Archive for category Local government

The Scottish Greens’ Nordic Future

Patrick Harvie's Swedish opposite number Gustav Fridolin. Notice the dissimilarities from Alex Salmond and Johann Lamont

Patrick Harvie’s Swedish opposite number Gustav Fridolin. Notice the dissimilarities to Alex Salmond and Johann Lamont

The Scottish Greens’ conference in Inverness last weekend was dominated by one theme, and one question. Why is Scotland not like its neighbouring Northern European countries in terms of living standards, life expectancy, wellbeing and sustainability?

Three of the plenary speakers chose variations on the theme and all of them spoke glowingly about the potential for moving away from the Anglo-Saxon obsession with big economics and moving toward a government and financial system more similar to Scotland’s Northern European peers.

The effervescent Lesley Riddoch has made it her mission in recent years to persuade Scotland of the advantages of decentralisation, localism, empowerment and Nordic levels of public service provision. In the Greens she has obviously found a receptive audience. She was joined by Mike Danson  from Heriot Watt University whose time seems to have finally come after years of proposing alternative economic models of Scotland, and Robin McAlpine of the Reid Foundation fronting the work done by a team of academics and researchers to develop a blueprint for an autonomous Scottish parliament.

The Reid Foundation’s Common Weal project is gaining momentum, and Robin McAlpine paid the Greens a compliment in saying that they already have the policies to make it work. The challenge lies in convincing the SNP and Labour of the validity of such an approach or making sure that the Greens gain enough seats at the next Holyrood election to at least begin to implement it in government with another party.

Talk of the Arc of Prosperity may have vanished from the lips of the First Minister, but over in the Green and Independent corner of the chamber the vision is very much alive, and it is hard to argue against Scotland pursuing such a course when all the evidence suggests it would lead to a decidedly better country for everybody.

The list of potential polices is almost endless, but the Greens are committed to increasing investment in strategic public transport infrastructure, re-regulation of bus services to give local authorities more say, increased basic wages to both help people and increase tax yields for investment in services, municipal energy companies and education reforms based on Finland’s proven globally leading example.

The Common Weal project is a welcome addition to the Scottish political scene with its stress on common consensus rather than socialist revolution, and its use of existing similar states to Scotland which clearly illustrate that it is possible to tackle some of Scotland’s endemic problems in an inclusive and democratic way.

The Greens now find themselves in the strange position of having a more cohesive and coherent vision for Scotland’s future than almost any other party in Holyrood, the SNP included. Next time you’re stuck in a traffic jam on the way to pick up your kids from an overpriced nursery and worrying about the 8.2 per cent price rise your energy company have just foisted upon you, take a moment to consider that Scotland has an alternative modern future ready and waiting.

Scottish politics’ Old Firm

A few things have happened to me in the last few weeks which have reminded me of the importance of community to every aspect of our lives, and how this can be a wonderful thing.

Last Sunday I joined tens of thousands of other Hibs fans at the Scottish Cup Final in Glasgow. To see half the stadium singing Sunshine on Leith – a crowd made up of people who you recognised from bars and shops and the local swimming pool – underlined what a powerful thing community can be. Hibs went down 3-0 to a Celtic side with a global fanbase and several times more money composed of players from across the globe.  A defeat, but one which cemented the feeling that Leith is a very special place with a very specific identity and community.

A few days later came another defeat dished out by the big boys, but this time it was Edinburgh and not Glasgow putting an end to a long and hard fought campaign. The City of Edinburgh council’s Labour/SNP administration made the decision to sell the local fun pool to a private developer instead of the preferred community option that it should be taken over by a community organisation and run on a non-profit basis with a public subsidy. The council have opted to sell it to a property developer with plans for a generic indoor play zone, despite the area already having indoor play facilities.

Now, to return to the question of Hibernian FC, it has a fine tradition of producing footballers who are then purchased for apparently irresistible  money by Glasgow teams, the rationale being that the payoff is too good to refuse and that it will help the team build and move on in the long term.

As long as I have been a supporter of Hibernian FC this has demonstrably failed to happen, and I am worried that the same will be true of the Leith Waterworld saga. Were that one million pounds ploughed directly back into the local area it would be welcome, but it won’t be. That one million pounds could cover the whole of Leith in safe cycle and walking projects to keep kids fit, or it could be used for community startups or form the basis of a cooperative energy company which would more or less print money for the community to reinvest. Hell, it could even pay for a few metres of the tram line down Leith Walk, which we are in far greater need of than the poverty-stricken residents of Edinburgh Airport are (on this note it is also worth pointing out the council masterplan to develop the greenbelt land around the tram line by the airport when we have a huge number of brownfield sites which are either underdeveloped, underused or contain housing so bad it should probably be torn down anyway).

