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?

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