Time to stop dodging the debate on Council Tax

Yesterday I asked the Scottish Government whether they would meet with other parties to come up with a way forward on local government taxation. You can view the exchange below.

When household bills are spiralling upwards, it’s easy to see why the council tax freeze must seem like good politics for the Scottish Government. The truth is it’s letting us dodge the need to replace this deeply unfair tax.

John Swinney confirmed last month that rates will be frozen for the eighth year in a row, meaning that poor and rich households alike will pay at the same rate they did back in 2007.

In theory councils can still put up their rates if they want to, but Mr Swinney has them in such a financial armlock that this is not a realistic choice for them to make. They certainly can’t make the tax fairer by charging wealthy people more.

The SNP talks a great deal about empowering communities, but they have done the opposite with this tax that pays toward our local services. By freezing the rates they’ve avoided the question of how we find a better solution for local democracy and for funding those services.

There is much talk of Scotland getting new tax powers, which I support, but ironically this is the one well-known tax that has been in our control since the start of devolution in 1999, and it’s gone unreformed in all that time.

Recently the Scotland Government replaced stamp duty on house sales with a fairer tax, and a much higher rate for those buying homes worth over £1million.

But under the council tax system, which is based on what homes were worth way back in 1991, the poorest in our society are hit much harder than the richest, and this is a substantial bill that most of us pay each and every month.

To be fair, the SNP did recognise this when they first got into Government, and proposed a local version of income tax instead, but they hit technical and political problems with their plan.

With the independence referendum debate behind us, and with cuts being made to local services while wealth inequality grows, it’s clear that the situation can’t go on much longer.

It would have made a real difference if those who could afford it had paid a bit more over the last few years. Instead, councils have been forced to increase fees and charges for things like care homes and leisure services, which is the least fair system of all.

Green councillors tell me of community centres facing closure as staff numbers are slashed and of damaging reductions that threaten nurseries and school maintenance. Homeless hostels face cuts while home care rates increase. Libraries are undermined by shorter opening hours and healthy lives affected by increased rates at sports centres.  It’s a desperate situation, which is why we need a new deal to replace or radically change council tax.

One of the best things about the referendum campaign was that masses of people took an interest in discussing political ideas for the first time in ages. I think the time is right for the political parties to offer some fairer and more honest tax policies before the next Holyrood election.

All parties will have their own ideas to contribute, and the Greens certainly have ideas about taxing land rather than house prices, but we might get some of the best ideas from outside of party politics.

And this is just part of a bigger debate about how local democracy could work better in Scotland. It’s easy to feel like you have no power to influence decisions made about your local area.

What the referendum has shown is that if we give people a glimpse of real power, we find a Scotland full of passion and energy for making a better society, and that includes how to pay for that better society.

The council tax question can’t be dodged forever. I urge all parties to enter into an honest debate to find a better way forward for Scotland.

Fracking campaign gathers momentum


Below is a copy of an opinion piece I wrote for the Evening News on 1st November:

The campaign against fracking is getting louder each day. People realise that it’s a distraction from the task of growing the number of secure jobs in new, clean industries in Scotland.

Just this week, the UK Government closed bidding on licences for companies to explore for unconventional or ‘hard to get’ fossil fuels across 20,000 square kilometres of central Scotland, including most of the land surrounding the Firth of Forth.

Unsurprisingly, the Greens have opposed the development of unconventional fossil fuels from day one. Let’s not jeopardise Scotland’s exciting renewable energy boom, which is creating thousands of jobs. More and more communities are starting to develop their own renewables projects, securing themselves a financial income as well as energy from a clean source. We need to keep political and financial minds focused on supporting this greener future, rather than firing up another round of polluting fossil fuels.

There are many myths about the potential of fracking to cut energy prices or help the climate but they just don’t stand up to scrutiny. We’re in a very different situation from the USA and all the evidence shows that Scotland’s future is best served by clean energy and better insulated homes.

I held the first Scottish Parliament debate on fracking earlier this year and called for a straightforward ban on new projects, but was voted down by every other party. The Scottish Government has the powers to stop projects going forward, but it continues to see fracking as an opportunity rather than a risk. I also proposed a 2km buffer zone to create a barrier between any drilling and communities, but I was narrowly defeated in the Parliament’s Energy Committee.

