Sunday, 24 August 2014

Mining For Metaphors On The Indyref Trail

100 years ago this week the East Lothian press reported the activity of the local school board: “Arrangements are being made for the feeding of necessitous children.”

Today, I read not only that 22,000 children have used foodbanks in Scotland in the past year but that the charities operating them noticed a spike in demand over the school summer holidays. It would appear despite the passing of an entire century that the only nutritional meal some children get is a free one at school.

In the week that my Bairn started P1 (she loved it and I managed not to blub) I’ve been thinking a lot about the ingrained poverty and inequality that families experience in the area where I grew up almost four decades ago.

Today the communities of Tranent and Prestonpans remain on the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD). 2 “data zones” in Tranent, one of which includes the streets I used to play kerby on as a boy, are ranked as being among the 20 per cent most deprived in the whole of Scotland.

By deprivation, the number crunchers mean low employment, low income, high levels of crime, overcrowded poorly-heated housing, poor health, children absent from school and low education grades.

12.6 per cent in that zone claim Job Seeker’s Allowance compared to 0.8 per cent just half a mile away in more modern housing estates on the south-eastern edge of town. Across the Fa’side council ward which includes Tranent and surrounding villages such as Ormiston and Pencaitland household income varies massively; there’s a £310 per week gap between the most and least affluent neighbourhoods.

Tranent has grown and changed a lot since I was a bairn there. My memories are of pretty much every family being in the same boat; living in a council house with a dad who did hard graft. My old man was a soldier, my pal Jamie’s dad worked down the open cast coal mine; and my Papa was a haulier. A lot of mums, aunties and grans I knew worked part time in shops or as cooks and cleaners.

The town’s coat of arms shows a farmer and a miner. Today mining makes up 0 per cent of local employment; farming along with forestry just two per cent. The biggest sectors are health and social work, retail, motor vehicle repair and construction.

The relatively new housing that has grown around the outskirts of the town has attracted families who commute to offices and retail parks in Edinburgh for work and has given a lift up for those who wanted to get out of the council estates. But it would seem little has been done to give a lift up to those who find themselves in those estates, hence the continued state of deprivation.

Out delivering Yes leaflets the other day I found myself on the row of council houses where I spent most childhood weekends. One of my grans and a great aunt lived a few doors apart and in front of their houses was a great green, perfect for football, Frisbee and even tennis. This time there were no kids playing. Instead the green has a No Ball Games sign whacked in the middle of it, and as I stared dumfoonert at it I noticed a motorist in an SUV mount the pavement to park on the green so they could be nearer their front door.

The high street has changed too, not that it was ever pretty you understand. Channel 4’s Absolutely used a shot of Tranent Civic Square for the Stoneybridge promotional vido - maybe that gives you a clue to what I looked like. These days there’s a No Militia memorial, some trees and a redundant angular-shaped library building. It’s now the foodbank.

Tranent is what you might call a Labour heartland. But for all its historic links to socialist politics through the miners’ struggles, I genuinely fail to see what good Labour is doing the place anymore. That party has had a chance to improve Tranent’s lot by being in positions of influence at all levels: Westminster, Holyrood, Haddington. And yet it remains on the SIMD.

Today Labour politicians at UK level talk about helping Britons make their first million, capping welfare and continuing austerity. They want to spend billions on nuclear weapons, are happy with 850 unelected Lords deciding on our laws and have no plans to reform Westminster’s unfair voting system which resulted in most East Lothian voters choosing someone other than the person who became MP.

Those at Scottish level berate the idea of universal public services and label a transformation in childcare as a bribe, while those at local authority level seem to think the opening of a third betting shop on the high street is a proud symbol of a great tradition.

Tranent in many ways represents Scotland. Over the decades some parts have developed and improved while others have been allowed to become disconnected, with the gap between the two growing. When we look at decisions taken by the Scottish Parliament on health and education - by Labour, Libdems, SNP and Greens - we see an attitude that wants to close that gap but is limited in what it can do.

