Edinburgh’s parks are an asset much loved by all residents because they serve as great venues for summer events. I am therefore pleased that the Council Parks department has begun to consult on an Events in Parks Manifesto. I am keen to ensure that the manifesto recognises how all parks can be used for vibrant and enjoyable events balanced with the needs of local residents and their environmental concerns.
Kezia Dugdale MSP and I are backing the Edinburgh Evening News Save our Stations campaign in response to the news that Police Scotland intends to close eight police station front desks across Edinburgh, after Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill MSP ordered a review of public counter provision. To sign the Evening News petition against the plance, follow the instructions at http://bit.ly/1bCr94x or print and complete this petition form:
In Edinburgh East operations at Craigmillar are due to be transferred to the new East Neighbourhood Centre and there are proposals to cut the opening hours at Portobello. Kezia is formulating a response to the review and she is seeking your comments on the plans via a survey which you can complete here:
Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey , the world’s leading questionnaire tool.
For further information, head to http://bit.ly/1bCr94x.
Syria & Recall
Travelling down for the Parliamentary recall I received a text from the Whips Office saying ‘There will still be important votes; your attendance is essential.’ It is very easy to be a bit cynical about this call when you are an opposition faced with a majority of over 70. But to be fair our whips do not cry wolf, and ‘essential’ means something more than a normal 3 line whip. There was a point when I thought I might have to tell the whips attending was nevertheless ‘impossible’ – as my train reached Newcastle we were told that the service was suspended because of lines being down near Newark and people were even being given the choice to return to Edinburgh and travel the next day! Luckily I was able to get a train to Sheffield and then another to London St Pancras. Other MPs were also affected up and down the line. Fortunately we arrived in good time for the vote, because this was an occasion where each vote really counted.
The situation in Syria is dreadful for its citizens, and the behaviour of the Syrian Government towards its own people is indefensible. It has provoked very violent behaviour from those opposing the regime, with the whole situation being complicated by the support of other countries, sectionalist groups in the region and further abroad. However I fundamentally believe that a ‘western’ intervention, as initially proposed by the Prime Minister, would not have improved the situation. The unintended consequences of what are often initially described as ‘short and sharp’ interventions are often profound.
The Government put down a motion that was hastily drafted and ill thought through. Labour put down an amendment that offered a clear roadmap to consider any decision relating to the use of military force in Syria. I voted for the Labour amendment. I did this, as did many of my colleagues, while being clear that this did not mean that I would support intervention if it came to a second vote.
Our amendment was defeated, so my party colleagues and I then voted against the Government’s motion. A significant number of Government backbenchers also chose to do so, leading to the motion being defeated. This is highly unusual, but reflected the strength of feeling in the Commons and across the UK. The Prime Minister subsequently made it clear that the UK forces would not be involved in any military action in Syria.
The transcript of Ed Miliband’s speech and the rest of the debate is available from p11http://bit.ly/1dvgo1m.
What has happened since shows that diplomacy had not been exhausted, and hopefully some real progress can be made towards a negotiated settlement.
Parliament was back in session for the first fortnight in September. On the first day back I spoke in a debate on cycling, which demonstrated the high level of interest there is amongst MPs of all parties. There was considerable cross party agreement, but despite the media berating politicians for being too confrontational, when consensus does break out it generates little media interest. (See p70 http://bit.ly/1aYKPiT).
There was no lobbying bill in the Queens Speech in May this year. Then there was yet another lobbying ‘scandal’ and the Government rushed to say it would be producing a Bill after all. Their Bill was published just before the summer recess, and the Government chose to rush through both the second reading and committee stages during the September sitting. Two other issues were ‘tacked on’ to the Bill, which had received no advance scrutiny. One was introducing additional checks on trade union membership lists in relation to unions balloting their members. The second was seeking to introduce restrictions on ‘third party campaigning’ during elections. This in particular emerged without warning, and it quickly became clear that the Government has not consulted charities and other campaigning organisations, nor has it taken advice from the Electoral Commission, which would have to administer these rules. The Electoral Commission had considerable criticisms of the proposals as drafted.
Despite the shortness of time, campaigning groups and charities did manage to get an effective ‘lobbying’ campaign going (not all ‘lobbying’ is bad!) to alert MPs to what the proposals could mean. I received over 350 emails from constituents in the first few days of September. By the time we reached the Committee stage of the Bill in the second week, the Government was promising to bring forward its own amendments to this part of the Bill. This staved off a major Government defeat, but we are still to see exactly what these amendments are going to be. They will be debated on the first day Parliament sits after the ‘conference recess’ period, but Ministers promised to make them available well in advance. Of course, if this proposed legislation been properly consulted on, and the draft scrutinised, this rush of amendments could have been avoided. Drafting amendments ‘on the hoof’ is bad practice and usually produces poor legislation.
My colleagues and I voted against all parts of the Bill, instead proposing a considerable number of amendments. The original core of the Bill on lobbying will do very little to control lobbying. Only a tiny number of ‘consultant lobbyists’ are covered. Both transparency campaigners and the lobbying industry agreed that the proposals would make things worse not better. As the proposed register has no code of conduct or sanctions, it is a step backwards from the voluntary register that already exists. My own speech on this at second reading is here available from p65 at http://bit.ly/1dvaY6k.
Adjournment debate on Employment & Support Allowance
I ‘drew’ the graveyard shift for an adjournment debate on ‘Reconsideration of Work Capability Assessments’, part of my ongoing campaign to highlight the failings of the system and what changes are needed. My slot was the last of the week, coming immediately after the charade that is a Friday of private members’ bills.
Knowing the interest many of my colleagues take in this subject and the over-supply of potential speakers whenever we have a debate, I would reassure people that the timing was the problem, with most people in their constituencies. My speech is available at p73http://bit.ly/1dvbp0s.
