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Council Leader talks kindness in latest column

Posted on 3 Feb 2021

We are now into the 11th month of the pandemic. Things continue to be tough for many and it’s important that we continue to demonstrate the kindness that has underpinned our response to the pandemic since March.

The hope that keeps us all going through these tough winter months is the rollout of the vaccination. This week will see us reach what has been described as the “mass vaccination” stage, where the programme will be opened to more priority groups. As we do so it’s important to note that vaccinating the earlier groups continues, with over half of over 80’s now vaccinated in Ayrshire and the figure is increasing every day.

In last week’s column I spoke about ensuring our actions match our rhetoric and last week’s Cabinet meeting was a clear demonstration of that. It was the greenest agenda since I became a Councillor in 2012, with several reports which form part of our response to the climate emergency.

Our tree planting strategy will see 108,000 trees planted, in collaboration with community groups, to absorb carbon emissions. The investment will be used to create job and training opportunities for young people, aligning our climate emergency response with the objectives of our Community Wealth Building work.

Over the last few years, the North Ayrshire Food Forum has brought together a range of community groups who are involved in growing or providing food to citizens. Our new food growing strategy sets out how we can use our land and assets to support new community gardens, raised beds and allotments to increase local food growing as part of a strategic approach to increase access to food for our most vulnerable, which includes the developing network of food co-ops, community fridges and larders which expanded in the last week with the opening of the Woodwynd Shoap in Kilwinning, run by ACES out of the Woodwynd Hall.

The agenda also included one of the most exciting projects we are progressing. When we set our budget last March my administration created a £8.8million Investment Fund, using money saved from re-financing loans. We tasked officers to explore opportunities for council owned renewable energy projects that would both reduce our carbon emissions and bring new income streams to the Council, helping us take more control over our future budget position after years of Central Government austerity.

The result, our Council owned solar farm at Nethermains, Kilwinning, will generate 34% of the Council’s pre-covid energy needs. Over the 20-year lifespan it will provide a surplus of almost £13million that can be reinvested in North Ayrshire.

The response to the project has been phenomenal, with people from across the UK praising it and environmental campaign groups calling on other Councils to follow our example. But what we must stress is that our ambition is not limited to one solar farm at Nethermains. We already have a second solar farm site in assessment whilst we are also exploring wind, hydrogen and battery technology as we seek to meet our 2030 zero-carbon target and maximise income from renewable energy.

On the last Friday of every month all 32 Council Leaders across Scotland come together at COSLA to discuss and decide on strategic issues affecting Scottish Local Government. Pre-covid it meant a pre-7am train journey through to Edinburgh. There are few things I hope continue beyond the pandemic but being able to join COSLA from the comfort of my dining room through the winter months is certainly one.

Last Friday’s meeting had a packed agenda including a finance update. Coming a day after the Scottish Government published its draft budget for 2021-22, the finance paper was always likely to be a hot topic of discussion at the meeting. Significantly, Council Leaders voted to express their disappointment in the settlement for Local Government as it failed to address any of COSLA’s pre budget asks. In a year when we are fighting the Covid pandemic and the national pay negotiations are about to start, the budget does not provide the funding to cover such costs. The decision of Council Leaders means that COSLA will continue to lobby MSP’s, of all parties, to try and secure a better deal for Scotland’s Councils through the budget process in Parliament.