With independence we gain the opportunity to decide how we build society

This article was originally written by request for a PCS Union members’ newsletter.

The debate on Scottish independence provides a unique opportunity to ask what kind of society we want to be, and with such a broad range of people inspired to talk about their vision, I am grateful for this opportunity to share my own views with members of PCS.

As a Green, my confidence in independence stems not from national identity, but from a desire to bring power closer to people. Greens don’t see independence as an end in itself but as a means to delivering politics that are better suited to those living with the consequences of decision-making, which engender more localised economics, and which encourage job-creation.

As a highly skilled country with good education and great potential, Scotland has the opportunity to create well-paid, secure jobs, with many sectors such as shipbuilding, energy, digital technology, construction and engineering that can thrive across Scotland with dedicated investment and attention. We need to offer an alternative to austerity, inequality, insecure jobs and low wages.

We live in a wealthy nation yet inequality is increasing, and the austerity agenda has a particularly devastating impact on women and children. Families struggling in poverty are bearing the brunt of the UK cuts, while the rich continue to get richer. A Yes vote will not transform our economy overnight, but does provide the opportunity to begin to create a jobs-rich, equal, resilient and locally-based economy designed for Scotland that provides for everyone to live well.

In the event that responsibility for employment law comes to Scotland, our polling shows over 75% support a requirement for large private sector employers to ensure pay equality. On average, women earn 13% less than men in full-time jobs, almost 34% less in part-time, and it is clear the strong desire exists to close this shameful gap. With employment laws reserved to Westminster however, public opinion being reflected in political will in the Scottish Parliament cannot yet be enough to allow us to effect necessary changes.

The opportunity we have in September is to take responsibility for decisions like this here in Scotland. I believe we have a greater chance of achieving the changes that so many want to see if we make decisions for ourselves rather than leaving them to an increasingly out of touch Westminster.

Independence is also an opportunity to create a progressive tax system, free from the loopholes that have seen billions lost in tax dodging and offshore tax havens, with enough people employed to collect a fair tax. We can afford more for education, healthcare and other vital public services if we take the opportunity to change course, and fulfil the responsibility we have to make Scotland as healthy and as fair a society as we have it in our power to be.

For many people there is no option but low-skilled, poorly paid work. Too many face underemployment and don’t have the secure jobs to provide the quality of life they need now, let alone a pay packet that enables them to save for the future. Focussing on creating highly skilled and highly productive jobs will provide better pay and more rewarding work. This will bring an increased tax take and the ability to invest in research and development, innovation and the services we all rely on.

While both support independence, one of the areas Green policy differs from the current SNP government is in their wish to cut corporation tax. This is a regressive step that risks a race to the bottom.

Employers seeking to develop or locate in Scotland need good quality infrastructure, a skilled and healthy population, and the other benefits of social provision. These factors matter more to employers with a genuine long term commitment, while marginal tax rates appeal to here-today-gone-tomorrow investors.

Nevertheless, differing opinion on policy among pro-independence parties is healthy, it emphasises that the politics of Scotland’s future does not end with a Yes vote on 18th September – that just marks the beginning. From the Holyrood election in 2016 and beyond, the people of Scotland will have the opportunity to choose the government that best represents them, whoever that may be.

The mass under-representation and lack of expectations currently on offer tell of a society desperately in need of revitalisation. With independence and further community empowerment, this generation has the chance to address the democratic deficit that exists in Scotland, giving people far more say in how their communities, let alone their country, should be run.

2014 can be the starting point for a radical transformation of our economy and society. I will vote Yes because I believe we must take the opportunity of further responsibility, for welfare, employment law, taxation and much more. Then we really can push ahead to create a society that works for all, now and in the generations to come.

Gaza: urgent need for an arms embargo


Last night I was please to be able to speak in a brief debate about Gaza. You can watch the debate and my speech at the bottom of this page, but here’s what I said.

Greens across Europe and the world continue to call for a sustained and secure ceasefire in Gaza, for negotiations between Israel and Hamas and for a renewed commitment to on-going peace.

I welcome the Scottish Government’s support for an arms embargo and the stronger line of support for the Palestinian people that has been taken by Scottish ministers. I ask that the Minister for External Affairs continues to strive to ensure that the UK is fully aware of the urgent need for such an embargo, and that it is fully aware of a newspaper article over the weekend that reported the Israeli use of Scots-made laser guidance systems in the conflict.

