Photo Credit: Patrick_Down Flickr via Compfight cc

Rising private rents across Scotland reveal the failure of the SNP’s flagship rent pressure zones policy and the need for proper rent controls, Scottish Greens housing spokesperson Andy Wightman has said.

New stats published by the Scottish Government  show that over the last year, struggling tenants have seen average rents rise above inflation in 11 out of 18 areas.

In 2016, Scottish councils were given the power to ask Scottish Ministers to designate a Rent Pressure Zone (RPZ) to give them limited powers over rent rises. Despite rising rents and a global pandemic, councils have been unable to use that power.

A new paper by Lothian MSP Andy Wightman exposes the difficulty councils have had in gathering evidence to support a RPZ. It also evaluates what actions councils have taken to collect data and protect tenants from rent rises.

In response to an FOI, 18 councils did not provide any information on work on rental data or RPZs. Ten councils held basic information on private rents and 4 councils had gone further by commissioning their own research or initiating work on establishing a RPZ.

Commenting, Andy Wightman said: “Rents have outstripped inflation over the past decade. Councils have been unable to act to protect private tenants, even during a global pandemic.

“Clearly, giving councils the power to establish a RPZ without having to seek permission from Ministers would be a start, but Scotland needs a comprehensive system of rent control in order to protect private tenants from eye-watering rent rises.”

Read the Rent Pressure Zones research paper here.

Edinburgh from the Pentland Hills
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Jim Barton – geograph.org.uk/p/3343260

In September 2020, the Scottish Parliament held a debate on ‘dirty camping’. Many MSPs spoke out against the poor behaviour their constituents had witnessed over the summer. This behaviour was caused not only by a lack of understanding about how to interact with the land, but also by a lack of outdoor facilities. In a blog at the time, I commented on Scotland’s woeful outdoor infrastructure. Our public outdoor spaces often lack public toilets, basic camping facilities, access for disabled people and safe active travel routes.

Our country parks, regional parks and national parks are vitally important landscapes.

The Pentlands is just one of three regional parks in Scotland (the others being Lomond Hills and Clyde Muirshiel) set up under the Countryside (Scotland) Act 1981. Scotland has established no new regional parks since 1990, despite the powers still being in place to do so. Setting up a regional park signals an intention to manage the land for public recreation as well as conservation.

Christine Grahame MSP introduced a Member’s Bill in 2015 proposing to extend the boundaries of the Pentland Hills Regional Park, to include 100% of the range instead of 45%. The Scottish Parliament disagreed to the general principles of the bill and it fell – largely on the grounds of cost, a perceived lack of demand and a feeling that it was inappropriate for central government to concern itself with the operation of regional parks given that this responsibility rests with local authorities.

The City of Edinburgh Council manages the park on behalf of the three local authorities whose boundaries cross the park area. The Council is currently asking the public for views on access and camping in the Pentland Hills Regional Park.

The premise of this engagement exercise is that there has been “a rise in irresponsible wild camping, antisocial behaviour and a significant rise in car park usage” in recent months and years. Quite rightly, the Council have identified the provision of proper infrastructure as the solution. They are proposing:

  • Enhanced parking facilities at the four main car parks
  • Development of active-travel alternatives
  • Creation of Warden position with formalised camping area and toilets at Harlaw
  • Provision of improved toilet facilities
  • Introduction of parking charges

Unfortunately, the touted development of active travel alternatives appears to be little more than minor upgrades to the footpaths around the car parks and scenic areas. It is not clear whether the City of Edinburgh Council – which is the managing authority for the park – also has plans to create the kind of joined-up active travel network that would truly encourage people to choose walking or cycling over driving. The planned expansion of the car parks at Harlaw, Flotterstone and Threipmuir only underline the extent to which those wanting to access the Pentlands are encouraged to depend on their cars.

Prioritising active travel routes to the Pentlands would not only reduce congestion on access roads, but also benefit local businesses – the research is clear that people spend more when they leave their cars at home.

The council says that there has been an increased number of cases of anti-social camping at the reservoirs. It proposes a twofold solution. First, a warden to prevent camping around Harlaw Reservoir between March and October. Second, the establishment of a basic camping area for 8 – 10 groups on the north-east side of the reservoir. Those wishing to camp there would need to pay a “small charge”. Toilets and bins would be provided. The revenue from this would pay for the employment of the warden.

If we are to have camping permit zones at all in Scotland, they should be a last resort once all other methods of addressing poor public behaviours have been tried. Basic facilities such as toilets and waste disposal, funding rangers, investing in outdoor education – these are all ways to enhance how people use and relate to land. Drawing a line between which land can and cannot be accessed by the public undermines our statutory rights.

The provision of toilets is vital in enabling access to outdoor recreation opportunities – as well as preventing the obvious problem of mess. Proper toilet provision is even more important for marginalised groups in society – particularly women or people with gastrointestinal disorders. So of course I welcome the 10 additional toilets the council is proposing for the Pentlands.

However, I find it astonishing that these toilets will come with a charge. Years of cuts to council budgets have left us in a situation where even the most basic of facilities must be paid for at point of use. Proper financing of Scotland’s outdoor public spaces is essential – now more than ever.

