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.

I’m lending my support to WWF’s Earth Hour on Saturday 29 March.

I’m lending my support to WWF’s Earth Hour on Saturday 29 March.

WWF Earth Hour MSPs Pledge 44

At 8.30pm that evening, millions of people across the world will switch of their lights for an hour in a graphic demonstration of support for people and wildlife threatened by climate change.

I will continue to campaign for action by the Scottish Government to live up to the climate change targets they have yet to meet. Here’s what I said last summer about their proposals and policies.

You can find out more about WWF Earth Hour here.



It’s good business sense to reduce emissions

It’s great to see a local business leading the way on environmental management.

AJ with Eagle Couriers

Scotland’s biggest independent courier firm, Bathgate-based Eagle Couriers, has been awarded ISO certification. I’ve been hearing how the firm plans to reduce annual mileage by 250,000 miles, and hit targets on recycling tyres, pallets and oil.
It’s good business sense to reduce emissions as it helps cut costs.

I hope we see yet more businesses follow suit.


Sport Your Trainers!

I’m supporting Sport Your Trainers, the annual campaign which encourages young people to wear their trainers on Commonwealth Day (Monday 10 March).


Here I am sporting my trainers with the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games mascot, Clyde.

Sport Your Trainers reminds us of the importance of physical activity, so I hope as many people as possible get active in the run up to the Games.



Procurement. A chance to support diversity and innovation in our economy.

Last week parliament debated stage one of the Procurement Reform Bill. Procurement is not a word that we are likely to hear in everyday conversation and yet, over the years that I have been involved in politics and green campaigning, issues around how and what the public sector buys have come up time and again.

If asked, most people would express a desire for a commonsense approach to purchasing—“Let’s use public money to support local businesses and buy local goods where possible, and let’s not hand taxpayers’ money to companies that don’t comply with the taxation system.”

At around £9 billion a year, the amount spent on public purchasing in Scotland is more than three times the entire gross domestic product of Malawi, so it can potentially transform what goes on at home and overseas.

Read on to see what I went on to say in the debate.


Buy local

SNP members will know that, as Sarah Boyack mentioned, the bill started life as a commitment to a sustainable procurement bill in the SNP manifesto. Three years on, and the sustainability aspect has been reduced to a fairly timid duty. I am concerned that the sustainability duty in section 9 conflicts with the general duty in section 8, which says that all bids must be treated “equally and without discrimination”.

The aim of the bill must be to shift the procurement culture in Scotland so that, rather than talking in negative terms about discrimination, we proactively use public procurement to implement public policy aims. We need to send an unambiguous message to procurement officers that gives them the certainty to make sustainable choices. However, the balance and weighting between the duties in sections 8 and 9 is confusing and unhelpful so I am pleased that the committee has called for that to be addressed.

The sustainability duty calls for consideration of impacts on the contracting authority’s area. That area is defined geographically, specifically

“disregarding any areas outside Scotland.”

I do not think that I need to explain to members why it makes no sense to have such a narrow definition in the context of national and global sustainability. That should be amended at stage 2. I also think that a further point should be added in section 9 to include a reference to duties under the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009.

I know that all MSPs will be very proud of the many groups and institutions in their areas that have collectively helped Scotland to achieve Fairtrade nation status. However, getting fair trade to scale through public procurement has always been the holy grail for fair-trade campaigners and it would bring huge benefits to producers in developing countries. With Fairtrade fortnight starting on Monday, would it not send a powerful message about this country if we became probably the first country in the world to put the words “fair trade” into a national procurement law? I hope that the cabinet secretary will recognise this opportunity to take the next step on our Fairtrade nation journey.

The principle that is introduced by section 31, which adds new powers to the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009, is one of the most interesting parts of the bill. I welcome the power that it creates to allow regulations that will specify proportions of recycled materials, but I question why that power should not be even more ambitious and applicable across a range of sectors to stimulate the development of sustainable industries and jobs in Scotland. I strongly support the submission from Nourish Scotland calling for such an approach, with a proportion of organic food to support moves towards a lower-carbon food system. Similarly, Transform Scotland has suggested that publicly bought vehicle fleets should be required to meet emissions standards. It is very clear that the design of guidelines, enforcement and reporting in relation to the new sustainability duty has to be right if we want to make an impact. It makes sense to give a greater role to Audit Scotland to oversee procurement reporting.

The regulations in section 23, which allow a company to be excluded from a procurement process on certain grounds, is welcome. I am very pleased to see that failure to pay tax is clearly included, but I strongly support the call from Unison and others for the wording in the bill to be strengthened to include aggressive tax avoidance. I hope that we can see a wider range of criteria so that companies with records of human rights abuses or poor safety standards can be excluded wherever in the world those abuses have occurred. I am sure that we all remember the devastating factory collapse in Bangladesh last summer.

We hear every week from ministers about their support for small businesses, yet the briefing that has been provided by the FSB states that almost 60 per cent of spend goes to businesses with more than 250 employees. I support the committee’s call to go further in procurement reporting to separate out micro and small businesses from medium and large ones so that we know whether we are really supporting diversity and innovation in our economy.

The Greens, like other parties, want the living wage to be paid as widely as possible—not just to the immediate contractors but to any employees who are taken on via subcontracts. I recognise the legal difficulties with that but urge the cabinet secretary to be as creative and bold as possible.

I very much want the bill to live up to its potential and am pleased that the Government has tried to address many of the issues that I have mentioned. However, the bill can do more to address many of the issues that have been raised, such as community benefit, zero hours, supported businesses and blacklisting. Let us work hard to change and improve it and make it one of the most transformative bills that we will pass this session.