IN only one area of Scotland is the Scottish Labour Party putting up more candidates than the SNP and that is East Lothian where the political battle is turning out to be rather more angry and localised than for most councils.
Proof of that contention has emerged in the last 48 hours with a bitter row breaking out over the future of East Lothian’s biggest five star tourist attraction.
East Lothian is the only local authority in Scotland which “owns” a racecourse, and the future shape of the council could well be determined by the current extraordinary events at Musselburgh Racecourse.
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As The National details in our sports pages today, a genuine threat exists to the future of the track which is on common good land and is therefore under the control of the local authority.
Musselburgh Racecourse also encloses the ancient links course where the Open Golf Championship was played six times between 1874 and 1899, and the people of East Lothian are very protective of “their” racecourse.
Already local candidates are lining up to have their say on the current row, and independent councillor John Caldwell – a member of the current administration formed with the Labour and Conservative groups – is at the centre of the controversy in his role as chairman of the Musselburgh Joint Racing Committee which oversees the course.
Musselburgh’s future has thus all of a sudden jumped front and centre in the political debate in East Lothian, where the council will see a reduction in the number of wards from seven to six and councillor numbers reduced from 23 to 22.
The council is headquartered at Haddington in the centre of the ancient county of that name, with East Lothian now extending from Musselburgh in the west to just beyond Torness nuclear power station in the east.
From the scenic beauties of the “golf coast”, as it is now marketed, inland to Gifford and Humbie, East Lothian is noted for its many picturesque villages and its array of ancient monuments such as Dirleton and Tantallon Castle.
East Lothian also famously gets more sunshine than anywhere else in Scotland, but it is not just about tourism – East Lothian was once a thriving mining area but now houses stand where collieries did, while fishing boats still operate out of Dunbar and Port Seton.
The giant coal-fired Cockenzie power station is now gone, its demolition in 2014 and 2015 a symbol of the decline of the coal industry. In the former coal areas and Labour heartlands of Tranent, Prestonpans, and Ormiston, the SNP has been only too quick to remind the electorate that Labour joined with the Conservatives to form the current administration.
However, the fact that the SNP is only putting up 11 candidates suggests that the party locally has accepted that it cannot win overall control of the 22-member council on May 4. Unless Labour win the 12 seats it seeks, a coalition will be necessary and already there is considerable debate about which parties will be ready to work with others to form the administration.
To the surprise of many, all three Conservative members of the council are standing down, including Provost Ludovic Broun-Lindsay and depute council leader Michael Veitch. Independent Nationalist David Berry, who is retiring due to ill health, and long-serving Labour councillor John McNeil are other notable absentees from the list of incumbents standing again.
Labour group and council leader Willie Innes is standing again, and will be joined on the ballot paper in Preston/Seton/Gosford by former Labour MP Fiona O’Donnell, where the other Labour candidate is Brian Weddell who will be attempting a remarkable political comeback after his career seemed to have ended almost 20 years ago with a so-called “poison pen” scandal at Edinburgh Council where he was finance and then housing convener. Local issues really count in East Lothian and the area’s ageing population are bound to make their concerns about lack of care facilities into a major issue – current SNP group leader Stuart Currie has made a care home for Musselburgh one of his priorities.
Planning and housing are also major issues for East Lothian, where the council has been told that 10,000 new houses are needed over the next seven years to accommodate the area’s growing population.
The problem is that some communities feel they already have enough houses in their areas and that roads in particular are a problem.
That increasing population will bring pressures, too, on schools and health care and recreation facilities, and whoever forms the new administration on East Lothian Council will not have their troubles to seek.