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The closure of the Arran public toilets is a political hot potato that just won’t go away, if Monday night’s hustings meeting in Brodick was anything to go by.
The issue took centre stage as the candidates in next week’s local council elections faced the electorate in Brodick Hall.
However, with seven candidates standing for the Ardossan and Arran seat, not a single hopeful from the mainland was represented at the event, organised by the Arran CVS.
That left the three Arran candidates – Ellen McMaster of the SNP, Conservative Timothy Billings and Scottish Socialist Colin Turbett – facing the 60-strong audience in what was largely a good-natured exchange.
Like an old-fashioned hustings, each candidate was allowed a three-minute introduction. All seven
candidates had been asked to provide a statement but only a further two had sent them and these were read out by chairman Bill Calderwood from independent candidate John Hunter and Labour’s Claire McGuire. The second SNP candidate standing for the seat, Tony Gurney, sent his apologies by telephone, the meeting heard.
However, it did not take long for the toilets issue to be raised by a woman who said it was the first time she had ever been to a hustings meeting and said she was ‘appalled’ by the decision to close public toilets across the island. She said she had written to Arran MSP Kenneth Gibson but said he ‘had washed his hands of it’ saying it was a council matter.
The SNP Ellen McMaster, who was the most confrontational, but also the best prepared candidate at the hustings, said the budget to close the toilets had been set last year and that village associations had been given 12 months to put an alternative in place so said there was no point in being reactive now. She said the four toilets closed no one in the room would have gone near them with a barge poll. The candidate said she wanted to see a solution found and said that communication was the answer.
SSP candidate Colin Turbett disagreed. He said the provision of public toilets, while not a statutory requirement, should be the responsibility of the council as, historically, it has always been and asked what would be next – the library? He said it was wrong to try and dump responsibility on to the community groups.
Conservative Timothy Billings from Lamlash said: ‘The council has failed us.’ He said Lamlash Improvements had looked at taking over the facility but ruled it out instead introducing a scheme allowing the public to use commercial facilities but this had recently had some ‘challenges’. He said: ‘There needs to be a proper strategy and going forward the need for some more support for businesses providing facilities.’
The debate returned to the public toilets several times during the evening with one community councillor saying he had been to four public toilets in Argyll in the past week which were clean and well looked after. ‘The saving on closing the public toilets on Arran amounts to .01 per cent of the annual budget of North Ayrshire, if another nearly local authority can manage it why can’t we?’
Another audience member warned: ‘The health budget will have to pay in the end.’
Attempts to introduce national issues to the debate – including indyref 2 by the SNP supporters and the so called tax credit ‘rape clause’ led to comments that there was a ‘large elephant in the room’, but there seemed little appetite among the audience to discuss national issues. Indeed it lead to one quip from the audience. ‘We seem to have departed from the main issue of the toilets.’
Earlier a question had been raised from an audience member about what would happen if Arran failed to return a representative from the island.
Mr Turbett said this was ‘extremely unlikely’ as Arran represented now 40 per cent of the ward vote and said the ‘middle class’ electrorate would turn out in higher numbers than Ardrossan.
Mr Billings said the island had their voice heard, while Mrs McMaster said the best way to ensure island representation was to vote SNP since the proposed Islands Bill supported a single ward status for islands.
The other main issue raised on the night was on the issue of planning with one woman saying that she believed that too many decisions were taken by planning officials, including the controversial Holy Isle wind farm development and described there as being a ‘democratic deficit’ in the planning process.
Mr Turbett got a cheer from the audience when he said he did not just want to see a windfarm on Holy Isle. ‘I want windfarms on Arran,’ he said to applause.
Mr Billings said this matter was not about Nimbyism but looking at what was good for Arran as a whole.
Later a former councillor defended the North Ayrshire planning officials as being among the best in the country and was supported by Mrs McMaster who produced documents to back the claim.
There were also calls for the any of the candidates elected to report in the Banner once a month what they had been involved in. Mr Billings and Mr Turbett both supported such a move with Mr Turbett adding the sensible caveat ‘if it was permitted by the Banner.’ Mrs McMaster was ‘not against’ having a column to improve transparency and accountability.
The final question of the meeting concerned Montrose House with a former employee expressing concern with claims that only 50 per cent of the staff were now resident on the island and other employees were bank staff and on zero hours contacts.
Mr Turbett said he shared the concerns and said he believed ‘some of it was due to poor management. Mr Billings said: ‘What is important is the quality of care and service they are actually getting. Mrs McMaster said that when she was a carer several years ago it was a ‘nice, friendly place’, but said she had no experience of it now.
Voting takes place on Thursday May 4 with the polling stations open from 7am to 10pm.
Each of the candidates present read a statement to the meeting and two were read out by the chairman. They are reprinted here: