Interview with Scottish Churches Parliamentary Office

This interview was first published by the Scottish Churches Parliamentary Office on 30 April 2013 under the title There have been changes, but you can’t take your foot off the pedal. I have reproduced it in full below.

Growing up in a family with a strong allegiance to the Labour party, Sheila Gilmore’s childhood was most definitely political. Her eventual involvement in student politics and the women’s movement (particularly the setting up of the Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre in the early 1970s) merely cemented the “born and bred in the bones stuff” that comes with growing up having political discussions in the home, particularly with her father, a staunch Labour supporter. Nevertheless, Sheila and her father’s view on Labour policies were not necessarily always the same; when Sheila was a student, she was appalled that the Labour party was even considering supporting the war in Vietnam. However, in 2003, “we had a bit of a set-to when my dad was saying how dreadful it was that Blair had supported Bush in Iraq – it was quite an interesting turnaround, I don’t know what it is, when you’re actively involved you feel more obliged to perhaps defend the sometimes indefensible.”

As a Labour MP on the opposition benches in the UK Parliament, Sheila is not prepared to defend the Government’s actions on welfare reform. She is also frustrated at the way in which language is used to “fuel panic”. “I hate the word welfare; I try not to use it. In itself it should be a neutral word, but it’s attracted a meaning that’s not always seen in a good light. We used to talk about social security and I had someone come up to me recently who was quite angry, asking ‘why are our pensions being lumped in with ‘welfare’? We’ve paid for this’… He was, rightly I think, unhappy about the growing assumptions.” She is well aware that spending on benefits has risen in recent years, but the inclusion of pensions (including state pensions) in the Department for Work and Pensions’ welfare bill has been entirely “for political reasons… to make the point about DWP spending being out of control.” Sheila gives one example of a headline claiming: “900,000 people who had been on incapacity benefit had dropped their claim when they were asked to attend an assessment, and then the rest of the article goes on to suggest that people were ‘at it’ for years…”. Sheila then explains the various means by which people find themselves on Employment and Support Allowance, but the biggest explanation for new claims not getting to the assessment stage is that people are claiming for a short period of sickness and then are no longer eligible for the benefit as they have recovered. “Now I’ve taken probably about five minutes to explain that. How do you compete with a headline? What will have stuck in people’s heads is the headline, which is then repeated on the TV… Then you wonder why, when MORI goes out and asks people ‘do you think welfare should be cut back?’, people say yes.” This is something that obviously causes Sheila angst: “It’s more than just rhetoric. It’s misuse of statistics. It’s appalling and, unless you have experience of going through it, you probably have no notion of having to claim anything so don’t necessarily know…”

However, she thinks that the issue which has resonated with people is the ‘bedroom tax': the changes to housing benefit which lead to payments being cut for people deemed to be over-occupying properties based on the number of residents compared to the number of bedrooms. This, Sheila thinks, has “made people sit up and think.” While the legislation was going through, “the housing organisations tried very hard -it was they who coined the term ‘bedroom tax’- the Government say that it was the Labour party who coined the term but I have to say we can’t actually take credit for that!”, but Sheila thinks that it is only recently that this issue has really caught people’s attention. “It’s not addressing the correct problem. There is a problem that there has been a rise in housing benefit payments, which has doubled in ten years, and actually is expected to keep rising despite all of the reforms. My analysis is that it has had a lot to do with the huge expansion in the private rented sector over the past ten years.” The real issue, Sheila notes, is not that there are people claiming housing benefit for extravagant housing, and living beyond their means; it is that there is a lack of affordable housing to move into, and more and more people are being pushed into the private rented sector, which in turn is pushing the amount of housing benefit paid, up. Sheila observes that the total amount that the Government spends on housing, subsidising housing in one way or another, relative to national income, probably hasn’t changed that much in the last 30 or 40 years. However, she notes that the proportion of funding spent on investment in housing stock has fallen from around 80% to 20%, whilst the amount spent on “income subsidy”, assisting people to pay their rent, has shifted from around 20% to 80% of the total housing budget: “public spending hasn’t changed very much in real terms, but it looks as if the benefits side of it has spiralled uncontrollably, unsustainably. I think there is a strong argument for investing in the assets.” Sheila recently conducted some research of her own, looking into the number of one-bedroomed properties available in Edinburgh for rent (either from the council or housing associations) and found that there were 24 one bedroomed properties (5 of which were sheltered) available at the time. The system in Edinburgh allows prospective tenants to bid for properties that they are interested in, and one had received over 900 bids. “Those numbers are eye-boggling really. It makes it very real. … We do have a big issue with houses in short supply in Edinburgh. Not everyone who is applying for housing who doesn’t have a council house at the moment is homeless, in the sense of not having a roof over their head, but many are living in insecure properties.”

However, Sheila recognises that there is still a crucial issue which is often overlooked in this debate, which is not just how many bedrooms your house has; but what social ties you have in the area in which you currently live: “people want to stay in the area in which they have all their social networks, whatever that is, whether its friends, local church, if that’s your social network – people don’t want the upheaval of going somewhere else and starting again. It’s not good for people’s mental wellbeing.” This is something which has been somewhat lost in the panic regarding the need for people to downsize or find alternative accommodation or face a shortfall in rent every month. How people are covering the often unavoidable shortfalls is another area of concern for Sheila: “we’ve seen the growth of pay-day lending institutions as well. People seem to be managing to find rented accommodation even with the reduction in the amount of benefit to cover it, so they’re not literally out on the street, but you have to ask how they’re meeting that, and are they meeting it through cutting back on other things, or by repeatedly borrowing a bit more to keep going, but in the end that can be a very expensive way of meeting that.”

As a female MP at Westminster, Sheila is often asked whether it is still a boys’ club – to which she responds “I don’t think I’m being naïve in saying that, at least on our side of the House, I don’t feel it hugely so, but it may be just simply because the number of women has grown and that has had its own impact and effect, so it’s not as crass as it would have been. You know, when you read about someone like Shirley Williams when she became an MP and the type of atmosphere there was then was very different. So I think we are making progress, but slowly.” In the Labour Party at Westminster, around 31% of MPs are women, which Sheila admits is by no means ideal, but it is a situation that is improving. As someone who was very active in the women’s movement in the 1970s, when asked for her assessment of the progress made since then, Sheila is cautiously positive: “There has been a lot of progress and we mustn’t forget that, because sometimes you can get very despondent and think that nothing’s changed, and it was all for nothing. Even just the language that people use; people do behave differently. While there are some obstacles, the opportunities are greater. The expectations of young women coming out of school and college are different. Now, some of them sometimes find that the real world is not quite so welcoming as they have perhaps been educated to expect, and it comes as a bit of a rude shock when things aren’t quite in place. There have been changes, but you can’t take your foot off the pedal.”

Turning to the question of Scottish independence, which is at the forefront of all discussions about Scottish politics currently, Sheila is a firm supporter of devolution, a process which she feels “was never a closed book, and it is something that needs to keep evolving…” One example of this is the Scotland Act 2012, which passed through the UK Parliament last year, but which has left Sheila frustrated at the slow rate at which change will take place. She singles out the power for the Scottish Parliament to raise taxation, which won’t take effect until 2016: “Now why it takes so long to do that I don’t know, but broadly what it does is it gives the Scottish Parliament more borrowing powers, and an ability to raise taxes. … There’ll still be an element of grant coming from Westminster…but there’ll be an amount which the Scottish Parliament will be required to set and will be then dependent on collecting. So that’s coming. Now personally, I would much rather it was coming quicker because it seems to have disappeared from the public consciousness… hardly anyone is talking about the additional powers that are coming. Now maybe some people think that they are genuinely still not enough, that’s a point of view, but I think we should be clear that the path is already underway, and in fact the same Act that gives those extra powers enables further tax powers to be given to the Scottish Parliament without additional legislation… I think we’re already on the road and sometimes the debate is sometimes framed to suggest that either it is independence or the status quo as has been since 1999, and that is not the case – I think that shows that there is capacity to move further, but I am keen to see people to start discussing what they want to do with the powers and how they think it will enable or change Scotland.”

Discussion is obviously important to Sheila. She already has a relationship with some local church groups:” I meet quite regularly with a group in Portobello, a Peace and Justice group that several denominations are involved in”, and she recently spoke at Sacred Heart in Lauriston on welfare issues. However, Sheila notes that it does depend on the issue: she is honest in saying that “I’ve had disagreements with some churches and church people on things like same sex marriage of late, but I don’t think you should fall out with people because you disagree on certain issues but probably agree and can work together on others.” However, she recognises that with some people, “there are some points where there are genuine disagreements and that’s fair enough.”

