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Worries have been voiced over the state of local democracy after only three candidates put themselves forward for the three-person Caol and Mallaig ward in next month’s Scottish local authority elections.
This means they have been automatically elected with no need for election campaigns or for voters to cast their ballots.
It also means that in only the second time a Greens candidate had stood for council elections in Lochaber, Andrew Baldrey, from Invergarry, has become a councillor-elect after the deadline passed for nominations last week.
He was joined by fellow ward new councillors-elect Conservative Liz Saggers and Lib Dem John Grafton.
Mr Baldrey’s fellow Scottish Greens candidate, Dr Kate Willis – who unsuccessfully stood to fill a vacancy in the Fort William and Ardnamurchan ward in December – will be hoping for success second time round when she contests the elections again in May.
With five candidates in total for that particular four-councillor ward, it means an election is required and Dr Willis will battle it out for votes with Sarah Fanet (SNP), who is standing for re-election, plus Fiona Fawcett (Con), Angus MacDonald (Lib Dem) and Thomas MacLennan (Ind).
Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch MSP Kate Forbes is one of those concerned by the low number of candidates coming forward.
‘It is unfortunate there has been no democratic election in Caol and Mallaig. Local councillors are very influential and can make a big difference to the issues that matter most to communities. The council is responsible for local infrastructure, schools, leisure facilities and so much more,’ said Ms Forbes.
‘I think this, unfortunately, reflects just how unattractive politics has become over recent years. I certainly have tried to encourage more local people to stand at every level of government. It is becoming harder and harder to attract candidates.
‘I think we need to reflect very carefully on why so many people who might have stood for election are no longer willing to do so, whether that is the toxic nature of the debate, the anger and the vitriol that fuels much of our politics or many other reasons.
‘I’d like to pay credit to our many excellent councillors, particularly those who represented Caol and Mallaig in the last term, and council candidates.
‘They do it for the benefit of their communities and hopefully we can start to reverse the trend of good people leaving by improving the quality of our debate and engagement.’
Her concerns were echoed by the Scottish Greens, despite getting their first Lochaber councillor elected without a fight.
Anne Thomas, Black Isle candidate and Highland Greens communications co-ordinator, commented on what she called the ‘apparent very worrying lack of interest’ in local democracy.
She told the Lochaber Times: ‘In a healthy, robust democratic system, many people should seek to represent and serve their community. The fact that not enough people stood in Caol and Mallaig to trigger an election is a symptom of our democratic system’s fragility.
‘One reason for this is the fact the job of councillor is incredibly under-valued and lacks the power to make the changes communities need. Councillors are also under-supported.
‘Unlike our MPs and MSPs, councillors don’t have funds to hire staff. They are doing the job alone and civil servants don’t have enough time to adequately help.
‘Councillors are also under-protected, as most recently demonstrated by the attack on Green Councillor Pippa Hadley and her subsequent motion to council to strengthen protection measures.
‘Finally councillors are under-paid, meaning that people who rely on a full income to support themselves or their families struggle to afford to stand. It’s no wonder people don’t come forward to serve.’
The Highland Greens say they are also extremely worried about the state of what they termed the ‘disinterest in local democracy’ which saw three councillors to be elected without opposition.
Mr Baldrey, who previously served for five years as a councillor in Devon, moved to the Highlands in 2017 and lives in Invergarry with his wife.
He commented: ‘There is a lot to do. We must tackle the pressing issues of lack of warm, affordable homes and improve public transport and active travel. We must build a circular economy that will strengthen the local economy. And we must make the lives of our constituents easier by acting as their support system in council and beyond.
‘I look forward to working with Highland Green councillors as well as with every other councillor that shares my priorities and vision. This is not about party politics – we have a responsibility to deliver for the people.’
Andrew Baldrey automatically becomes a councillor after only he and two others put themselves forward as candidates for the Caol and Mallaig ward in next month’s Scottish council elections.