Thanks for funding George Street, but where is the rest of our money?

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I absolutely welcome the news that Edinburgh has been awarded £20m towards its scheme to revamp George Street. This money should help transform it from a car park to a place designed for people, and all involved in the project should be warmly congratulated for the time and energy they have invested in it.

It is worth thinking about, however, where the Scottish Government found the money. Research published by Holyrood in July showed that although the Scottish Government’s Revenue has fallen by 2.8% between 2013-14 and 2018-19, they have chosen to cut Council funding over the same period by 7.5%. This manifests itself in Edinburgh in the form of a social care system in crisis, cratered pavements, blocked drains, full litter bins, rampant weeds and schools where teachers buy the pencils. Frankly, at times I am embarrassed at the state of our city and utterly frustrated by these cuts.

So Micheal Matheson MSP (Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity) turning up with funding for George Street is akin to a burglar clearing out my house and coming back the next day with a couple of DVDs he didn’t fancy.

It’s little wonder that the only Edinburgh Councillors that turned up to meet Matheson to take part in the charade were nationalists, others may have been tempted to ask where there rest of our money was.

The reality is that Councils should not have to submit “bids” and “compete” for money to be “awarded” to them. This money should be there’s by right, not something they have to bow and scrape for.

 

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Briefing – The potential block on voting rights for religious representatives on schooling issues in Edinburgh.

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Archbishop Leo Cushley opening a new gym hall at St Margaret’s RC Primary school in South Queensferry

The  Evening News on Monday reported that Archbishop Leo Cushley had raised concerns about a move by the Greens and Lib Dems Parties to “block voting rights (on the Education Committee) for religious representatives on schooling issues“. He saw the move as a threat to Catholic education in Edinburgh. His intervention quickly became national news. Although Greens in Glasgow have distanced themselves from the move,  the Greens in Edinburgh  are not backing down despite there being doubt that the move is even legal.  

To be clear, I am absolutely committed to the continuance of Catholic education in Edinburgh and want the  Catholic Church of Scotland to have a say in how it is delivered. As an Elder of the Church of Scotland, I also feel all faiths should be more vocal on issues of concern to society, and help give a voice to those that don’t have one. I feel having voting rights serves both those aims.

Last year I spoke informally to Rabbi David Rose about his involvement in the committee, and he was clear to me that he felt his involvement was worthwhile, but he seldom used his right to vote (Note – I don’t know his view on voting rights).  I think he has now stood down and the position has moved to another faith, but I expect they will have the same experience.  Faith leaders like Rabbi Rose are well connected to their communities and wider society, so there is no doubt they have a valuable contribution to make. However, speaking at Council Committee is very different from having voting rights.

I understand why people are concerned about this issue, but I think it’s right that all faith groups have a say on how schools operate – particularly the faith element. Any change to voting rights should be part of a wider discussion about faith education in schools and how stakeholders can have a say in it. Arbitrarily removing voting rights is not the answer.

Below is a briefing on the issue from Council Officers. 

 

You may be receiving lobby letters regarding the voting rights of religious reps on the Education, Children and Families Committee. Ian would like to respond on behalf of the Labour Group and asks that you please send any letters through to him for a reply. Some background information you may find useful;

 EC&F has three religious representatives (Catholic Church, Church of Scotland and Interfaith) and one parent representative. The parent representative is currently a non-voting member whilst the religious representatives have voting rights.  This stems from the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 which states if an Education authority forms a Committee, it must include religious representatives. The act however says nothing on the voting rights of the religious members, this is at the discretion of the local authority. Previously, the Committee had a parent rep as a voting member and 2 teacher reps however as teachers are employees of the Council this was felt to be inappropriate and the positions removed.

