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.