Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Grove Street revisited ...

The Grove Street planning application was up before the Sub-Committee again this morning - the full, amended report can be found here.

There was a pretty lengthy debate on the proposed development - I think Members of the Committee had benefited from the earlier site-visit, which I'm grateful they agreed to - and the final decision today was to continue the application for a few more weeks to clarify several concerns, primarily parking, security and site-management.

As I said before ... I really do feel the plans will result in a loss of residential amenity for the local residents and if further (absolute) guarantees on parking, security and site-management can be built into the final decision, then that may just help ameliorate some of the potential negative effects from this application.

Deja Vu

Schools in Edinburgh would be forgiven for thinking they are suffering from a severe bout of Deja Vu given the headlines in the local paper yesterday ...

I'm certainly not aware of any new, definite proposals at the moment?

It is common knowledge that at the next meeting of the Education Committee (19th November) the Lib-Dem/SNP Administration intend to bring forward a report which will hopefully recommend the formation of a Sub-Committee (in essence a Cross Party Working Group) which is exactly what we've been asking them to do for months now ...

... and the report will also hopefully allow the Sub-Committee to 'work up/agree' criteria BEFORE any schools are brought forward for full and proper consultation on any potential closure - and again we've been asking for this type of approach for months.

I've had a lot of contact from people locally - worried about St. Cuthbert's - and I can only repeat that I'm not aware of any new, definite proposals at the moment.

£3billion ... and rising ...

I never cease to be amazed at just how little attention gets paid to the spiralling costs (and absolutely NOTHING has been built yet) of the proposed second Forth Road Bridge.

... every time the tram costs fluctuate by 0.01p there is a public outcry. Fair enough, I'm not complaining about it as public scrutiny is to be welcomed.

But the Scottish Government confirmed several weeks ago now that the cost of any second Forth Road Bridge would be in the region of £3 billion. Yes, £3billion - which, by the way, is a near 10-fold increase from original estimates in FETA's first Local Transport Strategy - and no one seems to have batted an eye-lid?

Maybe it will all be covered by the elusive "Scottish Futures Trust" ... one can but hope.

BBC News website is 10

The 10th-birthday story on the BBC News website yesterday - here - really caught my eye ... my own son was born in late 1997 and the story really does underline a whole generational difference in our relationships with technology.

... by the way, he is actually more computer-literate than me (not that hard I know!) and is still not yet 10 - just.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Switching mobile 'phone provider ...

I'm switching mobile 'phone provider tomorrow - keeping the same number! - but if I'm slower than usual in responding to any messages on the mobile tomorrow, please bear with me.

I'm assured it will be completely painless and over by 4pm ... we'll see?

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Word verification on ...

Been a bit plagued by spam-comments over the last few days - so have had to turn on 'word verification' I'm afraid.

I'll leave it on for a while, but do hope to be able to remove it in due course ...

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Party time ...

Saturday Party political event for most of today - always hugely popular at home :-(

It was the second in what it appears will be a pretty regular (hopefully not TOO regular) series of Edinburgh-wide events ... this one focusing on the Housing issues facing the capital.

Really good range of speakers and was actually an enjoyable Party political event - bizarre but true :-)

Another Party event this afternoon - children's Birthday Party this time! I won't report at which event the attendees were better behaved :-))

Friday, October 26, 2007

Third round of school building?

I've posted about all of this extensively before, but should report that at yesterday's Full Council meeting there was unanimity (across all five parties!) on a way forward for the next round of school building in Edinburgh.

I moved a motion (item 10.7 on the agenda) on behalf of the Labour Group, which was composited with some text from the Liberals, which then secured all-party support. The final product now reads:

"This Council re-affirms previous decisions regarding the need for a new Portobello High School.

This Council believes that any funding package for a new school for Portobello, and the other 4 schools in “wave 3”, must include substantial support from the Scottish Government and agrees to urgently submit a formal proposal to the Government seeking the required funding. Council further agrees:
  • to work with the school communities, of all 5 schools in wave 3, to press the Scottish Government for the required support
  • to report back early in the New Year on what contribution could be made from Council resources, through prudential borrowing and capital receipts, or other methods.

This Council recognises the serious and urgent need for 5 new or renovated 'Wave 3' schools and to this end will continue to discuss ways forward with the Scottish Government.

Council notes the on-going constructive dialogue between parents, teachers, the Director and Convener of Education, Children and Families and the Director of Finance on the way forward.

Council welcomes the proposals made by the above to:

  1. undertake initial feasibility studies and option appraisals with an aim of completion by end of January 2008 and presenting the results to a meeting of the Education, Children & Families Committee thereafter
  2. explore all possible financial options for funding the necessary work
  3. meet again in December 2007 to discuss progress."

Obviously, the Scottish Government now needs to deliver on their promised Scottish Futures Trust ... "Over the first term of an SNP government we will introduce a not-for-profit Scottish Futures Trust, which will provide lower cost borrowing opportunities. We expect the Scottish Futures Trust to emerge as a more attractive source of funding for both national and local projects which will effectively crowd out PFI/PPP over time. Current PFI/PPP contracts will be unaffected and it will be open to local authorities and other public bodies to choose between PFI/PPP and Scottish Futures Bonds for planned and future projects. In particular, we will match brick for brick current plans for improvements in our schools and hospitals."

But, to be blunt, I'm entirely unconvinced we would have got this far if we hadn't pressed the current Lib/Nat Coalition at a local level ... all the work done before May was just 'stopped' post-May, and the upshot is that (probably) six or so months have now been lost.

Anyhow, it all now seems to be back on track.

Gould Report (again!)

