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Penicuik Leisure Facilities

– in the Scottish Parliament at 5:01 pm on 13th September 2006.

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Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour 5:01 pm, 13th September 2006

The final item of business is a members' business debate on motion S2M-4419, in the name of Christine Grahame, on leisure facilities in Penicuik.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes with concern the proposed closure of Ladywood Leisure Centre, Queensway Leisure Centre and the Jackson Street Centre and the threat to Penicuik Town Hall, all valuable resources for Penicuik's people; notes that the consultation by Midlothian Council was initiated after the decision to make the closures and is only directed at the transition of provision to the Penicuik High School development; considers that, while the facilities being provided adjacent to Penicuik High School are to be welcomed, these will not meet the requirement for those facilities which are to be closed nor will have the capacity to accommodate all activities; further considers that these closures will impact on the community's health and well-being, will remove the provision of services to the young in keeping them off the streets and to mothers and elderly people in providing a point of social contact, and considers that the Scottish government should enter into discussions with local community groups, including the community council, to assist in identifying options to ensure that these facilities remain open.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party 5:05 pm, 13th September 2006

I thank the Deputy Minister for Finance, Public Service Reform and Parliamentary Business in anticipation of his response to the debate, which I believe is the first in seven years to deal specifically with Penicuik. The town is in the invidious position of being under the control of Midlothian Council while also being part of the Scottish Parliament constituency of Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale, and I sympathise with the many Penicuikians who feel that it tends to fall between two stools.

It is taken as read that the Parliament hesitates to interfere with local authorities' remit and responsibilities. That said, many communities have been thrown into turmoil and many individuals left distressed by the way in which the closure of certain facilities in Penicuik has been decided; by the failure to consult members of the public who will be affected; by the local authority's failure to inform itself of the diverse and distinct social and recreational facilities provided at Jackson Street, Ladywood, Queensway and Penicuik town hall; and by the telling requirements with regard to the capacity of the proposed facilities at Penicuik high school.

Some campaigners are in the public gallery tonight, each of them representing tens of other people. All those people, who number in their thousands, have signed a petition that will come before the Public Petitions Committee on 27 September. I also thank in advance the members from many parties who will no doubt add their comments of support.

How did the situation come about? After years of promises, Midlothian Council took the welcome decision to develop a swimming pool, library and leisure complex adjacent to Penicuik high school. However, at the same time—that is, in February or March—it was virtually decided that Jackson Street adult learning centre, Ladywood community centre and Queensway leisure centre would be closed to ensure that the revenue savings could be used to meet the running costs of the new facilities. People in Penicuik were first made aware of what was happening by an announcement in the local press that the centres would be closed and it was only after making inquiries that they learned that the new leisure development would be predicated on those closures.

Quite apart from the failure to consult on the matter, another issue is the inadequacy of the new facilities. Will they be fit for purpose? Will they have the required capacity, bearing in mind not just how much the current facilities are used but the fact that the population of Penicuik, which at the moment stands at 18,000, is expanding?

For example, what about Ladywood leisure centre? Situated at the heart of Ladywood, it is actually more of a community centre than a leisure centre. Opened in 1984, it is thriving and used to capacity not only by 32 user groups that cover all manner of social activities and sports such as badminton, basketball, table tennis and carpet bowls but by a wide range of organisations such as the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service. It is also used to hold MSP and councillor surgeries, disability sports training, stroke clubs and so on. In one 12-month period, 110 party events have been booked. More than 1,000 people use the leisure centres at Ladywood and Queensway, and the figures for Jackson Street are the same.

Indeed, the Jackson Street centre, in the heart of Penicuik, provides diverse facilities for a wide range of people, both young and old. The litany of events that it hosts shows that it is quite different from Ladywood—and, indeed, is quite distinctive. It provides facilities for outreach learning; picture-framing groups, who do not know where they will be able to put their frames after they are moved; arts groups; yoga groups; belly-dancing groups—I might join one of those; French and Spanish classes; creative writing groups; numeracy groups; the John Chant centre; and various community groups.