The experiences of families in America and Australia where fracking is established show me that our communities have every right to be concerned about the prospect of local pollution and the associated health impacts. I’ve been out meeting people from West to East Lothian and they’re particularly alarmed at the UK Government clearing the way for fracking by removing your right to object if pipelines go under your property, and they want the Scottish Government to clear up its position too.

It’s time for the SNP to come down clearly on one side of this debate. We do need a new industrial policy to increase employment and opportunities across central Scotland, but it doesn’t need to start with fracking.

Gender equality – a long overdue first step

SCOTLAND has a proud record of women in power. From Mary Barbour – Glasgow’s first woman councillor and campaigner for fair rents – to the hundreds of women who campaigned for fair representation in the new Scottish Parliament, women appear to have been at the forefront of our country’s political life.
Women 50 50

We now have women leading Scottish Labour and the Scottish Conservatives. The Scottish Greens have a gender balanced leadership with Councillor Maggie Chapman and MSP Patrick Harvie as co-conveners. And it looks likely that Nicola Sturgeon will be our first woman First Minister.

Thousands of women came together to campaign on both sides of the referendum debate, many of them involved in politics for the first time, and that energy shows no sign of dissipating. But look behind the high profile women and the lively social media campaigns, and the picture is much less positive.

Scotland’s women are nearly 52 per cent of the population. Yet as the recent report Sex And Power In Britain 2014 report showed, only 35.1 per cent of our MSPs are women (down from its historic high of nearly 40 per cent in 1999).

Scotland’s 32 councils are much worse, with less than a quarter of our councillors female. This means there are only 297 women councillors representing their communities across Scotland, compared with 1,223 men. And only three of the 32 councils are led by a woman. The report also highlights that, out of the 59 Scottish MPs that sit in Westminster, only 13 (22 per cent) are women.

Inequality matters. Evidence from across the world shows that if gender inequality persists in decision-making, it is to the detriment of policy-making and the well-being of society.

The people who govern us, in our parliament and our council chambers, should reflect the society they represent, not a closed shop. That is why women from across the political divide have decided to come together to campaign for legal quotas in the Scottish Parliament, our council chambers and in our public bodies.

The time is right. As gender experts, Meryl Kenny and Fiona Mackay, argue in their influential blog Genderpol, the “historical moment” of devolution in 1999 opened up opportunities for women’s political participation. But that moment passed quickly, and it became difficult for campaigners to press for further reforms.

The referendum campaign and its aftermath have created a new “historical moment” and this time we need to exploit it fully if we are to get lasting change.

Experience in Scotland and elsewhere has shown that voluntary party quotas to secure gender equality are not sufficient.

Eight countries in the EU now have legislated forms of quotas. In Ireland any party not reaching 30 per cent faces financial penalties and in France it is 50 per cent. In Belgium, nominations with less than 50-50 balance are simply not valid.

Scotland should join them and introduce legal quotas. And not just any quotas – they should be the best in Europe, with robust sanctions for those parties that do not comply and rules to ensure that women candidates are not consigned to unwinnable seats or the bottom of regional lists.

Women 50:50 has very clear objectives. At the moment, the power to bring in legal quotas in the Scottish Parliament is currently reserved to Westminster, under the provision on political parties in the Scotland Act 1998.

As politicians discuss “extensive new powers” for the Scottish Par­liament, we would like to see the power to legislate for gender quotas devolved.

We want every political party in Scotland to support gender quotas in their manifestos for the 2016 Holyrood elections. And we want to see change by 2020.

Evidence from the European Union suggests that it takes three election cycles to implement a new quota rule as parties are reluctant to get rid of incumbent members – who are usually men.

Since the Scottish Parliament was set up, we have had four election cycles. The implementation of quotas, and a parliament that looks like the society it represents, could already have been a reality. Change is long overdue.

But change must, and will, come. The women of Scotland came together to campaign for fair rents and equal pay in the referendum.

