Student Housing in Edinburgh


At the end of last month, I submitted my comments to a City of Edinburgh Council consultation on student housing.

My comments, which can be read in full here, were informed by the work I’ve been doing with residents in the Southside to highlight concerns about the high number of proposed developments seeking planning permission.

The residents I have met and spoken with at public meetings and at surgeries recognise the contribution of the city’s universities to our economy and equally welcome the contribution made by students to our communities. Continue reading

Posted in Community Engagement, Housing, Student issues | Leave a comment

Hutchie Vale’s Defibrillator Success

Shockingly Easy

Last week, members of the Hutchison Vale Community Sports Club unveiled a new automated external defibrillator.

The life saving device allows for a quick response to certain cardiac arrhythmias (or irregular heartbeat) which can lead to cardiac arrest and is designed to be simple to use.

Members of Hutchie Vale have been supporting the Evening News ‘Shockingly Easy’ campaign which aims to see the devices installed at every sports club in the Lothians.

The campaign was set up in memory of 13-year-old Jamie Skinner who died in December 2013 following a suspected heart attack while playing football for Tynecastle FC.

Every week in the UK, 12 apparently fit and healthy people under 35 lose their lives due to undiagnosed cardiac conditions and the early use of defibrillation can significantly increase the chances of survival.

Earlier this year, the Scottish Government published a national strategy looking at the issue of out of hospital cardiac arrest.  The strategy outlines a number of action points to improve care at every step of the so called chain of survival from early recognition through to aftercare.  It also highlights the need to raise public awareness and to create a culture of readiness.

I have lodged a motion in Parliament, congratulating Hutchie Vale and calling for early action to implement the Scottish Government’s strategy.

Posted in Community Facilities, Health | Leave a comment

Campaign to protect Europe’s Nature Laws

The Scottish Wildlife Trust has joined a Europe-wide campaign to ensure that European laws protecting our wildlife and wild places are not weakened.

The European Commission is currently reviewing the laws covering habitats and bird life and the Defend Nature campaign has set up a website to allow people across Europe to submit their views

Earlier this year the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Affairs Committee, of which I am a member, agreed to our work on EU priorities for the year ahead.  The review of the directives was identified as an area to monitor and the Committee will request updates from the Scottish Government when required.

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Decision delayed on controversial Stockbridge licences

Photo: Jon Davey PhotographyLast week, Edinburgh’s licensing board deferred a decision on a series of licences linked to the controversial Edinburgh Accies development in Raeburn Place.

The £8m development, which has already been granted planning permission by the Council, will include a 5,000 capacity stadium, a cinema, bars, restaurants and retail units when completed.

The licences sought would allow the on-sale of alcohol until 1am, extending to 3am during the Festival and Festive seasons.  The Licensing Board decided to defer a decision until after a site visit to hear concerns.

The licences, and the scale of the development have prompted widespread local opposition and I share the concerns that have been raised by many in the community about the scale and appropriateness of the proposals.

During the planning process in late 2012, I lodged objections highlighting the disproportionate scale of the development in relation to the commercial elements which had been built in to the proposal to maximise income and the impact that this would have on residents and business.   I was clear at the time that I did not object to the ambition of improving and modernising the sports facilities of the proposal but was worried about the potential traffic and adverse community impact that would result.

Many of these concerns have been brought into sharp focus by the licence applications – with residents worried about antisocial behaviour, noise disturbances and traffic chaos associated with the development.  A number of premises in the development look set to offer on-street dining and drinking in close proximity to people’s homes.  Then there are the problems associated with late night closing times with large numbers of people leaving venues at a time when there is no public transport.  At times when the stadium hosts events, there are real concerns about the impact on transport and earlier this year the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman rebuked the Council for not ensuring a transport study was conducted.

I believe it is clear that the proposed licences would significantly impact on residents’ quality of life – all in an area which is already well served by restaurants and bars and which is now at risk of overprovision.

In Edinburgh, we do not have to look far to see comparisons with areas where residential communities living alongside the night time economy negatively impacts on people’s quality of life.  In my time as an MSP, I’ve dealt with countless complaints from residents in the Grassmarket for example and those experiences should be properly considered before a final decision is taken.   You can see my submission to the Licensing Board which highlights these issues here.

I have heard many residents express a view that they would be happy to support a smaller scale development.  There is support for the ambition of Edinburgh Accies to develop the site to put themselves on a more secure financial footing but it is vital that the development is proportionate, and does not conflict with the neighbouring community.

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Pedal on Parliament 2015

Team LabourI really enjoyed Saturday’s  2015 Pedal on Parliament rally.   Over 4000 people joined the event with the feeder rides coming from Inverkeithing, Moffat and some cycling from Glasgow.

Against expectations the weather was great which led to an upbeat atmosphere, with commitments across the political spectrum to support increasing investment in cycling.

In my speech I argued for more and sustained national investment and better integration between cycling and public transport, with more dedicated, segregated routes in our cities, towns and villages to encourage more people to cycle on a regular basis.  We need to make safer cycling more accessible for all.

We need to make it easier and safer for people to cycle in their daily trips to work, school, college or university, and for leisure and shopping trips.  That means better routes, decent parking options and better integration with our rail network.

But we don’t just need investment national projects – we need investment in every local authority and community.  That means better Scottish Government financial support for locals authorities and clarity on the money which is allocated.  Edinburgh Council has now allocated 8% of the transport budget this year to cycle investment and the aim is to build up to 10% by 2016/17.

I asked the Transport Minister who was present to support the proposal from my colleague Claudia Beamish MSP for funding for a national award to the local authority with the best proposal  for cycle investment in segregated route – investment which would promote innovation and lead to an uplift in the number of people cycling.  The idea is supported by the Cross Party Group on Cycling.

I called on those attending the POP rally to make their voices heard throughout the year.   Change can be controversial and can take time.  In Edinburgh alone there are plans for a roll out of 20mph streets, and decisions to be made on whether cycle routes will be retained on George Street, on a proposed reduction in the hours of operation of bus lanes, and on new segregated route investment on Leith Walk between Pilrig Street and Macdonald Road.  Next month a trial of off peak travel with bikes on trams will start.  I am particularly pleased to hear this news as I have long supported this proposal.

In the aftermath of the Commonwealth Games, Glasgow has started to put in place significant new investment.  There are new dedicated cycle routes in the city and Glasgow’s bike hire scheme is now up and running.

Speakers at the weekend’s rally made the point that at cycling is good for people’s health, will reduce congestion and will lead to better air quality.  The point was also made that cycling is a very affordable means of travel.   However studies show that many people are still reluctant to cycle even when they own bikes because of safety fears.  In addition to more on the road investment I believe we need to see proper analysis of the circumstances leading to crashes involving cyclists.  There have been several deaths in London and the Edinburgh region and we need a better understanding of the circumstances so that lessons can be learned by all road users to increase safety.

Finally, I encouraged people to send in their ideas to me as I am keen that we have strong policies in Labour’s manifesto for the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections.  There’s a lot we can learn from other countries and with the growing network of cycling groups across Scotland there is more we can do to build on the health, environmental and social justice opportunities from more effective promotion of cycling.

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Answers needed on farm payment application flaws

Over the weekend, a report in the Press & Journal drew attention to serious concerns about the Scottish Government’s management of online applications for support under the Common Agricultural Policy.

A contractor involved in the  development of the new Rural Support and Services website claims that repeated warnings were given about the system’s failings but that these were not heeded.

Further, it is alleged that contractors raising concerns were threatened with dismissal.

I previously raised concerns about the online application system, which allows rural businesses to apply for funding support, during Topical Questions in Parliament. The question was prompted by complaints from the NFUS about the effectiveness of the new system.  The Scottish Government has subsequently bowed to pressure to extend the application deadline by a month to allow applications to be made.

While the delay is welcome the most recent revelations shine a much needed light on the chaos at the heart of the system. It’s shocking that warnings were given about the failings of the system months earlier, but were ignored. The Cabinet Secretary must explain the incompetence surrounding the development of the system and the uncertainty and worry it has caused to our farming sector.  I have lodged Parliamentary Questions to try to get some answers.

In the meantime, the Cabinet  Secretary needs to keep his eye on the ball to ensure that farmers and crofters are not let down by the failures in the SNP Government’s system.

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Supporting the One in Five Charter

1in5 campaignLast week I attended the official launch of the One in Five campaign at the Parliament.  It was great to talk with three inspiring activists Pam Duncan, Labour campaigner and human rights equality activist, Peter Lockhart, Fife Councillor and Gordon Aikman, policy researcher who has become well known and admired for his campaigning to raise awareness and funds to tackle Motor Neurone Disease.

The One in Five campaign is raising awareness of the fact that one in five people of working age in Scotland has a disability.   Such a high number makes it vital that we ensure that people are not excluded or discriminated against when it comes to work, society or politics.

The five key things that One in Five is campaigning for are that :

  1. All members are asked about individual needs which are actioned to ensure inclusion
  2. Meetings are held in accessible venues
  3. Material is available in a variety of formats
  4. Organisational tasks and responsibilities are clearly defined yet remain flexible enough to empower individual member’s ability
  5. That organisations aim to increase the awareness and understanding of issues affecting disabled people and strives to include and empower all members

Scottish Labour has always campaigned for equality and is actively supporting this campaign.  We believe it’s an important element of our ambitions to increase political participation: we need to ensure that political representation reflects our society accurately.

I have always tried to make all my public meetings, events and publications accessible to all and know how important it is to empower political participation amongst disabled people in Scotland.  In the Review of Scottish Labour which Jim Murphy and I carried out in 2011 we supported practical measures to encourage members to come forward and to provide support for our disabled members once they are elected.  I am proud to add my support to the One in Five charter to promote equality and involvement and hope that it gains widespread cross party support.

More details on the campaign for individuals and organisations can be found here

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Supporting our Dairy Industry

Yesterday afternoon, Parliament held a debate on the challenges facing the dairy sector in Scotland.

The debate followed a short inquiry conducted by the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Affairs, Environment and Climate Change Committee, of which I am a member.

The inquiry was prompted by concerns about First Milk, a farmer owned cooperative which buys milk from over 1,000 farmers to process for market.  In January this year, the organisation was forced to delay payment to its members.

The Committee also considered the global context in dairy and the action needed to provide stability, improve relationships and improve transparency.

In my opening speech I highlighted the challenges faced in the Scottish dairy sector and called for more urgency from the Scottish Government in implementing their Dairy Plan.

The Committee’s report neatly summarised where I think our ambition for the sector should be –

“…to work towards a more sustainable, equitable and profitable dairy sector in Scotland where all producers are paid an appropriate price for the goods they produce, and where consumers can make informed decisions about what to buy, based on clear information about where produce comes from and how much it costs to produce…”

Dairy farming is a hugely important industry in Scotland but price volatility poses a real threat to the livelihood of individual farmers.

The issues raised in the Committee’s inquiry helped inform the Scottish Government’s recently published Action Plan.

While the plan takes steps to address some of the short-term issues, I’m disappointed that the Scottish Government’s timeline delays the start to some of the key actions we need now. There is also a lack of detail on how these actions will be taken forward to provide stability over the longer term.

Today we’re no clearer on how pricing through the supply chain will be made more transparent or how new investment will be delivered to support diversification into non-milk products.  I asked the Cabinet Secretary for clarity on the work being carried out by Scottish Enterprise and HIE to identify the best opportunities to develop new processing facilities to add value to the fresh milk produced in Scotland as the timeline of December is months away.  We’re also no closer to knowing what steps the Scottish Government will take to reduce the burden of transport costs for rural and island producers.

With 2015 marking the Year of Food and Drink, we need more than the warm words of the Action Plan.  We need to see renewed focus from the Scottish Government to deliver the best deal for Scottish dairy farmers.

That means much faster action on developing new markets and new products for Scottish dairy produce.  It means retailers working harder to promote existing and new products when they come on the market and better use of labelling to highlight local, Scottish and UK produce.   It means the public sector maximising the opportunities to buy locally and to ask the hospitality and catering sectors to do more to support local producers too.

Finally, as consumers, we need to be asking more questions about where our food comes from and where possible buying local.

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Let’s Make It Happen – International Women’s Day

Zero ToleranceThis year’s International Women’s Day saw a series of events where women have debated what progress has been made to advance women’s equality.

Over the last fortnight I’ve met with women who are community activists, trade union members, representatives from ethnic minority communities, academics and students and, last week, a conference for young women organised by Zero Tolerance.

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve had events in the Scottish Parliament enabling women from across Scotland and from a range of backgrounds to join us in debating the way forward for women in Scotland and the wider world.

From campaigning for women’s suffrage to equal representation in Parliament, International Women’s Day has enabled a focus on the achievements and campaign for equality for more than 100 years.   I have campaigned for women’s equality throughout my life and know that IWD is a fantastic day both to acknowledge how far we have come but but also reflect on how far we have still got to go.  It’s vital we use the day, as well as every other day, to continue highlighting to policy makers here in Scotland and abroad the importance of gender equality, and the need to put an end to all forms of violence and discrimination to girls and women.

IWD was first marked in 1911 by over a million people – women demanded the right to vote, to hold public office and protested against sex discrimination. The first time it was marked on 8th March was when Sylvia Pankhurst, the British Suffragette leader, was arrested on her way to make a speech in London, and it was finally officially marked by the UN as International Women’s Day in 1977 as a day for “women’s rights and world peace.”

Statistics show that Tory austerity cuts are disproportionately affecting women. One in five women are still paid below minimum wage, countless women have no choice but to give up work because childcare is too expensive, and thousands more women than men are stuck in unfair zero-hours contracts.

It was a Labour Party that enacted the Equal Pay Act more than 40 years ago, but the Tory Government has done nothing to advance the fairer pay agenda with not a single one of Scotland’s top ten companies publicly reporting their pay gap, and only five out of nearly 7,000 companies across the UK doing so.   Labour Party commitments such as affordable child care, action on domestic violence, increased maternity and paternity pay, an end to zero hours contracts and support for a living wage across public sector procurement contracts will improve women’s lives.

Women are still noticeably missing – on company boards, as senior executives and at every level of political representation.  This year’s International Women’s Day theme was Make It Happen.

I am a strong supporter of the 50:50 campaign which is continuing the fight for equality in Parliament, which will certainly not happen on its own. The Labour Party’s longstanding policy of “zipping” – woman, man, woman, man, etc – and regular women-only shortlists has helped pushed up the level of women’s representation in the Scottish Parliament.

Over time however, some complacency has crept in.  There’s not been the same effort to push to attract new women into politics or to support them in the process of selection, which is a costly process both in terms of finance and time.  Being an MSP is a big commitment and, as women still tend to shoulder the main responsibilities for childcare and caring for relatives, even though the parliament has “family friendly” hours for its formal business it’s certainly not family friendly in terms of the long hours most MSPs actually work.  I’ve certainly noticed that whereas men tend to leave politics only when they reach retirement age, female MSP colleagues have disproportionately left the Parliament well before they reach that age and have gone on to other forms of employment.

I think this is an issue worth examining – it may be due to the constant pressure of political life, the breadth of women’s interests which are not confined to politics and maybe the fact that women are less likely to define themselves in terms of their jobs and see life outside Parliament.  So we need to take account of this and make a much greater effort to ensure both in our selection procedures and our training programmes that we work with trade unions, local community organisations and the business community to make sure we support women in coming forward.

What’s clear is that without some form of positive action, parties will not deliver significant numbers of women representatives – never mind equality of representation.  It cannot be left to electoral accident or warm words.

