“We expect our athletes to fulfill their potential in 2014. But are we providing the facilities?”

Edinburgh is synonymous with arts and culture. We’re world famous for our brilliant festivals.  Mention sport and what probably leaps to mind are places like Murrayfield, Easter Road and Tynecastle. Our brilliance at football and rugby is a debate in its own right!

It is significant that the sort of sports we associate ourselves with are not the sports Scots win medals for – cycling, rowing, curling and now, of course, tennis.

Lynsey Sharp’s shut out from Meadowbank has brought into sharp focus Edinburgh’s attitude to its sporting assets. If you look at the council’s asset management strategy it talks about delivering “excellent cultural and sporting facilities”. Yet, this aspiration is not entirely reflected on the ground.

A recent assessment of the council’s Single Outcome Agreement focuses heavily on the economy of the city, and observes, “Edinburgh’s 12 major Festivals continue to provide a major contribution”.  Yet while Edinburgh is also renowned for hosting key international sporting events, such as the European and World Cross Country Championships these did not require the use of man made facilities.

Edinburgh has the laudable aim of being the most physically active European city by 2020.  I’m concerned though that this relies on “awareness-raising and a branding campaign” rather than making actual improvements to the more tired elements of the City’s leisure estate.

At a national level Finance Secretary John Swinney is currently deciding how to spend a £300million windfall on capital projects. While his mailbox will be full of interesting suggestions, funding an overhaul of long neglected facilities like Meadowbank, plus ensuring local swimming pools such as Leith Waterworld remain open to the public, is vital for the health and wellbeing of our citizens.

I’ve been involved in athletics in Edinburgh for over 30 years. We will expect our athletes to fulfill their potential in 2014.  But are we providing the facilities to allow such potential to develop, from grass roots to elite level sport? Has the city, consciously or unconsciously, focused on the success of its cultural output?

Glasgow’s 2014 Games offer an opportunity to look at facilities on a local, regional and national level.   Our Commonwealth Pool has been given an overhaul, thanks to its forthcoming role in these Games.  Astonishingly, it was proposed that the sale of Leith Waterworld and Meadowbank was necessary to help fund this essential upgrade.

The word ‘legacy’ is bandied about a lot these days.   When antique fairs at Meadowbank take precedence over athletics training I think it’s time we questioned just exactly what sort of legacy we mean.

“The voices calling for change have broadened”

On Thursday I contributed to a debate in the Scottish Parliament on the outcome of the UN Climate Summit in Doha. I made the point that the people urging action these days aren’t just environmentalists.

Here’s what I said…

Climate change compels us to act globally, in a unified manner. We must act locally too and grasp the opportunities that we have to create healthy, resilient and truly sustainable communities.

It is important to recognise where we are. The international negotiating process is deathly slow and even the most mainstream NGO networks are branding Doha as a failure. What was achieved was to prevent the process from breaking down, but no new emissions cuts were committed to — not even by Qatar, which was hosting the talks and which has the highest per capita emissions in the world.

PricewaterhouseCooper recently released analysis showing that a massive six-fold increase in our rate of decarbonisation is needed to give ourselves a more than 50 per cent chance of avoiding a rise of 2 deg C in global temperatures. This week, the US National Intelligence Council identified climate change and its impact on food, water and natural resource supplies as a mega trend that will define the coming decade. Closer to home, thousands of people are facing the prospect of having no house insurance as climate change increases the risk of floods in the UK.

The voices calling for change have broadened — I have just cited a big four audit firm, the US intelligence community and the British insurance industry. They are all concerned about the impact of our continued reliance on a high-carbon economy. As more and more parts of the economy and society get behind change, the laggards, and those blocking international agreements, will become more isolated. I hope that we will see a workable, fair and enforceable deal agreed to replace the Kyoto protocol — one that actually works this time. In the meantime, it is our job as a country that has recognised the benefits of a low-carbon economy to help lead the way.

It is an exciting and challenging prospect. We must continue to show leadership, and I welcome the Government’s recognition in the motion that all sectors in Scotland “must accelerate action to reduce domestic emissions and speed the transition to a low-carbon economy.”

The Green amendment that was not selected for debate is more explicit in its call for the Government to take extra steps after missing the first of our climate targets, which was relatively easy. The Greens will vote for the Government motion and the Labour amendment.

I started by speaking of opportunities, and it is important to remember why we are striving for change. A low-carbon, sustainable society means a healthy society. I recently hosted a talk with a speaker from the Danish cycle embassy. He described the transformation of Copenhagen into a capital city where 37 per cent of trips are by bike. Analysis showed that, for every 10 per cent increase in the number of kilometres cycled, Denmark saves €9 million on healthcare and gains something like 61,000 years of extra life expectancy annually.