I blogged about the Gould Report a couple of times earlier this week ... here and here.

I see that Ron Gould himself has now written a letter to the Chair of the Electoral Commission - which can be found here - that seems to have re-ignited a pretty heated debate about the report's conclusions.

I've read his report a couple of times now, and haven't changed my mind on what I consider to be the main conclusion - that the crux of the problems that occurred on 3rd/4th May was the desperately late arrival of the legislation, which was preceded by very poor forward-planning by everyone involved, and far too much of a focus on politics instead of democracy ... a crucial and, in this case, near fatal difference.

Solution - STV for the Scottish Parliament elections :-)

Tragedy of the Commons?

Thinking more about denial ... I see the UN has a fairly worrying report out today that aptly reinforces the challenges facing us all.

BBC website covers the story here and the full UN report is here. The BBC website also has some pretty depressing graphics here.

You can't help but be reminded of Garrett Hardin's "Tragedy of the Commons" when you look at this report's conclusions.

Climate of denial

Well, it was indeed a long meeting - just after 7pm before the close of business :-(

I do have to reflect whether there are possibly too many motions (look at that agenda again - item 10 has 17 motions!) being laid directly at the main Council Meeting - absolutely acknowledge that one of them was put there by me. It will probably settle down over the coming months, but a lot of yesterday was taken up by those motions.

Main, strategic item of business was the Edinburgh Tram Final Business Case - report here - which was passed with four-Party support (Libs/Labs/Tories/Greens) with the Nats opposing ... at least being consistent, if not - for me - rational.

I do applaud the Tories ongoing support for the Edinburgh Tram ... it's an open secret that several of their number have concerns, and I think they faced up to those yesterday with several good contributions from the Chamber floor. They didn't go for the easy option of sitting on the fence, and I really hope their focus on the long-term benefits of the project for Edinburgh will continue over the coming months.

Apart from trams, other items of interest were several debates (surprise, surprise) about finances ... there does still seem to be a denial amongst the ruling Coalition that they've yet taken any decisions to reduce services? What can I say ... do have another look at these reports from June and September's Full Council meeting were well over £5million and £10million of service reductions were approved by the Lib-Nat Coalition.

And having praised the Tories for their stance on trams, for the sake of balance, I was pretty aghast at their stance on the Al Gore film, "An Inconvenient Truth" - see item 10.17 on the agenda. It did really all smack of an attempt to continue to pour doubt on the climate change debate - I'm glad that 'no action' was the decision of the Council on this item.

... but, the Tories' balance-sheet has to be a positive 2-1 for Cllr. Whyte's verbal question to the Council Leader during the debate on her Leader's Report ... I'm paraphrasing here, but it was along the lines of "apart from changing the Committee Structure, can you name one other major initiative that you've commenced/completed since May" - answer: 10-minutes of dialogue about all the letters that have been sent by the ruling-Coalition to the Scottish Government.

A definite, direct hit :-)

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Council Budget & Edinburgh University

More preparatory 2008/09 budget meetings this morning ... I have to say, even though it's nearly November (and budget day is only about 15-weeks away!) there are still huge uncertainties lurking around.

Now, to be fair, this is always - to some extent - the case when going through this process, but I do seriously sense even more 'doubt' about the general situation this year:
  • the overall local government settlement isn't going to be announced until December (apparently?) and if that slips, which is feasible, then there will literally only be a few weeks left before Councils have to set their budgets
  • no one seems to know with any certainty just what is going to happen around the whole issue of Council Tax this year, or next
  • is local authority autonomy to settle Council Tax rates going to be removed or not?
  • If it is, will there be 'fair and reasonable' financial compensation for the Council Tax assumptions that were made previously?
Obviously, the whole process is going to be very different for me in Opposition this year ... but I get the sense that, to be fair, it's also going to be pretty damned trying for the new Administration as they appear to be as much in the dark on some issues as everyone else.

None of which is good, and just reinforces my previous concerns about the 'central/local' relationship not having settled down since the elections in May.

I do hope my fears are unfounded.

Anyhow, a much more enjoyable afternoon was had - spent an hour or so speaking to Edinburgh University Students ... as per previous years ... and I didn't have to worry at all this year about being indiscreet :-)

Opposition does have some small benefits after all ...

... they are very small though :-(

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Another long-meeting this Thursday?

October's Full Council meeting this Thursday - just look at the length of that (12-page!!) agenda :-(

I sadly sense another very, very long-meeting coming up :-((

... mind you, there is one glimmer of a 'bright new future' from the Council Leader - not only is she now being positive about Edinburgh, but check out the last paragraph of this months "Leader's Report" where she says:

"The question is no longer who is to blame, but what to do."

... now, personally, I think she means it - and despite the fact that 23-years of Opposition should have been plenty of time to think about 'what to do', I do welcome the sentiment and change in tone - but is she speaking just for herself?; or all of the Lib-Dems??; or also for her Nationalist partners ???

We'll see over the coming days I guess ...

Hamster Houdini

Not mentioned my media-starlet of a pet for a while ...

... well, this evening she managed to escape her cage yet again (amazing but true!) and evaded capture for several hours before being located within the same spare mattress that she now seems to reckon is her second home :-(

Needles to say, this has caused great hilarity within the flat all evening but has seriously disrupted my viewing of European football ...

Gould update ...

Several readers have been in touch re- my earlier post on the Gould Report ... basically saying that the report doesn't make it entirely clear whether the 'management of elections', which Gould certainly does recommend should rest with the Scottish Government and not Westminster, would include the actual voting system?