I felt that some useful issues came from the Minister’s reply & I have put detailed comments on this on my website http://bit.ly/1dvc6a2.
Separately, I have maintained my support for Rethink Mental Illness campaign calling on the Government’s fit-for-work test to be made fairer for people with mental illness. I took part in an MP Capability Assessment, which mirrors the Work Capability Assessment, the controversial test used by the Government to decide whether thousands of people with mental illness and other disabilities, are entitled to financial support in the form of the Employment and Support Allowance.
Private Members’ Bills
I rarely stay for debates on Private Members’ Bills which take place on a certain number of Friday mornings when Parliament is sitting. Being in Westminster waiting for my adjournment debate reminded me why I don’t. The morning started with a Bill from a Tory backbench on Deep Sea Mining. Someone had described this to me as a ‘government hand out bill’ i.e. one which the government was quite keen to be pursued in this manner. So working in my room with the House of Commons Chamber feed on ‘mute’ I was surprised to see a handful of Tory backbenchers showing all the signs of talking it out. When I went over to the Chamber I realised that it was not this Bill they were trying to kill but one from Michael Meacher on tax avoidance. There is a small group of Tory MPs who seem to see it as their mission to a talk out these Bills.
On this occasion the Government Minster responding on Deep Sea Mining talked for over an hour, clearly part of the filibustering plan. (Remembering this is a bill encouraged by Government, and bearing in mind that even in a major second reading debate such as that earlier in the week on lobbying, the Minister will generally get 10 minutes for a reply). This whole procedure urgently needs reform. A recent Report has been published with proposals for change, and I hope that this happens very soon.
Universal Credit – an Empty Bookcase?
Following a highly critical Report from the National Audit Office, Iain Duncan Smith had to come to the Commons to answer an Urgent Question on his flagship policy which seems to be floundering. I’ve written an article on the failing of this policy on my websitewww.sheilagilmore.co.uk/universal-credit-an-empty-bookcase.
Summer in Edinburgh
Recess in Edinburgh gave me a chance to increase my door to door visits around the constituency.
Having the MP appear at the door makes some people think they missed hearing that an election has been called. ‘No’ I explain, ‘I aim to be knocking on doors somewhere in the constituency nearly every week of the year.’
As well as picking up on the day’s problems and my constituents’ views, one of the bonuses this summer has been meeting a number of residents who have lived in their areas for many years and have painted a picture of the changes they have seen. One was a lady in her 90s who started married life in the ‘old’ miners’ cottages in Newcraighall, moving from there to the Jewel Cottages, also now demolished, recalled the lack of bathrooms back then. Her husband worked at Woolmet pit and later Monktonhall (then the ‘new’ pit) before getting a council home in Niddrie where she lived for over 30 years.
While the cottages have gone, replaced with homes with bathrooms(!) some of the old names associated with mining have been well preserved (the Jewel although now a supermarket; Parrotshot, North Greens and so on) but so much has changed from what she remembers.
Newcraighall – Too many houses
Although the pits have gone, and many of the original miners’ cottages have also gone, the village of Newcraighall has up until now managed to retain its identity as a village. Many fear the plans for housing developments on both sides of the village will change it forever. We lost the argument about retaining these sites as greenbelt but residents had managed to get the Planning Committee to agree to fewer houses being built in Newcraighall North than the developers wanted. Unfortunately developers have come back with yet another application, pushing numbers up to 219. I have put in an objection to the Council which is available at http://bit.ly/1aQlLHm.
A White House for All
Earlier this month I had the pleasure of attending the community re-launch of the White House as a community asset with my colleague Councillor Maureen Child. The official re-opening is an important step in the sometimes rocky road towards the full regeneration of Craigmillar.
When Craigmillar was first developed in the 1930s the White House was a symbol of a confidence in suburban development of the city, part of a new world where people were starting to travel out of town to ‘road houses’ for entertainment. Its shape and colour made it a landmark. It was however always a place where local residents gathered.
Now the building stands proud and white again, and the 1930s features have been preserved and enhanced. It will be run by a community development trust firmly based in the Craigmillar community, as a venue where public and private events can take place. Local exhibitions have already been held here and in June Castlebrae School leavers held their Prom dance here. To read more on this crucial phase in the regeneration, see my full piece atwww.sheilagilmore.co.uk/a-white-house-for-all/.
Excess waste – what is the Council policy?
Nearly every time I am in a street, or making home visits on a street surgery, residents ask me what the Council’s policy is on collecting excess waste. With recent changes to collections confusion is high, especially when a street has both household wheelie and tenemental communal bins. I’ve now sought a definitive response on what Council binmen are meant to do if there is excess waste piled up in the street.
Refuse collection teams are meant to empty communal bins even if it is overflowing with domestic waste, however large flytipped items are not usually removed – this must be reported separately. If the communal bin is located at a new development, where there is usually sufficient recycling available, excess will not be collected.
Finally, excess waste will not be collected from individual wheelie bins, as sufficient recycling facilities should have been supplied.
As ever, if you see irresponsible waste disposal, flytipping or misuse of bins, make sure it is reported to the Council on 0131 200 2000.
Southsiders: Portrait of a Community
Now the festival is very much over, Edinburgh starts its annual programme of projects with local residents. Open Doors is coming up (see below) and on Saturday 7th September I attended the launch of an exhibition of photographs of people living and working in the Southside, each in a setting important to them. This makes the exhibition a story of both place and people. The project was an activity of the Causey Development Trust, which aims to restore West Crosscauseway as a pedestrian and cycle friendly link between parts of the Southside. Hence some of the photographs are on outdoor display there. All the photographs and audio of the people talking about their lives and links to the area are on the websitewww.edinburghsouthsiders.co.uk. There is a public panel discussion at the Southside Community Centre on Friday 4th October from 7pm to 9pm – all interested are welcome. The photographs and interviews have also been published in a magazine, copies of which are circulating in the Southside. I found it very inspiring and urge people to find out more.
