Cutting Policing & Education – Surely Not?

Yesterday morning I posted two polls on Twitter – both are above. The first related to policing and the second broadly related to Gaelic education, but their purposes was really to raise the issue of local government funding in Scotland.

We’ve had no hint of a settlement from the SNP Government (yes, I know it is early and the Tories are part of the problem), but it is fair to say that most folk expect bad news if the nationalist elite can ever make up their mind. More cuts this year to local government funding may mean that things we cherish will come under huge pressure.

Raising awareness of this issue was the purpose of the polls. The polls were never intended to be scientific or the basis for any change in my views or those of anyone else.

If anyone genuinely felt otherwise, please accept my unreserved apology.

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Edinburgh, Child Poverty & School Uniforms – My First Council Motion.

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I joined the Labour Party just under three years ago. When I first joined there were many aspects of the party’s culture that I had to learn and respect. One thing I noted quickly was that speakers at events liked to start their speeches with tales of their own humble upbringing and ended by saying how pulling and sharing resources can make a difference. This blog is no different.

I grew up in a single parent household in one of the most deprived areas of the UK – a council estate in Kirkcaldy during the 1980’s miner’s strike. My route out of that was to work hard at school and go on to complete a degree and eventually a PhD.

I was lucky as my family understood the difference education could make to my life chances. This was not because they were well educated themselves, but because they had ability but were not given the same opportunity in the 1940s and 1950’s.

Days off school were not permitted unless a death certificate could be provided, and I was one of only two people from a huge housing scheme (Smeaton) to “stay on” at school for 5th and 6th year. Above all else, a school uniform had to be worn.

The school uniform was not an easy thing for my father to provide me and my two brothers with. He had to rely on 2 aunts and my Gran to help ensure I had one – particularly big ticket items like shoes and a jacket, which often came via the Littlewoods Catalogue. I don’t remember having my clothes bought by a committee being a particularly enjoyable experience, but the ends justified the means.

I had largely forgotten about this experience until the school year started again in August 2017. At that point, the BBC ran a story on the support available to low income families to help them equip their children for school. It outlined how the “School Uniform Grant” varies from £40 (North Ayrshire) to £110 (West Lothian) in Scotland, and how the Poverty Truth Commission estimates the actual cost to be £129.50 “even when shopping at supermarkets and bargain stores”.  The story The Poverty Truth Commission told about life in Scotland today was exactly what I had experienced 30 years ago:

“Very often, school clothing grants simply aren’t enough to cover even the most basic uniform – leaving families stressed out, anxious and wondering just where the money is going to come from. Some even end up in debt or struggling to afford other basic essentials like food and heating.”

It made me feel ashamed to know this was still happening in Scotland. Worse than that, I was ashamed because the City of Edinburgh Council offers one of the lowest grants. The grant in Scotland’s Capital is only £43 and £50 for primary and secondary school children respectively. Pretty much as soon as I read the BBC report, I donated £129.50 to the Edinburgh School Uniform Bank.

Why does this matter? It is now an accepted fact that child poverty is rising in the UK. However, we also must accept that Edinburgh Council, The Scottish Government and the UK Government have a duty to use their powers to reverse this trend. In my view a key part of that is ensuring children are equipped to attend school as, I believe, education is key to breaking the kind of poverty which is handed down from generation to generation. With all that in mind, I am delighted to say I have the following motion to review Edinburgh’s School Uniform Grant coming before the “Education, Children and Families Committee” on Tuesday (10th of October):

Motion by Councillor Arthur – Child Poverty – School Uniform Grant

“Committee: Recognises that child poverty is rising in Edinburgh and that the City of Edinburgh Council, the Scottish Government and the UK Government have a duty to use their powers to reverse this trend.
Recognises that a significant burden on low income families is providing their children with a school uniform.
Recognises the significant work of the Edinburgh School Uniform Bank, Edinburgh Police Fund for Children, and others to help equip children from low income families for school.
Recognises the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland estimate that the cost of a school uniform is £129.50, but the School Uniform Grant provided by City of Edinburgh Council is only £43 and £50 for primary and secondary school children respectively.
Recognises that the Scottish Government recommends the School Uniform Grant level be set at £70, but many Local Authorities exceed this.
Asks that within two cycles (four months) Council Officers report on the feasibility of increasing the School Uniform Grant to ensure that from the 2018/19 academic year children from low income households are better equipped for school.”

