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Chamber and committees

Public Petitions Committee

Meeting date: Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Agenda: Interests, Deputy Convener, Current Petition, New Petitions, Current Petitions, Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation in Scotland


Contents


New Petitions


Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (Housing Associations) (PE1539)

The Convener

Item 4 is consideration of two new petitions, and the committee will hear from the petitioner in each case. The first new petition is PE1539, by Anne Booth, on bringing housing associations under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002. Members have a note by the clerk, the SPICe briefing and the petition.

I welcome the petitioner, Anne Booth, and thank her for coming along. She is accompanied by Sean Clerkin, whom I also welcome. I invite Ms Booth to speak to her petition for approximately five minutes. After that, I will kick off with some questions, and then I will ask my colleagues for further questions.

Anne Booth

I start by saying that I have breathing problems, so I may have to stop now and again, and Sean can fill in for me. It just depends on how I go.

I am a factored home owner; my factor is the Glasgow Housing Association operating through YourPlace Property Management.

The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 was introduced in the spirit of encouraging the people of Scotland to access information and to make organisations accountable. It is in that spirit that I ask the Scottish Parliament to call on the Scottish Government to extend the 2002 act to all housing associations in Scotland so that they are transparent, open and accountable.

Glasgow Housing Association, which in recent times has become far bigger in the form of the corporate Wheatley Housing Group, is an example of a housing association that needs to be more accountable to its stakeholders, such as factored home owners and tenants. In 2010, it became clear that the GHA was the only housing association that was consulted on whether the 2002 act should be extended to housing associations. It is clear that the GHA did not favour that route. For a number of reasons, I believe that it, along with other housing associations, should come under the 2002 act through section 5.

Thousands of factored home owners have had home improvement work carried out that has involved overcladding, re-roofing and putting up community aerials. That work has cost thousands of pounds. I could not get answers to questions such as what the quality assessment consisted of, what type of overcladding system was being used, what the cost per square metre of overcladding was and whether the housing association was charging additional money to factored home owners. I also asked whether taxpayers’ money was being properly used or not. We asked those questions at various meetings with the housing association, but it refused to give us any details or answers.

It was only in 2009, after three years of probing, that we found out that the housing association was charging a 6 per cent management fee and a 3 per cent contingency charge. It took an exposé by the Sunday Herald to force Glasgow Housing Association to properly itemise all improvement bills to include the above information. I also found that my home, along with 80 per cent of Glasgow homes, had been overcladded with the Alumasc system, which should not be erected in damp climates.

The point that I am making is that thousands of factored home owners would have been better informed in their decision making if they had been aware of all the facts. They could then have refused the work and prevented it from going ahead if they were not happy with the cladding. If the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 covered housing associations, including the GHA, it would have been a great benefit to stakeholders.

11:00  

Also, the management fee that 26,000 factored home owners pay is not itemised, so we do not know what we are paying for. We do not know why we pay that management fee and we cannot get any financial breakdown of it. That is another thing that we could find out if we had freedom of information.

I believe that all stakeholders would benefit from all housing associations coming under the 2002 act, and that the associations would be more transparent, open and accountable. I believe that, if the act had covered the GHA, my human rights would not have been breached. The work in my house was not to my satisfaction. I am bearing witness to the committee today and alluding to the suffering of others, which could be avoided if all housing associations in Scotland came under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.

The Convener

Thank you for your evidence and the clear points that you have made.

As you will know, the social housing charter places an obligation on housing associations to provide advice, guidance and information to tenants. Is that working?

Anne Booth

No, it is not working. With the housing associations that I know, when committees are set up, the people who sit on them are asked to sign a confidentiality agreement. Anybody who has to sign such an agreement will not be open and transparent.

My understanding is that the Scottish Housing Regulator uses the outcomes from the social housing charter to regulate and assess how well housing associations are doing. Is that working?

Anne Booth

No, it is not.

Sean Clerkin

You are right that the Scottish Housing Regulator is involved in that aspect, but we are talking about the provision of information to tenants and factored home owners. The bottom line is that, in the new post-referendum Scotland, whether people voted yes or no, more of them are involved in civic Scotland. It would be good if tenants and factored home owners were more involved in the decision-making process through the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002. That would improve decision making and efficiency. Basically, it would make housing associations more open and transparent.

I can relate that Alan Benson, a senior member of the housing association movement and director of Milnbank Housing Association in Glasgow, said:

“Community based housing associations are already regulated organisations and are both obliged and want our activities to be open and transparent. Freedom of Information obligations would not in my view present”

any “difficulties” whatsoever.

Basically, we would have better community-controlled and tenant-led organisations if tenants and home owners had the chance to access the information that they need to base their lives on. At the end of the day, we are talking about their homes.

The Convener

Without making judgments about FOI requests and whether they are good, bad or indifferent, surely the current system should ensure that tenants get good information from their housing associations and, if they do not, the regulator should pick that up and put a black mark against those associations. That is the current system, is it not?

Sean Clerkin

Not necessarily. For example, a chap called John Gibson had to make a freedom of information request to Police Scotland to find out how much money Glasgow Housing Association was spending on employing police officers. The GHA was paying their wages, but he had to find out about that through freedom of information. It was quite a large sum of money, which I think would have been of interest to tenants, factored home owners and other stakeholders that deal with Glasgow Housing Association.

The bottom line is that openness is fundamental to the political health of a modern society. I believe that making housing associations subject to freedom of information would make them better and more accessible. They would be more accountable to their stakeholders, and the stakeholders would feel more involved and would get involved in the running of their associations. They would find that beneficial and would be more involved in the decision making. Overall, decision making would be improved.

Kenny MacAskill

I can see arguments for and advantages to the proposal. Can you see any disadvantages or arguments against it? I am thinking about how freedom of information could be abused in relation to the housing of offenders, antisocial behaviour or other rights that people may have. Do you see any downsides as well as the upsides? How can we manage and protect individuals from what might be the abuse—if I can call it that—of freedom of information?

Sean Clerkin

Since 2002, local government, the national health service, the police and all manner of organisations have been subject to the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002. The bottom line is that that act, which was introduced by Lord Wallace, has worked very well. It has improved decision making in the public sector because stakeholders are more involved.

We now have nearly 12 years of experience in dealing with freedom of information. It has worked well and any problems can be worked out and dealt with reasonably. Given that we have had 12 years of the regime in Scotland, during which time we have dealt with sensitive areas and many aspects of the public sector that are subject to it, I do not see why housing associations could not benefit from the process. If it is good enough for the police and the national health service, housing associations should come under it too, just like any other public organisation.

Angus MacDonald

Convener, it is a fair point that the housing regulator should be required to pick up any issues of governance and expenditure regarding registered social landlords. However, I have been at a loss to understand why registered social landlords have not been addressed through a section 5 order under the FOI act when opportunities have arisen to do that since 2002, especially given that, as you have said, arm’s-length organisations are now subject to FOI requests. I have heard examples of my constituents being frustrated because they have been unable to obtain fairly basic information on governance issues relating to local RSLs and, until recently, ALEOs. I therefore have a great deal of sympathy with the petition.

I take it that that is the main driver for the petition. However, I note that there is the possibility of another section 5 order in spring 2015. I assume that, if the Government commits to considering RSLs as part of that section 5 order, that will give you some comfort.

Sean Clerkin

I draw on the fact that Nicola Sturgeon, our new First Minister, has stated:

“We will also want to hear wider stakeholder views in order to inform proposals relating to other bodies, with a view to extending coverage further in the future.”

That is what you are alluding to, and it is in that spirit that we are here today.

You should also know that housing associations are currently subject to amalgamations and mergers. The Wheatley Group, of which the GHA is the principal part, now has over 71,000 properties, and Sanctuary Housing has properties in Dundee and Glasgow. It is incumbent on those larger organisations to be subject to more control and democratic accountability.

