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‘It’s a great honour’: Former Aberdeenshire provost lifts the lid on 23-year political career

Bill Howatson has stepped down after 23 years as a councillor and ten as Provost
Bill Howatson has stepped down after 23 years as an Aberdeenshire councillor and 10 as Provost

This week is the first in 23 years that former Provost, Bill Howatson, will no longer have to worry about any Aberdeenshire Council agendas or meetings.

The former Mearns councillor, who also served as Provost of Aberdeenshire for 10 years, stepped down ahead of last Thursday’s elections as he “felt it was time for a change”.

He was first elected as a Lib Dem councillor in 1999 and represented the Mearns South ward.

But politics wasn’t always the main focus in his life.

Bill Howatson pictured at home near St Cyrus after he was appointed Provost of Aberdeenshire for the first time in 2007. Picture by Colin Rennie
Bill Howatson pictured at home near St Cyrus after he was appointed Provost of Aberdeenshire for the first time in 2007. Picture by Colin Rennie

Before joining the local authority he used to write for the Press and Journal as the Aberdeen newspaper’s Farming editor and columnist.

Bill remarked: “I did that for 12 years or so and I had great fun writing a column and I continued writing columns for The Courier in Dundee for a few years and then I got merged into politics so the writing had to go by the wayside.”

Prior to his time at the Press and Journal Bill worked at a local newspaper in Dumfriesshire before making the move up to the north-east.

After his time as P&J Farming Editor Bill ‘took a chance’ at local politics

Back in 1999 a friend of his, who had been involved in politics, raised the impending local elections and encouraged Bill to “take a chance” and become a candidate.

After joining the Liberal Democrats Bill decided to stand in the Aberdeenshire elections and successfully secured a seat.

He managed to retain his seat in every election since and said the role of councillor had been a “very interesting and rewarding position”.

During his time at Aberdeenshire Council Bill was lucky enough to take on the role of Provost not just once but twice.

Bill Howatson with Deputy First Minister John Swinney and Derek Shewan of construction firm Robertson at the Inverurie Campus site back in August 2018. Picture by Kami Thomson
Bill Howatson with Deputy First Minister John Swinney and Derek Shewan of construction firm Robertson at the Inverurie Campus site back in August 2018. Picture by Kami Thomson

He became Provost for the first time in 2007 and held the title until 2012 when he passed the baton on to former councillor Jill Webster, making her the region’s first female Provost.

Donning the chain for a second time Bill became Provost again in 2017

However, Bill donned the Provost chain once again following the 2017 election.

He confessed: “I had always had an interest after the first spell I did and I never thought for a minute I would go back for a second term but when we were discussing the administration five years ago I realised that we would obviously need a Provost.

“I spoke to one or two colleagues and they said ‘well you’ve done it before so have another shot’.

“A friend of mine phoned up the day after I was appointed and he said ‘For goodness sake why don’t you give someone else a chance?’ but it was too good a thing to miss.”

Building work on the new Sports Village in Banchory started back in February 2018 with Bill cutting the first sod. Picture by Colin Rennie
Building work on the new Sports Village in Banchory started back in February 2018 with Bill cutting the first sod. Picture by Colin Rennie

As the Provost of Aberdeenshire, Bill had the responsibility to represent the region at local, national and international events.

He said: “In my time as Provost I had opened at least 30 major building projects and I think that’s a testament to the council for its ambitious capital programme which is also providing local jobs and trying to boost the local economy.”

One of his highlights as Provost included hosting the Inspiring Aberdeenshire awards, one of the council’s biggest annual events.

The awards are held to celebrate the achievements and successes of local people across the region.

He said: “It yielded remarkable stories of community work and it really defined for me the spirit of Aberdeenshire.

“The awards have been running now for 10 years and when I was Provost I was immensely proud to have hosted them for five years and that was something that was very important.”

Bill Howatson with Fiona Stalker at the 2021 Inspiring Aberdeenshire awards
Bill Howatson with Fiona Stalker at the 2021 Inspiring Aberdeenshire awards.

