Friday, 27 November 2015

How To Energise Our Town Centres

It’s Black Friday, that crazy American import involving shoppers going berserk for cut price white goods. This year, so far, there appears little sign of such frenzy. It can be hard to resist the advances of big retail. Giant, omnipresent firms such as Tesco are woven into our lives. Have you ever tried avoiding buying from these guys? It’s a nightmare!

The stranglehold supermarkets have on our spending is being tightened thanks to out-of-date local authorities and councillors who still think the promise of jobs trumps everything else. They never seem to consider that when a chain store opens it inevitably causes smaller rivals to shut up shop. One study has shown that every time a large supermarket opens, on average 276 local jobs are lost. So the key question is does the community get more jobs, better jobs, and do the profits stay in the area?
Squeezing local suppliers, pay poverty wages and sucking profits out of local economies. Every little helps!

Just recently Tesco, which has a mammoth store on the edge of Musselburgh town centre, got permission from the local councillors for HGV deliveries at night. Residents living nearby already know how disruptive deliveries can be. The ultimate aim of Tesco’s request is to make more money, yet in approving the extension one local councillor said the benefits the store brought to the community, including employment, should be considered.

I’d like to see evidence of those apparent benefits.

For a start, Tesco don’t pay the Living Wage. They’ve even been whining about paying George Osborne’s not-quite Living Wage. There’s a petition to get them to get their finger out here.

It’s also well known that supermarkets suck money out of local economies. A study by the Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland found that large supermarket developments led to fewer town centre retailers, an increase in vacant units and a fall in business for existing retailers.

Here’s a good piece by Rob Hopkins of the Transition movement contrasting our supermarket culture with the fresh, local retail culture other countries enjoy.

East Lothian Council has an economic strategy and it’s worth taking a look because “energising” our town centres appears to be a priority.

Sadly, the list of “actions” is nothing more than warm words.

Is anyone aware of any “distinctive branding” for Musselburgh, or any of East Lothian’s towns? Has the council “explored” opportunities for business space in town centres? How does supporting farmers’ markets help Musselburgh given we don’t have a farmers’ market? And how do out of town developments help town centres? Does the council really believe that having the multinational chain store bonanza that is Fort Kinnaird on our doorstep helps Musselburgh High St in any way?

As for support for parking, we know only too well that car is king. The redevelopment of the High Street was an opportunity to prioritise space for walking and cycling but instead we got more car parking, and hey – what do you know – the traffic congestion and air pollution haven’t got any better.

What’s more I had asked the council to install bollards in the area to prevent parking on pavements and dodgy three-point turns but no bollards were installed.

One item on that list is worth praising, though. Supporting ‘shop local’ schemes. The scheme (I’m only aware of one) encourages people to shop in local stores and if you spend enough you go into a draw to win a whopping cheque. It sounds good but upon closer inspection I see the Honest Toun is something of a poor relation.

Of the 120 or so businesses listed as taking part across East Lothian only 5 are in Musselburgh. And one of them had my custom the other day but didn’t know anything about the Shop Local scheme. I think the council’s pledge to “energise” our town centres needs an energy boost of its own!

Saturday 5 December is Small Business Saturday and I would encourage you to seek out local retailers if you’re hunting for Christmas gifts. Last year I did just that in North Berwick and it was genuinely relaxing. I dread to think what it would have been like if I’d gone in the opposite direction and headed into Edinburgh city centre or even Fort Kinnaird.

I mentioned the opportunity the council had to make Musselburgh better for walking and cycling. After a year of waiting we now have some bike racks in the High Street but sadly we don’t have the local safe cycling road space to go with them.

Here’s a great article making clear the benefits of creating such space. Local stores get a boost and cyclists spend more than motorists.

As well as being Black Friday today is the day the council closes its consultation on bringing back traffic wardens. I have chipped in my thoughts. One point I’ve made to the council is that they seem to be planning to use the income from parking fines to improve parking. I’d rather that money went into energising our town centres with fresh air, space for walking and cycling, and new businesses. Let’s at least try to give the Tescos of this world a run for their money.


Friday, 13 November 2015

Proposed Local Plan Wipes Out Green Belt, Fails To Say No To Fracking, Air Pollution Plan Remains A Mystery

It’s D-Day on Tuesday. Or LDP-Day to be precise.