Well, my quick reading of the report is that it "could include" the voting system ... the Scotland Act (1998) would have to be re-opened anyhow if the recommendation to have all electoral management issues reside in Scotland was followed through - and that re-opening could obviously include the actual electoral system for Holyrood becoming a determination for the Scottish Parliament and not for Westminster.

Gould Report published

The Scottish Elections Review (Gould Report) has been published this morning - full details are now up on the Electoral Commission's website ... here.

From my admittedly pro-STV standpoint, I'm really pleased to read that:

"The report concludes that there is very little evidence to support the argument that the simultaneous local government election using STV contributed to the higher rejection rate in the Scottish parliamentary election. The evidence points instead to the combined Scottish parliamentary sheet as the cause of the problem."

There are also several other very positive references to the use of STV contained within the main report ... the vast, vast majority of the criticism is laid at the door of the incredibly late arrival of some of the legislation for the May 3rd elections and the overall, poor forward-planning by all concerned and the over-concentration with politics as opposed to the voter ... well, there is one way to quickly put the voter at the heart of the electoral process; and it's the use of STV for all levels of election, and to quickly scrap the use of AMS (for the Scottish Parliament elections) which woefully retains far too much control in the hands of [all] Party-machines.

And one very interesting issue flows from Gould's main recommendations ... as most readers will know, Westminster is currently in charge of overseeing the Holyrood elections with the Scottish Parliament having control of the local authority poll. Gould recommends that talks begin now on assigning responsibility for both elections to one body and suggests that the most "logical choice" would be to appoint the Scottish Government as that one body.

... so, if that comes to pass (and personally I think it would make sense) then will the SNP quickly legislate to change the Holyrood electoral system to STV in time for the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections?

It is after all their Party policy to implement STV for all levels of election and they WOULD secure a majority for the change within the Scottish Parliament.

I wonder??

Monday, October 22, 2007

... that really bad Burns

Some wag has just pointed out to me, whilst hardly being able to control his merriment, that if you go to Google and search for:

'that really bad Burns'

... then hit the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button; guess what you get?

At least it amused someone!

The modern treadmill

Back to the 'treadmill' today - Glen Orchy already seems a lifetime away and it's only 6.30pm on Monday evening :-(

... the three-and-a-half hour Group Meeting this afternoon was NOT exactly the most advisable way to return to the 'work regime' :-((

How many weeks until Christmas??

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Location, Location, Location

I've just spotted that on Thursday last week - whilst I was woefully failing in my quest to catch a fish from the River Orchy - Edinburgh was awarded "the best place to live in the UK" award by the Channel 4 programme "Location, Location, Location".

I was astounded, but pleased, to see the Council Leader gushing positively about the wonderful merits of the city of Edinburgh in the official Council News Release - full text here:

“This result is great news for the city and confirms what we all know – Edinburgh is a great place to live, work, invest and visit. The city truly has the best of everything; stunning architecture, fantastic employment opportunities, a vibrant leisure and retail offering, abundant green space, outstanding schools and universities…the list goes on.

“This is the latest in a series of positive and independent accolades, continuing the well-deserved recognition for the businesses and communities that make Edinburgh an outstanding city. The results echo loud and clear the conclusions of a recent MORI Poll of Edinburgh citizens which showed record levels of satisfaction with the city. We are rightly proud of our excellent quality of life and I am delighted that Edinburgh has topped the poll.”

Well said indeed!

The official Council News Release then goes on to list some of Edinburgh's positive attributes:
  • Edinburgh is a wonderfully green city, with approximately 40% of the urban area being green space including 147 parks, gardens and woodland areas
  • In the last 9 years, 300 acres of new parks have been created in Edinburgh, and the new Parks and Gardens Strategy carries a £5 million investment
  • Edinburgh is the jewel in the crown of the Scottish tourism economy providing a gateway to the rest of the country. Attracting 1.3million international visitors annually – 45% of all overseas tourists to Scotland.
  • Visitors spend around £1.7billion in the city annually.
  • We have some of the country’s most iconic tourism attractions including the Castle, Edinburgh Zoo, Holyrood Palace and the Scottish Parliament
  • We have a growing population at 453,670 - a clear sign that people want to live in the city.
  • With just 1.9% unemployment amongst our work-age citizens – well below the national average.
  • Free personal and nursing care was introduced in July 2002 for people aged 65 and over. The number of people in Edinburgh currently receiving Free Personal or Nursing Care is 4,315
  • Edinburgh was the first local authority to put in place an older people’s strategy – A City for All Ages. This strategy is now entering its second stage and has received extensive praise particularly around the meaningful involvement of older people themselves. It has also been nominated for a Eurocities Award in the innovation category.
  • The City was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 1995 and is the world’s first City of Literature.
  • Edinburgh is the UK’s place to visit for the perfect night out, according to an Amstel/Virgin Radio poll – thanks to the rich diversity and vibrancy of its venues.
    Edinburgh has also been voted European City of the Year at the 2006 Urbanism Awards.
  • The city was praised by the judges for being an “attractive, safe and enticing place for people to play, visit and enjoy”.
  • Edinburgh's unique ‘Get up and Go’ programme offers a one stop shop of hundreds of social, educational and sporting opportunities to people over the age of 50, and particularly at those who normally find it difficult to get involved in activities.
  • Crime rates have dropped by 2% in the last year with Edinburgh having the lowest crime rate amongst all Scottish cities.
  • The city also offers a wealth of sporting opportunities for all ages and has proudly staged a wide variety of national and international events. Next year sees the arrival of the World Cross Country Championships in March and the annual return of urban adventure racing in the form of the Rat Race.
  • The latest addition, the Edinburgh International Climbing Arena at Ratho, is home to the world's largest indoor climbing arena and has 10,000 visitors each month.

