CONTROL of Scottish Borders council could hinge on which party independent councillors decide to back as the Tories double up on candidates in key areas.

The area has a rich history of independents being voted into office. In 2017, the group of eight lent their support to the Tories, but as one SNP candidate put it: “There’s no certainty that the independents will necessarily go to the Tories again.”

There are 16 independent candidates standing across eight wards in the Scottish Borders this time round, while the Tories are also standing 16 candidates across all 11 wards.

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But the Scottish arm of Boris Johnson’s party is doubling up in Tweeddale West, Mid Berwickshire, East Berwickshire, Kelso & District and Jedburgh & District, which could risk splitting their first preference votes and allow other candidates in.

The SNP are standing nine candidates and aim to get all of them elected, while the Greens are standing 11 – one in each ward, and their biggest number in the area historically – in a bid to get some representation on the council. Alba is standing one candidate, Yvonne Ridley, in Jedburgh & District.

Marshall Douglas, SNP candidate for Tweeddale East, pointed out that there were cracks in the Tory-Independent coalition at the end of the last administration.

The National: Marshall Douglas, SNP candidate for Tweeddale East, with SNP activists on Peebles High StMarshall Douglas, SNP candidate for Tweeddale East, with SNP activists on Peebles High St

Mark Rowley, previous Tory leader of the Scottish Borders Council, narrowly survived a resignation motion in a row over his second job.

The Mid Berwickshire councillor, who is standing for re-election, took up a second role as strategic manager for tourism with South of Scotland Enterprise, was saved by one vote – his own – after independents reportedly refused to back him.

Douglas, 65, told The National that despite their smaller number of candidates, the SNP have hope that a dip in Tory support will widen out the variety of councillors elected.

He said: “We’ve got a very strong team standing in seats where there’s a high likelihood that people will get in.

“We’re prepared to work with any group that has a significant number in there, it might be some of the independents even, as they are by their nature independent, and they’re not necessarily going to stay with the Tories. It depends on how it goes. This time with Greens standing, Liberals and even some Labour candidates there might be a different mix.

“I think the Tory vote will be dented by partygate. I think it’s done a tremendous amount of damage and it will have an impact, people might decide not to vote and they will stay home instead.”

For the Greens, getting a candidate to stand in each ward was a major achievement, having stood seven in 2017. Charles Strang, the party’s candidate for Jedburgh & District, said that showed “real progress” and that they are aiming for at least one candidate to get in.

The 72-year-old said: “This time everyone has a chance to vote


“We need to get at least one candidate into the council to show that Greens have a particular view of local issues.

“It’s critical that locally, we actually begin to deliver on our climate change and biodiversity loss issues and I’m afraid I don’t think the Conservatives have really grasped that significantly yet, so it’s terribly important.”

The Scottish Borders area sits close to Edinburgh and the Lothians, ranging from St Abbs on the east coast, made famous as New Asgard in the Avengers: Endgame blockbuster, and through to bigger towns Galashiels, Melrose, Hawick and Selkirk. It also stretches out to the west bringing in villages including Crosslee, Tweedsmuir and Teviothead.

One of the big issues in the area – aside from the looming impact of the pandemic and the cost of living crisis – is local transport, as with many other areas in rural Scotland.

Local bus services have been hit hard by both the impact of the pandemic and Brexit on staff numbers, timetables have reduced significantly and the reliability of services is frequently up in the air – with some being cancelled last minute on the day.

SNP candidate Douglas explained: “Given the rural situation we have you can have people expecting a bus from Edinburgh through to Galashiels and there’s not another bus for an hour or so. It’s causing a great deal of problems, and the local bus company is campaigning to get the UK Government to make an exemption for bus drivers for visas.

“It affects the reliability of the buses and it really does affect people.”

Borders Buses, one of the main providers in the area, has had particular difficulties. It led to local SNP MSP Christine Grahame asking the UK Government to add bus drivers to the shortage occupation list – which would make it easier for them to come to the UK from abroad.

Sharon Morrison, communications director at Borders Buses, said: “There is a shortage of labour across the bus industry and opening our sector to those living outside the UK is the only real way to address it. We would be encouraging the incoming administration to be urging the UK Government to add bus drivers to its shortage occupational list.

“We are currently feeling the impact of increased Covid cases, self-isolation, and the biggest shortage of drivers we’ve experienced to date.

“In our efforts to continue to deliver a reliable bus service across our network we have worked closely with Scottish Borders Council and have introduced temporary timetables to keep our customers moving in and around the Borders and beyond.”

The cost of living crisis is looming too. According to the council’s Anti-poverty Strategy from 2021, around 29% of households are fuel poor, the equivalent of around 16,000 homes.

Food insecurity is on the rise too, as the strategy set out – there were 17 food banks in the council area in January 2020, but by July 2020 this had increased to 40.

“All of these report increased demand,” the document stated.

The pandemic also forced an 80% rise in the number of Universal Credit claimants in the area, with a jump from 4600 in March 2020 to 8300 in November 2020.

Greens candidate Strang said that the issue is so severe that “political dogma” from either side “isn’t going to cut it”.

He added: “I think you need to do things that actually can help people in a positive way, and that’s going to be quite challenging.

“I would rather a Green councillor was in there contributing thoughts and ideas about sort of thing then, rather than a dogmatic thing typified by some of the blue people [Tory], which is that basically they’re on their own and the market will take care of this.”

Douglas agreed, pointing out that a Swap & Share shed, for food and essentials, in Innerleithen, is being used by more and more people.

He explained: “It’s not the people you would expect – someone who is unemployed.

“It’s become the working poor who are coming and asking for help. It’s biting deep and I think it’s only going to get worse unfortunately.

“The cost of living which is down to a lot of the Tory government things that they’ve done, the cost of fuel, food in the shops and things that are really the result of Brexit.”

There are hopes that these issues will compound and drain the Tory vote in the area.

Douglas added: “The Tories have always branded themselves as the party of low taxation and that’s just not the case now, they’re no longer being seen to look after the economy.

“Once you start hitting people in their pockets, it does affect the way that people vote, and I think the Conservatives have lost a lot of the trust they had in the past.”