Leith is not a suburb of Edinburgh – it is a cosmopolitan place in its own right full of wonderful people. We have been let down by decision makers who do not know what the needs and desires of the local community are, in a failure of both democracy and common sense. The decision has cemented people’s dissatisfaction with structures of governance which view our assets as belonging to the city chambers and not to the people of our communities. We may not to be able to afford Leigh Griffiths, but we can definitely afford to invest in our collective resources.

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“… and Trumped it there with an ace.”

Trump hair…The Saint took up the pace,
And drove it clean to the putting green and trumped it there with an ace.
- from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, The Famous Ballad Of The Jubilee Cup

As reported here some months ago, there’s been a petition in the offing to Holyrood’s Public Petitions Committee, one covering the Trump affair and calling for a public inquiry into the way relations with the Trump Organisation were handled by local and national government.

The petition has finally been posted today on the 38 Degrees site, and you can sign it here. The Parliament’s rules say all valid petitions will be considered, even ones with just one name on them, but a few hundred signatures here would certainly help.

One of the virtues everyone should be able to expect from government at all levels is fairness and equal treatment. You should be entitled to expect that everyone is playing by the same rules, and that those rules should be consistently enforced. Since the Trump saga began in 2005, as covered in Ant Baxter’s film You’ve Been Trumped, local residents in Menie do not appear to have received this kind of fairness from Scottish Ministers or Aberdeenshire Council. And as Quiller-Couch’s Jubilee Cup illustrates, things quickly get out of hand if the rules for a single game are not followed.

The residents, Councillor Ford’s committee, the environmental objectors: they were playing “Planning” according to the official rules as published. Mr Trump and Scottish officialdom, on the other hand, appear to have been playing some other game behind the scenes: perhaps “Beggar Thy Neighbour”, or “Rich Man, Poor Man“. Either way, it’s just not cricket. Please do sign here. Disclaimer: I helped David Milne with the petition text.

Edinburgh – the Copacabana of the North

I had the pleasure of walking along Edinburgh’s Seafield Road for 45 minutes the other night as I returned from my ‘local’ Post Office collection depot. I gambled that I could flag down a taxi and not have to walk too long but, given I passed only one other person the whole way (and zero cabs) this was clearly naive.

Still, the freezing wander was oddly enjoyable with the calm Forth waters occasionally visible to my right. Sadly though most of this coastal stretch is stale and lifeless, crying out to be renovated given how naturally appealing this part of Edinburgh is.
 
There can’t be many cities in the world that would allow a sweeping waterfront to be taken up by a clutch of car garages, a cat & dog home, a water salination plant and a landfill site (soon to be expanded). Infact, if you type ‘seafield road edinburgh coast’ into Google Images, the first two pictures you get are of McDonalds.
 
And yet, the coastal geography of the area between Leith and Portobello is comparable with famous sweeping coastlines around the world:


 
Copacabana:
 

 
Bondi:

Malmo:

 
 
This may be tantamount to asking for a new wave of dull, drafty flats sprinkled with sparklingly new but tiresomely dull Pizza Express’ and Starbucks’. Big deal right? Well, if Edinburgh Council could (literally) lift its gaze beyond the horizon, perhaps a new vision for a new Edinburgh village could be realised. Design-led passive housing, open spaces for families and, heck, on particularly choppy days, why not throw a few wetsuitted city surfers catching some waves into that vision too?
 
 As an adopted Leither, the rate of change in my local area is really quite depressing:
 
- It’s apparently going to take until 2037 to build a simple promenade from Cramond through to Portobello
 
- Tram works have blighted Leith Walk and disturbed the rest of the route down to Ocean Terminal, only for us to learn that the trams will only be travelling to St Andrews Square
 
- Leith Theatre has sat closed since 1998, weighed down by a lack of council imagination despite the best efforts of the Leith Theatre Trust.
 
- The local MP Mark Lazarowicz has proposed a Leith Museum be created at the frankly glorious Custom House on The Shore for certainly as long as I have lived but (despite a Labour Council, Labour Scottish Government and Labour UK Government being in place for most of these years) precious little has ever been achieved.
 
 
Amongst the best ways to transform this side of the city however is to build on the success of The Shore, the jewel in Edinburgh North’s rather tattered crown, and improve the waterfront either east or west. Platinum Point, the tolerable Ocean Terminal and the delightful old Granton Harbour already do westwards justice but to the east, well, let’s just say that you don’t have to be beside the seaside to buy a car.

