Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The Day they Shrunk the Town Hall

I nearly spluttered over my porridge when I saw the headline on 'Scotland on Sunday' proclaiming 'Scottish Local Authorities Face the Axe'. Was this the latest wheeze of Johann Lamont's Cuts Commission? No there was a picture of Scotland's Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill and quotes from a Q&A at the International Policing Conference which was held in Edinburgh last week.

Against the backdrop of the creation of a single Scottish Police Force and a question on whether with that in mind it was right to have 32 councils Mr MacAskill had said “The status quo is not tenable. It was not tenable in the police and it’s not going to be tenable in other forms of public life,” he did go on to say that "not everything has to be a single service." 

To be fair others have raised this issue - most recently Reform Scotland proposed cutting the number of Councils to 19. However Kenny MacAskill is a senior Scottish Cabinet figure and therefore the statement carries more weight. Could this be the direction of travel of the Scottish Government? Would this be the SNP vision of local democracy in an Independent Scotland?

You could say calm down it was only an off the cuff answer made in front of police officers. On the other hand it could be interpreted as laying down a marker to local government across Scotland to reform or die. In the current climate of budget squeeze its much more likely to be the latter.

As I expected when I read the story there was a quick response from the Scottish Government saying it has "no plans to merge local authorities" however it was in favour of "closer service integration". That last bit is about shared services where progress has been glacial.

Local government had its last structural reform in the mid 1990s when Regional Councils where merged with District Councils to form the current unitary system. Many councils are only just emerging from the aftermath of that re-organisation so it is not something that there is generally a huge appetite for. It may also, to some extent, explain the lack of progress on sharing of services between councils. No one wants to give up overall control, power and budget. However there is also the elephant in the room - budget cuts. There are more deep cuts to come as local government budgets shrink while demands and costs grow.

Then there is the conundrum of the low turnout at local government elections. In some ways its a paradox - the level of government that actually delivers many of the services that we use in our daily life attracts paltry interest from voters when it comes to the ballot box.

Merging councils would undoubtedly make councils more remote from those they serve so it would seem unlikely that such a reconfiguration would solve the public engagement issue. The likelihood is that it would make matters worse. A bigger council would be much more likely to make decisions on a strategic level rather than a local level thereby lessening the ability of locals including local councillors to influence decisions in favour of localities.

So does it have to happen? Well, remember there are no plans. But its there and there should be room for debate on the issue. What does Scotland need in terms of local governance under a devolved Parliament? And what would it need in an Independent Scotland?

My friend Councillor Dave Berry put forward his ideas on his blog. Essentially a two tier structure of regions or city regions with lean burgh councils beneath. Not a bad stab at a thorny issue. The Jimmy Reid Foundation produced a report earlier this year which made a strong case that Scotland is operating the least democratic system of local governance in Europe. Commentator Lesley Riddoch has already responded to Kenny MacAskill's comments here. It is also timely that Mackay Hannah are holding a conference in April entitled 'Re-imagining Scottish Local Government: Councils and the Future of Scotland'.

I said in a post earlier this year that a debate should be had and I maintain that position. However that does not mean I'm in favour of centralising local power in larger councils. The debate I want to see is how do we democratise what we have? Do we need to make any changes to the current structure? How do we make the services provided more accountable to local people and how do we give local communities a stronger say in delivery of services and on the budget priorities in their area? 

As a quick example take Edinburgh where I was a councillor for twelve years. Would I want to see that council made bigger? Answer - no. Would I want to see decisions being taken with more involvement of the communities of Edinburgh? Answer - yes. Edinburgh already has the structure in the Neighbourhood Partnerships but these are advisory and with relatively little budget to decide locally. However that could be changed giving the partnerships more clout and as the local community councils are involved as partners perhaps invigorating them (in all those years as a Leith councillor not one of the Leith Community Councils has had an election as they haven't had enough nominations to trigger one) by giving them a strong say in how budgets are spent in the local area. Leith Neighbourhood Partnership has already used participative methods to decide Community Grant spending.  Edinburgh has also taken the recent step of opening out the Council's budget process though it is too early to tell how that will be received. These are small but significant steps in opening up the closed circuit of council processes to the public they serve. Could it go further and have something like Leith or Portobello burgh councils sitting beneath the overarching City Council with the former delivering the local services and the latter the strategic priorities of the City?

I think some debate on devolution of power and budget might deliver something that is responsive to communities and might just work. Perhaps its a spanner that local government needs and not the axe.

Monday, 26 November 2012

A rebirth of Scottish Radicalism?

On the 24th November 2012 the inaugural 'Radical Independence Conference' was held in the Radisson Blu Hotel in Glasgow. It brought together various strands of radicalism from across Scotland with 800 people booking tickets for the event.

The campaign for Scottish Independence has been more or less the domain of the Scottish National Party. True the Scottish Socialist Party and the Scottish Greens have occupied that territory too along with others like independent MSP Margo MacDonald. But by and large the monopoly on the independence franchise has been held securely by the SNP.

It seems though that the Independence referendum and the broad based Yes Scotland campaign has opened the door to new interpretations of the independence sang. The Greens re-examined their support for independence at their recent conference before swinging four-square behind the Yes campaign. They rightly saw the huge opportunity for a new and radical future for Scotland that independence offers. Others have followed suit and many roads led to Glasgow and the Radical Independence Conference on Saturday.

I arrived at Edinburgh's Waverley station to travel through by train and met up with the SSP's Colin Fox and a couple of his friends. We boarded the train where we met  George Kerevan, Scotsman columnist and former International Marxist. George had written a pre-conference 'manifesto' which set out his stall with some radical suggestions for a future Scotland. It made for lively discussion on the way through on the economy, Scottish newspapers, Spanish politics and the Catalan elections. It set the scene for the day in a way. The only thing that was missing on the journey through was the youthfulness of many of the delegates that became apparent when we arrived.

Who was there? Well in some ways it was a case of who wasn't there. They ranged from veterans of the independence struggle to student campaigners through environmental campaigners, feminists, disability rights activists, housing campaigners, anti-racists, community activists, international socialists of all stripes and a cross section of the left green radical commentariat.  Also present was an impressive range of international guests from campaigns in France, Greece, Quebec, the Basque country and Palestine.

Where does it go? Links have been made, barriers broken down, alliances and coalitions have been formed. All of these people from a very wide spectrum of 'radical Scotland' came together, they discussed, they listened, they exchanged views, debated ideas and they want to continue the dialogue and match it with action. It was quite a feat to get such a wide section of the radical left together in one place and that they are rallied around the hope for radical change offered by the Independence Referendum.

It was, I believe, significant not least in having gathered together such a large attendance of people looking for change and the chance to build a new Scotland steering a course away from business as usual and towards a Scotland that is greener, fairer, more democratic and egalitarian. It is also significant that Alex Salmond sent a message of support and that former SNP MSP Jean Urquhart gently stressed that the referendum conference would not be happening at all if it were not for the success of the SNP and the First Minister in getting us this far.

There has already been much written on the event and its aftermath had you can read more via these commentators,

Pat Kane

George Kevevan

Robin McAlpine

Colin Fox

Gregor Gall

Lesley Riddoch

National Collective

Aidan Kerr

Plaid Wrecsam

James Maxwell

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

We are the Parade!

Review of Sabrina Chap live at Elvis Shakespeare Leith Walk 17 November 2012

I am  friends with second-hand record and book shop Elvis Shakespeare and last week I received a Facebook invite to one of their periodic free gigs. The shop has been running free shows for a while now - the first was Billy Childish and they have also seen local bands Blueflint, The Last Battle and the Stormy Seas play in their intimate space on a Saturday afternoon.

I hadn't heard of the act for this week an American singer called Sabrina Chap so checked her out her website and had a listen to music from her two albums Oompa! and We Are the Parade. I liked what I heard and decided I would pop in and see what she was like live.

Come Saturday afternoon I joined a small group of people to listen to Sabrina and despite a cold - the result, she said, of a thing they have in Glasgow called whisky. Accompanied by her electric piano, a plastic kazoo, foot stomping and even some audience participation she delighted us for over half an hour. The songs are a quirky jazzy vaudevillian mix with wry well observed lyrics. Opening with When I Grow Up, I'm Gonna Dance and working through a selection of songs from both albums plus one new song she entertained us punctuating the songs with humour filled stories stories from her life. She introduced We Are the Parade as a protest song but one that did not protest injustice instead celebrating equality and diversity.

All of a sudden it was over and time for some brief conversations and the selling of some cd's then off into the rest of Saturday afternoon. She said she'll be back in Edinburgh hopefully during the festival and in more of a cabaret setting. I'm making a note to be there.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Let your 'Yes' be YES!

Now that the Scottish Government have made clear their preferred referendum question "Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?"  there have been cries of 'foul' from the no campaign 'Better Together'. 
Seemingly the use of the phrase 'do you agree' is a trick and voters will find it difficult to vote no in the referendum. I have to say I never knew it would be so easy to win the Independence Referendum! I am also surprised that people could fail to to understand such a straightforward question and accidentally vote 'Yes' when that is not their intention. According to head honcho of the 'Better Together' campaign Alastair Darling MP the SNP have rigged the referendum. Gosh are people that lacking in intelligence Alastair? Are people who don't want Scotland to be independent really going to vote 'Yes' when presented with the question "Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?" 
Obviously I am campaigning for a 'Yes' vote and a 'Yes' victory so it could be levelled at me that I would support the question as it is wouldn't I? Yes I would because I put more faith in the voters basic intelligence to know whether they agree or disagree with the question. It is simple and easily digested.
In way of contrast here's what the good voters of Quebec were presented with at their two referendums on Quebec sovereignty or independence. 

1980 : "The Government of Quebec has made public its proposal to negotiate a new agreement with the rest of Canada, based on the equality of nations; this agreement would enable Quebec to acquire the exclusive power to make its laws, levy its taxes and establish relations abroad — in other words, sovereignty — and at the same time to maintain with Canada an economic association including a common currency; any change in political status resulting from these negotiations will only be implemented with popular approval through another referendum; on these terms, do you give the Government of Quebec the mandate to negotiate the proposed agreement between Quebec and Canada?"   


1995 : Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?.

These two questions are neither clear nor that easy to understand. Both require a background paper (I've provided a link to wikipedia for the bill and agreement from 1995). But it was the shorter of the two that came closest to winning. In 1980 the result was 59% No against 40% Yes and in 1995 Quebeckers ran the vote much closer 50.5% No to 49.4% Yes.

Whatever the final question is on Scottish Independence my 'Yes' will be 'Yes'. 

Note: The Electoral Commission's consultation on the referendum question closes on 30 November. Details here

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Borgen: a template for collegiate, consensual politics?

The latest issue of Total Politics has a couple of articles on television political dramas. The first covers the usual and very entertaining mix of 'The Thick of It', 'A Very British Coup' State of Play' Yes Minister' 'House of Cards' are mentioned and are of course very British examples of the genre. The second article is about the hit Danish political drama 'Borgen' that certainly had me tuning in regularly for its depiction of the challenges facing the newly elected Statsminister Birgitte Nyborg.
Oddly the article by Caroline Crampton suggests the reason for Borgen's success with British audiences was because it couldn't happen here. Crampton posits that it portrays a politics that is 'collegiate, consensual, egalitarian yet still passionate' and appeals because it is unusual to us. Maybe in England it is but in the asymmetrically devolved UK parliaments and assemblies with their proportional representation, coalitions  power sharing and plurality of parties perhaps the narrative of Borgen is not such a distant concept.
Scotland has been governed since 1999 by two coalitions, one minority government and now a majority government. Its pr system has produced one rainbow parliament and the representation of women has been light years ahead of Westminster and currently both the Labour Party and the Tories are led by women with both parties now on to their second woman leader. Nicola Sturgeon the SNP's Deputy Leader and Deputy First Minister is surely in pole position to take on the top job when First Minister Alex Salmond steps down from the leadership of the SNP.
During the period that the SNP governed as a minority John Swinney's deft handling of the budget process and the managerial diplomacy of Bruce Crawford showed that a collegiate, consensual politics was achievable even if the main opposition party rarely wanted to play ball. Scotland also has pr in local government which has seen most councils run as coalitions again leading to negotiation over policies and pragmatic consensus emerging along with decision making structures to accommodate that.
In the other devolved nations we have seen coalitions in Wales and finally in Plaid Cymru's Leanne Wood a leader that could just be the Birgitte Nyborg of the piece (she'll love me for that I'm sure!).
If there is one devolved legislature which is probably most deserving of a tv drama it would have to be the Northern Ireland Assembly. A power sharing agreement between Nationalist Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party must provide fascinating material for drama with the history of the struggles and the IRA background of many Sinn Fein MLAs. The sensitivities of negotiation and agreement in the NI Assembly is surely a different politics which must have some degree of the collegiate and consensual in its pragmatism.   Though women play a less prominent role in NI politics there is a template from the Irish Republic with former Presidents Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese.
Viewed from the London centric village of Westminster Borgen may well seem like an alien version of politics but perhaps what the fiction of Borgen portrayed is not that far removed from the newer and evolving politics of the devolved nations of these isles. Whether it is or not Borgen is must watch TV and I can't wait for the next series.

Update #1: Leanne Wood Leader of Plaid Cymru the Party of Wales launches a crowdsourcing initiative to build the next Plaid manifesto. Ms Wood said, “We need to open the 'source code' of the policy development process - because politicians do not have a monopoly on good ideas. The glass panes of the Senedd should not just be there to improve transparency - they should also allow ideas from outside in.
“I want the Party of Wales to lead by example and create the world's first wiki-manifesto, a manifesto created collaboratively by the people of Wales, for the people of Wales.
“This proposal will enable everyone to propose ideas, to debate and discuss. Those ideas will culminate in a special conference of party members and policy advocates where the product of our national creativity will be ratified as Plaid Cymru’s programme for the 2016 elections.”
This initiative again shows a creative collegiate approach to politics coming from a radical leader of a radical party. Perhaps it is Westminster that is over? 

Update #2: News today (22/11/12) of the formation of a pro-independence Green/Independent grouping in the Scottish Parliament is perhaps an early indication of a collegiate realignment of Scottish Politics. This grouping will give its members a seat on the Parliamentary Bureau and therefore a say in the business of the parliament. Cynics will no doubt dismiss this move as self serving. However it is important as an indicator of what may become more common - alliances based on common cause that work to enhance influence. In the future there will be a realignment of Scottish Politics and this move could be one of the first pointers of how new alliances will be formed. 

Monday, 24 September 2012

Shacking up. Canada and Britain to share Embassies in the Brian Rix farce 'Better Together'

News came today of a frankly peculiar arrangement between the Conservative governments of Canada and Britain that will see them sharing consular addresses in certain countries.
This arrangement to co-locate consular services is all in the name of cost-cutting a beloved credo of conservative governments everywhere. What's not to like? You share a building with either your past colonial master or with a former dependency that is...well dependent again. It's like the teenage offspring that can't quite leave home.
The two Governments - Stephen Harper's Conservatives in Canada and David Cameron's ConservativeLibDems in Britain have warm words on the issue. Both countries 'share values'. That's ok then but wait a minute what are those values? Well there's the Queen and err...saving money.
Diplomacy is an important thing and keeping your independence in that diplomacy is surely the key thing. Kind of hard to keep some of your dealings confidential if another states consular staff see who's coming and going. Like many things in the respective governments recent actions there's a element of farce about this proposal.
In the past Britain refused the Hong Kong Chinese with British passports the right to reside in the UK while Canada welcomed them and benefited from their entrepreneurial drive.
It may be that with ideological driven right wing conservative governments in respective countries that this arrangement might work (if you overlook the absurdity of the premise) but what happens if and when the respective governments are of a differing hue? An indication has been given by the NDP opposition in Canada. Their foreign affairs spokesman Paul Dewar said 'I think it has a lot to do with the fact that this government is cutting severely on diplomacy'. Dewar also said ' We [Canada] shouldn't be a pawn in their [Britain's] diplomatic game.' This last comment a reference to the a view held on both sides of the Atlantic that the move is part of Britian's response to the EU's expansion of it's own diplomatic corps.
All in all it's an odd development and one that so far has given little detail. Much has been made on both sides of broadening diplomatic reach without without detail of where these new joint missions will be set up. Canada just closed its office in Iran so that's one country that won't be on the list and arguably a country in need of diplomacy.
What next? Where's the next saving to be made? Here's one. Harper is so taken with this new arrangement of master and servant that he does away with Canada's Maple Leaf Flag in favour of a return to the old red duster of Canada complete with its Union Jack. What about this Cameron loses the Scottish Independence Referendum and asks Harper for a new Union of 'shared values' - Better Together anyone? Only joking or you read it here first.

A rebirth for Fort Primary?

The news that steps are afoot to partially re-open Fort Primary School come as a welcome if not entirely unexpected surprise.
The pressures on surrounding primaries in the Leith area have necessitated this re-think with plans to look at opening a junior years primary. It should be said though that this could have been predicted. When I was local councillor for the Fort area I did warn the education officials and the then Children & Families Convener that pressures on surrounding primaries may lead to this situation. While I had concerns about the ability of Fort Primary to deliver a full curriculum to pupils with the low school roll that it had before closure I was mindful of the pressures not only on the intended receiving school - Trinity Primary but also on other schools in the Trinity cluster - Victoria and Wardie. That is why I argued right up to the decision  to close being taken that there should be a reprieve for Fort. I lost two internal votes at group meetings and abided by the group decision to proceed with closure. I did gain an assurance that as the Fort site would not be demolished or sold off it could be considered for re-opening should circumstances and demand for places  grow.
Indeed nursery provision at Fort has continued as neither Victoria or Trinity Primaries have nurseries attached and the Fort Community Wing has remained open as a community centre. A large part of the Fort campus has also provided much need temporary accommodation for Kaimes Primary Special School  following severe damage to the Kaimes building.
There are obvious benefits to the local communities in the areas of Fort (North Leith), Trinity and Newhaven if this proposal sees a rebirth of Fort Primary. Firstly it relieves very real pressure in early years in surrounding schools. Secondly if it operates as proposed as an early years junior school for the neighbouring schools in particular Trinity and Victoria then it could go a long way to breaking down the very real stigma that was attached to Fort Primary in the latter years of its previous existence. For that to be the case it is important that parents are fully involved in the plans for this new school to work co-operatively with the council to make it a success. Also with housing developments in Newhaven's Western Harbour increasingly attracting families and the redevelopment of the Fort House site right across from the school set to attract families too there is an opportunity for the wider locality to share in the rebirth. This plan in my view  deserves a fair wind and the support of the local community.
At a more strategic level questions need to be asked regarding the methodology used by the Children & Families department in predicting future intakes as from my experience and the experience, I'm sure, of many parents across the city there seems to be a problem that means that pressures are not predicted clearly enough. It is an inexact science given parental right to choose and people moving in and out of areas but there must be a better and more accurate way of planning for future accommodation needs than going through lengthy, painful and costly closure programmes only to rethink them in response to intake pressures so soon after closing a school.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

PQ set for majority?

The latest polls in the increasingly bitter Quebec 2012 election show Parti Quebecois support holding up and suggests they may just achieve the majority they seek.
If they do succeed then the march to a fresh referendum on Quebec independence will be started.
However there are a few days campaigning to go and with PQ sitting on 33% in the latest poll followed by the incumbent Liberals on 28% and the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) on 27% there is all to play for.
Reports continue to say that Liberal Leader Jean Charest is vulnerable in his home riding. This may raise a question of whether the Liberals standing in the polls is higher than it will be on polling day?
Perhaps when Quebeckers go to the poll on September 4 there will be a shift towards the PQ and CAQ at the expense of the Liberals. That could leave the Liberals facing a wipe out similar to the one that swept away years of Liberal power in neighbouring Ontario in 1990. The increasingly bitter fight between the PQ and CAQ could benefit the Liberals by deflecting attention from their record. The spat between PQ Leader Marois and CAQ Leader Legault is personal - both are former ministers in the last PQ government - and this exchange of invective may well put voters off. Allied to that the PQ have worried anglophone and allophone voters with their policy on the french language.
With all this heat at the front of the contest perhaps the smaller parties will make an impact and end up holding the balance of power. Both Quebec Solidaire and Option Nationale  have picked up percentage points in the latest poll. The challenge to them is to keep momentum, be heard above the noise of the big parties and ultimately win a significant number of seats between them to provide bargaining options. There is unlikely to be a formal coalition though as Quebec Solidaire have ruled out a deal with the PQ while Option Nationale leader Jean-Martin Aussant is another former PQer and colleague of Marois who left and formed Option Nationale after disagreements with her leadership. He also has no love for CAQ and Legault whose politics he's described as 'populism of the worst kind'. Aussant has recently gained the support of former PQ Premier Jacques Parizeau who led the PQ during the last sovereignty referendum.
It's an interesting mix that will make for a tense last few days of campaigning.

More on Quebec Solidaire and Option Nationale
Quebec Solidaire
Option Nationale

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Parti Quebecois heading for minority government? Polls,predictions and social media in the Quebec Provincial Election 2012

 Is the Quebec sovereignty question about to be reignited with a Parti Quebecois victory in Quebec's provincial elections? The answer is not clear at present. PQ Leader Pauline Marois made a plea at the weekend for an outright victory, saying a minority government would not allow the policies she stands for to be fully implemented. Code for a referendum on Quebec's future.
The polls are tight showing Marois's PQ ahead in the latest poll on 33% but with Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) rising to 28% (from 12% at the start of the campaign) and the incumbent Liberals sliding to 27%. So it's nip and tuck at the top and all to play for as the contest enters its final week.
It would appear that the final result is the PQ's to lose though most pollsters and commentators seems to think the PQ will emerge the biggest party and form a minority government perhaps with support from the sovereigntist and leftist Quebec Solidaire.  
The PQ and the Liberals are the big beasts of Quebec elections with power switching between them regularly over the past few decades. The Liberals are in trouble with the taint of corruption over government contracts surrounding them. Their leader Jean Charest seems set to lose his riding (constituency). He’s a mercurial character who as a Federal Tory withstood the meltdown of Kim Campbell’s Progressive Conservatives in 1993. Ironically that political abyss for the Conservatives came about in the wake of the failure of former PM Brian Mulroney’s Meech Lake agreement that saw a huge rise in nationalist support in Quebec with the Bloc Quebecois being formed to contest Federal Elections (indeed they did so well they formed the official opposition in Ottawa) and the return of Parti Quebecois to power in Quebec’s National Parliament and the subsequent sovereignty referendum of 1995.
Marois has declared that the PQ would seek a fresh referendum if successful on September 4th. That’s why she doesn’t want a minority government as it would weaken the mandate.
However given the circumstances of the election – the Liberals corruption allegations and the growth in support for Coalition Avenir Quebec who, though led by former PQ minister Francois Legault, have distanced themselves from the sovereignty question it may be that minority government is what Quebec faces come September 5th.
While a majority is what the PQ say they are looking for a period in minority may actually be the best option. Marois  may do worse that share a conversation with Alex Salmond Scotland’s First Minister who lead the ScottishNational Party (SNP) to minority government in 2007 shelving a referendum on Scottish Independence on the way only to win an outright victory in 2011 embarking on a referendum campaign.
It could be that steady as she goes could be the best strategy for the PQ and they play the longer game gaining support of Quebecers whether Francophone, Anglophone or Allophone with competent government first then winning a majority to pursue an independent Quebec. 

Social Media in the #Quebecelection

Everyone says social media is an important tool in elections these days and I've had a quick glance at the followers of the parties contesting the Quebec election.
Perhaps unsurprisingly the PQ top both the Facebook and Twitter counts with 62766 and 19093 respectively and surprisingly the Liberals on only 6253 FB and 10033 on twitter. CAQ come in on 8105 FB and 10998 twitter with the left/green/feminist Quebec Solidaire on an impressive 17343 FB and 19122 twitter.
The fledgling sovereigntist Option Nationale sit on 23454 FB and 11435 twitter with the Parti Vert du Quebec (Greens) on 1648 FB and 1979 twitter.
So perhaps no surprise PQ are solid front runners. The Liberals are out of favour so maybe that is reflected in their poor showing. The surprise is that CAQ are doing so poorly on social media despite the surge in support evident in the polls. Both Quebec Solidaire and Option Nationale have impressive totals though neither seem to be on the verge of any real breakthough electorally according to the polls. Their social media presence could be down to the wave of student unrest in Quebec at present - something to do with student finance and tuition fees - that has not been handled well by either Charest, Legault or Marois. 

Other coverage of the Quebec elections:




Thursday, 19 July 2012

Persevere - Leith's Coat of Arms returns after 90 Years

Ninety two years after Leith was merged with Edinburgh the proud burgh is set to officially regain its historic coat of arms.

At a bestowal ceremony tomorrow at Leith Library the 'Armorial Bearings' of Leith will be presented to the Leith Neighbourhood Partnership following a campaign to reclaim this iconic part of Leith's history.

The picture above shows the recently erected flag pole on Leith Library (itself celebrating it's 80th birthday this week) which tomorrow will see a flag bearing the burgh's armorial bearings raised to officially conclude the first part of the campaign to see this symbol of Leith used more widely and correctly in the community.

The idea of reclaiming the coat of arms has been kicking about for a number of years. The guerilla action of erecting a 'Welcome to Leith' sign which bears a version of the coat of arms was a part of that. More recently when Leith Academy (which has it's own coat of arms) celebrated its 450th Anniversary two years ago pupils raised a petition calling on steps to be taken to return the coat of arms of Leith to the community. The petition was presented to me when I held the posts of Deputy Lord Provost of Edinburgh and Leith Councillor. Support was sought from the City of Edinburgh Council and the Lord Lyon (who's job it is to care for and oversee the use of all things heraldic in Scotland) was approached. When Leith had been absorbed the City Council had not taken over the arms and they had therefore come into the care of the Lord Lyon. In order to reclaim them a petition would have to be raised to the Court of the Lord Lyon. 

After discussion it was decided that the appropriate body to apply for the return of the arms would be Leith Neighbourhood Partnership which covers the Leith & Leith Walk Council wards and involves the three Leith Community Councils in its work. As it happens members of the Leith Neighbourhood Partnership had been underwhelmed by the bland logo they had and the ability to use the historic coat of arms was one that was compelling. 

So to conclude tomorrow will mark the end of that chapter - the regaining of the coat of arms. It will no doubt see that start of a new chapter as with the introduction of the flag it is hoped that other buildings will soon be able to fly the flag and proudly display the historic symbol of Leith. 

Rob Munn was Deputy Lord Provost of Edinburgh 2007-2012, Councillor for Leith ward 2007-2012 and Councillor for Leith Harbour ward 1996-2003.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Does victory for the PQ signal the return of the Independence question for Quebec?

It's not been widely reported in Scotland but the Parti Quebecois won a spectacular by election victory in the past week which looks set to reignite the whole Quebec sovereignty debate. Referendum anyone?

The by election win in a Montreal seat held by the provincial Liberals for nearly 50 years has sent a warning to both  Provincial Premier Jean Charest and to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Charest's Liberals have been dogged by corruption issues and student unrest. Harpers Tories are a rump in Quebec. Not a good place for either of the big Canadian parties to be in if there is a surge in the Parti Quebecois vote and moves to call a fresh vote on Quebec sovereignty.

The federalists won the last referendum in 1995 by a narrow and disputed margin. Neither Liberals of Tories look to be in good shape to see off a resurgent sovereignty movement. That puts the Parti Quebecois in a strong position to win back power in the provincial assembly and then mount a fresh referendum on Quebec sovereignty. Was it significant that supporters of the victorious PQ candidate Roland Richer chanted 'we want a country'?

PQ Leader Pauline Marois said of the electors 'They said no to corruption, no to Liberal cynicism. They said yes to change, yes to hope. We will change the government, we will change direction - and we will change countries'.

The seriousness of the situation may be indicated by news the Prime Minister Stephen Harper has had meetings with both exPM Brian Mulroney and Quebec premier Jean Charest. Mulroney was PM during the ill-fated Meech Lake Agreement period which saw the Bloc Quebecois formed largely by disaffected Quebec tory MPs and the build up to the last referendum. As mentioned before Charest's Liberals run the province of Quebec and are currently mired in a construction contracts scandal that threatens their grasp of power. Interesting aside, Charest was Conservative MP, former Deputy Prime Minster of Canada in 1993 until the Tory meltdown in the General Election that year and then Leader of the rump Conservative party of Canada  until 1998 when he switched to the Quebec Liberals becoming their Leader and subsequently Premier of Quebec in 2003. Mulroney and Charest have plenty of experience of taking on the PQ and of the  last referendum - Mulroney represented a Quebec riding - and their views will no doubt be invaluable to Harper in his fight to keep Canada together.

With provincial elections due in 2013 the PQ can scent victory, a return to power and a mandate for sovereignty. The last referendum was contentious and close and it looks like the federalists are preparing to face up to a further test of Canada's unity.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Can the Scottish Independence Referendum refresh the parts other political campaigns can’t reach?

The long haul of campaigning has begun in the Scottish Independence referendum. The YES campaign will be holding street stalls throughout Scotland over the coming weekend asking people to sign the YES Declaration. Alasdair Darling ups the negative anti of the No campaign (ok,ok I know it’s not ‘called’ the No campaign but the allegedly cuddly Better Together) by criticising the SNP currency union position.
The question though that interests me is, putting aside the political personalities at the head of each campaign, how will the debate and campaign reach out to the wider public? Will it reach those parts of the electorate that generally do not participate in the regular electoral process? And if it does will it refresh the parts other political campaigns can't reach?
The SNP cite evidence from the Quebec referendum to show turnout (1995 94%, 1980 85%) for that plebiscite was considerably higher than what was normal for both Quebec provincial (56.5% in 2008 Provincial elections) or Canadian Federal elections (Quebec 73% in 1997 Federal General Election). That suggests that the referendum campaigns both for and against motivated Quebeckers not normally engaged in politics. As an aside it suggests that people can engage with a constitutional question more easily than with a choice based on policy options put forward by differing political parties.
What form will that campaign to engage, communicate and motivate the usually vote shy electorate take? The SNP successfully used their Activate voter identification system to win a historic majority in 2011 and the YES Campaign uses the appropriately named NationBuilder.com platform to build a database of supporters, volunteers and funders. Lessons have been learned from US political campaigns from Howard Dean to Barack Obama.  The No campaigners are to use another US developed online campaign platform - Blue State Digital - to build their campaign.
In this digital age with print media – newspapers – declining daily in their influence and reach online campaigning is the way to go particularly to engage with the mass of voters. However there are the digitally excluded and this is where it is likely to get interesting. With the YES campaign already embarking on a series of ‘street-stalls’ across our communities from Portsoy to Chesser (there were stalls at both the Leith Gala and the Meadows Festival) this essential face-to-face engagement has started. I’m sure that at these stalls people will pitch up sign the declaration and then tell campaigners that they have not voted before ever. They will be the tip of the iceberg. Behind them will be the 50% or so who habitually don’t vote and not necessarily for any political reason.  They just don’t vote. They may sign up as a supporter of the Yes or the No campaigns but will they actually vote when 14 October 2014 comes round? The answer to this is unknown and will to some extent rely on two things 1) The media campaign and how that penetrates the world view of those generally disengaged citizens 2) The quality of the engagement and communication that the campaigns extend to individual citizens and in particular hard to motivate citizens and communities.
Now political anoraks who are signed up to the ‘scientific’ campaign model will know that political parties maintain campaign databases that tell them not only voting intentions gleaned from door to door and telephone canvassing along with survey returns but also who has voted in particular elections (note: but not how they voted). Through use of all this data targeting of campaigning is developed and used often with success. One concern that I’ve always had, while understanding the power and efficacy of targeting messages and resources, is that habitual non-voters are often excluded from campaigns and therefore part of the political process. It then becomes an electoral and participative vicious circle. Apart from a mass leaflet (and sometimes they won’t even get them!) these electors are largely excluded from campaigns. They are unlikely to ever see a political canvasser or candidate at their door as they are seen as hard work to engage and motivate. Political parties focus more attention on voters and areas where citizens are more attentive to their ‘democratic duty’. 
While to some extent it is almost understandable that political parties act in such a manner when campaigning – they generally have limited finance for local campaigns (and there are limits on election spending which is a factor in campaign strategies) along with that they have only so many activists to get out there on the doors.
The kind of campaigning that could and should develop as we see the referendum campaign roll out has the opportunity to break out of the norms of electoral campaigning logic. As stated above the appearance of YES campaign ‘street stalls’ could be an early indication of that. Their purpose of recruiting supporters and opening dialogue with citizens on the issue is reminiscent of the Anti-Poll-Tax stalls I cut my political teeth on – while those had an aim in gathering signatures of those opposing the tax they also formed a bridge between the political activist and the citizen in opening a dialogue and from that engagement.  Similar activity and engagement occurred during the 1997 YES/YES campaign for a Scottish Parliament. However the turnout in that referendum was not high, suggesting that the political parties did not really move out of their usual campaigning modes.  I do remember as part of the local cross party Scotland Forward group a Labour activist declaring that they would struggle to work Granton and Pilton and could the SNP help out there. Needless to say Labour managed Trinity and Broughton. I have no criticism of Labour over this admission but it serves of an illustration of how some areas can become excluded. 
Another issue to be tackled by the campaigners will be pockets of residents not registered for the vote. There has been a growing trend in non-registration in recent years and it is unclear whether steps like individual registration will make any change in this trend – my view is that it won’t.  
What plans beyond ‘street stalls’ do campaigners have to reach out into communities dominated by the disengaged? Will these electors become engaged in this campaign? Will they cast their vote in 2014 one way or another? Will there be a surge in registration of voters?  These are challenges to the campaigns on both sides of the argument to show that on this issue, which both sides agree is important and will change Scotland forever, they have the will and ability to reach out, engage with and motivate this section of the public. There could be a bonus for the body politic if they do.

Rob Munn has been a political activist since 1986 (do the maths!), a candidate in Council and Parlaimentary campaigns, a campaign organiser and has been a Councillor for Leith 1996-2003 & 2007-2012. 

Monday, 28 May 2012

A Vision for Leith Walk

Leith Walk has had a hard time of it lately with the scars of abortive Tram works all too visible along with gap tooth development sites stalled due to the economic downturn. All this could lead to a gloomy and downcast future for 'the Walk'. 
The fallout of the tram stopping at York Place means that later this year reinstatement works will begin to reinstate Leith Walk to what was there prior to the incursions of the Tram works. This in practical terms means replacing what are temporary traffic lights at various junctions, repairing foot-ways and the road itself which is in a terrible condition. All well a good but shouldn't the vision be raised? If Trams ain't coming any time soon can something more inspiring not be done?
These are the questions that are being asked by the local community council, the Leith Business Association (formed largely by Leith Walk traders), Greener Leith, Leith Open Space and a variety of other organisations and individuals.
Leith Walk has had a number of things 'done' to it over the years - most well intentioned but often with little or absolutely no consultation with locals and also little in the way of sustainability (remember when Lothian Regional Council put in trees but with no budget for maintenance many struggled to find water and died - thankfully this was later rectified and those that remain are liked). Because the rectifying works won't start until the end of the year these is an opportunity to pause and do that rare thing, consult on the aspirations for Leith walk so that even the most practical of reinstatement works can have an eye to the future and hopefully allow an organic development of the street to make it a great place to be.
That pre planning was kicked off a month or so ago when the Leith Neighbourhood Partnership held its last Public Meeting on the subject of Leith Walk. There was a presentation by Riccardo Marini the Council's Design Leader on place making which strayed far from the usual kind of presentation citizens are used to from Council officials. A lively discussion flowed from that and at the back of the hall there was a small interim exhibition from 'Sustainable Transformations' from students of Edinburgh University's Advanced Sustainable Design Masters Program.

Tomorrow night the 'Sustainable Transformations' exhibition will open at Out of The Blue in Dalmeny Street. Greener Leith have said that they hope that the exhibition will 'stimulate and provoke a debate as to what a future Leith could be.' The future of Leith Walk, which was described in charettes (planning workshops) for the Leith Area Development Framework as a 'Great City Street', is central to that. Some have likened Leith walk to the Ramblas in Barcelona and as a place to be, a place to visit, a place to live, work and socialise Leith Walk could lay claim to be one of the distinctive streets of the world. It certainly has a lot going on with the micro arts festival 'Leith Late' centring its events there next month. 

Sustainable Transformations will be followed up on June 5th by a meeting jointly organised by Greener Leith and Leith Open Space entitled 'Your Vision for Leith Walk' again at Out of the Blue from 6pm until 9pm. It is envisaged that this meeting will allow locals to have their voice and their ideas heard in creating a vision for the Walk.
There is a real opportunity to shape the future of Leith Walk both for those that live and work locally and for those who visit to shop or socialise there. Get involved in these discussions (the Leith Neigbourhood Partnership will be holding another meeting on this subject at a later date) and help put the great into Leith Walk.

Updates: the Edinburgh Eye blog http://edinburgheye.wordpress.com/2012/05/28/leith-walk-out-of-the-blue/ has more on this issue and a good graphic of Leith & Leith Walk showing linkages and communities of interest.
Couple of thoughts that have come to me after writing this blog - traffic management - should a separate cycle lane be put in for the length of Leith Walk keeping cyclists safe a separate from motor vehicles? Can this and option of future rapid transit link to tram be 'future-proofed'? (to minimise future installation disruption). Public Square - Is there an option of creating a public square at Shrubhill where there are two large stalled development projects - potential to create a 'heart' or middle to Leith Walk. Could be a carbon gain from a site long associated with old diesel buses and a long lost petrol station. trees and a gathering point, potential for street performance, markets, life! 

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Renewing Local Democracy?

There is a consensus that turnout in local elections is not high enough - the recent Scottish Council Elections achieved a 38% turnout - and as a result many a think-tank is putting their pointy brains in gear to come up with solutions.

The latest is Reform Scotland who have raised the thorny issue of reducing the number of Councils making them more powerful by taking on some of the roles carried out by quangoes, strengthening community councils, creating area committees and, oh yes, elected 'Mayors'. Much of this is worthy and worth debate but is any of it the antidote to public engagement or low electoral turnout? Sadly I think not. It seems to me that Reform have gathered together a number of things that may or may not need fixing but are essentially about how local democracy is managed and therefore about as sexy as a managerial textbook (apologies to all the managers out there - you do a great job really, those textbooks paid off). 

Before I go through the document 'Renewing Local Government' a quick declaration - I've been a member of a political party for 26 years and was an elected councillor for 12 years and when not standing for election myself have been either an election agent or a activist knocking doors. I've seen how political parties engage and how the voters engage both at election time and in between.

The headline issue of reducing the number of Councils is one area that I don't have much of a problem with in principle and there seems to be some merit is what is proposed in Reform Scotland's report. It's a debate that needs to be had though if Councils were to actually arrive at a radical shared services agenda this might not be needed. The option of reduction might act as both carrot and stick to get Councils speaking to one another to progress shared services which at present can be best described as stalled or becalmed. Bottom line though is that the size of a Council will not in itself encourage more public engagement or drive up turnout at elections. Reorganisation is the bureaucracy that delivers the services that the citizens need and demand.

Another area where I would applaud Reform is in raising the issue of power over local services. Since devolution there has been a tendency for the Scottish Government to direct or take over certain functions - see Police and Fire. There was always a fear that devolution would lead to the Parliament taking over local services. In reality with Scottish Ministers of whatever stripe hold local authorities to account - they provide the lions share of the money after all - it was and is really up to local government to raise its game and demonstrate sound management alongside dynamic thinking to improve delivery and outcomes of local services. Still a debate would be useful to clear the air and set down markers.  

Reform spend some time in their report calling for a beefing up of Community Councils and a devolving of powers to them to empower them and make them more attractive for a wider cross section of their local community to actually get involved. It is a general truism that Community Councillors are rarely elected as they rarely achieve the number of nominations that would trigger an election and the electorate having to choose who would represent them on the Community Council. It would be interesting to see what turnout would be in these elections as while some electors might struggle to name their local authority councillors I'd hazard a guess they would be totally flummoxed if asked to name their community councillors and consequently even less likely to vote. Don't get me wrong I think community councils are a good thing but I think there is a huge variation in their representativeness and their effectiveness. One area where they can and some do have an influence is over planning. As a former member of a Planning Committee I know first hand how the committee members can be persuaded by a well made argument for or against a planning proposal from a community council.

