November 2014 Newsletter

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Merry Christmas

Christmas CardFriday ClubWith the mild weather holding winter back later than usual, it seems quite early to be sending my Christmas wishes. I’d like to wish you a peaceful and joyous festive period when the break does come around. While we spend time with family, remember some friends and neighbours are less fortunate, so please remember to check on them over the festive season.

The festive artwork featured below was kindly produced by the members of the at Ripple Project ‘Friday Club’ and will appear on my Christmas card which will now be distributed to 5,000 Edinburgh East households.

The Friday Club is a social and activities club for residents who are 60+ in Restalrig, Lochend, Craigentinny and surrounding areas. The group meets on a Friday 1.30pm-3.30pm at the Restalrig Lochend Community Hub to enjoy music, films, games and a variety of entertainment from guests. A dedicated group of volunteers help the afternoon run smoothly and provide refreshments.
For more information about the club, how to join, as well as the details of other activities at the hub for friends and relatives over 60, call 0131 554 0422.

Westminster Report

Devolution
Smith CommissionThe Smith Commission’s report on further devolution to the Scottish Parliament has now been published. There was a further House of Commons debate on this issue on 20 November, and in my speech I argued that we should start to move on from debating what powers should or shouldn’t be devolved, to how the Scottish Parliament uses those powers it has to create a fairer and more equal society. For example the new tax-varying and borrowing powers that already guaranteed following the Scotland Act 2012 could be used to significantly increase investment in affordable housing or social care.

Disability benefits
As regular readers will know, I’ve long been concerned about the Work Capability Assessment for Employment and Support Allowance – the main benefit for people who believe they cannot work due to ill health or a disability – with at least one in ten decisions being overturned on appeal.

Atos Healthcare are set to walk away from their contract to carry out the face-to-face part of the WCA, and earlier this month the UK Government announced that this work would transfer to US outsourcing specialist Maximus. Unfortunately Ministers don’t appear to have taken the opportunity to reform the test so that the number of incorrect decisions is reduced – see this piece on my website. I also reacted angrily to reports that the Conservatives are considering cutting ESA payments for some claimants.

In other social security news:

  • It has emerged that Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith knew his flagship welfare reform Universal Credit was late and over budget far earlier than he’s previously admitted – I gave my reaction to the Huffington Post.
  • After fellow DWP Minister Lord Freud had to apologise for suggesting disabled people could be paid less than the minimum wage, I highlighted his failure to address the concerns of my disabled constituent when I raised concerns on his behalf.
  • In the Guardian I argued that George Osborne’s new personal tax statement – which people should start receiving soon – fails to explain that most welfare spending goes on things that people support, such as disability benefits, housing costs, and tax credits for those in work.
  • I reviewed a new book – Good Times Bad Times: the welfare myths of them and us, by John Hills – for the think tank Progress.

East Coast
Over the last year and a half I’ve been campaigning against the UK Government’s plans to re-privatise intercity services on the East Coast Main Line, which have been run successfully by the UK public sector since 2009. On 24 November it was widely anticipated that the contract was set to be awarded to Eurostar and Keolis – and would stand to benefit French train passengers with profits being reinvested services there. My reaction was picked up in the Evening News and Herald amongst others. The Government has since announced that the franchise would in fact be awarded to Stagecoach and Virgin. Regardless of the fact the franchise has been awarded to British firms, it is highly disappointing profits will go to private companies, rather than to the exchequer, as happens at present. On Thursday morning the matter was the subject of an urgent question.

What did Labour do in the Scottish Parliament?
I spend time every week knocking on doors somewhere in the constituency and I recently had a conversation with someone who claimed Labour did nothing during our time in Government at Holyrood. Obviously I took a different view, and while it wouldn’t be appropriate to set this out here, I’ve reproduced my response on my website for other constituents to read.

National Health Service
This month I received a record 438 emails on the National Health Service (Amended Duties and Powers) Bill, which would ensure that a new EU-US trade deal cannot change the way the NHS in Scotland is run – something I raised with David Cameron on 17 November – and stop the gradual privatisation of NHS services in England.

NHSMy Labour colleagues and I voted in favour of the bill at its second reading debate on 21 November, and it was passed by 241 votes to 18 (although unfortunately there are lots of barriers to it becoming law before the next election). For more on this see the response I sent to constituents on my website.

Gordon’s Fightback campaign successes
It was great to see my constituent Gordon Aikman attend a reception with Samantha Cameron at Downing Street as part of his fight back against Motor Neurone Disease.

Gordon's FightbackAnd in the past week he has had further successes! At the Scottish Politician of the Year Awards, Gordon won a special judges award for the work he has done through his Fight back campaign. He then went on to secure agreement from First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, for a review of the care provided to those suffering MND. For more information on Gordon’s campaign see gordonsfightback.com/#takeaction.

