Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Questioning Secondary School Options

I'm calling for clarification of East Lothian Council's "pre-consultation" on possible types of new secondary school provision in Musselburgh, including a so-called "super school" for over 2,500 students.
Musselburgh Grammar School
An online questionnaire about the proposals opened on 24 June and closes on 31 July. By contrast any formal consultation must conform to the Schools Consultation Act, and must last a minimum of six weeks, including at least 30 school days.
Like other local parents I have a keen interest in what will happen to our secondary schooling and our community, especially with the pressure for more housebuilding in the area. I think East Lothian Council are handling this issue badly by rushing out a questionnaire during the school holidays.
Such major changes to schooling require careful consideration, so I am concerned that in this questionnaire we are expected to pick an option and state a view when this is not a formal consultation being carried out in line with legislation. What weight will the results of this online survey carry?
Parents, students and other members of the community deserve to be presented with more research into the pros and cons of the various options. At the moment all we have to go on from the council is 3 sides of A4. That's not good enough for the future of our children and our community.
I would urge the council to clarify the confusion surrounding this so-called pre-consultation and indicate when we can expect more detailed information and opportunity for discussion.

Monday, 15 June 2015

School Cycling And Walking Heading In Wrong Direction

Ask any parent what they want for their kid and chances are “good health” will be near the top of the list. (A love of Brussels sprouts and good taste in old folks’ homes when the time comes might be other key desires.)

In Scotland we have our work cut out. Figures from a few months back showed that almost a third of Scots children are at risk of being obese, and as a society we’re still falling short of the physical activity guidelines and fruit and vegetable consumption we know can give us the best chance of a long, healthy life.

I’m not a great fan of finger-wagging, and tend to attach more importance to the environment and culture surrounding us as these clearly affect and often limit our choices when it comes to raising healthy kids.

Which is why this piece of publicity put out by East Lothian Council caught my attention.

With headlines such as:

“East Lothian pupils are amongst the most active in Scotland when it comes to travelling to school.”


“East Lothian pupils are also the least likely to travel to school by car, at only 12% compared to the national average of 25.8%.”

It seems the Garden of Scotland is raising rosy-cheeked bairns who are well on the way to enjoying long, active lives.

But of course, a single figure for the whole county - East Lothian is rightly described as Scotland in microcosm - and comparing us to an average rather than looking at a trend could be masking a more interesting story. So I have been digging.

The Sustrans Hands Up survey of schools has been going for 7 years now, and it’s that I’ve drawn my figures from. I’ve focused on Musselburgh as it’s my immediate patch but it’s also the county’s biggest town, facing yet more development, so we‘d be wise to tackle any bad habits rather than grow into them.

Sadly, what I’ve discovered is that at 4 of the 5 primary schools in Musselburgh, the rate of children being driven to school has increased in recent years, not fallen. And the rate of cycling to school in Musselburgh is less than half the East Lothian average.

Could these trends indicate a town whose streets have become less safe for cycling? Are working parents under more pressure to commute for work by car? And what sort of response can we expect from the local council and the Scottish Government?

Across East Lothian the rate of walking to primary school has fallen from 60.3 per cent in 2008 to 48 per cent last year. The rate of cycling increased slightly from 8.1 to 10.7, scootering rocketed from 2 to 11.8 and being driven fell a wee bit from 18.9 to 13. So it seems scootering has replaced walking for many primary pupils, and that’s understandable because it‘s fun and easy to do.

Burgh Primary is the best for scootering in Musselburgh at 9.2 per cent. It’s also the only school in town to have seen a drop in car drop-offs, from 27.6 per cent in 2008 to 13.3 last year. Given the built up catchment area and the morning traffic jams on the roads around the town centre school you can understand that many parents will view walking or scootering as a quicker, less stressful option.

But given the compact nature of the town why the low rates of cycling? If the East Lothian average is 10.7 per cent (hardly budging from 8.1 in 2008) why is Campie at just 3.3, Loretto RC at 4.5, Burgh at 5.8, and Pinkie and Stoneyhill both at 5?

(I’m also amazed to learn the rate of cycling to the secondary school - Musselburgh Grammar - has fallen from 0.7 per cent in 2008 to 0.6 last year. Is riding a bike when you get to S1 just not cool?)

Given the need to encourage active lifestyles we have to get rates of walking and cycling up, and reduce the need for kids to be driven. Creating safe walking and cycling routes across the town must be a priority. I’m aware the junior road safety officers at Burgh school identified risky junctions, crossings and bad parking on surrounding streets last year but those findings have yet to be acted upon by the local authority.

What’s more, if we look at the ring fenced funding being provided to local authorities for safe routes to schools by the Scottish Government, we see this issue is not being taken at all seriously.

The East Lothian Council budget states that “Cycling Walking Safer Streets” funding has fallen from £153,000 in the financial year just past to £120,000 in each of the next two years. Across Scotland this funding has fallen in the Scottish Government budget from £8.2 million last year to just £8 million this year.