The former Labour MP for East Lothian, John P Mackintosh, famously said that Scots want a degree of control. Those who knew him say he’d probably be voting Yes if he were alive today. His party seems to have twisted his words into support for the UK, when in fact his view was that the people should decide how much control they want. Even if there is a No vote in the referendum, when do the people get to decide how much control they get? The answer is they won’t. They’ll get a vote in May 2015 which may lead to something that a party put in a manifesto but is highly unlikely to be what people actually want and need.

The folk I’ve spoken to in Tranent see the attraction of getting rid of Trident, ending the influence of the House of Lords and shifting decisions to a parliament that more accurately reflects what Scotland thinks. None of those things is on offer with the No vote being advocated by Labour.

I mentioned that the old library’s now a foodbank. There is a new library round the corner. It’s named after George Johnstone, a miner who in the 1920s saved 50 colleagues from drowning in a Tranent pit. Despite being warned that he would lose his life if he tried to save them, Johnstone got to them, and together they tunnelled by hand for five hours to get out.

I can only hope my old neighbourhood, and others like it, realise the opportunity they have to tunnel out. We’re being warned by some that it’s risky but together we can do it, and show what we’re made of.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Car Is King In Honest Toun

I’ve spoken before about the problems of air pollution in Musselburgh town centre and the weirdhostility in some quarters to the idea of allowing people to enjoy a bit of public space.

Well, work has now begun – and is due to last until just before Christmas – on a programme of pavement and parking refurbishment at the easternmost end of the town’s High Street.

There was of course a grand plan for a town square, following heaps of comments from local people, but the current council have seen fit to shelve it, instead coming up with a patch up and re-jig job to refresh the pavements and amend the lay-out of the area’s parking spaces.

We’re always hearing how important town centres are yet I’m afraid what’s happening in the Honest Toun right now simply demonstrates the lack of action behind such warm words.

The first I knew about the patch up job was a letter from the council telling me it was about to happen, including a satisfaction survey for me to complete after the job is done. No consultation.

Having looked at the drawings I contacted the council and after a fortnight got a reply.

Apparently the normal working hours of the contractors will be 8am to 4.30 but work out with these hours will be required. I suppose the prospect of a pneumatic drill outside our house at 7am on a Saturday isn’t as bad as the hideous Orange band striking up during marching season.

Key to any improvements in a town centre like Musselburgh should be traffic reduction and promotion of walking, cycling and public transport as these will increase footfall and spending for businesses, and improve air quality for the benefit of public health. However, in reply to my questions the council confirms that the project involves the creation of more car parking spaces, not fewer. It also appears that bus stops outside the old Post Office and Luca’s are to be removed, with a replacement bus stop much further east beyond the Pinkie Pillars.

During the consultation on the grander plans I did make a case for cyclists, and I’m pleased to see that bike racks are to be installed outside the old Post Office and Luca’s. I also like the look of built-out sections of pavement at Pinkie Pillars to narrow the entrance to the High Street, hopefully encouraging boy racers and generally inconsiderate drivers to keep the heid.

I’ve blogged before about the problems of motorists parking on local pavements and I’m told that bollards will installed at “strategic” locations. However, it seems the additional parking spaces being provided are in some way meant to be a response. So, rather than making it harder to park and easier to walk, cycle and catch the bus, the council is making it easier to park.

Given the council’s stated priority of sustainability and the fact that it has been forced to declare the High Street East Lothian’s only air quality management zone, I don’t see how this refurbishment work was approved. It’s an enormous missed opportunity, does not have a public mandate and will if anything contribute to increased traffic, poorer air quality and lack of retail vibrancy.

Still, maybe I should be celebrating a small victory - the arrival of the High Street’s first bike rack! Yes, that’s what I’ll do. As the new parking spaces are laid I’ll channel Lt Col Kilgore from Apocalypse Now. I love the smell of tarmac in the morning. Smells like victory.