30 July 2010

New Home for NHS Lothian

I spent most of Wednesday at the NHS Lothian Board meeting in their fabulous new Head Quarters in Waverley Gate at the east end of Princes St. My first visit to that building was many years ago just after it had closed as the GPO and it was hosting a German Beer Festival. Lots of Bratwurst and Fustenberg and the obligatory ompah Band.

The new offices are fantastic and, while many staff are still moving in, most I have talked to have been very positive about the move. The fact that it is only 3 minutes walk from my office at the City Chambers is an added bonus!  The views from the various rooms are amazing ranging from looking down over the old town to the view over to Calton Hill.

Issues covered included Palliative Care, Health Care Acquired Infection and we had a really interesting discussion on the role of Health within the built environment.  And not an Ompah band in sight!

28 July 2010

A Sad Start to The Week

The week began on a very sad note as I and many  Lib Dem Councillors, activists, family and friends attended the funeral of Alistair Chisholm. Alistair was a Liberal and Lib Dem activist in Leith for many years who also taught Physics and Computer Science at Leith Academy. He  had a warm infectious laugh and a great sense of humour. He was also a man of immense integrity who was a great practitioner of clean politics. 

We heard stories about him being confused with Malcolm Chisholm then a Labour agent and also a teacher in a different school. He was asked to pass comment on Ron Brown, the then sitting Labour MP, who was in hot water for one reason or another. Alistair politely pointed out that he was the wrong Chisholm they were after resisting the chance to get an unfair edge over the competition. 

He also, if my memory serves me right, stood against Malcolm Chisholm for Parliament which caused merriment and a little confusion. 

Another story I heard was Alistair breaking both his arms leafleting. He finished the bundle he was doing before heading to Accident and Emergency thus raising the standard of dedication required in an  activist to impossible levels! 

He was 57 and died of an Embolism. He will be greatly missed.

21 July 2010

MI5 Warned of Iraq War Terror Backlash

The former head of MI5 Lady Manningham-Buller yesterday told the Iraq Inquiry that the invasion led to a massive upsurge in terrorist threats to Britain. Indeed she had warned minister to that effect before the invasion.

The Baroness was dismissive of Tony Blair's argument that Britain and the US had needed to prevent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction from being obtained by terrorists. This was  "a hypothetical theory" she said which  "wasn't of concern in either the short term or medium term to my colleagues and myself". 

Describing the intelligence on Iraq's weapons threat as "fragmentary", she said:

If you are going to go to war, you need to have a pretty high threshold to decide on that.                                                                                                                                 
 Lady Manningham-Buller 
She went  on to say that she did not believe the intelligence was substantial enough to justified that course of action.

Her evidence speaks volumes for the Blair Governments handling of this issue and their justification for war.

20 July 2010

Rail Body Tunnel Vision

Network Rail have continued the narrow view displayed by their predecessor Railtrack in their treatment of the Forth Bridge. Network Rail have declined to support moves to have the bridge declared a  World Heritage Site.

The old lady is a 120 years old and there was controversy in the past when Railtrack stopped the famous annual painting regime reasoning that all they were interested in was making sure that trains could run. The fact that they had a major national asset and tourism attraction was lost on them. They simply didn't get it. 

Described by Glaswegian Billy Connolly as Scotland's Eiffel Tower the bridge is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Europe and it is only right and proper that it should be up there amongst the other top  sites in the world.

Fife Lib Dem Leader Councillor Elizabeth Riches said: 

Inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage Site is an acknowledgement of the truly global significance of such places.
 It would be a real honour and privilege for Fife to gain this accolade and could potentially bring real social and economic benefits.

I totally agree with her. It would also be another Filip for Edinburgh and South Queensferry in particular. Come on Network Rail. Think again!

14 July 2010

Scotland's Missing National Day?

Today is Bastille Day when French celebrate the storming of the Bastille and the freeing of.... well.. seven  prisoners! Hardly the jail break of the century, even the 18th century,  but there you go. Any excuse for a party.