The Local Development Plan for East Lothian, drafted by officials and following public consultation on the Main Issues Report, will be voted on by councillors meeting at the Brunton Hall in Musselburgh.
The Honest Toun is an appropriate venue for the meeting as there are some honest truths that need said in the debate. Will any of our councillors have the guts to speak up? Have they listened to their communities?

I’ve dipped into the report – it is 154 pages long. I'll attempt to tackle some of the more obvious problems I’ve spotted.

My main focus is on Musselburgh as that is where the bulk of the development is proposed. East Lothian as a whole is expected to come up with land for 10,000 new houses over the next ten years. There’s a proposal for a new town at the old opencast coal mine at Blindwells north of Tranent. But for now I’d like to concentrate of what is being planned for Musselburgh.

The main headline is the recommendation that over 3,000 new homes be built in the Musselburgh area, including 1,000 on greenbelt land at Goshen. Goshen is also earmarked for a new secondary school. The existing Musselburgh Grammar is at bursting point. The way forward on schooling in Musselburgh will also be discussed at the councillors’ meeting in the Brunton but the public will be excluded and no papers are available to view so I don’t know what information officials will feed them.
MGS - at capacity

As for the LDP, the officials acknowledge that local infrastructure is constrained. Yet just a few paragraphs later they talk about using “existing infrastructure capacity”! It’s either constrained or has capacity. Which is it?

This is flawed plan full of contradictions.

In terms of Musselburgh’s existing air pollution problem, the plan says further technical work will be needed to work out “interventions”, and these will need to be costed. In other words, councillors are being asked to agree to allow thousands of extra houses to be built, which they know will worsen an existing problem, without knowing what can be done to minimise that impact and without knowing how much that would cost.
It’s a bit like if you’re struggling to breathe because the rucksack on your back is full and you’re being asked to strap an extra bag to your back on a promise that somebody might come along to ease your burden, although they might empty your wallet in the process. My reaction would be to dump the existing backpack right now!

Developers’ contributions are mentioned. Does this mean if Ashfield get permission for 1,000 homes at Goshen they have to pay to stop air pollution getting worse? What does that look like? Given the solutions and costs Ashfield would have to stump up for haven’t been identified, allocating Goshen for housing is doubly presumptive.

Deeper into the document there’s more detail about the air pollution situation. The only hint we get at what might be done to tackle the problem is “likely improvements” to the bus fleet and relocation of bus stops. As readers will be aware, I’ve long called for improvements to the 500 buses a day that go up Musselburgh High Street, yet when I put this to the council’s so-called environment spokesman, Labour councillor Norman Hampshire, he told the local press that the council couldn’t do anything about emissions from buses. I already have confirmation from transport authorities that ELC does have the power to enforce low emission vehicles in its area, and now the council’s officials are writing this into the local plan. Cllr Hampshire is clearly out of his depth.

As for relocation of bus stops, unless these are completely outwith the air pollution zone – the whole of the High Street – I don’t see how that will help public health. Along with heart disease, we learned this week that exposure to traffic pollution is also linked to type 2 diabetes.

The LDP is quite clear that the effect of extra development in the area will increase traffic flow and emissions. The transport strategy diagram that comes with the plan features a mysterious “road proposals” symbol on Musselburgh town centre. What is the proposal? Or is the council inviting answers on a postcard?
Mystery "road proposal" for Musselburgh

There’s also a reference to new developments being encouraged to avoid exacerbating the problem by planting trees and installing electric car charging points. With 3,000 houses, we’re going to need a hell of a lot of trees and plug sockets!

The plan would require the redefinition of the greenbelt boundary. The belt would become occasional freckles on the map. Just look at the “spatial strategy” map. Almost every last remaining bit of greenspace is to be filled in – 15 sites for development, and only one for safeguarding.
Spot the safeguarded bit of land if you can!

A final point I’d note is the LDP’s reference to unconventional gas extraction, otherwise known as fracking. The plan coyly says the policy has been updated. East Lothian Council in fact had no policy on this issue till now.

It says proposals for onshore oil and gas exploration will be supported if they meet certain conditions. That goes for open cast coal as well. This is a far cry from a fracking-free East Lothian so many of us had hoped for, and goes against the international consensus that we already have access to more fossil fuels than we can afford to burn if we want to limit climate change. There’s also no specific reference to underground coal gasification. Areas of the Forth off Musselburgh are licensed for it but any infrastructure would be required on land.

So, who is this plan for and what’s driving it? Have people been listened to?

