October 2014 Newsletter

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Westminster Report

Devolution
In the aftermath of last month’s referendum I emphasised how important it was that the promises made by the three main parties of further devolution to the Scottish Parliament are kept. Since the House of Commons returned from the party conference recess there have been several developments that I think people should know about.

Gordon BrownI acknowledge that in his initial response to the referendum result, the Prime Minister indicated that decisions on whether Scottish MPs should be able to vote on English-only matters should be made ‘in tandem with, and at the same pace as’ the process for further devolution to Scotland. However during all of three occasions mentioned above, all the parties made it clear that the separate processes with respect to England and Scotland are not linked, that the vow was unconditional, and that new powers would be devolved. The Smith Commission has now started meeting and will produce a final report by the end of November.

I think it’s important that we start to focus on what more we can do with the Scottish Parliament’s existing powers, and those that are set to be devolved in future. For example my party has proposed devolving responsibility for Housing Benefit, and combined with new borrowing powers, this could allow us to both invest in affordable housing and reap the benefits as Housing Benefit expenditure falls. I raised this during the Secretary of State’s statement. I had hoped to have a chance to speak further on this during Tuesday’s debate, but time ran out before all those wanting to speak could be heard.

This is such an important issue to so many people – both Yes and No voters alike – and I’m more than happy to discuss any concerns or questions by email.

Israel and Palestine
UK’s approach to Palestine was debated on Monday 13 October. I voted for the UK to recognise Palestine as a state because I believe that this will encourage both sides to negotiate a long-term peace deal. Ian Lucas’s speech explains why my party also voted in favour.

Child Maintenance
When families split up parents who live away from their children should contribute financially to their upbringing. In the past the Government’s Child Support Agency ensured this would happen, but now Ministers are encouraging parents to sort out their own arrangements. They’re doing this by both charging for the CSA’s replacement (the Child Maintenance Service), and by their £20 million Help and Support for Separated Families Initiative. I’m concerned that this latter part of the process isn’t providing enough help to enough parents, and put my concerns to the Government in a debate on Tuesday 21 October. You can read a transcript of my speech, but for a more concise version, read my article of the same date on Politics Home.

Recall
In recent years lots of people have called for a system of recall to be introduced, whereby constituents could start a petition that, if it gained sufficient support, could result in their MP losing their job and a by-election being held. On Tuesday 21 October the Government’s Recall of MPs Bill was debated in the House of Commons, which puts in place this sort of system when an MP has been found guilty of misconduct or neglected his or her duties. As it stands the Bill needs to be strengthened and hopefully this will be done during the Committee stage of the Bill which started on 27th October.

However many constituents have sent emails asking me to back amendments to the bill that go further, and could see MPs recalled for expressing a particular view or voting in a certain way. I’m afraid I won’t be doing so because, as my colleague Frank Dobson MP said in an excellent article he wrote in the Guardian.

Much of the social and political progress we enjoy today sprang from the work of MPs who were attacked and vilified when they first campaigned for the laws and attitudes from which we now benefit. When such MPs argued against the conventional wisdom, the powerful reactionary forces ranged against them didn’t stop at attacking the reformers’ arguments; their opposition was often coupled with personal abuse and smears.

I accept that MPs must ultimately account to those they represent for their views and voting record, but this should be done at General Elections, when voters can take a more rounded view of their overall performance. So while my Labour colleagues and I helped pass the bill on Tuesday, we won’t be supporting the amendments I’ve talked about here.

Mohammad Asghar
Many Edinburgh residents are concerned about Mr Asghar who was shot while in prison in Pakistan. Mr Asghar was formerly my constituent and his family still stay in Edinburgh East. Last week I asked David Cameron what his Government are doing to ensure the safe return of Mr Asghar. I am now making enquiries regarding the comments the Prime Minister made in the chamber last week, as well as asking for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for further details on the contact it is has made with the Pakistani authorities.

Bedroom Tax
Last month I reported on the Private Members Bill from Andrew George which would substantially reduce the impact of the Bedroom Tax. It passed its Second Reading on 5 September.

Bedroom TaxI have been made a member of the Committee which will go through the detail of the Bill. So far we have had only one meeting, and some of the Tories on the committee have shown that they will be continuing to fight it tooth & nail. I will keep you posted on progress! Labour has opposed the Bedroom Tax since it was first proposed in the Welfare Reform Bill in 2011, and is pledged to abolish it in government.

News in brief

Climate Change

Constituency Report

Engine Shed: supported employment works
It was very disappointing to hear that, despite last year’s decision to continue funding for at least 12 months, the Engine Shed has decided that it will have to close. In September it was announced the Engine Shed would lose 40 per cent of its income from City of Edinburgh Council. Last year the Council fundamentally changed how it seeks to provide employment support schemes but the Engine Shed decided not to be part of the consortium which said it would deliver the new services.

The model both Council and the Scottish Government have chosen to fund is one that prioritises finding people mainstream employment and providing support when they get work. The longer term training and support provided by an organisation like the Engine Shed does not fit this model. In espousing this approach the Council and Scottish Government is echoing the delivery mechanism adopted by the UK Government which has used exactly the same arguments to close many Remploy factories.

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 these ‘real jobs’ and if the in-work support is really available and sustained. My article on the benefits of the Engine Shed model was in the Edinburgh Evening News this weekend.

Meadows Mural
Have you noticed the mural at the junction of Middle Meadow Walk and North Meadow Walk?

