amount of these new houses. The Labour / SNP administration have a record of destroying local public parks and beauty spots and local people just don’t like it.
All these things will be brought to local people’s attention, but the major thing that has been rumbling for the past two years and has come to a head last month is the last Council-run Care Home is being sold off to the private sector. Now you’d think we Conservatives would be very pleased at this but quite the reverse is true. Cllr Jim Swift and myself have worked out a rescue package for the Care Home where, with a few minor adjustments, it could be a money spinner for the community.
Labour and SNP both rubbished our figures and passed the sale at Council last month. But we have now heard that the prospective purchaser has withdrawn – and the reason is they had very little political support and quite a vociferous local opposition which, I have to admit, I was keen to foment.
I have given the local community, and the staff, and the residents, a firm commitment that if we Conservatives have any influence after the election, we will do everything we can to stop the sale.
We are fielding nine candidates of which I fully expect a minimum of six to be elected but with a fair wind and a lot of work, all nine have a realistic chance of success
But we do need a lot of luck…