Monday, 28 September 2015

Musselburgh Air Pollution: New Evidence Of Council Inaction

I have found new evidence that shows our local authority has failed to take Musselburgh's air pollution problem seriously.

I have had confirmation from the Driver & Vehicle Standards Agency that East Lothian Council has the option of applying for a Traffic Regulation Condition to enforce a low emission zone to reduce the pollution harming public health.

This directly contradicts claims made by East Lothian Council's environment spokesman, Councillor Norman Hampshire, who said in July:

“We are trying to work with the bus companies to improve the quality of buses we use in the town, but we cannot force them to introduce low emissions buses. Mr Rose needs to write the Scottish Government to ask them to legislate against the use of old buses with high emissions.”

I have also discovered that East Lothian Council has failed to take part in a consultation on the Scottish Government's low emissions strategy, which looks at ways of reducing pollution in congested areas. The strategy confirms that "local authorities are able to establish low emissions zones in their areas".

While many other local authorities, transport, environment and health organisations responded to the consultation, East Lothian Council did not. The Scottish Government is now finalising the strategy with a view to publishing it by the end of this year.

Musselburgh High Street was declared an Air Quality Management Area in November 2013.

I'm grateful to the Government's central licensing office for confirming what I suspected - either East Lothian Council's environment spokesman deliberately misled us or he is out of his depth. With 20,000 vehicles a day using our High Street, including 500 buses, there is simply no excuse for the local authority not exploring the option of enforcing low emissions buses on routes through Musselburgh.

It also speaks volumes that East Lothian Council chose not to help shape the Scottish Government's approach to tackling air pollution. This should be a top priority for our local authority given the impact on public health in our biggest town.

The British Heart Foundation points out that air pollution increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, yet most of us don't know what our pollution levels are or how to find out. I will continue to press for action on this important issue in my community.


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Monday, 21 September 2015

On Education

There’s been a lot of discussion lately of the SNP Government’s decision to reintroduce national testing in schools. The Tories and Labour had been agitating for it, and although the First Minister has said she doesn’t want to see crude league tables produced, I don’t see how this can be avoided. Getting better data is one thing; embedding a teaching-to-the-test culture is another.

There’s still an attainment challenge in Scotland; and as with many things, East Lothian is Scotland in microcosm.

A report going to the council’s education committee this week details some really positive results but also makes clear there’s work to do. The percentage of S5 pupils gaining 1 or more awards at SCQF Level 6 or above (a Higher, for example) increased by 6.25 per cent in 2015 and shows an improving trend in East Lothian over the last 4 years.

The secondary school our Bairn will probably go to in less than 7 years‘ time - Musselburgh Grammar School (MGS) - has seen a 2.2 per cent increase in pass rates in the past year to 83.2 per cent, with even bigger rises at Ross High and Preston Lodge. All schools in the county have a pass rate of at least 80 per cent, except Knox Academy in Haddington, which is just shy of the mark. MGS is getting close to the leader of the pack, North Berwick (NB), at 85.9. (Leader of the pack? See what I mean about crude league tables being unavoidable?)

Overall, East Lothian shows an improved trend in the percentage of S6 pupils gaining awards at SCQF Level 7 (Advanced Higher). But the difference between schools is stark. NB performs strongly, with Ross High in my home town Tranent seeing a big drop to just 4 per cent. Musselburgh has picked up from a low base but still has a way to go.

Given the overall pass rates are good, there’s obviously something going on in our communities to make such a difference in S6 outcomes. I’m going to wager that family and community wealth is a factor, giving some kids more chance to realise their potential. The difference is hinted at on the high streets. NB town centre has artisan bakeries and hipster coffee houses, while Musselburgh has bargains galore with charity shops and pound shops. The median property price in the Honest Toun at the moment is £140,000. In NB it’s almost £400,000.

Of course, within each community there's a variety of backgrounds so it's not entirely fair to generalise. But where schools are struggling to improve the level of qualifications we need to see resources being targeted not just in the school but in the community, and I'd argue not just by the local authority but by a wider range of education and employment interests.

Last year I highlighted a drop in local school leavers going into further education.