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Meadows 2

This was a project of the Friends of the Meadows and Bruntsfield links, with funding from the Scottish Power and the neighbourhood partnership. This is part of the excellent work this friends group does. If you want to know more their latest newsletter is online at fombl.org.uk/nl38.pdf and their next meeting takes place on 11th November at 7.30pm at the German Church I Chalmers Crescent.

Homebase Consultation
Consultation on the application to demolish Homebase and construct 579 student beds has now closed with an impressive 120 residents submitting their comments on the plans. My own submission responded to the Scottish Government reporter’s interpretation of the term ‘adjacency’ when considering the Council’s student accommodation policy, and highlighted that the development would lead to extremely high numbers of students in a locality outwith the University campus. Residents are also concerned about the consequent loss of a retail store which complements the offering of the Nicolson & Clerk Street Town Centre. The submission is on my website.

Baileyfield

Portobello Responds to Baileyfield Proposals
Portobello Community Council has carried out extensive local consultation on this application by accessing funds made available by the Council’s planning department. Residents were asked to respond using a comment form or an online survey. With the consultation closed and results in 50% responded in support of the proposal, 40% against, while 10% were neutral. Over 400 local residents gave their feedback which means that the Council now has a high quality sample of local opinion on all aspects of this application. Many residents, for or against, commented with caution noting concerns about the impact on school rolls, pressures on GPs surgeries and local transport infrastructure. My submission reflected these concerns and made clear that if the Council is in anyway minded to grant this application, it must have exhaustive comment from the council departments which will have to accommodate the impact of the development. The results of the Community Council consultation are being fully collated and will be available at portobellocc.org shortly.

Council Budget
Next year your Councillors will have to agree a package of budgetary cuts of £67m over 3 years. The Council has launched its ‘challenge’ to allow you decide where the cuts should fall. The interactive tool explains the consequences of your chosen level of cuts for all aspects of the Council services but prevents you from submitting your feedback until the books are balanced. We have already seen news reports that this may lead to increases in allotment charges and cuts to the Edinburgh Leisure subsidy. It is clear that the balancing act will be no easy task. Having tried the challenge it is clear your Councillors will need as much input as possible.

BudgetA number of constituents have raised their concern about the proposal, contained in the council’s pre-budget consultation paper, for a threefold increase in allotment fees. They point to the health and environmental benefits, something which all tiers of government say they support. Allotments are more popular than ever and I think there is still considerable scope for creating more. One very active project, Bridgend allotments, have an open day on 8 November from 12.00pm-3.30pm at the Bridgend Farmhouse & Allotments, 41 Old Dalkeith Road.

In recent years councils have been turning more often to fees and charges as a means of balancing the books. This is one consequence of seven years of council tax freeze. I welcome the council ‘s attempts to involve the public in discussing the budget, but we need to go beyond ‘moving the slider’ up and down and debate how we properly fund local government.

Dates for Your Diary

BridgendFireworksArt Clubs

  • 1 November – Women 50:50 campaign planning event – 1.00pm-3.30pm – Tea, coffees and cake provided – register at bit.ly/11rJzld
  • 2 November – Protest Rally against ISIS militants – 3.00pm-5.00pm – Meet at the foot of the Mound
  • 6 November – Polmigration: a Polish Community event to discuss level of involvement with mainstream services – 10am till 4pm – Ukrainian Club, 14 Royal Terrace – register at goo.gl/5cMy1I
  • 8 November – Bridgend Farmhouse & Allotments Open Day – from 12.00pm-3.30pm – Bridgend Farmhouse & Allotments, 41 Old Dalkeith Road – There will be food, music, information about what’s happening with the farmhouse and tours of the site and building.
  • 10 November – Revised completion date for works to Duddingston Road West rail bridge works – for further information contact Keith Allison on 0131 529 3111 or by e-mail keith.allison@edinburgh.gov.uk
  • 11 November – Friends of the Meadows and Bruntsfield Links Autumn meeting – from 7:30 pm – German Church, 1 Chalmers Crescent – Dr Chris Wigglesworth will speak on the geology of the Meadows and Bruntsfield Links – autumn newsletter now available at http://www.fombl.org.uk/nl38.pdf
  • 18 November – Stanley Place Public Consultation Event – 4.00pm-7.00pm – Abbeyhill Primary School, Abbey Street – Fortis Developments has decided to submit a revised planning application for student residential accommodation. All residents welcome to attend.
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Events in Parks Manifesto consultation

Edinburgh’s parks are an asset much loved by all residents because they serve as great venues for summer events.  I am therefore pleased that the Council Parks department has begun to consult on an Events in Parks Manifesto.  I am keen to ensure that the manifesto recognises how all parks can be used for vibrant and enjoyable events balanced with the needs of local residents and their environmental concerns.

The consultation closes tomorrow (21 March) and you can read the letter of submission I have made here.

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Season’s Greetings & December 2013 Newsletter

Sheila Gilmore MP HeaderSeason’s Greetings
I’d like to take this opportunity to wish you a peaceful and joyous festive period. While we take a break and spend time with family, we must remember some friends and neighbours are less fortunate. Keep them in mind during the holiday season, especially if the cold weather sets in.

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The fantastic artwork featured here was kindly produced by the students and tutors at Orcadia Creative Learning Centre and will appear on my 2013 Christmas card. The Christmas card will now be distributed to 10,000 Edinburgh East households, spreading a bit of Christmas sparkle.