We can put pressure on the Israeli state through a targeted boycott and disinvestment campaign. We can join the efforts of the international community to pursue a lasting peace. Along with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the South African activist who fought to end apartheid, we can join a worldwide campaign calling on corporations that are profiting from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories to pull out their funding. By putting economic pressure on the Israeli Government, Scotland and the UK could play a part in the international effort to control the situation.

When I spoke at Saturday’s rally in Edinburgh, it was clear that the strength of feeling among the general public and communities across Scotland on the issue is growing. That is not surprising. In Palestine, 1.8 million people live in an area of 140 square miles. It is one of the most densely populated parts of the globe. The humanitarian crisis is deepening, with 200,000 people displaced and 65,000 homes destroyed. Where will those people return to? The average Palestinian is only 17 years old, so it is no surprise that UNICEF has reported that 400,000 children need immediate psychological help to overcome the trauma that they have experienced during the Israeli onslaught.

Pernille Ironside, the head of UNICEF’s Gaza office, also warned that children are at risk of contracting communicable diseases because of the lack of power and sanitation in the blockaded Palestinian territory. Gazans have been left without clean water for weeks.

The Church of Scotland world mission council’s report, “Invest in Peace” says:
“As a form of collective punishment, Israel’s continuing blockade of Gaza is a flagrant violation of international law.” Despite that, it continues. We must ensure that international laws, including humanitarian laws, are applied.

The blockade and entirely disproportionate military bombardment have led to the destruction that we see, but can hardly contemplate. We have seen the destruction of industry, fishing rights are massively restricted, farming is dangerous and challenging, and schools and hospitals—places that should be sanctuaries—have been hit. I, too, support calls for action on procurement: companies should not benefit, through public contracts, from the Israeli blockade.

Concerns have been expressed by my constituents on the delays in evacuating patients. I would be grateful if the Minister could advise what action is being taken to establish a recognised transfer and treatment protocol, in order to save as many lives as possible.

However distant the prospect of achieving peace and justice might be, we must continue to work to achieve that goal, because a just peace in Israel and Palestine could be the catalyst for achieving wider peace in the region and across the world.


So, the first presidential style debate of the referendum is over…

None of the arguments was new to those of us who’ve been on the campaign trail for the past two years but so many people are only now switching on.


Alex Salmond highlighted the wrongheaded Westminster policies that mean we have foodbanks in our wealthy nation, and that we’re about to be railroaded into spending £100billion on a new generation of nuclear weapons on the Clyde. The opportunity, he pointed out, is to end austerity and improve our democracy. I was also pleased to hear the First Minister highlight the opportunity we have to adopt a more welcoming immigration policy, retaining skilled workers instead of kicking them out as the three big UK parties would have us do.


Alistair Darling – my MP – highlighted what he called the risks of independence, failing to acknowledge that a No vote also contains risks. He kept referring to strength and security, which probably sounds attractive if you’re well off but is simply meaningless if you’re one of the many Scots struggling to make ends meet.


He also said the UK can transfer money from the richer parts to the poorer parts. Yes, it can, but it doesn’t. Successive Westminster governments have allowed wealth to accrue to those who need it least. Alistair also sought to use the SNP’s college cuts as a reason against independence. I’ve been a vocal critic of those cuts but they’re an election issue – the question we’re being asked on 18 September isn’t do you like John Swinney’s budget; it’s who’s better placed to decide how our country is run and how we speak to the world: is it the Scottish Parliament or the House of Commons and the House of Lords?


As our political system demands a winner and a loser we have an adversarial debate that isn’t best suited to those seeking information. I hope we hear a wider range of voices and visions over the remaining six weeks.




From the moment I arrived in Glasgow to watch the hockey, I could feel the city embrace the Games and as my family and I have travelled back and forth these past few days this feeling of pride and enjoyment in what the city and its people are adding to the sporting spectacle has grown.


I’ve been fortunate enough to see track cycling, netball and several athletics sessions and the warmth, humour and desire to help visitors and spectators is abundantly clear.

Those delivering the Games have learnt much from the London blueprint. Those Games were a huge success as are Glasgow’s. Glasgow2014 has brought people from across the globe together. While spectators cheer on their countrymen and women the applause for each and every athlete from all parts of the crowd is testament to the generous and knowledgable Scottish audience.

The train announcer at Mount Florida rail station should have his own stand-up show, or perhaps a double act with the guard on the Central Station to Edinburgh 2239 on Wednesday. London was slick but these characters belong to Glasgow. Ashton Eaton, Olympic Champion and world record holder in the decathlon seemed to be enjoying the banter as he stood back, anonymous in his hoodie.

