The Aberdeen Conservatives have named Councillor Ryan Houghton as their new leader – with the 29-year-old expected to be confirmed as council co-leader in the coming days.
The top job is up for grabs as previous Tory leader Douglas Lumsden steps down having been elected to Holyrood.
And while he is to continue on as a councillor until next year’s local elections, he is giving up the co-leadership and his convener role on the city growth and resources committee.
His ascension to council co-leader, a job shared with Aberdeen Labour‘s Jenny Laing, will need the approval of councillors though, and is likely to be put to a vote of the urgent business committee towards the end of the week.
He said: “I hope to build on the last four years and the significant projects our administration has taken through – and this year is critically important in terms of getting the Covid recovery right.
“Not just for the council but for everyone across Aberdeen, it matters so much that we come out of the pandemic investing in our people and places and ensuring not only we have strong and resilient public services, but also that we have done our part to help stimulate the economic recovery working with national governments, the private sector and third sector organisations as well.
“Everyone gets that importance – there is an urgent sense of mission in taking the city forward.”
It is understood the outgoing Mr Lumsden will convene his last city growth and resources meeting with the urgent business meeting in the following days.
The meeting he will oversee will set a path for the city emerging from lockdown, with plans on big-money rejuvenation projects for the city centre, Aberdeen beach and the George Street area.
Among them will be the new plans to buy the former BHS building for redevelopment as a new food market, as well as potential pedestrianisation of Union Street.
RAF veteran Mr Houghton, who was based at RAF Lossiemouth and served in Afghanistan, added: “But it is also an exciting time to be at the helm, and this is in large part thanks to the work Douglas has done over the last four years working with administration colleagues to bring us to this point.
“People will have seen the coverage of the decisions we are looking to make for the long-term future of the city.
“We hope to have as much support for that as possible.”
Historic comments ‘alarming and concerning’
However, the new Conservative group leader was at the centre of controversy since 2019, when he was suspended by his party while years-old internet forum posts – touching on anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and homophobia – were investigated.
His exile came as he stood for the Westminster Aberdeen North seat, meaning the party withdrew all support for his campaign.
Last night Liberal Democrat group leader Ian Yuill told us: “We will not be supporting Mr Houghton’s nomination as co-leader as we believe he still has questions to answer over his comments from several years ago.
“Whilst I accept people can change, those comments were and still remain alarming and concerning.
“The choice of group leader is obviously a matter for the Conservative group but the choice of co-leader is a choice for the council.
“But ultimately the Conservatives, and their Labour and independent sidekicks, in the unholy coalition will appoint whoever they wish.”
Meanwhile, the leader of the largest single group on the council, the SNP’s Alex Nicoll branded the online comments “completely at odds with what our council stands for” and a “betrayal of the diverse communities that make up our city”.
“It’s a disgrace that after being sneaked back into the Tory party, that Ryan Houghton could be leading our city soon.”
“The Tories of course do not have a majority and any appointment as co-leader will need cross party support.
“I hope councillors of other parties will put the city and its reputation first.”
Council co-leader elect: Look at my record ‘in the whole’
Mr Houghton told us he “accepted it would be brought up” as he was unveiled as group leader.
He added: “The suspension happened, I went through the process and I was readmitted to the Conservative party with no further sanction.
“I dealt with the matter at the time, apologising and speaking with anyone who wanted to around this issue.
“It is important to highlight this incident is based on stuff from 2011-12, almost a decade ago and well before I was involved in elected politics.
“I think that has been understood and I am more than happy to point to record I have as a councillor, driving forward equality and support for minority groups.
“And I also think it’s important to look at someone’s record in the whole: I served my country for seven years in the Royal Air Force.
“I have very much been about public service and I hope that is recognised.
“If any of my councillor colleagues have concerns I am more than happy to sit down and address them – I have spoken to Ian Yuill virtually since and he has not mentioned any in person.”
And his future co-leader, Jenny Laing, who has already worked closely with Mr Houghton in his role as administration business manager, backed her coalition partners’ choice.
She said: “It was pleasing to see three Aberdeen councillors elected to the Scottish Parliament and I trust they will represent the views of the people of Aberdeen and ensure a fair funding settlement for the city.
“I welcome the Conservatives’ nominee, Councillor Ryan Houghton, as the proposed new co-leader of the council and I look forward to working with him to continue to drive forward the administration’s policy agenda.”
Outgoing co-leader’s pride to play part in city’s long history
While Mr Lumsden has been clear on his future, intent to see out his term as Airyhall, Broomhill and Garthdee councillor, others continue to mull it over.
The Tory said it was “only right” to split his time between Aberdeen and Edinburgh due to the cost of a by-election to find a replacement for only one year.
“For someone Aberdeen born and bred, it’s been a real privilege to spend four years as co-leader,” he said.
“I have been immensely proud every time I walk through the doors of the Town House and you see all the history – it fills you with pride to be part of that.
“It’s great Ryan will be able to progress on what we have achieved over the last four years.”
Other Holyrood-bound councillors think over futures
Aberdeen Donside’s new MSP Jackie Dunbar and Audrey Nicoll, who takes over as Aberdeen South And North Kincardine’s Holyrood representative, are both SNP city councillors – and are yet to make a decision on their Town House futures.
And in Aberdeenshire, Karen Adam, who was first elected as an SNP councillor for the Mid-Formartine ward in 2017, said she is still undecided whether or not she will continue to serve as a local member too.
The newly-elected MSP for Banffshire and Buchan Coast secured her seat on Friday with 14,920 votes after a strong challenge from Tory candidate, and fellow Aberdeenshire councillor Mark Findlater who took 14,148.
Ms Adam said she is still considering whether or not to step down as an Aberdeenshire councillor due to the potential costs of a by-election for the taxpayer, coupled with the upcoming local council elections across Scotland next May.
She said: “This is something I need to discuss with a couple of people, and I haven’t had the chance yet to do that.
“Right now I honestly do not know. I want representation in the area, it’s a big cost to have a by-election, so I feel the burden of that as well, so I’ll be weighing up everything and talking ti over with everybody to see what the best way forward is.
“I’m realising as well there’s council elections next year.”
Moray MP Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative leader, will juggle both Westminster and Holyrood, after he too was elected through the regional vote.