Think long-term on student flats

In yesterday’s Evening News I called on the council to block the sale of sites in the Southside earmarked for student accommodation so as to maintain a balance between students, families and pensioners in this part of the city. You can read it on the paper’s website, but I’ve also reproduced it in full below.

ONE of the joys of studying at the University of Edinburgh is that students live and work alongside a vibrant and varied residential community.

598LuttonUnfortunately this could be about to change, with a flood of planning applications for student accommodation in the Southside threatening to alter irrevocably the character of the area.

One of the applications – to build flats for 240 students at Lutton Court – was rejected by councillors on the planning committee but approved on appeal.

However, the council could still stop this proposal in its tracks, as crucially, it still owns the land.

I appreciate the estates department has an agreement to sell to the developers, and may have to pay compensation, but this may be a price worth paying in the long term.

Once land is sold it is gone. The opportunity to develop it for affordable housing, to attract more families and pensioners to the area, would be lost.

Regrettably such joined-up and long-term thinking is conspicuous by its absence in the estates department.

Just last month it announced that the shortlisted bidders for another piece of land on Potterrow are all student accommodation providers.

And in a separate but related story, the department is set to lease the Old Royal High School on Calton Hill to a luxury hotel chain, necessitating the construction of two obtrusive new wings to the building that could threaten the city’s Unesco World Heritage status.

While the council is clearly under pressure to raise additional revenue, I believe that before considering a sale of council land there should be a full appraisal of all the options.

Against the short-term gain of a capital receipt, other priorities must be weighed, such as shortage of affordable housing, the needs of local small businesses or the heritage which brings tourists flocking to the city.

In some cases the right decision may still be to sell on the market, in others the long-term interests of Edinburgh residents would dictate other options.

As there are no MPs at present, I am merely Scottish Labour’s candidate for Edinburgh East at the general election.

However, regardless of the result of the vote on May 7, I’ll continue to lobby the council to work for balanced, sustainable communities, and development that respects our city’s architectural heritage.

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

March 2015 Newsletter

portcullisbanner_Copy.2.1.1

Westminster Report

Smith Commission: New powers over Disability Benefits
After last year’s referendum the Smith Commission recommended that significant new powers should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. At the beginning of last month I wrote for the Edinburgh Evening News about the need to start discussing how we use these new powers, and in particular what we will do about Disability Living Allowance.

Smith CommissionAs part of the current Government’s attempts to cut public spending, DLA is being phased out and replaced with Personal Independence Payment, with the assessment set to ensure thousands of Scots that currently get DLA won’t get PIP. But if we want to stop this from happening, We need to start discussing now what we in Scotland would do differently. Here is our chance to shape our own system. Should it be one completely different, or do we revert to DLA as it was before?

Winding Down
The first ever fixed five year parliament is stumbling to a close. The date for the general election has been known for the last four years, and some people argue that all it has done is lead to the ‘longest ever’ election campaign. The last few weeks will see some pieces of legislation completed, such as the Modern Slavery Bill which is nearly finished its stages in the House of Lords. Several Select Committee reports have been recently published, or are about to be completed, including one from the Public Accounts Committee on the Government’s flagship ‘universal credit’. The Committee remains very critical of the pace and cost of this.

Tax Avoidance
Tax avoidance has been in the headlines following the revelations over HSBC’s Swiss bank and David Cameron’s decision to make the firm’s then Chief Executive a Government Minister in 2011. I told the Huffington Post that ‘The revolving door between David Cameron’s government and HSBC casts new light on this Government’s failure to act over alleged wrongdoing.’

Then a clip of George Osborne from several years ago re-emerged, in which he encourages people to avoid tax. I reacted by saying ‘this shows the Tories really do believe that everyone does it’, referring to the remarks of Tory Treasurer Lord Fink.

Prior to this a series of business people had voiced concerns about the prospect of Labour Government, but I suggested to the Huffington Post that they might not be entirely objective in their analysis, highlighting their connections to the Conservative Party.

Arms exports
Constituents regularly contact me with concern about arms sales to regimes with poor human rights records. The Government claim they don’t permit sales where they have evidence that the weapons in question will be used for internal repression or external aggression. However on 20 January I used Foreign Office Questions in the House of Commons to argue that Ministers should go further. Following a discussion with a constituent, I argued that Minister should use restrictions on arms exports to encourage regimes to respect human rights, even where there is no evidence that the specific arms will be used improperly. You can read my exchange with the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond here, but I thought this was a good example of how writing to your MP can lead to your views being put directly to senior people in Government. Keep the letters and emails coming!

News in brief
I popped into the Labour Campaign for Mental Health reception to celebrate Time to Talk Day, which highlights the importance of battling mental health stigma.

Mental HealthI’ve also agreed to become an Arthritis Champion. Musculoskeletal conditions like arthritis affect a huge number of people and are a significant cause of disability in the UK. There is much work to do to prevent and cure these conditions, and we need to improve the services available to those living with them now.