The athletics crowd defy definition. From babes in arms to our oldest citizens, folk of all shapes, sizes and nationalities have cheered every individual effort regardless of outcome.

I’ve no doubt that many people, young and old, will be inspired to follow in the footsteps of those they’ve cheered on this week. There have been sports for all ages and inclinations on show.

There are questions posed by the Games. How can our part time netball and hockey players compete with full time professional athletes? Which sports should receive more funding? We need to look at formal links with coaches and educators in our schools. Physical education and games aren’t the same thing and we need to invest in physical literacy for our young people as this will pay dividends in terms of long term health and well being.

I’ve been thrilled by Eilidh’s silver, by Mark Dry’s bronze. Guy Learmonth’s personal best in the 800m final is a highlight. Eilidh’s McColgan’s gutsy run, Beth Potter’s 5th place and the determination of Lynsey Sharp in reaching the 800m final and Emily Dudgeon who narrowly missed out after a fantastic performance. And there’s more yet to come.

The challenge now, if we’re to deliver a meaningful legacy, is to make sure the facilities and coaches are in place for this to become a reality, and that no one is priced out of a more active lifestyle. Investing in sport is money well spent.



Edinburgh needs more homes, but the spread of the suburbs and executive housing will not meet that need.

This week I was pleased to take part in a debate in parliament on the importance of community engagement in planning issues in Lothian. Here’s what I had to say…


Our towns and cities are where we live, and the way that they are designed and built has a profound effect on our lives. People want to live in nice places that provide a community with good-quality housing and connections to local shops, green spaces, libraries and other amenities. One person’s idea of a good place to live will be different from another’s but those are some basic, entry-level things that planning should deliver.

Land-use planning is a profession for a reason. To balance all the demands on our land is a difficult art, particularly when we are not in control of the building itself. However, just because it is a profession does not mean that the experts have all the answers—far from it. Land-use planning should be done by people who live on the land. We should not be frightened of opening up such decision making. Of course architects and developers have an important role in that, but so do the people who will live in and alongside the houses that they build.

What holds us back from a step change in public engagement? The Involve Foundation and the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce tell us in “From Fairy Tale to Reality: Dispelling the Myths around Citizen Engagement” that those myths trap us in a way of thinking that says that public engagement is too expensive and too difficult and that people are not up for it. The report has myth-busting examples of engagement that works from around the world.

Land-use planning will always be political and contested, so we should not run away from that. I congratulate Cameron Buchanan on bringing the debate to the chamber. He has identified the most contested part of the current SESplan, and things are moving very fast in the City of Edinburgh Council as a result.

Does anyone genuinely believe that 107,000 new homes are required in south-east Scotland over the next 10 years? It has taken 300 years to reach the 500,000 or so households that we have at present, and those unrealistic housing targets have come up time after time in community meetings throughout my region.

People see land that is already zoned for housing in the hands of developers but left untouched. Housing targets in the plan mean that more land is to be zoned, but the targets are bloated by a 10 per cent generosity margin. Take away the fat and the generosity, and the need to sacrifice the green belt at Cammo and Curriemuirend vanishes. People are understandably incredulous and often angry that their views are ignored and that estimated housing numbers from a desktop study are given precedence.

Edinburgh needs more homes, but the spread of the suburbs and executive housing will not meet that need. How many homeless people or people in housing need will get new homes in David Murray’s garden district?

The local authority blames the Government, while the Government pins the blame on the local authority. On 12 December last year, I asked the Minister for Local Government and Planning during oral questions

“what role local authorities have in determining appropriate housing land supply.”—[Official Report, 12 December 2013; c 25663.]

He replied that the numbers are set by the local authority. That is true to an extent, but the housing forecasts are done with a Government tool and signed off as credible by the Government.

The Government has the last word and is enforcing it, but that creates a local development plan that meets developers’ needs, not real people’s housing needs—that is the issue.

I am sure that the minister understands that the argument that more new supply will reduce house prices is nonsense, because new supply is only a fraction of overall supply and makes very little difference to price. Indeed, the evidence is the opposite over the most recent cycle: when supply was at its highest, prices were greatest.

SESplan 2 needs to deliver housing that meets the needs of people, not developers. As Gordon MacDonald pointed out, there are thousands of long-term empty homes in the capital. That needs to change, and the City of Edinburgh Council lags behind other councils on that.

