Alex Salmond. Scotland's First Minister and leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party

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Nationalists negotiate coalition deals
in some of Scotland’s largest cities

By Brian Baker

4 June 2007: Mayor changes are likely to affect Scotland’s cities and major towns over the next four years after the first ever Scottish National Party election success, which has resulted in that party running a minority administration in the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood (Edinburgh) and becoming the largest party in Scottish local government.

Several cities and towns have had political changes following the controversial 3 May 2007 election in which over 180,000 ballot papers were disqualified in the parliamentary and council elections, held, against much professional advice, on the same day. Most were in the votes for the parliament, though over 40,000 were in the local election, which was conducted under the single transferable vote system for the first time.

An inquiry is being held by the Local Government Commission, though critics point out it was one of the bodies responsible for the conduct of the two elections which were held on the same day despite contrary advice from professionals. The Commission has sought to add credibility to its inquiry by appointing Canadian Ron Gould, a veteran of election oversight in over 70 countries to head it. Its full report is not expected until 2008.

Only two of the 32 unitary local authorities in Scotland remain under single party control. One of these is the largest city, Glasgow, which remained under Labour and retained its young modernising leader Steven Purcell. However, he now presides over a city in which opposition to Labour is stronger than for 50 years. Labour has 45 of the 80 members and the administration will now be under more effective scrutiny.

Elsewhere, the SNP has taken power in several cities and towns in coalitions or partnership agreements. Whilst the other parties were not willing to form a coalition government for Scotland with the nationalists, deals to form partnership administrations have been done at local level across the country.

Edinburgh and Aberdeen are both being run by SNP and Liberal Democrat coalitions. Inverness, the fastest growing city in Scotland, is being run by a SNP and Independents coalition. Fife and West Lothian, two of the expanding areas within commuting distance of Edinburgh, have SNP led administrations. In West Lothian, they are backed by anti-hospital closure campaigners who also had candidates elected to several other councils.

After weeks of tense negotiations, Labour and the Liberal Democrats reached an arrangement in Stirling whilst in Dundee, where the SNP is substantially the largest party, all the other parties combined to exclude them from office.

Amongst the big cities, Edinburgh has the most to worry about from the SNP programme in government. Their nascent public transport system for the 21st century may be still born. After several robust exchanges in the early weeks of the new parliament the new Executive were still proposing to cancel the schemes and were conducting detailed financial analysis into costs. During the election the SNP promised to cancel both projects in order to free up funds in the budget for other infrastructure projects, many of them in the north of the country..

The £450 million Edinburgh Tram project is a key challenge for Scotland’s new government, not least because it is supported by all 82 of the non-SNP members of the Holyrood parliament.

Edinburgh’s new city leader, Liberal Democrat Jenny Dawe says “ it is vital for the future of Edinburgh and the whole of Scotland. There is a great desire among people in Edinburgh to have trams and it would be a disaster if the project were shelved.”

The issue and that of the planned Edinburgh Airport Rail Link were excluded from the coalition agreement between Liberal Democrats and the Nationalists in the city so SNP councillors can continue to oppose them.

The city’s Scottish parliament members from the other parties have formed a save-our-trams campaign and business leaders have warned of severe damage to the region’s economy if the transport projects are shelved..

Local income tax may be introduced for the first time in the UK during the four years of the parliamentary term. There is, just, a parliamentary majority in favour of this approach to paying for local services. First Minister Alex Salmond has said it will be legislated for during the first half of the four-year term and implemented during the second.

Meanwhile, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities representatives had an early meeting with Ministers. They were concerned about funding gaps if the new government pressed ahead with its election proposals to freeze council tax levels for the next two years. However, sources close to Finance Minister John Swinney have indicated there may be opportunities for councils to retain efficiency savings for which the target, as before the election, is 1.5 per cent a year.

New UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who is deeply hostile to nationalism, is likely to make the change in local taxation difficult by withdrawing finance from the Treasury, which is provided to help cushion council tax bills under the benefits system.

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