Monday, 25 March 2013

Voterspotting and Shadow Puppets

A day and an hour loomed large this week.

The day – 18 Sep 2014 – is our date with… democratic reform. “Destiny” sounds unnecessarily stirring. Call me Mr Tidy but for me this is about creating clear lines of governance and audit rather than fulfilling something the Corries might have penned.

I had hoped the popular press, who surely have an interest in this battle going to the wire, would try to be a bit open-minded. The Daily Mail helpfully drew a diagram to show its readers how to vote No in 500 days’ time. Tired old phrases like “Break Up Britain” continue to be cranked out. Sigh.

To their credit Scotland on Sunday have been running a series of think pieces, occasionally getting beyond the usual soundbites, and I genuinely hope this piece by Karine Polwart reaches a good chunk of the Undecideds. It’s inspiring stuff and certainly strikes a chord when I force myself to watch Question Time which increasingly looks like it’s reflecting a completely different planet.

I had a wee chuckle at the Sunday Times’ effort at boiling down the sections of society the campaigns will be probably be targeting. They cleverly illustrated the piece with a Trainspotting theme. Look, there’s a man, a lady, another couple of blokes and a man in a Brigadoon outfit. He’s a Highlander. Oh yes. Because, you know, that’s how everyone dresses as they trundle round Tesco Extra on the Inverness Retail Park.
Key voters: Youth, lady, clipboard man, bunnet man, and, er...

If only there was another image they could have used to illustrate “Highlander”. Maybe rather than a stereotype they could have used someone famous from the North. Like Kevin McKidd from Elgin. Who was in Trainspotting. Too clever?

So far my experiences of talking to people who haven’t decided about the referendum fall into two categories. The first group of people don’t really want to think too much about it but aren’t ruling out taking an interest nearer the time. The other group are those who have strong political feelings and are curious about how independence can help get them what they’re after.

In chunks of East Lothian there’s an ingrained Labour vote. ‘Tie a red rag round a brush and people will vote for it,’ was an expression I recall from childhood in the mining community of Tranent. My father’s grandfather, a chap called Lees, was apparently famous as one of the few Tory supporters in the town and would pin blue rosettes to his delivery horses at election time, only for them to be pelted with veg as they made their rounds.

It’s becoming clear those traditional Labour voters are key, with many confirming to me they understand they can vote Yes next year and go back to their traditional voting pattern the year after in the hope of unseating the Tories from Westminster. Whether they then go back to voting Labour in the Holyrood election in 2016 is another matter entirely given the party’s increasing number of grey policy areas.

During these chats I often detect an appetite for something other than the usual main flavours, at which point I remind folk you get two votes in a Scottish Parliament election and the regional vote uses proportional representation to elect 7 MSPs rather than one. Like Karine said in her piece, her Green vote does actually count.

So that’s the day that loomed large. What about the hour? Well, it was arguably more important than the referendum – Earth Hour on Saturday. (I remain amazed at some hardcore Nats who insist we need independence first and then we can figure out stuff like climate change. Why would you argue to get control of something without saying what you’d do with it?)

I am usually a wee bit sceptical of campaigns that go mainstream. Earth Hour is a good example. This year it felt like Comic Relief with lots of people pledge their support and being seen to be doing so. I can’t help thinking the excitement of going without electric light on a Saturday night overshadows the real need to conserve power all year round, and for the transition to renewables to gather pace.

Speaking of shadows the Bairn had a whale of a time in her candlelit bath. Getting her Octonauts toys to act out their usual adventures but via the medium of shadow puppetry gave them a whole new lease of life.
Barnacles reacts to the SNP's climate change plan

This week parliament debates the Scottish Government’s proposals and policies for reducing carbon emissions, which frankly are beyond the rescue of even Captain Barnacles and his polar bear might. We need to cut emissions from transport and housing by investing in walking, cycling and public transport and by insulating homes properly. Instead the government appears to be pinning hopes on a mystery solution when they’re in their dotage. The first emissions targets were missed; they blamed extremely cold weather. Thank goodness that’s unlikely to happen again!

On an unrelated note, do excuse me: I must rub some more goose fat under my thermals and crank up the radiators a bit more. In true dad style I am livid at the prospect of still having the central heating on as the calendar flips over to say April.

Monday, 18 March 2013

So Long And Thanks For All The Ash

So the chimneys of Cockenzie coal power station have stopped belching. After 45 years the plant has been switched off. It could generate 3,500 Gigawatt hours of electricity, enough to supply a million homes. Yet we seem to be managing fine without.

There’s the obvious question about what happens next on the site. Iberdrola have permission to convert the plant to gas but they’re waiting for the UK Government to decide on prices and general direction.

The gas option would lock us into burning more fossil fuels. As we know, we already have more fossil fuel reserves than we can safelyburn if we want to limit climate change. In short, some of this stuff has to stay in the ground.

And at a local level if the gas idea steams ahead I’d like to think East Lothian folk would make a fuss about the massive pipelinethat would be required across the county – through some incredibly productive farmland – to connect the station to the gas grid.

But perhaps the overlooked issue here is the legacy Cockenzie’s coal-burning has left us. The fact that Bill Kelly flicked the off switch last Friday morning after breakfast has perhaps created the impression a line has been drawn under the station’s activities. But just a short distance to the west there’s a live legacy and it’s not pretty.

Check out these fly ash lagoons. They extend for miles along the coast to the mouth of the River Esk. I’ve blogged before about thebeautiful bits. In some places nature has taken over and created some wonderful habitats, and it’s a superb green space on the doorstep of East Lothian’s biggest town. But some chunks remain grim and in very poor condition. By all accounts Scottish Power don’t give a hoot. They have bigger issues to consider.