Traditionally religious reps abstain from voting although there is nothing to prevent them doing so.  Perth and Kinross Council have recently removed the voting rights of their religious reps following a decision in which the reps voted which resulted in a school closure. This has sparked interest in other local authorities and although there has been no legal challenge to the decision from Perth and Kinross, there are concerns there would be more attention focused on Edinburgh as the capital. This has gained particular attention from the Catholic Church with the Archbishop Leo Cushley writing to priests describing this as the first step in removing faith education from schools in Scotland.

A report in response to the Green motion will go to Council in August, the recommendations outline the legal position and ask elected members to decide whether to remove the voting rights. If these were to be removed, the religious reps would remain on the Committee as non-voting members.

The A-Board Ban, The Fringe & My Apology.

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Although it has not been problem free, I am a fan of Edinburgh’s “A-Board Ban” which means footpaths can’t be used to display temporary on-street advertising structures.  This frees up valuable footpath space, making it easier and safer for those with mobility problems, buggies and young children to get around.

The policy does, however, come with exemptions. Inexplicably, one is the Council’s own on-street advertising structures. One of the others is the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (other festivals are not mentioned), on them the policy says:

The Festival represents an extraordinary period in the city’s events calendar, and as an
internationally recognised event, it brings with it thousands of visitors which provide
a significant boost to Edinburgh’s economy. Having regard to this, there has been a
long-standing acceptance that many of the restrictions that are in place throughout
the rest of the year are relaxed. Notwithstanding this, the Council continues to work
closely with signage and event organisers and reviews infrastructure each year to ensure it meets with public safety requirements and respects particularly sensitive
sites.

This morning I spotted online that some of the on-street advertising structures promoting Edinburgh Fringe Festival acts did not (in my opinion) meet “with public safety requirements”… or at least common sense (images above). In response, I promptly e-mailed senior people in both the Council and the Fringe Society.

Twelve hours later I have not had a reply from the Senior Council Officer yet, but the prompt reply I received from the Fringe Society was an education for me:

The Outdoor Advertising Scheme promoting acts on the Fringe is not managed by the Fringe Society, it is managed by Out of Hand (OoH) who are contracted by the City of Edinburgh Council.  Each site is clearly labelled with a reference and contact details for reporting any issues (highlighted in your first image) which are always dealt with promptly. The Fishmarket Close example you have given was as a result of overnight vandalism and had already been picked up by a daily check made of all sites by Out of Hand,  before the complaint came in, and was in the process of being fixed. 

And also:

In addition to the Outdoor Advertising, and as part of the contract,  OoH facilitate an anti-littering campaign for CEC and do an extensive clear up operation of flyposting, chewing gum, etc. from an agreed perimeter around each Fringe advertising site which makes a considerable difference to the cleanliness of the city and 99% all materials produced are recycled at the end of the Fringe (the other 1% is taken home by companies).

Of course I had to apologise, but I simply did not expect the Council to be responsible for this. Every day is a learning day.

 

 

 

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What does the City of Edinburgh Councils do with your “waste” plastics?

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Where will my milk bottle end up?

I was asked by a constituent what the Council does with the plastics it collects. Specifically they wanted to know if it was being recycled, landfilled or burned. This was triggered by the “War on Plastic” BBC TV Programme.  Below is the answer…

The Council has in place various collection systems which directly collect materials for recycling or which otherwise divert materials  for recycling, but is not always directly involved in selling to the end use markets.

The main one which householders will use is the contract which covers dry mixed recycling (paper, card, cans and plastics) from household kerbside collections, recycling points in flats and public recycling points, but other sources of recyclable materials include litter bins (which are not collected specifically for recycling but are sorted to allow some recycling to take place), and the bulk recycling skips at Household Waste Recycling Centres.

Although these services are different in detail, for each of our mixed recycling services (green recycling bin, packaging banks and litter collections) essentially in each case a contractor is receiving the mixed streams of materials. These then go through a sorting process and the different materials are sorted into individual streams. It is the contractor’s responsibility to place the materials on the recycling markets. Because the markets themselves change constantly, the waste management companies will deal with a number of different companies across their different waste streams and these may change on an ongoing basis. However it should be noted that the export of clean, properly sorted materials (as opposed to what was shown on the programme) is a legitimate activity. Although some outlets for these are in the Far East, equally materials  are exported from the UK to Europe and Scandinavia. So many of the goods we use are themselves imported so they have to be exported to be recycled.