Now we are joining forces, working with all those who wish to see progress, so we can, together, build a better Scotland. Gender equality alone will not deliver a truly representative Parliament, but it’s a long overdue first step.

Sign up to support the Women 50:50 campaign here.

This piece was co-written with Kezia Dugdale MSP and originally appeared in Scotland on Sunday, 28 September.

Another, better Scotland is possible

This week Parliament debated the outcome of the independence referendum. I spoke of the need to be ambitious in our vision of what we can do and be willing to work together to make it happen. You can read my full contribution to the debate below.


Scotland has voted no and I respect the democratic outcome of the vote. In fact, Scotland did so much more than vote: Scotland became a participative democracy and the change was almost palpable. We must strive to maintain that level of participation.

The vote did not deliver the result that the majority of—but not all—Greens campaigned for. However, it has delivered change. We may not have an opportunity to develop a written constitution, but “constitution” is a word that we use to refer to our physical state as regards vitality, health and strength. In that regard, I am encouraged and optimistic.

Alex Salmond was right when he said yesterday that there is

“a new spirit abroad in this land”

and that

“we are a better nation today”.—[Official Report, 23 September 2014; c 8.]

I agree. People who have never attended a political meeting in their lives came along and took part in the debate; people who would not have come along to a traditional hustings where politicians debate their manifestos came along with their questions and their own manifestos.

There are those who feel that other issues were sidelined as we discussed the constitution, but that is not a view that I share and it is not the experience of the thousands of people who debated Scotland’s future in the meetings that I attended in church and school halls and even on the stage of Dunfermline’s Alhambra theatre.

A narrow debate would never have energised Scotland in the way that the referendum campaign has. The debate was broadened, deepened, energised and given a life of its own by the many diverse groups, organisations and individuals who took part. A woman who attended a discussion with an all-woman panel at Edinburgh College of Art stood up and said, “I can’t believe I’m standing up to speak in public and take part in a meeting about how my country is governed.”

Many people found their feet and their voices in the campaign. Many groups, including women for independence, the radical independence campaign, common weal, the national collective and business for Scotland, made sure that people from all walks of life were involved and represented in the campaign. We can learn much from those groups about engagement. Social media was invaluable in the campaign. It helped to level what was a very unlevel playing field from the point of view of support from corporate print media. The nature of campaigning itself was transformed in the campaign.

I took part in debates with people from all the organisations that I have mentioned and with people from none of them, and I was unfailingly impressed. I took part in debates with our youngest voters and they demonstrated why they should be fully involved in the democratic process. I welcome the growing consensus for votes at 16.

A meeting that was organised by [Untitled] Falkirk will be long remembered by all who were there. Young actors, speakers and poets took part, as well as the prominent playwright Alan Bissett. I was staggered by their talent. It was a Friday night and, even when there was an interval, no one left. The meeting carried on way beyond its scheduled end. There were six traditional political speakers, who were interspersed with outstanding Scottish artists. It was a model for the new politics in the new Scotland. A woman with disabilities who relies on benefits for her income told the meeting that she felt that she was voiceless and that the referendum campaign was finally giving her the means to get her message across to those politicians whose policies were making her life ever more challenging.

That insistent, increasingly confident voice led to the announcement of the vow by David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, in which they recognised that the status quo is simply unacceptable. As tight as the timescales that Lord Smith has been given to work to are, we must do all that we can to ensure that those who contributed so much to the debate are given every opportunity to contribute to that process, too.

Debate in Scotland has flourished not in spite of but because of the diversity of speakers on behalf of the yes and no campaigns. It is no secret that the Greens and the SNP have many policy differences, as do the better together parties, but we all have common ground and we must all now work together for the best outcome.

Yesterday, Ken Macintosh suggested that among those who had lost the vote there might be a temptation to “lash out in anger”; not at all. He said that people were “genuinely scared”, and Murdo Fraser said that, for some people,

“even the debate was a threat to their identity.”—[Official Report, 23 September 2014; c 56.]

My experience was a far more positive one. People questioned assertions while relishing involvement. I hope that the debate has demonstrated to all that we can disagree with one another and remain friends, and we in the Parliament have a duty to continue to demonstrate that.

