Friday, 28 August 2015

Lords Reform: The Never Ending Story

Time flies. It has been eight years since I last blogged about reforming the second chamber. On that time-scale I am a mere Johnny-come-lately. Reform of the Lords has been going on for over the past century, or rather talk over it. In real terms, very little has been achieved. The main problem with the issue is that those at the top of politics really enjoy wielding the power of patronage. As David Cameron has made clear by today's announcement of the appointment of forty five new peers, mainly Conservatives, the main purpose of the Lords is rewarding those loyal to the leadership.

 So why not just elect the second chamber? It is a popular idea. The Liberal Democrats have put forward plans for single-term elected Lords. Elected peers would not be eligible for reelection to the House and would serve for ten years. It is not a bad idea, as far as it goes, but an elected Lords does have flaws. The primacy of the House of Commons is based upon its democratic mandate. If the Lords are elected, they will have just has much of a mandate to block government bills as the Commons currently has. An elected Lord would be even more at the behest of the existing political parties, especially if they were not to serve a single term. The role of the Lords is to advise and amend bills that have passed through the Commons. While it is not an elected house, it is an elder house, giving time to reflect and change laws. Only rarely does the second house attempt to directly thwart the Commons but when they do, it is often for a very good reason. One that springs to mind is Tony Blair and Labour's attempt to introduce ninety six day detention without charge. That saw the Lords in full revolt.

 My original idea, back in 2001, was to take the selection of the Lords completely away from political patronage. New Labour attempted this with their so-called "People's Peers" but since the committee who carried out the selection was made up of the Great and The Good, most of those selected would have probably been in line for the privilege anyhow.

 Take the selection completely away from politics and privilege and have applicants selected by jury, called in exactly the same way that juries for trials are selected now. Each jury would serve three months, during which time they would sift through the applications. They would at, by the end of the process, have created a shortlist. The final choice from that list would be left to the next serving jury. Jurys would have the power to call applicants from the shortlist for interview, with questions put by a panel of judges. Naturally, an applicant would not have to appear if they chose not to. A jury's final choice would not have to be unanimous: a nine-to-three decision would be acceptable.

 Once selected, a new Lord would be free to decide upon a political affiliation or remain independent. A retirement age may be set - eighty as an upper limit perhaps, but a Lord would be free to retire from duty at any time. Other forms of patronage can stay with the politicians: knighthoods, gongs etc. They are nice but do not really matter. The Lords has real power and influence. Let it not be selected neither upon party fortunes nor on the current rotten power of privilege.

 Instead, let The Lords be selected impartially upon excellence.

Monday, 17 August 2015


On the news this morning Lariam (or mefloquine) is still being proscribed for British troops in malarial zones. Now malaria is a debilitating parasitic infection and I fully understand why the military are concerned that the service people are well protected. Some forms can be fatal. Malaria is no joke. Unfortunately for some, neither is Lariam. I started taking Lariam for a trip to Angola. "Great," I thought. "It is effective and I only have to take one tablet a week. Of course it is the way to go." It was not even a problem when the lucid dreams started. The first one, involving a house fire in which I saw my parents burn to death, didn't even freak me out. Perhaps it should have but I remained calm. The dreams continued but hey, I didn't get malaria. I returned home and, as one has to, I kept on taking the tablet for a couple of weeks. Within a month however I was back to West Africa and back on the Lariam. In a bar, I lost my temper completely with some woman and started to swear at her, much to the amusement of my colleagues. By the time I got home, I had been on Lariam for the majority of three months. One night my wife was talking to me about a vacation. I saw red and punched a hole in the bedroom wall, taking a massive gorge out of the plasterboard. This came from nowhere. Naturally it scared the hell out of the poor woman. My next job I was due to go offshore from Stavanger. In an airport hotel room, at about 04:45 hours, I start coughing. I cannot stop. By 05:30 hours the duty manager is knocking at my door and pretty soon an ambulance is called. The crash squad at the hospital cannot find anything wrong with me and I am asked whether I am on anything. The only thing I am on is Lariam. I am no expert and I do not know what Lariam does to the brain. I only know that the drug altered my behaviour and I would never take it again, unless it was confirmed that I had caught malaria and needed immediate treatment. If military personnel are being forced to take Lariam and are experiencing similar symptoms of anger and aggressiveness that I felt, then god help the people around them. On the news it was reported that the US is no longer giving Lariam to their special forces. It is easy to see why. I realise that my own experience is hearsay and is not scientific evidence. That does not take away from the reality that Lariam does affect the behaviour of some. If you are not one of those people and can take Lariam without ill-effect: crack on. My advice to those whose dreams have been altered though is to stop. The dreams are just the tip of an ugly, violent iceberg.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

