Needle Blight – Rural Economy At Risk

The Scottish forestry sector supports over 13,000 jobs and is worth almost half a billion pounds to the economy, so any threat must be taken seriously.

In the parliament I’m the Green spokesperson on Rural Affairs, and given the importance of forestry to the rural economy I asked the Scottish Government some questions about a little-known disease called Dothistroma Needle Blight, which it turns out is a big problem.

The BBC interviewed me about it the other day and the story is running today.

This issue shows why tackling climate change is an economic priority. You can read more about it here.

 

SICK KIDS GO-AHEAD WELCOME BUT WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO CURRENT SITE?

I welcome today’s announcement by Scottish Government confirming approval for a replacement hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh.

A new Sick Kids is long overdue and the minister must ensure the project comes in on time and budget.

I’d also urge the Scottish Government and NHS Lothian to think carefully about what happens to the existing site at Sciennes. Tempting as it might be to flog off this prime public asset to a private developer, the needs of the community must be considered. The neighbouring Primary School is bursting at the seams and the community has no communal space or facility.

A modern hospital for our children is to be warmly welcomed but we must ensure we make the most of the space it vacates in such a densely populated neighbourhood.

Fit To Face The Future

The Evening News asked me for my views on how we make the most of a sensational summer of sport. Here’s what I had to say…

Like so many Scots, I spent yesterday rather bleary-eyed after shunning sleep to see Andy Murray’s superb victory in the US Open. For me, it was the perfect end to what has been an incredibly inspiring summer of sport.
 
I look forward to seeing Edinburgh cheer our Scottish Olympians as they parade through the city centre this Sunday. But I hope that we’ll see a commitment from politicians that remains long after the cheering crowds have gone home. Our top priority must be to end the short-sighted approach to sports provision in this city because our local, grassroots facilities are where it all begins.
 
Safeguarding green spaces and playing fields from development would be a start, and cutting speeds on residential streets would encourage the kind of outdoor play that I took for granted growing up.
 
There are growing calls, including from Sir Chris Hoy, for a total revamp at Meadowbank. We have a velodrome with no roof and a general feeling of tired neglect across the site. The least we could do is find out how much a roof would cost and find the cash to get it done.  Meadowbank is an important facility.  It’s the only indoor track facility in the region, yet our elite and club athletes have to compete for training space with bookings for antique fairs and children’s clothing sales. It’s not surprising Scottish athletes all too often have to head south for better facilities.
 
Glasgow by contrast will have a new world-class velodrome named after Edinburgh’s golden boy in time for the Commonwealth Games in 2014.
 
City councillors have backed Green calls for network of gold-class cycle lanes, or Hoy Ways, around our capital but details and funding commitments are thin. At the weekend I took part in Pedal for Scotland, cycling 47 miles from Glasgow to Edinburgh, along with 8,000 other people. The sheer variety of people taking part, young and old, competitive and leisurely, highlighted the healthy appetite for cycling that we must sustain.
 
Of course Edinburgh does have the benefit of the newly refurbished Commonwealth Pool. Sadly the Commie’s facelift has been at the expense of other local facilities. Families in Leith are anxious to find out the fate of the unique and much loved Waterworld, which closed its doors in January. We need to protect and enhance these public assets to make it easy for sport to become part of everyday life. We could mark Andy Murray’s incredible achievements this summer by renaming the Craiglockhart Tennis Centre. After all, Andy did train there. Indeed, his mum Judy can be seen popping in and out of the venue in her coaching role.
 
The NHS is spending a fortune on obesity. Former health secretary Nicola Sturgeon will be familiar with the idea of preventative spending – I sincerely hope she takes this into her new role as Investment Secretary. What better way to tackle the obesity crisis than investing in sports facilities, and in cycling and walking infrastructure? Making it easy to be active so we have a healthier population will save us money in the long run and will improve our mental health and happiness too.
 
As we celebrate Andy Murray’s achievements, we should perhaps consider how they do things in Sweden. Our northern European neighbours have produced three of the best tennis players in history: Björn Borg, Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg won 24 grand slam titles between them. Swedes have a culture of keeping fit and enjoying the outdoors, which must in part account for their longer lives. Fitness is so integral to their way of life schools shut for a sports holiday every February.
 
