Friday, April 20, 2007

Kirkwall East hustings and care homes

It was the Kirkwall East hustings last night, and all 7 candidates showed up to face about 50 people who definitely had questions to ask over the two and a quarter hours it lasted for.

At the start the candidates each had three minutes to make a pitch, and I took the reasonable approach of introducing myself and what I believe I could bring to the job. It's a daunting task as bragging yourself up to a crowd is not a comfortable thing for an Orcadian to do, but I started to relax into it. This was not necessarily a good thing, as my tightly plotted spiel was embellished for what seemed like seconds, but left me 30 seconds to do the last minute's worth. Some hasty mental editing at least let me finish on time.

I'm still uncomfortable with the approach I took, but figured it would be more informative and honest than making empty promises about getting in and being able to sort out that shower at School Place. I have reasonable amount of respect for the Council, but do think it would be much better with me on it!

Into the questions, and it becomes apparent that in a situation like this the existing councillors hold all the cards, being privy to the entire back story of an issue, and inside information from committee meetings that have not made it into public. New candidates such as myself working with the information that they can dig up can often only surmise what the council is up to, and are left open to put downs from the existing councillors, with more facts at their disposal.

At one point I innocently asked why the council, with all its support infrastructure in place and access to cheap finance, cannot run care homes more cheaply than the profitable private sector, and was patronised by a comment from a councillor implying that I was naive beyond belief if I thought this was possible. Well, the council charges approximately twice as much per week (£710/week I believe, reduced to £590/week after the 'free personal care' element is taken off) as Highland Park House, which I don't think can be all be put down to better terms and conditions for Council staff, or providing a 'gold plated' service- especially when St Rognvald's House was recently closed to new admissions from the Care Commission.

So yes, I do think it is possible to provide better care more cost effectively than present, and would strive to get to the bottom of this, rather than accepting it as fact.

Among other issues raised were the Kirkwall traffic proposals, an issue that I've worked hard on already, and I was pleased to see that most of my views on this (viz. no Broad Street pedestrianisation, enforcement of existing traffic orders on Albert Street, no unnecessary one way systems, REAL CONSULTATION) are now also shared by the bulk of the candidates. Similarly, two way communication through all media including websites such as this was widely endorsed, and I must point out that was here first too!

Use of the reserve funds was discussed, and this is a complex issue that needs a lot of study and debate, as opposed to trading opinions as last night. Having said that, you have to have opinions to start with, and mine include that using them simply to reduce the Council Tax by a small amount each year will leave asking us 'Was that it?' when the reserves do run out. Saving them to benefit OIC council tax payers in 30 years time might seem long sighted, but is in fact short-sighted if it does not recognise that if we don't get our act together the OIC might be gone by then, with our rainy-day money being spent outside Orkney by a Highlands and Islands Council instead. Better to consider right now what lasting institutions can be created in Orkney to benefit future generations, such as facilities and a culture of providing for our people, through education and care.

Of course there is more to it than that, as the capital versus revenue funding arguments must be considered, and also how the existence and use of the reserve funds equate to the funding we get from the Scottish Executive- but we should be having this debate now.

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