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. 

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