We also need to tackle lack of support for women; we do now have role models but not necessarily the accessibility for new women to come through and gain the confidence to put themselves forward.   That’s not surprising in a world where women still earn less, still suffer from the glass ceiling and are still responsible for the majority of childcare and caring responsibilities.  Women’s networks to support women through the process of selection and support mechanisms at constituency and regional level could have a huge impact on the number of women putting themselves forward for elected positions.

This month’s theme of ‘Make It Happen’ is particularly focussed on calling for further action for advancing and recognising women, ending the violence that affects one in three women worldwide and increasing the global number of female parliamentarians from 22%.

In an inspiring lecture at Edinburgh University titled “Women’s Rights have no Country: Regenerating Feminist Transnationalism” Anne Marie Goetz, Professor at the Centrer for Global Affairs, NYU and Chief Adviser to UN Women, focused on the importance of women in senior leadership positions globally.

She highlighted the lack of women involved in post conflict resolution processes meaning that male dominated military forces determine the next steps.  There are also few women in UK Peacekeeping forces or middle management.  That matters in setting priorities relevant to women, for example the use of violence against women as part of conflicts and the lack of support for women at risk of sexual violence in refugee camps when they have been displaced from their homes.

We need more women at every level of governments – from our local councils to the highest level of UN and EU decision making if the needs and experiences of women are to be properly taken into account.  Anne Marie argued that Transnational feminism meant that we have to develop regional and global solidarity and to support women through resources and support.   In the aftermath of the financial crash, states are being hollowed out making it harder for them to be agents of social justice.

She finished by posing the question – when will we see a woman appointed to be UN General Secretary.   She suggested a #She4SG campaign – a great idea.

At last week’s Zero Tolerance conference for young women I commented that everything we’ve won, we’ve had to fight for.   I also argued that we need to do more to make childcare affordable but that we also had to stand up for carers’ rights and keep up the pressure on decent funding for care for our older people as women are bearing the brunt of economic pressures.

So let’s use the energy of our debates and discussions, and the renewed focus brought by the Women’s 50:50 campaign to celebrate the gains we’ve made for women in the fight for equality so far, and renew our determinations that women’s voices are heard when we debate our future.

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Summit Discusses Living Wage

Earlier today Scottish Labour Leader, Jim Murphy opened a Living Wage Summit in Glasgow.

The event, organised by the party, brought together representatives from trades unions, business leaders, the third sector and groups involved in action against poverty to discuss tackling low wages.

It follows the announcement at the beginning of this month of a series of policies to help young people in the workplace get a fairer deal.

A recent report from KPMG estimated that more than 400,000 people in Scotland earn less than the living wage, including more than 70,000 young people.

Scottish Labour has proposed the idea of Make Work Pay contracts to encourage employers to give these low paid workers the  living wage, currently set at £7.85 per hour.

Under the  proposals, employers would receive a tax rebate for every low paid worker who gets a pay rise to the living wage. The 12-month rebate would be equal to the increased tax receipts associated with pay rises which has been estimated at an average of £445 per worker.

In addition to increased tax receipts, it has been estimated the proposal would save an average of £232 per person in social security spending. That means a pay rise for Scotland’s low paid workers could save almost £100 million from the welfare bill.

The living wage provides a benchmark for tackling in-work poverty and has been shown to positively impact on the physical and mental wellbeing of workers.  Beyond the initial rebate, there are also real benefits to employers linked to reduced staff absence and turnover and increased productivity and morale.

We need to be proactive in encouraging businesses to get involved and Scottish Labour’s plan provides the incentive that could lift thousands of Scots out of low pay.

The issue of low pay is currently being taken forward by Scottish Labour’s Low Pay Commission.  The commission is made up of representatives from anti-poverty organisations and business, and will report later this year on how to end low pay in Scotland.

The Commission will be analysing the feedback from the summit and also examining trends in low pay.  They will consider Scottish Labour’s Future Fund, which will provide funding support to 18 and 19 year olds not in university, college or a modern apprenticeship, and also how Scottish Government procurement can be used to promote higher wages, and the living wage.

Today’s summit has demonstrated the broad support for the living wage across Scotland alongside Scottish Labour’s commitment to extend the rate to the private sector and to Make Work Pay.

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