Collapse of Lib Dem vote in Holyrood won’t affect local poll, says Nicol

THE leader of the Borders Liberal Democrats does not believe a repeat of the party’s Scottish Parliament result will be seen at next month’s council elections.

The number of its MSPs fell dramatically from 16 to five last year, and rival groups in the region believe they can capitalise on May 3.

But Alec Nicol, whose party has been part of the ruling coalition at Newtown St Boswells for the past five years, alongside the Conservatives and independents, says the collapse of its Holyrood vote won’t affect the chances of the Lib Dems’ 12 council candidates announced this week.

Mr Nicol was speaking at the launch of the party’s manifesto in St Boswells on Monday, which focused on jobs and the economy, including a £1million Borders Business Loans Fund, modelled on East Lothian Council’s successful model.

Councillor Nicol, who is standing again in Kelso and District, told TheSouthern: “All our candidates want to highlight keeping local issues at the front of everything we do.

“Whilst bigger things are going on in Scotland, our candidates are focused on what is important at council level, such as education, social work and planning, down to mending pot holes in roads.

“I don’t think we will see the same surge as the Holyrood elections. People are looking to pick a council for local matters.

“The Borders Business Loans Fund will help smaller companies by allowing borrowing and investment in people. We also hope to increase borrowing powers for the council itself so that further jobs in the private sector can be created by, for example, the building of a new school.”

Other key manifesto promises included a youth contract to guarantee work experience or a college place for each school leaver, reintroduction of area committees and establishing a petitions committee.

Fellow Lib Dem councillor Catriona Bhatia insisted the financial difficulties being experienced by Scottish Borders Council should not limit the region’s ambitions.

She said: “We keep hearing the council does not have any money. That is not correct, there is £270million (council budget is £264million) but the key is how that money is spent.

“Talking to local businesses, it is a challenge to get through these difficult times and the council should be playing a part in assisting them.”

Mrs Bhatia added: “Anyone with a petition at the moment hands it to council convener Alasdair Hutton and there is no debate about it.

“Holyrood and Westminister both allow e-petitions to be submitted and discussed and the council should be no different.”

Responding to the manifesto, SNP leader of the opposition, Donald Moffat, said: “The £1million loan fund is a good idea which has proven very successful with the SNP-led East Lothian Council.

“The area committee system has only worked in Hawick and the Berwickshire Community Council forum, which was set up following the system’s demise, has worked better. Just because it works in one area does not mean it works in all areas.

“The Lib Dems’ vote was on the way down in the Holyrood elections and I think it will slip even further this year.”

Outgoing Tory leader Carolyn Riddell-Carre questioned how Mr Nicol and his colleagues would afford their manifesto commitments.

She added: “Key to the Conservative manifesto is our sound financial management. Look at what this council has managed to achieve – new schools, recycling rate up, no library closures – with no council tax rise at all. This is a huge contrast to when the Liberals were in power from 1999 to 2003 and the council tax rose by nearly 40 per cent.

“We have ambitions for the Borders but they must be affordable.”

And Labour’s Hawick and Denholm candidate Michael Grieve told TheSouthern: “The record of the Liberal Democrats both locally and nationally with regard to their manifestos is to treat them as gospel and five minutes after the polls have closed to tear it up.”