The summer has been busy with a number of planning applications, possibly a sign that there is finally more confidence in the economy.
Formal plans to develop the Caltongate south sites at Market Street and New Street have now been lodged with the City of Edinburgh Council. Consultation on this matter is ongoing until Friday (27th September) and if you have any comments these should be submitted via the Council Planning Portal. Enter references 13/03406/FUL and 13/03407/FUL athttp://bit.ly/15HGuwl.
The revised plans for the south of the Caltongate propose retaining the Canongate Venture and the frontage of the Sailor’s Ark. Unfortunately I feel that the design of the proposed new build units are not ambitious enough for the area and planners have put very forward very ‘safe’ designs like those of recent fashion across many UK cities.
Consultation has now closed on the proposed conversion of the former Stratstone Land Rover car sales room. The developer, Lidl Scotland, proposes demolishing the existing premises and erecting a new superstore at the out of centre site. After consultation with constituents I have submitted comments on the plans recommending refusal of the application.
My objection, available on my website at www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/lidl-craigentinny, does not oppose the principle of a supermarket in the area; rather the recommendation is based on comments from a majority of constituents who have contacted me with very real concerns about traffic management problems at the Seafield junction. Traffic causes considerable congestion at this junction at peak times and residents feel this development will only add to the problems. Many constituents also raised concerns about the affect an out of centre store will have on nearby Portobello town centre, as it will divert trade and footfall from the local high street. To view the plans enter reference 13/03189/PPP on the planning portal.
Residential conversion of Niddrie Mill Primary School
An exhibition of new proposals for the site of the former Niddrie Mill School took place a few weeks ago. Residential development has always been intended here but the recession put a brake on plans. The new proposals are to retain the brick facade of the building but to demolish the interior and build new flats retaining that classic red-brick facade. The Memorial will also be protected. Part of the plan is to build 40 affordable homes with a housing association partner. These would mainly be 2 bedroom flats.
All too often the ‘affordable’ element on developments is in flats rather than a mix of flats and houses, and I don’t think that constructing a full development of two bedroomed flats meets the most urgent housing needs in the city, which are for both smaller and bigger homes. We need to accommodate single people hit by the bedroom tax and the 900 families already overcrowded in two-bedroom properties. A good mix of sizes also makes for a more balanced community. To view the plans enter reference 13/02691/PAN on the Planning Portal.
Out of Sight/Out of Mind exhibition
Many constituents who contact me about welfare matters raise concerns about the way their illnesses are perceived by the public and media who fail to understand the extent of these conditions. Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival runs annually in October, in venues across Scotland and aims to support the arts and challenge preconceived ideas about mental health.
The festival is one of Scotland’s most diverse cultural events, covering everything from music, film and visual art to dance and literature. CAPS Independent Advocacy based in Abbeyhill has been involved with the festival for several years and is running nine events in 2013. CAPS are involved in a large scale collaborative exhibition, “Out of Sight/Out of Mind” at Summerhall. The exhibition of works by individual artists with mental health issues is set in the unique spaces of the Old Animal Hospital. I shall be attending the opening of this provocative exhibition which explores perceptions of reality, labelling, discrimination, confinement and medication. Works include photography, painting and narrative.
For more information on the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival head towww.mhfestival.com or search twitter for #smhaff2013. The Out of Sight/Out of Mind Exhibition runs 5-19 October 2013, 11am – 6pm daily at Summerhall, Edinburgh, EH9 1PL
Canongate Youth Project is looking for new Board members
The Canongate Youth Project is looking to expand the experience and skills of its Board. The organisation is currently going through significant but positive change. The Project is looking for new board members with expertise in business, Human Relations and fundraising with knowledge of nearby communities and young people living locally to the Southside and City Centre. Since 1977 the Project has successfully provided support, recreation and training opportunities for 5-25 year olds to help them overcome barriers and secure a great future.
A Board meeting is held monthly on a Monday from 4.00pm-5.30pm and the time commitment is 30-40hrs per year. If you are interested in joining the Board of CYP please contact Vicki Ridley on 0131 556 9389/9719 or email email@example.com
City Wide Review of Licensing Statement
The City of Edinburgh Licensing Board is required to publish a statement of licensing policy every three years and the Board is now preparing the statement of policy for November 2013 onwards. Since being elected in 2010 I have made submissions on a variety of licensing matters across Edinburgh East and know that residents are keen to have better control of matters such as Late Hours Catering licenses and liquor licensing.
The Board’s current Statement of Policy is available online at:https://www.edinburgh.gov.uk/downloads/file/3032/licensing_board_policy_statement_2010. If you have comments or representations with regard to any aspect of licensing, make sure your comments are heard before 21 October 2013. Email your responses toRobert.firstname.lastname@example.org or Nicholas.email@example.com
Edible Edinburgh: a Sustainable Food City
Edible Edinburgh is hosting a Feed the 5,000 event in Bristo Square on Saturday 5th October. Head along for a free lunch, to find out more about food initiatives in the city and have your say on how you would like to see Edinburgh develop as a sustainable food city. The Edible Edinburgh initiative aims to motivate residents to choose healthier and tastier food.
The Edible Edinburgh steering group has drafted a consultation document to encourage everyone to join in the debate about your food. You can get involved by completing the short survey.
Community Council Elections – get your nominations in this weekend
The deadline for Community Council nominations and registration of local interest groups is coming up on Monday (23rd September at 4pm). Nomination forms are available on the Council’s website at www.edinburgh.gov.uk/communitycouncils and you can find out which Community Council covers your area by entering your postcode atwww.edinburghnp.org.uk/community-councils/.