Brownfield sites that are earmarked for housing need to be used for housing. Examples such as those at Chesser and Oxgangs, where housing land has been given over to large-scale retail, should not happen, given the housing need.

The Government should recognise that any forecast comes with a health warning. It should not be set in stone. We need to be guided by reality and aim to build the kind of homes that work for people in the greatest housing need: those that build on existing social networks, where services such as shops, schools, surgeries, community centres and public transport are more viable.

Keeping kids off the couch and living long, healthy lives

Research showing Scots children are among the least active in the world should serve as a wake-up call.

As we welcome the world for the Commonwealth Games we read that our children are stuck on the couch, staring at screens. Overweight children suffer from asthma and diabetes, stigma and bullying. Obesity in Scotland is on course to cost £3billion in the next fifteen years, so we need a dramatic move towards preventative spending.

At the moment it’s easier for ministers to spend a few thousand pounds on marketing campaigns than invest the millions we need to make active lifestyles the norm.

I do see some signs of hope locally. Edinburgh is piloting more 20mph zones, and I commend the efforts by Scottish Canals and others to encourage use of the great asset that is the Union Canal and its paths.

120725 AJ with bike family

But I also see continued threats. I got into politics after campaigning to save playing fields at Meggetland from being sold off for luxury flats. Edinburgh’s green spaces remain under pressure when we should be looking to brownfield land to meet the demand for housing. We’ve seen the closure of Leith Waterworld, Midlothian Council is preparing to bulldoze Bonnyrigg leisure centre and Meadowbank stadium continues to go unloved.

Supermarkets need tackled too, as they encourage car journeys and reward motorists with money off petrol; which canny retailer will be first to offer an incentive for customers cycling to the shops?

As for screen time, it’s easy to see this as a cheap option compared to more active alternatives which can stretch family budgets to breaking point. Governments local and national need to recognise that making access to swimming and other activities affordable would in time deliver savings to the health budget.

As summer holidays approach I know families who can afford to will be signing up for sporting activities – activities I’d like to see available all year round at minimal cost. Young children love being active. By encouraging good habits at an early age we can keep them off the couch and living long, healthy lives.

More funding for cycling training is welcome, but we must also make our roads safer.

Ahead of Saturday’s Pedal on Parliament, Cycling Scotland has been awarded £4.5 million to encourage more young people to get on their bike.

AJ at SCCS cycle rally

More funding for cycling training and promotion is very welcome, but we will only see this reap rewards if we also make our roads safer.

If we are still expecting young cyclists to share the streets with lorries, vans, buses and cars, then we must be far more ambitious about upgrading road space.

I’m especially pleased to see that departments other than transport are contributing to this funding. Increasing our cycling rates should be central to getting a healthier, more active population, as well as bringing environmental benefits.



Our Forest Our Future

On Friday I was pleased to help launch the Our Forest Our Future resource at the Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh. This new resource for Scottish schools developed by educational charity Scotdec and funded by Oxfam and the Forestry Commission helps teachers and pupils explore the vital role forests play in sustaining our environment.

AJ Botanics presentation

It was great to meet Charlotte Dwyer and George Meldrum of Scotdec (and Charlotte’s wee boy!) and James Ogilvie of the Forestry Commission.

AJ Botanics

You can find out more about Our Forest Our Future here.



Community Empowerment? The reality, as Bonnyrigg is discovering, is very different.

I’m calling on Midlothian Council to rethink plans to demolish Bonnyrigg Leisure Centre.

Community campaigners trying to save the centre received my support last summer but it has emerged that councillors will be invited next week (Tue 25 Mar) to approve demolition.

Bonnyrigg leisure centre lost its facilities to the new Lasswade High School and Midlothian Council wants to save on maintenance costs but a community consultation has shown a strong need for a social hub with soft play, a cafe and a youth club. A community bid to take over the centre and create these facilities included a comprehensive business plan.

The response by Midlothian Council to the community’s perfectly reasonable bid is infuriating. The council basically want to wash their hands of a community resource with massive potential. It’s an appalling attitude for a local authority.

The community bidders can’t apply for funding to help them operate the centre until their bid is accepted, and in the council’s opinion that is tough luck. It’s an absurd situation.

At local and national government level in Scotland we’re constantly being told communities should be empowered. The reality, as Bonnyrigg is discovering, is very different.

Midlothian Council has admitted it has set aside tens of thousands of pounds to demolish the building when these funds could be used to support a grassroots bid for much-needed community facilities.


Papers for Midlothian council meeting on 25 March. Bonnyrigg leisure centre is
item 16

The planning system must get better at listening to community concerns.