The Skills Development Scotland snapshot showed only 19.4 per cent of those who left school in East Lothian during 2013/14 ended up at college, compared to 24.9 per cent during 2012/13, a drop of 5.5 per cent.

Our colleges are being squeezed from two sides, with unfair austerity from Westminster and a Scottish Government turning its back on the kind of part-time courses that are so important to widening access to education. At the start of this year I met with Edinburgh College bosses to discuss their hopes of reaching into East Lothian by developing stronger links with secondary schools and employers.
Meeting Ray McCowan, vice-principal of Edinburgh College

I read in one of the local newspapers recently that Labour MSP Iain Gray says he’s taking an interest in the idea. But rather than the shiny new campus that he seemed to envisage, I’d rather pursue the idea of adapting what already exists - our secondary schools.

Can we retain our young people and make further education more attractive, affordable and accessible by providing colleges courses in our communities? I’m aware most of the county’s six secondary schools are bursting at the seams but this is an exciting opportunity our local authority must look at.

Of course, East Lothian might not have a college but it does have a university. Although, weirdly, Queen Margaret University on the south-western fringe of Musselburgh badges itself as an Edinburgh institution. Given that one of its specialities is public relations and marketing, why is it ashamed to promote its true location?

QMU is hoping to expand. It has plans - labelled an “innovation hub” - to develop the surrounding farmland for business units, flats, shops and a hotel. So far, so business as usual. The university even insists that local road capacity must be expanded before any development goes ahead. And at the same time it is hoping to secure part of the potential £1bn city region deal fund being worked up. I’m struggling to see anything genuinely innovative. Even their serving suggestion pictures of what the development might look like are uninspiring. Low-wage corporate whiners Costa Coffee?

More importantly, I don’t see an answer to the challenge of how to bring QMU and the community of Musselburgh closer together. There is a feeling in the community that it’s easy for students to arrive on campus from Edinburgh and head back there. We must ensure any expansion of QMU enhances local links. I’m afraid a row of chain stores doesn’t cut it. How do we draw students into the town, and how will the university help make that happen?

The need for education to be a greater priority is clear, joining up primary and secondary, further and higher education, employment and communities.

A final thought, given how important this is. Isn’t it a bit bizarre that the East Lothian education committee comprises, in addition to local councillors, representatives of the Church of Scotland, the Catholic Church and the Episcopal Church. Why not representatives from colleges, universities, skills/enterprise/employment agencies and community partnerships? This sort of religious oversight feels a bit old school, so to speak.

East Lothian has the chance of a brighter future for all our young people but we need some fresh approaches to education if we’re to get there.

Monday, 14 September 2015

On Licensing

East Lothian, land of food and drink. The county’s image as purveyor of top nosh and cheery refreshments is one I’m only too happy to help promote. We really do have world class meat, fruit and veg, and we have some amazing tipples from NB Gin and Knops beer to Thistly Cross cider and Scotland’s lowland dram, Glenkinchie.

Sadly, we’re a wee bit too fond of drink ourselves and I’m seriously concerned those who have a duty to tackle this issue are failing spectacularly.

The Mid and East Lothian Drug and Alcohol Partnership has some startling figures. Across Scotland 50% of men and 30% of women regularly drink over the recommended guidelines. Scotland is 8th in the world league table of alcohol consumption with 11.8 litres of pure alcohol per person compared to 9.9 litres for England and Wales.

According to the National Records of Scotland, the number of alcohol-related deaths in East Lothian has quadrupled in a generation. In 1979 it was 5 people, and over the years this number has crept up and up. The most recent figure, for 2014, shows 20 people died from alcohol illnesses in East Lothian.

In East Lothian and Midlothian 29% of men consume more than 21 units per week. 18% of women consume more than 14 units per week. Both these figures are higher than the Scottish average.

It is estimated that alcohol misuse costs Scotland £2.5 billion every year.

Clearly price is a factor. I’ve blogged before about the corporate bully boys the Scotch Whisky Association and their holding up of minimum pricing.

Off licences now account for nearly three-quarters of alcohol sales in Scotland, compared with less than half 20 years ago. It’s clear that we’re drinking at home much more often.