By joining your local community council you can make a real difference to your neighbourhood. Community Councils across the city are represented on respective Neighbourhood Partnerships and meet with the local Councillors, representatives from Police Scotland, NHS Lothian, Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and the voluntary sector to agree local priorities and develop and deliver your Local Community Plan. Further details on the election process is available at the website above.
Dates for your diary
7 September – 5 October 2013 – Southsiders – Portrait of a Community: An exhibition by Peter Dibdin – outside display in The Causey – Find out further details atwww.edinburghsouthsiders.co.uk
Monday 23rd September at 4pm – Deadline for nominations for Community Council elections – Nomination forms: www.edinburgh.gov.uk/communitycouncils further informationwww.edinburghnp.org.uk/community-councils/.
Friday 27th September – Consultation on Canongate proposals closes – make comments at http://bit.ly/15HGuwl. Enter references 13/03406/FUL and 13/03407/FUL to access the plans.
Friday 4 October – Southsiders: Portrait of a Community – Public panel discussion event – Southside Community Centre – 7.00-9.00pm
Saturday 5th October – Feed the 5000 – 12.00pm-4.00pm – Bristo Square – more info athttps://www.edinburgh.gov.uk/info/202/sustainable_development/1703/sustainable_food/3
5-19 October 2013 – Out of Sight/Out of Mind exhibition – 11.00am-6.00pm daily – Summerhall, Edinburgh
Over the last few years there have been a number of planning applications for new housing around the village of Newcraighall. After a long battle against proposals by residents consent was granted by the Council’s Planning committee for 176 new homes on the site known as ‘Newcraighall East’ and 160 on ‘Newcraighall North’. These numbers were slightly less than the developers had been looking for, but still a large number threatening to destroy the village atmosphere and create traffic problems.
No building has yet happened and in fact although consent was given in principle the consents have not been finalised , as developer contributions (s75 contributions) for the Primary School extension and transport improvement are still to be agreed with the Council. This means that technically planning permission has not yet been completed.
However the developers are circling again! This is true more widely in the city as well as in Newcraighall. What follows is my best understanding of what is going on.
There are population forecasts of growth in Edinburgh and the Lothians, and household formation is predicted to grow even faster. Previously for this area there was a document called the Structure Plan which set overall targets for land to be allocated to meet housing needs. This is in the process of being replaced by the Strategic Development Planning Authority for Edinburgh and South East Scotland (SESPLAN). Their Plan was submitted to the Scottish Government in August 2012. The Scottish Government’s Planning officials have looked at this and have made recommendations to Ministers. Crucial for our purposes is that the Planning Reporters have criticised SESPLAN for not identifying enough sites for housing, saying that the Plan has not taken on board the outcome of the most recent housing needs and demands assessment. The recommendations of the Reporters to Ministers have yet to get a response from Ministers but it is possible that Ministers will accept them and ask that SESPLAN ups the number of housing sites needed.
The approach taken by the Scottish Government Planners is that local authorities should identify enough land for the growth forecast over the next 20 years, even although it is acknowledged that it will not all be needed at the beginning. The problem with this approach is that it may make it difficult to prioritise the brownfield sites in the city which are still awaiting development eg at Granton and in Craigmillar. Developers tend to favour the ‘easier to develop’ Greenfield sites , and if all are available at the same time, we are likely to see applications coming in for these rather than the ‘brownfield ‘ sites. There is a danger of offering up the whole ‘sweetie shop’ at once, and the developers choosing the ‘softest centres’ leaving the ‘hard’ ones behind.
Individual authorities will be expected to bring their local plans into line with this higher requirement and certainly developers may try to use these recommendations to bolster their individual applications. Most of the draft local plan was written before the recent comments by the Planning Reporters on SESPLAN . When the first draft was being consulted on last year Edinburgh Council was recommending that various controversial sites around the edge of the city NOT be earmarked for housing. Many community councils and residents groups were reassured by this and as a result many did not feel they needn’t to comment on the draft Plan. However the new Draft is very different and is suggesting that a number of sites around the city be named as suitable for housing. This includes Newcraighall. The two sites (East & North) have been put back into the plan as they had previously been removed at the order of the Court of Session. T he Court quashed the previous local plan’s allocation of the Newcraighall sites for housing but also quashed their designation as greenbelt. This left the two sites as greenfield sites but not identified as preferred housing sites. However this did not prevent developers applying for planning permission for housing, and it being granted for the numbers of 176 and 160. If sites are in the Local Plan as being ‘housing sites’ it makes it easier for developers to, get planning permission, but even if there is no such designation that does not stop an application being made. The fact that detailed consents have been granted on the two Newcraighall sites does not mean that the new Local Plan cannot deal with their designation for the future. It is possible for planning consents to lapse so the Planning Department here is trying to get the sites designated for housing again presumably partly in case that happens. However – the boundary of HSG 27 (the east site) has been extended, and the number of potential homes to be built at this site has increased in comparison to the previous City plan. Page 26 of the Local Development Plan states that HSG (Newcraighall North) should have 150-210 dwellings over 9 acres, and HSG 27 should have 275-385 over 17 hectares.
Planning officials state that as the Newcraighall sites were removed from the previous plan, they have assessed the sites in full, as the previous findings cannot be relied upon. As part of this process officers have conducted new assessments for capacity. Due to the complications the Council experienced when prescribing densities under the previous plan (i.e. challenges in court), the environmental report (already released) now sets out defined density assumptions for housing sites across the city. These sites have a suggested density of 25-35 dwellings per hectare (at the top end of the scale the Waterfront is due to have 100 dwellings per hectare).