We publish information in relation to this on our website at here.

The waste management company may not always necessarily be selling to the end user but to an intermediary who in turn sells onto a reprocessor who may be cleaning and shredding materials, and then ultimately to someone who buys the now raw materials to make something with.  This is a function of how the waste management industry is structured. However The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) is responsible for regulating all aspects of the waste industry so they will be aware of the end destinations of recycled materials for the whole of Scotland (in England and Wales this is managed by The Environment Agency). They publish this on a system called Waste Data Flow which tracks all waste in the UK and where it is going, although some of the information will be redacted for commercial reasons.

Each waste management company we deal with issues a monthly statement to us which provides the total of each material recycled (paper, card, plastics, metals, rejects or residual wastes, etc) but it will not always be broken down any further. This is complicated further because when the markets are performing particularly well there will be more incentive to carry out sorting into more streams (e.g. to separate milk bottles from coloured bottles, which may otherwise be reprocessed together).

To use the example of the mixed recycling contract, which is managed by Biffa it is their responsibility to sort and sell as much as possible for recycling and indeed it is in their interest to do so as that material has a market value to them.

We of course realise that there will be materials in each load which either should not be there (e.g. toys, clothes, etc) or is too contaminated (e.g. because it was not cleaned). There are also some materials such as black microwave trays which are recyclable but the markets are weak. Those would be recycled where possible but if there is no market they do have the option not to pull them out.  However materials which are not recycled in the mixed recycling stream are reprocessed as refuse derived fuel, which means they are shredded and dried and used as a cleaner replacement for coal in a power station operated by Scottish and Southern Energy, so there is still an environmental benefit. We do not collect plastic films (e.g. plastic bags) such as those featured in the programme.

There are some exceptions to this – for example glass, food, wood, and garden waste are all collected as single streams and go to a specific end user. The outlets for some of those are listed on our website at , but these are all recycled in Lothian or, in the case of glass, Lanarkshire.

Recycling rates in this country are based on what is sent for recycling after it has been sorted, not what is collected at the start- this is in contrast to other countries where the materials which are sent for refuse derived fuel would often be counted as recycled as well.  Our performance is reported monthly to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and published annually in a user friendly format here.

Cuts to Home-to-School travel for children with additional support needs.

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Braidburn School is at the heart of my Ward. Like any other school, the kids gain qualifications there but to make the most of it the kids have to arrive stress free. The image was taken in school’s 10th birthday in 2015.

Data produced in 2017 shows that the City of Edinburgh Council spends just under £6.5m per year on home-to-school transport. This is a substantial sum of money, so does come under some scrutiny withing the context of the cuts the Scottish Government is forcing on our capital.

Under the Education Act, free home-to-school transport must be provided for children of school age: under 8 living 2 or more miles away; and, children aged 8 and over living 3 or more miles away, from their catchment school. The Council implements this as:

  1. 2 miles or over for primary aged children (some of these kids will be over 8)
  2. 3 miles or over for secondary aged children.
  3. Where there is no safe walking route.

These rules, particularly at primary level, mean most children are not eligible for free home-to-school transport. The main schools where children are eligible are Roman Catholic Schools; those in the more rural parts of the city (largely west Edinburgh); and, and schools with very large catchments due to their specialist nature: Edinburgh Music School and Bun-sgoil Taobh na Pàirce (Gaelic Medium Education). The Scottish Government prevents Edinburgh from means-testing free home-to-school transport.

In addition to this, the Council has Special Schools where the education is specially suited to the additional support needs of children. Indeed, a quick glance at the “top 20” most expensive home-to-school transport schools shows that those for children with additional support needs dominate – they take up over two-thirds of the £6.5m budget.