Located at Windsor Place, Portobello, the learning centre puts on an impressive range of communication based activities for young people with learning difficulties including arts, amateur dramatics, percussion and mime puppetry to encourage students to participate in interactive communication. Students attend from all over Edinburgh and the Lothians.

Orcadia and their dedicated staff and volunteers, ensure that day to day experiences for these children and young people is expressive and engaging. Fundraising is key to ensure that the centre can continue to offer these services. The trampolining room – which can be hired for children’s parties – provides a much needed income stream and this year the centre is being supported by Sainsbury’s Portobello.

The Orcadia website is currently under construction, but you can register for the mailing list at orcadiacentre.org.uk.

Westminster report
Back in May it was pointed out that the Government appeared to have run out of legislative steam with a very thin Queen’s Speech. As it turned out the most contentious Bill, on Lobbying, wasn’t even in the Speech. But the role of Parliament is also to monitor the impact of previous legislation and budgets.

Chamber

The cost of living has gone due a substantial drop in real wages for many. This has been the focus of a number of debates. The Government’s own Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission has described the Government’s ‘fiscal consolidation’ as regressive in its impact, and on 19th November I asked Nick Clegg about whether he would agreed with one of the Commission’s recommendations to shift the childcare subsidy higher rate taxpayers enjoy to support low earners. Later the same day in a debate on the impact of the Government’s policies on women I made a speech where I pointed out that for low earners the increase in income tax thresholds had been cancelled out by reductions in tax credits and frozen child benefit payments.

Personal Independence Payment – More Haste Less Speed!
Disability Living Allowance is paid to help people cope with the additional costs of living with a disability. In 2010 the Government announced it was to be replaced by a new benefit – Personal Independence Payment – for which the budget would be cut by £2 billion. Initially all new claims made from last month were to be for PIP rather than DLA, but the Department for Work and Pensions announced that this would only happen in certain parts of the country because pilots showed the assessment process was taking longer than expected. I wrote for the Huffington Post about why this is happening and the impact on disabled people.

More Issues with Employment & Support Allowance
While DLA – and in the future PIP – is paid to people regardless of whether they are in or out of work, Employment and Support Allowance is the main ‘income replacement’ benefit for those who cannot work due to a health condition or disability. I’ve been concerned that too many people are being assessed as fit for work when they’re clearly unable to do so. This month I’ve discovered that figures on the number of people awarded ESA have been artificially inflated by taking into account the results of informal appeals against refusals, masking the failings in the assessment. You can read more about this on my website.

This comes on top of the Government’s failure to publish further key data in October, which was picked up by the Third Force News. The Scottish voluntary sector newspaper also published a letter I sent in highlighting the growing number of people refused both ESA and Jobseekers Allowance.

Benefits sanctions
Since their election the Government have reduced the flexibility that Jobcentre Plus advisers have in deciding whether Jobseekers Allowance claimants should have their benefits stopped and sanction periods have increased. As a result there was a sharp rise in the number of people being sanctioned when figures were published earlier this month. While I accept that people in receipt of JSA should be expected to look for work, I’ve come across several examples of people who should never have been sanctioned if common sense had prevailed. I’ve set these out, along with what I think needs to change, on my website.

Bedroom Tax
In September Ed Miliband announced that Labour would scrap the Bedroom Tax if it wins the 2015 General Election. On 12 November we held an ‘Opposition Day’ debate on this proposal, with a vote at the end. This was so over-subscribed with speakers on the Labour side that time ran out before several of us were able to speak, although I did manage to get a few interventions in. You can read the whole debate here. There was also a debate on this subject in the Commons ante-chamber Westminster Hall the week before, in which I was able to make a full speech – see here. Evidence is piling up that the supposed savings on this policy are outweighed by the additional costs, often placed on local councils. In addition to the growing costs of both paying and administering Discretionary Housing Payments (a small pot of money that comes nowhere near mitigating the worst effects of this policy), arrears of rent are causing serious problems for councils and housing associations.

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COSLA (the umbrella group for Scottish Local Authorities) has published evidence arguing that the cost will outweigh the saving and the Centre for Housing Policy at York University published similar evidence based on the experience of four housing providers in the north of England.

But this is one part of government policy where the Coalition is for the most part holding firm and refusing to change. There is doubt that the Prime Minister understands the impact of his own policies. At Prime Minister’s Questions on 27 November, in answer to a question from my colleague Andy McDonald from Middlesbrough, David Cameron claimed that all disabled people needing a spare room were exempt, which they are not!

The Scottish Government has now made additional money available for Discretionary Housing Payments, which although welcome, further reduces any ‘savings’ across Government. If readers know of anyone who may have been refused a payment earlier in the year, please encourage them to claim again. Forms can be found on the Council website.

Speaking out in the media
One of my many roles in Westminster is Parliamentary Private Secretary to Michael Dugher MP, Labour’s Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office. Michael is always on the look-out for Government waste and hypocrisy, and I often take responsibility for providing comment for the national media. So when it emerged that David Cameron used a tax cut to slash his own Downing Street energy bill by £400, I highlighted his opposition to Labour’s price freeze in the Daily Mirror and wrote a piece for LabourList. Then when the Prime Minister’s staffer Craig Oliver helped get election strategist Lynton Crosby through the back door of Number 10, I spoke in the Mirror about his links to big tobacco firms. When it emerged the Conservatives had been deleting pre-2010 speeches and press releases from their website, I popped up in the BBC, Guardian and Telegraph.