There is a proposal to have the ash lagoons area designated as a local nature reserve but until Scottish Power get their finger out there’s little anyone can do.

The legacy of burning coal for half a century also reminds me of what fly ash is. It’s highly toxic and needs constantly wetted to prevent it blowing around. Coincidentally this week’s East Lothian Courier contained an archive article from 1988 in which an ash storm from the lagoons covered houses, cars and the golf course at Musselburgh. One person, with no previous history of respiratory problems, was diagnosed as suffering from bronchitis.

I’m also constantly reminded of East Lothian’s coal-mining and burning legacy thanks to the high prevalence of diseases like emphysema.

Before Christmas East Lothian Council nodded through theidea of replacing Cockenzie with another fossil-fuel plant yet it’s going to great lengths to consult on guidance for planning permission relating to windturbines. It all seems rather back to front. Where we have a chance to generate power cleanly we should grab it, and where there’s a risk of repeating dirty follies we should say no thanks.

Monday, 4 March 2013

B Roads And Branch Lines

The Bairn has taken to biking like a, well… Like a wee lassie whose dad is mad about bikes.

For Christmas Santa brought her a scooter but we’ve not been out and about on it much. The underused secondhand tricycle we carted down the road from Nairn over a year ago has instead become the vehicle of choice.

A few times now we’ve been down the street and around the block, and on at least a couple of occasions we’ve been a fair distance to a play park and back. Amazingly I don’t have to stoop and push terribly often - she’s pretty self-propelling.
Flouting the rules. That's my girl!

We’re lucky in that although we’re in a town centre and near some busy roads we do have a few areas of wide pavement and we don’t have to go too far to find some paths away from traffic and into parks or onto the links at the beach.

I guess at some point the scooter will take over and then it’ll be fun to see if we can move on to a balance bike or similar. I think one of our pals whose son is a few years older than the Bairn has offered a bike he’s outgrown, and we can take it away later this year.

Bizarrely the Honest Toun has been without a bike shop for a few years. The place is often swarming with cyclists and the route through from Edinburgh out along the coast towards North Berwick is incredibly popular with MAMILs. Thankfully a bike shop has just opened at the Fisherrow end of town. Ace Bike Co behind the Brunton Theatre already appears to be doing brisk trade and quite how they resisted ticking me off for the state of my commuting bike when I took it in for a service I’ll never know. I do sort of miss the mannie from the Nairn bike shop who used to roll his eyes and sigh whenever I hirpled my mud-caked calamity of a bike across his threshold for inspection.

To make the most of my freshly tuned machine (I was genuinely thrilled at having all 24 gears available again) I took it out for a bit of a thrashing around the B roads of East Lothian.

Skies beginning to bruise over Macmerry
Following the River Esk to its mouth and going along the sea wall by the ash lagoons made for a peaceful, flat start with distant landmarks like Cockenzie power station and North Berwick Law to spur me on. I spotted what I think were a couple of grebes in the sea and powered along towards the twin chimneys. (The power station shuts down in a couple of weeks and amazingly Iberdrola who own Scottish Power have no immediate plans to do anything with the site. There has been talk of conversion from coal to gas but who knows? Even more amazingly I learned only recently the station has never used all the heat it generates for anything useful - it just goes out to sea, hence the near-tropical waters off Port Seton. Bonkers when you think in years gone by across the road there were probably folk huddled round Calor Gas heaters in drafty council houses!)

Just before Seton Sands I turned inland and uphill to Seton Mains Farm and along a path by the dual carriageway towards Longniddry. Then again inland and uphill towards the Motherland of Pencaitland before dropping down into Macmerry. Along the old A1 (to think this was the main road to London until the late 80s) to Tranent, then up to Elphinstone (please pronounce as Elfason and not El Fing Stone) and down some very muddy tracks to Fa’side Castle.

Then a great freewheel downhill towards the sunset over the Pentland Hills, through Inveresk and into Musselburgh. Total trip? Probably 20 miles.

Pentland sunset
B roads are preferable to A roads but even then it seems it doesn’t take much of a straight stretch to encourage motorists to put their foot to the floor on what are basically country lanes with hedgerows and little room for manoeuvre. I’d like to think back in the day when I was behind the wheel I gave cyclists not only room but the courtesy of reduced speed upon passing. My experience of East Lothian roads suggests courtesy is a mysterious concept for most drivers.

Of course there are some great tracks and paths, in particular the old railway lines. Occasionally there is talk of trying to revive the Longniddry-Haddington line but I reckon it’d be pretty pricey. It is weird that the county town isn’t on the rail network and bus services are so shoddy. Of course if the line was reinstated we’d have to find a fresh route for bicycles and I can only imagine that would mean a route on roads. Something of a backwards step as the old rail routes provide such a safe place to cycle, especially for kids.

It probably makes more sense to improve the bus services. However, the rail line does go through East Linton and it’s a thriving wee community so I can see a case for opening a station there.

As for opening new stations I’m already imagining a future bike trip when the Bairn’s older in which we cycle along the old line to Dalkeith, hop on the new train service to the Borders at the new Eskbank station, alight at Tweedbank, pootle around the backroads and forests of Selkirk, Gala and Melrose and hop on the Waverley line back home having loaded up on tea and slabs of buttered bannock.

Epicurus, the ancient PR account executive for joy and simplicity, said: “Bread and water confer the highest possible pleasure.”

I reckon the modern equivalent must be bikes, trains and cakes.