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The 2017 “top 20” most expensive home-to-school transport schools

Within this context, in May this year Councillors  from all parties on the “Education, Children and Families Committee” unanimously backed a report entitled “Assisted Travel Policy and Guidelines – Home to School“. This report noted the Council “has a duty to implement Best Value for assisted home to school travel” and took the allocation of home-to-school transport out of the hands of headteachers in Special Schools, and gave it to a group entitled the “Travel Allocation Panel”. This approach does have the benefit of providing more consistency across the city, but it does also place more pressure on parents.

In the past few days I have been contacted by a number of parents with children at Braidburn School in my Ward who have had their home-to-school transport support removed or fear it will be. Yesterday I supported one parent’s appeal in the strongest possible terms after home-to-school transport for her son was removed, despite his very significant support needs, just a few weeks before term starts. She does not drive and her son has a developmental age of under 3. She told me she wants him to become more independent, but “he will refuse to walk or expect to be carried and I physically cannot lift him for that length of time.” and “I was offered £4 a day to get the normal bus which is as much of a walk to the school and completely pointless. Apparently this is a life lesson for our children as they grow that transport is not reality.” Braidburn School is 450m from the nearest bus stop.

I have spoken at length with the home-to-school transport team about this and they understand the pressure families are under. They are looking at other ways to cut costs such as bringing services back in-house (already proven cheaper) and reducing the need to hire coaches/taxis by asking Lothian Buses to adjust their routes. In West Edinburgh the safety of walking/cycling routes will be improved to reduce the need to issue bus passes or hire coaches/taxis.

The problem the Council faces, however, is that it has very little discretion over who has access to home-to-school transport, but there is flexibility where Special School are concerned. However, I think most people in Edinburgh feel that services for children with additional support needs should be the very last things that are cut. If we can’t stop Scottish Government cuts, we should be shaving every spare penny off other schools’ home-to-school transport budgets before we force mums to carry their children to school.

Project Apollo took us to the moon, now let’s tackle Climate Change “for all mankind” #Apollo50th

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Using the Lego Lunar Module to amplify concerns people in my Ward have about the state of roads and footpaths was a bit of fun, but Project Apollo does have a strange hold over me. I was born just a few days before Apollo 11 was launch and grew up when it and the other missions were still very much spoken about.

In 2017 I visited the Apollo 11 launch site to see another rocket being launched, and really was struck by the scale of what was achieved after JKF said “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard” in 1963.

When I returned from Florida I read a book by Gene Kranz called “Failure was not an option”. This was not a fiction book, but it did tell the amazing true story of how around the time I was born in 1969 approximately 400,000 people worked together to build the 2,800 tonne Saturn V rocket that took men to the moon (there were no women astronauts then!).

That book told me that when we work together, we can achieve anything. Potholes don’t need a “Project Apollo”, but tackling poverty and climate change does.  We need to take Apollo’s “For All Mankind” slogan, and use it to challenge humankind to tackle these things – not because they are easy problems, but because they are hard.

Edinburgh should be leading on fighting child poverty, not following others.  

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Me attending the 2018 Discover programme in Oxgangs Primary School

There can be no doubt that child poverty in the UK is rising. Under the Brown/Blair Government it fell dramatically as  a result of very significant additional spending on benefits and tax credits. Since then, however, things have gone backwards.  The number of children living in poverty is set to hit to hit 37% this year – that is more than 1 in 3 children. This exceeds the  previous high of 34% recorded in the ‘90s, and should shame us all.

The causes of child poverty are complex and the impact long lasting, but right now the combined impact of wage stagnation, high rents, unemployment and welfare reform are combining to create the perfect storm in Edinburgh.  Indeed, the ongoing Tory leadership race suggests matters may be about to worsen, as it is has already been shown that Johnson and Hunt’s tax proposals will increase child poverty.

