Local Election Q&A

This post answers some questions which have been raised in feedback to a short YouTube interview which I did as part of a series of interviews with council candidates for Clydesdale East. Obviously as the interview time was limited it was not possible to cover every issue, and the agenda was set by the interviewer, so I thought it would be useful to respond to some questions which have been raised by members of the public,

No mention of roads, infrastructure, housing, council tax, care services.
Even in a blog there’s not much space to discuss all of these things in detail. However some key points are:

Infrastructure: I support development of local infrastructure such as high speed broadband and the re-opening of Symington station, although these things are not completely within the council’s gift, but I would certainly push SLC to work with Scottish Government and other relevant organisations to make them happen.

Roads: We need to keep roads in good repair, but I do not favour large road-building projects as the money would be better spend on public transport (see infrastructure).

Care services: Greens welcome the better integration of council and NHS responsibilities that has started to happen, but recognise that there is more than could be done to ensure that councils and the NHS work closely. Greens are campaigning for a “living wage plus” for carers to ensure that good staff are attracted to this important role.

Council Tax: Council tax in the medium term Greens would like to see it replaced with a fairer system based on the sale value of land because the council tax become outdated is it is based on the value of property in 1995, so does not reflect changes in land value or changes to a property since then. We support the council tax increase for the higher council tax bands that Scottish Government brought in this year, and are disappointed that SLC did not decide to increase council tax for the lower bands to protect public services as most other Scottish councils did. In the Scottish budget, Green MSPs also secured additional funding from Scottish Government for councils by not passing on the cuts to the top rate of income tax which the UK Government implemented.

What would make electing the only person that seems to make up the Green Party in this area as she is the only person that is ever heard from?
The Scottish Green Party has enjoyed an enormous expansion in recent years both locally and nationally. Members of the local branch taken on a variety of roles – not all are public facing. I think it is preferable for the public to have the chance to vote for someone who has a track record of working in their community than someone they have never heard of who pops up just before an election.

The Scottish Greens are standing candidates in almost all wards in South Lanarkshire, including all of the Clydesdale wards. For a number of reason we really feel that this year we have a good chance of getting several Green Councillors elected to South Lanarkshire Council. The make up of the new council is likely to be one in which no party has overall control, which means that the big parties are more likely to work with smaller parties than to ignore them. Minority  groups of Green Councillors elected to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Midlothian and Aberdeen council in 2012 have been able to have a significant influence on council policy in those areas.

What about planning, places are being built on that shouldn’t be?
Planning is guided by the Local Plan. SLC are currently consulting on a new Local Plan and I would strongly recommend that the public respond to this before the consultation closes on 12th May. The Local Plan sets the framework for planning decisions, and it is much harder to object to an unwelcome development if it has been agreed in the Local Plan. I have read through the plan and will be responding to this myself.

More widely, the Scottish Greens are keen to see communities’ views being given more weight in planning matters to avoid situations like the Overburns Quarry saga where a developer is trying to grind down community opposition by making repeated application for more or less the same thing. The Green MSPs are pushing Scottish Government to re-balance the planing system so that communities and developers have equal rights to appeal and repeated applications for the same development would not be allowed.

Mention is made of creating local jobs through this industry, how many have been created and employment for true locals?
Across Scotland the renewables sector employs 58,000 people directly, and supports more jobs indirectly. I don’t have a figure to hand for South Lanarkshire or Clydesdale more specifically, however it is likely to be several thousand. A good proportion of these will be people born and bred in the area in roles including civil engineering, site management, environmental assessment and design.

How much income is going into the tourist industry via this industry that is being claimed?
I don’t have figures, but anecdotally a number of local B&Bs and hotels get a good deal of business from the renewables industry.

Where is the cheap electricity when people struggle to heat their homes from essentially a natural resource that is free once initial investment of cost of building these monsters is paid for and maintaining wages etc.
Wind is a cheap source of power when all of the costs involved as considered. Nuclear power has huge build and decommissioning costs, and means that the nuclear waste which is produced has to be stored safely for every.

Fossil fuel as power source can also have huge costs associated with decommissioning and cleanup. The open fiasco of abandoned opencast coal sites which Scottish Coal has walked away from means that all council tax payer will have to pick up the bill for in-instating these sites. The Stern Report produced by the UK Government highlighted the high costs which will be incurred from having to deal with climate change if we do not reduce fossil fuel usage.

Greens would like to see much higher standards for house insulation and energy efficiency. We want all rented property to be well insulated, so that tenants as well as owner-occupiers have easy to heat, warm homes.

I’d rather see a field of solar panels than any more windmills.
I agree that solar power has a role to play and can be useful even in Scotland. We need a mix of renewables to supply the power we need.

Is the windmills that are on the road approaches from Carstairs to Lanark or Carluke to Lanark really enhancing the countryside? Who is benefitting from those, certainly not the community!
How people view wind turbines is largely a matter of personal opinion, and we have to remember that almost all of Scotland’s landscape is shaped by various human activities. Of course individual turbines need to be carefully sited, which is something which can be addressed through the planning system.