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Protect our Post Offices
Over the last month I’ve received over 100 postcards from constituents concerned about the future of the post office network following the Government’s decision to privatise Royal Mail. This was one of the many reasons I and my Labour colleagues opposed privatisation. It will be important that Ministers do all they can to ensure the network survives in the future. Some people use a Post Office Card Account to accesses benefits and pensions – renewing this contract would boost the network’s chances of survival significantly. For more information head to the National Federation of SubPostmasters website.

Constituency Report
Lutton Court student accommodation
In October Buile Developments Limited submitted plans to demolish the former Lutton Court Gall & Inglis printworks building, and construct accommodation for 240 students. In my submission calling on city planners to reject the proposals I referred to statistics obtained from the 2011 census which indicated that the student population here is already 49%. The additional 240 students will result in the student population increasing from 194 to 434, or 68% of all residents well above the City of Edinburgh Council’s policy requiring planners to ensure that accommodation for students is limited to 30% of housing provision in one particular area.

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Students contribute to the diversity and vibrancy of the Southside but constituents – including students living nearby – are concerned this proposal will lead to too high a concentration. The Council’s own planning guidance acknowledges that it is not the existence of students which is problematic; nonetheless, where there is an excessive presence this places undue pressure on existing residents and community relations. The student population is highly transient and can lead to less stable communities. Edinburgh has flourished having a strong community of permanent residents in its centre and I want this to continue. There are many other uses for this site, such as affordable housing which is in such short supply. The full submission is on my website.

Fibre Broadband Rollout
I frequently receive enquiries from local residents looking to set up small businesses from home, and those who are eagerly awaiting fibre broadband to be turned on in their street. All of the exchanges which serve Edinburgh East are ‘accepting orders’ for fibre broadband which means that those who want the ultra-fast internet service can buy it if they wish to do so. The Portobello exchange was one of the first in Edinburgh to be upgraded, while others including the Abbeyhill exchange, which I recently visited, had to wait a short while until deemed commercially viable. Super-fast broadband is an essential tool for local businesses, but it is very much a necessity for families in the 40,000 households across Edinburgh East – whether it is used for homework, working from home, or simply streaming an episode of Doctor Who. At the visit engineers showed me how the powerful connections are carried across Edinburgh.

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The Abbeyhill fibre broadband roll-out will serve 13,500 local homes and businesses when it is complete. By the end of next spring, more than 178,000 homes and businesses in the capital will benefit from the upgrades. BT has invested £2.5bn in the rollout.

Lidl Craigentinny
In September I published my submission on the plans to erect a Lidl store at the former Stratstone Land Rover showroom near to the Seafield junction. Last week members of the Development Management Sub-committee decided to reject the proposals on the basis other sites are preferable and the applicant had not sufficiently demonstrated the proposal addressed a retail deficiency in the area.

Southside Advertising Success
More than a year ago Southside residents wrote to myself and Southside Newington Councillors as billboards had been erected at Holyrood Park Bowling Club, violating views of Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags. In partnership with Forest Media Group, the bowling club submitted applications to erect three hoardings along the road. The first was approved without objection (there is no need to notify neighbours about advertising hoardings); while the second billboard erected was larger than the Council had agreed and enforcement action was taken. The third board was found to be on located on Council land, and local Councillors have now agreed to request that the board be removed. Local residents who worked tirelessly to petition Councillors and officers should be congratulated for their hard work and persistence!

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National Cycle Network Upgrade
Edinburgh can proudly say that it has a large cycling community and is a prime destination on the National Cycle Network. I’m therefore pleased the Council is working in partnership with Sustrans to deliver an upgrade of National Cycle Network Route 1 (NCN1) between the Meadows and the Innocent Tunnel cycle path. Included on the Council’s ‘Family Network’, the route is part of a network of cycle routes for younger or less confident cyclists. More information about Cycle Route Proposal for Meadows to Innocent Path can be found on the Council’s website, and there is a leaflet here.

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Recruitment and Skills Centre Launch
On 22nd November I attended the official launch of the Recruitment & Skills Centre at Kinnaird Park. The centre is a partnership between the management of Kinnaird Park (British Land), the City of Edinburgh Council, DWP and Cyrenians. Its aim is to help employers get the right people and job seekers get the jobs. Already up and running, it has helped the recent recruitment processes for the Range and River Island. Most convincingly we heard from some of the successful new employees. The Centre will also be assisting other employers such as Edinburgh Trams. It also aims to help smaller employers who often lack the time to run a recruitment process and may be wary about making the wrong appointment. There is also an exciting link with local high schools. It is so important to ensure that young people are not leaving school with neither further education or a job ahead of them.

Portobello Basics Bank Food Bank
This month I visited volunteers who run the Portobello Basics Bank, not a new form of money banking, but a Food Bank. This is staffed by volunteers every Tuesday 10.00am til 1.00pm in Wilson Memorial Church. People are referred by advice agencies, social workers and others. As well as food they are offered free teas and coffee. This help is provided on a temporary basis (normally no more than 6 weeks) but signposting and advice is given to try to resolve the underlying problem. If you are interested in volunteering or able to donate supplies contact Rev Ralph Dunn (Wilson Memorial Church) on 0131 669 6636. The work is much needed and appreciated, but the continuing growth of food banks is worrying. There are a now believed to be over 600 such banks operating in the UK.

The Prime Minister’s stock response to questions on this is to say ‘food bank use went up 10 fold under Labour’. Based on Trussell Trust figures this is true; however the original number was very very small number, times that by ten and that is still a small number. Trussell helped 4000 people in 2005, which rose to 41,000 in 2010. By 2012/13 the number was 347,000 and in the period from April to September 2013 the number was already 350,000. These numbers don’t include the growing number of non-Trussell Trust banks like the Portobello one.

Unprompted by me the Portobello volunteers described DWP ‘sanctions’ as a frequent cause of referral (see my thoughts above).

Community Connections
Do you know an older person who is lonely or isolated? Do you have time and energy to volunteer to ‘make the connection’ with someone in this position? Recently I met with people from the Community Connecting project who told me about some of the success stories , encouraging people who have become wary of going out and about alone, perhaps after illness, and who need a ‘bit of a hand’ to get back in touch with old friends and interests. The service is free in south east Edinburgh to anyone over 65 – contact the organisation at 7 West Adam Street, on community.connnecting@placesforpeople.co.uk or call 0131 558 3728. To volunteer contact the Volunteer Centre, 3rd Floor, 24 Torphichen Street.

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Student Stop Aids Campaign
On Saturday 2nd November I spoke in Edinburgh at a conference of students from across the UK who are campaigning to stop the spread of Aids worldwide. They had asked me to come along to give them tips about effective ‘lobbying’ of politicians. Their enthusiasm and commitment was impressive.

Dates for Your Diary

  • Saturday 30th November – Southside Community Centre St Andrew’s Ceilidh: Dancing, Sing-a-Long, & Hot Food B.Y.O.B.- 7.30pm —10.30pm – Tickets £8, Under 14s £5, Family £20 from Southside Community Centre
  • Tuesday 3 December – Southside Association and Community Centre Carol Service and Festive Lights Ceremony – Lights to be switched on by Sarah Boyack MSP & service led by Rev Alex MacDonald, Buccleuch Free Church – from 6pm
  • Saturday 7 December – Portobello Amnesty International showing of ‘The Echo of Pain of the Many’ – Portobello Baptist Church Café, 189 Portobello High Street – 2pm – more details at www.facebook.com/events/385606264905631/
  • Saturday 7 December – Portobello Christmas Market – Brighton Park, off Brighton Place, Portobello – 9.30am to 1pm – stallholders list
  • Saturday 7 December – Christmas Craft Fair – Craigmillar Community Arts Centre, 58 Newcraighall Road (Fort Kinnaird) – 1.00pm–4.00pm
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Natural Neighbourhoods – What’s Your Patch?

If someone asks you which part of the city you come from, what would you tell them?

Abbeyhill or Albion Road, Brunstane or Baileyfield, Craigmillar or the City Centre?

The Council is consulting on the “natural neighbourhoods” within the city. These are communities which local people would immediately recognise as having a distinct and important identity. The online survey is on the Council’s website.

The survey is short, it comprises two questions:
1.       Please tell us your postcode
2.       The city of Edinburgh is made up of many small communities, each with their own identity.  Which area of the city would you say you lived in?

This information is to be used to help improve the Council’s understanding of Edinburgh residents and service delivery.

Perhaps more rucially, the project will inform two forthcoming consultations:

It is expected that both ward boundaries and datazone boundaries will change as a result of these processes and the natural neighbourhoods work provides an opportunity to ensure that the outcome of both projects reflects the views Edinburgh’s communities.

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October update: Syria, my Capability Assessment, White House relaunch, Southside exhibitions, Community Council nominations

Sheila Gilmore MP Header

Westminster Report

Syria & Recall

Travelling down for the Parliamentary recall I received a text from the Whips Office saying ‘There will still be important votes; your attendance is essential.’ It is very easy to be a bit cynical about this call when you are an opposition faced with a majority of over 70.  But to be fair our whips do not cry wolf, and ‘essential’ means something more than a normal 3 line whip. There was a point when I thought I might have to tell the whips attending was nevertheless ‘impossible’ – as my train reached Newcastle we were told that the service was suspended because of lines being down near Newark and people were even being given the choice to return to Edinburgh and travel the next day!  Luckily I was able to get a train to Sheffield and then another to London St Pancras.  Other MPs were also affected up and down the line.  Fortunately we arrived in good time for the vote, because this was an occasion where each vote really counted.

The situation in Syria is dreadful for its citizens, and the behaviour of the Syrian Government towards its own people is indefensible.  It has provoked very violent behaviour from those opposing the regime, with the whole situation being complicated by the support of other countries, sectionalist groups in the region and further abroad.  However I fundamentally believe that a ‘western’ intervention, as initially proposed by the Prime Minister, would not have improved the situation. The unintended consequences of what are often initially described as ‘short and sharp’ interventions are often profound.

The Government put down a motion that was hastily drafted and ill thought through. Labour put down an amendment that offered a clear roadmap to consider any decision relating to the use of military force in Syria.  I voted for the Labour amendment.  I did this, as did many of my colleagues, while being clear that this did not mean that I would support intervention if it came to a second vote.

Our amendment was defeated, so my party colleagues and I then voted against the Government’s motion. A significant number of Government backbenchers also chose to do so, leading to the motion being defeated. This is highly unusual, but reflected the strength of feeling in the Commons and across the UK.  The Prime Minister subsequently made it clear that the UK forces would not be involved in any military action in Syria.

The transcript of Ed Miliband’s speech and the rest of the debate is available from p11http://bit.ly/1dvgo1m.

What has happened since shows that diplomacy had not been exhausted, and hopefully some real progress can be made towards a negotiated settlement.