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Press Release: Government needs to sort out tests for sickness and disability benefit

15 per cent of decisions overturned on appeal, costing taxpayer £50 million per year

30 April 2013 – for immediate use

Edinburgh East MP and Work and Pensions Select Committee member Sheila Gilmore today called on the Government to sort out the controversial test for sickness and disability benefit Employment and Support Allowance.

Sheila Gilmore was speaking following the release by the Department for Work and Pensions of data on the outcomes of Work Capability Assessments (WCA) for new claimants. The WCA determines eligibility for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) – the new replacement for old-fashioned incapacity benefits.

Sheila Gilmore said:

These figures show that the Government still haven’t resolved the flaws in Work Capability Assessment. Since the test’s introduction 39% of those found fit for work have appealed their decision – costing the taxpayer £50 million per year – and 37% of those appeals have been successful. This means that on average 15% of all fit for work decisions are flawed.

There are some trends in these figures that I welcome. For example more people are being correctly assessed and awarded ESA first time, and more people who are awarded ESA are being given the unconditional support they need through the Support Group.

However more needs to be done so that fewer people are wrongly assessed as being able to work when they are clearly unfit to do so. Specifically Ministers need to introduce a new set of questions designed by disability charities for use in face-to-face assessments; ensure audio recording equipment is available at assessment centres to push up the quality of assessments; and stop people being called back for reassessment just weeks after being awarded benefit on appeal.

Notes to Editors:

  • Data was published earlier today by the Department for Work and Pensions on the outcomes of Work Capability Assessments for new claimants and can be found here.
  • Sheila Gilmore is a member of the Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee. You can view the committee’s website here.
  • For more information please contact Matt Brennan, Parliamentary Assistant to Sheila Gilmore MP, on 020 7219 7062, 07742 986 513 or matthew.brennan@parliament.uk.
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Article for Total Politics: MP calls for inquiry into apparent misuse of welfare figures

Today I’ve written for Total Politics on my calls for an inquiry into the misuse of statistics on disability benefits by Ministers and the press. I’ve reproduced it in full below.

People with disabilities

In recent months I’ve become increasingly concerned about the use of statistics on benefits claimed by disabled people, both by Ministers and the press. As some of you will have read, I complained to the Sunday Telegraph last month when they suggested that 900,000 people on Incapacity Benefit had dropped their claim rather than undergo a medical assessment for the new Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).

The true figure was a mere 19,000. I’ve since escalated this to the Press Complaints Commission and they are now set to force the paper to print a correction and apology.

While this is welcome, it won’t stop the continual stream of stories that appear in the right wing press. Just this week we had Iain Duncan Smith in the Mail and the Express referring to one million workshy benefit claimants, when in reality, one third have been certified as medically unable to work for the time being (although this may change in the future) and another third are single parents looking after children of school age.

That’s why I’ve decided to call for the Work and Pensions select committee – of which I am a member – to hold an inquiry into this issue.

However persuading the Tories on my committee won’t be easy. The government that they support relies on this practice of misusing statistics to give it political cover. In its attempts to reduce the deficit, cutting welfare is seen as more of a priority than taxing the richest. That’s why in the same month that disabled people are being hit by the Bedroom Tax, 13,000 millionaires are getting a tax cut of over £100,000.

Conservative Central Office have clearly decided that, as the government has failed so spectacularly on the economy, welfare is now their only hope of getting the public back on side. Thus my Select Committee colleagues know that any deviation from the strivers versus scroungers narrative is unlikely to be tolerated.

So getting an inquiry won’t be easy. But I’m determined to try.

And this isn’t for Labour’s political advantage.

It’s for people like my constituent John, who uses a wheelchair. He stands to lose his DLA and specially adapted car, forcing him to give up his job.

It’s for people like my constituent Marjorie, who worked hard all her life, took early retirement in her late 50s, but is now being asked to find an extra £14 per week in rent.

If ministers and the press continue to use misleading figures unchallenged, then when the time comes, the government will be able to make further cuts to benefits, and more people like John and Marjorie will suffer.