State of Play

I haven't blogged politics since the election and for obvious reasons: it was a terrible, awful night for the Liberal Democrats.  This was not a personal shock: my aim in the election was to save the party's deposit for Edinburgh North and Leith and in this, I too failed.  It was therefore back to the day job on the Monday, but not before congratulating Deirdre Brock, the winning candidate from the SNP, on her victory.  Among the candidates ourselves in the constituency, there was little or no viciousness on a personal level.  While mine was indeed an uphill fight, I actually enjoyed bringing it to the SNP strongholds.  In terms of fighting injustice, warfare and poverty, there is much common ground.  It is just how we get there, especially the direction of our future in Scotland, that parts us.  My opposition to nationalism remains unaltered: it is a divisive philosophy.  We now have much more autonomy and if that evolves into independence, it should be allowed to naturally.  I want to see a Britain far more decentralised, democratic and accountable locally.  Scotland could be leading the way within the UK with such a model.  Instead, the issue of independence is being constantly forced by the SNP, often using the kind of negativity against others that they is all-to-ready to scream over when it is directed at themselves.  The SNP do not represent a change in the tone of politics that are practiced in the UK: just a continuation by other means.

My day job rushed at me upon my return and the result was I spend the next couple of months on a Russian vessel in the north-east Pacific Ocean.  In truth, I was too busy for much time to reflect.  Communications were also rather patchy and so it was that I went into a kind of political purdah.

Safe to say that, upon my return, the Conservatives are now to be seen in there true colours: nasty, small-minded, intolerant and indifferent to those in need.  One had hoped that Cameron was a bigger, more decent person, but his rhetoric over the "swarms" of immigrants proved otherwise.  It is clear that the word "refugee" has now fallen out of the media's dictionary.  Let me remind them of the definition:

Refugee: a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.

Yes, there are others but the bulk of the people are coming from war zones and are fleeing conflict.  They have often done that instead of picking up a gun and fighting, in which case the media would be giving them other labels: militia, fighter, terrorist, ISIS.  Most of these people don't want to be here: they want to be at home and at peace.  They cannot be while the Middle East continues to be flooded with weapons and equipment.  Anybody suggesting banning arms exports to the entire region?  Didn't think so.

From one kind of destruction to another: the Labour leadership race.  I have been unfortunate enough to hear Andy "business-as-usual" Burnham on the BBC lately.  That guy seems to represent all that is worst in New Labour.  In case one needs a reminder, here is what I wrote about New Labour during the Clash of the Millibands, the last time Labour was choosing a leader:

New Labour was effectively a post-modern response to politics, agreeing with the likes of Francis Fukuyama who had proclaimed the End of History, the victory of capitalism and the never-ending reign of globalisation.  Blair and Brown modelled themselves rulers of this Brave New World, post-modernisers to the core.  History was reduced to a series of rival dialogues, each of equal or no value and therefore tradition meant nothing.  The unwritten constitution of the United Kingdom, built up for 300 years after the Glorious Revolution, based upon earlier civil wars and the Magna Carta, were worthless in the 21st. Century.  Civil rights were meaningless and the power of the Courts eroded.  Hence New Labour’s love of identity cards and the super-databases behind them; they agreed with Sir Humphrey that in order to decide what the government needed to know, they needed to know everything.   The process of government suffered likewise, with Cabinet meetings reduced to listening to the Word of the Dear Leader and real policy being decided on the sofa with an inner cabal.  Senior civil servants were replaced with political appointments, advisors ensuring that the civil service remained “on message”.  While Paris glittered after its spring clean, London got the Millennium Dome.  Gold, that old-fashioned economic mainstay was sold off at under $400 an ounce.  Social mobility actually decreased during the thirteen years of Labour.  But worst of all was the Labour leadership’s willingness to follow the USA into bloody and illegal wars.  Labour became like Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, who after drinking the troll’s brew grew to be like an onion: all layers and no heart; a being so empty of morality that not even the Devil wanted his worthless soul.