The population projections leading to the need to create space for 10,000 homes must be challenged. Yes there are housing pressures but we have derelict land, such as the old Tesco site in the middle of Musselburgh, which I understand is part-owned by East Lothian Council. Let’s start with that. 

My verdict on the LDP? Stick it in the bin and start again!

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Growing Musselburgh - Opportunities And Constraints

This week the Scottish Government published the latest strategy to tackle air pollution. Readers will be aware it’s a bugbear of mine; I live in Musselburgh town centre where toxic emissions from traffic are so bad the whole High Street is classed as a hotspot with the local authority under a duty to come up with a plan to clean it up. Getting to my house, going shopping and doing the school run shouldn’t be a game of roulette with my family’s health.
Musselburgh High St - roulette with health

Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the government’s latest “plan” is more a bunch of ideas – ideas that have been circulating for decades. What we need is practical action now, with funding to make it happen.

And what of that duty upon East Lothian Council to clean up Musselburgh’s air pollution? Well, the council didn’t bother to respond to the government’s consultation on its strategy. That perhaps tells you how important they regard this issue.

The council’s so-called environment spokesman and its leader are continuing to blank me in my recent request for information on the situation. I contacted the chief executive and in turn have had a reply from a senior official who tells me a briefing note is being prepared for me on the matter. He points out that the issue is directly linked with the development of the local plan. (ELC is under pressure to allocate land for 10,000 houses over the next 10 years.) The draft proposed plan will be considered by councillors on 17 November. It seems the outcome of that meeting will inform the development of the Air Quality Management Action Plan for Musselburgh.

I’m pleased to get an update, as small as it is, from a senior official. It’s a worry that I need to agitate for this stuff though. The issue of the local plan and development around Musselburgh is something I’ll come back to in a moment but on the actual pollution issue, I’ve long wondered what role the NHS has in this. Musselburgh East (the council ward that contains the High St) does have a higher than average rate of patients hospitalised with asthma. Is there a connection?

I’ve learned that under the Public Health (Scotland) Act 2008 NHS Lothian, in partnership with the local authorities in its area, must prepare a joint health protection plan. And here it is.

The plan was agreed in April last year, a full five months after Musselburgh High St was declared the county’s first Air Quality Management Area, yet there is no mention of this in the plan. Talk about an oversight! Did East Lothian Council fail to notify the health board? Did the health board not think to ask? Do none of the people involved in putting together this plan read local newspapers?

NHS/Local authority joint health protection plan doesn't mention Musselburgh air pollution

The plan says it is due for revision in March. Let’s hope Musselburgh gets a mention.

And so to the council’s local development plan. Recently one of Musselburgh’s 6 councillors (How many can you name, and do you know what they do?) publicly stated his opposition to the proposal for 1,000 new homes at Goshen between Levenhall and Wallyford. While I agree with Stuart Currie that the development looks likely to overwhelm the town’s existing infrastructure, I wonder how wise he is to make such a declaration, as it means he now can’t vote on the proposal – and in controversial planning decisions every vote counts. There’s a petition about the development here.

More importantly, has Currie ruled himself out of voting on the whole local plan on 17 November? If it recommends the land at Goshen for housing will he be able to vote against it, reflecting the view of many local people?

In all of this there was a very telling comment from the developer, Ashfield Land, whose director said: “One of the key challenges faced by the council is delivering vital development on sites, rather than have them simply lying undeveloped, as is so frequently witnessed.”

Let’s not forget Goshen is greenbelt. That’s why it’s “undeveloped”! It’s also untaxed. Maybe if such sites were taxed we’d have two things – money from landowners to invest in infrastructure for the good of the community, and an incentive to bring urban derelict land into productive use. The old Tesco site in the middle of Musselburgh seems like a good example of that.
From the council's Main Issues Report

If we look at all the development happening and earmarked to happen around Musselburgh – Goshen, Wallyford, QMU, Pinkie – it’s clear we’re at a fork in the road. In one direction we could pursue concentrated growth in the Musselburgh area, overwhelming our infrastructure but preserving the rest of the county, and worsening the public health crisis in our biggest town centre.

In the other direction we could pursue a vision of a greener Musselburgh and East Lothian, with brownfield sites used for housing, restrictions placed on the most polluting vehicles in our biggest town centre, and the creation of more local employment to reduce commuting into Edinburgh. 

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Funding, Fresh Air and Freedom - Analysing East Lothian Council Priorities

On Tuesday there's a full meeting of East Lothian Council. Do try to keep calm at that thrilling prospect, and carry on reading this blog.