I do not accept the narrative of a hostile and bitter campaign that some have put forward. I believe that we should focus on the outstanding level of engagement and the overwhelmingly positive level of participation in the vote. The campaign was carried on in a passionate yet respectful manner. It was intense but, by and large, it was tolerant and engaging, and at times it was even entertaining. The narrative is a positive one.

So what now? The vow must be made real and we must deliver for all of Scotland’s people—everyone who voted and everyone who did not. The Greens were not campaigning for a wee version of Westminster. Let us engage with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities paper on local democracy and my party’s review. The referendum debate has shown us that democracy begins at street level.

In this energy and resource-rich country, fuel poverty persists, food banks proliferate and equal pay feels far away. Regardless of who takes over the Westminster reins next May, the levels of austerity that have been promised go beyond anything that has yet been experienced but, as the Presiding Officer said yesterday, those who got off their settees are not going back to them. Politics in Scotland must be open to all who wish to have a fairer and more equal nation. We should be ambitious in our vision of what we can do and willing to work together to make it happen. If we do that, another, better Scotland is possible.

A Green Yes – article for Bella Caledonia

Ever since the Scottish Greens voted to campaign for a Yes, our messages have focused on how independence offers the opportunity for transforming Scotland’s political culture, affording us the chance to fulfil our huge potential.

As well as supporting Yes Scotland, we established the Green Yes campaign to ensure our distinctive messages had a platform. In doing so we have spoken to a wider audience than ever before about how Green policies seek to tackle poverty, build sustainable industry and end inequality.

Greens have taken part in events all across Scotland – some well-used to public debate, others finding their voice for the first time, inspired to share their own vision as each of us contemplates what kind of society we aspire to create.

Green Yes has also published a series of ‘briefing notes’ at www.GreenYes.info in which we set out ideas for some steps our society can take to transform lives for the better in practical terms, beyond vague promises of creating a more just and equal country.

Citizen’s Income

We recently outlined our proposals for a Citizen’s Income as a new way of providing social security in an independent Scotland. We advocate a universal payment, providing enough income to meet the basic needs of everyone, replacing almost all benefits and the state pension. This would be cheaper to run, remove the complexity of the current system and make the lowest-earning 70% of households better off.

The benefits retained would be all disability benefits and carer’s allowance for those needing additional support, and housing benefit and council tax reduction for people otherwise facing homelessness.

The UK Government labels people on benefits “scroungers” and “shirkers” – language designed to stoke tension and prejudice. People are pitted against one another by successive governments as they target social security for swingeing cuts. With a Citizen’s Income, everyone would have the opportunity to change jobs, raise children, care for loved ones, pursue education or start a new project – without ending up on the breadline.

The late feminist economist, Professor Ailsa McKay, made clear that a Citizen’s Income benefits women in particular by recognising the “diverse roles of women as wives, mothers, carers and workers”. Engender recently highlighted that “since 2010, 74% of cuts to benefits, tax credits, pay and pensions have been taken from women…This rises to 81% of the ‘savings’ realised by the Treasury in 2014-15”.

Employment Law

One reason that women are disproportionately affected by failings in our systems is the ‘traditional’ division of labour down unacceptable gender lines through inequality in employment. Men receiving higher pay than women for the same job reinforces the role of men as primary bread-winner, meaning much of the extra work within the domestic economy falls to women. Life as an unpaid carer for relatives, for example, leaves women in a particularly vulnerable position, even without the devastating effects of austerity and withdrawal of state services.

In the event that responsibility for employment law comes to Scotland, our polling shows over 75% support a requirement for 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 a clear 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 effect necessary changes.

The hostility in Westminster to the right of workers in general – to organise and have the means to secure improved terms and conditions – also exposes Scotland’s powerlessness to repeal anti-trade union laws. As well as promoting a legal requirement for employers to pay a living wage to all, Greens are committed to legislating for stronger trades unions and envisage a major role for them in promoting economic democracy.

Key to this must be the role of unions in helping to roll back privatisation of services and utilities. With independence, we would be in a position to oppose deals like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which would prevent Scotland from reversing privatisation, but is currently reserved to the UK to negotiate as EU member state.

