Stewart Cree


Council clearout could spark SNP takeover

August 19, 2016

Crisis-hit Moray Council is bracing itself for a mass exodus of elected members before the next local election. It has emerged that two thirds of the 26 councillors that serve the region are expected to stand down ahead of the vote next spring. The region's SNP opposition group aims to take advantage of the clearout to win control of the body and form a ruling administration. Both council leader, Stewart Cree, and convener, Allan Wright, will exit their posts. But the pair maintain that the region would be best served under the guidance of a coalition of councillors holding different beliefs rather than SNP members. During a full council meeting yesterday, Mr Wright predicted that "about 50%" of the serving councillors would choose not to stand in May, but a council source later estimated that number at "two thirds". The revelations come amid grim warnings about the council's financial future - which elected members who intend to remain in place fear will deter people from standing for the vacated roles. The authority has been warned that it faces bankruptcy unless a series of radical - and inevitably unpopular - service cuts are made. Deputy SNP group leader Graham Leadbitter confirmed that he would seek re-election, and said that the SNP would put every effort into gaining control of the local authority. Mr Leadbitter said: "The SNP fights every election to win, and we will be approaching the 2017 council election with that aim. "We believe we have strong policies, which will win support in Moray, and will be able to offer the council a strong leadership." The group will release a detailed manifesto as the election approaches next May. Council leader Stewart Cree will draw an end to 10 years on the authority. Mr Cree, who represents the Keith and Cullen ward as an independent councillor, stressed his belief that party politics should not intrude on council affairs. He said: "An independent administration is run by people bound together not by a cause or a manifesto, but because they believe independence is important to local government. "We don't want politics to be prominent." He also expressed hope that some younger people may inject some "fresh blood" to the authority by securing some of the empty seats. The other administration councillor confirmed to be departing is tenured Keith and Cullen representative Ron Shepherd. Mr Cree did not rule out the prospect of other members of the administration following him out the door. He added: "There are a number who are a long way from making any decision." The SNP group's leader, Keith and Cullen member Gary Coull, is among the councillors readying to leave the chambers. Other Nationalists poised to call it a day include Speyside Glenlivet veterans Pearl Paul and Mike McConnachie, and long-serving Elgin City North member Mike Shand. Mrs Paul joined the council in 1999 and helmed the local SNP group between 2003 and 2015, when she resigned from the leadership post for health reasons. Fochabers Lhanbryde councillor, Douglas Ross, said he would not seek re-election after being installed as an MSP for the Highlands and Islands constituency during the Holyrood election this May. But both members of the council's Labour group, Fochabers Lhanbryde's Sean Morton and Elgin City South's John Divers, said they hope to return to their seats after the upcoming council vote. Mr Divers said he feared years of budget cutbacks would put people off standing. He added: "There will be difficult decisions ahead."