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SNP silent on how to pay for post-independence promises: My letter to The Herald

On Tuesday 23 April The Herald published an article that suggested increasing Council Tax to compensate for the effects of the Bedroom Tax. I wrote a letter in response, which was published the next day. I’ve reproduced it below.

Academics have called on the Scottish Government to look at charging higher council tax as a means of easing the impact of the bedroom tax on vulnerable families (“SNP urged to increase council tax to fight cuts”, The Herald, April 23).

The SNP’s response is to say that this would mean “robbing Peter to pay Paul”. But if Peter is benefiting disproportionately from successive years of the freeze on council tax, and Paul is facing a loss of £12 a week from a Jobseeker’s Allowance payment of £71.70, might that not be described as redistribution?

The SNP is fond of telling us how committed it is to social democracy and the welfare state, but it seems to have a lopsided view of how we can achieve this. For the SNP it is all spend and nothing on the other side of the balance sheet: no change to council tax, no mansion tax, no changes to personal taxation.

In this article SNP MSP Jamie Hepburn tells people that only independence can deliver the welfare state people want. But as usual there is silence on how this will be funded. Oil revenues seem to be the magic money tree.

So not only are Scots affected by the bedroom tax being told by their Government that nothing much can be done to help them, there is a deafening silence about how these changes will be funded in the event of a vote for independence.

Sheila Gilmore,

MP for Edinburgh East and member of the Work and Pensions Select Committee,
84 Niddrie Mains Road,
Edinburgh.

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May 2013 enewsletter: Porty High PAN application, keeping East Coast trains in public ownership, looking at attitudes to welfare, exploring the flaws in Govts Universal Job Match and more plans for the Edmonstone Estate

Sheila Gilmore MP Header

Westminster Report

Attitudes to Welfare

The Easter period saw a ratcheting up of the rhetoric on ‘welfare’ on both sides of the argument. With increasing criticism of the bedroom tax in particular beginning to hit home, Government Ministers responded with renewed vigour.  ‘900,000 claimants who were on incapacity dropped their claims when faced with having to go for a test’ ran one headline, so by implication showing they were ‘fearties’  (not ‘fairies’ as Hansard writers once thought a Scottish MP had said when he used this word) .  If correct this would be truly big news, since that would be half of all of those on incapacity benefit currently undergoing reassessment.   But it wasn’t true – the correct figure being 19,700.  If you want to know the real picture I’ve written about this on my website – trouble is it takes much longer to ‘explain’ than to issue erroneous headlines. My response to The Telegraph is on my website, here: http://bit.ly/ZOgQOO.

That was even before we had George Osborne’s comments on the Philpott case.

In this heated atmosphere newspapers were quick to highlight opinion polls showing, for example, that around 67% of people approved the Government’s welfare reforms. The subtext being that Labour should stop opposing them because we were on the ‘wrong side’ of public opinion.  Interestingly one of these polls also showed that 63% said that no one could live on £ 53 per week. The same YouGov survey asked if the current £71pw level of Jobseeker’s Allowance was reasonable, 57% said yes and 31% ‘no’; when asked if they personally could live on this amount 44% said ‘probably’ and 48% said ‘probably not’.   The much quoted British Social Attitudes survey shows attitudes to ‘welfare’ spending have hardened in recent years, but also show distinctly increased support for helping the disabled and carers.

Table 1.2 attitudes to spending

To see more on this head to http://bit.ly/11NBG21.

Incidentally before we wrap ourselves in the belief that Scotland is different, it is worth looking at work done by Scot Cen Social Research (available at http://bit.ly/11NCkwp, published 2011)

1.    Scotland is more social democratic than England –but the difference is only modest 2.    However, Scotland has become less – not more –social democratic since the advent of devolution. 3.    As a result, the gap between Scotland and England has not widened at all. Rather, opinion in Scotland has moved in parallel with that in England, leaving the difference in outlook largely unchanged.

Attitudes are more complex and varied than the themes captured by opinion polling. It was well expressed in one conversation I had on the doorstep recently with a young working father who expressed his worry that he and his wife, with a toddler, were struggling despite both working. (Research such that from the Resolution Foundation – http://www.resolutionfoundation.org/ bears out that this is indeed the reality for many). He also said how angry it made him to see people who never seemed to work but seemed to get by better than him. But he was equally angry about what his own Dad was going through, as he suffered from emphysema and was worried that his benefits might be stopped following an ATOS test, and on top of that he was affected by the bedroom tax.

I think you could summarise this as saying that: people agree we all want ‘fairness’; we want work to be rewarded; we don’t want people who have genuine barriers to working being penalised; and we don’t see why people who live in ordinary sized council homes should be expected to up sticks after many years or lose a substantial chunk of an already low income.  They want those who play the system to be dealt with – even if many media reports exaggerate numbers, we know some exist. The fact that some of the rich also cheat through tax evasion and avoidance means that they should also be tackled; but this isn’t an excuse not to challenge the minority who are able to work but don’t even try. Afterall, the two wrongs don’t make a right.  The challenge for us as an Opposition is to attempt to develop a policy that encompasses all of that ensuring that fairness prevails.

Margaret Thatcher

Whatever you thought of her policies and performance as Prime Minister the response to her death demonstrated that she was indeed a significant political figure, one who was capable of arousing very strong responses more than 20 years after she ceased to be Prime Minister.

I didn’t go to London for the ‘recall’ session, considering it totally unnecessary. A Parliamentary sitting to allow MPs to express views was justified but it could easily have been fitted into week beginning 15th April when Parliament was sitting anyway.

Debating the Finance Bill

Most of the first week back after Easter was spent on debating the Finance Bill.  As well as a day on the ‘Second Reading’ of the Bill, two days were set aside for more detailed ‘committee stage’ debates in the main chamber.  Usually this stage of Bills takes place in a room tucked away on the Committee corridor, but it is traditional for some of the key aspects to be dealt with in a way that allows all MPs to participate. The oddest thing this week was the tiny number of Government MPs who made any effort to take part to support the budget. At the Second Reading Debate there were only 2 Tory and 1 LibDem back bench speakers, so the Opposition was left literally speaking amongst ourselves.

Finance Bill second reading

Okay so I know many people probably think that’s what we do all the time, but if we take democracy seriously, this was a very strange state of affairs. Much the same happened on the other two days. Did Government backbenchers not like the budget, or did they think it so unimportant that they found other things to do? As I said last month many commentators have said it will have almost no impact on the economy

In my speech on the Second Reading I wanted to make points about the sluggishness of the economy I gave an example of a constituent who had tried to get an increase on his 15 hour a week job to help pay the ‘bedroom tax’ but couldn’t.  I thought I’d also have a look at what jobs were available on the Government’s flagship ‘Universal Job Match’ website for someone like this constituent. I typed in ‘shop assistant’ and was genuinely shocked to discover that 57 out of 76 ‘entries’ for this type of work in the wider Edinburgh area were for catalogue delivery and selling jobs.

Universal Job Match example

Not so much back to the 1980s as ‘on the road’ back to the 1930s!  See more on my website at http://bit.ly/ZIJFQR.

Parliamentary Ping Pong

Not a new form of sport but parliamentary jargon for the process of amendments to bills being batted back and forwards between the Lords and Commons. We are approaching the end of the Parliamentary session (the new session starts with the Queens Speech on 8th May) and there are a number of bills which the Government wants to complete by then. There are a number of contentious issues where the House of Lords has passed amendments Government does not like e.g. on the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board and Shares for Employment Rights. The Government managed to overturn most of these using its Commons majority on Tuesday 16th April. These will now go back to the Lords. At the time of writing we don’t know how many amendments the Lords will send back once more.

Stop the East Coast Privatisation

Trains on the East Coast Main Line – which links Edinburgh with Newcastle, York and London – have been publicly run for the last four years. During that time services have improved and profits have been retained for public benefit, rather than lost to shareholders. As a result Labour has pledged that, should we win the next General Election in May 2015, East Coast would be kept in public hands.

Stop the East Coast Privatisation

On Tuesday 26 March the Government announced its intention to privatise East Coast by February 2015. This is a cynical attempt by Tory Ministers to wreck Labour’s plan, and shows that the David Cameron and his Ministers put ideology before the needs of passengers and taxpayers. That’s why along with my fellow Edinburgh MPs Mark Lazarowicz and Ian Murray, I’ve started a campaign calling on the government to halt the privatisation plans. You can read the article I wrote for the Edinburgh Evening News here: http://bit.ly/11NEzjs.

