Lib Dem and SNP rivals prepare for a neighbourly dispute in Edinburgh Western after setting up base in adjacent campaign HQs , says Ian Swanson
THEY are next-door neighbours – but also fierce rivals, locked in a battle that only one can win.
The SNP’s Toni Giugliano and Liberal Democrat Alex Cole-Hamilton have their campaign headquarters in adjoining units in Corstorphine’s St John’s Road.
The SNP won Edinburgh Western from the Lib Dems at the last Holyrood election.
And the Nationalists also won the Westminster seat at last year’s general election – but it has been an eventful 12 months in this constituency.
Just four months after being elected the new MP, Michelle Thomson found herself in the headlines over controversial property deals which involved buying houses from vulnerable people at below-market prices and had led to her solicitor being struck off.
She was forced to resign from the SNP group and a police investigation is ongoing.
Then Colin Keir, who became MSP for Edinburgh Western at the last Holyrood election in 2011, was deselected and replaced as candidate for this election by his former parliamentary aide, Mr Giugliano.
He says the Lib Dems have tried to make an issue of both Ms Thomson and Mr Keir, but insists it is having “zero” effect on the campaign.
Mr Giugliano says the Edinburgh schools closures are of more concern to voters. He argues that Labour and the Lib Dems, in coalition at Holyrood for the first eight years of devolution, encouraged councils to use private finance for schools.
“Labour and the Lib Dems should be punished,” he says. “They cut corners by building on the cheap and the result is we are now all paying for sub-standard buildings.”
Another key issue in the constituency is the prospect of massive housebuilding in the green belt.
Mr Giugliano says he backed residents in their fight against a major development at Cammo and will oppose any fresh attempts at building there.
“It’s bang in the middle of the two most polluted streets in Scotland,” he says. “There are plenty brownfield sites across the city. Developers like to go for the green belt because it’s easier but we need to be regenerating communities and working on brownfield sites.”
He says he also campaigned to stop houses being built on community green space at Allison Park in Kirkliston.
He wants to see extra support for South Queensferry in view of growing tourist numbers – attributed to the World Heritage Site status for the Forth Bridge – and new housebuilding. “Queensferry always feels a bit left out,” he says. “I have said one of the first things I will do if I am elected is meet the minister and tell him the town needs support to go with the World Heritage Site status.”
And he is campaigning for more investment in commuter trains on the Fife Circle rail service into the Capital. “People are coming into Edinburgh from Fife and West Lothian and we need to encourage them to leave their cars behind and use public transport. But the Fife Circle is just inadequate. Sometimes there are just two carriages and people are crammed in. It gets to South Gyle station and people can’t get on.”
Mr Giugliano says if elected he will act as a mental health champion at Holyrood, to ensure the SNP delivers on its pledge of extra services.
SNP private polling tells the party it is “miles ahead”. Mr Giugliano says: “Our supporters from last year are solid and we’re gaining some from Labour.”
The Lib Dems say the Michelle Thomson saga is an issue for voters. Mr Cole-Hamilton claims people are dissatisfied with the “lack of service” from the area’s SNP representatives. “When the news about Michelle broke, almost instantly we saw a change in people’s attitudes.
“People who had voted SNP for the first time in May felt profoundly let down.”
And he is upbeat about his party’s prospects. “People believe we can do it. We were within six per cent of beating the SNP last year. Many people thought we would be wiped out, but we got a third of the vote at the general election.”
He says the slightly different boundaries for the Holyrood seat work to the Lib Dems’ advantage.
He agrees that housebuilding is one of the biggest issues in the area and points out a lot of land in the city has been allocated for housing, but never built on.
“Developers cynically pick west Edinburgh because they get more return on their houses here.
“But we don’t have the road infrastructure to cope – the Barnton junction can’t take any more traffic, it’s very difficult to get GP appointments, and schools are so crowded kids are having lunch on their knees.
“I’ve called for a moratorium on housebuilding along the A90 and A8 corridors until the roads situation, GP care and schools are sorted out – and in some cases, like Cammo, there should be a permanent ban.
“We also have two of the most polluted streets in Scotland in the constituency – St John’s Road and Queensferry Road – and there is a direct correlation with the amount of traffic going through there every day.”
Mr Cole-Hamilton, who is a senior manager with national children’s charity Aberlour Child Care Trust, also highlights house break-ins, a shortage of GPs and the need to improve mental health provision as other key issues.
Labour’s Cat Headley says the topics her party is raising resonate with voters. “I’m finding a lot of people disillusioned with the SNP, particularly in relation to tax and using the new powers,” she says.
“Last year, there were a lot of people who felt Labour had lost its way and the SNP were the left-wing progressive choice, but that has been exposed. The about-turn the SNP has done on powers, tax and progressive policies has not been missed by the voters. There is a general disappointment at the timidity of the SNP, given the opportunity to put their rhetoric into action. If they cannot be radical now, when there is no electoral risk according to the polls, they never will.”
Tory Sandy Batho notes the referendum produced a 65 per cent No vote in Edinburgh West. “We’re the most solid of the Unionist parties saying ‘no’ to a second referendum and that’s getting very strong approval.”
Potholes are the top issue on the doorstep, he says. And instead of considering extending the tram line, he argues the council should concentrate on roads maintenance. “We’re the only party that has voted against the trams extension.
“At the general election there was a massive tactical vote by Conservatives supporting the Lib Dems, but it didn’t work. The tactical vote will be well down on last year.”