The reason that the area of HSG 27 (North site) has been extended is because the context of the site has changed. When the previous plan was being drafted in 2006, the land adjacent in the East Lothian area was part of the East Lothian greenbelt. But this greenbelt was under contention and by the time the Edinburgh plan was adopted in 2010, East Lothian council had removed it from their greenbelt. Previous proposals included plans for converting the old rail line nearest the East Coast main line to a public foot/cycle path. However, this line was made out of coal spoil. This combustible material has caught fire on at least one occasion and planning officials state that it would require considerable additional resource to make it safe. Given there is no continuous greenbelt in this area, and the issues with the rail line, the proposals for the North site extend over a larger area than before so that the area including the rail line and around the high voltage electricity line can be fully redeveloped.
According to planning officers, the developers who secured the previous permissions can apply to have the agreed permissions revised.
The current version of the Local Development Plan is again being circulated for comments and local residents and groups can make representations. The deadline is 5pm on 14th June.
The other development is that – even before the current consents have been finalised – the developers are trying to get new consents to allow for more houses on the North Site. It appears that EDI’s new partner on this site is Barratt and they are doing some pre-application consultation with a view to reapplying for 200 houses (decision under current ‘minded to consent’ was for 160 homes) There is going to be a further consultation event on this on 19th June at Newcraighall Primary School between 4.30pm and 8.30pm.
Happy New Year! With Christmas and New Year it has been a while since my last Report at the end of November.
Unusually this week even Central London saw some fairly thick snow, prompting Mayor Boris to cast doubt on climate change theories. To be fair, he still voiced support for measures such as insulation on fuel economy grounds, but he does not seem to have understood the difference between ‘climate’ and ‘weather’.
This month we have had a lot of talk about referenda on Scotland and Europe. January was also the month when the Chancellor hoped he had sprung a trap for the opposition on benefits and tax credits uprating. More on both below.
The quirks of questions
Sometimes you spend a long time trying to craft the perfect question to a Minister in one of the Departmental question sessions, only to find you are not called, and even if called , that no-one takes any notice. On Wednesday 18th December I stayed in the Chamber after PMQs to hear the Defence Secretary’s Statement on Afghanistan. Defence and foreign affairs are not areas I have chosen to specialise in, and while they are extremely important it is sensible to focus one’s energies at Westminster. However being there, I decided to ask a question, about womens’ and girls’ rights and education. Being a statement, if you ‘stick it out’, exercising by jumping up and down between each question and answer, you generally get taken – last on our side in this case. But my more spur of the moment question featured in the Independent’s report of the session!
I seem to have had a very ‘dry’ spell in terms of getting questions in the various ‘ballots’ for Oral Questions in the last few weeks, not for want of trying. But I’ve had a bit of success in ‘bobbing’ (the ‘technical’ term for trying to ‘catch the speaker’s eye even if you haven’t been drawn for a question). Here’s some I have had:
1. I had my first PMQ in several months on 5th December asking the Prime Minister a question about tax relief on pension contributions.
“Q11.  Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): Whatever announcements the Chancellor makes on pension tax relief shortly, is it not a fact that when this Government came to power, they made changes to pension tax relief that gave a tax cut of £1.6 billion to people earning more than £150,000? [Interruption] I see that the Chancellor has to give the Prime Minister his crib sheet.
The Prime Minister: I am afraid the Hon. Lady is wrong. We inherited a plan to raise £4 billion in taxes from the wealthiest people, and we raised that further. My Right Hon. Friend the Chancellor will make some further announcements in a moment.”
The point behind this question is that when Labour introduced the 50p tax rate, they made a change to pension tax relief so that people paying that higher rate of tax did not also automatically get 50p tax relief on every pound put away in a pension. On taking office, the Coalition Government changed this so that ‘full’ relief was given to higher rate tax payers. As so often happens at PMQs the Chancellor had to lean over to whisper an answer to the PM (hence the comment about crib sheets). See p11 http://bit.ly/WdlAAz.
2. 5th December was a particularly busy day as I had a Select Committee meeting in the morning, met with a constituent who had been on a tour for a rather brisk cup of tea, then asked my PMQ. I also had been drawn for a short debate in Westminster Hall on ESA issues (see below) and in between was the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, where I asked the Chancellor a question about figures the Government keeps quoting for job creation (more on jobs figures later). See p35 http://bit.ly/WdlAAz.
3. On 6th December I had a question to the Department of the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) on low energy lighting – a most unsatisfactory response. (more later on this issue) http://bit.ly/Wdp3Pi and the same morning DWP minister Steve Webb made a formal statement on benefit uprating where I had a chance to put a question to him (see p32 http://bit.ly/Wdp3Pi)
4. Monday 10th December was the day for DWP questions. I wasn’t drawn but I was called on a question about the Work Programme which is the Government’s flagship employability scheme. The first published statistics had been published about 10 days before this, and showed that the scheme had not met the targets the Government had set for its first year. For nearly 18 months we had been told that no information could be given about outcomes until the first results had been statistically verified. However, the Government didn’t like its own statistics they accompanied them with unverified reports from some of the programme operators stating that actually some 200,000 people had ‘started’ jobs. My question was about this. See p13 http://bit.ly/WdpeKF.
Following this session, the Disability Minister (Esther McVey) was called to answer an Urgent Question about further redundancies at Remploy Factories. After the initial question and answer other people have an opportunity to ask questions, and I asked the Minister to stop the process given that most of the people in the first round of redundancies hadn’t been found jobs. See p32 http://bit.ly/WdpeKF.
5. The following day I got in another question about the Work Programme, this time at Treasury Questions. See p6 http://bit.ly/WdpeKF.
6. I don’t often ask questions on local government (because it is devolved) but housing remains a passion of mine and I asked a Christmas themed question on 17th December:
Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): There are 2,000 households with children in bed and breakfasts, 880 for more than six weeks. There is room at the inn, but no cooking facilities for Christmas, and the price is an increase in housing benefit. What do the Minister’s colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions say about that?
