BUCHAN local election candidates felt the heat on Tuesday night as members of the public took to Peterhead’s Palace Hotel armed with questions about the town’s future.
The meeting was called by organisers Carol-Anne Murphy and Judi Alexander of Facebook group “Peterhead when you were a kid,” after a previous public meeting in February showed there was support for a Hustings.
Rules were read out before the start of the meeting informing the public and candidates how they should conduct themselves.
Aberdeenshire’s SNP councillors, independent councillor Alan Buchan, as well as a crop of hopefuls, each gave a five-minute presentation outlining their past achievements and plans for the future, before the floor was opened up for questions.
The assembled crowd’s concerns included the decline of Peterhead town centre, the difficulty in setting up new businesses, encouraging retailers to the town and the accessibility and attendance at meetings by councillors.
Local SNP councillors, who hope to be re-elected on Thursday, kicked off the evening with a breakdown of their time representing on Aberdeenshire Council.
Addressing the crowd, sitting councillor for Peterhead North and Rattray, Anne Allan said: “I am always willing to come along and offer help and support. I regularly attend community council meetings and have been the SNP spokesman for the Social Work and Housing Committee for several years.”
Councillor Allan, along with fellow SNP councillors Stuart Pratt, Stephen Smith and Fiona McRae each outlined promises laid out in the party’s election manifesto,
Councillor Allan explained: “The SNP has served Aberdeenshire Council well. We have argued and voted for change. We want to see more power locally. SNP is the only party that can challenge the Conservative-Lib Dem majority. Only the SNP can make the change.”
Also standing for re-election to the Peterhead North and Rattray Ward, Councillor Fiona McRae complemented the community spirit of constituents and the need to keep that spirit alive. She said: “In Peterhead we have been endeavouring to clean up litter. Is there a litter problem? Yes there is, but the problem is with the people who are dropping it in the first place. We need to instil some civic pride. People are generally very community-minded. One lady in Crimond has raised £16,000 for Christmas lights and St Combs have followed that example. There is a great sense of community at the Heritage Centre here in Peterhead and it is key to attracting people to the town, such as the Clan Keith who will visit from America in June. We want to attract genealogy tourists to the area.”
Councillor Stephen Smith, who currently represents Peterhead South and Cruden on behalf of the SNP, explained the importance of protecting essential local services, striving to bring new business to the town and achieving an SNP majority for Aberdeenshire Council.
Councillor Smith said: “I have been in conversation with Aldi, who as you all know are yet to develop the old mill site, to encourage them to develop or look at selling the land on. I have also been in contact with Travelodge and hope that they will look at opening a hotel in the town centre. We have addressed the chronic lack of affordable housing and were pleased to see the first council houses in 25 years built at Mintlaw. We will ensure that council tax does not rise and endeavour to ensure free parking in the town centre.”
Meanwhile, current chairman on the Buchan Area Committee and councillor for Peterhead South and Cruden, Stuart Pratt, said that he had held more than 70 surgeries to discuss concerns with constituents and aimed to improve the town. He said: “Buchan is a good place of choice to live and work. People who visit are amazed at the standard of living that we enjoy.”
Yet Councillor Pratt also recognised the need for improvement and explained why projects such as a bowling alley for the town had failed to take off.
He said: “We had an application for a bowling alley a few years ago for the top floor of a building in Ugie Street but it didn’t materialise.”
Meanwhile, newcomer Graeme Smith (23), for the Liberal Democrats, outlined the reasons why voters should look at electing a younger candidate to assist in making positive changes within Aberdeenshire Council.
Graeme, who studied politics at university, said: “I have lived in the Buchan area all my life. I have always been considerate and listen to other people. Running for the council isn’t about my ego or to secure a personal legacy and I won’t promise things that I know I can’t deliver. But running the council is not like running a business. It involves macroeconomic decision making. If elected, I want you to look back and say ‘that young lad Graeme did a great job’.”
Independent candidate Stephen Calder said that promises made “in literature and on websites” for new amenities for Peterhead such as bowling alleys and cinemas were unachievable while cuts at Westminster continued to affect local government.
He pledged to put a stop to cuts to education and encouraged the community to think for themselves when deciding on future energy needs.
Businessman Alan Gardiner, who hopes to be elected as an independent councillor for Peterhead North and Rattray, focused on the need to halt decline in Peterhead and attract new businesses to the area.
He said: “We need to re-energise and re-invigorate the town. We need to arrest the decline that we’re seeing in the town and be pro-active in attracting quality businesses. Inverurie, for example, has a good mix of retailers including supermarkets and locally owned butchers and smaller shops. It has that feel good factor and we want that for Peterhead. It is up to private businesses to invest and they need to talk to councillors who understand business.”
Similarly, businessman Peter Stevenson discussed the reasons why those in business would make effective councillors. He said: “We’re all singing from the same hymn sheet. Nobody’s happy about the appearance of the town and the council aren’t doing their job. The key is to put people in place who will achieve what you want them to achieve. We need to take ownership of the town and, if it’s not working, you change it.”
Independent councillor Alan Buchan, who is running for re-election to Peterhead North and Rattray, refuted claims that the Aberdeenshire is short of cash and insisted that changing the town was all about re-organisation.
He explained: “The council employs 14,000 people and has a budget of £550million per year. There is not a lack of money or a lack of staff. But all our industry is gone and we need people to bring them back. I’m not going to say we have all the solutions when we don’t, but all it takes is to re-organise and put a new plan in place.”
Independent candidate for Peterhead South and Cruden, Tom Malone, pointed out the lack of cultural development in the town, and explained the importance of working with youth.
He said: “I have raised £62,000 to invest in youth in the town and have worked with more than 40 young people as part of the Bluestones project. We have released two CDs by Buchan loons and quines. This is just an example of what can be done when we work together and think outside the box.”
Last, but by no means least, Conservative hopeful Sheena Drunsfield gave a spirited and impassioned plea to open up the town centre again to traffic and improve the image of the town.
“There’s nothing left in the town,” said Sheena, who recently retired from Mrs Bridges tearoom in the town. “We will not attract new businesses if we still have homeless hotels all over the town.
“The police and ambulance are never away from that awful bar and people are afraid to walk past.The town is in sad decay and I don’t know how we will stop it but we must fight. And I intend to make my voice heard.”
The floor was then opened up to questions. It started well with a lively debate between councillors and the public. Yet tensions were high and there was some anger on the part of the public, with one woman even telling Councillor Stephen Calder to “shut up”.
The Hustings was filmed by the group and anyone who missed the event will be able to see it on Facebook and YouTube soon.