Harsh words but since the take over of the party by Blair and Brown, Labour turned away from socialism which, as far as my simple brain understands it, was the whole point.  Burnham comes across as a totally vacuous individual: addicted to soundbites and policies by polling.  Yvette Cooper is a lot more solid and substantial individual but of course she too is closely connected with the New Labour project.

So we come to Jeremy Corbyn, who seems to be a sincere and pleasant old lefty.  There is nothing wrong with that: collectively the left are the best critics of existing systems.  It is just that more often than not, the suggested fixes bring worse outcomes.  The point is though that in order for Britain, or any other western democracy, to function properly, a good, decent and sincere left wing is needed.  I think Corbyn represents that and while I would not vote for many of his policies, one can see why others will.  I would say to Labour, whoever wins, that they should now be sincere about getting rid of the first-past-the-post voting system.  If AV is good enough to select your leader, why can't the rest of us use it to vote for our representatives at Westminster?

The Liberal Democrats had our own leadership elections are Nick Clegg resigned.  Tim Farron represents a shift away from the economic right and looks more to the social liberal traditions.  I wish Tim well and he has my support.  I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Nick though.  When he came up to Aberdeen, seeking to be leader of the party, he told us that he would get us into government within two elections.  He delivered it in one.

After that, of course, we screwed it up with the bloody tuition fees fiasco.  The Liberal Democrats did a lot of decent things in government but the electorate, with justification, punished us for breaking our word.  Eight MPs were the outcome but I am wryly amused to be reading so many obituaries for the party.  Liberalism represents a series of ideas that if one subscribes to them, one becomes a liberal: not a socialist nor a conservative nor even a nationalist.  The people who joined us after the election know this and Tim is the right person to get our values back out there.  Sure, he flew straight into hostile flak about his religious beliefs.  Liberals though do not dictate how others live nor what religious beliefs they should or should not hold.  It is all about bringing out the best in the individual while accepting that none of us are perfect.

In short, liberals live-and-let-live.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Boris Nemtsov Memorial, Moscow.

On our first night in Moscow we decided to have a walk and ended up, perhaps inevitably, on Red Square.  It is my first time in the city so it is always a great surprise and pleasure to find oneself in at one of the great landmarks of the world.  Make no mistake: just as with Tokyo, Paris, London and New York, Moscow is one of the world's great cities.

On the way back, I suggested that we vary the route a little, which ended up with us walking along the other side of the bridge across the Moskva River.  It is there that we came across the memorial to the murdered politician, Boris Nemtsov, a liberal who was critical of the Putin regime.  He was murdered here on 15th of February, 2015.  I was surprised on several levels: the first being how big the memorial was.  It must have stretched for a good ten-fifteen metres along the pavement, maybe more, and it consisted of many bunches of flowers, posters (all in Russian), numerous portraits and a single large Russian flag, all illuminated by small tea candles in red glass holders.  The site was obviously well-tended.

As the time I was tired, it was nearly midnight and I was suffering from a seven-hour jet lag.  Besides, I didn't have any camera with me.  "Not to worry," I thought.  "I'll get a picture tomorrow."

Tomorrow came but here is the picture.

As you can see: small in size.  No portraits.  Just a few flowers.  What had happened?

My second reaction was just how close to the centre of power the assassination took place.  That is the Kremlin the the background.  It was as if a senior British politician had been murdered on Westminster Bridge, just opposite the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben.  I hesitate to draw the direct comparison any further because, frankly, in British politics one has to be nowhere near as brave as Nemtsov obviously was.

The answer to the question came in this small poster, obviously hastily drawn up.

The memorial had been attacked at three o'clock in the morning and had been removed by force.  While I was in Red Square about eleven o'clock, four hours earlier, there were still many tourists around since the night was so warm.  Doubtless our numbers would have been very low by three, and it was still before dawn.