Maybe the Scottish Government should consider bringing back a levy and applying it to big supermarkets selling booze. Tories of course are horrified at the idea of any kind of tax but it’s clear that cheap supermarket booze needs kept in check to protect public health and given this is where the bulk of alcohol is being sold it’s where we can make the biggest impact.

In the meantime, what are we doing at local level to limit the availability of cheap booze?

A while back I spoke with senior officials at NHS Lothian to find out what role they have in licensing given their clear interest in tackling this huge public health issue. It turns out the Health Board doesn't sit on the Licensing board but is a statutory consultee for all new
applications and major variations.

This doesn't mean the NHS has to comment on every new application or variation but it should be informed of them.

And East Lothian licensing board‘s overprovision policy is pretty clear:

“The Board considers that people living throughout East Lothian have sufficient access to licensed premises (a combination of on sales and off sales premises) in the Board's area.”

It therefore came as a disappointment, but perhaps not a surprise, that the go-ahead was recently given for booze to be sold from a new supermarket in Prestonpans. Even the police objected, pointing out that the area is already “over provided”.

There are already nine off-sale premises in Prestonpans and several more on the outskirts.

Council leader and licensing board member, Willie Innes, seemed more concerned with the impact of the new supermarket on an existing supermarket:

“It would be a tragedy if we ended up with an empty site in the middle of our town rather than an empty site on the edge of town but the principle has been conceded.”

Well, Willie, a tragedy is what we already have, with 20 alcohol-related deaths a year. You and the other councillors who sit on the licensing board have the power to help tackle it. Use it.

Monday, 7 September 2015

In Defence Of Libraries

Ping! An email drops to tell me my requested copy of Daft Wee Stories by Limmy has arrived at my local library. I know, you had me down as a refined sort of chap. What can I say? I’m a sucker for the sweary Weejie off of Twitter.

And there in a nutshell is the bizarre hybrid of a traditional-digital lifestyle many of us lead. I’m being loaned (not buying) a book (a physical book, not an e-book) I became aware of by seeing someone on social media (not because an algorithm recommended it).

Increasingly it feels like those who speak up in defence of printed books and libraries are dismissed as well-meaning but out-of-touch. These papery things of which you speak are nice to have, not essential is today’s downloaded world.

But I really do feel libraries are so much more than a set of shelves, and have so much potential given the challenges our communities face. My old Inverness buddy Ali Smith (her support was crucial in helping me get the first Inverness Book Festival off the ground in 2004) recently made a plea to protect libraries in the age of austerity. It’s so easy for them to be seen as a soft option when public budgets are tight.

Ali says in the three or four weeks that she edited her forthcoming collection of short stories 28 libraries closed. In the space of her writing those stories over seven years, 1,000 public libraries closed. Ali spoke about the “furiously important tradition” of “the democracy of reading, the democracy of space.”
Ali Smith, right enough

Even the Scottish Government appears slowly to be realising libraries’ importance.  It has earmarked £80,000 to help every local authority trial methods to give children automatic membership to their local library.

Giving children the best start in life must involve easy and enjoyable access to reading materials. The Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy - which has become a focal point as we head towards a Scottish election next May - shows a worrying drop in pupils reading and writing well.

The need to fight this good fight is pretty clear here in East Lothian.

In the current financial year the Labour-Tory-Independent-run council has slashed £50,000 from the library service across the county. This “efficiency saving” means cutbacks to the mobile library service, a review of branch professional posts (which sounds like jargon for fewer librarians) and the introduction of new technology.

In recent months the local libraries have had their opening hours reduced by as much as two or thee hours a week. The cutbacks to the mobile library service - fewer visits to outlying villages and no visits to primary schools - were defended by Tory councillor Tim “Wellbeing Spokesman” Day who said people in rural areas prefer to visit libraries in towns. But those very same libraries-in-towns have now had their hours cut! Altogether you can see it’s a service the local authority doesn’t value in the slightest.