With cuts to funding, not to mention local authority staff, we appear to be accepting that this issue is a low priority. The health of our kids? What could be more important? It’s time to shift this up a gear.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Ticket Machine Victory and the View from Yellowcraig

Last night’s meet up for members of the Scottish Greens in Musselburgh gave time for reflection on the Westminster election, plans for Holyrood next year and local government the year after that. Those of us who live in the Honest Toun had the start of a good discussion on a Green vision for Musselburgh. It’s a town with good points but also challenges, and so much untapped potential. I’m looking forward to more of that discussion.

Victory is mine! The ticket machine at Musselburgh station is back in action. I think if we look at the log of Scotrail activity we’ll notice what spurred them into action: Week 1 - no action; Week 2 - no action; weeks 3 to 6 - no action; week 7 - Green Dad appears on the front of a local newspaper looking slightly grumpy; week 8 - machine is fixed!

A week on and I’m still waiting for a reply from either First Group or East Lothian Council’s “environment” spokesman clarifying if First will roll out new low emissions buses to routes in Musselburgh. The company has trumpeted its investment but hasn’t given details. They also said “we support the efforts of our local authority partners to improve air quality for all,” prompting my query to Cllr Norman Hampshire. Given the silence I can only conclude that East Lothian Council has done nothing to make the case for low emissions vehicles on routes through Musselburgh. Cllr Hampshire certainly seems to have time to retweet messages about “SNP muppets” and Nicola Sturgeon on Panorama. Curious.

To the Primary School Show! The Brunton is packed and the kids give us mums, dads, grandparents and carers a great performance of different songs and TV shows from the 60s to today, ending with the school song composed to mark its 50th anniversary.

I’m cheered by the words of Gordon Henderson of the Federation of Small Businesses, writing in one of the local papers. He’s on about cycle tourism and sporting competitions, and how East Lothian has yet to seize these economic opportunities. East Lothian is a great place for both off and on road cycling and it’ll be a great spectacle when the Tour of Britain comes through in September. But we really should be offering the keen cyclist more. The Cycling Scot blog by Colin Baird has some good ideas for how to join up some of our great cycle paths, tourist attractions and railway stations.

I love libraries. If that makes me uncool, so be it. But they’re brilliant! Even better, I’ve discovered I can reserve titles online to collect next time I’m in. On Saturdays I like to read the review sections of the papers and if I spot a new author or piece of non-fiction that sounds good I can look it up online and ask the lovely librarians to put it aside for me. The simple pleasures in life…

To Yellowcraig! This is Wife-features’ favourite beach, and I love the walk through the countryside from Dirleton to get to the coast. As our bus leaves Musselburgh I look out at the fields at Goshen on the way up to Wallyford. There’s a big planning application to carpet this greenbelt land with housing, industrial units and a school, Handy for the buses and the train station, yes, but is building on the last bit of green space between two towns really the only option? There’s a Facebook page run by local campaigners. Worth a look.
The view from Yellowcraig

We get back from Yellowcraig to catch the end of the Junior Cup Final. Commiserations to Musselburgh Athletic but what an amazing result to get to the final. Let’s see if they can go all the way next time.

So, this “City Deal” that East Lothian is part of. Will it make our economy fairer and greener? I have my doubts! Read more about it here. I’ve asked council officials how they intend to measure the success of the deal and what effort will be made so that low carbon investment is a priority, tackling poverty is a priority and that local people get a say in what projects get funding. I’ll be keeping my eye on this one!

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

"Commuting is a migraine-inducing life-suck."

"Commuting is a migraine-inducing life-suck." I couldn't agree more. There's plenty of evidence that people with lengthy commutes suffer more from pain, stress, obesity, and dissatisfaction.

Living in Musselburgh the commuter culture is obvious to see, with our town centre snarled up every morning and evening. I'd love to see the High St filled instead with adults and children, walking, scooting and cycling as they head to and from work, school, shops and homes.

But even if we accept that there will always been a need for commuting through and out of our town, how do we adapt it to become less stressful and instead a positive contribution to health, the economy and quality of life?

At the moment you couldn't pay me to cycle up Musselburgh High Street, and my own commute by bike into Edinburgh most days is great but not plain sailing.

And if I make a note of all the risky junctions, bad parking and lack of priority for cyclists in the area I end up with a town map more spotted than a Chicken Poxed child.

What other improvements do we need to see in Musselburgh to make it a cycle-friendly community? If we can make a start on these issues we can start to change our "life-suck" commuter culture. Who'd be against that?


Monday, 25 May 2015

Levenhall Lagoons - The Journey Continues

"The ornithological Serengeti of Western Europe." That's how the Levenhall Ash Lagoons are described by some. There's no doubt the area is a magnet for twitchers but to me they are a precious green space on the doorstep of East Lothian's biggest town.

At the weekend the Big Nature Festival (what was the Bird Fair) took over part of the Levenhall site. By all accounts it was a success and I hope it returns next year. The Bairn was hugely impressed with the owl pellet dissection class and we loved looking for weevils in the mini-beast hunt.

If the festival returns next year there may be some industrial-scale activity on site as the lagoons complete their journey from ash sludge piles to landscaped wildlife havens.

