When it comes to transport, we have nothing to lose by being bold

“Transport supports our economy, enhances the social and cultural fabric of the city. The choices we make affect our health and quality of life.”

It’s hard to disagree with those words, which appear near the start of the Edinburgh city council transport strategy. Click here to see a copy: Transport_Strategy

The council are inviting views on it, and I urge them to be bold.

Transport does indeed support our economy but it also hinders it. At the moment we have a very inefficient network with regular gridlock, costing business and putting public health at risk.
Studies from the US show where cities have embraced cycling local retailers have enjoyed a surge in business. After all, you can fit a dozen bikes in a single car parking space.

We can talk about different ways of routing traffic until the cows come home but if we’re serious we should talk about ways of reducing traffic in the first place. That’s why we must prioritise walking and stress-free cycling, along with good bus and rail links for commuters into the city from other parts of Lothian.

It is true that transport affects social and cultural fabric. Just look at the positive culture they have in cities like Copenhagen or Amsterdam where going from A to B on a bike without breaking sweat is the norm, compared to here where many feel the need to put on a suit of high-vis armour.

Missing from the strategy’s options is the creation of a stand-out piece of cycle infrastructure so we can see the benefits in action. The recently-unveiled “Quality Bike Corridor” was a damp squib and combining a cycle lane with tram tracks on Princes Street was plain daft. If we’re going to showcase our commitment to this fun, affordable and efficient form of transport let’s do so properly.

Edinburgh could have a truly continental-style street café culture. At the moment any enjoyment is easily shattered by thundering traffic, with fumes that leave you coughing up your croissant. Air quality remains a scandal in our capital city; in several locations Air Quality Management Zones have been introduced where the pollution threatens to breach World Health Organisation standards. I hope the proposal for low emissions zones – restricting the most polluting vehicles – goes ahead.

The assertion that it is our individual choices that affect our health and quality of life must be taken to task. Many people feel they have no choice but to drive, and those who don’t have access to a car – half the households in the city – have no choice but to inhale the fumes and put up with the congestion. It is vital the council strategy gives us our choices back.

I’m amazed to discover the council is “frequently” approached to help organisations plan their travel to reduce car use but it has “no resource available” to do so. Spending a small amount on this would pay big dividends.

It’s pleasing to see an emphasis on road and pavement maintenance. Our city streets are plagued with potholes yet government prefers to fund new motorways, bypasses and bridges. Ribbon-cutting ceremonies are obviously hard to resist.

More 20 mph zones – one of the council administration’s pledges – can’t come soon enough. These are proven to reduce injuries and create streets safer for cyclists and children. We have roads in Edinburgh that are 40 mph when they are no different from others that are 30 mph. Let’s lower those limits too.

Of course the top gripe for any Edinburgh motorist, whether you’re a petrol head or an occasional driver like me, is that search for an elusive parking space. There are city centre car parks regularly underused so the spaces are there. In the same way that Lothian Buses developed a free smart phone app for its customers could the council invest in a free app showing car park spaces? We won’t change our car-is-king culture overnight but we could end unnecessary journeys.

Holyrood Committee Agree To My Request To Examine Bee Crisis

For some time there has been growing concern about the decline of bees and other pollinating insects. They are vital to our food supplies and there’s increasing evidence that pesticides are harming them.

Last October I lodged this motion in parliament calling for a moratorium and a whole year ago I lodged this motion calling on the Scottish Government to review the substances it authorises. France and other countries have banned the chemicals and I continue to urge the Government to listen to the evidence from Scottish universities that neonicotinoids are a threat to biodiversity.
One ray of hope did appear this week during a debate on biodiversity. I recently wrote to the Rural Affairs committee of the parliament asking them to include the issue of pesticides and bees in their work programme, and I was delighted to hear during the debate committee chair Rob Gibson confirm that they have agreed to do so.

During the debate I also raised some other important issues:

Our use of fresh water and land is approaching the planetary limit. In some oceans, acidification is already too high. On climate change, scientists estimate that we have pushed ourselves just over the limit. Until a few years ago, the same was true of ozone, but we have successfully turned the tide on that problem and the ozone layer is slowly recovering. However, the news on biodiversity is not good.

The Government’s national performance framework uses the abundance of terrestrial breeding birds as an indicator of biodiversity. Unfortunately, progress has not been good, with abundance in 2010 being 4 per cent lower than in 2009 and 2 per cent lower than in 2006.

It is important that people can feel a connection with the natural environment—if that is lost there will be no public desire to protect our biodiversity. TV programmes such as David Attenborough’s “Africa” are stunning, but they are not sufficient to create that connection. Children need to experience outdoor play in wild environments and outdoor education through our schools. Not everyone will love the outdoors and not everyone will wear through a pair of hiking boots in their lifetime, but that is not the point. Understanding what biodiversity actually feels like, as a young person, is important. Initiatives such as forest schools, which offer children the chance to learn in a natural environment, should be well supported and embedded in the curriculum with eco schools.