With regard to benefits which windfarms provide for the community, we would like to see more community and council ownership of renewables, because at present too much of the profit does go to private landowners and company shareholders (although this is the same for other forms of energy too). Local wind energy co-operatives such as the Spirit of Lanarkshire Wind Energy Co-operative which has a local membership and owns turbines in the Nutberry and West Browncastle windfarms are the sort of thing we would like to encourage.

What about the real traditional farms/ers that make up this ward, not sure there was any mention there?
I am not aware of there being any unreal farmers in this ward! As I mentioned in the interview most agricultural policy is dealt with my Holyrood. However as I said, these are very uncertain times for farmers, as Brexit will mean the end of CAP payments, and the UK Government seems likely to keep much of the budget for other uses. I will push the council to what in can to support farmers, including providing business advice and buying procedure products for its catering operations.

Same old mantra when asked how she could be contacted, no real new ideas there then! Councillor surgeries, more of the same and hardly anyone attends them!
I agree that councillor surgeries aren’t the only way in which councillors can be contacted, which is why I also said that I can be contacted by email and on social media, and as a councillor would organise community meetings on specific issues.

What about the Gillespie Centre in Biggar?
The Gillespie Centre is run by a community group, not the council, so this is not directly an issue for the council. I know there has been some discussion recently about recent changes to their charging structure, but as I was unable to attend the AGM, so I have not seen the full accounts. I do, however greatly appreciate the hard work which the Gillespie Centre volunteers put into running this facility for the benefit of the community.

If elected would this candidate prop up Labour to keep them in control of the council?
Green Councillors will work with other parties to get the best they can for this area. In other councils where Greens have councillors they have not formed coalitions with other parties, as this has given them more freedom to work with a range of parties on a range of issues.

What about the cost of dying in South Lanarkshire? Burial plots in 1995 were £95.00 now they are over £1k!
This is not an issue which I have a detailed knowledge of. However, if elected I will review how SLC’s burial charges compare to those of other councils in Scotland.

A feel this is like the wording of an old joke like the light bulb joke: “how many bins does it take to get all you’re rubbish taken away in South Lanarkshire?” 4 just now and that’s if they are emptied with more to come, really!
The new bin system has been introduced to increase the amount of waste which is recycled, which is something I fully support. I know there were some issues with delivering the bins, but they seem to have been sorted out now.

Bins and recycling is an important part of how we deal with our waste, but we also need to reduce the amount of waste which is produced in the first place, and I would like to see SLC being more proactive in working with householders and local businesses to reduce waste or reuse waste items.

When will services for the people be left local instead of being centralised?
Greens very much favour services being provided as locally as possible, although we recognise that some very specialised services need to be located in a limited number of locations (it would be a waste of money to provide every cottage hospital with a brain scanner!).

Locally, Greens have raised concerns about things like the removal of some social work and planning functions from Lanark. I’m also concerned that things like youth mental health services are in Carluke which is far too far for a young person to have to travel. We also do not feel that Police Scotland has been effective, and favour a more local approach to policing which better reflects the needs to communities.

As I councillor I will stand up for local services in this area, and push to improve them rather than trying to centralise them in Hamilton or the cities.

What about school (and road) lights left on to burn 24/7?
The recent installation of LED lights has reduced the energy consumption and cost of street lighting. However, I agree that there is no need for streetlights being left on 24/7 and would favour them being switched off between midnight and 5 am in most areas.

Who’s paying for all the new schools? I agree, not all the schools required to be replaced.
Sadly we all are because the new High Schools were built using PFI schemes which are extremely expensive ways for councils to get money. The primary schools have been built with council money which will be much cheaper in the long term.

What does Biggar and surrounding areas – yes they exist, get from business rates or other income the council has to share out between the wards?
Business rates help to provide services which businesses need. These include road maintenance, maintenance of public spaces, business advice, and an educated workforce.

Scottish parliament have passed a lot of laws that effect everyone but hardly any mention there either.
As you state laws are passed by MSPs in the Scottish Parliament, not by councillors, which is why I, as a council candidate, have not commented on this.

I wonder if the candidate has a clue on what a councillor should be doing! Writing letters to a paper for exposure is totally different in reality of being a day to day councillor!
Absolutely! Councillors fulfill a number of functions including representing community views to the council, helping to shape council policy, deciding on planning matters (if on the planning committee) and scrutinising council activity. I know several current Green councillors on other councils well, and so have a good understanding of what they do.

Where does the candidate stand: is the council run by the councillors or by the officials?
Council officials are responsible for the day to day running of the council. However councillors help to develop the policy directions which steer their work and provide oversight of the running of the council.

Would she abstain in votes if elected?
I would not generally abstain in council votes, unless insufficient information available on which to make a decision.

What about the public houses that have been all but decimated by smoking ban and other burdensome nonsense?
Many public houses in Clydesdale are thriving. Biggar has four lively pubs (the Clydesdale Hotel closed well before the smoking ban), and local pubs from the Hopetoun Arms in Leadhills to the Roberton Arms in Carnwath are doing well.

The smoking ban has brought health benefits which are to be welcomed.

What else is on offer apart from wind farms, they are not the be all and end all! What other sources of income can be tapped into for the benefit of all locally?
South Lanarkshire Council could do much more to promote the tourist industry in Clydesdale. At present it is not a member of Visit Scotland because it does not regard tourism as a priority, which means that tourism in this area does not benefit from the marketing expertise of Visit Scotland. There is particular scope for “active tourism” promoting cycling, walking, angling, canoeing and other outdoor activities in the area. Projects like the Upper Tweed Railway Paths cycleway and an extension of the Pentlands Regional Park into Clydesdale could help in this respect, as well as better promotion of the Southern Uplands Way.

Agricultural and tourism is also important, and I think there is scope to add more value to the food we produce by processing more of it locally to add value.

Faster rural broadband would allow the IT sector to develop further locally, and there could be scope for using locally generated energy topower energy-hungry enterprises such as server farms and manufacturing.

I would also like to see Carstairs Junction regain some of its former role as a transport hub with better train services southbound, and improved bus links to the surrounding area. It is a pity that no company submitted an acceptable bid when SPT recently tendered for a bus service between Biggar, Carstairs and Carnwath, and I would like to explore whether a community owned service could fill this gap.

Public toilets, what happened to them if one needs to spend a penny?
Biggar is fortunate that it’s public toilets have been saved by the action of a community group, who have been able to access some funding which would not have been available to the council, and have therefore been able to change some aspects of their operation to save costs.

There have been plenty of groups established over the years to consult with, however, when there is a power hungry dominated one party council, they are a waste of time. I guess that would be the same voting Greens!
No, Greens really believe that power should be put back into the hands of local communities. This is a key part of Green ideas which are based on the concept of “act local, think global”. Green councillors on other councils such as Edinburgh and Midlothian have been instrumental in pushing for consultations with communities to be listened to and not treated as “box ticking” exercises, and Green councillors in South Lanarkshire would do the same.

Why did the Greens prop up for a second referendum vote?
Independence is not something which councils can influence. However, Greens believe that power should be devolved to as local a level as possible, and therefore we want to power moved from Westminster to Holyrood, but we do not believe that power should be centralised in Holyrood. Rather we want to see local communities be given much more power to make decisions which affect them.

The candidate was dry mouthed and that was without any potential constituents sitting in front of her, how well would she cope in council chamber if elected?
Jings! That must the first time I’ve ever been accused of having nothing to say! Dry mouthed I was certainly not!  What was supposed to be a 15 minute interview ran to 20 mins as it was! I am certainly not intimidated by public speaking or presenting information, as these are things I do routinely professionally. I also have a good deal of experience of speaking in political meetings and debates.

What cuts does she agree with and what cuts does she not?
Cuts I would agree with: street lighting – savings are already being made by introducing LED lights, and this should be rolled out further; council expenditure on “hospitality” and building big road infrastructure. Re-negotiating the PFI deals on the new High Schools which could bring large savings. In addition, there is scope for the council to do more to generate income from renewables on its buildings (most new primary schools do include solar panels, but far more council buildings could have them).

I would prefer more funding to more cuts (and yes that means people paying tax to get the services we all need). Cuts I don’t agree with include social care, education (especially special needs support), and public transport.

What about the elderly and young people? How should we enrich their lives and provide services for them? An interactive park perhaps for the youngsters? Better at home services for the elderly and vulnerable?
On services for young people, I’ve already mentioned education and youth mental health services. With regard to parks I chair Friends of Burnbraes Park which I founded and has put approximately £75.000 of play equipment into the park in the last 10 years as a result for grant funding and donations. I’ve also helped successful park groups to set up in Lanark, Leadhills, and Rigside.

For older and disabled people, high quality care at home should be a priority. I’ve already mentioned the Scottish Greens’ “minimum wage plus” proposal for carers to attract and keep talented carers. Carers should also be paid for their travel time between visits and given more discretion about the time they need for a visit.

No mention of the disgrace of a few new council houses for the thousands that are waiting with no real hope of being housed?
Greens are strongly in favour of more publicly owned social housing, and rent controls on private rented housing. Although demand for housing acute is less in Clydesdale than in other parts of South Lanarkshire we fully support SLC’s plans to build more council houses, and would like to see this programme expanded. I will work to ensure that Clydesdale gets its fair share of these new council houses.

No mention of knocking housing stock down because no one wanted them, really?
I think this question refers to council houses in Carstairs Junction which SLC plans to demolish. I know that the decline of rail services from the Junction has meant that it is a less attractive place to live than it once was. Services to Edinburgh and Glasgow have improved in recent years, and I will push for further expansion of services. I would also like to see more southbound services from the Junction as at the moment the sleeper is the only service to and from the south which stops there.

With regard to SLC’s plans to demolish houses at the Junction, I believe that there are serious structural issues with these properties, and although I have not seen the full structural surveys on them, cracks are certainly evident on the outside. Social housing should not be sub-standard housing. I would strongly favour these sites being used for more social and affordable housing.

