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…