Linked to more powers to community councils Reform also put forward the idea of 'area committees'. These already exist in a range of rural and rural/urban authorities and in cities like Edinburgh there are now well established 'Local Neighbourhood Partnerships' which are local community planning partnerships involving Police, NHS, Community Councils and others (in the case of Leith Neighbourhood Partnership this includes the Fire service, Port of Leith Housing Association, Voluntary Organisations and Forth Ports) along with the locally elected councillors. As effectively consultative committees of the Council they agree a local community plan and inform delivery of local services. There is a case to made that these should be beefed up and given more powers particularly spending powers.

The other 'innovation' that Reform are keen on is the issue of elected 'Mayors' (their term - I know in Scotland we have Provosts not Mayors). They say these elected figureheads would have real power to lead Councils and make decisions. Great. Only one or maybe two or three problems. If they have lots of power where does that power come from? Is it to be devolved down from the Parliament - there may be a case for that and Reform do say elsewhere in the document that they want more powers devolved Councils (transferred from quangos or boards). That then begs the question of who has the power - the Mayor or the Council? And where does that leave the area committees and the empowered Community Councils? Can the Mayor overrule the all of these layers?   Getting back to Reforms initial point about driving up voter turnout. If we look at the recent London Mayoral election are there pointers there as to whether elected Mayors are the way to go? Well as an observer rather than a participant I'd say what Londoners got was a pretty poor contest between two 'personalities' where if there was a debate on policy issues it passed me by pretty comprehensively. In terms of turnout the Mayoral contest was a turn-off with only 38% of the London electorate turning out to vote. Hang on a minute 38% that's the same as the turnout in the Scottish local government elections! So having mayoral contests even between household names like Boris Johnston and Ken Livingstone does not one hot electoral contest make.

Again I come back to the view that worthy though some of Reforms ideas are none of them are likely to set the heather on fire with the electorate. None of them are likely to lead to the increase in voter turnout that they are hoping for. None of them are in my view likely to lead to more engagement and involvement from the electorate in local democracy. Sad to say its at worst rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic and at best it's some ways of managing or arranging local democracy that may or may not be worthy of debate.

However I will conclude by thanking Reform for getting my thinking engaged on the subject of local democracy and electoral engagement. I've got more to say on the issue but will save that for another day.

Rob is a former convener of Leith Neighbourhood Partnership and was a member of the SNP Local Government Committee from 1996-2003.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Boardwalk Empire Anyone?

Rob Munn reports on a radical new proposal for the Water of Leith Basin

Pardon the title! I'm not likening the Shore to hit US TV show Boardwalk Empire but Sandport Boadwalk is the working title for a plan to change the Water of Leith basin as we know it.
Some years back a company called Water of Leith 2000 put forward plans for barges along the shore line for use as houseboats. However the plans changed to office use and today the barges moored between Malmaison and the Ship on the Shore house a variety of offices.

Expansion of this scheme upstream through the inner basin and on to Bonnington weir at the Quilts had so far not materialised. Water of Leith 2000 put their property (the shoreline on both sides) up for sale by auction in 2009 but failed to find a single bidder.
Recently it was revealed that Water of Leith 2000 had changed into Bluefield and that a new plan was in the offing. Friends of the Water of Leith Basin made contact and suggested that once they had some ideas to share they would be happy to host a presentation at one of their meetings. On 4th April as part of a General Meeting of FoWL.B a presentation was made of the proposal 'Sandport Boardwalk' by well known Edinburgh architect Malcolm Fraser. It was tentative - Malcolm had only got involved about a week before the meeting. He stressed that what was proposed would balance commercial use (that's the bit that will make the proposal economically viable) and public space (the boardwalk bit). There are no definite plans yet and planning permission will have to be sought and further detailed public consultation would be required.
Concerns were raised at the meeting regarding visual impact, the consequences of changing the Shore in this way, practicalities such as access and increased pressure on parking in the area. As the proposed structures are intended to float as the barges do it was pointed out that the silting up of the inner basin could scupper the plans. Another concern was the effect of 'deadening' the Shore - before the barges went in people used to spill out of the bars and restaurants on the Shore on warm summer days and evenings animating the area in a social way. By contrast while the office barges are visually interesting their effect creates a barrier between the shore and the Water of Leith. This could be the effect of the what is being proposed for the upper reaches though to be fair the boardwalk could alleviate this effect by allowing people to walk around these units.
The plans need to be fully fleshed out before being exposed to full public scrutiny and consultation. I certainly want to see more about what these structures would look like and how they might look on the Leith Shore. It may be that some of it will find support and some of it won't. Malcolm Fraser is a renowned architect and capable of coming up with something interesting and challenging. Interestingly there were other locally based architects present at the meeting perhaps most notably Groves Raines Architects who have recent restored Lamb's House as a home and working architects office. Their response at this initial stage seemed to sit between lukewarm and hostile.
The Council has recently spent a lot of public money improving the road, footways and general public realm at the Shore and it looks fantastic. These plans could change the whole look of those improvements and it could be argued exploit this public investment for private gain.
One thing is clear - more public debate is needed on these proposals and much more detail of what is proposed needs to come into the public domain to allow as full a discussion as possible. There will be great interest in these proposals as the plans come forward and the public debate will be lively.
The Friends of the Water of Leith Basin are to be thanked for organising this initial presentation on Bluefield's proposals.

An earlier version of this article appeared on www.leithsnp.blogspot.com

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Welcome to Leith Notes. I plan to post here regularly and irregularly mainly about Leith because that's where I live but I expect I will post on wider matters of interest to me. The view of a resident of Leith on Leith, Edinburgh, Scotland, Europe and the world. A view of the world from Leith.