Mention is made of a councillor who does not live in the ward they represent and they have their main residence elsewhere but keeps a flat in Biggar.
This a topic which the interviewer introduced, and I don’t think it was a particularly useful line. I do think that councillors who spend most of their time in their ward are more effective than those whose do not, although anyone who lives, works or owns property in a local authority area are allowed to stand for election in any ward of that authority. Out of fairness to the outgoing councillor concerned I felt that I had to correct a couple of factual errors in the interviewer’s statement.

Will the candidate be giving up the day job for the 24/7 councillor role?
Yes. Being a councillor is a full time job and councillors are paid to do it. I absolutely believe that councillors (and other elected politicians for that matter) should do the job that they have been elected to do and not take on other paid employment at the same time.

I’d like to know whether it’s ok to knock down cyclists if they are not wearing hiviz claes? It seems to be a big thing in Biggar and the surrounding roads where there are busy people in cars with poor eyesight.
I think road safety is a two-way thing. It does seems sensible for cyclists and walkers on rural roads to take what steps they can to make themselves as safe as possible, including wearing brightly coloured colouring and using bright lights.

However there are some drivers who drive with no consideration of walkers and cyclists, which is why Greens favour “presumed liability” in traffic accidents involving motorists and walkers/cyclists. Presumed liability means that the driver of the more potentially lethal vehicle has a duty to take greatest care, and will be presumed to have caused any accident unless it can be proved that the cyclist or walker is at fault. This would prevent “I didn’t see you” being used as an excuse for a cycle/car collision unless it could be proved that e.g a cyclist pulled out of a turning in front of a car without warning. Councils can’t introduce presumed liability laws, but the Green MSPs at Holyrood are pushing for this.

What councils can do is raise awareness of road safety issues, and greater awareness of cyclist/car issues is something which I think is needed in Clydesdale, and which I would be pushing for SLC to address with communication to both cyclists and drivers. Possibly we could pick up some good practice ideas by talking to Borders Council given the focus on cycling around the Peebles/Glentress area.

I suppose the costs involved with creating cycle tracks, which would keep everyone safer, are just too expensive to contemplate?
Cycle tracks are expensive, but SLC do have a Cycling Strategy which does include some cycle path creation.

There are also local groups such as the Upper Tweed Railway Paths group which are involved in cycle path development and are using grant funding to achieve this the Upper Tweed Railway Paths current focus is on linking Peebles to Broughton and Tweedmuir along old railway tracks, but their ultimate aim is to use old track to link right through to the Clyde walkway in Lanark.

It’s never going to be cost effective to put cycle path along all rural roads though, so there is an onus on drivers to be more aware of cyclists.

Don’t you think that Brexit will affect the locality?
Brexit will have huge implications for the agricultural sector in particular. In the main this will be something which the Scottish Government rather than the council will have to deal with. From the noises coming out of London it seems unlikely that any future support for farmers will be much less than current CAP payments as the Treasury wants to hang on to as much money as it can.

Although in many ways CAP isn’t the EU’s finest policy, and it has sometimes prevented more sustainable farming, there is no evidence that removal of subsidies/support will be beneficial to either the rural communities or the environment. When agricultural subsidies were removed in New Zealand a few years ago it lead to an intensification of farming, with small family farms being bought-out by larger concerns, and increase in pesticide usage and loss of biodiversity.

As I said in the interview the council’s ability to influence this is limited, but it could help provide support and advice through things like the Business Gateway (although that it itself is partly funded by EU structural funds).

As well as agriculture the EU does provide funding for rural development through structural funds and the LEADER grant scheme. Again it is a huge worry that this funding could be lost to our area, although there is a limited about which the council can do about it as this falls within the remit of Scottish and UK Government.

Brexit could also affect council procurement policies, workplace protection etc, and if elected I would push the council to give commitments what working conditions for its staff will not deteriorate as a result of Brexit, and that responsible procurement procedures will be maintained. One small upside which I mentioned is that Brexit might allow councils to buy more local products, although actually I think that they could do more already if they were a bit more ambitious.

More details of the Scottish Green Party priorities for the 2017 council elections can be found in the Local Election Manifesto – Power in Your Hands.

Jeremy Corbyn’s first PMQ

Most of the coverage of Jeremy Corbyn’s first Prime Minister’s Question time has focussed on his style, but what about the PM’s answers? They’re quite interesting if you cut through the waffle to see what he’s actually saying.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I sent out an email to thousands of people and asked them what questions they would like to put to the Prime Minister and I received 40,000 replies.
There is not time to ask 40,000 questions today—our rules limit us to six—so I would like to start with the first one, which is about housing. Two-and-a-half thousand people emailed me about the housing crisis in this country. I ask one from a woman called Marie, who says, “What does the government intend to do about the chronic lack of affordable housing and the extortionate rents charged by some private sector landlords in this country?”
What the Prime Minister said: I recognise that much more needs to be done. That means carrying on with our reform of the planning system, and it means encouraging the building industry to come up with innovative schemes like the starter homes scheme, but, above all, it means continuing to support the aspirations of people to be able to afford their own homes, which is where schemes such as Help to Buy come in. But I say this to the right hon. Gentleman: we will not get Britain building unless we keep our economy going.
What the Prime Minister meant: Let’s continue to reform the planning system to take power away from communities. Developers should be given free reign. I have no intention of controlling the buy to let market which is pushing up property prices as potential house buyers have to compete with investors, and I have no intention of changing the focus of development away from SE England to areas where there are houses but not jobs. Heaven forbid – that would cut the prices of my rich friends’ houses!

Jeremy Corbyn: I have a question from Steven, who works for a housing association. He says that the cut in rents will mean that the company that he works for will lose 150 jobs by next March because of the loss of funding for that housing association to carry on with its repairs. Down the line, that will mean worse conditions, worse maintenance, fewer people working there, and a greater problem for people living in those properties. Does the Prime Minister not think it is time to reconsider the question of the funding of the administration of housing, as well as, of course, the massive gap of 100,000 units a year between what is needed and what is being built?
What the Prime Minister said: I think it was right in the Budget to cut the rents that social tenants pay, not least because people who are working and not on housing benefit will see a further increase in their take-home pay, and will be able to afford more things in life. I think it is vital, though, that we reform housing associations and make sure that they are more efficient. They are a part of the public sector that has not been through efficiencies and has not improved its performance, and I think it is about time that it did.
What the Prime Minister meant: Housing associations are a barrier to free markets should be privatised. What we need are more private letting agencies.

Jeremy Corbyn: Paul asks this very heartfelt question: “Why is the government taking tax credits away from families? We need this money to survive and so our children don’t suffer. Paying rent and council tax on a low income doesn’t leave you much. Tax credits play a vital role and more is needed to stop us having to become reliant on food banks to survive.”
What the Prime Minister said: What we need is a country where work genuinely pays, and that is why what our proposals do is reform welfare, but at the same time bring in a national living wage which will mean that anyone on the lowest rate of pay will get a £20-a-week pay rise next year. A family where one of whose members is on the minimum wage will be £2,400 better off. What we must do is tackle the causes of poverty: get people back to work, improve our schools, improve childcare. Those are the ways in which we can create an economy in which work pays and everyone is better off.
What the Prime Minister meant: We haven’t really thought through how to transition people onto a living wage and I really can’t be bothered to do so now. I’d really prefer not to pay any of these people anything and have a society in which everyone works and I’m better off. Oh, and don’t mention rent control!

Jeremy Corbyn: I ask a question from Claire, who says this: “How is changing the thresholds of entitlement for tax credits going to help hard-working people or families? I work part-time; my husband works full-time earning £25,000”—they have five children—“This decrease in tax credits will see our income plummet.” They ask a simple question: how is this fair?
What the Prime Minister said: The country has to live within its means and we were left an unaffordable welfare system and a system where work did not pay. What we are doing is moving from an economy with low wages, high tax and high welfare to an economy where we have higher wages, lower taxes and less welfare. That is the right answer: an economy where work pays, an economy where people can get on. Let us not go back to the days of unlimited welfare. Labour’s position again today is to abolish the welfare cap; I say that a family that chooses not to work should not be better off than one that chooses to work.
What the Prime Minister meant: I don’t give a damn about fairness or people whose circumstances mean they can’t work. I’ll pretend that I haven’t noticed that the people in your question were working, and bang on about out of work scroungers instead ‘cos the Daily Mail will like that.

Jeremy Corbyn: I want to put to the Prime Minister a question that was put to me very simply from Gail: “Do you think it is acceptable that the mental health services in this country are on their knees at the present time?”
What the Prime Minister said: Mental health and physical health now have parity in the NHS constitution. We have introduced for the first time waiting time targets for mental health services so they are not seen as a Cinderella service, and of course we have made the commitment for an extra £8 billion into the NHS in this Parliament, which can help to fund better mental health services, among other things. There are problems in some mental health services and it is right that we make that commitment.
We will not have a strong NHS unless we have a strong economy, and if the Labour party is going to go down the route of unlimited spending, unlimited borrowing and unlimited tax rates, printing money, they will wreck the economic security of our country and the family security of every family in our country. We will not be able to afford a strong NHS without a strong economy.
What the Prime Minister meant: I think jam tomorrow should be enough for mental health services. Just let me get on with making money.

Jeremy Corbyn: I ask a question from Angela, who is a mental health professional, so she knows exactly what she is talking about. She says this: “Beds are unobtainable with the result that people suffering serious mental health crises are either left without adequate care or alternatively admitted to facilities many miles away from their homes, relatives and family support systems. The situation is simply unacceptable.” What does the Prime Minister say to Angela?
What Prime Minister said: We need to do more as a country to help tackle mental health. That is obviously about money into the health service, but it is also about changing the way the health service helps those with mental health conditions. Mental health beds are important, but so is the service that people get when they visit their GP. Many people going into their GP surgeries have mental health conditions, but they are not treated for those conditions and do not get access to, for instance, the cognitive behavioural therapies that are increasingly being made available. So change the way the NHS works and change public attitudes to mental healthbut we will not be able to do any of those things without the strong economy that we have built over these last five years.
What the Prime Minister meant: How can we do this on the cheap?

