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!”