Watching the Shard
Sitting for several days this month in a Bill Committee I have had a wonderful view of London’s latest addition to the skyline. The window opposite had the Shard in its centre. As with all new buildings this has been controversial but I have to admit I am a fan. The play of different light conditions has been fascinating; sometimes it looks opaque, in other lights almost transparent. Lights sparkle in it as daylight fades. Partly because of the way the Thames bends, the Shard looks remarkably close from a variety of places in the city. Pity though that the cost of going to the top has been set so high.
‘One Billion Rising’ and debating sexual violence in conflict.
An innovation in Westminster Parliament procedure since 2010 is the Backbench Business Committee which has dedicated debating time made available for subjects chosen by backbenchers. Sometimes there are votes, although often not, but there is no direct impact on Government policy. It can put pressure on Government and raise the profile of issues which are hugely important but aren’t always in the front of any Government’s mind. A few months ago for instance there was a debate on mental health which many campaigning groups hailed as being an honest opening up of a subject often hidden away. On Thursday 14th February there was 5 hours of debate on two issues around violence against women. One marked the One Billion Rising Campaign which is an international coalition of campaigners speaking out for action to tackle violence against girls and women across the world. 160 countries and over 27,000 individuals have signed up. Many events were taking place across the UK on this date. The second debate (in which I spoke) focused on the prevalence of violence in conflict zones. This is an issue which the British Government has committed itself to acting on. Significantly – I hope – William Hague and Douglas Alexander not only spoke but also stayed throughout the whole of the debate. This is one of those issues where there is a high degree of cross party consensus – but whether that actually leads to effective progress remains to be seen. See p67 http://bit.ly/WrtUJr.
The campaign against the ‘bedroom tax’ has gained momentum this month. This is only one relatively small part of the Government’s Welfare Reforms, but is very significant for the individuals involved. In cash terms people in Edinburgh affected are typically being asked to find around £50 per month towards rent payments (if they have one ‘spare’ bedroom). Ed Miliband focussed on this at one PMQs session this month, the matter featured heavily in DWP questions on 28th January, and at Scottish Questions on 13th February. I used housing availability figures for Edinburgh to illustrate the problem and asked Michael Moore to revere these plans. Read Hansard from p5 http://bit.ly/15ixonn, or watch the session at http://bit.ly/WhGW1t. I expanded on this in a press release: http://bit.ly/V9NcH1. The other day I heard a good example of the way this is affecting constituents when I met a couple who, after six years of waiting in unsuitable accommodation for a wheelchair accessible house, had finally been able to move to a two bedroomed ground floor flat which met their needs. The wife is able to get in and out of the property fairly easily and the space makes it possible not just to move around but store equipment – but they are required to pay more to make up the difference in Housing Benefit. I hope that they stand a reasonable chance of securing a ‘discretionary housing payment’ to help them meet the rent, since the Council has said people with chronic disabilities and illness will be among those prioritised for these payments. Edinburgh Council has also agreed to put additional money towards such payments to ‘top up’ what is coming from the DWP. Judging rightly that if they don’t do this, extra costs are likely to be incurred in chasing up rent arrears if people can’t meet the shortfall. But in terms of ‘saving the public purse’ this in fact simply shifts costs from central to local government – not really a saving at all. There were some signs last week that Iain Duncan Smith might be looking again at the position for disabled people – almost as if he had just not realised there might be a problem until now, although all of this was argued over in the original debates. Responsible local authorities are taking steps to mitigate the impact over and above the discretionary payments. Although there is a very real shortage of smaller properties, council and housing association landlords can adapt allocation policies to give priority to people wanting to move – on the other hand this could simply make it even slower for people waiting to get a tenancy. One of the main reasons why Edinburgh council lets 2 bedroom properties to single people was the mismatch between applicants (the majority of whom are singles) and the available property sizes (the majority of which having 2 bedrooms). Building or buying more properties would also help, but to make rents affordable there has to be subsidy and the level of funding to councils and housing associations from the Scottish Government has fallen in the last couple of years. New builds in Scotland dropped from 7900 a year two years ago to 3400 now – and some of these are fairly expensive ‘mid market’ rents – which bar applications from tenants who claim Housing Benefit.
Another small success on Personal Independence Payment regulations
I reported last month that on 21st January the Work and Pensions Select Committee had a session with the Disability Minister on the implementation of Personal Independence Payment (PIP). One of the issues the Minister was pressed on was the fact that the final draft regulations did not include a reference to whether someone could carry out an activity ‘safely, reliably, repeatedly and in a reasonable time period’. The Government initially wanted to put this in guidance only, not in regulations, but announced a change of heart earlier this month. This will now be included in regulations. This will help a lot of people who can sometimes manage to do things like ‘move 50 metres’ but at other times are exhausted part way and have to stop. This phrase will apply to all activities, not just mobility. The Government has not made any decision to change the distance for ‘higher rate mobility’ under PIP to 20 metres from the 50 mentioned in the original drafts, but still it shows that campaigning does work!