Constituency Report

Legal Highs
Legal Highs ShopLast month I was frustrated and concerned to see that yet another ‘legal high’ shop had opened in Edinburgh East. A number have sprung up in the Southside, with the latest appearing on Easter Road. I told the Evening News that ‘These legal dealers are making money while destroying users’ health and causing havoc for local residents.’ The shop assistant who responded appeared to show a blatant disregard for public health and ignores the fact that trade of these substances is impacting residents across the city, as they put up with the impact locally, but also because public services are being stretched dealing with the disruption. Unfortunately banning specific substances is difficult because of the sheer number of new ones becoming available each week – instead the council need to use its planning powers to stop further stores opening up, and investigate banning their use in public spaces, which could act to dent demand. Earlier this month Lincoln became the first place in the UK to do this, and I wrote to council leader Andrew Burns urging him to consider following suit.

Old Royal High School
Old Royal High SchoolAlthough just outside my constituency, a number of people have contacted me worried about the proposed redevelopment of the old Royal High School on Regent Road into a luxury hotel. Initial plans can be found online. No formal planning application has yet been lodged so there is time to make sure that there is a wide debate and information is disseminated. This is an important building for the city and I will keep a close eye on developments and will be speaking to council colleagues about it.

Homebase appeal, petition, and Student Planning Guidance consultation begins
With the Lutton Court statutory appeal just days away, residents have been notified of Unite’s appeal submission to the Scottish Government, following the City of Edinburgh Council’s recent refusal of the application. Residents have now set up a petition calling on Homebase to stay in the Southside. In my objection to the initial application I highlighted how valued the store is locally. If you use the store, sign the petition!

91351206-8ae4-4171-a747-4a2a13b1f867At the same time the Council has begun to consult on both planning and HMO licensing policy in the city. While the schedules and meetings should run together the consultations are officially separate, and details of the HMO consultation are not fully clear at the time of writing. Running from Monday, 16th March until 24 April 2015 the student accomodation planning guidance consultation will be placed on the Council’s Consultation Hub at https://consultationhub.edinburgh.gov.uk/. The process, I am told, should include workshops with groups including the Southside Association and Living Southside but will also the Edinburgh universities, and student housing providers. Watch out for details of a Living Southside meeting all residents are invited to attend to discuss the group’s response.

Potterow
I was also concerned to learn that the Estates Department has only shortlisted student accommodation developers who have bid as part of a sell-off council-owned land at Potterow. Meaning another application for student accommodation is likely to come forward. This will only make it harder to prevent an over-concentration of student accommodation in the area – a key issue these reports have focused on over the past two years or so. Instead of focusing on one off profits, the council should have a longer term outlook and listen to residents who would like to see the land passed to an affordable housing provider so that we can retain the balanced, vibrant community that currently exists in the area.

Cameron House Community Centre
Following the Council agreeing its latest budget, money from the Community Learning and Development budget has been transferred to Heath and Social Care to help with the ‘delayed discharge’ crisis in the NHS. I know a number of constituents were concerned that Cameron House Community Centre might close as a result. I have received assurances that the Council is committed to keeping Cameron House open and is currently looking at ways to maintain the present level of service provision. This is a much-valued community facility – and one which opened less than 10 years ago – and I will be carefully monitoring this situation.

Third Age Computer Fun
Third Age Computer FunLast month I reported the sad news that Third Age Computing Club, which organised computing classes for 50+ communities across Edinburgh East and the central belt, was to be dissolved. However I’m pleased to report that all 12 individual clubs are set to remain open under a new organisation so that classes can continue. The clubs in Edinburgh East that will remain open are in Craigmillar, Restalrig, Tollcross and the Southside. See here for more information.

Dumbiedykes bus
Dumbiedykes BusLast year the council started funding the new Number 60 bus service between Dumbiedykes and the Southside. This is a vital link for many elderly residents who do their shopping on Nicolson Street and Clerk Street, but who struggle to make it up the hill on foot. Unfortunately new figures show the service is only carrying between 25 and 32 passengers per day, meaning it is currently very costly to run. The criteria for assessing supported buses is due to change to take account of issues such as the lonlieness caused by being unable to get about, but it is clear that we need to ensure that the bus has enough passengers. I’m encouraging local residents, and businesses such as the Parliament and Rockstar Games, to get people using the service more often, so it can be maintained for those who really need it. If you live in the area – hop on!

Dates for your diary

  • Wednesday 18 March – Budget DayLive online from 12.30pm
  • Thursday 26 March – Spokes’ Spring Public Meeting: The bicycle in the City Centre, with Lesley Hinds, Council Transport Convenor, and other experts – Augustine United Church, 41 George IV Bridge – 7.30pm (doors at 6.45pm)
  • Monday 30 March – Dissolution of UK Parliament
facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

November 2014 Newsletter

portcullisbanner_Copy.2.1.1

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.

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Save Our Southside Meeting Report

On Sunday 20th July, over 70 Southsiders attended a meeting organised by myself, the Southside Association and Sarah Boyack MSP to discuss a community response to the flurry of applications for student accommodation in the area.  The purpose of the meeting was not to discuss each application but to get residents thinking about the Southside they would like to see developed.  Residents overwhelmingly said they want to live side by side students, but numbers need to be rebalanced with more affordable family housing being developed.   Notes from the meeting have been circulated to those in attendance, and are available below along with the handout provided at the meeting.

After the initial meeting many residents said they are keen to form a working group to further discuss their response, and think about how they communicate it to planners, the University and developers.  Residents are due to meet again on Wednesday 20th August from 7.00pm in the Grey Room, Nelson Hall.

Handout
DRAFT Save our Southside Community Meeting Notes

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail