Dissolution Newsletter

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Dissolution Notice

Parliament has today been dissolved. I therefore have ceased to be the Member of Parliament for Edinburgh East.

During the period of dissolution my office is permitted to accept casework from constituents. My office however does not have access to the Parliamentary privilege or resource enjoyed since 7 May 2010. During the period of the election campaign, government agencies and public bodies can refuse to accept new casework I raise with them. This means I cannot guarantee my office will achieve positive results, nor that will the request be considered.

Where it is clear that my involvement as former MP would be immediately advantageous to the constituent I would be happy to make enquiries. In some circumstances constituents would obtain a quicker or more effective response from an advice agency or elected representative still in post and my office would signpost accordingly. Alternatively, the enquiry can be held pending the outcome of the General Election.

I would like to thank every constituent of Edinburgh East for their support and engagement during this Parliament, and I am grateful for your cooperation at this time.

Kind regards

Sheila Gilmore

For information regarding the General Election in Edinburgh please visit www.edinburgh.gov.uk/elections. For electoral roll enquiries please visit
www.lothian-vjb.gov.uk.

Westminster Report

Budget 2015
The Chancellor delivered his final budget of the parliament on Wednesday the 18th of March. There were no great policy innovations to steal the headlines, so most commentators – including me in my speech in the budget debate – focussed on the Government’s proposed spending plans for the next five years. These involve very deep cuts in 2016/17 and 2017/18, and then a significant easing off in 2018/19 and 2019/20 – the so-called spending roller coaster.

Most of the changes contained in the budget are actually implemented through a Finance Bill, which this year was rushed through the House of Commons in a day. In my speech during the bill’s committee stage, I highlighted the differences in spending plans of the Government and the opposition. While we don’t deny the deficit needs to be reduced, I noted that our plans involve only £4 billion of spending reductions compared to £55 billion under the Conservatives, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

Housing Benefit and the Bedroom Tax
One of the ways in which parliament scrutinises Government spending is through Estimates Day debates. This involves taking a Select Committee report that relates to a particular item of departmental spending, and on 3 March the Work and Pensions Committee – of which I am a member – led a debate on our report on Housing Benefit.

In my speech I noted the broad consensus that Housing Benefit spending is too high, but then highlighted the contrasting approaches of the Government and opposition to bringing it down.

Over the last five years Ministers have salami=sliced away at entitlement to the benefit – one of the most infamous examples of this being the Bedroom Tax – but despite the damage and distress caused to individuals, spending has continued to rise.

In contrast I believe we need to tackle the root causes of higher spending, chief amongst which is a lack of affordable social housing. Only once we get building will we reduce upward pressure on rents in the private sector, and bring down Housing Benefit spending in the long term.

MPs’ second jobs
Research released earlier this month shows that the 20 MPs who earned the most from second (and often third or fourth) jobs spoke in 22 per cent fewer debates and submitted 39 per cent fewer written questions than the average MP. I spoke out in the Guardian, saying that MPs should focus on representing their constituents and scrutinising the Government, and calling for a ban on paid directorships or consultancy work

Constituency Report

Towerbank Catchment
TowerbankJust over a decade ago Towerbank Primary School was an undersubscribed. Fast forward to 2015 and demand for a space at the school outstrips the number of spaces available. Tens of parents have recently contacted me raising considerable concern that the Council has now started an ‘informal consultation’ on redrawing the catchment area, before the formal stage begins.

The Council must listen to parents’ concerns and ensure that it responds with solutions, including pursuing a sibling guarantee for families who already have children at the school. These families have not chosen their situation and to redraw the boundary will cause considerable disruption for households settled in Portobello and Joppa. I know that having children at two schools is both incredibly unfair on families but presents very real logistical difficulties on a daily basis. I have written to the Chair of the Children & Families Committee supporting parents’ who have been in touch.

Baronscourt Residents’ Success
I’m delighted that the Northfield Willowbrae Community Council and residents in Baronscourt successfully fought off an application for a late hours catering license earlier in the month. Residents can now be assured that this residential area does not become a focus for the night time economy. When Dominos first opened three years ago the franchise owner gave assurances there was no intention of seeking to open late, but we have seen from similar applications elsewhere in the city attempts to get restrictions lifted follow a few years after the initial opening. The applicant is entitled to appeal the decision through the sheriff court, but otherwise cannot reapply for the next year.

Brunstane and the LDP
A couple of weeks ago, it was reported the second development plan could be at risk of being cancelled by the Scottish Government, which could force the City of Edinburgh Council to start the process all over again. You will recall that in October last year I responded to the Local Development Plan consultation and objected to the proposal for up to 1330 homes at the Brunstane. Reiterating the calls I have made regarding development proposals at Newcraighall I am clear that instead we should be developing swathes of Brownfield land within the city, rather than have the Scottish Government force the council’s hand and let developers cherry-pick easy sites to develop. Housing at the Brunstane site would cause further traffic congestion and place a huge amount of pressure on local services.

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Homebase & Lutton Court Update
In support of local resident’s petitions calling on Homebase to stay in the Southside, I’ve written to the Managing Director requesting that he respond to the campaign. As in my comments on the planning application for the site, I made clear my concerns at the potential loss of the store to local community, which is valued greatly. It is welcome that there is a store which provides ‘DIY’ and gardening goods without having to leave the centre of Edinburgh and truly complements the retail offering on the Nicolson Street corridor. Remember to sign the newsletter online if you haven’t already! Separately, I have now submitted my comments calling to the Homebase appeal to be dismissed; view it at http://goo.gl/vT4Pel.

A couple of weeks ago I learnt the devastating news that residents chose to withdraw from their statutory appeal against the Reporter’s decision on Lutton Court. With the legal process exhausted, it is up to the Council to decide whether it will proceed with the sale of the land, or renege on its contract in the interests of local residents. On the back of concerning deals surrounding the Potterow land, and the Royal High lease, I have become increasingly concerned that the pursuit of one-off profits is failing to deliver long term benefits for Edinburgh residents. Residents and I have written to Council leader, Andrew Burns asking that the decision is reviewed before it is too late.

Issues Paper
Just last week another application at Meadow Lane was given the green light. That application, for mews type properties and a new purpose built accommodation block on Buccleuch Street was accepted at committee, even though the student population is over 40% already. It was argued the site was so close to the University of Edinburgh that the concentration issue was not a material consideration, a matter which has angered local residents.

In my response to Student Housing Issues Paper I have called for thorough strengthening of the 30% threshold and to throw out any notion of the University of Edinburgh having any ‘campus’ within the city centre. I have also argued for the need for a holistic review of the growth of the education sector across the city to ensure that the planning authority and residents can continue to accommodate this huge industry. To see my submission, head to http://goo.gl/XvjeEB. Remember to respond to the consultation at https://consultationhub.edinburgh.gov.uk/ before 24 April.

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March 2015 Newsletter

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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
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January 2015 Newsletter

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Westminster Report

Smith Commission
In November the Smith Commission recommended that significant further powers should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament, and on 22 January a new draft law was published that would make this a reality.

Combined with the additional powers already legislated for in the last Scotland Act of 2012, we have opportunities now to plan how we can use these powers to make Scotland a fairer and more equal country.

Smith CommissionHousing

 

Housing
With the publication of the draft legislation in mind I used an article in the Edinburgh Evening News on 2 December to call upon the SNP Scottish Government to use the new powers over tax and borrowing to boost investment in affordable house-building. Not only would this create jobs in the construction industry and improve our housing stock, but it would also reduce rents in the private rented sector and the overall Housing Benefit bill.

Fracking
FrackingOn 24 January Scottish Labour announced that we would use both the existing planning powers of the Scottish Parliament – and those over licensing that are set to be devolved – to freeze all fracking for shale gas in Scotland. While this isn’t my party’s position in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, during a Commons debate on the Infrastructure Bill on 26 January, the Coalition Government were forced to accept that fracking could only go ahead in the rest of the UK under strict new regulations put forward by my colleagues on the Shadow Environment team. Many constituents wrote to me on this issue and I’ve now posted my response on my website.

Labour’s Economic Policy
In January I received a lot of correspondence about the Government’s Charter for Budgetary Responsibility, which commits any future Government to balancing day-to-day public spending as soon as possible. This is Labour policy, and so we voted in favour of the charter on 13 January. It’s important to stress that there’s a big difference between our approach and that of the Conservatives. Following the Autumn Statement, the BBC’s economics editor Robert Peston highlighted the significant differences in our approach:

The gap between the spending cuts or tax rises required by the Tories and Labour to hit their fiscal targets for the next parliament is a very significant £50bn.

How so?

Well the Tories are signed up to generating a surplus on the overall budget of £23bn in 2019-20.

And Labour is only committed to balancing the so-called “current” budget by then – that’s day-to-day spending on public-sector wages, benefits, pensions and so on – while being prepared to finance capital investment with debt.

And since net public sector investment is forecast to be £27bn in 2019-20, a Labour government would require less austerity to the tune of £23bn plus £27bn – or £50bn.

This is a massive difference.

News in Brief

Carrier Bag Charges
SainsburysAfter the recent introduction of a carrier bag charge in Scotland, I discovered that Sainsbury’s are the only supermarket that don’t give shoppers the option of bagless deliveries when ordering online. This contravenes guidance from Zero Waste Scotland, something I highlighted in a press release.

Social Security Work
I am keeping up my work in parliament on social security, speaking in the commons on both sanctions against those claiming Jobseekers Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance. The Work & Pensions Select Committee has been taking evidence on the issue of sanctions over the last few weeks and we will be publishing a Report on this in March.

I have also spoken on the lack of support for people who need to challenge decisions that they are fit for work.

The Coalition Government has always made a big issue of its Benefit Cap – the ‘rule’ that, with some exceptions, no household should receive more than £26,000 in benefits. This was introduced in the Welfare Reform Act of 2012 which my party voted against. The amount ‘saved’ by the Benefit Cap is in practice fairly low and Ministers have clearly wanted this as a way of trying to drive a wedge between those in work and those not. Since its introduction the Government has claimed that the Cap has been successful in getting people into work. I questioned this claim on Huffington Post, twice!

1,000 Extra Nurses
Following Jim Murphy’s announcement that he would use the proceeds of Labour’s Mansion Tax to help recruit 1,000 extra nurses for the NHS in Scotland, I hit back at the suggestion from some London MPs that this represents ‘expropriation from London’. This sort of pooling and sharing of resources is similar to how the tax revenue from North Sea oil is used to fund investment in public services like schools and policing across other parts of the UK, and is one of the key benefits of our United Kingdom.

Same-sex Marriage
It emerged in December that senior Tories Liam Fox and Owen Paterson had addressed a right-wing fringe group which has questioned whether same-sex marriage causes earthquakes. I told the Pink News, Independent and Guardian that the Conservative Party ought to explain why it allows some of its most influential MPs to associate with a group pushing such vile views.

Network Rail Flights
Following the post-Christmas engineering overruns at Kings Cross that caused havoc for people travelling between Edinburgh and London, I hit out at Network Rail executives who choose to fly to meetings rather than take the train.

Constituency Report

Legal Highs on our High Streets
In recent months a number of constituents have contacted me with serious and worrying concerns about the increasing sale of the so-called ‘legal highs‘ in shops on our high streets, especially in the Southside and near Easter Road. The problem is particularly acute in the Southside area, where there are several such outlets. Some users are injecting and used syringes are being found in public spaces and common stairs. Because the highs are intense and short-lived the Council and NHS know there has been a rapid increase in injecting frequency. In turn there is more disruption experienced by residents, with some reporting that forced entry to stairs has increased into in order for users to find somewhere to inject. Some users become aggressive and the police are encountering an increase in fights and antisocial behaviour.

I met with representatives from the Council, Health Board and the Police recently to hear what is being done to tackle this issue. The good news is that they are very well aware of the problem and are working closely together. The difficulty is that supply remains legal and banning of specific substances has led to others, only slightly different, appearing. Government needs to look at the possibility of more widely drawn bans, and I believe the Council needs to look urgently into whether those selling these substances should be licensed.

Homebase and Buccleuch Place applications
Decisions made at that Development Management Sub-Committee on Wednesday produced mixed results for Southsiders. On the one hand the Council’s Planning committee refused the application for 579 student beds at the Homebase site at St Leonards. As such the planning committee has once more upheld its policies which seek to sustain balanced communities in our city. Congratulations are again due to the individuals and residents groups such as the Southside Association and Living Southside which have worked so hard to make the case for the community. As expected the developers hardly waited for the decision before they indicated they were going to appeal.

Unfortunately for residents in Buccleuch Street, the committee agreed a plan to convert Georgian tenements at Buccleuch Place from offices to residential flats for students. Unfortunately this determination was made in haste due a concern that the Council was being too slow coming to its decision. On the day there was wrangling over the status of these properties and whether or not they will require HMO licenses. It was questioned whether officers adequately advised committee members on this issue just two weeks ago. My own submission in response to this application, and a subsequent email to committee members in January, highlighted my view that licenses, and HMO planning policies, were relevant. You can watch a recorded webcast of the committee on the Council’s website.

We now await the joint consultation on both HMO and purpose built student accommodation policies, which I have been promised should start soon.

Engine Shed Closure
Engine ShedIt is with great sadness that the Engine Shed has confirmed it will close later this month. I have long been an advocate of the Engine Shed and the supported employment the social enterprise provides. In September it was announced the Engine Shed would lose 40 per cent of its income from City of Edinburgh Council. 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 ‘real jobs’ elsewhere and if the in-work support promised under a new employability scheme is really available and sustained. The final day of trading will be Saturday 21 February.

Third Age Computing Closure
Third Age Computer FunSince being elected I’ve promoted the work of the Third Age Computing Club which organised computing classes for 50+ communities across Edinburgh East and the central belt. It was a real shame to learn late in December that the board had decided to dissolve the charity. A number of clubs will remain open under a new organisation so that classes can continue. Go to the TACF website to register your interest in these.

George Pitcher
George PitcherThis week I learnt that George Pitcher, a true activist who served the Southside community, passed away. I have fond memories of my work with George over the years and he will be very missed by all who knew him.

Niddrie Mill Redevelopment Begins
Niddrie MillLast month I received a notification that the redevelopment of Niddrie Mill Primary has begun. Developers have circulated a newsletter with contact details for residents who have queries. It is unfortunate the images used look like stock images and fails to mention the historic frontage developers will retain.

Phoenix House
Last month an application to convert Phoenix House, a vacant office building on Portobello High Street, to residential dwellings was submitted to the City of Edinburgh Council. Considered a small application, the window for comments was just 21 days. While I welcome more homes in Portobello, including an affordable component, I have some concern about the materials the developer hopes to clad the existing structure with, and have submitted comments accordingly.

Pre-application Notications
Former Royal Infirmary Residential Redevelopment
A pre-application notification has been submitted to convert the Surgical Buildings of the former Royal Infirmary. This proposal is for residential development and an exhibition of the plans will take place on Tuesday 24th February from 2.00pm-8.00pm at The Marketing Suite, 1 Lauriston Place, Edinburgh.

“Skoda” Garage Residential Redevelopment
Hot on the heels of the Stanley place student accommodation application a 12 week consultation period has begun for the residential redevelopment of the former “Skoda” garage (4 Abbey Lane 6 Comely Green Crescent Edinburgh EH8 8HH). Details on the planning portal are scarce at this stage, however in the developer’s application form the date and time of an exhibition of their plans will take place on Thursday 26th February at Abbeyhill Primary School between 4.00pm and 7.00pm to allow you and other residents review the plans.

Carr Gomm Community Growing
Community GrowingCarr Gomm would like to hear from you if your organisation or community is interested in developing any outdoor space into an area to grow food. Based at The SPACE in Craigmillar you can contact Karin Chipulina on 07824 838 364.

Dates for your Diary

  • Monday 16th February – Spring Meeting of the Friends of the Meadows and Bruntsfield Links – 7:30 pm in the Pillar Hall, Barclay Viewforth Church
  • Tuesday 24th February – Quartermile Surgical Building PAN on residential development – 2.00pm-8.00pm – The Marketing Suite, 1 Lauriston Place, Edinburgh.
  • Thursday 26th February – “Skoda” Garage Residential Redevelopment PAN exhibition – between 4.00pm and 7.00pm – Abbeyhill Primary School
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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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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?

Meadows

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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