The opportunity we have now is to take responsibility for decisions like these in Scotland. Immediately following a Yes vote, the work would begin to determine how we wish to use our responsibility.

Greater empowerment

Independence shouldn’t simply mean devolution of responsibility from Westminster to Holyrood either. This debate is an opportunity to promote ideas of decentralising power further within Scotland, and we are encouraged to see wider calls for more local decisions, greater accountability and public participation.

With a Yes, we would like to embed the status of local decision-making in a written constitution. For example, Germany forbids national Government from interfering with tax rates set by local authorities for raising revenue. Further Green proposals include creating a greater number of smaller municipalities, and a Land Value Tax to give a fairer way of funding vital services than Council Tax.

The referendum debate has captured the imagination, and capitalising on that can mean increased participation and turnout at elections. We have an opportunity to address the democratic deficit and spark a revival in local democracy, bringing politics closer to people, instead of councils like Highland governing an area the size of Belgium.

Other opportunities we’ve highlighted include Green ideas for creating a jobs-rich economy, painfully-overdue banking reform, and ensuring digital rights are seen as civil rights.

Scotland has the skills and opportunity to create well-paid, secure jobs, in many areas such as shipbuilding, energy, digital technology, construction and engineering that can thrive across Scotland with investment and attention. We need to offer more than insecure jobs and low wages.

With a Yes, we can decentralise ownership of land and infrastructure that renewable energy depends upon, as well as developing a large, publicly-owned energy company and networks of local banks with communities’ interests at heart. The renewables industry has enormous potential to create the jobs required, but its prospects are damaged by Westminster’s determination to saddle us with astronomical costs and environmental damage from nuclear and fracking.

Decentralisation of responsibility must also be seen within the context of embracing a more responsible position internationally. The internet is moving towards a point when everyone on Earth should soon have access to the sum total of human knowledge. Governments and societies must collaborate to meet the challenges and opportunities ahead – including protecting against invasions of privacy.

Internet legislation remains with Westminster, and through Scotland taking responsibility, Greens see greater opportunity for a Digital Bill of Rights, democratic control of intelligence functions, a Scottish communications regulator, and a public forum for debate about the future of global society and technology.


As a Green, I see an opportunity to reframe narratives of “defence” in terms of what security threats people actually face. While a Yes vote should consign Trident to history, we must also challenge the notion that Scotland should seek the moral hypocrisy of joining the NATO nuclear club, or, as the SNP intend, devote twice as much to military spending as to international development.

Major global threats facing humanity involve scarcity of food, water and land, as well as digital crime, and while Greens want a smaller defence sector, there will continue to be significant need for infrastructure and hardware for humanitarian and development work. We also want to see skilled workers deployed in the rapidly growing renewables industry, and see this opportunity as part of a long-term economic diversification agenda.

Key factors needing addressed by a government serious about people’s security within its borders involve health and wellbeing, domestic and sexual violence, poverty and working conditions. Immediately post-independence, we should begin by looking at what measures the government must take, particularly in terms of spending decisions, to alleviate the real threats facing people every day.

While this debate offers the opportunity to consider measures to enhance security and wellbeing that we could implement with new powers, we must also seriously consider why we would spurn the opportunity to crack down on tax dodging by corporations and rich individuals, or end the inhuman sanctions regime forcing hundreds of thousands into foodbanks and crisis loans.

Another issue affecting powers already devolved is immigration. There is no one-size-fits-all policy for attracting new citizens – particularly in areas like healthcare and education, and those coming to Scotland face unacceptable hostility from Westminster, no matter how much those in Holyrood urgently want to change that.

I wasn’t always of the view that independence was vital, but the debate has made clear that the path Westminster continues along is failing us all, and the genuine will that exists to do things better is matched in Scotland by a once in a lifetime opportunity to make it happen.

2014 can mark the beginning of a radical transformation of our economy and communities. I will vote Yes because I believe we must accept further responsibility, then we can push ahead to create a society that works for all, now and in the generations to come.

This article was originally published in Bella Caledonia – Closer edition 3. You can read more here.

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.