In November the Smith Commission recommended that significant further powers should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament, and on 22 January a new draft law was published that would make this a reality.
Combined with the additional powers already legislated for in the last Scotland Act of 2012, we have opportunities now to plan how we can use these powers to make Scotland a fairer and more equal country.
With the publication of the draft legislation in mind I used an article in the Edinburgh Evening News on 2 December to call upon the SNP Scottish Government to use the new powers over tax and borrowing to boost investment in affordable house-building. Not only would this create jobs in the construction industry and improve our housing stock, but it would also reduce rents in the private rented sector and the overall Housing Benefit bill.
On 24 January Scottish Labour announced that we would use both the existing planning powers of the Scottish Parliament – and those over licensing that are set to be devolved – to freeze all fracking for shale gas in Scotland. While this isn’t my party’s position in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, during a Commons debate on the Infrastructure Bill on 26 January, the Coalition Government were forced to accept that fracking could only go ahead in the rest of the UK under strict new regulations put forward by my colleagues on the Shadow Environment team. Many constituents wrote to me on this issue and I’ve now posted my response on my website.
Labour’s Economic Policy
In January I received a lot of correspondence about the Government’s Charter for Budgetary Responsibility, which commits any future Government to balancing day-to-day public spending as soon as possible. This is Labour policy, and so we voted in favour of the charter on 13 January. It’s important to stress that there’s a big difference between our approach and that of the Conservatives. Following the Autumn Statement, the BBC’s economics editor Robert Peston highlighted the significant differences in our approach:
The gap between the spending cuts or tax rises required by the Tories and Labour to hit their fiscal targets for the next parliament is a very significant £50bn.
Well the Tories are signed up to generating a surplus on the overall budget of £23bn in 2019-20.
And Labour is only committed to balancing the so-called “current” budget by then – that’s day-to-day spending on public-sector wages, benefits, pensions and so on – while being prepared to finance capital investment with debt.
And since net public sector investment is forecast to be £27bn in 2019-20, a Labour government would require less austerity to the tune of £23bn plus £27bn – or £50bn.
This is a massive difference.
News in Brief
Carrier Bag Charges
After the recent introduction of a carrier bag charge in Scotland, I discovered that Sainsbury’s are the only supermarket that don’t give shoppers the option of bagless deliveries when ordering online. This contravenes guidance from Zero Waste Scotland, something I highlighted in a press release.
Social Security Work
I am keeping up my work in parliament on social security, speaking in the commons on both sanctions against those claiming Jobseekers Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance. The Work & Pensions Select Committee has been taking evidence on the issue of sanctions over the last few weeks and we will be publishing a Report on this in March.
I have also spoken on the lack of support for people who need to challenge decisions that they are fit for work.
The Coalition Government has always made a big issue of its Benefit Cap – the ‘rule’ that, with some exceptions, no household should receive more than £26,000 in benefits. This was introduced in the Welfare Reform Act of 2012 which my party voted against. The amount ‘saved’ by the Benefit Cap is in practice fairly low and Ministers have clearly wanted this as a way of trying to drive a wedge between those in work and those not. Since its introduction the Government has claimed that the Cap has been successful in getting people into work. I questioned this claim on Huffington Post, twice!
1,000 Extra Nurses
Following Jim Murphy’s announcement that he would use the proceeds of Labour’s Mansion Tax to help recruit 1,000 extra nurses for the NHS in Scotland, I hit back at the suggestion from some London MPs that this represents ‘expropriation from London’. This sort of pooling and sharing of resources is similar to how the tax revenue from North Sea oil is used to fund investment in public services like schools and policing across other parts of the UK, and is one of the key benefits of our United Kingdom.
It emerged in December that senior Tories Liam Fox and Owen Paterson had addressed a right-wing fringe group which has questioned whether same-sex marriage causes earthquakes. I told the Pink News, Independent and Guardian that the Conservative Party ought to explain why it allows some of its most influential MPs to associate with a group pushing such vile views.
Network Rail Flights
Following the post-Christmas engineering overruns at Kings Cross that caused havoc for people travelling between Edinburgh and London, I hit out at Network Rail executives who choose to fly to meetings rather than take the train.
Legal Highs on our High Streets
In recent months a number of constituents have contacted me with serious and worrying concerns about the increasing sale of the so-called ‘legal highs‘ in shops on our high streets, especially in the Southside and near Easter Road. The problem is particularly acute in the Southside area, where there are several such outlets. Some users are injecting and used syringes are being found in public spaces and common stairs. Because the highs are intense and short-lived the Council and NHS know there has been a rapid increase in injecting frequency. In turn there is more disruption experienced by residents, with some reporting that forced entry to stairs has increased into in order for users to find somewhere to inject. Some users become aggressive and the police are encountering an increase in fights and antisocial behaviour.