Yesterday I spoke in a debate in parliament on the national planning framework. The consultation on the framework revealed big tensions over energy priorities and the committee I sit on – Economy, Energy and Tourism – examined the framework with a particular focus on renewables, wild land and unconventional gas.

The full text of my speech is below.


Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green): I welcome the ambition of NPF3. There is much that I can support. It is good to have a national spatial plan and I am pleased that there is a focus on low-carbon places, as heat networks, energy storage, low-carbon high-density housing and transforming the way we travel will be key to achieving low carbon ambitions. The NPF should help to deliver those things.

The consultation revealed big tensions over energy priorities and the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee focused on renewables, wild land and unconventional gas developments.

I am extremely concerned that we see unconventional gas as an opportunity without having due regard for the risk. It is clear that unconventional gas in the UK will not lower energy prices, as it has done in the US. There is less land here and ownership rights are different. Lord Stern, the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee in Westminster and even Lord Browne of Cuadrilla Resources came to the same conclusion: shale gas will not have a material impact on gas prices.

I am pleased that the minister understands that there are risks and confirmed to us in committee that there must be a buffer zone between developments and communities. I proposed a buffer of at least 2km, which gained MSP support and is in line with Friends of the Earth Scotland’s proposals. However, although a buffer zone can help to protect communities from the worst localised impacts, it will do nothing to militate against climate change impacts.

Today is the start of a public local inquiry on the UK’s most advanced unconventional gas project: the Dart Energy project in Airth. I will not say anything to prejudice the outcome of that, but I am concerned that we are considering consents before the Government’s independent expert panel has reported and before the Government has set the buffer zone. That is surely the wrong way round.
Derek Mackay: Without reference to any live planning application, as the member would expect, I comment on points made by Joan McAlpine and Alison Johnstone. Does the member agree that it is important that the Scottish Government is not pursuing the financial incentives that the UK Government is pursuing in relation to extraction of unconventional gas, in terms of planning protection and environmental mitigation? Taking the time to get the buffer zone right is the right thing to do. In any planning application, environmental mitigation must be assessed and carried out, no matter what.
Alison Johnstone: I appreciate the minister’s response, but it would have been more appropriate for an inquiry to have taken place once we had the information and a definitive position on a buffer zone had been confirmed.

The tension between renewables and wild land is difficult to resolve. I am not in favour of increasing the separation distance to a blanket 2.5km. It is important to consider proposals case by case. The right separation in one site will be different in another. The planning system is good at being flexible like that but it must get much better at listening and reacting to community concerns. The Planning Democracy briefing for today has some good suggestions that I strongly urge the minister to consider.

Energy companies made clear their concerns that use of the wild land map would constrain the development of onshore renewable energy. I believe that we need to protect our wildest landscapes from inappropriate development and I do not understand why hill tracks, for example, which can scar landscapes, do not require planning permission. It would be appropriate for the NPF to refer to protecting the wildest land to make it clear that those characteristics can be considered when big developments are being determined, but I do not support the SNH map creating a blanket assumption against turbine development. Wild land is not always biodiverse—a point that RSPB Scotland makes in its briefing. We know that mountain habitats are at dire risk from climate change. The best way to protect biodiverse habitats is to decarbonise.

As colleagues have mentioned, the most effective way to resolve tensions there is to maintain public support for renewables. There is good support at the moment, but if benefits from a “renewables revolution” are not shared equitably between communities and public and private interests, that good will will disappear. Community and public ownership is the best way to build and maintain public support. Energy companies and the Government should be looking to develop large-scale community and public ownership models to ensure that those benefits really are shared.

The RSPB highlights the importance of the NPF and the SPP when it comes to meeting our climate change targets and the fact that the NPF contains several proposals that would increase climate change emissions. I therefore endorse RSPB Scotland’s request that the Government clarifies how those will not result in increased emissions. I would be grateful if the minister would address that point later this afternoon. I acknowledge Sarah Boyack’s comments on bringing things together. Will the RPP have to address the increased emissions brought about by the NPF?

If we want to prevent the worst impacts of climate change, it is time to move to a truly low-carbon economy. We already have more than enough unburnable fossil fuels. I am surprised that a Government that introduced, rightly, such challenging climate change targets has not yet ruled out unconventional gas extraction. I urge it do so.

I concur with the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee’s recommendation that the period for parliamentary scrutiny be extended to 90 days and welcome its view that sustainable development should underpin NPF3.