Snobby critics like to portray libraries as in a poor state. Surely that’s a reason for investment! They say libraries and books are not important in the internet age. But just look at how important they are for keeping a community functioning.
The greatest arsenal we could have

Musselburgh library, for example, offers Bookbug sessions with songs and rhymes for babies and toddlers, book groups for primary school children and adults, a Sporting Memories Group, Knit and Natter, jobseeker help and technology learner sessions. It also takes donations for the local foodbank, stages exhibitions of local photography and offers internet access for those not online at home.

I’m one of those folk who still buys newspapers because I feel they give me the kind of peripheral vision you just don‘t get following, subscribing and even browsing online. I turn the page and see fascinating things I wouldn’t otherwise have sought out. Libraries are the same. People bump into each, exchange stories, ask questions, support each other and when it comes to reading materials you can take the plunge with something new for free (or at most 50p for a reservation).

Supporting our libraries could not be more important for the wellbeing of our communities. It does feel like a constant battle.

To quote Doctor Who: “You want weapons? We're in a library. Books are the best weapon in the world. This room's the greatest arsenal we could have. Arm yourself!”

Monday, 31 August 2015

Toppled Chimneys Represent Towering Opportunity

The gas plant isn’t going ahead and the chimneys are coming down. East Lothian’s skyline is about to undergo its biggest change for a generation.

I grew up in Tranent in the 70s and 80s and summer holidays were always spent on the beach at Port Seton. I’ve never known the landscape without those twin towers, often belching black smoke. In the same way that I’m glad the sewer outfall pipes on the beaches are now redundant, I’m pleased the Cockenzie coal power station has been decommissioned.

On 26 September the chimneys are due to come down. I’m told that already people are trying to reserve chunks of the structures for souvenirs, like sections of the Berlin Wall. I’ll certainly have mixed emotions when they collapse.

My emotions are much more straightforward when it comes to the news that the replacement gas-powered plant that was given planning permission won’t now go ahead as Spanish-owned Scottish Power can’t guarantee a profit from it. It would have had a couple of chimneys but they won’t be gracing our skyline now.

It was always a silly proposal. Why on earth would we want to burn yet more fossil fuels when we already have access to more than we can use if we’re serious about limiting climate change? I know some people who hold out hope for carbon capture and storage but that’s yet to be made to work on a grand scale and until then it would be wrong to allow additional unabated pollution into our atmosphere. Scotland has failed its climate change targets since they began four years ago.

The question now is what happens next on the site. I was intrigued by a comment made by the Labour council leader, Willie Innes:

“I believe, as I have from the start, that it is in the public’s best interest to have it in public ownership and the council is the most appropriate vehicle to assume responsibility.”

Councillor Innes’ firm conviction came as a surprise to me, especially as the full meeting of the local authority in December 2012 agreed a submission to the Scottish Government’s National Planning Framework that included the view that the Cockenzie site should be earmarked for “non-nuclear baseload power generation”. Not a peep about public ownership or even any alternative from the proposed gas plant.

Indeed, fellow Labour councillor Norman “Environment Spokesman” Hampshire went further. The minutes of that council meeting state:

“He [Cllr Hampshire] emphasised the requirement to retain the Cockenzie site for base load generation, based on the views of some energy experts in relation to renewable targets. He also called on the Council to protect the Torness site for a new nuclear power station, which would create a large number of construction jobs.”

So, since the start, the Labour-run local authority has had a position of supporting fossil fuel burning by a foreign multinational at Cockenzie and additional nuclear generation by a foreign multinational at Dunbar.

I think we can do better than that, and we deserve better than that. I can already hear Cllr Innes and Co insisting that local people will be consulted but we need to go beyond that. Let’s really put communities in the driving seat and construct a genuine vision. I’m aware there are already ideas out there relating to tourism and heritage, and there are moves afoot to buy the land for the community. We really need all interests working together to deliver a clear mandate from the wider area. As well as considering what we’d be happy to have on our doorstep after fifty years of a big box and chimneys, we need to consider the jobs we want as this is clearly an economic opportunity.

