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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