When I passed by for the third time in the afternoon, this is the sight:

Still small, but regrowing after the night's work by the unknown assailants.

This time there was a poster in English.

One could write many moralising statements about the state of Russian politics and society.  I think the lessons are obvious and I do not need to belabour them here.

I will say though that in order to take part in politics in Britain, one doesn't have to risk one's life.  The threats to our fundamental freedoms are, in their own way, just as potent.

The murders of Boris Nemtsov are at this time still at liberty.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Grey Days

It is mid July and for the past six and a bit weeks I have been working with a Russian crew.

The vessel was hired for a seismic survey as part of a major development of oil reserves in the NW Pacific, off the coast of the Russian Far East, north of Japan.  Okay, anybody with an atlas at this stage can work out it is Sakhalin Island, that long fish-shaped strip of land, the size of England but with the population of a small European city.

It is not hard to see why the place is so sparsely populated.  The climate is inclement.  At the time of writing, the air a couple of feet from the porthole is dancing with tiny droplets of water vapour.  A layer of sea fog coats the ocean surface, thin enough to allow the blue sky to be seen above but cutting visibility down to less than 100 metres.  This morning the fog just lifted enough to allow the support vessel to be seen only by the lower hull, making it look like a giant orange-red inflatable banana, the kind of amusement towed behind speedboats at the warmer beach resorts of the world.  Sakhalin has indeed miles of beaches, but it's a brave person who swims from them.

After a period of rough weather, the sea ice on the east coast finally broke up on the 10th of June.  From November it had built up, thickly crusting the shoreline.  Massive slabs, looking from afar like pieces of royal icing from a shattered wedding cake, still littered the beach as our survey vessel passed by.  By mid-summer's day, the water temperature had risen to a balmy three degrees Celsius.  If you are in Europe, be grateful for the Gulf Stream otherwise this would be our climate too.  Sakhalin is no further north than France and southern England,

It is the clearing of the ice that finally brings in the grey whales.  For half the year, the bottom-dwellers along the littoral line have been able to exist in relative peace and have obviously being able to spend time being fruitful and multiplying.  Now though these giant mammals start to
 move in to reap the harvest.  Scooping up mouthfuls of mud and water and using its massive tongue, a grey whale squeezes its mouthful out through baleen plates, leaving behind the clams, crabs and small fish to be swallowed.  The ocean shoreline must indeed be fruitful because just to the north of our survey area is the equivalent and a whale drive-through and shopping experience.    It is not just grey whales though: orca, porpoise, fin, beaked and minke whales all put in appearances at various times, as well as Stellar sea-lions and several species of seal.

It does occur to one what other whales might think if they were ever to witness a greys feeding.
"They do what?  Eat mud?  Eeyooo!  That is disgusting.  Why can't they eat nice clean krill or herring by the mouthful like a decent whale?"

I know: a total piece of anthropomorphism but still...

In fact it was during the vessel's emergency boat drill that I saw my first whale blows.  It was cold, with not much shelter on the helideck.  As the muster was coming to the end, I thought I was having an hallucination.   A grove of transparent palm trees, four of them at once, sprang straight up from the sea surface, bloomed into leaf and, just as they started to dissolve, four more sprouting up close by.  "Whale!" I half-shouted.  "Whale," I repeated, pointing to starboard and ahead.  Most of the crew ignored me, only the MMOs turning around in an half-interested manner.  A minute or two later,  more glass palm trees erupted, hung and dissipated.  Some of the crew had stayed but with this, in the teeth of the cold wind, it was enough to satisfy their curiosity and I was alone on the back deck.  My reward was to be the sight of a back back, topped with a small dorsal fin.

Later I was reminded by Igor, the lead MMO (marine mammal observer) that a whale can be identified by its blow.  The tall straight ones we saw are typical of fin whales, the second largest of the whale family.  Before the advent of steam ships, this fortunate species were safe from the whaling boats as they are fast enough to out-swim them.  From the end of the 19th Century through to the 1970s, they too were driven to the edge of extinction.

Grey whales are still hunted by some indigenous peoples of the northern Pacific.  It was long thought that the Grey Whale population off Sakhalin were an isolated sub-species with numbers on the verge of extinction but recent evidence suggests that there is some mixing between the populations on each side of the Pacific.  A female Grey was successfully tracked swimming from Sakhalin to Baja California and back again in just over half a year - a return journey of over 14,000 miles and a world record for known mammalian migration.

Some may say that there should not be any industrial activity in a habitat where whales frequent.  In an ideal world I guess that is so.  Meanwhile, in this world the oil companies involved have done a lot of work to minimise the disturbance to the environment.  This was achieved by various ways:

  • Research - in depth studies were made to identify those areas most frequented by grey whales.
  • Planning - the procedures used were not put together by the oil companies but by the MMOs, who are in the main marine biologists and active academics in the field.
  • Timing - the vessels involved in the surveys were standing by and ready to go as soon as the ice melted.  Those shallow water areas along the shore were targeted first, before the majority of whales arrived in the area.
  • Observation - each vessel involved in the survey came with qualified MMOs.  This is pretty standard with all seismic activity but what is not standard is the depth and thoroughness of observation that took place.  Not only were teams of MMOs on the seismic vessels involved (one or two is more normal), but also on the supporting vessels and in camps along the shoreline, all coordinated from a central post.  According to JNCC (Joint Nature Conservancy Council) guidelines, seismic vessels have to shut down their guns if a mammal comes with 500m of the guns.  This happened a couple of times.  In addition to that, acoustic sondes were deployed and the gun output monitored.  If a whale was observed in an area deemed too noisy, the operation was shut down, regardless of distance away from the source boat.    

In short, the companies took there environment duties seriously and every effort was taken to work around the animals.

Preventative shutdowns at long range did happen: they were annoying for the crew as the attitude was "let's get it over with as quickly as possible" but accepted and the procedure followed scrupulously.  There was a particular zone, just off one end of the survey zone, where shutdowns were more common and which came to be nicknamed the Whale Walmart.  The central coordination point became known as the Whale Police, which led to the creation of the following joke:

Got stopped by the Whale Police today.  They issued a cetacean.

(Sorry about that).

One morning the seismic boat was allowed a clear run by a pod of orca, who spend a couple of hours swimming in front of us, not too close, maybe a couple of kilometres ahead.  The male was a magnificent fellow, with a dorsal fin standing easily over two metres high.  It was a shame we could not hire them for the duration of the survey.  One had to wonder what their price would be though: if it were a tongue from a grey whale, that might defeat the object somewhat.

My personal best sighting came about on a beautiful evening.  The vessel was on the turn, just south of Whale Walmart,  guns off after successfully completing a line.  The animal was in clear view and approached to a range of 750m metres.  Not close perhaps but close enough to see even without binoculars that the species are well-named and that they are without a dorsal fin.  Instead greys have a series of ridges along their lower back, which reminded me of knuckles of a fist.  Their blow is rounded and hang in still air, reminiscent in shape of a heart from a St.Valentine's card.

                     *                                                       *                                                       *

Now I am writing on board a chase boat, heading back to port once infield duties are completed.  Igor (another Igor) promised me fur seals the next day.

Igor did not lie.  The sun shone brightly, encouraging many fur seals (which, incidentally are not seals but a species more closely related to sea lions)  to sunbathe, often asleep on the surface.  A piece of wood would slowly raise a flipper or two in lazy salute as the ship passed.  Usually in would be just a single fur seal but on occasion a pair or even three would be dozing in the warm sunshine.  Then two kilometres ahead I saw a blow and a massively long back break the barely rippling water.  Fin whale!  A second, then third blow and we were heading almost for them.  I waited with the tension and excitement of a hunter.

At a distance of 750m off starboard, dead level with the bridge, the water broke and a distinct pwhorr-suuck could be heard as the giant exhaled and inhaled.  Its nostrils already underwater, the back followed, and kept coming.  What a back, huge, glistening and well over 20m long, it just seem to go on forever.  As it disappeared, a oily smudge and swirl marked the spot.  A second spout, breath and back, a bit shorter.  A third, then a fourth!  I know that people have had closer sightings but this, to be in the presence of such giants, is an awe-inspiring experience.