Not one mention of that previous crowd who, some claim, ran the city so appallingly for the last 23 years and had supposedly left Edinburgh on the verge of meltdown??

What with the research for the above Award having been done in May and June 2007, I'd have thought the Liberals could have claimed they'd turned the city around in lightning-quick time and rescued it from a further 23 years of hell-and-servitude ...

... on reflection, not even they have the brass-neck for that one.

Just wasn't to be ... times two

Well, my nerves are completely wrecked!

Not only have England lost that trophy ...

... Lewis Hamilton has blown the Formula One World drivers' championship :-(

Not a great weekend for British sport :-((

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Webb Ellis trophy to stay in London?

Will Phil Vickery really be picking this up in a few hours time??

I think he just might ... I really do ...

... come on England - you can do it!!

(not sure my nerves will remain intact until 9.30pm)

No fish today

Back in sunny Edinburgh this afternoon.

A very relaxing week had by all the family - we were up in Glen Orchy, same as last October, and have now been there three years running ...

... and still haven't caught a fish in the River Orchy :-(

Even tried a spot of 'pier-fishing' in Loch Etive (as per this picture) but no luck there either :-((

No fish today - as Kid Creole once sang ...

... back to more serious pursuits on Monday :-)

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Normal service will resume on 22nd Oct!

That's it - half-term is here and blogging will be extremely light (if not 'non-existent') until 22nd October ...

... despite the photo, I will be within mobile-phone range (unfortunately) for any emergencies, but do hope to have a week of uninterrupted bliss with 'all-things Edinburgh' being completely absent from my thoughts :-)

Very much looking forward to spending more than a couple of hours per week day with the family ...

Friday, October 12, 2007

Planetary Emergency

Personally, I'm completely convinced that global warming is the biggest threat facing the planet.

... there is a planetary emergency in the making and our generation, and the few before it, are responsible for creating the conditions that have led us to where we are.

I do think the position is salvageable, but only if we face up to some pretty stark truths fairly quickly ... and take appropriate action.

So, I'm delighted that Al Gore has received (jointly) the Nobel Peace Prize.

... sure, his recent film had a few points that are still scientifically contested - but very, very few contest that current climate change is mainly caused by man-made emissions of greenhouse gases and that this will have serious consequences for the future.

I think today's award is just recognition for the vast, vast majority who 'do recognise' the inconvenient truth staring us all in the face. Senior national politicians, of which Gore is no longer one, need to recognise the same.

No ticket offers to date

Sadly, despite my very unsubtle hint, no ticket offers for the match in France tomorrow night have been forthcoming :-(

Let's hope those who have made it to Paris won't be disappointed ...

I'm still convinced that England can do it :-)

Xmas comes early

My favourite local newspaper has today been claiming the "quickest victory the Evening News has ever won" ...

... well, around the City Chambers a significant number (remember there's only 17 of them ... okay, okay I know that's 2 more than us!) of my Liberal colleagues have been bemoaning that the whole story has been whipped up out of nothing :-(

Ever one to be eager to help solve a mystery, I thought I'd check up on who knew what and when, just to see if the politicians were right in their assertion of press-skulduggery ... so, have a look at this report that went before Full Council on 28th June 2007 ...

... go to page 9 of 11 (of the Appendix) and you'll see some £100K being taken out of the 'Economic Development' budget with the express warning that "this reduction may also affect the Winter Festivals" ... Xmas lights are an integral part of said-Winter Festivals :-((

Oh dear, oh dear ... didn't they READ this report before pushing through all those cuts?? No press skulduggery here I'm afraid (for once!).

I suggest my Liberal (and Nationalist) colleagues have a careful re-read of that Appendix, as it contains another £5.5million worth of cuts that they approved!

Xmas lights was one of the least-offensive ... and don't forget, constructive alternatives were offered and rejected.

School Closure guidelines

I see the front page of the Herald this morning has a story concerning guidelines to be followed before closing any state school ... apparently the Minister has sent a letter to all 32 Councils in Scotland that stresses:

... "the importance of preserving quality education in schools, rather than moving to closure to save money, or because of short-term population fluctuations.

... and "the importance of assessing the wider impact of school closures on the viability and regeneration of the local community has also been stressed."

At this juncture, it would be very easy to make a few cheap political jokes ...

... but I'll resist; and simply welcome this clarification from the Minister and hope that those in power locally in Edinburgh will pay attention before they bring any future rationalisation plans back before the Council.

October Half-Term

October half-term week from tomorrow ... and being married to a Teacher, and having a school-aged child, means we're all able to escape Edinburgh for a few days from this weekend ;-)

Does mean that today at work will be the usual blind-panic to clear all the outstanding paperwork etc. before being able to leave the office this evening.

Thankfully, my diary is mercifully free of formal meetings ... mind you, that usually only means that some other, unexpected crisis or news story will appear to miraculously fill the vacuum :-(

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Glasgow Zoo ??

I've recounted before (here and here) how the only things that used to encourage me to visit Edinburgh in the 1970's and 1980's were the zoo and the castle ...

... and how I seriously worry that the City is actually going back to those days :-(

Well, it appears I simply cannot be correct because things are actually a lot worse than I anticipated and we're potentially about to lose the zoo from the City completely :-((

... indeed, there is a dark rumour stalking the City Chambers here in Edinburgh that another City Chambers 55 miles to the West are rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of nicking our zoo!

Unfortunately, I believe, that there is actually some truth behind all of this ... its that third law of classical mechanics again I'm afraid.