September Sitting

Parliament was back in session for the first fortnight in September. On the first day back I spoke in a debate on cycling, which demonstrated the high level of interest there is amongst MPs of all parties. There was considerable cross party agreement, but despite the media berating politicians for being too confrontational, when consensus does break out it generates little media interest. (See p70 http://bit.ly/1aYKPiT).

Lobbying Bill 

There was no lobbying bill in the Queens Speech in May this year. Then there was yet another lobbying ‘scandal’ and the Government rushed to say it would be producing a Bill after all.  Their Bill was published just before the summer recess, and the Government chose to rush through both the second reading and committee stages during the September sitting.  Two other issues were ‘tacked on’ to the Bill, which had received no advance scrutiny.  One was introducing additional checks on trade union membership lists in relation to unions balloting their members. The second was seeking to introduce restrictions on ‘third party campaigning’ during elections.  This in particular emerged without warning, and it quickly became clear that the Government has not consulted charities and other campaigning organisations, nor has it taken advice from the Electoral Commission, which would have to administer these rules.  The Electoral Commission had considerable criticisms of the proposals as drafted.

Despite the shortness of time, campaigning groups and charities did manage to get an effective ‘lobbying’ campaign going (not all ‘lobbying’ is bad!) to alert MPs to what the proposals could mean.  I received over 350 emails from constituents in the first few days of September.  By the time we reached the Committee stage of the Bill in the second week, the Government was promising to bring forward its own amendments to this part of the Bill.  This staved off a major Government defeat, but we are still to see exactly what these amendments are going to be.  They will be debated on the first day Parliament sits after the ‘conference recess’ period, but Ministers promised to make them available well in advance.  Of course, if this proposed legislation been properly consulted on, and the draft scrutinised, this rush of amendments could have been avoided.  Drafting amendments ‘on the hoof’ is bad practice and usually produces poor legislation.

My colleagues and I voted against all parts of the Bill, instead proposing a considerable number of amendments.  The original core of the Bill on lobbying will do very little to control lobbying.  Only a tiny number of ‘consultant lobbyists’ are covered. Both transparency campaigners and the lobbying industry agreed that the proposals would make things worse not better. As the proposed register has no code of conduct or sanctions, it is a step backwards from the voluntary register that already exists.  My own speech on this at second reading is here available from p65 at http://bit.ly/1dvaY6k.

Adjournment debate on Employment & Support Allowance

I ‘drew’ the graveyard shift for an adjournment debate on ‘Reconsideration of Work Capability Assessments’, part of my ongoing campaign to highlight the failings of the system and what changes are needed.   My slot was the last of the week, coming immediately after the charade that is a Friday of private members’ bills.

Knowing the interest many of my colleagues take in this subject and the over-supply of potential speakers whenever we have a debate, I would reassure people that the timing was the problem, with most people in their constituencies.  My speech is available at p73http://bit.ly/1dvbp0s.

I felt that some useful issues came from the Minister’s reply & I have put detailed comments on this on my website http://bit.ly/1dvc6a2.

Separately, I have maintained my support for Rethink Mental Illness campaign calling on the Government’s fit-for-work test to be made fairer for people with mental illness.  I took part in an MP Capability Assessment, which mirrors the Work Capability Assessment, the controversial test used by the Government to decide whether thousands of people with mental illness and other disabilities, are entitled to financial support in the form of the Employment and Support Allowance.

Private Members’ Bills

I rarely stay for debates on Private Members’ Bills which take place on a certain number of Friday mornings when Parliament is sitting.  Being in Westminster waiting for my adjournment debate reminded me why I don’t.  The morning started with a Bill from a Tory backbench on Deep Sea Mining.  Someone had described this to me as a ‘government hand out bill’ i.e. one which the government was quite keen to be pursued in this manner. So working in my room with the House of Commons Chamber feed on ‘mute’ I was surprised to see a handful of Tory backbenchers showing all the signs of talking it out. When I went over to the Chamber I realised that it was not this Bill they were trying to kill but one from Michael Meacher on tax avoidance. There is a small group of Tory MPs who seem to see it as their mission to a talk out these Bills.

On this occasion the Government Minster responding on Deep Sea Mining talked for over an hour, clearly part of the filibustering plan. (Remembering this is a bill encouraged by Government, and bearing in mind that even in a major second reading debate such as that earlier in the week on lobbying, the Minister will generally get 10 minutes for a reply).  This whole procedure urgently needs reform.  A recent Report has been published with proposals for change, and I hope that this happens very soon.

Universal Credit – an Empty Bookcase? 

Following a highly critical Report from the National Audit Office, Iain Duncan Smith had to come to the Commons to answer an Urgent Question on his flagship policy which seems to be floundering. I’ve written an article on the failing of this policy on my websitewww.sheilagilmore.co.uk/universal-credit-an-empty-bookcase.

Constituency Report

Summer in Edinburgh

Recess in Edinburgh gave me a chance to increase my door to door visits around the constituency.

Having the MP appear at the door makes some people think they missed hearing that an election has been called.  ‘No’ I explain, ‘I aim to be knocking on doors somewhere in the constituency nearly every week of the year.’

As well as picking up on the day’s problems and my constituents’ views, one of the bonuses this summer has been meeting a number of residents who have lived in their areas for many years and have painted a picture of the changes they have seen.  One was a lady in her 90s who started married life in the ‘old’ miners’ cottages in Newcraighall, moving from there to the Jewel Cottages, also now demolished, recalled the lack of bathrooms back then.  Her husband worked at Woolmet pit and later Monktonhall (then the ‘new’ pit) before getting a council home in Niddrie where she lived for over 30 years.