By 2014 the Scottish Government wants our high school pupils to have an hour and forty minutes of physical education each week. We need to be far more ambitious than this. 
 
Our political leaders have enjoyed cheering from the sidelines all summer – it’s time for them to make the big leaps required to get Scotland fit for the future.

MIDLOTHIAN GROWTH MEANS CYCLE ISSUES VITAL

The other day I got on my bike to see for myself how the growth of Midlothian presents challenges and opportunities for cycling.

Over the next two decades the population of Midlothian is projected to soar by twelve per cent to almost 100,000. Commuting into Edinburgh by car is commonplace, and I believe more can be done to encourage commuting by bike.

I visited Dalkeith to hear from local experts how cycle routes that cross the city bypass could be improved, and how the national cycle network is being affected by the creation of the Borders Railway.

My bike trip around the Dalkeith area revealed what amazing potential there is to make cycling easy and fun for all. There are great opportunities for improving public health and reducing congestion if we make clear where there are safe routes.

I’m delighted to see Sustrans putting so much thought into a new route for the National Cycle Network through Dalkeith before the Borders Railway arrives. The new route, shown to me by local volunteer Sustrans ranger David Wardrop-White, was a joy to cycle as it stays away from busy streets, which I’m sure will encourage more people to use it.

Given the expansion of Midlothian, with many householders commuting into Edinburgh for work, it is essential we make it obvious and enjoyable to cycle either directly to work or to a bus or railway station. We should seize the chance to reduce dependency on cars and make it simple to add a bit of exercise into daily routines.

Behind the scenes at the recycling factory

Ever wondered where your recycling goes next? If you live in a tenement, you probably have access to a packaging bank on the street (the one with a green lid). Last week I went to Broxburn in West Lothian to visit Shanks, the company that empties those banks and sorts out the different materials to send away for recycling.

The whole factory operates as a large conveyer belt, with truckloads of unsorted waste being loaded on at one end and neat bundles of separated materials being stacked up at the other end.

While machines do have a big role in separating out different items, the process also involves hard work and long hours by teams of workers sorting by hand. Over Christmas and the New Year we heard that the factory operates 24/7 to cope with the boom in packaging created.

As a Green I’ve long been interested in how we can reduce expensive landfill waste for a long time, as you’d expect. What I didn’t appreciate was just how dependent our current recycling system is on international markets, and China in particular.

The bulk of the materials processed by Shanks are destined for Asian countries, where they are made into new goods and shipped back here. The empty cargo containers are then filled with more recycling for the return journey and the cycle continues. Because of the recession, there are fewer containers coming over, and less demand for the Chinese economy to make new things, so worldwide prices for recycled materials are currently very low – which means job losses in the waste industry as the whole operation becomes less economically viable.

Obviously this is a complex industry and I don’t claim to be an expert but it does seem that we could do more to reduce this instability if we invested more in reprocessing and manufacturing here in Scotland.

The Scottish Government announced in early 2009 that they would help fund a plastics recycling factory in Scotland, but there has been slow progress to date. The SNP had a soundbite in the last election about “reindustrialising Scotland”. After my visit, I can’t help but feel that if we invested more in manufacturing at home so that we could reuse more of the waste we produce, it could do a great deal for our economy and the environment.

(With apologies for the obligatory photo of the politician in a hard hat)

Safeguarding People’s Right To Know

Ten years since the introduction of Freedom of Information in Scotland, campaigners are calling for its rules to apply to private firms and arms-length bodies that deliver public contracts.

Tomorrow (5th September) I’ll be hosting an event in advance of ‘International Right to Know Day’ in the Scottish Parliament with speakers from the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland.

The Parliament will soon be scrutinising the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Scotland Bill but Ministers already have the powers to make the existing Act apply to a wider range of bodies.

Many public services have been privatised or spun off into arms-length organisations in the decade since the Act was created, and this means many services now fall outside of the right-to-know rules. We must bring new organisations under FoI laws to safeguard people’s right to know how their money is being spent.

If you have any thoughts on improving Freedom of Information, please do get in touch. This is an issue I intend to pursue.