I have become a Scottish Environment LINK species champion and I know that many others have, too. My species is the rare brown hare and a few of them can be found on Arthur’s Seat, just outside the Parliament. I encourage MSPs to sign up soon.

The way in which we develop our land and the importance that we place on biodiversity in our land-use planning system must also change. I have recently responded to an application for housing on Craighouse campus, which is a green city space in my region. It is designated as a local nature conservation site and a local nature reserve because it is so important to biodiversity. I believe that local people do understand and care. I have been informed that there may be more than 1,000 objections to the proposal to build on the site. If we are serious about halting biodiversity loss, green pockets in urban areas must be preserved for nature and for people to learn about and appreciate nature. Allotments, too, have multiple benefits and local gardens in our streets are all-important islands of urban biodiversity that we cannot afford to continue to lose to new driveways.

Finally, food security relies in part on diversity: interbreeding and pollination of species give an ecosystem resilience against shocks such as disease or climate change. There are hundreds of apple species in Scotland, but only four or five of them are available in shops. Our farms tend to grow monoculture crops. We are missing out on wonderful diversity and we are increasing the risk that one disease will wipe out a whole part of the food chain. Biodiversity in our food production gives us the genetic diversity and resilience that are essential to a secure food supply.

Youth employment efforts must include supporting businesses to recruit and train

This week I took part in a debate in parliament on youth employment. It’s an incredibly important issue. I used my speaking time to focus on disadvantaged young people, whose routes to employment have more barriers than most, even when there are more jobs to go round…
“At the end of February last year, more than 16,000 children and young people were being looked after by councils in Scotland. The figure has increased annually since 2001. Some 1,408 of those leaving care in 2010-11 were between 16 and 21 years old. Those are young ages at which to deal with a major life event and strive to become a self-sufficient adult. The difficulties of such a transition are evident when we consider that a third of homeless people were formerly in care. On the whole, care leavers have poorer educational qualifications and health outcomes than their peers and, notably, they are more likely to have contact with the criminal justice system.

“Many companies, local authorities and other governmental institutions are offering modern apprenticeships. The City of Edinburgh Council recently announced a further 50 such apprenticeships. As there is a particular issue regarding the employment of young people leaving care, I ask the minister to ensure that all local authorities share best practice and try to ensure that looked-after children are given every opportunity to take up such apprenticeship places where they are available, because future life chances for looked-after young people are improving where councils are focusing on getting care leavers into education or employment.

“Third sector organisations such as Barnardo’s and Action for Children have expertise in supporting young people to maintain college, training and work placements, and funding support for such initiatives is very much preventative spending. Research by the University of York in 2010 showed that every young person who is not in employment, education or training costs public authorities an average of £56,000 over their lifetime. Demos has demonstrated savings of more than £90,000 where children in care leave at 18 with good qualifications and good mental health, compared with those who leave care at 16 and a half with no qualifications and mental health problems. We know, too, that 23 per cent of the adult prison population has been in care. That highlights the need for holistic and personalised employment support for these young people.

“This week, the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee started an inquiry into underemployment that will investigate tackling in-work poverty without increasing overall unemployment. The issue was underlined by a Barnardo’s report this week called “Paying to work: childcare and child poverty”. It found that the introduction of the universal credit benefit system as it stands will mean that a lone parent who is in part-time, low-paid work will lose out financially if they increase their work hours, because they will need more childcare. The Scottish Government plans to increase flexibility and the number of hours of childcare, and I welcome that as it will help to remove barriers to young parents entering education or employment. That increased flexibility is urgently needed—and I raised that issue during our previous debate on colleges.

“I feel uncomfortable with the apparent priority that universities have been given over colleges. I am extremely supportive of the Government’s aim to base access to education on ability to learn and not ability to pay, but it does not sit well with me that universities should be supported while colleges are made to feel the pain of £34.6 million-worth of cuts to their grants. Colleges are part of the answer to employability and are essential for optimal youth employability. Notwithstanding that many people would much rather learn on the job and gain work-based qualifications, colleges are the institutions that can provide the access and flexibility that many disadvantaged young people need.

“I would also like to talk about enterprise. The stand-out fact in the FSB briefing this week was that the UK labour force survey demonstrates that, between 2008 and 2011, 88 per cent of people who moved from unemployment to private sector employment found work in SMEs, compared to 12 per cent who found work in large businesses. It is clear, as the FSB says, that employment in small firms is the most important route to employment for the unemployed and economically inactive.

“Our youth employment efforts must also focus on supporting businesses to recruit and train the right young people. I ask the minister to recognise the importance of microbusinesses and small businesses as employers of previously unemployed people, and to listen to the FSB’s wealth of experience in how existing microbusinesses can best be supported to recruit young people.

“Finally, it is important to recognise the enterprising talents of young people who can, if given the chance, become very successful with their own businesses. The last motion in Parliament lodged by my predecessor, Robin Harper, called on the Government to create a microfinancing scheme for young people, and since then I have been pleased to see the Grameen microfinance model being set up in Scotland, as it has the potential to help those locked out of the financial system.”