Student planning heightens community concerns

SouthsideAt the end of last month I attended a community meeting to discuss the high number of planning applications for student accommodation in Edinburgh’s Southside.

The area’s links to Edinburgh University make it a popular site for developers but many residents have approached me to raise concerns that the situation is now at breaking point with hundreds of student flats in the planning pipeline.

In an echo of previous community campaigns in the area, there was a high turnout from local residents keen to demonstrate the community’s desire to work together to make its concerns known.

Edinburgh University is an internationally respected institution and a source of pride for the city.  Its continuing success and expansion is welcome and nobody is trying to say that we don’t need new accommodation.   However, it is vital that the right balance is struck for the benefit of the community.

This issue goes to the heart of the planning process which should work to deliver strong communities.   An important part of that process is to ensure a mix of residents whether they are students, young families, single households or elderly people.   I don’t believe it is in the best interest of communities if we box these groups off from one another in distinct districts.  However, across a number of areas of the city, students account for more than half of the resident population.

One issue that I am keen to see addressed is the availability of affordable housing in the Southside and elsewhere across the city.  Without affordable housing of a suitable standard it is difficult to deliver the mix of residents that will help the area continue to thrive.  It is important that this housing need is given adequate weight in the planning process so that developers are encouraged to build a mix of housing.

The Southside is and always has been a vibrant and diverse community and it is important that this is not placed at risk by an imbalance of new development.  Following the meeting I will continue to make representations on behalf of constituents to raise their concerns about specific proposals and about the issue of student accommodation more generally.   In my closing remarks to the meeting I emphasised the importance of people submitting their views on planning applications so that local knowledge, experience and views could be taken into account.

Our meeting committed to the establishment of a working group aimed at bringing together local people to ensure that local views are heard.   We need a vision for the Southside and new affordable and well designed housing.   Hopefully with the strong level of interest demonstrated at the meeting we will also see the establishment of a new Community Council for the Southside able to make sure that local political representatives are able to work in partnership with the local community.

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No More Page 3 – I signed because…

No More Page 3 campaigners at the Scottish ParliamentOver the summer I once again added my support to the ‘No More Page 3‘ campaign.

The national campaign is calling on the Sun newspaper to voluntarily remove its Page 3 feature, describing it as sexist and outdated and highlighting the impact of sexualised images on attitudes towards women.

I find it profoundly sad that the most prominent female image in one of the country’s biggest selling newspapers is of a topless model. This isn’t about being prudish or promoting censorship, it’s about highlighting how our society values women.

In a country where we want men and women to be treated equally, the images on Page 3 objectify women and reinforce sexist attitudes. What message does it send to a young girl to see women reduced to sexual objects? At the same time, how can we promote respect for women and tackle serious issues like domestic abuse when sexual images are so normal in everyday life?

There is a growing body of evidence to demonstrate that sexualised images fuel body image anxiety among young women and devalue the role of women in society.

There can be no doubt that the objectification of women is something that permeates throughout our culture.  When the Parliament debated the issue last year, I reflected on the work of Zero Tolerance, an Edinburgh based domestic abuse charity, highlighting everyday sexism in areas such as fashion, advertising and the mainstream media.  I also highlighted the role of technology with deeply concerning research findings suggesting that girls as young as 12 experience pressure to send topless pictures of themselves via text and instant messaging.

Part of the solution is to begin to question the prevailing wisdom that writes off items like page 3 as harmless fun. There is a growing wave of public opinion calling for an end to Page 3 and I hope the Sun will listen to those concerns.

Page 3 is an outdated concept that belongs in the past and I am delighted to support the No More Page 3 campaign.

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Housing on the agenda in Parliament

In the final weeks of Parliament ahead of the summer recess, MSPs voted in the chamber on two pieces of legislation concerning housing in Scotland.

First up was the Buildings (Recovery of Expenses) (Scotland) Bill, proposed by my colleague David Stewart MSP.  The Bill gives local authorities improved powers to recover their costs where they step in to deal with dangerous or defective buildings.

It is estimated that under the existing system, only 50% of debts are actually recovered and that there could be over £3.9 million in outstanding debts.

Dangerous and defective buildings are a real problem across Scotland, and research has suggested that as many as 81% of dwellings are in need of some kind of repair.  In Edinburgh, people are particularly affected by the issue of building maintenance following the statutory repairs scandal.