I commend to you "Jobs in Scotland's New Economy", a new in-depth report by Miko Minio-Paluello which concludes that by shifting away from fossil fuels, speeding up oil and gas decommissioning, prioritising renewables including offshore wind, tidal and wave, synthetic chemicals manufacturing, forestry and home insulation we could create far more jobs in our economy. I’d like to see us try for some of that for East Lothian, and there’s clearly a synergy with Edinburgh College and local high schools. East Lothian's under pressure to build 10,000 houses over the next ten years but very little has been said of the jobs, apprenticeships and training courses we could create.

Could the future of Cockenzie (and Torness for that matter) have a positive legacy by training a new generation in the skills needed to do the low-carbon, sustainable jobs Scotland will come to depend on?

That’s my hope. What’s yours?

Monday, 24 August 2015

Our Flagging Local Democracy

No taxation without representation!

So went the cry of the American colonists in the 1700s at the imposition by the remote British parliament of things like the Sugar Tax. Here in Scotland in the year 2015 we’re not short of representation and we may even see a new kind of Sugar Tax (that’s another blog for another day) but the connection between the rates we pay and the people we elect has become incredibly blurred.

We have community councillors, local councillors, constituency MSPs, regional MSPs, MPs and MEPs. We have a basket of different taxes and charges to pay for different services. How do we connect the two things?

Take local government for example. Where I am in Musselburgh, we used to have a Town Council that met in the Town Hall and levied local taxes. These days I pay Council Tax (“not a tax for council services” is how the council’s own invoice puts it) to East Lothian Council based in Haddington thirteen miles away, and the rate of that tax is decided by the Scottish Government in Edinburgh, which has for the past eight years imposed a tax freeze.

So, when I see local services being cut back, charges going up and much-needed investment stagnant, to whom do I vent my frustration? Community councillors? No, they have no teeth and no budget. (Indeed on the one occasion I attempted to speak to them about a local issue all my phone calls and emails went unanswered.) East Lothian Council? No, it’s in a financial armlock. Scottish ministers? Ah, then it's a matter for local councils.

Cracking this crazy situation is hard, so we find it easy to become distracted by things such as boundaries and flags. Yes, flags. The droopy state of the Saltire above Musselburgh Town Hall was briefly front page news. It even prompted a twitchy response from the Labour leader of the council:

As my Green colleague Andy Wightman pointed out on Twitter, surely what matters is what happens in the Town Hall not what flies above it.

And boundaries. The latest proposals from the boundary commission have caused the same Labour council leader to have another fit of the vapours, recklessly hinting at school catchment changes when in fact those are entirely within the council’s gift. The commission is trying to equalise council wards and in East Lothian that means reducing the number from seven to six, and the number of councillors from 23 to 22. At the moment if you live in Musselburgh, Wallyford, Whitecraig, Haddington and Humbie you have 3 councillors; the commission proposes that you get 4, increasing your democratic representation.

In the last week I’ve seen Labour and SNP politicians freaking out at the prospect of change, wheeling out the same lame excuse that constituents will be confused. Even worse, East Lothian Council’s official response to the commission’s proposals whines that some councillors will see their workload increase as a result. Because sharing out the needs of a population with three other councillors is going to be harder than sharing with two others? And these guys are responsible for our schools!

Like I say, it’s all a distraction from the increasingly urgent need to renew the connection between who we elect and how we pay for services at different levels. It’s hard to see any party going into the 2016 election offering to keep councils in a financial armlock. Calls are growing all time, from left, right and centre.

Local autonomy is taken for granted in other countries where they have higher levels of engagement in local politics, both in terms of people voting and standing for election. Sceptics point to the poor quality of some local councillors and community councils (indeed, not all communities have a community council when of course democracy should be hard-wired) but I think that’s precisely why we should do it. By increasing the responsibility we can drive up the quality of local decision-making.

I began with some revolutionary Americans, and I’ll finish with one. Lincoln famously said: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Can We Use City Deal To Grow A Greener Economy In East Lothian?