The Convener

There is probably quite a strong argument for the GHA coming under the FOI regime given the size of its stock, which you mentioned. However, you will know that some housing associations, particularly in rural areas, are very small and are, in effect, private sector or third sector organisations—they are not technically in the public sector. Do you see your proposals having a de minimis level whereby organisations below a certain scale will not be asked to comply with FOI?

Sean Clerkin

I think that all housing associations should comply. The argument that that could lead to letters being asked for and increases in their costs is a spurious argument. With the improved decision making, cost efficiencies would be made. There would be a leaner, fitter and better housing association sector if the stakeholders were involved in questioning the decisions that are made. That would lead to a better quality of decision making. Currently, a lot of tenants who serve on housing associations are ruled by confidentiality clauses and are not allowed to talk to fellow tenants about what is happening in their associations.

John Wilson

I want to take the issue about housing associations a bit further. I take it that you are using the term “housing association” in its general sense. As the convener has noted, the registered social landlord sector contains many smaller, fully mutual housing co-operatives, the membership of which can be smaller than 500. One of the arguments against introducing FOI regulations for some parts of the housing association movement—I am not suggesting that GHA would be covered by this—is the cost of establishing a freedom of information officer to deal with issues. Is the petition intended to include all registered social landlords, not just housing associations? The terminology has to be clear. For example, if I was sitting on the management committee of a housing co-op, I might think that my organisation would not be covered, because it was not a housing association.

Anne Booth

We were hoping that housing associations would be brought into the FOI regulations. Such a move would be beneficial; it would mean that we could help to make decisions and work with housing associations on various matters, because we would know exactly where we stood with them. At the moment, we cannot ask any questions at all, because we get no answers whatever.

John Wilson

The point is that, as has been mentioned by the convener and others, an issue of greater concern is GHA’s consultation and engagement with not only its tenants but factored house owners. I am not sure that arguing for housing associations to comply with the FOI regime is helpful, as we might end up with people getting information after the fact. You mentioned, for example, that cladding that had been used had not been the right cladding for the climate, but an FOI request would give you that information after the cladding had been installed rather than prior to the process. It would be more useful to get the Scottish Housing Regulator to ensure that consultation and engagement with residents and tenants were adequate before the housing association went ahead with work.

Sean Clerkin

The information might come after the horse had bolted, as it were, but the fact is that, if the scrutiny by and involvement of a greater number of stakeholders that came about as a result of the freedom of information request led to the identification of any bad decisions that had been made, that could only improve subsequent decision making. The freedom of information process is a good vehicle for improving the decision-making process; after all, if senior housing association professionals know that they are going to be scrutinised by their stakeholders more closely than they currently are, the decision-making processes will improve. That can only be good for the housing association, because it means that stakeholders are getting involved in the whole decision-making process. As Anne Booth says, that improved co-operation brings the decision-making process together.

John Wilson

Thank you for that response, but my point is that, in the interests of those whom you have described as stakeholders—the tenants and residents who live in these areas—surely it would be better to get the consultation process right instead of having to use the FOI process, which you seem to be implying would become a big stick that could be used against officers, who would know that, if they got a decision wrong, there would be an FOI request about it. I suggest that it is better to say to housing officers and boards that they should fully engage with tenants and residents to ensure that what they put in place in the first instance is correct, instead of having a follow-up process that involves the threat of an FOI request if they get a decision wrong.

11:15  

Sean Clerkin

As we have seen, consultation can work, but it can also fall down dramatically. In local government, for example, there have been consultations on cuts to public services that have been rushed and harried through. In such instances, the freedom of information process provides an added guard, check and support for the stakeholder, and a combination of consultation and freedom of information would go a long way.

Consultation has become a dirty word in Scotland. It has not had a great history in the context of school closures and various other matters, because it has not consisted of very much. Freedom of information is a necessary safeguard for stakeholders.

The Convener

As members have no more questions, the committee will consider its next steps. Indeed, you will be familiar with the process from previous petitions.

My view is that we need to write to the Scottish Government about the petition, and the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations is obviously a key body. I mentioned the Scottish Housing Regulator earlier; it is also important that we write to the Scottish Information Commissioner, the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland and perhaps a selection of registered social landlords. Are members happy with that course of action?