While the cottages have gone, replaced with homes with bathrooms(!) some of the old names associated with mining have been well preserved (the Jewel although now a supermarket; Parrotshot, North Greens and so on) but so much has changed from what she remembers.

Newcraighall – Too many houses

Although the pits have gone, and many of the original miners’ cottages have also gone, the village of Newcraighall has up until now managed to retain its identity as a village.  Many fear the plans for housing developments on both sides of the village will change it forever.  We lost the argument about retaining these sites as greenbelt but residents had managed to get the Planning Committee to agree to fewer houses being built in Newcraighall North than the developers wanted.  Unfortunately developers have come back with yet another application, pushing numbers up to 219.  I have put in an objection to the Council which is available at http://bit.ly/1aQlLHm.

A White House for All 
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Earlier this month I had the pleasure of attending the community re-launch of the White House as a community asset with my colleague Councillor Maureen Child. The official re-opening is an important step in the sometimes rocky road towards the full regeneration of Craigmillar.

When Craigmillar was first developed in the 1930s the White House was a symbol of a confidence in suburban development of the city, part of a new world where people were starting to travel out of town to ‘road houses’ for entertainment.  Its shape and colour made it a landmark.  It was however always a place where local residents gathered.

Now the building stands proud and white again, and the 1930s features have been preserved and enhanced.  It will be run by a community development trust firmly based in the Craigmillar community, as a venue where public and private events can take place.  Local exhibitions have already been held here and in June Castlebrae School leavers held their Prom dance here.   To read more on this crucial phase in the regeneration, see my full piece atwww.sheilagilmore.co.uk/a-white-house-for-all/.

Excess waste – what is the Council policy?

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Nearly every time I am in a street, or making home visits on a street surgery, residents ask me what the Council’s policy is on collecting excess waste.  With recent changes to collections confusion is high, especially when a street has both household wheelie and tenemental communal bins.  I’ve now sought a definitive response on what Council binmen are meant to do if there is excess waste piled up in the street.

Refuse collection teams are meant to empty communal bins even if it is overflowing with domestic waste, however large flytipped items are not usually removed – this must be reported separately. If the communal bin is located at a new development, where there is usually sufficient recycling available, excess will not be collected.

Finally, excess waste will not be collected from individual wheelie bins, as sufficient recycling facilities should have been supplied.

As ever, if you see irresponsible waste disposal, flytipping or misuse of bins, make sure it is reported to the Council on 0131 200 2000.

Southsiders: Portrait of a Community

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Now the festival is very much over, Edinburgh starts its annual programme of projects with local residents.  Open Doors is coming up (see below) and on Saturday 7th September I attended the launch of an exhibition of photographs of people living and working in the Southside, each in a setting important to them.  This makes the exhibition a story of both place and people. The project was an activity of the Causey Development Trust, which aims to restore West Crosscauseway as a pedestrian and cycle friendly link between parts of the Southside.  Hence some of the photographs are on outdoor display there. All the photographs and audio of the people talking about their lives and links to the area are on the websitewww.edinburghsouthsiders.co.uk.  There is a public panel discussion at the Southside Community Centre on Friday 4th October from 7pm to 9pm – all interested are welcome. The photographs and interviews have also been published in a magazine, copies of which are circulating in the Southside.  I found it very inspiring and urge people to find out more.

Caltongate 

The summer has been busy with a number of planning applications, possibly a sign that there is finally more confidence in the economy.

Formal plans to develop the Caltongate south sites at Market Street and New Street have now been lodged with the City of Edinburgh Council.  Consultation on this matter is ongoing until Friday (27th September) and if you have any comments these should be submitted via the Council Planning Portal.  Enter references 13/03406/FUL and 13/03407/FUL athttp://bit.ly/15HGuwl.

The revised plans for the south of the Caltongate propose retaining the Canongate Venture and the frontage of the Sailor’s Ark.  Unfortunately I feel that the design of the proposed new build units are not ambitious enough for the area and planners have put very forward very ‘safe’ designs like those of recent fashion across many UK cities.

Lidl Craigentinny

Consultation has now closed on the proposed conversion of the former Stratstone Land Rover car sales room.  The developer, Lidl Scotland, proposes demolishing the existing premises and erecting a new superstore at the out of centre site.  After consultation with constituents I have submitted comments on the plans recommending refusal of the application.

My objection, available on my website at www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/lidl-craigentinny, does not oppose the principle of a supermarket in the area; rather the recommendation is based on comments from a majority of constituents who have contacted me with very real concerns about traffic management problems at the Seafield junction.  Traffic causes considerable congestion at this junction at peak times and residents feel this development will only add to the problems.  Many constituents also raised concerns about the affect an out of centre store will have on nearby Portobello town centre, as it will divert trade and footfall from the local high street.   To view the plans enter reference 13/03189/PPP on the planning portal.

Residential conversion of Niddrie Mill Primary School

An exhibition of new proposals for the site of the former Niddrie Mill School took place a few weeks ago. Residential development has always been intended here but the recession put a brake on plans.  The new proposals are to retain the brick facade of the building but to demolish the interior and build new flats retaining that classic red-brick facade.  The Memorial will also be protected.  Part of the plan is to build 40 affordable homes with a housing association partner.  These would mainly be 2 bedroom flats.