I met with representatives from the Council, Health Board and the Police recently to hear what is being done to tackle this issue. The good news is that they are very well aware of the problem and are working closely together. The difficulty is that supply remains legal and banning of specific substances has led to others, only slightly different, appearing. Government needs to look at the possibility of more widely drawn bans, and I believe the Council needs to look urgently into whether those selling these substances should be licensed.
Homebase and Buccleuch Place applications
Decisions made at that Development Management Sub-Committee on Wednesday produced mixed results for Southsiders. On the one hand the Council’s Planning committee refused the application for 579 student beds at the Homebase site at St Leonards. As such the planning committee has once more upheld its policies which seek to sustain balanced communities in our city. Congratulations are again due to the individuals and residents groups such as the Southside Association and Living Southside which have worked so hard to make the case for the community. As expected the developers hardly waited for the decision before they indicated they were going to appeal.
Unfortunately for residents in Buccleuch Street, the committee agreed a plan to convert Georgian tenements at Buccleuch Place from offices to residential flats for students. Unfortunately this determination was made in haste due a concern that the Council was being too slow coming to its decision. On the day there was wrangling over the status of these properties and whether or not they will require HMO licenses. It was questioned whether officers adequately advised committee members on this issue just two weeks ago. My own submission in response to this application, and a subsequent email to committee members in January, highlighted my view that licenses, and HMO planning policies, were relevant. You can watch a recorded webcast of the committee on the Council’s website.
We now await the joint consultation on both HMO and purpose built student accommodation policies, which I have been promised should start soon.
Engine Shed Closure
It is with great sadness that the Engine Shed has confirmed it will close later this month. I have long been an advocate of the Engine Shed and the supported employment the social enterprise provides. In September it was announced the Engine Shed would lose 40 per cent of its income from City of Edinburgh Council. As a training facility the Engine Shed is first class and it remains to be seen whether the young people it trained are able to get ‘real jobs’ elsewhere and if the in-work support promised under a new employability scheme is really available and sustained. The final day of trading will be Saturday 21 February.
Third Age Computing Closure
Since being elected I’ve promoted the work of the Third Age Computing Club which organised computing classes for 50+ communities across Edinburgh East and the central belt. It was a real shame to learn late in December that the board had decided to dissolve the charity. A number of clubs will remain open under a new organisation so that classes can continue. Go to the TACF website to register your interest in these.
This week I learnt that George Pitcher, a true activist who served the Southside community, passed away. I have fond memories of my work with George over the years and he will be very missed by all who knew him.
Niddrie Mill Redevelopment Begins
Last month I received a notification that the redevelopment of Niddrie Mill Primary has begun. Developers have circulated a newsletter with contact details for residents who have queries. It is unfortunate the images used look like stock images and fails to mention the historic frontage developers will retain.
Last month an application to convert Phoenix House, a vacant office building on Portobello High Street, to residential dwellings was submitted to the City of Edinburgh Council. Considered a small application, the window for comments was just 21 days. While I welcome more homes in Portobello, including an affordable component, I have some concern about the materials the developer hopes to clad the existing structure with, and have submitted comments accordingly.
Former Royal Infirmary Residential Redevelopment
A pre-application notification has been submitted to convert the Surgical Buildings of the former Royal Infirmary. This proposal is for residential development and an exhibition of the plans will take place on Tuesday 24th February from 2.00pm-8.00pm at The Marketing Suite, 1 Lauriston Place, Edinburgh.
“Skoda” Garage Residential Redevelopment
Hot on the heels of the Stanley place student accommodation application a 12 week consultation period has begun for the residential redevelopment of the former “Skoda” garage (4 Abbey Lane 6 Comely Green Crescent Edinburgh EH8 8HH). Details on the planning portal are scarce at this stage, however in the developer’s application form the date and time of an exhibition of their plans will take place on Thursday 26th February at Abbeyhill Primary School between 4.00pm and 7.00pm to allow you and other residents review the plans.
Carr Gomm Community Growing
Carr Gomm would like to hear from you if your organisation or community is interested in developing any outdoor space into an area to grow food. Based at The SPACE in Craigmillar you can contact Karin Chipulina on 07824 838 364.
Dates for your Diary
- Monday 16th February – Spring Meeting of the Friends of the Meadows and Bruntsfield Links – 7:30 pm in the Pillar Hall, Barclay Viewforth Church
- Tuesday 24th February – Quartermile Surgical Building PAN on residential development – 2.00pm-8.00pm – The Marketing Suite, 1 Lauriston Place, Edinburgh.
- Thursday 26th February – “Skoda” Garage Residential Redevelopment PAN exhibition – between 4.00pm and 7.00pm – Abbeyhill Primary School