ROYAL HIGH: JOHNSTONE DELIGHTED AS LUXURY HOTEL REJECTED

Reacting to news that plans to turn the Royal High School in Edinburgh into a luxury hotel have been rejected, Alison Johnstone, Scottish Green MSP for Lothian, who spoke at today’s planning hearing, said:Royal_High_School_Calton_Hill_Edinburgh

“I’m so pleased that members of the planning committee were not seduced by arguments about economic benefit, instead recognising that much of our visitor economy is based on the carefully cherished landscape of our city: an inheritance which this development would have squandered.

“A perfectly feasible alternative is waiting in the wings in the shape of a new music school which much more respects the building and setting. and is more likely to widen public access. Let’s get to that quickly.”

 

Bold land reform is needed for Scotland

This week I took part in the Stage One debate on the Government’s Land Reform Bill. I would have liked to have seen the Government’s response to the stage 1 report before the debate. The Bill as it stands needs serious improvements.

Read on for the full text of my speech.

Alison

Land

Land is limited. It is also emotional and personal. Our homes are on land, we live off the land and nations are defined by their land. We all need land, but access to and ownership of it are unequal. The land inequity in Scotland today is vast and totally out of step with the situation for many of our European neighbours. Patterns of land ownership in our neighbouring nations are typically 1,000 times less concentrated than in Scotland. Not only do relatively few people own most of Scotland but around a quarter of all estates over 1,000 acres have been held by the same families for more than 400 years.

That is the history that we live with today and which the Parliament is slowly beginning to overcome. As we have heard, land reform is a broad topic that covers rural and urban areas as well as the marine environment. The issue is inextricably linked to local democracy, fiscal policy, land prices and human rights. Scottish Greens have always seen radical land reform as a vital element of the journey towards a more sustainable, equal and prosperous Scotland. I hope that the bill is the start of the Scottish Parliament taking a renewed and sustained interest in the issue, whether that is through greater devolution, empowering local authorities through tax reform or community empowerment.

The provisions on transparency are important. The question of who owns and benefits from land is a key one, and I believe that the electorate are entitled to full transparency about who really owns Scotland. There is no simple way to deliver complete transparency but, unfortunately, the Government’s proposal is unworkable. Section 35 limits those who can make requests for information and section 36 contains no measures to compel any company in, for example, Grand Cayman to reveal anything at all about who is in control of it. The proposal is unenforceable and will continue to allow Scottish landowners to be involved in complex schemes of tax avoidance and evasion and secrecy. The best option on the table by far is to allow only EU-registered companies to own land. We welcome the committee’s recommendations on that point.

Fiscal reform is also a core part of land reform. I fully support bringing shootings and deer forests back on to the valuation roll. Of course no one likes to pay tax, especially if it is a tax from which they have had an exemption, but there is more than enough evidence that that should happen. As the land reform expert Andy Wightman puts it,

“Why should caravan sites, pubs and local shops subsidise those who occupy shootings and deer forests?”

He says that

“the hair salon, village shop, pub and garage are subject to rating”,

but

“deer forests and shootings pay nothing.”

As the land reform review group made clear:

“there is no clear public interest case in maintaining the current universal exemption of agriculture, forestry and other land based businesses from non-domestic rates.”

The conclusions of a House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee report this year raised similar concerns that the exemptions are not having the desired impact, that they should be open to the same level of scrutiny as other Government spending and that they could in fact be pushing up land prices and undermining the Scottish Government’s commitment to increase the amount of land in community ownership.

Bold land reform is needed for Scotland, and it could help to deliver more affordable homes. Current rates exemptions for vacant and derelict land and for empty industrial buildings incentivise people to keep land in urban areas vacant. All of that land could be used for homes for people. There is almost 11,000 hectares of vacant or derelict urban land in Scotland and a massive demand for affordable homes. We heard earlier today that 54,000 households in Scotland are homeless.

What about the appalling situation in which Andrew Stoddart and his family found themselves? It brought tenant farming rights up the agenda again, and rightly so. Poor housing issues jumped out during the RACCE Committee’s evidence gathering, and I learned that homes under agricultural tenancies are exempt from the minimum standard. Clearly, there are improvements to be made in that area, and I support the calls for a tenant’s right to buy in specific circumstances.

I will flag up a couple of things that Scottish Greens think should be included in the bill. There are numerous examples of common land that is not on the register passing quietly into public ownership. We should create a new protective order for land without an identifiable owner, which should require the keeper to conduct a public consultation, to help to ascertain the true legal status of the land well before any title is registered. Finally, we have left on the statute book a piece of legislation called the Division of Commonties Act 1695. It was one of the legal tools that were used to privatise vast tracts of common land. The 1695 act should be repealed to protect the few patches of common land that remain and to signal our break from the land grabs of the past.

We will support the bill today, but there is much to be done before stage 2.

 

We need to make being a GP in Scotland a really attractive career

This week I took part in a parliamentary debate on the NHS and Redesigning Primary Care.

I stressed the importance of everyone in Scotland having the means and services to enable them to enjoy optimal health, and a properly resourced health service there when we need it. We know only too well the impact of inequality on health.

Read on for the full text of my speech.

Alison

GPs

 

It really is essential that we do all that we can to ensure that everyone in Scotland has access to a GP when they need one, yet, as we have heard, that is becoming more of a challenge than ever before. This year, here in Lothian, practices in Ratho and Bangholm have struggled to provide primary care to patients. At the time, a constituent who lives in Ratho village wrote to me and told of the

“extraordinary position that we find ourselves in living in Ratho Village”,

stating:

“We will have no doctor in the surgery for the next week. We have only had a doctor for two days a week for the six weeks beforehand.”