The motion has support within the Labour and SNP Groups of Councillors, not least from Councillor Alison Dickie, so I am hopeful that it will be approved and we can take a small step towards ensuring Edinburgh’s children can reach their full potential.

Last week at an event in East Lothian on “The Cost of the School Day” project I listened with great pride to all the work City of Edinburgh Council is doing to ensure finance is not a barrier to education, but I was also ashamed to hear how that lack of a clean uniform that fits can be a barrier to kids reaching their full potential (via an inspiring presentation by Pattie Santelices, Strategic Development Officer for Health & Wellbeing). Next to me a West Lothian Councillor whispered that her council had the highest School Uniform Grant in Scotland.  I smiled and said I wanted Edinburgh to be the first to meet The Poverty Truth Commission’s target of £129.50.

Within these financially constrained times, it may not be easy to find the £129.50 for every child that needs it. That’s why we also have to continue to work with third sector partners, just like Manchester did, to ensure every child in Edinburgh is fully equipped to reach their full potential at school.

 

 

2 Vidoes on the subject:

City of Edinburgh Council Airbnb Briefing

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I have used Airbnb a few times. I do, however, recognise that in some contexts Airbnb (and similar) lets can cause problems for communities. This breifing outlines City of Edinburgh Council’s position. 

Background

  1. The Council is receiving increasing numbers of queries about the operation of domestic properties as short term lets, booked through the ‘Airbnb’ website. This briefing note is designed to cover the most frequently asked questions about ‘Airbnb’.
  2. ‘Airbnb’ was founded in 2008 and its operations now cover many cities across the world including Edinburgh and London.
  3. People seeking accommodation are able to use the website to book stays in residential properties as an alternative to a hotel or bed and breakfast.

 

Are Airbnb regulated or licensed by the Council?

  1. Airbnb and the home owners who take bookings via the website do not require permission from the Council to operate in this way. The Council licences ‘Houses in Multiple Occupation’, but short term lets are exempt as the property being let is not the main residence of the person making the booking.

 

Does the Council have any plans to introduce a licensing system for Airbnb?

  1. The Council would be unable to introduce a licensing system for Airbnb under current legislation. The Scottish Parliament would need to introduce new legislation giving local authorities additional powers to license this activity.

 

Does the Council keep a register of homes which are let on the Airbnb website?

  1. The owners do not require permission of the Council and therefore the Council would have no way of knowing which homes were being used in this way.

 

What about responsibility for common repairs?

  1. Any issue of common repairs remains the responsibility of the homeowner, irrespective of whether the property is let out via the website.

 

Do let properties require Planning Permission?

  1. Short Term Commercial Visitor Accommodation

The change of use from a residential property to short term commercial visitor accommodation may require planning permission. In deciding whether this is the case, regard will be had to:

  • The character of the new use and of the wider area
  • The size of the property
  • The pattern of activity associated with the use, including numbers of occupants, the period of use, issues of noise, disturbance and parking demand, and
  • The nature and character of any services provided.

For example, a flat rented out for one week with perhaps one bedroom may be viewed as ‘residential’, whereas a three bedroomed flat allowing short stays of two or three nights has the potential to cause more of an impact on local amenity, and so might be seen as ‘short stay commercial’. Each has to be decided on a case by case basis as to whether it requires planning permission

 

Is there any regulation of Airbnb by the Council?

  1. Trading Standards may have a role under The Consumer Rights Act 2015 if the property is being rented from someone shown to be carrying on a business. If the property is being rented from a private individual then the Act may not apply. Each case would need considered on the facts of the case.

 

What should I do if I am disturbed by antisocial behaviour or noise from guests within a property let out via the Airbnb website?

  1. Residents suffering any antisocial behaviour should report this to the Council on 0131 200 2000 or Police Scotland on 101. The Antisocial Behaviour Scotland Act 2004 includes powers to deal with problems from short term lets.

 

Do let properties have to pay business rates or Council tax?

  1. If the property is the sole or main residence the occupier can let it out to up to six people and the entry would remain on Council Tax as a domestic entry. If the property is not the sole or main residence, or is let out to more than six people, the entry would be valued as a commercial property. Each case is considered on its merits, and if necessary information passed to the Valuation Board.