My wonder was not over yet, as I was still looking astern when from the port side Igor called out.  A pod of Dall's porpoise, about ten-strong, had joined us, splashing and in the sun.  No circus-like aerobatics from these dumpy black-and-white creatures but one got the sense they were really enjoying their play.  Still we were not finished, as they were left behind another sleepy fur seal then a pod of North Pacific Harbour Porpoise passed through, small but stately in manner.

All this in no more than fifteen minutes.  That was a good sighting.  

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Campaign Letter #18: Problem Debt.

Thank you for contacting me regarding the problem of personal debt in this country.   It is a difficult issue and anybody who has fallen into problem debt has my sympathies.

Millions of people all over the UK are struggling with unsustainable levels of debt and it is important that they are given they help and support they need.  The Government has set up the Money Advice Service to provide free and impartial guidance to those struggling with debt or looking for advice on budgeting.  The Money Advice Service is also a major funder of free face-to-face debt advice - you may have already seen the Ask Ma campaign on television.

Young people in particular are vulnerable to the lure of easy answers to financial problems.  That is why it is so important that schools get over the relevancy of things to real life like interest figures.  Some payday lenders offer loans at rates of over 1000% - ridiculous rates which in their adverts they now attempt to avoid  mentioning altogether.

In response to this, Liberal Democrats in Government have given the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) the power to cap the cost of payday loans and we have been supporting credit unions by removing unnecessary restrictions on their governance and allocating £38m to the Credit Union Expansion Project.  There are now over a million members of credit unions in the UK.  People have alternatives to payday lenders and we should all be getting that message out there.

If one falls into debt, there are various techniques that an individual may use to limit the damage.  An example from my own history occurred when I returned from a job to find my UK high-street bank had sold my debt (a £10 unauthorised overdraft) to a debt collection agency.  At that time I was living in Norway, so by the time the payment had arrived with the agency, it has missed another deadline and new fees were incurred.  This happened several times, resulting in me paying out far far more than the original tenner.
The situation was finally resolved when I wrote to the agency, informing them that a third payment had been made, it was to be a final payment in full settlement of all outstanding debt.  If I had to make further calls on the matter, these would be invoiced to them at £5 a minute.  If I had to write again, each letter would be invoiced at £50.  Their company would also be liable for any further damage caused to my credit history, should they pursue the issue.  Further contact would be taken as agreement to these terms.
Needless to say, that was the last I heard of it.  It was also the last that particular bank ever heard of me.

While in Government, Liberal Democrats have raised the income tax personal allowance to £10,600, giving over 27 million people a typical yearly tax cut of around £825.  Over 3 million of the lowest earners have been taken out of paying tax altogether.  In the next parliament, we want to go even further and raise the personal allowance to £12,500, giving a further tax cut of around £400 to the average worker.

It’s not just tax changes we’ve made to help those on lower pay.  We have increased the National Minimum Wage from £5.93 in 2010 to £6.50 in 2014/15, meaning someone earning NMW and working a 36 hour week, 52 weeks a year earns £1,067.40 more a year (pre-tax) than in 2010. From October 2015, we have made sure it will rise again to £6.70, the largest real-terms increase since 2008, and worth another £374.40 a year for someone working a 36 hour week, 52 weeks a year.

The economic crash under the last Labour Government led to our economy shrinking by 6%. Instead, Liberal Democrats in Government have a credible plan for the economy that has not only resulted in more people in work than ever before, but it is keeping interest rates and inflation down.  The cost of living is falling, meaning nurses and other public sector staff getting a 1% rise this year will benefit in real terms.

To summarise, there are times in all our lives that things go tight and we have to resort to extra credit.  It is really important that our education system alert people to what those interest APR numbers mean and that people understand there are far more options out that than the glossy CGI adverts that are all over daytime television.  Once in debt, there is government advice available from the Money Advice Service (MA) and charitable agencies like the Citizens' Advice (CAB). The Liberal Democrats are working hard to ensure that people, especially the lower paid, have more money in our pockets and a stable, growing economy where it is easier to judge our needs ahead.  If the lenders abuse their position (as has frequently been the case), debt amounts can be capped by law.

If you have further issues or questions, I will be pleased to hear from you.

Kind regards,

Martin Veart
Liberal Democrats
Edinburgh North and Leith.