My constituent advised that he had been offered an alternative surgery in Leith, which involves a journey of about 10 miles one way. In terms of cost and travel time, not to mention time off work or school, it is difficult to imagine a less convenient option.

Like many people, my constituent wants to understand the events and circumstances that led to that, and he asks that the local health board provides an explanation of the systems and planning that have led to the situation. He asks:

“Why has this happened?”

He used the word “extraordinary”, and the lack of access to a GP is indeed unexpected, unusual and extremely worrying. There are many reasons why it has happened, but I am pleased to say that there are solutions.

We have moved from a position where there was intense competition for GP positions and several applicants for each post to one where, as reported in MSP meetings with NHS Lothian, interview dates have been cancelled due to a lack of interest in and candidates for an advertised post.

As GP vacancies increase, the burden on existing staff increases, adding to workloads that the BMA describes as being “already unsustainable.” The BMA tells us, too, that morale among GPs is at an all-time low, that more GPs than ever before are leaving mid-career and that senior GPs are retiring early. I know one such GP, who told me recently that the bureaucracy that he was dealing with meant that he simply could not do the job that he had been doing before and the job that he wanted and needed to do. Unfortunately, he felt that he could not carry on. He worked in a practice in an area with many social challenges, and the loss of his skill, passion and experience will have a negative impact. I am pleased that the burden that is QOF is being removed.

We have heard, too, that there are practices with restrictions on their lists. For example, potential patients may be able to register only on certain days of the week. Lack of access to primary care often results in patients seeking assistance at hospitals, sometimes heading straight to accident and emergency departments. In some cases, because patients have been unable to access primary care, an initially non-serious illness becomes acute and requires attention in hospital.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to address the issue and the on-going work to agree a new GP contract from 2017, because it is clear that action is required. It is really important that we listen to and work with the profession to ensure that we get the change right. The Royal College of General Practitioners, the BMA and the Royal College of Emergency Medicine have been working hard on engaging with Government and parliamentarians.

Martin McKechnie, the vice president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, asks us to invest in GP training and retention in order to ensure that fewer patients head to accident and emergency departments for care. He credits the Government with increasing consultant numbers and asks that even more is done so that every hospital in Scotland can provide a 365-days-a-year service. He highlights the loss of graduate emergency registrars, a lot of them to Australia, and the RCGP tells us that many qualified GPs are leaving to practise abroad, and that insufficient numbers are undertaking GP specialty training. The RCGP has told us that GPs want to look after their patients and not the books. They want a more appropriate replacement for the QOF to evolve—one that works for patients and GPs. Further, the BMA asks us to recruit, train and value doctors and wants all parties in this chamber to work with it to support Scottish general practice.

We need to make being a GP in Scotland a really attractive career that attracts people in the way that it did before and to which GPs who take a break will return. I hope that the current work on agreeing the new contract will take those factors and more into account.

GP practices have worked on a small-business model since the 1960s. That might be the preference of many practices, but more and more GPs do not want to be partners and do not want to work full time; they might prefer to be employed by the practice or by the NHS. New models and changing contracts could make being a GP a more attractive career to a greater number of people.

Working with and listening to health professionals in this country will give us the possibility of developing and delivering a healthcare model that will better support those working in the NHS, helping them to keep our growing and ageing population well. Sir Lewis Ritchie’s out-of-hours model makes a lot of sense and fully involves a range of allied health professionals in primary care in a transformative way that will have positive impacts on in-hours care.

It is important that, foremost in all debates on health, we focus on the need for a preventative approach. In that regard, the BMA’s suggestion of providing a portion of fruit or vegetables to all primary school children in Scotland every day is well worth looking at, as is the living wage.

 

Celebrating Fields in Trust

151208 FIT Scotland Committee Rory Lawson with HG

I was delighted earlier this week to welcome guests to the Parliament to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Fields in Trust. Thanks to Fields in Trust there are now 2443 protected sites across the UK. I was joined by the Fields in Trust Scotland Committee, and ex-Scotland rugby international Rory Lawson.

Green spaces have never been under such pressure from development. The aims of FiT are close to my heart – to ensure that everyone regardless of their age, ability or mobility has access to free, local outdoor space for sport, play and recreation.

EAST LOTHIAN RAIL: JOHNSTONE QUESTIONS OVERCROWDING

Alison today described as lacking in urgency answers given by Scottish ministers to questions raised about overcrowding on Scotrail services that has left commuters unable to board trains at Musselburgh.

Alison asked ministers what action they will take and what discussions they have had with Scotrail franchise holder Abellio.

Replies received from Transport Minister Derek Mackay state that until a longer platform is completed at North Berwick next year, colour-coded timetables will be published to highlight busy and quieter services.

Scotrail has previously said it won’t run longer trains on the North Berwick route until new Hitachi trains come into service at the end of 2017.

Alison said:

“There’s growing frustration as trains are so full they don’t stop at Musselburgh, leaving people on the platform, disrupting their entire day. 1 in 4 people in East Lothian don’t have access to a car and need reliable public transport to get on with their lives. I don’t see how colour-coding timetables will help as local people already know when the busiest services are. Most people still need to get to and from work at peak morning times and many employees simply don’t have the option to travel outwith these times.

“Commuters using Musselburgh station will take no comfort from the minister’s answer that passengers should have a chance of a seat within ten minutes of boarding as the service to Waverley doesn’t last ten minutes. In other words, people can expect to stand even if they do manage to get on a train. It’s simply unacceptable.

“It’s also surprising to hear that Scotrail have begun doing passenger counts. Were they not doing this before? The response I have received from the minister suggests a lack of urgency in dealing with this situation. I will continue to keep up the pressure so that local rail passengers get a decent standard of service.”

AJ DM rail PQs