You can sign up to my petition on my website: http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/my-work/eastcoastmainline/

There you’ll also be able to read the letter I’ve sent to Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin.

Constituency Report

April in Edinburgh

The first two weeks in April being Parliament’s Easter break, I was able to get along to a number of local community meetings and visits, as well as spending a lot of time getting around the constituency talking to people at home.

Preston Street pupils put me to the test

As part of a visit to Preston Street primary school I was asked some very challenging questions by primary 6 and 7 pupils about such things as whether it was right to bail out the banks, what would happen to the country’s debt if Scotland became independent and whether we could really afford to pay Aid to other countries. This was part of a longer visit where the whole school presented the results of work they had been doing around the Enough Food If campaign, looking not only at the food problems of developing countries but also at some of our habits at home. They had looked at practices such as supermarket promotions of ‘buy one get one free leading to many of us (myself included as I told them!) buying more than we really intended, and then possibly wasting it.   The enthusiasm for the project was infectious.

More on ‘Enough Food If’

I was also invited to meet with members of an Enough Food If campaign group at the Sacred Heart Church in Lauriston Gardens.  There was a lively and wide ranging discussion about how we could make some of the ideas coming from the campaign a reality, and especially around tax issues, both in developing countries and here in the UK.  Although there are many more things to be done, I always stress to campaigning groups the importance of demonstrating to the current Government that there is support for their commitments on aid.  There are many voices on the government’s own back benches who would like to see this cut.

Third Age Computing Fun

Third Age Computer FunAnother April visit was to the Third Age Computer Fun group which now meets in the new Craigmillar Library.  The group are delighted with the facilities here, with good wifi. This is an informal group where everyone works at their own pace with volunteers on hand to give advice. Want to find out more? Telephone 0131 346 1179, email info@thirdagecf.org.uk or tweet @thirdagecf

New Life for the ‘New Victoria’ (aka the Odeon?)

New Victoria. Credit: www.buildingsatrisk.org.uk

Those who have campaigned for many years to save the former Odeon cinema building from demolition were heartened to hear about plans for the building to be given a new lease of life as an entertainment venue.  Gerry Boyle came to the April meeting of the Southside Association to explain his plans to lease the ‘front’ part of the building, including the auditorium, for use as a cabaret venue, with both live and streamed entertainers.  Films could be shown once more.  Mr Boyle sought to reassure local residents that, while Las Vegas style entertainment might be shown on screen, there would be no gambling and no late night licences.  While for some, after all the frustrations, there was an element of ‘Believe it when we see it’, there was also optimism that finally this iconic 1930s building could be brought back to life.

End Polio Now

End Polio Now

This month I was invited to meet with the Portobello Rotary Club whose members wanted to tell me about their work supporting the End Polio Now campaign.  As a child at primary school in the late 1950s polio was the ‘bird flu’ of the day. The images that remain with me are of ‘iron lungs’ (did I see TV pictures?) and parents keeping their children away from swimming pools.  Since then vaccination programmes have been highly successful, not just here but all over the world. The Rotary is supporting the final push to make the world polio free. Fundraising is contributing to ongoing programmes targeting a few remaining areas where the disease remains a risk. One member reported on his experience taking part in a vaccination drive in India. I undertook to contact Ministers to ensure the issue stays on their radar too.

Portobello High School update

New Portobello High School

A PAN application has been submitted for Portobello High School at Portobello Park. This is nothing to be worried about, but the Council is submitting an application to renew the previous application, on the basis that it is due to expire next February.  The Council must restart the process and consult fully to ensure that planning permission is in place should the Scottish Parliament delay any decision to change the Common Good status of the park.

Make sure you submit your comments in support of the application to ensure that this procedural application is accepted.  One public meeting will be held at Portobello Town Hall on Wednesday 15 May from 7pm to 9pm, and a further workshop will be held at Portobello High School Library on Wednesday 22 May from 7pm to 9pm. For further details the background papers can be located at http://bit.ly/Y40ZBu.

The Private Bill was lodged in the Scottish Parliament on 25th April. There will then be 60 days within which objections can be lodged.  A Private Bill Committee will be formed to hear evidence.  The Council is anticipating that the process will be concluded by February 2014.