Reflecting on his two terms representing Aberdeenshire Bill said: “It’s a great honour to serve as Provost playing host to royal visitors, business leaders, learning more about our communities, showcasing all the qualities of Aberdeenshire – the unique and wonderful place that it is.

“There are a lot of official ceremonies that are also important, we mark the Armed Forces Day each year and it’s always an honour to be part of that.

“We also mark important days in the civil calendar like the Holocaust Memorial Day, International Workers Memorial Day and Commonwealth Day, showing our commitment and respect.”

Bill with Princess Anne at the opening of the Deveron Community and Sports Centre in Banff. Picture by Jim Irvine
Bill with Princess Anne at the opening of the Deveron Community and Sports Centre in Banff. Picture by Jim Irvine

During his stint as a local councillor Bill noted there had also been “difficult times that affected us as a community” with one particularly tough moment being the Stonehaven rail disaster in August 2020.

Driver Brett McCullough, conductor Donald Dinnie and passenger Christopher Stuchbury lost their lives when the train they were travelling in left the tracks at Carmont, near Stonehaven.

Bill said the crash was “truly a heartbreaking situation” but he praised the response by the emergency services, describing it as “first class”.

He added: “How the local community came together to support those families directly affected and also by the support of the emergency workers, I was very proud to see that in action.”

Bill Howatson and Lord Provost of Aberdeen Barney Crockett at the minute's silence held at Aberdeen Railway Station to pay tribute to the victims of the Stonehaven derailment. Picture by Kenny Elrick
Bill Howatson and Lord Provost of Aberdeen Barney Crockett at the minute’s silence held at Aberdeen Railway Station to pay tribute to the victims of the Stonehaven derailment. Picture by Kenny Elrick

Bill also marked the passing of councillor Fergus Hood who sadly died last year following a prolonged illness.

He said: “That was an extremely difficult time when you lose a friend and a colleague, someone who had dedicated themselves to supporting the community. That was quite a loss.”

Meanwhile, he noted that the coronavirus pandemic had been a “challenge” for the council but said he was “proud” of the collective work by both his fellow councillors and local authority staff for allowing the democratic process to continue uninterrupted.

Bill had to chair his final meeting of full council online due to IT issues
Bill had to chair his final meeting of full council online due to IT issues.

Due to the pandemic in-person council meetings were cancelled and instead moved online via Skype and Microsoft Teams in a bid to keep business running as usual.

He said: “Councillors continued to meet regularly as we had robust technology in place at the time which allowed us to move to home working without missing a step.

“For me what makes Aberdeenshire Council special is our collective desire to achieve the best outcomes for our community and much of that is done with consensus across the chamber.

“Councillors have very different political drivers and beliefs but we are all bound together, I would say, by the common goal to help Aberdeenshire be the best in Scotland.”

Advice for future Aberdeenshire Provost ‘listen to the stories of the people that make up the communities’

Now that Bill has left the council the Provost role is vacant once again but he has some words of advice for the next post holder: “Enjoy the unique opportunity that has come and sharpen those scissors for all the official openings and ribbon cuttings – they are always more challenging than they appear to be.

“Listen to the stories of the people that make up our communities and celebrate with them, and have a firm but fair hand when chairing the meeting of the full council.”

As Aberdeenshire Lord Provost Bill Howatson officially opened the rebuilt Ballater station to the public in August 2018. Picture by Colin Rennie
As Aberdeenshire Lord Provost Bill Howatson officially opened the rebuilt Ballater station to the public in August 2018. Picture by Colin Rennie

Looking ahead to the future Bill hopes to get back into writing and added: “I have a whole pile of books that I want to get through, I want to travel a bit and maybe do a bit of work for the community as I go along.”

When asked what he will miss the most about working at Aberdeenshire Council, he said it would be the people.

“When I did announce I was stepping down I had a lot of very kind and helpful comments from my colleagues across the sphere, and I think that response I got and encouragement was very beneficial but quite rewarding,” he said.

“I’ve made very good friends in the council over the years and working with them has been a great pleasure but I’m looking to the future now.

“I’ve done my stint and I’m proud of it, and I enjoyed doing it. It’s been a big chunk of my life and I have enjoyed it enormously.”

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