A low-carbon society is one where people can heat their homes affordably. Fuel poverty statistics published today remind us of the need to implement and fund a retrofit programme and fix an energy market that is dominated by the big six companies. A low-carbon, sustainable society means a more equal society. If we tackle the shocking inequalities that we see in the world, there are enough resources and wealth to allow a meaningful and fulfilling life for so many more. We must remember that those are changes and ideals that we should be striving for anyway.

At Doha, we saw the first, important recognition from rich industrialised countries that they should pay for at least some of the loss and damage that is already being felt in more vulnerable nations. Spreading Scotland’s commitment to climate justice will be key to a fair international solution. To do that, Scotland must continue to fund projects overseas that target the most marginalised communities—for instance, the projects in Zambia and Malawi that the minister and other members have mentioned — and, as Stewart Stevenson acknowledged, projects that target women.

Most importantly, Scotland must demonstrate that it is seriously committed to delivering each and every one of our climate targets with domestic action here.

If we can change our culture, and we must, violence against women is preventable

Last week I was asked to speak at a Zero Tolerance event in the Parliament, celebrating 20 years of campaigning to tackle men’s violence against women.

Women’s lives have changed markedly in the last century, largely due to the passion and hard work of those who knew something had to be done. I sometimes feel that with every passing week, I become more aware of gender inequality, and of the work that remains to be done.

I’m passionate about politics and sport; I’m involved in both, as a politician and as a qualified coach.  I’ve seen the impacts of gender inequality in both these fields.  

When I first became involved in politics I’d hear people discuss whether or not there was a need to ensure that Party candidates were representative of society’s gender balance. After 13 years in politics, and more than 30 in sport, I’m absolutely convinced that action is needed.

Only around a fifth of Councillors in Scotland are women.  At this level of Government it’s unlikely you’ll be required to travel far from home on a regular basis, a factor that might make local politics more possible and more appealing to women with young children.  That doesn’t appear to be the case.   That is a great shame, because Council’s make a lot of decisions that impact on women’s daily lives. 

When I was on Edinburgh Council two first class nurseries were closed.  All those I met campaigning against closure, taking the time to arrange to meet me, were women.  Women are much more likely to be involved with nursery on a day to day basis.  But much less likely to be involved in the decision making process around what goes on regarding nursery provision. 

Does the sometimes hostile manner of debate put women off?  I’ll never forget a colleague in another party being called a ‘fishwife’ as part of a debate during my first ever Council meeting.  I was astonished but not an eye was batted by those senior councillors who’d seen it all before and clearly didn’t think that was a big deal.

Or is it the fact that many meetings take place in the evenings, at a time when many women are dealing with home, food and family, and some with bath and bedtime?

Parliamentary representation is better but it’s simply not good enough either. 1 in 3 MSPs are women at present. I sit on a Committee of nine- there are three women.

Why does any of this matter?  It matters because violence against women happens in a context.  As Zero Tolerance state, violence against women is more than domestic abuse.

I read newspaper sports pages.  I never fail to be disappointed by the lack of coverage of women in sport.  On average there are 22 photos of men to every one photo of women.  No-one’s interested, they say, because women’s sport doesn’t generate money. During the Olympic Games we rejoiced when women succeeded but that was short term coverage.

Culture is changing; we face the growing sexualisation of women and children. The Leveson Inquiry raised concerns about the way women are portrayed in the media. More than ever we need strong messages of women succeeding in their professions. Such women should be highly visible. 

We must do all that we can, from the earliest days of childhood, to prevent gender stereotyping. Campaigns like ‘Be What You Want’  and ‘Close the Gap’ are important and should be supported.

All forms of violence against women happen in a cultural context.  As we debate the future of Scotland we must include debate about the prevalence of abuse and persistent and deep rooted gender inequalities.  Because if we can change the culture, and we must, violence against women is preventable.

Danish dreaming and Scottish reality

It was a real pleasure to host an event last week in collaboration with Nordic Horizons, a sort of not-at-all-wonky think tank bringing great ideas, examples and progressive thinking from the Nordic countries to Scotland.

This meeting was about Danish cycling, and in particular the outstanding “cycle utopia” of Copenhagen. Guest speaker Søren Arildskov Rasmussen wowed the audience of Scottish cyclists with slide after slide of fantastic cycle infrastructure and statistics showing just what a transformation Denmark’s policies have led to.