 

What action has the Council taken on these concerns?

  1. In March 2017 the Corporate Policy and Strategy Committee considered a report on Short Term Lets in the City. The Committee agreed to call on the Scottish Government to increase the powers available to local authorities to manage these, by introducing a licensing system or strengthening planning restrictions. This report includes the data currently available to the Council.

 

The Minister for Local Government and Housing has responded to the council’s request by noting that the Expert Working Group on the Collaborative Economy, set up by the Scottish Government, is considering short term lets as part of its remit. That group is due to make recommendations to Scottish Ministers by the end of 2017. The minister expects the report to include recommendations on ‘how Scotland can take advantage of the opportunities of the collaborative economy and overcome any regulatory, economic and social challenges’.

 

The Council’s Regulatory Services Manager provided the Expert Working Group with a detailed submission in June 2017 at an evidence session on Short Term Lets. Details of this session can be found in the blog below.

 

https://blogs.gov.scot/scotlands-economy/2017/07/07/collaborate-celebrate-scotland-offer/

 

An update report to the Corporate Policy and Strategy Committee will be submitted later this year.

Making Edinburgh’s tram safer for cyclists…

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Below is a briefing on this: 

New red-surfaced cycle lanes are to be installed at a number of key points along the tram route in Edinburgh’s city centre.

The measures, the first in a three-phase project to help all road users keep themselves and each other safe when negotiating the tram tracks, are aimed at demonstrating the optimum angle for crossing the tracks and reminding motorists to give cyclists extra space, particularly where tramlines are concerned.

The red-screeded cycle lanes will offer those on bikes the safest route to cross the tram tracks to avoid slipping or getting their wheels stuck.

A report going before the Council’s Transport and Environment Committee on 5 October details the changes, which will be rolled out over the coming weeks, along with warning signs and a multi-channel publicity and awareness campaign.

The campaign will urge all road users to “look out for each other”, stressing the need for drivers to give cyclists ample space when they’re manoeuvring into the safest position for crossing tram tracks.

These initial measures, or Phase 1 in the project, involve new road markings at:

  • York Place into Elder Street
  • Shandwick Place into Queensferry Street
  • Princes Street on to Waverley Bridge
  • Princes Street into South St David Street
  • Princes Street into Frederick Street

There will also be red surfacing added to the existing cycle lane at Haymarket Yards.

Consultations have been under way for some time between specialist consultants working on the Council’s behalf and cycling groups, including Spokes and Sustrans, to assess areas of potential conflict between cyclists and tramlines in the city centre and develop proposals for improvements.

This work was ongoing when a fatal collision occurred on 31 May at the junction of Shandwick Place and Queensferry Street, in which Malaysian student Zhi Min Soh tragically lost her life.

On 29 June 2017, the Council approved a motion calling for a number of actions to be undertaken to improve conditions for vulnerable road users in the city centre and at various locations along the tram route.  These actions included undertaking reviews of infrastructure at the junction at the west end of Princes Street where the fatal collision happened, and of tram infrastructure in the city centre and at South Gyle/Edinburgh Park to enhance pedestrian and cyclist safety and convenience.  The motion also called for the design of any future tram line extension to reflect Council policies to prioritise pedestrian and cyclist safety and convenience.

Dave Du Feu, speaking on behalf of Spokes, said: “Spokes welcomes the Council’s 3-phase project to tackle tramline-related cyclist crashes and injuries.

“The Council rightly recognises that many crashes occur because traffic pressures force the cyclist into the tramlines at a poor angle.   We therefore particularly welcome the phase 1 “Give Cyclists Space” signs and publicity.”

“We urge the Council to progress rapidly with the consultations and Traffic Orders required for phases 2 and 3, which entail changes to traffic lights, road layouts, etc.   We look forward to discussing these plans.”

“Furthermore, Spokes welcomes the motion passed at the first meeting of the new Council, promising that any tramline extension would “prioritise pedestrian and cyclist safety and convenience, including consideration of segregated cycle lanes.”

Katherine Soane, Senior Officer, Transport Integration, Sustrans, said: “Sustrans welcomes the Council’s proposals around crossing tram tracks.

“This is an excellent first step in getting people on bikes to be more aware of the best angle to cross tram tracks, and we look forward to a more wide-reaching programme around safety where vulnerable road users interact with motorists.”