The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill
The second reading of this Bill took place on 5th February. There are some consequential issues applying in Scotland but primarily this legislation applies to England and Wales. The Scottish Government has indicated an intention to legislate on this subject but has not actually done so to date. All parties had a free vote. This has been a controversial issue and I received correspondence from constituents on both sides of the debate. I voted in favour of the Bill. I know that some constituents have very strong contrary views, and are concerned that this legislation will have profound social consequences. I know there is no consensus on this, but that is an aspect of democratic debate.
What are the big policy issues this month?
Every month I receive hundreds of emails and letters from constituents about a wide range of policy issues. The top three issues over the last month have been the Energy Bill, the Justice and Security Bill and the If Campaign on international development.
The previous Labour Government set ambitious targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. To meet this target we will have to completely decarbonise our electricity generation, and the Government’s Energy Bill – introduced to parliament late last year – presented an opportunity to put this commitment into law. Unfortunately, Ministers have deferred a decision until after the next election, in effect kicking the issue into the long grass. This uncertainty means investment in renewable energy will continue to drop. The UK will miss out on green jobs and growth as a result. Labour has tabled an amendment to the bill that would reinsert this decarbonisation commitment. I can assure constituents that I will be voting in favour of it when the bill returns to the House of Commons at report stage. You can keep up to date with progress at http://bit.ly/15itWZK.
Justice and Security Bill
This bill will allow for greater use of what are called Closed Material Proceedings (CMPs) where evidence used is sensitive or would pose a threat to public safety if it were heard in open court. While I acknowledge that openness and transparency must remain a central tenet of our justice system, I accept that there are certain limited circumstances where these principles should be deviated from. However my Labour colleagues and I believe that the bill as it stands does not contain sufficient safeguards to ensure CMPs are only used as a means of last resort. My Labour colleagues in the Lords amended the bill to provide for such safeguards but these changes were overturned when the bill passed through its committee stage in the commons. A similar amendment has been re-tabled for commons report stage and I can assure you that I will be voting in support of it. Again you can keep up to date http://bit.ly/15itY3S.
There has been real progress in recent years in addressing global poverty under the framework of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). I am proud that the previous Labour Government played its part by trebling aid spending so as to work towards the international standard of spending 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI) on aid. However there needs to be renewed international efforts to build on the achievements of the MDGs and make progress on areas like gender equality, maternal health, climate change and food security. The UK has a real opportunity to pursue this as President of the G8 in 2013 and the If campaign – currently supported by over 100 charities – has called for the Government to do precisely this. I also support the campaign’s calls for more action on tax avoidance by multinational companies so that developing countries can build their own tax base and move away from a dependency on aid. Next month I will meet with pupils at Preston Street Primary School to speak to them about the campaign. I’ll collect artwork and written letters they have produced and present them to the Government in due course.
Scots Together, a collective energy switching initiative aims to get a better deal on energy prices for people living in Scotland by buying energy together, launched on 18 February and runs until 17 March. Collective switching involves getting people together to review their electricity and gas tariffs to ensure they are on the best deal they can get. While Scots Together will primarily be promoted in the South East Scotland area, it is open to everyone living in Scotland. Anyone who pays a household electricity and/or gas bill in Scotland can join Scots Together. The biggest saving in the UK so far is a jaw-dropping £786 a year for one member in Edinburgh! Householders will be offered up to three options through the switch, meaning a bespoke service for each individual. The options cover: · The price obtained through the collective switch auction (there’s an offer for prepayment meters too) · A comparison of the whole market provided by uSwitch · A greener tariff. Full details can be found at http://www.scotstogether.com/how-it-works/
‘Half term’ at Westminster is an opportunity to catch up with visits and events in the Constituency.
One visit I made was to see something of the work being done by the Prince’s Trust to help young people get ready for employment. Throughout 2011/12 the Trust supported over 5,000 disadvantaged young people in Scotland, with almost 4,000 achieving and sustaining positive outcomes such as education, training, employment or self-employment. Particularly impressive were the Young Ambassadors and Job Ambassadors who use their experience to pass on to others – they provide ‘peer education’ rather than hearing from adults whose lives may seem totally different.