It’s easy to characterise East Lothian’s economy as one based on farming, food and tourism but in reality a huge chunk of local employment is in retail, and added to that you have important public sector employers such as the council and the NHS, not to mention 600 or so folk paid by French firm EDF who own the Torness nuclear plant.
Great example of a local retailer
I’ve blogged before about the challenge of charting a new course for East Lothian’s economy. It’s going to be like trying to reroute a super-tanker but I’m up for it. The challenges we face include the fact that over half of people in work in East Lothian commute out of the county to do their job – that’s money leaking from our economy, so the sooner we can create more local employment the better.
Then there’s the infrastructure. Our rail services and roads are creaking at the seams, and it’s hard to imagine that we’re expected to host an extra 10,000 homes over the next 10 years.
And then there’s the skills gap. East Lothian doesn’t have a college. We have a university – QMU on the very western outskirts of Musselburgh – but for many young people a vocational qualification is still preferable, and I see huge opportunities to bolt on additional learning capacity at East Lothian’s secondary schools to cater for this.
QMU, technically in East Lothian!
Why am I rattling these issues around at the moment? A couple of reasons. Firstly there’s the City Deal. These things appear to be all the rage. Governments and business chip money into a pot that goes towards infrastructure and stimulating investment, with the hope that the additional tax take created by new jobs and economic activity helps recoup the public sector for its outlay.
East Lothian is chipping in to the Edinburgh City Region Deal, which was the subject of a briefing to business and the media today. It’s potentially worth £1bn from governments with a further £3bn from the private sector, and the councils have until 5 September to apply. I recently met with senior economic development officials from East Lothian Council to discuss what’s involved and put the case for investment that delivers a more localised economy, tackles inequality and looks towards the kind of jobs and skills we’ll need not just ten years from now but beyond.
I’m pleased to say the officials seemed to be on my wavelength. They’ve certainly recommended to the councillors who approved the joint funding of the bid that tackling inequality should be key, and they appear determined to bang the drum for better digital connectivity for East Lothian. Given the quality of living that attracts so many people to our county, providing the broadband and mobile reception that allows people to work from home or close to home is crucial.
My Green colleagues on Edinburgh city council have been pushing along similar lines.
One thing I’m still not all clear about is how the 6 Local Authorities involved in the Edinburgh region deal will manage the bun fight over which projects eventually get approval. Clearly East Lothian will want one or two substantial initiatives to come this way, and I’ll be keen to support that effort. Edinburgh must share!

Manchester’s city deal seems to focus on apprenticeships and low carbon projects, so there are good examples we could follow.
The other reason I’ve been thinking about how to grow a greener economy in East Lothian is today’s report by the Scottish Retail Consortium (SRC), which says footfall in shops is lower than a year ago and shop vacancies have increased.
While I was in meeting the development officials about the city deal they mentioned that East Lothian Council intends to bring more focus to town centre issues by employing an officer with that defined role. We often hear from councils and government that town centres should come first but in practice it rarely happens.
The dominance of a few supermarket chains, the development of out of town retail parks and the growth in online delivery have all played a part in the decline of the High Street. I’m under no illusion that High Streets have to change to be relevant again. They need to become flexible spaces where people live, go to work and want to spend time. It’s therefore disappointing to see the SRC reaching for tired old ideas such as making car parking cheaper. That’s not the answer.
Then again, why pay any attention to the SRC? Why on earth would it care what happens to town centres? Its chairman is a boss at John Lewis, and its vice-chair is a boss at Tesco, the very firm that has helped strangle Musselburgh’s once vibrant shopping district and is sucking thousands of pounds out of the local economy for the benefit of shareholders’ pockets.
Focusing on town centres must start with the community. Musselburgh folk have already had their say on what a better town centre would look like, and sadly the council went off in the opposite direction and created extra car parking of little benefit. Making the High Street more accessible and enjoyable for people walking and cycling would be a start - we know this increases spending - as would reducing congestion and air pollution, and making more of the town centre’s natural asset, the River Esk. We need to see properties above shops spruced up to encourage people to live in the area, and we need support for small and independent retailers so they can enhance their offer, open late to catch the post-work rush and showcase their wares using social media.
Cars clogging up the High St - walkers and cyclists spend more

As you can see, I’m buzzing with ideas for a more sustainable, localised economy so the money we earn and spend stays here. That’s my vision. What’s yours?