Mr Foster: The Hon. Lady fails to acknowledge the significant reduction in the number of children in those circumstances under this Government. I nevertheless accept it is important that we do everything we possibly can to assist these families. That is why we are taking action with the relevant council and why we are making £390 million available to assist with the changes in welfare benefit, which her Government never did.
(The point of course, is that the £390m – called Discretionary Housing payments – is only necessary because of the cuts being made and will in no way make the ends meet. The Labour Government didn’t need discretionary payments because it wasn’t making such cuts in the first place. The trouble with oral questions like this is that you don’t get in for another bite at the cherry even when you believe the Minister to be wrong! See p5 http://bit.ly/Wdmv3G.
7. On 8th January I asked the Deputy Prime Minister whether he would support the 60,000 people who have signed ‘Pat’s Petition’ asking for a ‘cumulative impact assessment’ to be carried out of the effects of all the various welfare reform measures on disabled people. His response was to repeat the DWP line ‘when did the Labour Government carry out such an assessment’ – but the real issue is that at no time did the Labour Government carry out such a raft of changes over a limited period. See p9 http://bit.ly/WdmcpH.
The Wintry Autumn Statement
The Chancellor’s Autumn Statement slipped back to 5th December this year. It wasn’t only the weather that was cold by then, so was the economy. Growth has been much slower than predicted in 2010 when the Coalition announced its Emergency Budget and Comprehensive Spending Review (June and October 2010 respectively).There are conflicting views as to why this happened, nevertheless it is a fact the economy is flatlining. The Office of Budget Responsibility report of the Pre-budget predicted growth would be 2.5% in 2011 and 2.75% in 2012, (based on the policy initiatives of the previous Government).
The Government has made a lot of the ‘deficit’ having been reduced by a quarter but this has to be viewed in the context of their original plan to eliminate the deficit by 2015. To achieve this, the reduction by now would have had to be closer to one half. The target has now been pushed back to 2017.
As a result of this, government borrowing is rising faster than predicted. In the run up to the Autumn Statement many commentators pointed to a big hole opening up in Government finances which could involve drastic further spending cuts. (For anyone wanting to follow up on these arguments a report called Fiscal Fallout published in November 2011 by the Social Market Foundation and the Royal Society of Arts is a good place to start).
In the event, the Chancellor deliberately put off a decision about further departmental spending cuts to the next spending review, but he found savings by limiting the uprating of benefits and tax credits by 1% over the next three years.
Since the autumn statement prospects haven’t improved much. Just this week we have the news that GDP fell by 0.3% in the last three months of 2012.
Employment Figures and the Work Programme
When criticised on the economy the Government points to the fact that unemployment has been falling and that ‘1 million’ new private sector jobs have been created since the General Election. One of their justifications for cutting back the public sector was that this would ‘free up’ the private sector to grow. These figures are causing considerable comment among economists and business commentators, since usually a recession and low growth is accompanied by reduced employment.
I have been pursuing this issue with both the Prime Minister and other Ministers at question sessions and in debates over the last year. By the beginning of 2011 the Prime Minister claimed 500,000 new private sector jobs had been created since the election. Arguably many of these were the result of the stimulus measures of the Labour Government. The 1.2 million quoted towards the end of 2012 include that earlier 500,000 which suggests growth in jobs has actually slowed up. ONS statistics show that around 170,000 of these result from a reclassification of FE college jobs as private rather than public sector. Given the increase in tendering out of public sector functions to the private sector, it is possible that there are other jobs like this. More recently, the Guardian newspaper published an analysis which showed that of the 500,000 new private sector jobs appearing in the statistics for the year to November 2012, at least one fifth appeared to be unpaid work experience placements. See The Guardian data blog: http://bit.ly/XG7NOy.
Many of the new jobs are part time jobs. I have always been a great advocate of part time and flexible working but there appears to be increasing numbers of people who are not choosing this, rather it is a necessity. Part of the explanation may be down to structural changes in business and the labour market which may not change anytime soon. Retail has moved from the old 5 and a half day opening to a seven day week with extended hours. The amount of ‘footfall’ does not increase in line with the hours, so the workforce gets spread over the time, with ‘flexible’ hours matching busy times. One result of this increase in part time work is more workers must claim tax credits and housing benefit, so explaining the ‘shocking rise’ the Government made much of in the Uprating Debate (see more below).
When asked what it is doing about unemployment the Government refers to its ‘flagship’ employability service, the Work Programme. This was to bring together all previous types of employment support into one for those unemployed for 12 months or more (less for young people and those coming off Incapacity Benefit). This we were told would be the biggest, the cheapest and the best such programme ever. For the first 18 months DWP Ministers refused to give any interim outcome data on the ground that it had to be properly verified first (and forbade the providers from doing so either). Shortly before Christmas results revealed the first year target had not been met after 14 months of ‘outcomes’. Early days, said Ministers, and anyway there had been some 200,000 job starts, conveniently announced by the ‘trade association’ for the providers. But why should we now suddenly be expected to believe such unverified data when we were told before how misleading that could be?
Employability programmes of course do not create jobs and in many sectors of the economy there isn’t increased demand for more staff. The Government is very keen to talk about how cheap its employability programme is, but that is the underlying problem. This may seem an odd thing to say given that the programme overall is a huge ‘spend’, but the amount being paid per person (and that only after a job is sustained) is actually relatively low. The Work & Pensions Select Committee is carrying out an investigation into what actually is happening with these programmes. We were promised these would be highly personalised and intensive, but this seems far from the experience of some constituents I have spoken to. If anyone has experience of the Work Programme or knows someone who has, I would be pleased to hear from them.
Or is it ‘referendums’? Apparently the latter is now accepted as correct, just as these have now moved from ‘rare’ in our constitution to fairly frequent. This month the Westminster Parliament debated and passed the order necessary to pass referendum holding powers to the Scottish Parliament on the basis of the ‘Edinburgh Agreement’.