Scotland is little different to the rest of the UK where child poverty is concerned, but but it does have the power to be more different. The Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017 places a duty on the Scottish Government to eradicate child poverty by 2030. Holyrood also has significant welfare powers, but have chosen to  delay using them. Indeed, the Nationalist Government appeared until recently quite unwilling to use their welfare powers as a tool to tackle child poverty.

Many people in Edinburgh supported the Poverty Alliance’s calls for the Nationalist Government to increase Child Benefit payments, and ultimately forced this to act one year earlier (2021) than planned for those under six. However, that is almost two years away and children over 6 will have to wait a further year – this is apparently “bold and ambitious“!

Whilst kids in poor households wait for this benefit to reach their mum’s purse, poverty will manifest itself in many ways.  Recently the Edinburgh Trade Union Council (ETUC) wrote to a cross-party group of Councillors raising concerns about “holiday hunger” in our capital.

I know from my own upbringing in Kirkcaldy what holiday hunger is. The school holidays can be grim affairs for low income families as money must be found for school uniforms and to fill the space left in stomachs normally filled by free school meals. For many households in Edinburgh, this is a tough time of year.

The Council’s is, however, trying to address the issue via income maximisation (making sure families claim what they are entitled to) and via the excellent “Discover!” programme. This complements the diverse range of work being undertaken across the city by charities, community groups and, no doubt, grandparents. It is estimated, however, Discover! will reach less than 10% of those eligible for free school meals – and it operates only 3 days a week from just 4 hubs in our capital.

I had hoped when I was first elected  that our Capital could emulate Labour run North Lanarkshire and provide free school meals to everyone that needs it – this tiny Council operates their “Club 365” from 23 hubs. Unfortunately, my proposal to do this was not funded. Instead,  “Discover!” was trialled in Oxgangs Primary School in my Ward and also elsewhere in the city in the summer of 2018. This targeted the most vulnerable households in a way that went well beyond just providing free food.

I raised the Club 365 experience as part of the discussion stimulated by ETUC, and was appalled to see a Nationalist Councillor was silent on Council cuts and the Scottish Government’s intransigence on welfare powers, but instead focused the blame on the UK Government. I accept that the UK Government is the key driving force behind rising child poverty, but I cannot accept the Council and the Scottish Government can’t do more. Why else would the Scottish Government have a target to end child poverty? Why does the City of Edinburgh Council have the Edinburgh Poverty Commission?

Instead of considering doing more to help the poorest children in Edinburgh, the Nationalist Councillor shared this thought:

It won’t surprise you that I believe to have a truly compassionate Scotland where we are able to invest in our public services, end austerity and provide support to our most vulnerable citizens we must become an independent country – able to make our own decisions about our priorities and reject the agenda of tax cuts for the rich while public services and our poorest citizens suffer.

In other words, rather than act now she hopes independence is the answer. This is despite no independent economist saying we’d be wealthier as a nation and their economic blueprint being labelled as a “continuation of austerity” by the IFS.

We have to do much more than grandstand if we really want to deal with child poverty in our Capital. As someone who grew up in a deprived household I know how difficult it can be for parents to feed their children over the summer break. I find it frustrating that some Councillors in Edinburgh publicly claim to want a “truly compassionate Scotland”, but behind the closed doors of the City Chambers repeatedly block attempts to call both the UK and Scottish Government to account on the issue like the 2 Child Cap.  For them child poverty is a political tool, and they are happy for other Councils to take the lead on this.

Once the summer recess is over, I hope to again bring a motion to Council which will ask that we learn from Dumfries and Galloway CouncilNorth Lancashire’s “Club 365”, North Ayrshire’s “Wrap, Run and Fun”  and “Fife’s “Cafe inc“. Edinburgh should be leading on fighting child poverty, not following others.

In the build up to this, I have created a poll on my Facebook page and also Twitter: