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The stranglehold supermarkets have on our spending is being tightened thanks to out-of-date local authorities and councillors who still think the promise of jobs trumps everything else.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