July 14th is also the date in1698 that five ships sailed out of Leith headed for the Isthmus of Panama and the Darien Bay. The twelve hundred people on board were aiming to set up a Scottish Colony. The exercise, independent Scotland's only imperial adventure, was a disaster.

King William (he of Orange), King of Britain at the time, ordered English Colonies in America not to supply the Scots for fear of enraging the Spanish.   Only three hundred survived when they eventually abandoned the colony after eight months and returned to Scotland but not before a second equally disastrous expedition had set off.  

Darien was one of the main motivations for the Act of Union  in 1707 which united Scotland and England's Parliaments.

I will resist  the temptation to suggest a Darien Day to remind us of our folly. Firstly it sounds too much like that cheesy actor/singer and secondly  we Scots are never short of people to remind us of shortcomings when we get above ourselves.

13 July 2010

Scottish Classic Revisited

The World Cup Final was a let down as often happens with cup finals. The teams get overwhelmed by the occasion  and are so cautious they don't do themselves justice. In this instance the team who let everyone one down were the Dutch. They did their level best to kick Spain around the park. I do not understand why anyone was surprised as they did the same with success against Uruguay in the Semi. Well done Spain. They played well and deserved their win.

Uruguay had a reputation over the years of being overly physical but this team were far from it. The only sending off they had was for Suarez' handball and they had only ten yellow cards in their seven matches, just over  one per game. In the matches I saw they seemed only interested in playing good football.  The third place play off against Germany was played like the final should have been and was a joy to watch.  Much of that spectacle was also down to a very exciting German side who will again be a major force in years to come.

Last night I took in a Scottish  classic at the Filmhouse I had managed never to see. The Brothers was set on Skye in 1900 and featured a great, mainly Scottish, cast including Duncan Macrae, Will Fyffe and Finlay Currie. Dad's Army's John Laurie played the neigbour with second sight in a gloriously over the top manner but it was the landscape that stole the show even though it was shot in black and white.

12 July 2010

The Best Housing Department in Scotland

It's official! Edinburgh has Scotland's best Housing Department. The Scottish Housing Regulator has just announced the results of his recent Inspection and Edinburgh has been awarded an A for Housing Management and a B for Asset Management and Repairs to go with our A for Homelessness  already in the bag. This is the best score ever achieved by a  Council in Scotland.
In the report the Regulator said the Council had 'major strengths in the delivery of its services' such as
  • strong strategic planning and performance management framework
  • demonstrates continuous improvements against its objectives over a number of years
  • its approach to gathering service user feedback is excellent

As Housing Convener I am so proud of the Housing staff in our Services for Communities Department. They have made massive strides forward over the last few years. A huge amount of effort has gone into  improving the quality of the service they provide with a strong emphasis on customer care.  Here is independent  proof of their success.  These results are a real fillip for them but more importantly for our tenants who continue to enjoy an excellent service.

These gradings are thoroughly deserved and our excellent staff should be congratulated for this terrific achievement.

8 July 2010

Top Award For Prison Library

I was delighted to hear that Saughton Prison Library has won an important  award for its  work with inmates.

The prison library won top prize in the Libraries Change Lives Award. Wearing my Criminal Justice hat I was delighted to speak at the launch of the library extension in December 2008  and now it has become the only library in Scotland with a waiting list! More than 12,500 prisoners used it in its first year. 
We know that a massive number of prisoners have serious problems with literacy and anything we can do to help will assist in cutting re-offending rates.

Indeed one prisoner has been quoted as saying 

When I first came into jail I found it really hard to read because I wasn’t good at concentrating and I would have to read the same paragraph over and over but after persisting with it and practising all the time, I find reading just as easy as breathing. I have to admit that reading is now a hobby for me. I love it and I would be lost without it as it’s helped me through my sentence.

The Library has hosted a family event  where prisoners’ children came to the prison to work with their fathers.  Such work is important in easing people's transition back into mainstream society when they are eventually released. This recognition of an excellent services is richly deserved.

Cold War Past and Present

Today is the 50th anniversary of Gary Powers being charged with espionage. Powers U2 bomber what shot down while flying a reconnaissance mission over the USSR. That is to say he was spying! Duly convicted he was eventually exchanged in 1962 for a Soviet spy. 