You see, the items due for discussion are pretty important. There's an audit of the council's finances, there's a highly political motion about the regressive council tax freeze, and there's a glaring omission from the council's stated priorities for the next year.

First up, the annual audit, by KPMG. 

This highlights that a key challenge for the council is financial constraint, including the Scottish Government's council tax reduction scheme. Funding for this is static so is in effect a real-terms cut. And there's a further risk as there is an increase in properties affected but the funding from government is fixed, not demand-led, so will further stretch the council's finances.

Then there's the annual performance report. 

One of the key findings in this for me is that only 22 per cent of people feel they can influence decisions affecting their local area. If that's not a demonstration of how centralised our democracy has become, I don't know what is. It relates to a motion put forward by the SNP opposition on the council - I'll come to that shortly.

Elsewhere in the performance report there's a reference to the issue I've been campaigning on in Musselburgh for the past few years - the appalling traffic congestion and air pollution in the town centre. The report states: "An air quality action plan has been developed." Has it? This is news to me! I recently asked the council's environment spokesman for an update and he ignored me; likewise the council leader. I have now been in touch with the council's chief executive to ask for an update from senior officials.
Musselburgh's air pollution - not a priority for East Lothian Council

The performance report contains a number of "indicators" to measure how well the council is doing. Sadly, air quality is not an indicator. The report also highlights an astonishing figure - half of all the journeys to work in East Lothian are single person car journeys. Again, sadly, this is not listed as an indicator of performance. If our local authority is serious about improving public health, helping town centre regeneration and reducing climate emissions I fail to see why it doesn't set itself a target of reducing air pollution and single person car journeys.

There is however good news in the report. Surveys show everyone loves their local libraries, parks and leisure facilities. I agree with that!

Then there's the Council Plan. 

It's good to see priority being given to developing vocational education in local schools and partnering with Edinburgh College - an issue I've blogged about before and I campaigned on during the Westminster election.

There are warm words about regeneration of town centres and developing town centre plans - of course Musselburgh already has a town centre plan developed by local people but it was ignored in favour of some new slabs and a slightly larger car park.
Musselburgh town centre - before and after. Transformational!

The Council Plan says 20mph zones will be rolled out "where demand exists" - so it's up to us as locals to get vocal. And again, sadly, there is no mention of air pollution. It is not a priority for the coming year.

Finally at Tuesday's meeting, we have a motion from the SNP opposition on the "overfunding" of the council tax freeze.

Given the numbers on the council (it's run by a Labour-Tory-Independent coalition) the motion won't be approved so it's clearly designed as a get-it-right-up-ye piece of posturing.

The motion references a report by the Scottish Parliament's financial scrutiny unit which estimates that the money provided by the Government to freeze the council tax has resulted in local authorities receiving more income than they would have done by increasing rates by inflation.

What the motion doesn't reference is the details, caveats and context of the report, such as:

"It is a cumulative figure and it only equates to around 1 per cent of the cumulative council tax income for local authorities over the same time period. Of course, there is no way of knowing by how much each local authority would have raised council tax."

So, in short, the SNP councillors are trumpeting a drop in the ocean and appear to be celebrating the lack of local democracy - who knows how much could have been raised to protect frontline services and jobs and minimise charges in East Lothian had the council had the freedom to do so?

An alternative motion would recognise the report's finding that over the eight years of the current SNP Government its budget has been cut by three per cent while it in turn has cut the local government budget by six per cent. But flinging any figures around is unlikely to get cross-party support. Perhaps a more constructive approach would be a motion recognising that Scotland's local government isn't local and doesn't govern, and reform is long overdue.

Central control of funding has exacerbated the flaws in the council tax, which is based on property values from 24 years ago. It's a broken system. The Scottish Government knows that reform is needed, and set up a local tax commission, due to report soon.

Local authorities should have freedom to raise funds and spend them, with a choice of progressive measures such as land, wealth and visitor taxes, as is commonplace in other European countries. We need to trust ourselves to do this stuff. That earlier figure of only 22 per cent of people feeling they can influence decisions in their part of East Lothian should be a call to action for our councillors.

Whatever the local tax commission's findings, the fact it has taken place shows the direction of travel. Those who plan to cling to an outdated, regressive tax freeze will be well and truly left behind.

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.


Follow me on Twitter
On Facebook

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.