Defective buildings are not just unsafe to the public, they are an eyesore that can have a detrimental effect on the surrounding area by driving down the value of properties or making town centres seem unwelcoming.  The new legislation should help to address the situation by making it easier for local authorities to take action and recover costs.

The second piece of legislation considered was the Scottish Government’s wide-ranging Housing (Scotland) Bill.  The headline provisions in the bill are to abolish the right to buy, to increase flexibility for social housing allocation and to provide tools to tackle antisocial behaviour in the social sector.

The bill also includes a range of provisions on the private rented sector.  Rent reform was one of the key areas Labour focused on with proposals to limit rent reviews to once a year and to set a cap on rent rises.   Across Scotland there are over 300,000 private rented households, over 100,000 of which are classed as being in poverty.  The idea of a rent cap was supported by the Scottish Government’s own Expert Welfare Group so it was disappointing that the SNP chose to reject the move.

During the debate I moved a number of amendments to the bill informed by Edinburgh’s experience with statutory notices and particularly surrounding the operation of tenement management schemes (TMS).  Introduced as part of the Tenement (Scotland) Act 2004, the TMS was designed to provide a template for homeowners in shared buildings to ensure the effective and fair management of common repairs.

A common issue that emerged in the statutory notice scandal, and which has affected the use of tenement management schemes, is what happens when an owner is either missing or refuses to cooperate.   Through the Housing Bill, we are attempting to address this issue by giving local authorities the power to pay a missing share and recover costs from any uncooperative owner.  This would help address delays to work caused by these owners.  These provisions should come into force relatively soon now that the bill is passed.

I successfully argued for an amendment that could  potentially see housing associations given a similar power.  This would allow an association to ensure that works are carried out quickly while ensuring they are able to recover costs.   This measure could only happen following a consultation by the Scottish Government.

I was also pleased to have an amendment accepted that will require the Scottish Government to update its guidance to local authorities to ensure they are aware of their new powers under the Act.  Getting the provisions of a bill is one thing – getting them implemented effectively is another and guidance has a key role to play.

If you want to find out more about how to organise common repairs with other owners in your property, Consumer Focus Scotland has published a guide for homeowners which can be accessed here.



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Developing Cooperative Councils

20140614_154829(1)In my role as Scottish Labour’s Local Government spokesperson, I was recently asked to contribute to a publication by the Cooperative Party on the subject of cooperative councils.

The article, which can be read here, is a statement of Scottish Labour’s ambition to re-empower local government and local communities to act together in the common interests.

We start from a position where, in recent years, local government in Scotland has faced mounting pressure on its ability to deliver the services we all rely on in our day-to-day lives. Rather that relieve this pressure, I believe that the policies of the UK and Scottish governments have exacerbated the situation.

Over the last seven years, we have seen a prolonged period of centralisation where local accountability and decision-making has been eroded.  The impact of cuts and the regressive nature of the council tax freeze have been well documented and people on low and modest incomes are now experiencing service reductions and the introduction of charges for services that used to be free.

Increases in fuel and energy costs, the increasing number of older people needing social care, the impact of climate change on infrastructure and the increase in poverty caused by the UK Government’s reshaping of welfare have all put the provision of services under strain.  Meanwhile, the loss of 40,000 staff has impacted on our councils’ ability to cope with existing demand.

In response to the current situation, Labour has set about developing an alternative vision through the work of our Devolution Commission – Powers for a Purpose.

We envisage a situation where the Scottish Parliament focuses on national priorities and setting the legislative framework rather than interfering in the day-to-day delivery of services.

The Commission’s final report sets out an empowering agenda that would see a transfer of powers from both a UK and Scottish level to enable councils to make the best use of available resources.

This would, for example, enable councils to develop responses to specific local circumstances in areas such as skills and training and housing supply.

At the same time, the commission proposes to tackle underfunding of local government.  The time is right for a rational discussion involving all parties to find a sustainable future for local government finance.  The Scottish Government’s preferred approach of a local income tax has been widely discredited. We need to find a way forward that strikes the right balance  between central funding and the ability of councils and communities to access alternative income streams to pursue locally desirable priorities.

Cooperative values have a significant role in delivering Labour’s vision for local government by supporting innovation and new ideas to make the most of resources that are underused in our communities. The important distinction is that cooperative approaches are focused on tackling inequality and regenerating communities as opposed to generating profit.