Incentivising these numerous showrooms to move elsewhere, even just crossing the road to the largely unused southern side of the street, could reap dividends. Freeing up that land and using it sensibly would help to rebalance Edinburgh’s population and ease congestion thanks to proximity to the ring road and nearby reach to existing arterial bus routes (chiefly the 22 and the 26). If anyone has ever been to wonderful Malmo then they’ll know what can be achieved with enough creativity and energy in a space like Seafield Road’s.

It’s often easy to forget that Edinburgh is a coastal city and no wonder when a prime stretch with huge potential doesn’t even have a bus route up and down it. Leith was (not really) twinned with Rio de Janeiro in 2009 but let’s go the whole hog and bring our own version of Copacabana to town.

Let’s do something to stop the Glasgow subway photo ban

Thanks to Caron Lindsay for today’s guest post. Caron’s a Lib Dem activist, she blogs at Caron’s Musings and at Lib Dem Voice, and she’s here on Twitter.

So, you’re on the Glasgow subway with some friends and one of them does something cute or funny or otherwise worth recording for posterity. You take out your phone to capture the moment…..

What should happen next is….nothing. Life should go on as normal. However, if Strathclyde Partnership for Transport gets its way, new bye-laws could mean that you’re on a slippery slope to a £1000 fine. The operator has put their new proposals out for consultation and they include the controversial clause 12.1:

Passengers must not take photographs, or make video audio or visual recordings on any part of the subway.

There is a get out clause – but it involves you obtaining the written permission of SPT in advance. So much for spontaneity.

This brings to mind the situation under the last Labour Westminster Government when amateur photographers were apprehended by police under the controversial Section 44 of the Terrorism Act. This report from the Independent summarises how people innocently taking photographs of public buildings, tourist attractions and even a fish and chip shop found themselves being stopped and searched. By and large, although the law applied in Scotland, it was largely ignored. I wrote in 2010 that while over 200,000 people had been stopped south of the border, only 79 searches had been recorded here.

I always tend to take the view that if an authority is given a power, it will use it. That’s why we need to make sure that any powers they have are both necessary and proportionate. Why, then, do SPT want this photo ban? According to Amateur Photographer, SPT said:

Our company policy has always been that consent must be sought prior to any photography taking place, and this is in line with security restrictions at any major transport hub, including railway stations, airports etc.

It also allows us to ensure that any such activity does not disrupt the operations of the network in any way.

How on earth the group of friends in my example could potentially disrupt the operation of the network in any way is beyond me.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie was quick to condemn the proposals:

Whichever bright spark came up with this needs to be told to drop it. This kind of nonsense distracts from the real fight against crime and terrorism.

We have seen what happened in the past under the old Labour government. People were  arrested under terrorism laws for wearing t-shirts lampooning Tony Blair or for shouting ‘nonsense’ at a conference. Strathclyde needs some strong liberal voices to shout ‘nonsense’ at this plan.

On Twitter, Education Secretary Mike Russell described the plan as “Utterly daft.”

I’m sure that many people who aren’t involved in politics will agree that this restriction is ridiculous.

It doesn’t have to be this way

Happily, there is something we can do about this. If you agree with me and the many others on Twitter yesterday who thought the proposal is a piece of nonsense, you can respond to the consultation on it and the rest of the bye-laws by 15th June.

The photography ban is only the tip of the iceberg. Some of the other proposed  bye-laws, also carrying a potential £1000 fine for their breach, are equally questionable. Failing to report lost property to a member of staff, singing, using musical equipment in a way which might annoy a reasonable person, being drunk (which isn’t defined, but may well apply to a fair few people taking the subway home on a weekend night) or going the wrong way up or down an escalator all carry the same penalty. So does trying to get on a train before the last person has left and trying to jump the queue. These things can be rude, but deserving of a four figure fine?

Truly dangerous acts, like going onto the track, have the same penalty as the petty, which is a ridiculous state of affairs.

Have a read of the proposed rules here and make sure you send your response to the consultation by 15th June. It needs to go to:

FAO: Joanne Gray
Glasgow Subway Byelaws Consultation
Transport Policy Directorate
Area 2 D North
Victoria Quay
EDINBURGH
EH6 6QQ

or e-mail joanneDOTgrayATtransportscotlandDOTgsiDOTgovDOTuk

Subway Snap-In

Such authoritarian proposals are crying out to have fun poked at them. A few of us were discussing on Twitter yesterday that we should encourage everyone to take as many photos as they can on the subway over the next few weeks and post them on Twitter, using #subwaysnapin. I’ve created a Facebook page as well. Be as creative as you can. Add in a campaign slogan or placard if you like, but let’s show off a Glasgow institution at its best.

(photo credit)