Royal Society MP Pairing
Last autumn I wrote about the Royal Society scheme where MPs and scientists were ‘paired’. My ‘pair’ came to Westminster in October and during this recess we did the ‘return match’. I had the opportunity to hear from a number of researchers, largely in the Nursing Studies department of the University. Nurse education is a hot potato at the moment with some people suggesting that the move to degree level training for nurses has been a mistake. We discussed that issue , but I also heard about some of the research being done. One example was a project to encourage mothers of young children to reduce ‘secondary smoke ‘ in the home – something I hope will get taken up across the country. Another important piece of work was looking at the follow on care for people who have had a period in the Intensive Care Unit, the medium to long term consequences of which are not well understood. Hopefully this will lead to improvements in practice based on evidence.
Dumbiedykes & Prestonfield
Visits to groups in these areas share some of the practical consequences of the much debated ‘challenges of an ageing population’. I was in Dumbiedykes to talk with residents who are campaigning for the restoration of a direct bus route to the Southside. The ‘old’ Dumbiedykes was an integral part of the Southside, and Dumbiedykes Road ran all the way up to join St Leonard’s Hill. The road link was cut with the redevelopment in the 1960s, but for many people their social networks remain in that direction, hence the need for a bus. Many older residents find the hills are a real barrier. In the picture here the building directly behind the pram is now the Braidwood Centre where we met. There’s another link between Dumbiedykes and Prestonfield, besides both having a high proportion of older residents. Many of the people rehoused to the new Prestonfield estate in the 1930s came from the Southside/Dumbiedykes area. The specific issue I was in Prestonfield to talk about with the Neighbourhood Centre as well as the Tenants’ and Residents’ Group was the difficulty many of their older people have in qualifying for showers. Despite the lip service paid to the importance of ‘prevention’ and enabling people to stay in their own homes, the eligibility criteria for help with getting a shower has been raised substantially in recent years. This is an illustration of the pressures faced by councils in trying to provide social care which I have written about previously. My response to Alex Neil’s comments in The Herald: http://bit.ly/Wrr5Im; and a previous blog post http://bit.ly/HjSYtl discuss the issue. Even where tenants were getting a whole new bathroom as part of the council’s modernisation programme, the Council has insisted that wet floor showers (which the council prefers to shower cabinets) could only be installed if the tenant were assessed and met the very high level of need under the criteria. A concession was finally made about 18 months ago that showers would be given if requested by tenants in sheltered housing. In somewhere like Prestonfield, however, there are many very elderly tenants who are just as much in need who do not live in sheltered housing. As the area is due to be included in the bathroom modernisation programme in the coming year, we thought this was an appropriate time to raise this issue yet again, bearing in mind that there is a new council administration. One lady I met who lives in a ground floor flat was 85, had multiple health problems and had been a council tenant for 60 years, but had been advised that ‘modernisation’ would only provide an overbath shower despite her being unable to climb in. We also agreed to approach the Council about the need to review the eligibility criteria more generally, and the lack of any proper appeal structure when people are refused adaptations.
Around the Constituency
‘New Blueprint for the Royal Mile’
The Council’s planning department has produced a draft ‘Royal Mile Action Plan’. In it are suggestions such as reducing ‘tartan tat’, making more of the street traffic free, and banning double decker buses (both tourist and ordinary services). What about the needs and opinions of the many local residents? How are they being involved in this? Not enough says the Old Town Community Council! There’s an opportunity to make your voice heard on this and other Old Town issues as the Old Town Community Council is hosting an event to encourage greater community participation and constructive debate. The OTCC wants to gather views and develop ideas about how to improve the area. The previous meeting proved to be both informative and useful for all who attended in identifying problems and developing solutions. If you want to attend head along to Augustine United Church Hall, George IV Bridge, on Monday March 11th from 7pm – 9.30pm (doors open 6.30pm) Further public exhibitions on the Caltongate plans are due to be held on Thursday 14th March between 11am and 8pm and Saturday 16th March between 10am and 12.30pm at the Canongate Venture building.
Learning Mandarin at Leith Academy
I had the chance to meet a group of Leith Academy pupils who had won a place in the finals of a schools Mandarin speaking competition held at the British Museum in London. Although they didn’t win, getting to the finals was a tremendous achievement. The girls (they were all girls as it happened) were a credit to their school. In the photo above the group were ready for a joint performance. Immaculate Kahembwe also took part in the individual category of the competition.
A Street Audit in Craigentinny
On Saturday 26th January I went out with Councillor Alex Lunn and a group of local residents to ‘walk the streets’ around Craigentinny Town Centre. This was organised by the Craigentinny/Duddingston Neighbourhood Partnership and supported by an organisation called ‘Living Streets’. The group came up with priority recommendations for actions: Short term: 1. Implement an effective litter management regime including strategies to tackle dog fouling and fly-tipping. 2. Implement an effective weed management regime, including timing spraying to achieve the maximum effect and following this up with weed removal. 3. Cut back overgrown vegetation to ensure that pedestrian passage is safe and unimpeded. Longer term: 1. Repair the disintegrating wall around Craigentinny Primary School. 2. Increase street light provision on Loaning Road. 3. Develop an effective strategy and action plan that will resolve the problem of pavement and double parking, particularly on Loganlea Gardens. There were other recommendations too & now the Report goes to the City Council. Whether this was all worthwhile depends on what action is actually taken by those who have the power to do it.
A Lidl in Portobello?
The site of the former Land Rover garage at the corner of Wakefield Avenue has been lying empty for a while now. The Lidl chain is proposing to build a store here. This is currently at the ‘pre application consultation’ stage but I am currently gathering comments for a submission. The main concerns being increased traffic given the proximity of the busy Seafield Junction. Send your views to me on email@example.com. Full details are available at www.lidlcraigentinny.co.uk.
Protecting the Meadows – are there too many events?
The annual application by the ‘Lady boys of Bangkok’ to use the Meadows during the Festival has gone in. While the promoters have already started to sell tickets for their annual festival show, the area of the Meadows where the showground is based is still recovering from last August. The City of Edinburgh Council has now sought urgent comments on proposals to hold the event in the same place this year. Events on the park have added to the variety and vibrancy of the festival season, but concerns remain about the health of the land and the damage following the event. You can see my objection on my website at http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/protecting-the-meadows-are-there-too-many-events/. If you live around the Meadows and would like to get involved with the ‘Friends of the Meadows’ there is going to be a public meeting on the use of barbecues on Monday 18th March (7.30pm) at the Pillar Hall, Barclay Viewforth Church. Read their newsletter http://www.fombl.org.uk/nl33.pdf.
Review of the Craigmillar Urban Regeneration Framework
The Council is undertaking a review of the Craigmillar Urban Design Framework. A review document has been prepared on the basis of feedback received at a drop-in day held in October 2012. The review sets out options for change which residents are entitled to contribute to. I’ve prepared a draft of my comments; please request a copy if you would like to see the themes I will discuss. The deadline for comments is 5pm on Friday 29th March 2013 before which I will publish my final response at http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/craigmillar-urban-design-framework-review/.
Young People’s Taster Sessions and Consultation Event
CLD are linking up with Edinburgh Leisure, CLD’s Open All Hours provision and the Craigentinny and Duddingston Neighbourhood Partnership, to offer a free activities based evening with the opportunity for young people to have a say about issues that affect them, using voting pads.
A group of young people have helped to organise this event with CLD staff and hope to produce a presentation of the results for the Craigentinny and Duddingston Neighbourhood Partnership. If you want to go along, doors open from 6.30pm on Friday 8th March.
Castlebrae Community High School
The response of the Council’s Children & Families Department to the consultation on the proposed closure of the school was published on Thursday 21st February. The report is available at http://bit.ly/15QeOnT. The report responds to the various points submitted by parents and local residents. I regret the report still reaches a conclusion to recommend closure. The Councillors will meet to make a final decision on this on March 14th. The Council is still looking at the school in isolation from the wider issues of economic and housing regeneration in Craigmillar. There is a welcome commitment to re-energise the regeneration process, but this should be a chance to look at education in this context rather than taking decisions which will have long term consequences in the future. I have prepared some initial comments which I have now passed to Council colleagues. You can see this on my website at http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/castlebrae-consultation-outcome-report/.
Dates for your Diary
Friday 8th March – Young People’s Taster Sessions and Consultation Event – Meadowbank Stadium – from 6.30pm til 9.00pm Monday, 11th March – Old Town Community Council Community Engagement event – Augustine United Church Hall, George IV Bridge, – from 7pm – 9.30pm (doors open 6.30pm) Thursday, 14th March – Caltongate exhibition – 11.00am to 8.00pm – Canongate Venture, New Street Thursday 14th March – City of Edinburgh Council Full Meeting including decision on Castlebrae Community High School – from 10am – watch live at http://www.edinburgh.public-i.tv/core/ Saturday, 16th March – Caltongate exhibition – 10.00am to 12.30pm – Canongate Venture building. Sunday 17th March – Deadline to take part in ScotsTogether – further details in main body and at www.scotstogether.com Monday 18th March – Friends of the Meadows and Bruntsfield Links monthly meeting – from 7.30pm – Barclay Viewforth Church