Labour councillors across Scotland are already pursuing this agenda. Both Glasgow and Edinburgh have established cooperative development units tasked with supporting new initiatives.

Interesting work in Glasgow involving credit unions is demonstrating the potential of this approach to challenging poverty while in Edinburgh initiatives in the fields of childcare, social work and renewable energy are expanding.

Local authorities need to embrace the cooperative approach if such initiatives are to be successful.  A key aspect of this is ensuring that community organisations are involved from the earliest stages of planning and development so that local needs are at the heart of service delivery.

In addition to involving communities more closely with decision-making, a cooperative approach is also beneficial to workers.  One of the attractions in promoting a cooperative approach is the potential to motivate employees to feel secure in their work, to influence the services or company they are working for and to benefit from success.

It is clear that we need to reassess the relationship between central and local government to reverse the centralisation that has occurred in recent years.  A Labour led Scottish Government would implement the findings of the Devolution Commission to build capacity and knowledge across local government and our communities to make the most of the talent and resources that are currently not being used to best effect.

Posted in Community Engagement, Council cuts, Local Government | Leave a comment

Action must match words on waiting times

Earlier this month I questioned the Health Secretary, Alex Neil, on waiting times for patients at NHS Lothian.

The exchange in Parliament (which can be watched at 2mins 42secs into the video opposite) followed on from the publication of official statistics demonstrating that the health board is continuing to struggle to meet targets.

Since October 2012, patients in Scotland have been legally guaranteed a maximum wait of 12 weeks between treatment being agreed and admission for inpatient or day case treatment.

However, in March of this year, of the 13,685 patients who received or were still waiting to receive inpatient or day case treatment, 976 had waited longer that 12 weeks.  That figure accounted for over 60% of all breaches in the whole of Scotland.  

The figures also revealed that the health board accounted for around a third of all breaches for the 12 week target for outpatient appointments.

The challenges being faced by NHS Lothian in relation to waiting times were dramatically exposed in 2012 when it was revealed that the health board had systematically manipulated its waiting time figures to avoid breaches.  Underpinning this practice was evidence of a management culture of bullying and intimidation.

Since the emergence of the waiting times scandal, NHS Lothian has spent vast amounts of money trying to address the lack of capacity affecting the region.

Last year alone, more than £30m was spent, with more than a third going to private health care providers.  Despite this, and the best efforts of staff, the board remains one of the worst performers on waiting times.

I welcome the Cabinet Secretary’s acknowledgement that there are serious capacity issues at the heart of NHS Lothian and his commitment that officials continue to work closely with the health board.  I also asked the Health Secretary about the implications for other health services locally given the priority given to waiting times.  I’m conscious that there are a range of significant challenges faced in Lothians for example the recent campaign for GPs for proper support and investment.

In his response he gave an assurance that the treatment time guarantee for inpatients will be delivered by the end of this year and by March for outpatients.  Patients in the Lothians deserve nothing less and the challenge now will be to turn those words into reality. 

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Reconnecting People and Politics

Chamber pic 1

In politics, the focus of politicians and the media is driven by the cyclical nature of elections.

Last month it was the European Parliament.  This will be followed closely by September’s referendum before the focus shifts to the UK General Election in 2015, the Scottish Elections in 2016 and then local elections in 2017.

After a pause for breath in 2018, the whole cycle begins again – it is a hectic schedule and one in which time seems to move incredibly fast.   Although the elections take place on a single day, the parties campaign hard in the months before the elections and increasingly interest and community groups make the most of the chance to hold hustings and debates to focus attention on issues they want elected representatives to tackle.

Voting in elections is a fundamental democratic right, allowing each of us as citizens to hold politicians to account for their actions, but it is one that fewer and fewer of us are exercising.

This was the subject of debate in Parliament last week as MSPs discussed the impact of falling turnout and our responsibility to address it.  The debate focused on Local Government elections where turnout has dropped by almost 20% in the space of 13 years.   In 2012, less than four in 10 of us chose to cast our votes. You can watch the full debate here.

This debate is partly technical, with a focus on how we can make it easier for people to register and cast their vote.  There are a host of options from encouraging more postal voting to using technology like mobile phones and allowing people to register on the day of an election.  These issues are currently subject to a Scottish Government consultation which was broadly welcomed in the chamber.

However, alongside technical considerations, the nature of politics is at the heart of declining turnout.  To put it bluntly, it comes down to a failure of politics, and politicians, to connect with people on the issues that matter to them.

Research into voter turnout identifies that young people and those from less affluent areas are the least likely to vote.  This is hugely significant because without action that disconnect can become self-fulfilling and can widen inequalities in our society.

In seeking re-election, politicians attempt to speak to those people in society who are most likely to vote.  If large sections of the population who are unhappy simply do not vote, their views are lost from the debate.  Essentially, those who vote are represented best.

In a practical demonstration of this effect, research by the IPPR looking at the 2010 General Election found that those who did not vote faced cuts worth 20 per cent of their annual household income, compared to 12 per cent for those who did vote.

Representatives at all levels, and the political parties that they stand for, have a responsibility to address this vicious cycle and the inequality that it propagates by working to re-engage with local communities.

As Labour’s Local Government spokesperson, I strongly believe that local authorities have a fundamental role to play.  Councils and councillors are responsible for so many of the services that we all rely on in our day-to-day lives.  A significant proportion of the casework I receive from constituents relates to council services like housing, schools and planning.

I want to see local authorities empowered to give them the flexibility to adapt to the most pressing issues in their communities.  By the same token, authorities need to engage with local communities to involve them in decisions about how services are designed and delivered in their communities.

Political parties also need to organise themselves in a way that involves people.  In 2011 I led a review of the Labour Party in Scotland that went back to first principles of who we are and what we stand for.  The process focused minds on how we can make the party more representative of the communities we serve.  For example, we want to encourage more women, more young people and more people from ethnic minority communities into our party and then to stand for election as representatives so that their experience can inform our politics.   I’ve blogged before about the need for mainstream politics to be more inclusive.

But in my amendment for our debate I believe we also need to counterbalance the centralism that’s been encouraged since the 2007 by encouraging and enabling local authorities to fulfil their civic leadership potential, promoting local action, empowering individuals and groups to have a real stake in their communities. By encouraging representatives and parties at all levels to be more proactive, we can begin to repair links between people and politics.

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Powerful account as we enter MND Awareness Week

MND ScotlandToday marks the beginning Motor Neurone Disease Awareness Week, a week of campaigning to draw attention to the effects of this terrible illness and to highlight available support.

Motor Neurone Disease (MND) is the name given to a related group of diseases that affect the nerves which carry messages from the brain to the muscles.  The disease is degenerative, progressive and incurable.

Yesterday, in a powerful and moving article, Gordon Aikman, the Director of Research for Better Together, described his own recent diagnosis, the impact this has had on his life and his determination to campaign to support research and improved services for MND.

He highlighted cases where MND patients have to pay for some of  the essential care they need and spoke of the fact that 80% of funding for the country’s seven specialist nurses comes from charitable donations.

I’ve known Gordon for a number of years, from his previous role as a researcher for the Labour Group in Parliament and I greatly admire the way he has met his diagnosis head on.  Ever the campaigner, he has set up a JustGiving page to support the work of MND Scotland.  Incredibly, in just one day, his story has inspired people to donate over £20,000 to the charity.

MND Scotland is a charity dedicated to people living with Motor Neurone Disease, their family, friends and carers.  The charity’s website is an invaluable resource and is home to a huge library of information and support materials covering all aspects of the disease and the impacts it has on people’s lives.

As we enter MND Awareness Week, the accounts of people like Gordon remind us of how much we still have to learn about the disease.  In light of this, his fundraising efforts are all the more important as they will help fund the research that will hopefully, eventually lead to a cure.

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Train station access concerns raised

WaverleyAnyone who regularly travels through Haymarket or Waverley will know about the significant redevelopment taking place at both stations.

While the aim of these works is to improve facilities at the stations, I have had a number of concerns raised with me by constituents about the impact some of these changes are having on access.

From the start of this week all traffic has been banned from the station by operators Network Rail.  This is despite concerns raised by the council, disabled charities and taxi companies who called for the move to be postponed at least until the end of July when alternative taxi rank accommodation will be completed.

A sign at the north entrance on Waverley Bridge now requires cyclists to dismount and share an already congested narrow pavement with pedestrians, prams and people carrying their luggage into the station.  This isn’t helping promote sustainable or integrated travel.

I am concerned about the impact of these changes, particularly for disabled people and others with mobility issues.   Taxis in the station offer a convenient service for people who would otherwise struggle to negotiate the steep exits from Waverley.

Improvements such as the escalators at the Waverley Steps have experienced constant technical issues since being opened.  They are frequently not working leaving people to struggle up the steps with heavy luggage and leading to overcrowding on the pedestrian ramps up to Waverley Bridge.

I am continuing to raise these issues with Network Rail to ensure that the improvements to facilities at Edinburgh’s main train stations include ensuring ease of access for all passengers.

Meanwhile the widened pavement at Market Street is being dug up leaving a


narrow pavement for pedestrians to negotiate alongside large refuse bins.  I’m therefore in touch with the City Council to find out what the plans are for pedestrian access along Market Street, given the increase in congestion and traffic in the area.

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Council change approach to statutory repair complaints

Statutory noticesThis week the Council is set to agree to a new approach to dealing with legacy issues surrounding the statutory repairs scandal in the city.

There are various strands to this story including complaints resolution, outstanding project billing, the recovery of outstanding debt and the delivery of a new replacement service.

Until this week, each of these strands was being overseen by different departments of the Council.  However, a review of the whole process has found that the fragmented approach has hampered progress.

In response, the Council has decided to bring responsibility for all aspects of the statutory repairs legacy under the control of the Director of Corporate Governance, Alastair Maclean.  As part of that responsibility, Mr Maclean will be given authority to write off sums and approve compensation settlements of up to £100,000.

I believe that bringing these strands together is a sensible approach which should hopefully provide strategic focus in ensuring a faster, fairer outcome for the hundreds of households still affected.

Also this week, the Council received the latest update on progress towards delivering a new enforcement service to replace the statutory notice model. To date the Council has commissioned work to consult with homeowners to gauge their thoughts on what the new service should deliver and has sought legal advice on the most suitable method of delivering the new service.

It is vital that we get the detail of the replacement service right to ensure the safety of our buildings and the amenity of people’s homes.   I am continuing to discuss this issue with colleagues on the Council to make clear my support for a new enforcement system that can command public support.  At the same time, I am working on amendments to the Scottish Government’s Housing Bill to try to address some of the issues that prevent owners from taking forward repairs themselves.

To that end I’m meeting the Housing Minister, Margaret Burgess MSP, tomorrow to follow up the discussions from last week’s Stage 2 of the Housing Bill.  You can read our discussions in the Official Report here.

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Pedal on Parliament 2014

Pedal on ParliamentIn April I once again added my backing to the national cycling campaign, Pedal on Parliament.

On the day, more than 4,000 cyclists from across the country traveled the short distance from the Meadows to the Parliament to call for action to make Scotland a cycle friendly nation.

The annual mass cycle rally is the focal point of Pedal on Parliament’s activities and the campaign continues to make an important contribution to the cycling debate.  The campaign has produced an eight point manifesto incorporating calls for improved investment in cycle facilities and more intelligent planning and road design.

In Edinburgh, the city council has made a commitment to increasing funding for cycling as part of its budget.  In 2012/13, it was agreed that 5% of the transport budget would be spent on active travel.  In 2014/15, this has increased to 7%.

However, despite the broad cross-party support for the Pedal on Parliament campaign’s aims, the proportion of journeys made by bike in Scotland remains around 1%.  That is a long way  short of the Scottish Government’s 10% target for 2020 and it is clear that more action is required.

That means tackling the barriers that prevent people from getting back in the saddle, whether it is road safety issues, inadequate infrastructure or the lack of appropriate cycle facilities such as racks and paths.  On road segregated cycle lanes and good design are essential developments which are much-needed in our towns and cities.

There are examples of good practice such as the National Cycle Network but more needs to be done to link these national routes to local facilities.

Although Minister Keith Brown spoke at the rally – his announcement of £4.5m wasn’t new money and was disappointing to cycle campaigners.

The turnout at Pedal on Parliament sends a clear message that people want more action on cycling.  We need to learn from other countries that have a strong cycling culture to address the barriers that exist.  Thanks to the work of Pedal on Parliament, people are beginning to sit up and take notice.  The challenge for the Scottish Government now is to turn the broad support into action.

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