Brig talks to VP Communities candidate Alasdair Ibbotson

25 mins read
Credit: Alasdair Ibbotson

Yes, we’re back again.

Another candidate, another interview. This time we look at the hotly contested VP Communities race.

Our interview this time is with the colourful Alasdair Ibbotson.

You may know Alasdair for his entry to “Lefties do the Funniest Things”, when he and a CND compatriot stopped a nuclear convoy attempting to come through Stirling.

That video has reached 383k views on the Stirling Uni CND Facebook, so I believe that makes Alisdair our celebrity candidate this year.

Unfortunately, our candidate was suffering from a rather nasty stomach bug, just in time for Hustings. He asked if we could chat outdoors, so we took a rather romantic walk around the loch.

Alasdair said in his AirTV interview last week that he “falls through every gap in the system” and that he wants to fix this. When asked how he would fix these gaps, he said: “In terms of housing, where I am I have no tenancy agreement, no gas safety certificate, my deposit is not protected, the landlord just comes and lets himself in, it’s dodgy as all fuck.”

“We can take on Stirling’s dodgy landlords… we can win using the model of tenants’ union which is already winning in Bristol, in Glasgow and in Edinburgh,” he explained. “That’s absolutely one way we can win for students falling through those gaps.

“In terms of Student Support, what I see is what happens already elsewhere, when students’ unions take over that department, and it’s funding pot from the University. So basically it’s a change of management from the university to the Union.

“That makes those services accountable to our membership, through their elected officers. Which means that when things go wrong, we can put them right, without having to go through several departments and funding streams within our university.”

Tenants’ unions are not a new thing to Stirling – former VP Communities Lauren Marriot proposed the founding of one in recent years.

Alasdair said that these were not successful because they were started “from scratch – we as a Students’ Union, have no experience of this. Living Rent campaign, and organisations that they work with, they have a wealth of experience, and they’re winning and they’re looking to expand.

“So we can draw on their experience and provide a funding pot. So we have the institutional security of the Union, and all the experience in campaigning work that they’ve done, so we get the best of both worlds.

“Instead of discussing how we constitute a tenants union, instead of setting up the legal side of things, we can work with Living Rent and get started right from the off.”

A key part of any union is its membership. If there is a lack of interest in joining the tenants’ union then might it risk struggling to help those who need it?

“Obviously any union is only as strong as its membership. The more members it has, the stronger it will be, but if it has reduced interest it won’t be as strong.

“But even a handful of tenants can get a victory.

“What you have to remember is we’re not discussing university accommodation here, where there’s one big landlord. What we’re talking about is lots and lots of individual landlords and letting agents. All we need is a few tenants and a few landlords.”

Alasdair went on to use deposit security as an example. It’s currently illegal in Scotland to not have your deposit protected. So if there are landlords in Stirling who are not protecting their deposits in a lawful way, the tenants union will take them to court.

Alasdair believes that only a handful of these cases would be needed before the rest of the landlords decide to bring their standards up, for fear of legal action.

In order to set up a Stirling branch of the Living Rent campaign, they would first have to be contacted about it. I know, unbelievable right?!

I asked Alasdair if he had already discussed expansion to Stirling with the group. “I have yes. This is on their list of priorities for this year anyway. They’ve just employed their first member of staff. Setting up branches across Scotland does align with their priorities for this year.”

Alasdair states in his manifesto that the tenants’ union will be a budget priority for the Union. I wanted to know if he would be able to make that decision as VP Communities. “Yes. In terms of the Union, obviously it has finite resources, and there is competition for those resources. Within the remit of VP Communities, there are a lot of budget lines that fall under that.”

Alasdair went on to share how the tenants union would be funded. “I have a list, which I’m happy to show you, of 50 grant awarding organisations that would be willing to work in a funding partnership. They fund things like tenants unions, they’re willing to fund grants within the Stirling area which would be happy to work with the Students’ Union.

“If just a quarter of those gave us a grant, and all those that did gave them their bare minimum amount that they award, we’d have seven times the amount that we need to set this up.

“As with everything, if you make the money appear you can do it. So yes, we can get earmarked outside funding for this as well. In terms of priority budgeting, that’s one thing I don’t see as being an issue.”

On the issue of cost, Alasdair is working on the estimate that this union will cost £9,000 for one year. £4,500 would be set aside for a case worker that would work part time, for two days a week. This case worker would be responsible for offering advice, as well as the day to day running of the union.

A further £2,000 is set aside for any up front court costs that may be incurred when taking a landlord to court. Alasdair was keen to point out that after the case is won, then the money will be refunded.

The last £2,500 will be used for campaigning, which will be aimed at “making things materially better beyond just solving individual disputes.

As you can probably tell by now, Alasdair’s manifesto involves a lot on housing. So let’s continue with a little more housing.

He pledges to support LGBT tenants. When asked how he would do this, he replied: “In terms of what we can do for people who are LGBT+, for women, for minorities, for people with immigration status, which now has to be checked by landlords because of the Immigration Act, all of these specific issues are work for only a proportion of the membership. Generally speaking, they are dealing with the same problems as other tenants, but exacerbated.

“Things like landlords letting themselves in, which can happen to anybody, but is particularly an issue for LGBTQ people, on the grounds that a lot of landlords aren’t especially enlightened.

“Specific support means things like Astrid’s manifesto pledge to set up a training scheme for LGBT friendly landlords and mark them on the Union website. That’s great, and I would certainly be looking to adopt that.

“The other thing is, the people most likely to benefit from a tenants union are these groups anyway. And so, there are things particular to these groups that we can do, and things that work for everybody but are most likely to benefit these groups.”

Moving away from housing, Alasdair has said that many students have bad experiences with Student Services, and that they would be better managed by the Union, who would run it for the students.

This does present some issues however, particularly around funding. Alasdair says that the funding pot for Student Services should move across to the Union, and also states that the employment of workers will not be risked, due to regulations already in place that should allow for a smooth transfer.

Alasdair has said in other interviews, you know which one so I won’t have to plug them again, that Clubs and Societies are not his priority if he were to be elected as VP Comms, despite the description of the post heavily mentioning Clubs and Socs.

“Well you can absolutely do those things without that being the only reason that you’re going for the role” Alasdair told me, “we have around 3,000 members in Clubs and Socs we have 12,000 students at Stirling, most of whom are in the private rented sector.

“Absolutely the Union should be focussing where people are having their rights trampled on by landlords, and there’s a lot of them. It’s another part of the role, does that mean that Clubs and Socs are going to be neglected? No.

“It just means that if there’s a straight choice between do I invest the time in housing or do I invest the time in clubs and socs, then housing comes first for me. And that’s a perfectly valid choice to make within the remit.”

I mentioned to Alasdair that there hasn’t ever been a plan on housing that is this broad put forward by a VP Comms, and that he therefore doesn’t know if it will have a detrimental effect on the amount of time he will be able to allocate to Clubs and Socs.

“That’s a fair comment to make,” he responded. “Think about it like this, since the title [of the role was changed to VP Communities from VP Activities and Development] but also before, people have been introducing schemes for Clubs and Socs, we’ve had Earn Your Stripes, Society Spotlight.

“I’ve been in clubs and on committees, where these schemes haven’t positively helped us, and where the have such as Society Spotlight it could have been made a lot easier.

“The Society Spotlight application is currently a form, all it is, is a stall and a pub quiz. Why do we need paperwork for that? When you could just have a whiteboard in the Union office where you come along, and you write you club name.”

Alasdair said that reducing the amount of paperwork would free up staff time, and when discussing the advent of new Clubs and Socs schemes, he was adamant, saying: “I’m not going to… the best people to run clubs are their committees, not the Union in my view.

“To frame it as neglect or playing second fiddle, that’s not true because Clubs stand to benefit from this as well.”

The assertion was made in Alasdair’s manifesto that clubs should not be threatened by the Union with not being able to book rooms or get Freshers’ stalls if they don’t engage in Union events. “In schedule 8 to the Union’s constitution, 8.15.”

“It says that ‘all clubs must attend Communities Zone meetings and General Meetings,” he explained. “If they do not attend on two consecutive occasions, they will be prevented from booking rooms, stalls and accessing funds for 3 weeks. This will be rigorously enforced.”

The schedule is actually 8.5, but the wording is exactly the same. Kudos to Alasdair for the memory.

“In terms of whether or not, this has been enforced, I have heard rumours that clubs have been menaced with this.”

“Certainly when Lucy Harvey was in the role, CND and other clubs got emails saying that they absolutely had to turn up to this, or else.”

“I think that the fact that it’s even in the rules at all is wrong. It means that the Union is arguably in breach of its own constitution, which is a bit dodgy. So we just need to get rid of that bit. Nobody should be forced to take part in Union politics.”