Can they do it again?

I see the current England Captain is getting a bit excited about this weekend's match - here.

I reckon he just might have a point ... and that England could do it again :-)

... apparently a veritable invasion of fans (of both nationalities!) is on the way to Paris for the match on Saturday evening - the atmosphere is just bound to be completely electric.

I have a long-standing policy of never accepting free-tickets for anything in my role as an elected Councillor ... I could always be persuaded to abandon it for the right offer :-))

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy?

With all the heat (and no light - as usual) of PMQ's today, I think a hugely significant shift in health-policy got completely over-shadowed ... the massive investment announced for the development of the so-called 'talking therapies' (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy [CBT] to any psychotherapists out there!) ...

... now, needless to say, this does have its detractors ... but I'm personally convinced its a big-step in the right direction toward prevention rather than reaction. I thought it noteworthy that any criticism was fairly muted and that in itself is (for me) a direct reflection that most do believe this is a good policy move.

I've got no professional background in this area whatsoever, but became convinced of its worth when I listened to Professor Richard Layard give the 2003 Lionel Robbins Memorial Lectures - there were 3 and they can all be accessed here.

I think the lectures are pretty convincing in their argument, and it's refreshing to see such work feeding through into actual policy change so comparatively quickly.

I'm convinced this move will have a massive, positive impact on thousands and thousands of lives.

Grove Street

Attended the Planning Sub-Committee this morning (agenda here) as I do have some concerns about a current local planning application in Grove Street - full report here (it's a pretty large file, so may take some time to load!) ...

... I really do feel the plans, as proposed, will result in a loss of residential amenity for the local residents, and was pleased that the Sub-Committee unanimously agreed to a 'site-visit' before reaching any final determination.

Lets hope the visit will bring home to the Members just how densely developed the area already is, whilst retaining a pretty healthy residential community ... a combination that certainly requires a careful balancing act for any new developments.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Pre Budget Report

I'm genuinely intrigued by all the fuss over the Pre Budget Report in Scotland ...
  • NOBODY is disputing that the 'overall' settlement for Scotland will have more than doubled since the onset of devolution; some £29billion by the end of this three-year period (2011), compared to some £14billion in 1999. That's a +100% increase within the first 12-years of devolution (1999-2011)
  • NOBODY is disputing that the year-on-year rise for the next three-year period is ABOVE inflation. Indeed, I don't think I've heard 'anyone' claim it's less than 0.5% above inflation in any of the upcoming three-years and many are claiming it's a lot higher than that. So every year for the next three years, as per the last nine years, the monies coming to the 'Scottish Executive/Government' will rise ABOVE the level of inflation.

I really do think that most people, in the real world, would welcome having had such a financial deal over the past nine years, and the guarantee of such a financial deal for the next three years.

I also really do think that the Nationalist Government in Scotland just need to get on with governing now ... it's what they were elected for.

... and I actually believe they'll be doing themselves no political favours at all by continuing the current whining about finances for too long.

It just doesn't sit well with the 'atmosphere of competence' they are trying to display in their early years in charge.

Criticism comes with the territory ...

Sorry - but this is going to be a long post.

One of my earlier entries appears to have caused a bit of personal annoyance and, ever one to try and be helpful, I'd like to clear up any confusion. So, here goes ...

... it was the first meeting of the Health, Social Care and Housing Committee earlier today - agenda here. In the main, I thought it was a reasonably good Committee Meeting, with no political divisions whatsoever, and a good level of questioning towards the officers present.

But, at the end of one particular report being discussed - the one entitled "Improved Policing for the City Centre" - the Committee Convener threw a bit of a wobbler and had a real go at both Gordon Munro for his letter in yesterday's local paper (here), and yours truly for my earlier blog entry (here).

Now, regular readers of the blog will know that I rarely (if ever??) actually 'name' local political opponents. Sure, I'm happy enough to be critical of their policies (where I think it justified) but I NEVER denigrate people personally and always attempt in everything I do to keep the political and the personal completely separate. Close friends and colleagues will know that's an essential skill when you're in a high-profile public role - I do understand this from real experience :-(

So, I am a little flabbergasted when the new crowd in charge appear to be taking every single, political criticism as some sort of 'slight' on their 'personal' character. What can I say, political criticism goes with the territory and they'd better get used to it as they most likely have another three and a half years of it in front of them. And, if the first five months are anything to go by, then they can expect bucket-loads of it.

Anyhow, back to the Committee Meeting - said Convener ... who I actually like as an individual ... went a bit ballistic at Gordon's letter and my blog entry accusing the Liberals of taking credit for something they didn't actually do. In essence, taking the credit for the success of the extra Police Officers in the City Centre when the money for those officers was from a previous (Labour) budget which they did not support.

In his rant, said Convener seemed to be indicating that both Gordon and I should humbly apologise for besmirching the Liberals good name because they DID support the extra monies??

Well, if I'm wrong here (and I clearly don't think I am) I will be the first to publicly apologise, but I've now looked back at the last two (just to be safe) budgets and am not currently minded to retract a single word I've already said.
  • the 2006/2007 budget (set on 9th February 2006) minute is here and if you read through it you'll see that Labour's motion put in an extra 300k/500K/500K over three years for extra police officers, with 18 specifically being mentioned for the City Centre. This is not the 'Quality of Life' monies which are totally separate. The Liberals amendment didn't put that specific money in and they voted against our motion.
  • the 2007/2008 budget (set on 8th February 2007) minute is here and if you read through it you'll see that Labour's motion continued the extra police funding (again specifically mentioning the extra 18 officers) with 500K/500K/500K over three years. Again, not the 'Quality of Life' monies which are totally separate. This time the Liberals amendment actually 'tried' to CUT that extra money to 400K/408K/469K and they voted against our motion.
So, on both occasions the Liberals voted against the 18 extra police officers for the City Centre ... just what I claimed in my earlier post and Gordon claimed in his Evening News letter.