You can see and hear the full 60-slide presentation on the Nordic Horizons website here, but here are just a couple of my highlights:

The right infrastructure is, unsurprisingly, at the heart of Denmark’s success. When you hear Scottish cycle campaigners talking about the need for ‘segregated cycle lanes’, this graphic shows you what they mean. Not painted lanes that fade rapidly, but a distinct raised lane, with parked cars on the outside where necessary. This is what we should be starting to build where possible, with Leith Walk the obvious example in Edinburgh at the moment.

There is a true cycle-friendly culture in Copenhagen, with positive branding and gimmicks to encourage and reward cyclists. Tilted bins, foot-rests at traffic lights, bike counters, air pumps, water taps… you name it, they have it!

Lastly, I was extremely impressed with the connectivity between other modes of transport for cyclists. For instance, a dedicated bike carriage introduced on S-trains saw 5 million bike journeys on trains in 2010. It’s so well-used that they have a one-way system in the carriage. This is part of the reason that 80% of cyclists continue to cycle all year round.

Back to reality, and with my colleague on the Cross Party Group on Cycling, Jim Eadie MSP, I went to meet the Finance Secretary, John Swinney, to put the case, again, for more funding for cycling. It was a timely meeting, as it was announced on Wednesday that the Scottish Government will receive an extra £331m from the UK Government to spend on capital projects. I’ve said before that we need predictable, clear funding for cycling, but there’s no harm in arguing for an early Christmas present on occasions like this!

It was a positive meeting, but if I could have a Christmas wish granted, it would be for some of that Danish and Dutch wisdom to rub off on Scottish Ministers!

Why I’ll be opposing the plans to develop Craighouse

My ‘political life’ began in the early 90’s when City of Edinburgh Council proposed development of luxury flats on a designated greenfield site, used as Education Department playing fields, and described by ‘presumption against development’ on the local plan.  It may be two decades on from my first forays into politics but the green spaces are still under threat and I find myself yet again opposing the plans to develop, contrary to planning policy, on a precious open green space.

Proposals to develop the former Napier University site at Craighouse on Easter Craiglockhart Hill were first made public in autumn 2011. Since then I have followed the proposed development at this site extremely closely. I have met the developers Craighouse Partnership several times, regularly met campaigners from the Friends of Craighouse Grounds and Wood group, and Friends of Craiglockhart Woods and Nature Trail Group, and attended numerous public meetings and Community Council meetings to hear the views of local residents on the proposed plans. I was pleased to see so many people at last Tuesday’s public meeting of Craiglockhart residents.

The developer has now submitted plans to renovate the listed buildings into 64 homes and to build 89 new homes on the site. The developer argues that the only way to make the renovation of the listed buildings viable is to allow new building on the green and open space, setting aside the Local Plan and the various conservation and landscape designations on the site.  

I do not believe that this is acceptable. I do not think that the loss of the space, the reductions in access and the changes to the very character of one of Edinburgh’s most remarkable spaces justify the plans as submitted. I worry about the signal that this would send with regard to other green spaces across the city.

 Flickr MikeMurry

This is an important historic Edinburgh site of city-wide significance. The open green space and woodlands of Craighouse have been used by the local and wider Edinburgh community for generations and it is essential to preserve public amenity and ensure that current levels of access are maintained, not eroded. The quite excessive amount of new-build being proposed would result in a massive increase in residential traffic for the area. We must hold onto green sites such as this which really make our neighbourhoods special.

What you can do: If you agree with me- and even if you don’t!- please register your views here and use the reference 12/04007/FUL.  Or you can write to the Head of Planning, City of Edinburgh Council, 4 East Market Street, Edinburgh, EH8 8BG, using the same reference number. In both cases, no later than 24th December (Please note the deadline has now been extended from the 21st Dec.)

You can also see the plans for yourself by using the reference 12/04007/FUL here.  There are over 200 documents in this one application but the ones to which I refer most often are the Design and Access statement and the Estate Management Strategy.

Planning applications can only be decided in relation to what are known as “material considerations”. You may have your own view about these but you need to include at least one material consideration if you want your view to count.  You might want to include:

  • The plans to build on the open space run contrary to the Edinburgh Local Plan
  • The new buildings are not consistent with the conservation area
  • The landscape will be dramatically altered, including the surroundings for grade A listed buildings
  • Previous open space for walking and general enjoyment will be lost and access reduced
  • Car-parking for over 300 cars will change the feel of the place especially at weekends and in evenings
  • The lack of public transport options and walking and cycling routes to and from the site.

 You can read more about the views of my Councillor colleagues Cllr Gavin Corbett and Cllr Melanie Main and get more information here.