Shared Repairs in Council Properties

Before last month’s debate on Shared Repairs I emailed comments to Councillors regarding the problem of mixed tenure ex-council blocks (see http://bit.ly/Xi77oh).  The Council-as-landlord seems to have stepped back from such repairs unless deemed to be emergencies, just as it has with statutory notices. I have had a number of responses which say that only emergencies will be dealt with at the moment because “At the moment, Edinburgh Council is currently reviewing its procurement and policy needs in relation to the Tenement Management Scheme and we are unable to lead in mixed tenure repair consultation”.  This has now been the issue for some months.

The most recent case I have is one where the Council still owns 50% of the flats. The most the Housing department, approached by me on behalf of a tenant, was willing to do was write to the owners asking them to organise repairs and that the council would pay its 50%.

It looks like officers have drawn too narrow a meaning on emergency, which is now affecting the Housing department’s ability to handle repairs where it is majority owner in a stair, adding further to the woes of residents who live in stairs with outstanding shared repairs. I’m taking this matter up with my colleagues in the Council.

Compost Giveaway for Green-Fingered Readers

Residents who recycle using their garden waste recycling service will wonder where this waste goes. The City of Edinburgh Council has announced it is giving away free bags at Brunstane Primary School at 3pm on Thursday 2nd May. You can claim one 20kg bag at the event, but supplies are limited so it will be on a first come firs served basis. Please be aware that the bags are heavy so please be prepared. Full details are available at http://bit.ly/ZIKLfl.

The Recycling team will be on hand to provide information on all recycling services.

Craigmillar Community Council – Edmonstone proposals

The most contentious issue at the April meeting was a proposal for new housing development on the Edmondstone estate. Although it is closer to Ferniehill than Craigmillar it falls under the remit of the Community Council, and development there has implications for the regeneration of Craigmillar. The land in question is not owned by the City Council.   Craigmilllar Community Council is concerned that giving consent build private homes here could reduce interest developing the brownfield sites in the Craigmillar area, and so affects the pace of regeneration. The site was originally proposed for use as a park, so there would be a loss of open space too. The would-be developer is stating that the land is not suitable for use as a park, and that it may end up neglected because the Council, which originally was going to upgrade the area under a 99 year lease, may not have the money to do so. The developer was suggesting that a contribution would be offered instead to help upgrade other open space in the area between Greendykes and the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh and the Medipark.

All of this is at a very early stage and there will be public consultation event held on 15th May at the Hays Business Centre (times to be confirmed) but from what I heard at the community council meeting I share the community’s concerns.

Tai chi centre

Credit: The Tiger's Mouth

An old garage in Marionville Road has been given a new lease of life as a national centre for the Taoist Tai Chi organisation, and was given a colourful opening (complete with dragon and lion) in April.  Members came from all over the UK and beyond to celebrate the opening and attend a five day workshop. Anyone interested in attending classes or just finding out more, head to http://bit.ly/17kbl0F.

Lyra Theatre Perfomances at ARTSPACE

Lyra Theatres, CraigmillarLyra Theatre would like to invite Edinburgh East residents to free two dance performances made especially for young audiences all the way from the Netherlands! ‘Alles (All)’ and No Man is an Island and My True North will be shown on Saturday 11th May at 2pm at Artspace and Monday 13th May at 7pm at Artspace.

Alles (All) features dance and drum for ages 4-7. No Man is an Island and My True North features two dazzling dance duets that push the limits of physical possibility and challenge the laws of gravity. Ages 8+. Performances are free but ticketed. Please email boxoffice@lyratheatre.co.uk or text 07779141655 for more information or to book your tickets.

Have your say – council consultations

Encouraging the development of co-operative housing arrangements

In 2012 the Labour Party campaigned in the local council elections on a programme of establishing more co-operative ways of running council services. These ideas were endorsed in the Capital Coalition document entered into by Labour and SNP groups on the council, and I know are supported by others too. To put some flesh on the bones of these ideas in the housing field the Council is starting a consultation on 1 May running through to July.  The document takes a wide view of what constitute ‘co operative arrangements’ from better partnership working to the provision of homes. Edinburgh East has two of Edinburgh’s three successful Housing Co-ops, Lister in the Lauriston Place area and Hunters Hall in Niddrie. Provision of much needed further housing through co-ops is hampered by the length of time it takes to set up a new co-op and the shortage of subsidy. Give your views for example on whether existing co-ops should be enabled to expand or is ‘small beautiful’ in the case of co-ops?  Other suggestions made in the consultation are whether the co-operative model could be used to set up factoring services for home owners (very relevant to Edinburgh in light of the continued discussion over common repairs.) I will be responding to the consultation in due course and will put my submission on my website. I look forward to hearing what you have to say.