All too often the ‘affordable’ element on developments is in flats rather than a mix of flats and houses, and I don’t think that constructing a full development of two bedroomed flats meets the most urgent housing needs in the city, which are for both smaller and bigger homes.  We need to accommodate single people hit by the bedroom tax and the 900 families already overcrowded in two-bedroom properties.  A good mix of sizes also makes for a more balanced community.  To view the plans enter reference 13/02691/PAN on the Planning Portal.

Out of Sight/Out of Mind exhibition 

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Many constituents who contact me about welfare matters raise concerns about the way their illnesses are perceived by the public and media who fail to understand the extent of these conditions.  Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival runs annually in October, in venues across Scotland and aims to support the arts and challenge preconceived ideas about mental health.

The festival is one of Scotland’s most diverse cultural events, covering everything from music, film and visual art to dance and literature.  CAPS Independent Advocacy based in Abbeyhill has been involved with the festival for several years and is running nine events in 2013.   CAPS are involved in a large scale collaborative exhibition, “Out of Sight/Out of Mind” at Summerhall.  The exhibition of works by individual artists with mental health issues is set in the unique spaces of the Old Animal Hospital.  I shall be attending the opening of this provocative exhibition which explores perceptions of reality, labelling, discrimination, confinement and medication.  Works include photography, painting and narrative.

For more information on the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival head towww.mhfestival.com or search twitter for #smhaff2013. The Out of Sight/Out of Mind Exhibition runs 5-19 October 2013, 11am – 6pm daily at Summerhall, Edinburgh, EH9 1PL

Canongate Youth Project is looking for new Board members

The Canongate Youth Project is looking to expand the experience and skills of its Board. The organisation is currently going through significant but positive change.  The Project is looking for new board members with expertise in business, Human Relations and fundraising with knowledge of nearby communities and  young people living locally to the Southside and City Centre.  Since 1977 the Project has successfully provided support, recreation and training opportunities for 5-25 year olds to help them overcome barriers and secure a great future.

A Board meeting is held monthly on a Monday from 4.00pm-5.30pm and the time commitment is 30-40hrs per year.  If you are interested in joining the Board of CYP please contact Vicki Ridley on 0131 556 9389/9719 or email vicki.ridley@canongateyouthproject.org

City Wide Review of Licensing Statement

The City of Edinburgh Licensing Board is required to publish a statement of licensing policy every three years and the Board is now preparing the statement of policy for November 2013 onwards.  Since being elected in 2010 I have made submissions on a variety of licensing matters across Edinburgh East and know that residents are keen to have better control of matters such as Late Hours Catering licenses and liquor licensing.

The Board’s current Statement of Policy is available online at:https://www.edinburgh.gov.uk/downloads/file/3032/licensing_board_policy_statement_2010.  If you have comments or representations with regard to any aspect of licensing, make sure your comments are heard before 21 October 2013. Email your responses toRobert.millar@edinburgh.gov.uk or Nicholas.fraser@edinburgh.gov.uk

Edible Edinburgh: a Sustainable Food City

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Edible Edinburgh is hosting a Feed the 5,000 event in Bristo Square on Saturday 5th October. Head along for a free lunch, to find out more about food initiatives in the city and have your say on how you would like to see Edinburgh develop as a sustainable food city. The Edible Edinburgh initiative aims to motivate residents to choose healthier and tastier food.

The Edible Edinburgh steering group has drafted a consultation document to encourage everyone to join in the debate about your food.  You can get involved by completing the short survey.

Community Council Elections – get your nominations in this weekend

The deadline for Community Council nominations and registration of local interest groups is coming up on Monday (23rd September at 4pm).  Nomination forms are available on the Council’s website at www.edinburgh.gov.uk/communitycouncils   and you can find out which Community Council covers your area by entering your postcode atwww.edinburghnp.org.uk/community-councils/.

By joining your local community council you can make a real difference to your neighbourhood. Community Councils across the city are represented on respective Neighbourhood Partnerships and meet with the local Councillors, representatives from Police Scotland, NHS Lothian, Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and the voluntary sector to agree local priorities and develop and deliver your Local Community Plan.  Further details on the election process is available at the website above.

Dates for your diary

7 September – 5 October 2013 – Southsiders – Portrait of a Community: An exhibition by Peter Dibdin – outside display in The Causey – Find out further details atwww.edinburghsouthsiders.co.uk

Monday 23rd September at 4pm – Deadline for nominations for Community Council elections – Nomination forms: www.edinburgh.gov.uk/communitycouncils   further informationwww.edinburghnp.org.uk/community-councils/.

Friday 27th September – Consultation on Canongate proposals closes – make comments at http://bit.ly/15HGuwl.  Enter references 13/03406/FUL and 13/03407/FUL to access the plans.

Friday 4 October – Southsiders: Portrait of a Community – Public panel discussion event  – Southside Community Centre – 7.00-9.00pm

Saturday 5th October – Feed the 5000 – 12.00pm-4.00pm – Bristo Square  – more info athttps://www.edinburgh.gov.uk/info/202/sustainable_development/1703/sustainable_food/3

5-19 October 2013 – Out of Sight/Out of Mind exhibition – 11.00am-6.00pm daily – Summerhall, Edinburgh

21 October 2013 – City Wide Review of Licensing Statement – Email your responses toRobert.millar@edinburgh.gov.uk or Nicholas.fraser@edinburgh.gov.uk

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