Come on Libs ... I will offer an apology if I'm wrong, but if not then have the good grace to STOP claiming credit for things you didn't do - it diminishes not just you, but the whole political trade.

... oh, and get used to political criticism - it doesn't mean that others think you're awful people, just that they disagree with your politics.

Monday, October 08, 2007

CoSLA and Local Authority finance

Attended a presentation earlier today from CoSLA officers and senior-politicians ... had to leave a bit early, but there was some very interesting questioning (and answers!) about the upcoming financial settlement for Scottish Local Government ... in particular around the issue of a Council Tax freeze - which I do feel should more correctly be labelled "the complete removal of local government fiscal autonomy" :-(

I've been banging on recently about the importance of the National/Local relationship - here and here - because I am worried its about to go through a very challenging period. Nothing I heard today reassured me.

I was first elected in 1999 and, as a very keen supporter of devolution and the formation of the Scottish Parliament, was always dismayed to hear colleagues (of all political persuasions) constantly whine about the potential removal of powers from Local Government as they were certain to be sucked-up to the Holyrood-level.

Well, it never really happened did it ... doesn't get a lot of commentary (not sexy enough) but very few significant (if any significant?) powers have been lost from Local Government to Holyrood since 1999.

I've got a serious (and entirely apolitical) fear we're about to see that change.

Thankfully, no bets were placed

Well thankfully, no bets were placed :-(

I know nobody was paying any attention to the polls (??) but I can't help but notice that the BBC has a report up on its site today - here - that quotes Peter Kellner (the Chairman of YouGov) saying "we have a three-point Conservative lead, they are at 41%. That's the highest figure the Conservatives have been at for 15 years, since before Black Wednesday in 1992. It's been a massive turnaround. We had the Conservatives at just 32% just 10 days ago - a nine-point jump."

A nine-point jump in 10 days? I really find it hard to believe - I'm not denying there's been movement (there always is during conference season) but this does all seem pretty unusual ... to say the least.

But then again, the movement in the polls throughout the recent Scottish Parliamentary campaign was pretty unusual as well - with a frequent over-inflation of the eventual Lib-Dem vote and an under-inflation of the eventual Labour vote - some of that detail can be seen here ... interestingly, the SNP vote was pretty accurately predicted in most polls with only a very slight under-inflation.

Many have speculated that the only conclusion is voters are clearly less tribal and less 'bound' to any one particular political view ... well, current fluctuations (over the last 12-months now) do appear to be giving that theory some very serious credibility.

Interesting times indeed.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Come on England ...

Well, no World Cup semi-final this year :-(

Disappointing really, felt that Scotland could have beaten Argentina ... who didn't look all that impressive ... but they just didn't seem to get into their stride until the last quarter.

Let's hope England can defeat France next weekend ... either way, there's now certain to be a European team in the final which few thought possible at the start of the tournament.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Fantastic result!

Just watched the Australia V England match - have to admit my bias here as I am half-English - but what a result; and thoroughly deserved.

Australia just never looked liked they were going to get it - and they're unquestionably regarded as the pre-eminent team in the world at the moment. Not any more :-)

Thank goodness Scotland won't meet England until the final :-))

Friday, October 05, 2007

On a lighter note

On a lighter note ... rugby-mania is set, once again, to grip the flat over the weekend :-)

So, okay, we lost - just - to New Zealand ... but I reckon that Scotland could pull it off against Argentina on Sunday night. I'm sure I watched them thrash Argentina once at Murrayfield??

Problem is, if successful, they'll likely face South Africa in the semis and I think you'd really have to be 'optimistic' to see Scotland getting beyond that ... about as much chance as David Cameron securing an overall, working Commons majority in November :-))

Move over Del Boy ...

I'm almost lost for words - well not quite! - but have a quick read at this opinion-piece in today's edition of my favourite local newspaper ...

... now, all is fair in love, war and politics and I'm NOT going to be critical of the Liberals 'trying' to lay the blame on Labour for the ongoing challenges that undoubtedly exist around Child Inspection services at the Council.

But, once again, they're trying to take credit - without any justification whatsoever - for positive aspects of policy that have got absolutely NOTHING to do with them. They claim in the opinion-piece that "since the new administration took over we have taken a number of steps to make improvements. An additional £6 million was allocated to meet the needs of vulnerable children and those at risk of child protection concerns."

That's a lie - plain and simple.

It was actually an additional £6.25million and was put into the Children and Families budget in February 2007 by me, as the then Executive Member, when the then Labour Administration set the 2007/08 budget - you know, that budget that is near-causing the end of civilisation in the city as I ruminated about earlier.

The Liberals, in the same opinion-piece, then go on to claim that "this (money) was used to increase the number of foster carer and residential placements. The number of children's social workers has increased from 114 to 143 over the last two years."

That's all true - but it was all achieved under the previous Labour Administration, and not as somehow 'alluded-to' as a direct result of anything the Liberals did!

Now, just to be clear, I'll repeat that I accept there are huge challenges still existing around the Child Inspection Services in Edinburgh - I've never said otherwise. But very significant progress has been made in recent years and it really is low-politics at its worst for the Liberals to lie in an attempt to take the credit for that progress.

And politicians wonder why folk are disillusioned with our trade :-((


Someone has just reminded me what I said in one of the comment-exchanges back in mid-August ...

