Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Opencast exposes council's sham commitment to action on climate change

Below is a transcript of my speech to today's Planning Committee on the Cauldhall Opencast mine application. My proposal to reject the application was defeated by 9 votes to 5.

- - - - - - 

There are a number of issues concerning this application which give me cause for concern.

Perhaps the most worrying is the cavalier acceptance by officers that we can ignore the Local Development Plan currently in force and override the democratic process by which the next local plan is to be adopted. Let us be clear; this application is contrary to the local plan currently in force, and as we can’t be sure what may come along in the future, rejection should have been recommended on that basis alone.

The Midlothian Economic Development Framework identifies seven key economic sectors to support a target of 10,000 new jobs by 2020. Mining is not one of them.

We cannot allow our policies in relation to local planning and economic development to be drawn up on the hoof.

The arguments put forward for the application itself are questionable.

Paragraph 8.63 claims that 230 jobs will be created in Midlothian. This does not square with experience in other open cast mines in Scotland, and the Airfield proposal, rejected unanimously by this committee in 2010, expected to provide only 50 jobs on a site producing half as much coal as Cauldhall, at a time when the economics for coal were much healthier. Moreover, since Scottish Coal went into administration, there are now several hundred skilled and experienced people, principally in Lanarkshire and Ayrshire, with the incentive to commute to jobs at Cauldhall. I also question how much indirect employment will be created when Scottish Coal leased nearly all its equipment from a wholly owned subsidiary company.

The applicant is unclear where the market is for Cauldhall coal. Much of it has a high sulphur content – the highest in Scotland. Even when blended with low sulphur coal from the site, large amounts of imported low sulphur coal may still be required, and transportation to power stations in England has not been ruled out, with no impact assessment made of these routes, contrary to Policy MIN1 of the Local Plan.

I am concerned about the environmental impact. 20% of the site is in a designated Area of Great Landscape Value, highly visible from the Pentlands, Moorfoots and other viewpoints across the county. One and a half hectares of ancient woodland will be destroyed.

Paragraph 8.69 acknowledges that the proposed restoration will “alter the landscape to a potentially detrimental effect”. Scottish Natural Heritage states that there could be long term and significant negative impacts upon local landscape character.

Traffic levels along the proposed route will rise markedly, and levels at the Mayshade roundabout on the A7 are already causing concern without an additional lorry every three minutes.

On site restoration, paragraph 8.37 is worrying – that “the planning authority would wish to assure itself that the restoration is the best that is achievable ” is hardly a bold statement. What is meant by ‘achieveable’? And what confidence can we have in a company with a track record of complying with only its minimal obligations with respect to restoration on sites it has acquired from Scottish Coal and ATH? Assurances were made by Scottish Coal and councils thought restoration bonds were secure, but as we know, all legal contracts have loopholes and I have no doubt that once planning permission is granted, those loopholes will be exploited.

And finally, we cannot ignore the elephant in the room – climate change. Last week, the most powerful hurricane ever to make landfall hit the Philippines. Only yesterday, Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework on Climate Change, said “most of the existing coal reserves should be left in the ground”.

Scotland has one of the most demanding CO2 reduction targets in the world. In 2007 this council signed up to the Climate Change Declaration. Are we going to walk away from our responsibilities and legal duties under the Climate Change Act? Coal extraction alone would release significant amounts of CO2 and methane into the atmosphere and Cauldhall would become the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Midlothian.

In summary therefore, I believe the risks involved in approving this application are too great; to our communities, to our landscape, to our economy (not least tourism), and to both the finances and reputation of Midlothian Council.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Say Yes to a more equal society

In two days' time, the Scottish Greens launch the 'Green Yes' campaign in Edinburgh and I will be there. Until recently, when asked my opinion on Scottish Independence I would reply that I am in favour but it's low on my list of priorities, with climate change way ahead at the top.

Although independence has always seemed to me a natural destination for Scotland, I couldn't see that it would be much different from what we already have - especially given Alex Salmond's 'reassurances' of retaining the monarchy, Sterling and membership of NATO. I was rather hoping for an elected head of state, a guarantee of ridding ourselves of nuclear weapons and using a currency over which we had at least some influence. Add to that the SNP's vision of an oil based economy with a race to the bottom on Corporation Tax, I was beginning to wonder what all the fuss was about.

However, although climate change is still way ahead in importance, something happened to move the need for independence rapidly up the charts - probably to the number two slot.

At the Scottish Green Party conference in Inverness last month, I listened to presentations from Professor Mike Danson and Robin McAlpine both of the Jimmy Reid Foundation on the Common Weal project. Between them they convinced me that if we really want a better society we need a less unequal one. Moreover, the statistics show that the Nordic countries (principally Scandinavia and Iceland), by reducing inequality and focussing on social cohesion, have come closer to achieving high marks in everything from welfare and education to economic well-being, productivity and competitiveness.

So what has this got to do with Scottish independence? Let's look at where we are and where we are heading as part of the Union - austerity cuts, tax reductions for the better off, and a general move towards centralisation; do these make for a more equal society? Laying the blame on others (whether it's the poor, unemployed, immigrants, Europe, take your pick); does this make for a more equal society?

We're continually told by the UK Government that we need to be more competitive and this means lower top rate tax bands. However, in the Nordic countries, personal taxes are relatively high (though business taxes relatively low), yet these countries score well in terms of productivity and competitiveness globally.

So which direction are we more likely to follow as part of the Union and which direction if we go independent? If we vote No next year, it is clear to me that inequality will increase - on past record even a Labour government will not address the fundamentals, but if we vote Yes, then at least we can decide for ourselves. In Scotland the culture already favours inclusivity (witness the introduction of proportional representation for local councils and the rejection of UKIP's message).

The referendum really does offer us the chance to create a better Scotland. On Friday the Greens will launch the Green Yes campaign with its vision of what that Scotland should become - one which I have no doubt will have equality at its heart.