It's been a couple of years since Cockenzie power station ceased operating so Scottish Power is understandably keen to hand over responsibility for the lagoons and the associated sea wall. The plans to turn the westernmost ash pile into a wet site for wading birds, and the easternmost ash pile into a slightly-squelchy site for plants and bugs, have support from countryside rangers, RSPB and others.

Over the weekend I helped staff the Friends of Musselburgh Links stall at the festival. The amazing Craig Yorkston from Scottish Power talked himself hoarse by explaining the plans to those who stopped by. I was pleased to see plenty of folk signing up to get updates from the Friends group - we're a real mix of interests but all with a central aim of preserving and enhancing what we've got on our doorstep. We should have some events and activities in the pipeline. Our AGM is at the end of August so I hope to see some new faces.

Meantime you can like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

The Serengeti may have prides of lions but Levenhall has the Cuckoo Bumblebee and the Marmalade Hoverfly! Small is beautiful, after all.

Friday, 22 May 2015

East Lothian "Sustainable" Partnership Drops The Sustainable Bit?

What does the word "sustainable" mean to you? It's a bit jargon-y, yes. But it's so easy for those who speak fluent jargon to insert it into documents and project descriptions and get away with creating a warm, fuzzy feeling.

Sustainable as I understand it refers to environmental sustainability, that is not depriving future generations of a good quality of life by depleting the resources they will need. Increasingly I find the word gets used to mean strength and growth.

Take for example the recently established "partnerships" in East Lothian. These talking shops replace the former community planning groups, and as well as having geographic focus (there is a Musselburgh Partnership and others for each council ward) they have themed partnerships including "Sustainable Economy".

I think most folk would agree that developing an economy in East Lothian that does not deplete resources and deprive our kids and grandkids of quality of life would be A Good Thing. The Sustainable Economy partnership raises this hope by defining the local authority "outcomes" it seeks to support.

These are:

-East Lothian has a growing sustainable economy
-The cycle of poverty is broken for individuals and families in East Lothian
-Communities in East Lothian are able to adapt to climate change and reduced finite natural resources

But wait, what's this? Looking at the minutes of the partnership it is clear they have chosen to focus on a narrower range of outcomes, namely:

-Company growth

Where's the sustainability? And where's the adapting to climate change and preparing for less reliance on finite resources?

I'm further alarmed to discover how this would be measured, even if it were reinstated as an aim of the group.

They are looking at greenhouse gas emissions per person (these have been increasing rather than falling), passenger numbers at local train stations (increasing), recycling of household waste (falling) and single person car use (data not available).

There is no statement of policies to pursue to reduce GHG emissions, and in fact the council have been pursing policies that can only increase emissions, such as a new fossil fuel plant to replace Cockenzie, a bigger Edinburgh city bypass to increase car use and planning permission for housing developments and supermarkets which again encourage car use.

As for passenger numbers at rail stations, how will the council ensure the quality of service keeps up with the demand? Peak hour services are already overcrowded. And when can we expect data on single person car use? The stream of traffic through Musselburgh each morning seems to me to be mostly made of such.

The partnership also appears to have nothing to say about adapting to climate change. In other words, flood prevention, local food networks, better insulated housing, better routes for walking and cycle through and between our communities.

Meantime the council is chipping in up to £75,000 for a City Deal involving Edinburgh and neighbouring authorities. As far as I can tell this would simply try to encourage further growth in the economy and not tackle inequality or sustainability - environmental sustainability. We are the Garden of Scotland and we ignore our impact on resources at our peril.

I'll be keeping an eye on these partnerships to see if they change tack.


Thursday, 21 May 2015

Avoid, Shift, Improve: The Musselburgh Transport Mess

Transport within and through Musselburgh is a messy affair. You'd think East Lothian's biggest town, on the doorstep of Edinburgh, would be well served. In many ways, it is but it's also struggling to cope with its unique position, and there's huge potential going to waste.

For some years now I've been campaigning on the issue of air pollution in the town centre. I notice CCTV cameras have now appeared, monitoring traffic flows. I remain to be convinced that will be helpful. The majority of the traffic in Musselburgh is passing through, so we need to find out where it's coming from/going to and why the alternatives aren't being used by these motorists. We also need to get the bus companies to make their fleets less polluting. There are 500 buses a day along Musselburgh High Street.

I recently spoke to a crew from Edinburgh College making a film about the problem. It's an issue I intend to keep pushing on, given the impact on public health, not to mention the general ambience of our town centre. It should be a place to linger, spend time. At the moment it feels like somewhere you either sit in traffic fuming or scurry along on foot trying not to inhale the fumes!

When we look at other towns and cities around the world and how they have tackled similar problems we see they have pursued three main themes, and we should start to think how these could be applied in the Honest Toun:

Avoid the problem - Can we create more local jobs, services and shops in East Lothian to avoid the need for commuting through Musselburgh into Edinburgh?

Shift the problem - How do we make it easier to walk and cycle rather than drive through our town and between neighbouring communities? How do we make fast, affordable, pleasant bus and train journeys the easy option?

Improve the problem - To my mind this brings us back to buses. We need low emissions vehicles to replace the ageing "belchers".

Other ideas welcome!