Campaign Letter #17: Housing

Thank you for contacting me about housing.   In Scotland, it is an issue that has been devolved to the Scottish Parliament, so if I did become your member of parliament in Westminster, my influence would be greater upon the state of housing in England, ironically enough.  The problems that we face within the United Kingdom as a whole are similar however.

In Scotland, according to figures from Shelter Scotland and The Scottish Government, over the past ten years 53,000 council homes have been lost from stock.  Since 1998, a total of 200,000 houses have been lost from the public stock and the decline is continuing.  The building of new council houses over recent years are reducing the rate of decline.  Overall however, with the inclusion of housing rented from Housing Associations, the stock of affordable housing for the past decade has been roughly static, which is also reflected in Scotland's population of about 5.2million people.  With population numbers starting to show a rising trend, obviously pressure will increase on housing stocks in the years to come.

Within the constituency, I am aware that the crash of 2008 all but halted private housing development in its tracks for years.  The Port of Leith Authority seems to have shelved many of its plans, with only small-scale activity around the Western Harbour at this time.  This has not stopped the price of housing rising over large parts of the city in comparison with 2009, forcing many who have recently found work within Edinburgh to commute from surrounding areas.  I also believe that the affordable housing to be linked with the planned redevelopment of the St.James Centre is to be created outside the city centre, again possibly leading to traffic and commuting concerns.

Everyone should have somewhere affordable to live and I strongly support the building of more social and affordable homes in the UK.

Over the past four decades, successive Conservative and Labour Governments have left us with a housing crisis and eroded our stock of social housing. Since 1979, 1.5 million social homes have been lost from the stock, 1.1 million under the Tories and a further 420,000 under Labour.

In contrast, Liberal Democrats in UK Government have worked hard to turn this around. We have built over 170,000 new social and affordable homes in this Parliament and brought a record number of empty homes back into use – over 100,000 since 2010 – reducing them to their lowest level for over a decade. As a result of our work, we will be the first Government for more than thirty years to leave office with more social and affordable homes than we started with. This is a small, but important, step in the right direction, turning around a downward trend that had lasted thirty years.

We have set out plans to boost affordable housing in the next Parliament by building 275,000 more affordable homes by 2020 – the fastest rate of affordable house building for more than 20 years. Going forward, we have set an important long-term target of increasing the rate of house building to 300,000 a year, built to the Zero Carbon standard.

Within the first year of the next Parliament, we will publish a long term plan to set out how we will achieve our goal and appoint a ministerial taskforce on housing to oversee this task. Our plan will include proposals for at least ten new “Garden Cities” in England, in areas where there is local support, providing tens of thousands of high quality new homes with gardens and shared green space, jobs, schools and public transport.

We also want to bring forward more development on unwanted public sector sites through the Homes and Communities Agency, building on the progress we have already made in Government by releasing enough land to build over 103,000 new homes.

Our plans include proposals to help social housing providers, including councils, build more affordable homes to rent, with central government investment and local flexibility within the Housing Revenue Account. We also want to work with housing providers to design new models of affordable housing, to sit alongside the traditional social rented sector. This would include models that offer a path to ownership for low income working families.

It is no good making more affordable housing available if existing stocks are not fit for purpose.  Fuel poverty is a real problem, especially in Scotland.  That is why Liberal Democrats would ensure that all United Kingdom housing levels of insulation and energy efficiency would, by 2030, at least match the current Grade C standards.  Standards for new housing efficiency will also be reviewed and increased.

Councils in England would also be required to allocate land to meet 15 years’ housing need in their local plans and work with councils to pilot techniques for capturing the increase in land value from the granting of planning permission.

In order to help young people to relocate for jobs more easily, the Liberal Democrats would introduce a Help-to Rent scheme, where the deposit required up front by private landlords could be borrowed from government-backed tenancy scheme.  This would be available to first-time renters under the age of thirty.

The housing crisis can be tackled, but we need clear political leadership to be able to achieve this. I am confident that Liberal Democrat plans for the future can build on our encouraging start in Government and deliver the homes Britain needs.

If you have any further comments or questions on this, or any other issue, I will be glad to hear from you.

Yours sincerely,

Martin Veart
Scottish Liberal Democrats
Edinburgh North and Leith