Good moon rising.

Back in September I had a dramatic drive back from Dumfries after the last Indy Ref meeting I spoke at. With a big full moon I drove down the Dalveen Pass with the lights off and the moonlight glinting off the Elvanwater.

On Friday morning I drove back from the general election count after Scotland said No to Tory austerity and a Labour party which has become riddled by Blairism and self-interest into a spectacular sunrise on the new order of the UK. Here’s the blog post I wrote for RIC D&G back in Sept.

Radical Independence Dumfries & Galloway

So today we reached the last RIC D&G meeting before Indy Ref. Lochside Social club on the edge of Dumfries, with myself, Willie MacDonald, Cat Boyd and Robin McAlpine on the panel. It’s been a long, rollercoast of a campaign the last 18 months or so since the first meeting I spoke at (also with Robin) and the first meeting to set up RIC D&G (also with Cat) which was almost a joke back then given the generally un-radical nature of Dumfriesshire.

Over those 18 months we’ve variously laughed, hugged, shoved leaflets through letterboxes, got jobs, got rained on, become unemployed, run stalls, moved house, held meetings, thrown water at each other (you wait till next year’s Biggar Gala Mr McAlpine!), canvassed, fished cars out of ditches (thanks Gannit!), and above all discovered that we were capable of more than we ever imagined! We’ve had long serious discussions about justice…

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Rejuvenating the South of Scotland

The South of Scotland is big, beautiful and it’s dying, or at least it’s age profile suggests that it’s heading that way.

Borderlands – Our Future a report on issues facing the South of Scotland (defined as the UK parliamentary constituencies of Dumfries and Galloway; Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale and Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) published this week by the Westminster Scottish Affairs Committee highlights some of the issues: an ageing population, poorly paid jobs and poor infrastructure. It examines the problems facing the region, and comes up with some solutions which go in the right direction, but don’t seem to provide the step changes to which are really needed to revitalise the region.

Compared to the Scotland overall the population in the South of Scotland is older, and in particular there is a dearth of people aged 16 – 44 while over a quarter of the population are over 60.  This is the opposite of cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow where proportions of the population are in their twenties and thirties. Sustainable communities need to have reasonably balanced populations, and the demographics of the South of Scotland, and rural Scotland in general are becoming unsustainable. In Galloway and West Dumfries just over half of the population is of working age compared to 60 % in Scotland as a whole and 65 % in Glasgow. The problem isn’t that there are too many older people in rural areas, its that there are too few young ones.

Age profiles

Policies to address this tend to focus on creating more jobs and training in rural areas, without looking at why young people are leaving. Jobs are only part of the problem – for people in their teens and twenties social life is also important. Perhaps the nick-name for the region “Boredomlands” gives a clue – many young people there’s not much going on for them – sports and social facilities are limited; public transport is poor and more of less non-existent in the evenings –  a night out means having a car and not driving. As friends move into cities to work or study those remaining become increasingly isolated.

In many cases young people leave the area to study before they start to look for jobs permanent jobs Once they’ve gone they don’t come back quickly. One of the things which could be game-changing in keeping young people in the South would be to create a University of the South of Scotland. This is idea was supported by the Scottish Borders Chamber of Commerce in their evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee. We do have some higher education in the South of Scotland with an outpost of Heriot Watt University at Galashiels, a mixed bag of courses from the University of the West of Scotland, the Open University and an outpost of Glasgow University at the Crichton Campus in Dumfries, plus bits of Scotland’s Rural College around Dumfries, but in all cases these are minor outposts not full blown universities based in the region and focussed on it. They’re all pretty small, teaching a limited range of subjects and not attracting the critical mass of students needed to be able to offering the wider social and cultural life associated with city universities. What the South of Scotland needs is a proper university offering a full range of subjects, beyond the current offering of “things to do with sheep and farming”. Young people in the South have as much right to learn about culture, languages, science and engineering as anyone else! A good university in the South of Scotland could not only enable young people to stay in the region, but could attract students from elsewhere in Scotland, the UK and Europe.

Not only would a university for the South of Scotland help young people to stay in the area, it would bring high skilled, well paid work in teaching and research as well as a range of supporting jobs and potentially also spin off companies. Students who have studied in the area would be more likely to settle there and start businesses of their own.

Of course if young people are to attend a local university they need to be able to get to it! It is almost impossible to reach Dumfries or Gala by public transport in time for a normal working day from areas which might be expected to be in their catchment, although it is possible to get to Edinburgh and Glasgow. The Scottish Affairs Committee report recognises that public transport needs to be improved, but focusses it attention on extending the new Borders railway from Tweedbank on to Hawick and Carlisle. This is the sort of big, expensive infrastructure project which governments like, but while the proposal is welcome, it neglects the more fundamental need for local public transport. Without connecting bus services most residents can’t reach Gala, Tweedbank or Hawick without driving! The need for public transport brings us back to the ageing population. Pensioners are disproportionate users of public transport, perhaps because they have free access to it, perhaps because they can no longer drive for themselves of perhaps simply because they have more time. However for them to use public transport there must be frequent and accessible services for them to use.