Public parks in other parts of Europe provide better facilities; better habitats for wildlife; better cycle routes; and better access by foot or bike. Proper outdoor infrastructure opens up the countryside for everyone. Our impoverished and underpowered local authorities are simply unable to meet demand. Without action and fair funding from the Scottish Government, local authorities like the City of Edinburgh Council will simply have to do what they can with what they have.

The survey closes on 4 December 2020 and I encourage anyone who is interested to share their views:

https://consultationhub.edinburgh.gov.uk/sfc/pentland_hills_regional_park/

4 minute read

The vast majority of legislation considered by Parliament is introduced by Scottish Ministers. But Members (and Committees) can also introduce legislation.

In June 2018, I published a draft proposal for a Bill to incorporate the European Charter of Local Self-Government into Scots law. Details of that consultation together with responses are available at www.europeancharter.scot

In May 2020, I introduced the European Charter of Local Self-Government (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill. The Local Government and Communities Committee is currently consulting on the Bill as part of the Stage One scrutiny process. The deadline for written evidence to be submitted is Thursday 17 September 2020.

What is the Bill about?

The European Charter of Local Self-Government is an international treaty of the Council of Europe, the 47 member body established in 1949 to promote democracy, human rights and the rule of law across the European continent. Perhaps the most well-known treaty of the CoE is the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Charter is an international legal instrument that lays out a set of legal protections for local government. It was opened for signature on 15 October 1985, was ratified by the UK on 24 April 1998 and came into force on 1 August 1998. Further details on the Charter can be found on the CoE website here. Just as with human rights, the CoE carries out monitoring and makes recommendations to its members relating to the principles of the Charter and how they are being implemented in member states. This is undertaken by the CoE’s Congress of Local and Regional Authorities.

Unlike many European countries, the legal systems of the UK are dualist. That is to say, domestic and international law are distinct and separate from one another. In countries with monist systems, international law has the same status as domestic law. So for an international treaty such as the Charter to have legal effect in Scots law, it must be incorporated by an Act of Parliament. Only then can it be admissible (and be applied) in domestic courts.

At its core, that is what this Bill is about. It incorporates the European Charter of Local Self-Government into Scots law and it makes it unlawful for Scottish Ministers to act in a manner which is not compatible with the Charter.

Why does this matter?

The Charter is designed to provide constitutional protections for local government. At the moment, in Scotland and the rest of the UK, such protections are absent for two reasons. Firstly, unlike most countries, the UK does not have a written, codified constitution within which the status and functions of local government would normally be set out. Secondly, because the Charter is not incorporated into Scots law, it is not admissible before the courts. If you believe the Articles have been violated, there is nothing you can do about it.

By incorporating the Charter, the Charter Articles become part of the law of Scotland. Anyone can challenge any executive action of Scottish Ministers or legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament if they believe that either is incompatible with the Charter (which, being international law, has primacy). The Courts will have the power to quash actions of Scottish Ministers and secondary legislation as well as to issue a declaration of incompatibility for primary legislation. The Bill gives legal teeth to the Charter, makes it part of Scots law and means that its provisions can be relied upon to challenge domestic administrative actions and laws.

The intention of introducing this legislation is not to encourage legal actions, but to heighten the awareness of the Charter’s provisions and to ensure compliance with them. To that end, the Bill also places a duty on Scottish Ministers to promote local self-government and to report at least every five years on what they have done to safeguard and reinforce local self-government and increase the autonomy of local councils. The Bill also places a duty on any MSP introducing Bills to Parliament to make a statement about the extent to which, in the view of the MSP, the Bill is compatible with the Charter Articles.

Support for the Bill

Calls for the Charter to be incorporated have been made by the Council of Europe’s Monitoring Missions to the UK, Committees of the House of Commons, COSLA’s Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy and the Scottish Constitutional Convention. COSLA has been campaigning for incorporation of the Charter since 1981 when the draft Charter was then under discussion in the Council of Europe’s Congress of Local and Regional Authorities.

Where Now?

The Bill is currently being scrutinised as part of Stage One scrutiny by the Local Government and Communities Committee. Its consultation closes on 18 September 2020 and you can find more about how to submit your views here.

Image by Howard Lake via Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/howardlake/3411932734

Today, I have published a consultation that that will help inform the Scottish Greens’ scrutiny of the Non-Domestic Rates (Scotland) Bill

This Bill is the first ever primary legislation in the history of devolution dealing with the non-domestic rating system – a system responsible for raising the second largest total revenue of all devolved taxes. So this is an important opportunity to present your thoughts on we can reform this taxation system.

Although the preceding Barclay Review explored and made recommendations on the non-domestic rates system, its remit was narrowly focussed and the resulting Bill presents a selection of rather disparate provisions.

As such, we propose tabling a number of amendments at Stage 2 of the Bill, which will seek to enhance transparency, provide greater accountability and augment the current system with a robust form of taxation that will strengthen local government.

You can read the consultation here and send comments to me by 20 September 2019 via here