Monday, 2 May 2016

Five Questions: Broughton Spurtle

1. Edinburgh, in my opinion, has some of the worst new building in Europe. Why is planning law is so slanted towards the developer when decisions arising may put the UNESCO World Heritage status at risk? (My specific concern as local resident is the RBS proposal to develop the site bordering Eyre Place, Dundas Street, Royal Crescent, Fettes Row, Dundonald Street and overwhelming King George V Park. The RBS proposals suggest overdevelopment of the site that will place unrealistic pressure on local services and the environment.)

One of the biggest challenges facing communities in Edinburgh is fostering any sense of social awareness among developers.  I was speaking to the Cala during their public consultations over the 450 proposed dwelling places opposite the Ocean Terminal site.  I asked them about extra medical facilities required by the increase of population.  The answer was that this is very much a matter for Edinburgh Council.  They were however more willing to take on board my comments about any lack of play facilities for young children and keen to focus on minimising the traffic impact.

This last point shows that developers address the issues that planners address.  They know that under the current system, public views rarely matter: it is the council planning committee that they have to satisfy and that is everything.  Another example would be the redevelopment of the Edinburgh Academicals stadium in Stockbridge.  The local residents are overwhelmingly against the scheme as it stands but it is being pushed through by the council nonetheless.  It seems that the threat of losing the next election is not enough of a threat to hold over politicians.

This is something that perhaps can be addressed by the Scottish Parliament.  When it comes to housing, the first thing I would look at is housing density.  There are minimum standards for room size here in Scotland but I am not aware of any minimum standards of dwelling density.  It is in a developer's interest to maximise the return.  It is in the power of Holyrood to set maximum numbers of dwellings in a given area for a given city zone if the council is not providing suitable local standards.

The right of counter-appeal can also be looked at, although there are dangers if this becomes too powerful, resulting in neighbourhoods refusing any form of development.  Some may say that the Edinburgh trams should not have gone ahead at all but imagine if each neighbour the line goes through had to grant the scheme access.

The main point though would be to make any appeals scheme affordable.  At the moment, the residents of Stockbridge have only the option of spending tens of thousands of pounds if they want to launch a judicial review.  That probably is not going to happen.

As for the point over UNESCO World Heritage status, I have mixed feelings on this.  True, it does identify areas of outstanding character across the world (thus bringing in tourism and revenue) but some cites complain that it also halts necessary development.  Now I am not saying that Edinburgh is getting it's planning right; just highlighting the potential conflict between UNESCO standards and city needs.

In the end, cities are for people to live in.  Not just for the people already there but also for those who need to come and live here.  It is the politician's job to find the best way through the possible areas of conflict.

2. What concrete measures will you put in place to alleviate poverty and inequality in Scotland?

As a Scottish Liberal Democrat, I believe that not only should every person have equality of opportunity but we as a society should be there for whenever a person seeks to do better for themselves and their family.

The key to this on an individual level is education. Scottish Liberal Democrats believe that education is the first and arguably most essential investment when it comes to tackling any form of  poverty. That is why we have proposed a Penny for Education - a penny on income tax to enable investment in a transformation in Scottish education that will make it the best in the world again and enable people to get well paid jobs. This is fair because the rising personal allowance will mean that anyone earning under £21,500 will actually pay less tax next year. Those at the top will pay 30 times more than someone on an average income.

For those already in work, we have sought to ensure work pays and that the system is fairer to those on low and middle incomes. In government we raised the income tax personal allowance, cutting the bills of 2 million Scots by £800 and lifting 2.7 million across the UK out of paying income tax altogether.

We will pay the Living Wage for all public services and stop giving government grants to companies that don't pay the Living Wage. The Scottish Government has given £5 million to Amazon, even though it pays its workers more than £1 less an hour than the living wage and there have been real concerns over working conditions at their base in Dunfermline.

Scottish Liberal Democrats have committed to working with the other parties and stakeholders to ensure that the new Scottish welfare system is fair to those in and out of work and has the full confidence of users.

I believe that fuel poverty in a major issue in our city and across Scotland.  Liberal Democrats will work with other parties to see the energy efficiency of our nation's entire housing stock, not just new builds, but all our nation's homes improved.  This will be a major, long term project but a necessary one.  If we leave this to the free markets, it will never happen for all.  The nature of Scotland's housing, especially for the older buildings, means that there are people living in older property will can never really afford the major improvements required for their homes to truly become energy efficient.  As we undergo the transition towards a low carbon, more energy efficient future, it is important that our homes and, indeed, our businesses too, are fit for purpose.  Frankly, we are a northern nation but previous generations of regulators and builders did not seem to appreciate this, especially when it came to mass-market housing.

3. Tonight, women and girls in Edinburgh are afraid to go out in the dark alone. At this moment, women here are afraid to stay in their own homes, through fear of violence and abuse. What specific measures will your party bring forward, in the next parliament, to ensure that women and girls in Scotland are safe in their own homes, and are able to go out freely and confidently into the world? What will you do to stop women in Scotland living in fear?

At this election, Scottish Liberal Democrats are proposing among other things to:

Introduce a new offence of domestic abuse

Support early intervention with those at high risk of first-time offending

Take major action to improve conviction rates for sexual offences, including consideration of legislation to allow research to be undertaken with jury members; the right of juries to be able to ask questions of expert witnesses or the provision of an expert adviser to assist juries with expert evidence, together with suggestions made in the Bonomy review.

Legislate to prohibit physical punishment of children. The evidence from dozens of studies is now indisputable on what our law describes, in Victorian fashion, as the "justifiable assault" of children.  It damages their wellbeing, increases aggression and antisocial behaviour which can continue into their adult lives, and risks escalating into physical abuse.

My colleague Alison McInnes, the Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson, did a great deal in the last Scottish Parliament to help protect women and girls from violence and abuse. You can read a recent speech she gave on preventing violence against women at

My personal view is that some of it comes down to early education, both in schools and in the examples from parents and carers.  Some people, usually but not exclusively women, are simply more vulnerable to abuse.  Recently schools have done a great deal to tackle bullying in our schools but until we live in a society where signs of weakness does not trigger an oppressive response in some others, the challenge will still be ongoing.  Peer pressure has a lot to do with this.  When it is not done for a group member to cat-call or abuse a passing stranger in the street and the peers turn upon others for doing so, progress will have been made.  We do not yet live in such a society.

4. In the light of the current PPP scandal, how do the candidates see future funding for large infrastructure projects?

Following the schools crisis here in Edinburgh, Scottish Liberal Democrats have been calling for a full inquiry into how we got to this point. We would also make the companies that build and maintain our schools and hospitals subject to freedom of information laws so that the public can check they are being run properly.

Our fully costed manifesto sets out the infrastructure projects we plan on taking forward and how we will pay for them. For example:

We will establish a Fit For The Future Investment Fund, drawing on the earmarked resources from half of the Scotland Act borrowing powers (more than £200 million a year).

Action to reduce the persistent underspending of the Scottish Government's budget to ensure underspends are redeployed into other projects that are waiting for the green light.

The Scottish Government's capital budget is increasing.
Our Help to Renovate loans will come from the special financial transaction consequentials in the Scottish budget.

We will expand the Housing Fund for Scotland model that has seen investment in rented homes pioneered by a local government pension fund.

In view of Liberal Democrat commitment to local democracy and councils being responsible for raising and spending funds locally and transparently, I would be open to ideas on other alternatives, such as funding of city projects through the issue of bonds.

5. Although the independence referendum was the occasion for great political involvement, it has also led to a very polarised political environment in Scotland. (As anyone who follows social media will be aware!) How do the candidates intend to heal the political divisions of post-referendum Scotland if they are elected?

As far as I am concerned, these elections are about the best delivery of services and improving the standards of living for everybody living in Scotland.  It most certainly is not about a second referendum, which is what the SNP want to make it about.  Nor is it about cries of defending the Union, which is what the Conservative party would have us believe they are about.  Both of these parties are cynically exploiting and deepening the polarisation which the question, correctly, refers to.

We are living in exciting times here in Scotland and we have an opportunity to use the new powers coming to us to make a real difference to all our lives.  We can show the rest of UK that there is a different way to do things than the old Labour - Conservative Punch and Judy show but, to my mind, nationalism is not helping in this.  It is, in fact, a distraction from us as a society making use of the the powers we already have.

I say that instead of blaming others or calling upon any form of jingoism, let us focus on the task at hand, right now.  Goodness knows they are big enough.  Education, housing, the NHS and a myriad of others, just as vital.  How does either cries for either a second independence referendum or claims to be the protector of the Union help?  They simply don't.

If on Thursday I were to become your MSP, my pledge would be to focus on the issues, encourage others to do so, take responsibility for our own actions here in Scotland and work, constructively and transparently, with others in finding and delivering fair, democratic and liberal solutions for the people of Scotland.