Edinburgh Equality Manifestos Hustings – part 1

This evening I went to the Edinburgh and the Lothians Regional Equality Council (ELREC) Equality Local Government Election Manifestos Meeting. It was officially supposed to start at 6:30, all five party leaders had been invited, they each had five minutes to speak and would then take questions from the audience, and we’d finish at 8:30.

The SNP leader didn’t come: he was chairing the Edinburgh Melas meeting tonight. (He sent a substitute.) The meeting started nearer 7pm than 6:30. Every party representative overran their time. We finished at 9pm. By which time my right hand was cramping up.

I normally take multiple photos and use the best one, but I didn’t want to keep disturbing everyone with the flash, so this shot was the one and only one available.

ELREC hustings 19th March

Left to right: Norman Work, SNP; Steve Burgess, Scottish Greens; Andrew Burns, Labour; Foysol Choudhury, Chair of ELREC; Jenny Dawe, Liberal Democrats; Jeremy Balfour, Conservatives; Shami Khan, Vice-Chair of ELREC.

All five gave us a little party manifesto: I noted that not one of them mentioned the serious efforts that Tories, LibDems, and the SNP – until the Save Our Services campaign and the national party got to them – were making to privatise so much of Edinburgh’s services. All five mentioned cross-party cooperation as a benefit – which suggests none of the parties are expecting a majority on the council after 3rd May.

Jenny Dawe claimed to have made Edinburgh “cleaner, greener, and safer” than it was in 2007 with better parks and cleaning services (no one asked her why in that case she’d tried to sell them off) and with a culture and leisure offering now better than ever (no one mentioned the performance licencing law that comes into force on 1st April, nor raised the question of Leith Waterworld);

Norman Work said he had been “working closely with the LGBT” and with domestic violence charities; and also referenced visits to a mosque and to the Sikh temple; that the SNP manifesto wouldn’t be out till April but he had nothing to do with that. But he did want to give us a checklist of groups with protected characteristics he had been in touch with.

Andrew Burns mentioned “the dreaded t word”, which I had been really hoping nobody would. (Nothing unites a room full of Edinburgh people faced with a row of councillors so much as a chance to tell them what we think of them for the trams – but they’re not directly an equality issue.) He’s commented on this blog about diversity issues in candidate selection, so I was not surprised when he brought it up in his time.

Jeremy Balfour thanked ELREC for providing the pre-meeting nibbles, emphasised cross-party cooperation, agreed his party didn’t have enough BME or disabled candidates but said selection should be based on the best candidate for the area, and mentioned that his party supported 3-year funding for the voluntary sector: the Tory manifesto is to be launched at the end of this week.

Steve Burgess thanked ELREC for including him, noting that the Green party had been discriminated against at hustings before. He said that equality was one of his party’s four key principles, and that Greens believe Edinburgh should be a world leader in ethical governance. He noted specifically that they had a 50/50 policy on gender representation – half their councillors are women, half their MSPs are women.

(Note that if you are reading this after 3rd May 2012, the above links go to the council website and some, none, or all of them may have broken. Democracy and linkrot.)

A lot of good questions were asked and a lot of interesting answers were given. I gained some new material for my planned diversity audit post on the Edinburgh Council candidates, and there was a lot of other questions and answers that I’d like to cover in more detail. But it’s late and I’m tired and I need my sleep, so that will be for tomorrow. Just one thing:

There was a yellow feedback form: it asked what the three equality issues I saw as key for the council elections. Since it was too late to affect the party selection of more diverse candidates, I noted my three as (1) Poverty – the cuts; (2) Transport – public transport costs; (3) Shops – oppose supermarkets and superstores, support local businesses.

Close to the end of the hustings, in one of the last rounds of questions, a man asked what the councillors and their parties intended to do to stop Edinburgh becoming a Tesco town. Tesco and Sainsbury’s are constantly opening new “local” markets, killing off small businesses, sucking the life out of the diverse businesses we have.

By that time my hand was fairly cramping, so I may have missed a comment or so from Jenny Dawe or Jeremy Balfour, but Andrew Burns responded at some length, arguing that the council does not have the power to institute a stronger planning system, that he agreed these stores do a lot of damage, but that a supermarket that moved into a site that was already cleared for retail did not have to get planning permission. He was interrupted from further back by a voice saying angrily and persistently, what was the use of that? You always say you’ll change things, but you never do anything. Steve Burgess also replied, saying that there had been a motion agreed to at the last council meeting, to ask the government to legislate for supermarkets to have to ask for planning permission even if they were opening in a former retail unit.

But Norman Work gave the most informative answer: he pointed out that the only tool which the council has that allows them to refuse planning permission is “over-provision” – they tried to use it to ensure that a Sainsbury’s opening in the Cowgate wouldn’t get a licence to sell alcohol, but Sainsbury’s took them to court. The same thing happened, he said, when the Edinburgh and Glasgow councils tried to stop garages from getting a licence to sell alcohol in their shops – fair enough, you’d think, don’t drink and drive? – but they had been taken to court, they had lost, and they had had to pay the court expenses. The problem is that the councils are fighting huge corporations with enough margin to pay for all the lawyers they want, and the councils are on limited budgets.

Edinburgh Council can afford to harass Real Foods over that green sign. They cannot afford to go after Tescos in Picardy Place or the Scotmid in McDonald Road. This doesn’t make the council’s treatment of Real Foods any fairer – indeed, it strongly demonstrates that Edinburgh council is in clear need of a lesson that while the supermarkets may be able to compel the council’s obedience, the local businesses deserve the council’s loyalty.

Tesco and Sainsbury’s plan an assault on Edinburgh’s local communities and their local shops that the council is powerless to prevent – as Norman Work pointed out, these huge supermarket chains can afford to keep taking the council to court till they agree to let the supermarkets have their way.

I’ve lived close to or on Leith Walk for over twenty-five years. Once, it was one of the most multicultural shopping streets in Edinburgh. I boasted that I could walk out of my front door and within ten minutes buy my choice of bread of six different nationalities. Tesco has got its grip into Leith Walk: the tramworks and the council’s careful refusal to compensate businesses that couldn’t prove they had lost money due to the roadworks rather than the recession have done further damage. Leith Walk is still recoverable – I hope – but it would take active, positive help from Edinburgh Council to fix many of the problems, and I perceive a lot more interest in helping out the wealthier shops in Princes Street and Shandwick Place than the unique multicultural phenomenon of Leith Walk.

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Filed under Elections, Scottish Politics, Supermarkets

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