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Some of the other recommendations in the report are pretty obvious: employers everywhere should be paying a living wage and high speed broadband and mobile phone coverage are becoming increasing essential for individuals and business and should be rolled out in the South of Scotland as soon as possible. The need for better cross-border working with the north of England is highlighted, but there is no discussion of potential opportunities from improved links with Northern Ireland and the Republic which could benefit the southwest Scotland. Although the report is welcome as far as it goes, it is disappointing that rural housing, access to land and diversifying the economy are not touched on.

Housing is a particular problem, as high house prices couples with low wages price many people out of the communities which they grew up in. Planning rules to do not favour house building in rural areas, while the housing stock is increasingly bought up for use as second homes, holiday houses and by people retiring to the area. There is an urgent need for affordable and social housing to be built in rural areas and planning rules need to be rethought to allow this. Improving the right of communities to buy or control the land around them could help with this.

Agricultural, forestry and fishing activities inextricably linked with rural areas, but actually only employ about 4% of the workforce. The largest employers in the South of Scotland are the retail sector and healthcare and social services. Manufacturing supports a surprisingly high proportion of the population – at nearly 9 % this is more than in Glasgow. It is not clear from Scottish Government data what this includes, but traditional industries such as textiles and food process will fall into this as well as some agricultural engineering. A better understanding of what this manufacturing involves could enable it to be supported better.

The South of Scotland and its people have enormous potential, but our young people are our future – we cannot afford to lose them!

References

Data on age distribution and industry profiles taken from the 2011 census http://www.scotlandscensus.gov.uk/ods-web/area.html

An Out of Touch Budget from an Out of Touch Government

If the UK Government thought that they would be able to buy votes with their new budget for the rich and middle England it doesn’t seem to be working with their proposals being criticised by everyone from the Telegraph to the Greens. The Tories’ coalition partners the Lib Dems don’t seem to know whether they are criticising the budget or supporting it. This morning it was all over their website that the budget was a great thing and full of Lib Dem ideas (unfortunately I didn’t take a screen shot). This evening as it became apparent that just about everyone was unimpressed, Danny Alexander their Chief Secretary to the Treasury appeared with a yellow box and announced an alternative Lib Dem budget.

Fundamentally the problem is that the budget is built on a fixation with reducing public borrowing, but right now the cost of borrowing is lower than it’s ever been and any borrowing would lock in these low interest rates in fixed rate bonds for decades. If ever there was a time to invest in publicly funded infrastructure it is now! Not only would borrowing to invest mean that we got the infrastructure upgrades we need at rock bottom prices it would also create jobs taking people out of unemployment and back into the tax base as well as giving them dignity and self-respect and keeping their families fed.

We need to invest in electric vehicle infrastructure, upgrading the railways, rural broadband, the NHS, educating people and in our community assets. Apart from investment to improve rail services to SW England there’s nothing, and I suspect the money for the SW is only coming because the line washed into the sea a last winter leaving Cornwall with no direct public tranport links to the capital (and possibly also because the SW is one of the last bastions of the Lib Dems and something they will be desparately trying to hang on to!) Instead the budget continues asset strip the country and cut already over stretched budgets. This is so short sighted! Does the UK Government really think that in 10 or 20 years time companies will be rushing to invest here when our roads are full or potholes, our trains overcrowded and broadband plods through the cables like a tortoise? Probably they don’t care as sitting in their off shore tax havens in the sun so it will be irrelevant.

Is there anything good in the budget? Well, there are some steps to close down some tax loop holes, evasion and avoidance, and some increased taxation on bank profits, although more probably could be done.

Increased funding for mental health services, particularly services for young people is welcome, but we also need to look at why people are suffering for mental ill health in the first place. If people are suffering because the services they need are being cut; they don’t have a job or they have having to cover the workload of colleagues whose posts have been increasing mental health services is treating the symptom not the cause.

Income tax thresholds have increased, but this doesn’t help the least well off who don’t pay income tax anyway. If you’re using a foodbank or an apprentice working for £2.73 an hour this won’t help you! There has been no reduction in VAT rates which would have helped these people. And it’s hard to understand why the top tax band has been raised faster than inflation (except of course, that those at the top have not been restricting themselves to below inflation wage increases).

There’s some investment in new technology: £500 million for science and technology, a paultry £8 million to support the video games industry, £60m to support a “National Energy Catapault” in Birmingham; £100m for driverless cars (its unclear whether these would still use fossil fuels, and if I was a truck driver I’d be starting to worry about my job!) but all this pales into insignificance compared to £1.3 BILLION in tax cuts for the oil and gas industry. Yes, those highly profitable oil and gas companies! The days of fossil fuels are numbered. North Sea oil is running out, and if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change we cannot afford to continue to burn fossil fuels. Instead of giving away more money to oil companies who are increasingly indulging in “rent seeking” behaviour – threatening to leave the country if they don’t get a pay off – we should be investing in renewables and in upgrading the electricity supply network.

Yet again the fuel duty escalator has been frozen. This tax was supposed to increase annually to incentivise people to switch away from fossil fuels. Instead its been frozen for years. “Rural motorists” are always cited as people who benefit from this, but in fact the main beneficiaries are likely to be haulage companies. Rural fuel prices are high, but they could be tackled in other ways – investing in public transport would be a start! Other measures could include mandatory limits on fuel prices to ensure that rural prices are not hiked above the prices in areas where there is more competition or some sort of fuel voucher system for people in areas with poor public transport and high fuel prices. Blanket freezing of the fuel duty escalator benefits people in urban areas as much as rural ones, and given that there are more people in urban areas they benefit most.

The budget continues to sell off assets which the public have bailed out and made profitable, so instead of keeping the profits now being made by Lloyds we’re selling it along with the government share of Northern Rock’s and Bradford and Bingley’s mortgages. We pick up the tab in the bad times but don’t keep a share of the profits in good times. Where’s the sense in that?

Of course we can lift our glass to cuts in excise duty for the Scotch whisky industry! Is this a major employer in Scotland? It’s difficult to find the figures, but compared to the NHS or councils probably not. But it sounds so tartan and iconically Scottish. How could any Government which so enthusiastically supports the Scotch whisky industry be accused of being focussed in SE England?

There are many areas of taxation which don’t get a mention: inheritance tax, capital gains tax and corporation tax are conspicuously absent. But hey, what would “ordinary people” know about these – they’re only paid by the rich so we mustn’t raise them!

So what about public spending? Nothing is said about key areas of spending: benefits and the NHS don’t get a mention, but given the spending targets and tax give aways these will have to suffer swinging cuts. But never mind we can cheer ourselves with the thought that £1 million will be spent to celebrate the battle of Agincourt (that’s bound to bring in lots of tourists from France!) and an additional £40 million will be added to the fund to replace church roofs.

In summary an out of touch budget from an out of touch government!

Infrastructure Bill: What’s really happened?

This is going to be bit of a dry post, but I’m concerned that there’s a lot of political posturing going on in Scotland about yesterday’s debate on the UK Infrastructure Bill which I think is really unhelpful to understanding where we are with this in Scotland. Some clarity is needed on what’s actually be said and not point scoring which detracts from the whole issue. Things aren’t good, but they are not perhaps as bad as they are being made out to be in some quarters. I think it’s important that those of us who oppose unconventional gas extraction don’t decide that everything is lost before it is, and that the main goal is not lost in political name calling between Labour and the SNP (neither of whom have come out as being clearly against unconventional gas extraction).

Being a bit sad, I have had a trawl through the Hansard record on yesterday’s debate on the Infrastructure Bill. This has clarified a few points about what was and was not said about devolving onshore gas licencing in Scotland.

There were several key amendments proposed to the part of the Bill related to gas extraction (Part 5, Sections 37 – 44) :

1) An amendment to the Bill which aimed to bring forward devolution of gas licencing.
2) An amendment calling for a GB wide moratorium on unconventional gas
3) An amendment proposing various additional restrictions on unconventional gas extraction.
4) An amendment to require Defra to publish a report on the effect of unconventional gas on rural communities.
5) Amendments to exempt Scotland from provisions to allow drilling under people’s property without their permission (because actually, Westminster can’t change trepass law in Scotland and they know it!)

The amendment to bring forward devolution of gas licencing was defeated, but the UK Government were still maintaining that they intend to do this as recommended by the Smith Commission along with other Smith recommendations. It is not ideal that this is delayed, but it is not the end of the road for this, and we need to keep on the pressure to ensure that this is devolved, not start fighting each other! For the record Labour voted for this amendment.

The amendment calling for the GB wide moratorium was defeated. Labour abstained, but it would not have passed even if they hadn’t. However Scottish Government could still use the Scottish planning system to set up a moratorium until such time as the Smith commission legislation devolves licencing and the use its powers over licencing to set a full moratorium.

The amendment proposing additional restrictions was passed.

The amendments exempting Scotland from provisions to allow drilling under people’s property without their permission were passed.

The amendment calling for Defra to publish the report on the effects of unconventional gas on rural communities was rejected. The Government’s response on this was pure flannel and stinks of a cover up.

So where from here?

  • Keep up the pressure in Westminster to fully implement Smith and kick up merry hell if they don’t.
  • Keep up pressure on Holyrood to use they powers which Scotland already has to stop unconventional gas extraction.
  • Ask what the hell are Defra trying to cover up in the report on effects on rural communities.
  • And have a small celebration that there can be no drilling under property without consent in Scotland (which will actually make it very difficult to extraction unconventional gas under much of Scotland), and also that the UK wide regulation has got slightly tighter. We’ve a long way to go, but every little helps!