I asked if removing the obligation of clubs to attend Union events would mean that there is less engagement, Alasdair said, “if the Union can only manage to get people to turn up to its meetings by threatening them, those people shouldn’t be there quite frankly.”

“If the Union is not providing support for its members, it’s not functioning in such a democratic way that the only reason people bother to turn up, is through fear of repercussions then that’s fundamentally anti-democratic in my book. I think that’s crap to be honest.”

“Would it potentially damage turnout and engagement? Well, if it does then the lesson for the Union is not that we need to threaten people more, it’s that we need to be more active in providing services to members and giving these members a real chance to hold people accountable, and making it possible for people to be able to do that in such a way as they want to.”

We try to ask all the candidates similar questions to round off the interviews, the first of which is asking what they would like to do, that has been proposed by their opponents. Just a nice little bridge between the candidates, where they can hold hands and have a little policy cuddle.

Alasdair began with James Fitzsimons’ proposal on reducing the number of people required to start a society. “I hadn’t thought of it for mine, when it was mentioned a couple of weeks ago I was very sceptical about it, what would be the impact on Union’s finances? If fewer people were needed to get a club started, what would be the impact on the club’s finances?”

“And then I remembered the point of principle that it’s not for the Union to decide because clubs run clubs best.”

“The more I think about it, the less of a problem I see with it.”

Alasdair also considered the manifesto of Scott Mackay, who dropped out of the race earlier earlier in the week but was very highly regarded by all of the candidates.

“In terms of Scott’s manifesto, Scott was wanting to set up, let me get this right, a Student Activist Safety Fund.”

“Which is an interesting idea, it ties in with my idea of know your rights training within the Union, and specifically setting up a budget line within the Union is probably a good idea because it would create more longevity for that beyond my year in office.”

“I don’t know if the two of us would have the same vision for that fund!” he said with a laugh, “but it does seem like a good idea to me.”

When it came to the manifesto of Jamie Grant, Alasdair conceded that he was probably the candidate with whom he had the least in common.

“I don’t think that’s a criticism of either one of us, I think that we just take a different approach and  have different beliefs on what the Union should be.”

“His things are more around individual schemes, employability and whatnot, the Union should be where we all come together to fight for our rights, it’s not just existing to promote it’s own schemes and give people badges and whatnot.”

“So that’s where I disagree. But, that said, some of his schemes are reasonably good sounding. For example, he’s mentioned Forth Valley College. When I was Communities Officer before him, I was the person who brought in the reduced Clubs and Socs membership for 2+2 students (students who study for two years and Forth Valley and two years and Stirling).”

“A lot that’s gone on since is working on stuff that’s already happened. It’s not been nearly as successful as I would have liked, and as such it’s not featured this time.”

“Time permitting it’s something I would like to work on again.”

“As a point of principle, there’s certainly a perception of educational apartheid between college and university and this is something that constantly comes up at NUS. I think that breaking that down is good for everybody.”

The final question, which many of the candidates have already been asked, is what they would do in their first 100 days in office. The sort of thing I imagine Bill Clinton was asked. Along with, hopefully, his dry cleaning schedule.

Alasdair started by discussing his tenants union proposal, which he would want to crack onto early. “Get grant applications in for the tenants union, hopefully that could even happen before that time. Provided that they could all be written and I’d be happy to do that, as long as one of the trustees signs them off they can be sent in.

“Get the tenants’ union funded, then start the recruitment process for someone to be our case worker for that.

“I’d like to commission the study for Student Services. Basically it would be similar to Dave’s Big Rent Survey. Getting that ready to launch at the start of the academic year.

“Obviously next year we’ve got the Accommodation Enhancement Fund coming as well, which is the thing that Dave and Jess have won.

“At the moment that’s going to be something that students will apply for when they’re applying for accommodation. I want to make sure that everybody definitely does know about it.

“Ideally I would want, in every bedroom when they arrive on campus, there will be a leaflet from the Students’ Union saying: ‘Did you know about this? Have you applied for it? Here’s how, pop in and we can help you.’

“So in terms of priorities over the summer, that’s how to kick off on getting these manifesto promises through.”

Please do vote in the upcoming election, because if you don’t then all the worlds stray puppies will go unhomed, and you have no one to blame but yourself.

Voting opens on Monday, March 13, at 9am and closes Tuesday, March 14, at 6.15pm. The Alternative Hustings are still to come tomorrow (March 8) in Venue at 6pm. There will be drink. There will be drama. There will be banter.

Featured image credit: Alasdair Ibbotson

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