News in brief

International Development BillCitizen's Advice

Constituency Report

Supporting Afghan Women
On Friday 14th November I attended a play at Summerhall performed by the St Mark’s Amnesty Group in my constituency, called ‘Even if we lose our lives’. To be honest, on a cold evening, with a head cold brewing I went out of a sense of duty, but came away stunned and humbled by the performance which brought together the real life stories of three Afghan women; a teacher, a doctor and a family mediator. What these women had been through to defend human rights and provide services was a stark reminder of the ongoing problems of their country. But the message from all was that they were not going to give up.

Afghan WomenMore recently I attended a session at Westminster run by Action Aid drawing attention to similar issues and calling in particular for women and women’s issues to be centre stage in the forthcoming London Conference on development in Afghanistan. For more information on Action Aid’s campaign go to action.org.uk.

Remembrance Sunday
On Sunday 9th November I attended the wreath laying service at the Prestonfield War Memorial. When the new residents of Prestonfield and Priestfield moved here during the 1930s many of the names on the memorial would be well remembered fathers, uncles, brothers and husbands. And within only a few years many families saw their sons, and daughters, going off to war again. One of them was my own Dad whose family had not long moved to Cameron House Avenue. He was one of the lucky ones who came back.

Common Repairs and Statutory Notices
A big problem in the constituency is getting common repairs done. Despite the well-known problems of the Council’s previous system of dealing with Statutory Notices, many people support the retention of some method of council intervention when it proves impossible to get agreement among owners. Recently the Council has restricted its interventions to emergency work only. New proposals, for a service which would step in, but only after information and advice had been given with a view to assisting owners to agree among themselves, are now being considered. In some circumstances the council would be able in future, due to new legislation, to pay a ‘missing share’ where an owner refuses to co-operate. After looking at a number of ways of providing a service when agreement proves impossible, the Council has decided that an in house model will be used. I broadly welcome the recommendations; I had said previously that I thought something of this kind must be reintroduced. The report makes clear the importance of good communication with owners throughout the process, which was one of the flaws before. The new system won’t be fully up and running until autumn next year. For more information read the full report on the Council’s website.

HMOs – does Edinburgh need an over-provision policy?
This is a subject which provokes much lively debate in many parts of the city. HMO licensing has done a lot to improve the quality of the properties for rent and clamp down on gross overcrowding. But the unresolved issue is whether it is right to control the quantity of HMOs in certain areas. The Scottish Parliament gave councils the power to adopt an ‘over provision’ strategy in 2011, a matter which was discussed at a recent meeting of the Regulatory Committee, and was covered in a piece in the Edinburgh Evening News. Over the next few months Edinburgh Council will be consulting local groups and community councils to establish whether Edinburgh should adopt such a policy. I wrote an article for the Evening News on this subject which called for the consultation to be thorough and learn from the experiences in other Scottish cities. Let me know what you think, and look out for details of the consultation.

Canongate Youth project secures People’s Millions funding
I am delighted the Canongate Youth Project will receive a £38,000 grant from the People’s Millions fund for their Old School Cafe project after securing enough votes in a telephone poll held on Tuesday. The project will create a new city centre cafe in the South Bridge Resource Centre to improve the employment prospects of 25 unemployed young people providing on the job training and experience. Well done to all involved!

Edinburgh East’s new Crown Post Office
In November I opened the new Edinburgh City Post Office, located in Princes Mall. The Crown Post Office is now located in a new modern branch has nine staffed counters and longer opening hours (the ubiquitous self-service machine has also been introduced!).

Post Office

The branch move has come well in advance of St James Centre closing its doors next year; hopefully the new premises will be become familiar in advance of this big change for shoppers.

Planning update

Meadow Lane application – submit your comments now
The University of Edinburgh has now submitted its ‘full’ application for purpose built student accommodation at Meadow Lane. The university propose demolishing the 18th century coach houses and to build accommodation for 267 students. While this application is undeniably very close to the University area it is in addition to a proposal to return Buccleuch Place to residential use for students. The proposed density has angered Buccleuch Street residents who will feel swamped. When I attended the pre-application exhibition earlier in the year many said they were concerned about the distinctly modern design and height of the building, in this part of the Southside Conservation Area.

I will be submitting my own objections before the 12th December deadline. To review the plans and submit your own comments, use reference numbers 14/04674/FUL and 14/04682/CON on the Planning Portal.

Baileyfield decision due this month
Last month, I included details of my submission on the Baileyfield application, along with details of the Portobello Community Council consultation on the plans. I have now been informed that the application is due to be determined at the Development Management Sub-Committee on 17th December which will hold a ‘Hearing’ where local groups can make deputations.

Stanley Place application
Next month the developer proposing student accommodation intends to come back with a revised application to build student accommodation on a very narrow site next to the East Coast Main Line on Stanley Place. Residents have had the opportunity to meet with developers at an exhibition of the plans in November, but many report they are underwhelmed the plans have not changed enough. I have been provided with a copy of the boards displayed, please let me know if you would like a copy of these.

