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The stranglehold supermarkets have on our spending is being tightened thanks to out-of-date local authorities and councillors who still think the promise of jobs trumps everything else.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.


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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?

Monday, 3 August 2015

Traffic Response Shows East Lothian Leaders Out Of Their Depth

For over two years now I’ve been jabbing away at an important issue in East Lothian’s biggest town. Air quality is shockingly poor in Musselburgh’s High Street and North High Street due to chronic levels of traffic, including 500 buses a day. Last week I left local council leaders coughing and spluttering as I challenged them on their continued lack of action.

You can read the background to my latest effort here. In short:

-Public health is still being harmed by poor quality air

-The council haven’t come up with a plan of action

-There is no evidence that they have asked bus companies to phase out old belching vehicles, despite this being a blindingly obvious first step

-Both the council’s environment spokesman and leader have chosen not to reply to my recent requests for information

The response in the local press from the council leadership speaks volumes, and is worth examining.

Councillor Hampshire, East Lothian Council’s “environment” spokesman, insists that the authority is “trying to work” with bus companies but “cannot force them” to introduce low emissions vehicles. He even suggests I write to the Scottish Government to ask them to legislate on this.

However, a cursory glance at the Local Air Quality Management policy guidance made available to councils shows that the Transport (Scotland) Act 2001 allows any local authority to attach a condition to a bus company’s public licence to reduce air pollution.

The guidance states that the Traffic Commissioner needs a compelling case, so the questions we must now ask are:

-Why isn’t East Lothian Council making the case for low emissions vehicles, as permitted under the Transport Act?

-Is the council’s environment spokesman misleading local people about the council’s options or is he simply unaware and out of his depth in the role?

It’s also clear from the guidance available to councils that the Environment Act 1995 allows “improving air quality” as a reason for restricting access to a road or area to some or all vehicles at different times of day.

In his response to my concerns, Cllr Hampshire appears to claim that restricting traffic in Musselburgh town centre is not an option as there are no alternative roads around the town. Is it just my imagination or did we not build a new A1 bypass in 1987? No, it’s not a mirage. There it is on Google maps.

And if you plug in some typical journeys from parts of East Lothian to Edinburgh you can see it’s quicker to take the bypass than go through the Honest Toun, so another question we must now ask is:

-Why isn’t East Lothian Council engaging with commuters determined to stick with private cars to point out that by bypassing Musselburgh they will save time and help protect public health?

Finally, Cllr Hampshire mentions changes to traffic light sequences, so the last question I have for now is:

-Where is the evidence that this has improved air quality?

My vision for Musselburgh town centre is that is becomes a safe and healthy place for people, where you can spend time, run a business or raise a family. Back in 2011 a huge public survey of 1,200 people was carried out and the main comments gathered were:

So, has the council acted on local aspirations and improved walking and cycling routes to the High Street? No. Has it created community spaces for events and activities outside the Town Hall, the Brunton and by the river at Shorthope Street? No. What has it done since 2011? Added more car parking outside the Town Hall to encourage traffic!

The uphill struggle continues…