Details of the consultation should be available at http://bit.ly/ZOfljv from 1st May.

City Centre Vision

The Council is also consulting on city centre plans, including some proposals for revised traffic management arrangements designed to make the city centre more pedestrian friendly (see http://bit.ly/ZOdZW2 ). These include making traffic one way along both Princes Street and George Street, with a two way segregated cycle lane along George Street only. Edinburgh East starts on the south side of Princes Street but the city centre affects all of us so take the opportunity to make your views known. The consultation closes on 9th May, to complete the survey, head to http://svy.mk/ZOdXNU.

Regenerating Craigmillar and Affordable Housing

Parc Craigmillar

In the debate about the future of Castlebrae Community High School I have constantly emphasised that the school is integral to the regeneration process, and that the Council should not have sought to look at the school in isolation. I was therefore pleased to hear some radio chat in advance of the Council’s Health, Well being & Housing Committee meeting on 23rd April that a Report was coming forward on affordable housing which would be emphasising the contribution of regeneration areas like Craigmillar (and Granton).

Reading the report – ‘A Business Case for Affordable Housing’ available at http://bit.ly/ZOeP57 – was a bit of a disappointment because there was no specific mention of the regeneration areas, and it was less of a detailed business case than an aspiration. What it pointed up for me was the need for much more emphasis on investment in housing from both the Westminster and Holyrood Governments.  Emphasis appears to be on expanding provision of what is called mid market rent, which is a good way from what has previously been seen as ‘affordable’ and will deliver an outcome very similar to the course being pursued by the Coalition Government, which has made clear its plan that all new council and housing association house building in England will be of homes at up to 80% of market rents’. The council is asking for comments on its Report, and I will be responding from a constituency perspective.  I’m putting together a further piece on Edinburgh’s housing options which will be on my website shortly at http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/edinburghs-housing-crisis/.

Dates for your diary

Friday, 26th April – SPACE Green Day – 12pm to 5pm – 11 Harewood Road – Clothes recycling, crafts, tombola and music – entry £1

Friday 26th May – Bin the Bedroom Tax public meeting – hosted by Craigmillar Coalition against Poverty – Richmond Church, Niddrie Mains Road – from 7.00pm – further details at http://bit.ly/ZIHAEm.

Saturday, 27th April – Craigmillar Books for Babies 15th Birthday Celebration – 11am-12pm – Craigmillar Library, Niddrie Mains Road

Tuesday, 30th April – Abbeyhill Student Accommodation PAN Exhibition – 2pm-7pm – Chatham Honda Garage, Abbeyhill – Planning reference number 13/00726/PAN

Thursday 2nd May – Compost giveaway – Brunstane Primary School – from 3pm – full details at http://bit.ly/ZIKLfl

Thursday 9th May – Deadline for your comments on the ‘City Centre Vision’ – more details at http://bit.ly/ZOdZW2, and the survey can be completed at http://svy.mk/ZOdXNU.

Saturday 11th May – Performance of Alles (All)  –  2pm – Artspace, Harewood Road – Please email boxoffice@lyratheatre.co.uk or text 07779141655 for more information or to book your tickets.

Monday 13th May – Performance of No Man is an Island and My True North – 7pm – Artspace, Harewood Road – Please email boxoffice@lyratheatre.co.uk or text 07779141655 for more information or to book your tickets.

Tuesday 14th May – Exhibition on Edmonstone plans – Hays Business Centre – times to be confirmed

Wednesday 15th May – Portobello High School PAN renewal public meeting – Portobello Town Hall – from 7pm to 9pm – full details available at http://bit.ly/Y40ZBu

Wednesday 22nd May – Portobello High School PAN renewal – Residents Workshop – Portobello High School Library – 7pm to 9pm – full details available at http://bit.ly/Y40ZBu

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