... "your comment - and my answer - has made me realise that my "labels (entry categories)", which are down the right-hand sidebar, are pretty out-of-date and too few ... I think I'll try and re-organise them a bit over the next week or so, so that it's easier to find older stuff on certain subjects etc."

Apologies due - I obviously haven't got round to doing this yet ... I will as soon as I get a few free hours, as I do appreciate it is becoming increasingly difficult (especially the 'older' the blog gets) to find an entry about a specific issue.

I would welcome any other constructive comments about how readers feel I could improve the layout of the blog ... constructive I said :-)


No, not that 2007/08 budget - you know, the one that the current Administration simultaneously try and claim is practically leading to the end of civilisation in Edinburgh and has, at the very same time, had such a positive impact in reducing crime levels in the city centre??

... but the 2008/09 Budget!

Yes, despite it only being early October 2007, the first-round of Opposition meetings starts today - with Department Directors - to start formulating an Opposition Budget for 2008/09, which will all come before the Council in early February 2008.

Actually, never having been in this situation before (no smug comments please!) it will require a completely different approach ... we're determined to have an alternative budget that protects front-line services for children, the vulnerable and the elderly - much like was achieved over the last couple of decades actually - and to throw up a stark contrast with the 'political decisions' that have been taken since May which have led to the reduction in some of these said services.

Of course, whatever is decided at a national level on Council Tax ... will Local Authorities have the ability to raise revenue for the next couple of years or won't they?? ... could have a major impact on how much independence Councils will have in determining their own financial fate and what services they can provide. I hope that National politicians do keep that very important dynamic in mind over the coming months ...

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Schools correspondence

I should have said earlier - if anyone wants the 'full' correspondence between the Council and the old Scottish Executive on all of this, then just e-mail me and I'll gladly forward it ...

... I can't upload it here as its all in TIF and PDF formats, and blogger only takes JPEG and GIF ??

... any helpful tips on how to easily change to Blogger-friendly formats would be gratefully received ;-)

Third-round of school building ...

I see that the "third-round of school building" saga continues to attract a fair bit of press attention ... and that my earlier statement recounting that "we had a firm commitment to refurbish or rebuild those five schools" has made the letters page of my favourite local newspaper.

Needless to say, I've sent a response - thought I might as well print it in full here:


In the light of Cllr. Beckett's obvious confusion (letters, October 4th) I do feel obliged to write and unreservedly repeat my statement that "we had a firm commitment to refurbish or rebuild those five schools." Just for the further avoidance of any doubt, the dictionary definition of commitment is 'a pledge or a promise'.

Our local manifesto for the May 2007 elections did indeed have a firm commitment to build a total of eight brand new schools in Edinburgh, adding to the 20 new or refurbished school buildings we had already made possible; and our national manifesto had a firm commitment to build a further 250 new schools, across Scotland, in the lifetime of the current Parliament.

These firm Labour commitments were somewhat echoed in Cllr. Beckett's own local manifesto, which stated the SNP would "match the existing building programme; brick for brick, financed through a lower cost bond based system"; and his national manifesto which also stated that "we will match the current school building programme brick for brick, and offer an alternative funding mechanism through the Scottish Futures Trust."

Can I therefore humbly suggest that instead of trying to make cheap political points through the letters page of the Evening News that Cllr. Beckett, as Vice-Convener of Education in this city, uses the power he now has to the benefit of Edinburgh's school population. A good starting point might be speaking to the Cabinet Secretary for Education & Lifelong Learning and trying to persuade her to actually deliver on her firm commitment to match Labour's spending plans for new schools.

Andrew Burns

Don't touch it

Seriously thought I'd woken up on April 1st when I read this story on the BBC Scotland web-site this morning ... and an RAF spokesman says:

"The dark blue bomb is two-and-a-half feet long" ... people were warned not to touch it ...

Certainly puts losing the car-keys into perspective :-)

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Shandon Mince mystery?

The venerated Shandon Mince - mentioned on these pages before - has a recent News entry whose accompanying picture (replicated here) baffles me completely ...

... can anyone explain to me why Tom Oswald (ex-City MP) was campaigning to have the Union Canal drained??

I'm sure there is a perfectly logical answer - but I can't think of it?

... printable responses only please - thank you :-))

Del Boy would be proud

You've got to admire the sheer bravado in the Council News Release from this morning ... have a look here at the Administration's quote, from one of their Liberal number:

"We are delighted to see that our additional funding, for 18 police officers, together with the highly successful partnership working, has already had such a positive impact on crime levels in this area."

... errrm, that was the additional funding put into the Council budget in February 2007 (for financial year 2007/08) by the then Labour Administration, and if I recall correctly the Liberals voted against it!

... in addition, isn't that the very same budget that they've spent weeks whinging about - practically claiming that it was leading to the downfall of civilisation in Edinburgh?? (conveniently forgetting that it had been cleared by the Director of Finance as competent at the time).

And Lib-Dems wonder why they have a name for being 'opportunistic'.

You couldn't make it up - their sheer brass-neck is though impressive and frankly would put Del-Boy to shame.

Campbell beats Cameron :-)

Yes, it's now official - Ming Campbell mentioned Gordon Brown 11 times in his conference speech and David Cameron only managed 5 mentions earlier this afternoon ...

... I should have put that money on Cameron being unable to resist having a pop at the PM :-(

That aside, and political bias admitted, I thought Cameron's speech was fairly competent in delivery but pretty light on any specific detail.