Move on 50 years and, some 20 years after the Berlin Wall came down and the Cold War  finished,  we have another likely exchange of spies. The Keystone Cops of the spying world, the ten Russians arrested in June,  are due in court but are according the the BBC they are  likely to be swapped for prisoners from Russia in a move that is a throw back to darker times. The actions might be similar but mercifully the stakes this time are much lower than when Powers was swapped.

The Cold War still appears to be on in Cuba. The island state has a rotten Human Rights record and I harboured hopes that Raoul Castro would usher in a more relaxed era. That has been far too slow in coming but today's announcement that 52 dissidents will be released is to be welcomed. The Agreement to release the prisoners came after talks between Mr Castro and Havana's Archbishop, Cardinal Jaime Ortega and following  the international outrage expressed when a dissident died on hunger strike. The churches intervention here is to be welcome but Cuba still has a very long way to go in terms of political freedom. 

Gary Powers died in 1977 when his helicopter ran out of fuel and crashed. Today we have just had the first successful 24 hour flight by a solar powered aircraft. This promises to revolutionize air travel making, what is one of the most environmentally destructive actions we do much less so. That is still a very long way off. 

7 July 2010

Isabelle Huppert and Claire Denis in Africa and Uruguay Run Out of Steam

I took in the new film by Claire Denis White Material in which Isabelle Huppert plays a coffee farmer in an African state rife with racial tensions and civil war. All the characters are trying to preserve their lives and Huppert her farm. Denis has a very strong track record having made Beau Travail also set in Africa but about the French Foreign Legion.

Denis work is subtle and can take a bit of time to get going but the wait is worth it. Christopher Lambert, formerly Tarzan and the Highlander, is on excellent form as Hupperts ex husband and Huppert herself presents a striking portrait of a woman who is so wedded to the farm that she will risk hers and others lives to get the crop in.

World Cup 2010 got to the semis stage last night with the Dutch edging out Uruguay 3 - 2 in a griping match complete with 3 contenders for goal of the season! The South Americans  gave a very good account of themselves but lacking Sanchez in particular they just ran out of puff.   

ITV showed some footage from their encounter in  1974 where the Uruguay team kicked the Dutch across the park. Bookings were not as easily dispensed then .This side were far cleaner and indeed the Dutch were the serial foulers.  Tonight - Germany  take on Spain. We'll see...

5 July 2010

No Knives Better Lives

I am delighted that Edinburgh is to participate in the next phase of the No Knives Better Lives campaign. This multi-pronged campaign is aimed at reducing knife crime targeting the north of the City where a third of knife crime takes place. Based on a successful pilot in Inverclyde where the police recorded a 23% drop in youths carrying knives No Knives Better Lives incorporates youth diversionary activity, community engagement, advertising and a structured programme in schools.

We have made great strides over the years in reducing crime in Edinburgh. Indeed assaults with an offensive weapon have reduced by over a third during the last four years but recent research has shown there are still a number of incidents occurring in the city.

The No Knives Better Lives campaign is a great initiative for the city as it sends out the message that this type of serious criminal behaviour will not be tolerated on our doorstep. The programme will reach out to young people and peer groups to highlight the fact, that carrying an offensive weapon is completely unacceptable. We will also be working with the wider community to reassure them that we are looking into the contributory factors which lead to these offences taking place.

If we all stand together - the majority of this type of crime can be stamped out for good.


4 July 2010

City Centre Oasis for People With Autism and Aspergers Syndrome

I visited the Number 6 centre in Edinburgh last week. Number 6 is a one stop shop for people with high functioning Autism and Aspergers Syndrome. Run by Autism Initiatives, one of the largest autism charities in the UK, Number 6 organises a  film nights and visits, service users can access computers and they also provide and support. The centre gives relief  from the stresses of  life and provides support for a lot of people. 

I was certainly impressed by what I saw. We have a large number of people in the city who have  autism or aspergers syndrome so a resource like this is very  useful.

Drug Smugglers All At Sea

Submarines have over the years found a multitude of uses. In 1978 there was a story about a group of Scottish Footie fans who were going to use one to get to Argentina for the World Cup.  Noting our team ended up all at sea before being finally sunk it seemed an appropriate mode of transport.

I cite this story because in Ecuador they have found an alternative use for the submarine. The US Drug Enforcement agency have seized one suspected of being about to smuggle cocaine into Ecuador!

Meanwhile on the world cup and drug smuggling theme Spanish Police have seized a replica of the World Cup made from Cocaine!  Wonder what impact the traditional kissing of the trophy would have. It might be a bit much having the winning team snorting it!

The world cup upsets continued yesterday with Germany hammering Argentina. Spain squeezed through against a stuffy Paraguay. The only semi finalist most would have predicted before the tournament started would have been Spain. Of my predictions only Uruguay remain and I have to say of the two I tipped for the last four they are the surprise. Germany look very  difficult to beat and must be favourites now what with their pedigree. Roll on the semis....

2 July 2010

The Little Team That Could

A day of upsets in the sporting world. Less of an upset was Rafa Nadals demolition of Andy Murray. Murray wasn't bad but Nadal was outstanding. Result a straight sets win.

The up set - the Dutch beat hot favourites Brazil in the World Cup Quarter Finals.  The tussles between these two have been amazing over the years  - often better than the finals  themselves. 

I predicted that Argentina and Uruguay would make the semis - beyond that I wasn't prepared to stick my head above the parapet. 

At the time of writing  Ghana and Uruguay have just played out a 1-1- draw with Uruguay winning on penalties. I drew Ghana in the office sweep and they have been impressive but my heart was with Uruguay. They have won it twice and been to the semis twice. Remarkable when you realise that at 3.5 million they have a population 1.5 million smaller than Scotland! There is only one of their World Cup winners still alive, Ghigga, the  guy who scored their goal to win in  1950. Brazil were red hot favourites to win the World Cup  in their home stadium but lost 2-1. The massive crowd gathered in the Maracan√£  when Ghigga scored his winner were stunned. He is famously quoted as saying....

Only three people have ever silenced 200,000 people at the Maracan√£ with a single gesture: Frank Sinatra, Pope John Paul II and I.

On this form I wouldn't bet against Ghigga being joined by another 11 winners before July is out.

Art Project Proves There Are Lives After Strokes

I was delighted to be asked to speak at the opening of the Lives after Strokes Exhibition. This exhibition of paintings by people who have had strokes is running in the cafe/bar of the Edinburgh Filmhouse. Two of my grand parents suffered strokes later in their lives. They both lived with us towards the end of their lives so I have a good idea of what it is like to look after some one who has had a stroke.

The idea of the Lives after Strokes project, based in a council run Firhill Day Centre, was to assist the person  in their rehabilitation back to as normal a life and level of fitness as can be managed. The standard of painting was  was very high and included one in which the lady had made creative use of her wheel chair to direct the paint around the canvas. Each of the paintings has a story and I would encourage you to get along and see them for yourselves.

1 July 2010

Council House Funding Boost for Capital

This afternoon  I was down at a photo call with the First Minister, Pat Watter, the President of COSLA - the Scottish Councils Umbrella Group and Council Deputy Leader Steve Cardownie.

The event was to  mark the announcement of the latest trance of council house funding  and Edinburgh has done very nicely out of it!

The cash announced, £2.88 million, will go towards building 96 new council houses in the Sighthill area. Pilton, where the photo call took place, is also part of the £150 million 21st century Homes project. This is about  building the first council housing in a generation on three sites. As well as Pilton and North Sighthill a site at Gracemount has been cleared and the first sod will be cut later this month.

These are very exciting times to be Convener of Housing in Edinburgh. There are few more satisfying things you can do in life than provide homes for people who need them. To be building the first Council Houses for a generation is a huge vote of confidence in our council staff and signals the pragmatic approach the the issue of housing supply by the Lib Dem/ SNP administration at the City Chambers.