Parliament has today been dissolved. I therefore have ceased to be the Member of Parliament for Edinburgh East.
During the period of dissolution my office is permitted to accept casework from constituents. My office however does not have access to the Parliamentary privilege or resource enjoyed since 7 May 2010. During the period of the election campaign, government agencies and public bodies can refuse to accept new casework I raise with them. This means I cannot guarantee my office will achieve positive results, nor that will the request be considered.
Where it is clear that my involvement as former MP would be immediately advantageous to the constituent I would be happy to make enquiries. In some circumstances constituents would obtain a quicker or more effective response from an advice agency or elected representative still in post and my office would signpost accordingly. Alternatively, the enquiry can be held pending the outcome of the General Election.
I would like to thank every constituent of Edinburgh East for their support and engagement during this Parliament, and I am grateful for your cooperation at this time.
The Chancellor delivered his final budget of the parliament on Wednesday the 18th of March. There were no great policy innovations to steal the headlines, so most commentators – including me in my speech in the budget debate – focussed on the Government’s proposed spending plans for the next five years. These involve very deep cuts in 2016/17 and 2017/18, and then a significant easing off in 2018/19 and 2019/20 – the so-called spending roller coaster.
Most of the changes contained in the budget are actually implemented through a Finance Bill, which this year was rushed through the House of Commons in a day. In my speech during the bill’s committee stage, I highlighted the differences in spending plans of the Government and the opposition. While we don’t deny the deficit needs to be reduced, I noted that our plans involve only £4 billion of spending reductions compared to £55 billion under the Conservatives, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
Housing Benefit and the Bedroom Tax
One of the ways in which parliament scrutinises Government spending is through Estimates Day debates. This involves taking a Select Committee report that relates to a particular item of departmental spending, and on 3 March the Work and Pensions Committee – of which I am a member – led a debate on our report on Housing Benefit.
In my speech I noted the broad consensus that Housing Benefit spending is too high, but then highlighted the contrasting approaches of the Government and opposition to bringing it down.
Over the last five years Ministers have salami=sliced away at entitlement to the benefit – one of the most infamous examples of this being the Bedroom Tax – but despite the damage and distress caused to individuals, spending has continued to rise.
In contrast I believe we need to tackle the root causes of higher spending, chief amongst which is a lack of affordable social housing. Only once we get building will we reduce upward pressure on rents in the private sector, and bring down Housing Benefit spending in the long term.
MPs’ second jobs
Research released earlier this month shows that the 20 MPs who earned the most from second (and often third or fourth) jobs spoke in 22 per cent fewer debates and submitted 39 per cent fewer written questions than the average MP. I spoke out in the Guardian, saying that MPs should focus on representing their constituents and scrutinising the Government, and calling for a ban on paid directorships or consultancy work
Just over a decade ago Towerbank Primary School was an undersubscribed. Fast forward to 2015 and demand for a space at the school outstrips the number of spaces available. Tens of parents have recently contacted me raising considerable concern that the Council has now started an ‘informal consultation’ on redrawing the catchment area, before the formal stage begins.
The Council must listen to parents’ concerns and ensure that it responds with solutions, including pursuing a sibling guarantee for families who already have children at the school. These families have not chosen their situation and to redraw the boundary will cause considerable disruption for households settled in Portobello and Joppa. I know that having children at two schools is both incredibly unfair on families but presents very real logistical difficulties on a daily basis. I have written to the Chair of the Children & Families Committee supporting parents’ who have been in touch.
Baronscourt Residents’ Success
I’m delighted that the Northfield Willowbrae Community Council and residents in Baronscourt successfully fought off an application for a late hours catering license earlier in the month. Residents can now be assured that this residential area does not become a focus for the night time economy. When Dominos first opened three years ago the franchise owner gave assurances there was no intention of seeking to open late, but we have seen from similar applications elsewhere in the city attempts to get restrictions lifted follow a few years after the initial opening. The applicant is entitled to appeal the decision through the sheriff court, but otherwise cannot reapply for the next year.
Brunstane and the LDP
A couple of weeks ago, it was reported the second development plan could be at risk of being cancelled by the Scottish Government, which could force the City of Edinburgh Council to start the process all over again. You will recall that in October last year I responded to the Local Development Plan consultation and objected to the proposal for up to 1330 homes at the Brunstane. Reiterating the calls I have made regarding development proposals at Newcraighall I am clear that instead we should be developing swathes of Brownfield land within the city, rather than have the Scottish Government force the council’s hand and let developers cherry-pick easy sites to develop. Housing at the Brunstane site would cause further traffic congestion and place a huge amount of pressure on local services.
Homebase & Lutton Court Update
In support of local resident’s petitions calling on Homebase to stay in the Southside, I’ve written to the Managing Director requesting that he respond to the campaign. As in my comments on the planning application for the site, I made clear my concerns at the potential loss of the store to local community, which is valued greatly. It is welcome that there is a store which provides ‘DIY’ and gardening goods without having to leave the centre of Edinburgh and truly complements the retail offering on the Nicolson Street corridor. Remember to sign the newsletter online if you haven’t already! Separately, I have now submitted my comments calling to the Homebase appeal to be dismissed; view it at http://goo.gl/vT4Pel.
A couple of weeks ago I learnt the devastating news that residents chose to withdraw from their statutory appeal against the Reporter’s decision on Lutton Court. With the legal process exhausted, it is up to the Council to decide whether it will proceed with the sale of the land, or renege on its contract in the interests of local residents. On the back of concerning deals surrounding the Potterow land, and the Royal High lease, I have become increasingly concerned that the pursuit of one-off profits is failing to deliver long term benefits for Edinburgh residents. Residents and I have written to Council leader, Andrew Burns asking that the decision is reviewed before it is too late.
Just last week another application at Meadow Lane was given the green light. That application, for mews type properties and a new purpose built accommodation block on Buccleuch Street was accepted at committee, even though the student population is over 40% already. It was argued the site was so close to the University of Edinburgh that the concentration issue was not a material consideration, a matter which has angered local residents.
In my response to Student Housing Issues Paper I have called for thorough strengthening of the 30% threshold and to throw out any notion of the University of Edinburgh having any ‘campus’ within the city centre. I have also argued for the need for a holistic review of the growth of the education sector across the city to ensure that the planning authority and residents can continue to accommodate this huge industry. To see my submission, head to http://goo.gl/XvjeEB. Remember to respond to the consultation at https://consultationhub.edinburgh.gov.uk/ before 24 April.