On Wednesday 23 January David Cameron was welcomed into PMQs by cheering and Tories waving order papers, following his much trailed Europe Speech promising a Referendum, probably in 2017 if the Tories win the 2015 election. However the cheers were more muted whenever Cameron indicated that he was hoping to be able to campaign for a ‘staying in’ vote. If the Prime Minister hoped his speech could ‘park’ the issue for a while, that is certainly not the case.
Welfare Reform Debates
I have taken part in several debates on this subject over the last couple of months. The biggest was the Welfare Uprating (Make Labour Look like the Party for Skiving Fat Slobs) Bill (Andrew Rawnsley’s words in the Observer). This was announced by the Chancellor in the Autumn Statement now infamously, introduced by another reference to people heading off to work watching their non-working neighbours with the blinds drawn. The Chancellor, as well as saving money, saw this as a trap for Labour. The big justification was that ‘benefits’ had risen 20% since 2007 while wages had risen only 11%. Over a longer timescale, a different picture emerges with unemployment benefit having fallen from 21% of average earnings in 1979 to under 11% now. Two thirds of those affected turned out to be people in work (through the impact on tax credits, housing benefit, maternity pay and statutory sick pay). Nor had those on tax credits benefited from the 5.2% benefit increase last year (based of course on very high inflation that year) because for the last two years they haven’t been increased in line with inflation. Despite all the talk of making work pay tax credits had already been squeezed. Clearly stung by the criticism that the 1% uprating was hitting people in work, Iain Duncan Smith launched an attack on the whole idea of tax credits (despite the fact that his Universal Credit will be doing a similar thing, if less generously) and quoted figures for increases in spend which were shown to be wholly wrong by Channel 4’s FactCheck. Despite this, Ministers went on quoting these wrong figures throughout the debate.
Actually in my case, it was less a matter of taking part in the debate as ‘waiting to speak but not being called’. Numbers wanting to speak on this exceeded time on both days given for debate. I posted my notes for the speech I would have made on my website: http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/the-welfare-uprating-debate-and-what-i-would-have-said/.
ESA Reassessments – Westminster Hall – 5 December
I had secured a half hour debate on the frequency of people being reassessed for Employment & Support Allowance. These short debates are basically 15 minutes to put a case and then 15 minutes for the Minister to respond. They are good for making a more detailed critique of a particular issue, which is very difficult in the bigger ‘set piece’ debates in the main Chamber. Sometimes – although not on this occasion – you can even extract a promise of change or at least investigation on the part of a Minister. See from p99 http://bit.ly/WdlAAz.
Disabled people and carers – Westminster Hall – 18 December
This was again a much oversubscribed debate, on the Opposition side anyway. This was a 90 minute debate, but speeches of backbenchers (other than the MP who had obtained the debate) were limited to 4 minutes, with only two Government backbench speakers. This debate covered a wide range of issues around the changes being made to benefits for disabled people and for carers. See from p99 http://bit.ly/Wdln0c.
Atos Work Capability Assessments
On Thursday 17th January a three hour ‘backbench chosen’ debate took place on the assessments for Employment & Support Allowance. This is an issue which I have been doing a lot of work on. Not a voting or decision making debate but one which I think demonstrated the wide range of concerns there are about a system which is placing too many people in the wrong category. Significantly those Government backbenchers who spoke were critical too. Only the Minister defended the process. Speeches again were severely time limited but at least I got my few minutes worth. See p37 http://bit.ly/WdjTTy.
Bedroom Tax – 23rd January
Yet another heavily subscribed 90 minute debate. This time not a single Government backbencher came in to listen or speak. Most speakers could have spoken for far longer than we had the chance to do (another 4 minute limit). Although this change was considerably debated a year ago, it is only recently that it has become ‘real’ to those affected as letters are now being sent by council and housing association landlords to affected tenants. Most MPs are getting a lot of constituent enquiries about this, and most are astonished that even people with adapted houses or disabilities aren’t exempted. But as I said over a year ago, it’s not just such extreme cases that need attention; why should a spare room be seen as an unreasonable luxury? The amount many constituents will lose puts the 1% uprating in the shade (although virtually all will be affected by that as well!) One constituent I’ve spoken to with a second ‘single’ bedroom will be losing £50 a month. Even if a move could be found, moving itself is a costly business. I think, perhaps more than any other measure, this one is bringing it home to people that the Government’s welfare ‘reforms’ are hitting lots of ordinary people. Read my speech from p99 http://bit.ly/WdhvMy.
Personal Independence Payment Regulations
In December the Government announced the final draft Regulations for the new benefit which will be replacing DLA. The Minister also announced a slowing of the move for existing claimants. Originally scheduled to start in spring 2014 the majority of current DLA claimants will not be assessed for PIP until after October 2015. Around 500,000 existing claimants will be reassessed before that date, for instance if their renewal date falls in this period, or their circumstances change. The Government’s own figures show that 170,000 people are expected to lose benefit by 2015 and 450,000 by 2018. The Minister was in front of the Select Committee on 21st January for over two hours talking about the regulations, and confusingly told us we should ignore the projections for after 2015 because they were ‘speculation’ – despite having been published by her Department. You can view the session at http://bit.ly/Wz4CZB and I have put more information about PIP on my website http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/welfare-reform-and-its-impact-on-disabled-people-and-carers/.
January also saw the publication of the delayed White Paper on proposals for a new flat rate state pension to start from 2017 (this could be a busy year!). The Work & Pensions Select Committee will be scrutinising the draft Bill next month, so I will report more then. One big question is whether the Pensions Minister has managed to ‘square the circle’ of producing a fairer system within the current spending projections (as the Treasury apparently demanded). If you have questions or views on this please get in touch.