Billboard on Cairntows Park refused
In August JCDecaux submitted a number of plans for LED lit advertising hoardings at various sites across the city. This included on the Peffermill Road edge of Cairntows Park. As Southside residents have learnt previously, neighbouring properties are not notified of these applications, thus the Community Neighbourhood Alliance and I swung into action to object to this proposal, knowing that if approved this would not promote the amenity many campaigned for when they saved the park from development.

Inchview Terrace care home proposal
Last year, the Council refused an application for a Lidl store at the former Stratstone Land Rover premises at Inchview Terrace. New developers have now submitted a proposal for a 60 bed care home. You can view the plans on the Planning Portal using reference number 14/04780/FUL. Please get I touch if you have comments on this new proposal.

Dates for your Diary
White House2nd December – One World Shop Christmas Shopping Event and Website Launch – 5.00pm-7.00pm – St John’s Church, West End of Princes Street – All shoppers will get 10% off their purchases on the night, mulled wine and Christmas biscuits, and have the chance to enter into the raffle to win vouchers to spend online.

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Property Conservation Redesign: Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater

The City Council is consulting on what role it should play in future repairs of the city’s tenement housing stock. Despite the appalling mismanagement in the last few years, I fear that the Council is running the risk of ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’.  It is worth remembering why Statutory Notices were introduced in the first place. It was because it was so difficult to get agreement amongst owners to have work done.  The fabric of our tenemental city was at risk of deteriorating. These issues remain. Anyone who has tried to organise their neighbours to agree common repairs knows just how hard it can be. As a result even quite straightforward repairs often don’t get done, e.g. repairs to door entry systems; or get done only after a long time. While ideally owners should be taking full responsibility, the reality is very different. The report also suggests the possibility of using Property Factors, but there is no history of this in Edinburgh, and many of my constituents have also had bad experiences with factors.

Even in the last few months I have had constituent s who want to have a statutory notice put in place; are frustrated by the whole system being on hold, and worried that their buildings will just get into a worse state.

I have made a submission making these points and suggesting how a revised system could operate in a way which overcomes the previous problems – for example by ensuring that owners are involved at all stages of the decision making.

You may disagree with my ideas but I would urge you to make your own views known. The consultation closes on 31st October. You can respond online http://bit.ly/QIbnaQ or just write in to:

The City Property Repairs Redesign
Property Conservation Service
Freepost RRBUHLHXGGYJ
329 High Street
Edinburgh
EH1 1PN

221012statutory Notice-redesign Submission

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Looking after our tenements

Complaints about high fee charges, poor workmanship, ‘favoured firms’ being handed work, a lack of consultation with owners – it must be Edinburgh’s Statutory Notice system! But in fact what I had in mind were all the complaints I’ve heard about ‘property factors’ both here and in Glasgow.

Factors provide a service, mainly for people living in flats, to look after communal repairs, garden ground maintenance and so on. It hasn’t been traditional in Edinburgh in the way it has been in the West of Scotland and so is rare in older tenements, but is frequent in new build developments.

Where there are factors in my constituency – mainly in new build developments – I’ve picked up a number of complaints from constituents. In some cases factors have even ‘walked away’ leaving owners with no service. So it was good to see the Property Factors (Scotland) Act 2011 become law last year. Now we’re close to the implementation date of October 2012 and the process of registering factors has begun.

The new law was the result of a private members bill pursued by Patricia Ferguson MSP throughout the 2007-11 Parliament and only latterly supported by the Scottish Government. The Scottish Government had been pursuing a voluntary accreditation scheme and for a long time wasn’t keen on making it compulsory. I was a member of a working group (representing the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations) on this which met over several months, but it became increasingly clear that this wasn’t going to be viable or effective. Those factors already professionally organised might join, but the ‘bad factors’ wouldn’t. So it was good news that Patricia’s Bill eventually got the support to pass.

The Bill introduces a registration scheme and a statutory code of conduct for property factors. It will be an offence for a property factor to operate in Scotland without being registered, and will introduce an accessible form of alternative dispute resolution. This will be reinforced by a code of conduct setting out minimum standards of practice for registered property factors.

For this to make a real difference it must be vigorously enforced. Setting up a registration scheme is one thing, making sure it has ‘teeth’ is something else, as we’ve seen with landlord registration.

Timing couldn’t be better given that one of the options Edinburgh City Council is suggesting to replace the discredited Statutory Notice system is to encourage owners to use Factors.

Organising communal repairs is far from easy; getting agreement, getting people to pay up can be a major headache. That’s why the Statutory Notice system came into being in the first place.

Will Factors be better? At least the new legislation should give owners the hope of getting a better service. Well done to my MSP colleague Patricia Ferguson for pursuing the issue so doggedly.

An edited version of this piece originally appeared in the Edinburgh Evening News on Saturday 4 August 2012.

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