The new road markings will be promoted alongside the following guidance:

Advice for drivers

Give cyclists extra space, not just to the side but from behind. They need time to cycle safely near tram tracks.

If you see a cyclist indicating to turn across the tracks, you should stay at least 12 metres behind them – this is the length of 2 ½ cars or a bus.

Avoid driving on the red cycle lanes when cyclists are turning right at:

  • York Place into Elder Street
  • Shandwick Place into Queensferry Street
  • Princes Street onto Waverley Bridge
  • Princes Street into South St David Street
  • Princes Street into Frederick Street

Think ahead and signal early. Let other people using the road know what you are doing.

 

Advice for cyclists

Cross the tracks at least at 45 degrees.  If you can’t, you should get off your bike to avoid slipping on the tracks or getting your wheels stuck.

Avoid leaning when crossing the tram tracks.

Take care when cycling in the rain, the tracks will be slippery.

Think ahead and signal early. Plan how you will cross the tracks and let people using the road know what you are doing.

If there is a red cycle lane where you are turning, please use it as it offers the safest route to crossing the tram tracks.

Know your limits. Depending on the situation and your cycling experience, you may prefer to get off your bike at a safe point on the road to continue your journey.

 

Further information

www.edinburgh.gov.uk/tramsafety

Phase 2 in the project, expected for completion by April 2018, will include improvements to Advanced Stop Lines for cyclists and traffic signals apparatus at six city centre locations.

Meanwhile, Phase 3, expected to be completed in autumn 2018, will include a short length of new segregated cycle lane on Princes Street. This timescale is dependent on successful promotion of redetermination orders.

Festive lighting is due to be installed in each locality by the end of November 2017… for £180k

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Below is a briefing on this:

This roll out will be managed by Public Safety in consultation with Locality Managers and will see lighting and dressed trees in those wards which are decorated year-on-year, as proposed in appendix 1 of the attached Briefing Note.

An increase in the Council’s festive lighting budget to £180,000 from £140,000 has been possible this winter due to £40,000 one-off funding provided by the Scottish Government as part of the budget process (7.3).

These additional funds will be used to hire lighting column motifs to supplement Public Safety’s stock, some of which has suffered from weather damage and wear and tear. This will enable the Council to decorate the city on a similar scale to previous years (winter 2015/16) and install more lighting than was possible last year (winter 2016/17).

A total of 15 cut Christmas trees are provided by the Council at a cost of £45,000 per annum. It is proposed these costs are significantly reduced by dressing pre-existing trees instead and, where suitable, supporting communities to plant new trees to be decorated annually. The Mound Christmas tree, which is a gift to the city from Norway, will be installed as normal and lit on Light Night on 19 November.

The attached proposals will be delivered with Locality Managers. The delivery and installation of trees and lighting is provided through an external, procured contract. 2017 is the final year of the current arrangement. Given the on-going wear and tear pressures on the current equipment provision the intention is to move to a lease / hire contract model from 2018 onwards. 

I have decided to back Anas Sarwar to be Scottish Labour’s next leader and, hopefully, Scotland’s next First Minister.

After a lot of careful thought, I have decided to back Anas Sarwar to be Scottish Labour’s next leader and, hopefully, Scotland’s next First Minister. Yes, I know he’s not perfect but I think he is the candidate most able to unite the party in Scotland.

Whilst Richard Leonard is untested in elected office, Anas Sarwar brings experience from both Westminster and Holyrood. He’s used his intellect, humour and campaigning zeal to take the SNP’s management of our NHS to the top of the political agenda in Scotland. Where has Richard Leonard been in that time?

Let’s face it, Richard Leonard is only standing as Neil Findlay and Alex Rowley wouldn’t. He’s Plan C right now, but has huge potential if he is able to prove himself in Holyrood. Like Monica Lennon and Daniel Johnson, he’s a potential star of the future but now is not his time. He needs to build his public profile.

Being a member of the SEC has given me fresh insight into how disruptive a minority in the CfS and the like can be. I fear that if Richard Leonard wins, it will simply embolden these “hotheads” and divide the party. I’d rather be fighting the Tories and SNP than comrades. Of course, this does not mean all CfS members are a problem – far from it. Cllr Gordon Munro is a proud CfS member, and he has been a great mentor to me in the Edinburgh City Chambers.  The fact remains, however, that some CfS members and the like don’t care about the damage they do to our party and are quite happy to feed ammunition to the enemies of our movement.

This destructive infighting breaks my heart. That’s why I think we need a leader that can hold the party together, not one that owes a debt to a particular faction.

So I’m backing Anas as he will take the fight to the Nationalists (both blue and yellow) whilst uniting the party behind the progressive platform created by Jeremy Corbyn and Kezia Dugdale. I’m backing Anas as he’s our best bet of having a government for the many in Scotland.

This decision is not about right v left, it’s about leadership, unity and government.

Chasing Council Tax & Rent Arrears in Edinburgh

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I’m often asked what the City of Edinburgh Council does to recover Council Tax and Rent arrears. The briefing from Council Officers below provides an overview of the process. Of course, the Council does adapt this process where needed to help people dealing with acute personal problems.

 

Is it possible to get an annual figure for the past five years of the arrears owed to the council in terms of council tax?

Financial Year Debt at end of Appropriate Financial year Collection Rates % at Appropriate Financial year end Current Historic Debt levels as @31 August 2017 broken down per year
2016/17 £9,470,142.41 96.42% £8,748,693.01
2015/16 £9,765,301.28 96.12% £7,239,623.89
2014/15 £10,496,672.08 95.36% £6,312,735.03
2013/14 £14,204,961.57 94.70% £6,412,001.81
2012/13 £13,573,131.09 94.50% £6,870,209.30

The Council is committed to maximising Council Tax collection and over the last 5 years the Council Tax collection rate has increased from 94.5% to a high of 96.42% achieved in 2016/17.

To support Council Tax collection a comprehensive recovery procedure is followed.  This includes early reminders and customer engagement, where this is unsuccessful and, consistent with the Council Tax regulations, the Council uses a Sheriff Officer to support debt recovery, where appropriate to do so.

These co-ordinated actions result in the ongoing collection of historic debt. An example of the improvements made to historical debt collection is demonstrated by the 2012/13 year-end debt of £13.5M as at 31 March 2013, which has now reduced to £6.9M at 31 August 2017.

Is it possible to get a figure of the arrears owed to the council in terms of rent?

The figure for current tenant rent arrears at end of the 2016/17 financial year, on 31 March 2017 was £6,068,503.93.

Is there a separate figure for outstanding debt with payments arranged and those with payments not?

This information is available and can be provided for any future requests, if adequate notice is provided.  On this occasion, however, due to the tight timescale to return this information to you we are unable to provide this for Council Tax collection in line with your required turnaround.

For Council Tax, we continue to work with customers to ensure that appropriate payment plans are in place.  These are continually reviewed by the Council and the Sheriff Officers.  The Council also works with the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to ensure that appropriate deductions are made from benefit payments.  These payments are means tested in line with national legislation.

In some instances, it is not possible to trace debtors however these continue to be reviewed on ongoing basis.

How does the council pursue arrears? Has the policy of collecting debt changed in the last five years? Does the council act quicker to recover the arrears than they did five years ago?

Council Tax recovery procedures are set out in the Local Government Finance Act 1992 and the Council Tax (Administration & Enforcement) (Scotland) Regulations 1992; S1 1992, S129.

Our recovery programme was revised in April 2013 and we now operate to best practice timescales in accordance with the relevant legislation.  We are legally obliged to send all Council Taxpayers a reminder for any arrears outstanding.  Providing the customer brings their account up to date within the allowed 14-day period and continues to pay their further instalments as detailed in their bill, then no further recovery action will be taken.

If a customer fails to pay the amount detailed in the reminder, a Summary Warrant is secured and the account passed to the Sheriff Officer for recovery.  Actions can include agreed repayment plans, bank/wage arrestment etc. and for higher value cases sequestration is considered.

Procedures continue to be reviewed to support overall collection rates including targeted communications for persistent late payers and text reminders.

Are there more prepayment plans set up now than before?  If not are the debts collected quicker?

The Council continues to promote Direct Debit payments and this has supported collection improvements over the last 4 years.

2013/14 2014/15 2015/16 2016/17 2017/18 as at today
% of Total Council Tax liability collected through Direct Debit 75.45% 75.78% 76.63% 78.31% 78.68%