If the bookies were still taking odds, I'd certainly bet on that election being on Thursday 1st November ... okay, I got the 25th October wrong but at least I hadn't put any money on it :-)

A whole new political dynamic ...

I think the recent chaos - how else can you describe it - surrounding the future of educational provision in Edinburgh has thrown up another, wider issue that's received precious little press comment ... the relationship between national and local government in Scotland - between a new Parliamentary authority AND the new proportionally-elected Councils (mostly coalitions) at a local level.

It is a crucial relationship to get right - as the Old Scottish Executive often found out to its cost - because if the lawmakers (as that's what they are) at Holyrood want their laws to be effectively delivered by the service providers (as that what THEY are) at Council level, then they have to have a constructive relationship based on respect and parity of esteem.

I'm not sure the new Scottish 'Executive/Government' has given this crucial relationship enough thought - that's NOT meant to be a political criticism, just an opinion based on some evidence of how this has worked (or not) at the Edinburgh level to date. I hear on the grapevine that similar tensions are bubbling away in all of Scotland's cities and even in some of the rural Councils.

There's a whole new political dynamic here - between a minority national Government and mostly Coalition Councils - that's never been tried or tested before and I do think that both sides need to start thinking far more seriously about how to make that dynamic work ... essentially towards the best outcomes for the people they're supposed to be serving.

At the minute, given experience in Edinburgh to date, I'm not at all convinced that this is happening ... yes 'Oppositions' have a role, but this is primarily about power and how its used; and that, ultimately, is an issue for the myriad new 'Administrations' in Scotland.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Relevant reports - here

I've received quite a few e-mails about the last post ...

... basically asking where the relevant reports can be accessed - well, they're all linked from that 21st December 2006 Full Council Meeting post here ... the crucial one on further investment in the school estate being here.

That third law of classical mechanics

I posted some time ago about Newton's third law of classical mechanics ... 'if a force acts on a body, then an equal and opposite force must act upon another body' ...

... well, unfortunately, Portobello High School (and others) have just joined the 'Ayr Cancer Centre' as a victim of this political (not just physical) axiom.

I've posted extensively on the Portobello High School situation - best way to see all the posts containing 'Portobello' is to go here. It's a long story, but in essence:

  • the City of Edinburgh Council has had two successful rounds of new/refurbished 'school building programme'
  • these programmes have been funded via Public Private Partnerships (PPP) ... not everyone's funding mechanism of first-choice, but alternatives to provide huge capital investment quickly are few and far between
  • the second round of school building programme is still under way, due for completion in early 2010
  • by then (early 2010) one third of all Edinburgh's pupils will be learning in new or completely refurbished buildings
  • a third round of 'school building programme' was planned and significant work was done on this pre- May 2007
  • in February/March 2007 the Council wrote to the (then) Scottish Executive saying we were working on a third round and giving details of the 5 schools for which we had initial plans
  • the Scottish Executive responded and said, fine ... get back to us after the election when we can potentially consider any such proposals in detail
  • no absolute promises - obviously - due to the imminent election
  • we constructed a timeline of work to carry on developing these proposals with, crucially, a Business Case for the 5 schools (some £100million worth of projects) being scheduled for development immediately after the election and due for submission to the Scottish Executive at the end of August 2007
  • I met with all 5 school Heads and School Board Chairs and shared that timeline with them ... I have it as a PDF (won't load onto Blogger!) but if anyone wants it, just let me know and I'll send it to you by e-mail
  • May 3rd - SNP wins the election nationally (and also subsequently shares power locally)
  • the education section of the national SNP manifesto is here
  • the SNP are opposed to PFI/PPP - full stop
  • crucially they say in their national manifesto: "We will match the current school building programme brick for brick, and offer an alternative funding mechanism through the Scottish Futures Trust. With better value bonds we can release more money to invest in the frontline."
  • the SNP local (Edinburgh) manifesto said something very similar: "We will match the existing building programme; brick for brick, financed through a lower cost bond based system which is a far more cost-effective option than PFI/PPP."
  • my emphasis!

Well, today we learn they won't be investing anything further in Edinburgh's school estate in the short term ... why - well they haven't worked out how to run or operate a 'Scottish Futures Trust'; in fact, I don't think they even know if such a Trust is possible for this type of capital project?

I genuinely hope I'm wrong and they deliver such a Trust in due course ... I won't though be holding my breath.

Frankly, the SNP have had eight-years in Opposition to work on this ... they clearly have done no serious work on it at all, and have now boxed themselves into a corner ... they won't use PFI/PPP, and the end result is Portobello High School (and many, many others across Scotland) will have to wait for traditional financial methods to fund refurbishments.

We all know what that means.

It is a scandal ... and only goes to prove (tragically) that Newton's third law of classical mechanics does indeed apply to politics and not just physics.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Last chance saloon?

Well, well, well ... September 7th (less than a month ago - will this happen every month??) and here's what was reported (full story here) and said by the Council Leader:

Last chance for city coalition

LIBERAL Democrats today warned they will end their council coalition with the SNP if the Nationalists step out of line once more.

Council leader Jenny Dawe said her Lib Dem colleagues still felt a sense of betrayal at the SNP's sudden decision to withdraw their support for the controversial school closure plans.

But they had decided to carry on with the coalition and renegotiate the deal to tighten up the code on how to handle disagreements.

Cllr Dawe said: "This really did come extremely close to breaking the coalition and we are not going to be handed the same set of cards another time. If anything like this happened again, I don't think the group will reach the same decision."

Fast forward to today - and "SNP chief tears up new city pub laws" ... full story here.

Now is the Council Leader a woman of her word ?? ... one can but hope; in vain I suspect :-(