A few months ago, people at the packed meetings held at Jackson Street and Ladywood said loud and clear that Penicuik wants to keep the existing facilities in their own right. After all, they are accessible by transport and on foot. Moreover, the same facilities, capacity and accessibility will simply not be available at the new development. The development was scheduled to open in December at the latest, but I believe that even that deadline will not be met. In the meantime, groups and individuals are left in hiatus.

I quote from some members of the user groups who use the facilities, who cannot speak for themselves in the Parliament but whose words are extremely important. Sheena and Graeme say:

"Penicuik needs these Community centres for all ages but especially for the young people of Penicuik. Penicuik has more than its fair share of youth problems. To close these centres will only increase what is an ever growing problem."

Isabel says:

"No consideration has been given to the user groups of all the centres, with no consultation until after the decision had been made. I feel very let down by Midlothian Council."

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

I absolutely endorse Christine Grahame's comments. Can she outline YMCA Scotland's proposal for young people's facilities at Queensway?

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

I understand that those proposals are currently still not resolved. There were such proposals, but they are still in hiatus and are by no means wholly acceptable. I expect other members to focus on other issues. Mr Purvis will accept that there are several issues to be discussed, and I cannot touch on the town hall as well at present.

I continue with some more quotations, which I am sure Mr Purvis will agree are important. Ali says:

"A couple of years down the line when you realise that this was a huge mistake we can never get these buildings back."

That is important. I know that it is proper to say that these are local authority decisions, that we should not interfere and that people can vote their councillors out at the next election, but that is not good enough. The problem is that the deed will have been done by then, and we must do more than that. Jean says:

"Decision makers have no idea of user groups' requirements."

In my brief contribution, I have touched on some of the issues. I have not dealt with them all in detail. For instance, I have not dwelt on the impact when facilities are removed and energetic young people are left with only the street corner to socialise on, the elderly become isolated from comfortable social interaction and young mothers can no longer just sit with other young mothers— or indeed young fathers—to share the challenges of parenting. It is difficult to put a price on those things, but we all know that they have value.

Colleagues will no doubt develop what I have said and I welcome that, because this is not a party-political issue but a people issue. When we see that so many lack opportunities to exercise and when communities are finding that they have no focal point to engage all sections of the population—as Penicuik has—the actions of Midlothian Council seem bizarre. They are undemocratic not only in process but in principle, and they fly in the face of the Liberal-Labour Government's worthy ambition for healthy, socially inclusive communities. Therefore, I invite the minister and his colleagues, in his response and later, to give weight to interceding on behalf of the community council and other concerned groups and individuals. Funding is required and if we sweep aside the cavalier methods of Midlothian Council, the Minister for Finance and Public Service Reform and his deputy may be able, in the interests of individuals and communities in Penicuik, and in fulfilment of their policies, to make funding sources available to stop the closures. [Applause.]

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

It is not appropriate for members of the public to applaud.

Photo of Colin Fox Colin Fox SSP 5:13 pm, 13th September 2006

I congratulate Christine Grahame on securing this members' debate on the provision of leisure services in Penicuik, and I note that the Lothians region is doing well in the draw for members' business debates. Last week, we had a debate on children's services in West Lothian.

I read Christine Grahame's motion with some interest, especially with regard to the council's plans for providing leisure services and the proposed closures of the two sports centres and the learning development centre. I know from the community council's correspondence with MSPs that there has been some concern about the plans and about the extent of the consultation with local people, especially users of the existing facilities. In particular, there are concerns about the ability of the new facilities to cope with the demand.

A statement from Midlothian Council talks about investing £10 million in leisure and library facilities in the town, and I am sure that a bigger library with better services would be welcomed across the board. I am sure that the plans to upgrade the town hall are also welcome, as are the increased outdoor facilities at the high school and the building of a new primary school for Eastfield and Ladywood, to serve the town's burgeoning population.

I know that the long-awaited plan for the swimming pool in the town is probably the most welcome of all. From holding many Scottish Socialist Party meetings in the town—in Shottstown miners welfare club, the high school and the town hall—I know that every time we have a public meeting, the long-expressed desire for a swimming pool is certain to be raised. I am sure that that aspect of the plan is particularly welcomed, as it means that people in Penicuik will not have to travel up to Bonnyrigg or Loanhead for a swim. However, like Christine Grahame I have concerns about the plan. In my experience, swimming pools that are shared with schools raise questions of accessibility at all times for the general public. I have yet to see such facilities work ideally and enable the local community to access the pool when they want to do so.

I am never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, but the trouble is that when I look inside the horse's mouth, I see that one or two teeth are missing. The crux of the debate must be whether demand for sport and leisure facilities and social services, which we would expect to increase as a result of the increased population in the town, will be met.

The council states in its submission that it is satisfied that its plan will meet existing and future demand for facilities and that it will mean

"the largest provision of leisure facilities of any town in Midlothian".

That is very good, but of course Penicuik is the biggest town in Midlothian. Perhaps rather than compare the facilities with those in the rest of Midlothian, the council might want to compare them with those in towns of a similar size throughout Scotland. It seems to me that few towns the size of Penicuik have not had a swimming pool. People have wanted a pool for a long time. The same can be said for library provision.

Against the background of an Executive that is seeking to make greater strides forward in tackling issues such as childhood obesity and bearing in mind the fact that it has been shown in the past few days that our diet is now less healthy than it was 10 years ago, the last thing that we want is to prevent people who are interested in taking up a healthier lifestyle from doing so because of insufficient opportunity or lack of access to facilities.

I hope that even at this late stage the minister will urge the council to involve itself in meaningful consultation with local users, the community council and local people. The council's submission talks at great length about its consultations with sportscotland, but little reference is made to communication with users of the facilities. How will the elderly people who use the Jackson Street centre be accommodated in the high school? How suitable will the provision be? The existing facilities are primarily at one end of the town. Will facilities that are located at the other end of the town be suitable? I hope that the minister will convey those and other questions to the council on our behalf.

I am happy to support any group that produces a coherent plan for keeping the centres open and is prepared to fight for them. I am sure that we will watch events over the next few months with interest.

Photo of Chris Ballance Chris Ballance Green 5:17 pm, 13th September 2006

I congratulate Christine Grahame on securing the debate. I welcome the people of Penicuik who are in the public gallery to show their support for the intentions behind the motion.

The main purpose of the Parliament is to scrutinise the work of the Scottish Executive and to hold it to account, but our secondary duty is to raise issues of public concern when they are not being sorted out in the proper place. It is clear from the public meetings that have been held, from articles in the press and from the interest of local communities that Midlothian Council has failed to consult the people of Midlothian about its plans. It has failed to live up to its mission statement, which states that it will consult people before it goes ahead with proposals.

The proposed reform of community and sporting facilities in Penicuik has not been Midlothian Council's finest hour. Whatever good intentions about public consultation it refers to on its website it has managed to alienate a significant section of the local people who use the existing services, which will be phased out as new facilities become available.

I hope that, in retrospect, the council would agree that a little bit more consultation would have been right and proper. I hope that it examines its processes and amends them in the light of this debacle.

The inadequacy of the analysis by Midlothian Council and by sportscotland of the sporting usage of the hall and the council's failure to consult local people amount to a sad affair. It is good that the council has partly accepted that, and the fact that it has at least given a short-term reprieve to Penicuik town hall must be welcomed. The possibility that the Queensway leisure centre might continue to operate as a community centre under the auspices of a charity is also to be welcomed, and the decision to retain the John Chant centre demonstrates the possibility of flexibility and suggests that the council has recognised that it made a mistake. However, the next step is for the council to go back to basics and to start to work with the community and ask people what they want for the budget that is to be expended.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

I am slightly confused by the member's reference to a temporary reprieve for the town hall. Will he expand on what he means by that?

Photo of Chris Ballance Chris Ballance Green

As I understand it, the council recently announced that the town hall is to continue in its present role in the short term but has not announced for how long that will be.

At the heart of all this is healthy living in living communities. That means having not only the facilities, be they community centres or sports facilities, but the sense of community that such living communities give. One of the protesters asked where in the new proposals is the provision for old folk to sit down together and have a cup of tea and a blether. Where is that sense of community? Where is the provision for local teenagers that would encourage them to come off the streets and get involved in the local community?

It is important that local people feel empowered and that they have a role in political decisions that affect them. I hope that that will happen in the future in Midlothian. How it is to be achieved is properly a debate for Midlothian and the Midlothian people. It is Midlothian Council's failure to achieve that that has brought us this debate.

Photo of Derek Brownlee Derek Brownlee Conservative 5:22 pm, 13th September 2006

I, too, congratulate Christine Grahame on securing the debate.

I agree with much of what Chris Ballance, Colin Fox and Christine Grahame have said. In fact, I will need to check the Official Report tomorrow because I think that, apart from his recollection of my attending the SSP meeting in Penicuik, I might agree with almost everything that Colin Fox said, which is certainly not something that happens often.

Photo of Derek Brownlee Derek Brownlee Conservative

Prove it.

I want to consider the issue more broadly, because although I agree with much of what Christine Grahame said and much in the motion, I do not agree with all of it. That is nothing to do with the merits of the case for retaining the leisure facilities, because I am clear that they should be retained. However, although on many occasions I am not inclined to give the Scottish Government—I think that we should call it that rather than the Scottish Executive—the benefit of the doubt, in a case such as this I wonder whether we should seriously suggest that the Scottish Government should second-guess the council.

I think that what the council is doing is wrong, but are we honestly suggesting that an expensive tier of government that takes decisions and is, at least in theory, accountable to the people should be superseded by the decisions of ministers? I do not think that we should suggest that, and to go down that route would be problematical.

Frankly, the answer is not to have the Government intervening in the case of individual leisure facilities, however well intentioned that might be and however good the case is—as I said, I think that the case is very good. The answer is to have local government that is more local. The answer would be for Penicuik to have its own town council making decisions, instead of Midlothian Council making decisions about Penicuik.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

I accept what Mr Brownlee says about local government accountability and the decision that Labour, Liberal and Conservative members of Midlothian Council took, although some of them may have been unaware of the implications of the decision. Heaven forfend that I should defend Midlothian Council, but if the matter is genuinely one of local government funding being squeezed, then central Government must ensure that local authorities generally have the funding to deliver the policies that the Government promotes.

Photo of Derek Brownlee Derek Brownlee Conservative

That is the point. Where the Scottish Government comes into this is in the funding that it supplies to Midlothian Council. If that funding is leading the council into making decisions such as the ones that we are discussing, that is where the Government should be held to account. What the Government cannot do—irrespective of the funding that it supplies—is to step in and say, "We will save this facility," or, "You should close that facility." That would be quite wrong.

The motion mentions leisure facilities, but we must consider broader issues too. We have to consider not only the leisure facilities in Penicuik but the leisure opportunities. To reduce the leisure facilities still further would, of course, reduce the leisure opportunities. Many people in Penicuik feel that that is what will happen.

Jeremy Purvis and I attended an event last autumn in the Edinburgh City Youth Cafe in Victoria Street and a number of people from Penicuik were there. It is one thing for people from Penicuik to come to Edinburgh to work or for occasional leisure, but many people feel that they have almost no alternative but to come to Edinburgh. That is very depressing.

There is a real issue to be addressed, but I am not convinced that the Scottish Government should intervene in the precise manner that Christine Grahame suggests. The leader of Midlothian Council was pretty critical when I said earlier in the year what many people in Penicuik feel—that Penicuik misses out and is the forgotten town in Midlothian. However, the way to address that is through the council elections and through holding the council to account. Penicuik should retain its current facilities; they should not be closed by a council that does not seem willing to listen. However, if it will not listen, the council and the councillors should be held to account next May.

Although it would be great if the Government could save the facilities, my fear if it cannot save them is that Government intervention of the kind that Christine Grahame suggests would let the council off the hook. Would such intervention not allow the council to avoid the responsibility that it should take for the decisions that it has taken?

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat 5:26 pm, 13th September 2006

It is good this evening to be debating Penicuik, which is in my constituency. As a resident of the town said to me recently, "You can tell there's an election soon." However, in a conciliatory spirit, I welcome the recent interest of members who have not shown such a level of interest in Penicuik before.

I agree with Colin Fox's analysis of the serious issues, and Derek Brownlee's comments—which may have been an analysis of the motives behind this debate—were very interesting.

I say clearly at the outset that Midlothian Council has handled the proposed changes in Penicuik badly. Let there be no doubt about the view of Liberal Democrat councillors—they did not support the flawed process in the council. Midlothian Council started from the premise that any changes to the Ladywood, Queensway or Jackson Street centres could be done without consultation. Council papers suggest that no consultation was considered necessary, but the council was wrong.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

For the record, is not it the case that the Liberal Democrat councillors on Midlothian Council voted for the budget that has led to the closures?

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

The budget as a document did not lead to the closures. Not only did Liberal Democrat councillors not support the decisions on leisure facilities, they raised the handling of the consultation process with the chief executive.

The feelings that have been expressed at public meetings are genuine, as is the frustration of many constituents whom I have met since the council made the decision—the good decision—to build the swimming pool and leisure centre adjacent to Penicuik high school. I was at the site 10 days ago with fifth-form students to talk about the future of facilities for young people in the town. However, the process that the council introduced was badly flawed. It did not speak to the local community or to users groups which, as Ms Grahame and others have said, are very vibrant and diverse.

Each month since my election I have held an advice surgery in the town—I will hold one this Friday. Having spoken with local residents and young and old users of the facilities, it is clear to me, as it has been since day 1, that there should be no closures and no reduction in facilities unless appropriate and fit-for-purpose alternatives are provided. Indeed, as I have said at public meetings, there should be better facilities.

Notwithstanding my strong views on the failures of Midlothian Council, the motion this evening is inaccurate in substantial areas. In Ladywood, there are good plans for a replacement for Pentland House, with cottages for older people in the vicinity. That is needed. The local primary school is to be replaced with the combined Ladywood and Eastfield primary schools and Strathesk nursery. It will provide a community school with additional facilities—four rooms for community use, including a flexible dining/sports area. There will also be community sports facilities. However, the council did not at the earliest stage explore all the issues with local residents, users of the existing facilities and school staff and parents. When I visited the schools to discuss with staff their concerns about the changes, they said that considerably better information could have been provided.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

You have one minute left.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

I have always thought that the YMCA could have better facilities. I discussed the matter with the young people whom I met during my visit, who told me that they want improved space. The move to the Queensway centre is potentially positive and will increase facilities for young people, especially if the centre is extended, as is currently under discussion.

The motion is therefore wrong to suggest that the transfer of facilities is only to the new facilities at Penicuik high school. The YMCA and its associated youth clubs will potentially have much better facilities in a better location for many of the town's residents, so facilities for young people might be better, not worse.

The motion also suggests that services for young people are about

"keeping them off the streets".

Youth issues in Penicuik are a bit more sophisticated than the patronising tone of the motion suggests.

I have visited the Jackson Street centre many times and am frustrated by the fact that there has been no development on the site, although development would have been possible. During the Ladywood public meeting, I was discussing the centre with Mr McCall, who is in the gallery, when Ms Grahame interrupted our discussion, thrust her business card into Mr McCall's hand and said, "I'd like to come and visit. I've never been before." We are talking about Johnnys-come-lately, but I commend the member for catching up with the issue after seven years of being an MSP.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

You should be winding up, Mr Purvis.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

The motion also refers to

"the threat to Penicuik Town Hall".

However, Midlothian Council proposes to relocate 40 jobs to the town hall as part of a £500,000 modernisation programme, which will open up the hall for community use during the day instead of just in the evening and at weekends. I do not know where the "threat" is coming from.

Penicuik has a strong community, which includes diverse groups. The community needs outstanding leisure facilities and Midlothian Council should take no decision that will put users—

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

You must sit down, Mr Purvis.

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party 5:31 pm, 13th September 2006

I congratulate Christine Grahame on securing the debate. The subject is important and affects not just the residents of Penicuik but the wider community of Midlothian, because the closure of facilities generates a ripple effect on people in the surrounding area. The issue is worthy of debate, but I deprecate the remarks of Jeremy Purvis, who made petty and irrelevant comments rather than deal with the issue at hand.

The loss of community facilities is a story that is unfortunately being repeated, not just in Penicuik and Midlothian, but throughout Scotland. There is no doubt that local government budgets are being squeezed and that decisions are being made—as Derek Brownlee said—such that leisure facilities are unfortunately often first to go. In my area—East Renfrewshire—swimming pools are constantly under threat. Pool opening hours are being cut and the community pool in Neilston is often the main target of such cuts.

The replacement of facilities is welcome, but when multiple facilities in communities are replaced with a centralised facility, there is no like-for-like replacement. The new centralised facility is often smaller with fewer rooms, and is certainly not as handy for people to travel to as were the old facilities in people's communities. The building of a new facility is welcome, but other facilities are often lost when that happens.

Christine Grahame, Colin Fox and Chris Ballance, in particular, talked about the lack of consultation in the context of the Penicuik facilities. Again, the problem is not exclusive to Midlothian and Penicuik. I will cite an example that might serve as a warning to other communities. The Liberal-Labour run East Renfrewshire Council decided to cut the opening hours of local libraries. The council balloted people in the area and asked them, "Do you want the library to open for X hours or Y hours?" The council did not mention that both options represented cuts in library opening hours—the libraries had previously had much longer opening hours. Consultation is good, but it should be meaningful and it should offer people a real choice about what they want for their local libraries, swimming pools or other community and leisure facilities.

The sharing of facilities with schools is good for the schools in question but, as Colin Fox appropriately pointed out, it provides restricted access for other people in the community. By their nature, facilities in schools are more difficult to access because they are part of the school rather than part of the community. People often feel slightly resistant to going to a school to use facilities—maybe that is wrong, but they view the facilities as the school's facilities. Another point is that schools use the facilities five days a week, so they are not available during that time to residents of the area.

The Executive has worthwhile targets on cutting obesity, on fit kids and on reducing antisocial behaviour. Those are welcome and we all support them, but if we do not have community leisure facilities, we will not tackle the problems of a generation of young people who are more interested in sitting in front of a computer than they are in going to the local football pitch or badminton court with their friends to enjoy themselves, or in being active and fit and growing into healthy adults. As members have mentioned, without such facilities, young people hang about on street corners and, whether intentionally or not, cause distress to residents. We end up with conflict in communities, which often leads to further antisocial behaviour. That is unwelcome.

Community leisure facilities have an important role in fighting obesity, tackling antisocial behaviour and making communities cohesive.

That is what we should aim for—we should not close such facilities. I welcome Christine Grahame's debate.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat 5:36 pm, 13th September 2006

I, too, congratulate Christine Grahame on securing the debate. I have listened with interest to the speeches of the many members who have stayed behind for it. I do not doubt for a moment that the issues that have been raised are of great importance to people who live and work in Penicuik and its surrounding communities. I certainly take the issues seriously.

Two members mentioned funding. Since 1999, funding for local government has increased by 55 per cent—about £3 billion—which is a substantial increase of which Midlothian Council has had its fair share. No doubt all members have received Midlothian Council's response to the debate. I have been provided with a list of the facilities that the council claims it will provide. The list mentions a £10 million flagship Penicuik community facility, which will include a much-campaigned-for swimming pool, a new library and a leisure centre. The response states that the council will upgrade Penicuik town hall and that it will be secured for community use. I am not sure how that can be described as a threat, as is claimed in the motion. As we heard from Mr Purvis, we understand that 40 extra posts will be transferred to the town hall.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

For clarity, the proposals for the town hall were produced subsequent to my lodging the motion.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

That is a perfectly understandable explanation.

The list states that new outdoor facilities are to be provided—a multisports court, a skate park and a full-size synthetic football pitch. As Mr Purvis mentioned, community facilities are to be provided in Cuiken primary school, the new joint school for Ladywood and Eastfield and Mauricewood primary schools. The list goes on. It is not for me to comment on its accuracy or appropriateness, as it was drawn up and approved by Midlothian Council, whose members are democratically elected.

Photo of Colin Fox Colin Fox SSP

Will the minister explain why not one of his 56 Labour colleagues is here for the debate, which is about the Labour-controlled Midlothian Council?

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

I am not here to respond on behalf of members of the Labour Party in the Parliament—it is up to them to decide whether to attend debates. I am here to respond genuinely to the issues that Christine Grahame has brought to Parliament for us to discuss, and to issues that have been raised during the debate.

As I said, it is not for me to comment on the accuracy or appropriateness of the list. The council's response states:

"the Scottish parliament should note that overall the Council is providing more facilities, not less for the whole community in Penicuik."

I put it on the record that the Scottish Executive's expectation is that the facilities in Penicuik should be better after the council's changes.

That leads me on to a more fundamental point, which Mr Brownlee raised. It is right and proper that Parliament should be able to consider the performance of councils and to step in where action is justified, but we need to think carefully about when it is appropriate to do so. We need to be clear about the implications of the motion and whether what is being proposed might impact on local democracy and accountability.

I am sure that I speak for all parliamentarians in the chamber when I say that we must respect the independence and the democratic legitimacy that councils have in dealing with the matters that we are debating tonight. In this case, a council as an independent corporate body, having engaged—I acknowledge the criticisms of that engagement—with its electorate, has reached a decision about local provision of services and facilities. The motion calls on the Government

"to enter into discussions with local community groups, including the community council, to assist in identifying options to ensure that these facilities remain open."

I question whether that is really the role that we want central Government to have. Does not that call on us to centralise all decision making?

Surely the overriding principle must be that people need to know that they have direct access to the locally elected councillors who make decisions that affect their communities, that they can participate in democratic involvement in major decisions that will affect them and that they can, when they are dissatisfied with service provision, obtain proper recourse. That means that decisions like those in question must be taken by the people who are locally accountable; they must not be moved up to a higher level that does not have the local knowledge, local accountability or responsibility for delivering services.

It is not by second-guessing every decision that is taken at a local level or through centralising the provision of services—as some might suggest—that central Government can best contribute to improving the quality of services. Rather, central Government's role is to create an environment in which we actively encourage service providers throughout the public sector to focus their attention on putting the people in their areas at the centre of the design and delivery of public services, and in which those service users have the opportunity to exert a real influence over the people who make those decisions.

I am not in a position to judge whether the local engagement and consultation that Midlothian Council undertook in this particular case was satisfactory. It appears from the debate that it was not—although the local MSP, Jeremy Purvis, has held regular monthly surgeries in Pencuik and has raised local concerns with the council on the issue and many others over a long period. However, I guarantee to Parliament that I shall ensure that the concerns that have been expressed about local engagement, the consultation process and other issues to do with provision of sports facilities are passed on to Midlothian Council. I shall ask the council to respond directly to the members concerned.

As independent corporate bodies, councils are obliged to defend but also to account for their actions and decisions. They are audited annually and there is a considerable amount of scrutiny of the work that they do. In the final analysis, however, the real arbiters of how a council is conducting itself are its electors. Alongside the rest of Scotland, the electors in Midlothian will once again have their say next May.

Meeting closed at 17:43.