Last week I did a video for Pensions Week on the government’s proposals for private pensions. In particular I talked about why its risk-sharing scheme design would need its own legal framework and how that might affect employers. To watch the video go to http://bit.ly/Wdtlq2.
Low Energy Lightbulbs
Sadly the constituent who originally brought this issue to my attention died suddenly just after Christmas. My condolences go to her husband, family and friends who will miss her terribly. The best tribute I can pay is to continue the campaign, and ensure that her calls are answered.
On 22 January the City of Edinburgh Council’s new Petitions Committee heard its second petition from Dumbiedykes residents calling for a public transport link from the area to the Southside. In November I met with residents to discuss the absence of a suitable service and suggested that they establish the petition which has now been heard. Due to the steep gradient out of the ‘Holyrood Valley’ residents in the area face a 45 minute journey via George Street to get to the Southside to visit the doctor’s surgery, pick up some messages, or access community facilities. Needless to say this causes great difficulty for the elderly, people with mobility problems and parents with small children. Many families in the area maintain strong links with the Southside, having moved from the area when Dumbiedykes was built.
Social isolation has increased since the area lost its direct link a few years ago. Councillors also heard that new student accommodation is being built in the area increasing the need for a connection to the south of the city.
The Dumbiedykes community organised a strong campaign and worked tirelessly to get this matter heard. Their hard work has paid off with Councillors calling on officials to explore all options and produce a series of reports due before the next two meetings of the Transport and Environment Committee. Officials must now think creatively (and economically) to provide a service – either by establishing a new route altogether, or work with Lothian buses to divert existing services.
Santa Comes to Craigmillar Books for Babies
On the Saturday before Christmas I popped in to the new Craigmillar Library to see the Christmas Books for Babies event. It was packed with babies & toddlers and mums & dads. Santa came with his sack – full of books of course! This was the third such event in the week which were all packed out! (Future school planners please note there seems to be no lack of babies in the area!)
If you haven’t been to the new Library it is well worth a visit. The library is equipped with plenty of computers, a fantastic collection of books and audio books for all ages. The addition of a new cafe and comfy public seating area means that you can take a moment to enjoy a quick break. Buses 2, 14, 21, and 30 stop just outside so the new library is easy to get to whether you’re coming from Newcraighall, or Prestonfield. The 42 stops nearby providing connections from Duddingston and Northfield.
I was rather impressed to be told that registrations were up 20% in the first three weeks of opening the library. Details of the library can be found at http://bit.ly/Wz43z6.
On Saturday 5th January I was delighted to meet the City of Edinburgh Basketball Club and watch their senior men’s match against Glasgow Rocks. The team is based in Portobello. Along with MSP Kez Dugdale, Councillor Maureen Child, Council Leader Andrew Burns, and Portobello High Head Teacher Peigi McArthur, we saw an exciting match where the local team ran the Glasgow professional team very close (61-72). The match was the culmination of a one day ‘Basketball Festival’. The Club has a whole range of activities from the ‘Sunday Hoops’ (8-10 years) upwards. To join in, or find out about future matches go to http://www.cityofedinburghbasketball.net.
Swap Starbucks for Serenity
Boycotting Starbucks for their tax and employment practices? Likely to be near the Canongate? I strongly suggest you try the Serenity Cafe in Jackson’s Entry, running between the Canongate and Holyrood Road (near the Tun). Serenity Cafe is a social enterprise set up as part of a project for people recovering from addictions. As well as the cafe it’s a base for a large number of drug and alcohol free activities, including music and art. If you are looking for a place for a relaxing coffee or snack give it a try – and know you are helping a small bit of the real ‘big society’.
Castlebrae High School
The formal consultation on the closure proposal ended on 7th December and you can see my submission on my website at http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/castlebrae-community-high-school-consultation-response/.
The Council meeting which will make a decision on this takes place in March and the campaign is far from over. Save the Brae have been meeting with Councillors, several of whom, from all parties, have been on visits in the last few weeks. The campaign also sent a very good presentation to all Councillors which clearly showed the important links between the regeneration of Craigmillar and the need for a school.
Portobello High School
The consultation on whether the Council should take a ‘private bill’ to the Scottish Parliament to allow the new school to be built on a part of Portobello Park closes on 31st January. There have been several exhibitions, and two large public meetings of over 300 people each, showing the strong interest there is in the issue. If you haven’t yet made your voice heard, depending when you are reading this, there may still be time to respond, whatever your view is. If you haven’t completed the survey, please do so before 5pm on Thursday, 31st January.
http://bit.ly/VPCfIi. You can see my submission on my website at http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/portobello-high-school-private-bill-the-school-must-be-built-on-the-park/
The new developers have stated that they will be responding to the consultation which took place before Christmas, and will be bringing forward their new proposals for the southern part of the site in March – so watch this space.
Hillcrest Housing Association held a public exhibition/consultation on their plans for part of the former Eastern General hospital site. Developing this site has been slower than anticipated and current plans differ in layout from those previously granted consent. I went along to see the plans on Thursday 24th January. There will be a small number of properties for sale, but most will be for rent (the balance between ‘low’ and ‘mid market’ rent is still to be agreed) My initial view is that there are too many flats, but that is possibly not a material planning consideration, and is driven largely by the cost issue in a climate where the amount of money coming from the Scottish Government to housing associations has reduced. I will be making some comments and will post my letter on my website when I do so.
Dates for your Diary
5pm, Thursday 31st January – deadline to submit comments to the City of Edinburgh Council proposal to take a Private Bill to the Scottish Parliament – complete the survey at http://bit.ly/VPCfIi.
From Wednesday 6th February – Bridgend Growing Communities: An introduction to growing your own food – for full details contact Hollie on 0131 664 0555 or firstname.lastname@example.org