I am happy with that, but can we also consider some smaller housing associations with very few staff?

Sean Clerkin

I would suggest Alan Benson of Milnbank Housing Association, which covers 2,000 homes, and there is also the Glasgow and West of Scotland Forum of Housing Associations, which represents a big group of smaller housing associations. Those organisations would very much welcome it if they were written to, so that they can participate in the process.

Thank you for that.

John Wilson

It would be useful to take up Mr Clerkin’s suggestion about the Glasgow and West of Scotland Forum of Housing Associations, which indeed represents a lot of smaller housing associations and housing co-operatives. I suggest that we also write to the Tenants Information Service, the Tenant Participation Advisory Service, the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations—which I think you have already mentioned, convener—and the Chartered Institute of Housing. As those organisations represent both tenants and landlords, we should seek their views on the issue. There will clearly be differences of opinion about how the proposal would apply to different organisations, and it would be useful to get a wider scope by getting those organisations’ views.

I agree with what has been said.

At the risk of being accused of being parochial, I want to add Paragon Housing Association, which is a small association.

I agree with the proposals.

Sean Clerkin

I would also suggest the Scottish Tenants Organisation.

I think that John Wilson mentioned it.

Sean Clerkin

Iain MacInnes is the person to contact.

The Convener

Thank you both for coming along and giving evidence. As you can see, we are taking the petition very seriously, and we are going to write to what I think is a record number of organisations. When we get that information back, we will let you know when the petition is scheduled for consideration again.

I suspend the meeting for two minutes to allow a changeover of witnesses.

11:18 Meeting suspended.  

11:20 On resuming—  


Proposed Cockenzie Energy Park (PE1537)

The Convener

The second new petition is PE1537, by Shona Brash, on behalf of the Coastal Regeneration Alliance, on the proposed energy park at Cockenzie. Members have a note by the clerk, the SPICe briefing and the petition.

I welcome the petitioners, Shona Brash and Gareth Jones from the Coastal Regeneration Alliance, to the meeting. I also welcome Iain Gray, who is the constituency member and has an interest in the petition.

I invite Ms Brash to speak for a maximum of five minutes. After that, I will invite Iain Gray to make some comments and we will throw the discussion open to questions.

Shona Brash (Coastal Regeneration Alliance)

Good morning, convener, ladies and gentlemen.

I speak on behalf of more than 8,000 residents in the communities that surround the Cockenzie site in East Lothian and beyond. Many other local people are of the view that the energy park is a done deal and that there is no point in signing a petition as the decision has already been taken. We do not share that view.

Our communities are not against industry or energy, but we believe that there has to be a harmony between the two for both to be successful. Our communities have demonstrated that in the 50-plus years for which Cockenzie power station has existed in our midst.

The energy park proposal arrived as a bolt from the blue in the local press on 22 May this year. There was no warning of a proposal of such a size and scale—it is too large for the proposed site—which would divide communities with strong historical links. Nor was there any consultation about it. In the weeks following, Scottish Enterprise organised a public consultation in the local areas but could offer very little information on what would be included or how the site would impact on the communities that are closest to the boundary.

People began to realise that the size and scale of the proposal would change their way of life for ever. The greenhills—loved open green space that is used by all ages for all activities—the site of the battle of Prestonpans, a well-used network of pathways and a historic wagon way would be lost. In fact, all our well-used and much-loved designated countryside land was included in the Scottish Enterprise scoping proposal, which would cause the greatest negative impact on our land and coastal environments in living memory. We had not been consulted, nor had we known that our communities had been at risk for the previous 12 months without anyone telling us. Our quality of life, environment, wildlife and marine life are now all at risk.

Greater disappointment was to follow with the realisation that East Lothian Council had been instrumental in suggesting the Cockenzie site for such a development with little regard for the communities that it serves.

Over the past 10 to 15 years, our communities—and, with them, the aspirations and hopes of residents—have changed significantly. Many hundreds, if not thousands, of new houses have been built, which has brought new people with new ideas to complement the talent that already existed. Previously, people would not have suggested our area as a hub for artists and out-of-the-box thinkers, but they would now. Although we will always honour our industrial past, the desire in our communities is to be part of the leisure, recreation and tourism for which our county is well known.

Our communities can clearly demonstrate that they can embrace change and challenge. Positive community engagement came to the fore in the work of the coastal regeneration forum that was set up in 2010. Residents suggested how they wished our communities to be shaped in the future. The existing energy footprint was acknowledged, but it sat alongside a positive community vision and the one complemented the other. The CRF’s final report was submitted to East Lothian Council but does not seem to have been given any consideration.

Two local fishing skippers with a combined time at sea of close on 100 years are of the view that the extent of dredging that is proposed to reclaim close to 12 hectares of the Forth will decimate fishing and change our coastline forever. Their view is that the impact will be felt in many, if not all, fishing communities around the Forth and in their associated services.

Scottish Enterprise and East Lothian Council have relied on a statement in the national planning framework 3, which was published in June 2014, to support the energy park proposals. It defines the Cockenzie site as an area of co-ordinated action, but there is no explanation of what that means nor any definition of what an energy park might be.

The substantial change in the site’s use between NPF2 and NPF3 was not part of the main issues report consultation for NPF3 and appeared after the consultation had closed. That gave no opportunity for anyone in the community to comment on the principle.

If the energy park proposal is progressed, we might have to look elsewhere. That is likely to mean Europe, where we think a direct challenge to NPF3 and the energy park is likely to be considered under the Aarhus convention.

We are no experts; we are no more than local people living and, in many cases, working in our communities. The energy park proposal is an offence to the commitment and passion that we feel for our areas, but the greater offence is that no one is listening. There is no one to turn to for help other than the Parliament and the Government. We ask the Parliament to urge the Government to stop the work that is under way in order to relieve the stress in our communities while proper and transparent consultation is carried out and consideration is given to alternatives including a positive community alternative that would allow industry and community to sit side by side as they have done in our areas for more than 50 years.

Our communities want to be part of the leisure, recreation and tourism that the rest of the county enjoys. We want to celebrate John Muir, cycle route 76 and enjoy the East Lothian golf coast. We want our battle site to be preserved and enhanced, our green spaces and coastline to be protected and our residents to be encouraged to enjoy our beautiful outdoors.

Thank you very much for your evidence. I will bring in Iain Gray.

Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in support of the CRA’s petition. It is absolutely clear that the community that I represent supports the petition, too. The CRA has organised campaigns that have included public meetings attracting 700 and 800 local people, and it has encouraged my constituents to write to me. Indeed, I have had more letters on the subject—well over 1,000—than on any other issue in my time as an MSP. There is no doubt in my mind that the campaign is supported by local residents.

The site that we are discussing is nationally strategic as well as being the gateway to Edinburgh and central Scotland. However, we must understand that it is a strategic site locally, too. It lies at the very heart of three communities—Prestonpans, Cockenzie and Port Seton—and their interests cannot be ignored.

On the face of it, we are discussing an industrial site. However, colleagues should understand that Scottish Power uses only part of the site for the power station. As Shona Brash mentioned, the perimeter includes green space such as the greenhills. It provides access to the local shoreline, it is contiguous with and covers some of the historic site of the battle of Prestonpans and it is traversed by the John Muir way, which was recently opened by the former First Minister.

The existing power station at Cockenzie has served Scotland, producing electricity for more than 40 years, and Scottish Power has permission to replace it with a gas-fired station. That idea was broadly accepted by the community, although not by everyone, on the basis that the facility would be smaller. However, there is no sign of that proposal progressing. Scottish Power appears to consider the site no more than a brownfield site that it wants to dispose of in order to realise its asset. In doing so, it would betray the community that has supported it for more than 40 years. The local community built, worked and lived next door to that power station, and it deserves consideration of its interest as Scottish Power decides how to move on.

The Scottish Government charged Scottish Enterprise with finding sites to create supply chains for offshore wind projects. That led to Scottish Enterprise making the current proposal—a proposal, as Shona Brash said, not just for an energy park but for the largest energy park facility that one could possibly imagine on the site. Local residents had no indication that that proposal would be made. They felt and continue to feel completely excluded from the development of that proposal.

The proposal would massively increase the site’s industrial footprint. It would involve 24/7 floodlit working, which would compromise the Prestonpans battle site, break the recently opened and highly popular John Muir way and compromise a potential important development at Blindwells, which is not far from the Scottish Power site. Above all, it would divide and cut off the three communities—that is what my constituents find most offensive.

11:30  

As a proposal, it is unacceptable. It would also rule out other proposals and possibilities. I believe that my county needs jobs, but not at any price, and there are other ideas about how the site could be developed. Many see the tourism potential. The CRA itself has developed a plan, which it has shared with the committee today. Not everyone has the same ideas but, in truth, nobody supports the proposal locally.

The proposal has united the community in its determination to have a say—that is the most important thing. That is why the CRA is right to appeal to the Parliament to ask the Scottish Government that the process stop now and start again.

It is important that the site comes into public ownership because there is a danger that Scottish Power will sell it to the highest bidder, and who knows what plans a private developer might have for the site? However, if the site comes into private sector ownership, we must start again and work with the community, not against the community, to plan the use of the site with local people rather than in spite of them.

The Convener

Thank you very much for your contribution, Mr Gray. The committee needs to consider the general principles of energy parks rather than one specific development. I understand the interest that you have in the specific site, but I wanted to make that general point about the purpose of our committee.

I have a question for Shona Brash. Do you feel that the proposal will squeeze out other development opportunities?

Shona Brash

Absolutely. Our communities would like to put forward a positive community alternative that could provide jobs and would complement everything that is good about Scotland and our garden county. There is room for everything on the site, as has been demonstrated over the past 50 years.

Thank you.

Angus MacDonald

At a recent portfolio question time, Iain Gray asked the Deputy First Minister about the proposed Cockenzie energy park. In his answer, John Swinney gave an assurance that

“The site is not in the ownership of Scottish Enterprise, so Scottish Enterprise has no site plan”

in its possession. He added that

“The site remains in the ownership of Scottish Power”.

Mr Swinney also gave Mr Gray an assurance that, should Scottish Enterprise acquire the site,

“there will be full and active dialogue with the local community before any developments are considered or undertaken.”—[Official Report, 5 November 2014; c 5.]

I presume that that assurance gives you some comfort. You are shaking your head, Ms Brash.

Shona Brash

That does not really give me comfort. It seems as though an awful lot of money, time and energy have already been spent on taking the proposal to the level that it is at just now. The panic that I feel is because I wonder how the process can be moved back when such a lot of money has been spent. I feel anxious that, if another year passes, it is going be too late to change things. It already feels that way for many folk. We could have had 28,000 signatures on the petition, but folk truly believe that it is a done deal and that there is no point in signing the petition because there are ships sitting out in the Forth and this, that and the other are already being done. They feel that it is already happening. We are trying to say to people that it is not final—that there is a process, that people will listen and that they will be part of that process—but they do not believe that.

Mr Gray referred to Scottish Enterprise taking over ownership of the site. In our briefings, we do not have any information on that having happened. Has that been mooted?

Shona Brash

No, I believe that Scottish Power still owns the site. I do not think that Scottish Enterprise owns the site. I have to say that there has been a harmonious relationship between the communities and Scottish Power over the 50 years. All our local bairns would go to Christmas parties in the power station and Scottish Power worked really hard to develop strong links between the communities. The whole site might be seen as an industrial site, but it is not. The power station is on a very small footprint on the site, as is the coal plant. The rest of the site was given over to the communities by Scottish Power and we have enjoyed using it. Perhaps it is not our land in that we do not own it, but we feel as though we do because we have had it for so long and we have done so much with it over so many years.

You speak about the footprint. I presume that the cover of the document that you gave us shows the site.

Shona Brash

Yes, it shows some of the site, but the site is bigger. The cover shows the greenhills, but the site extends all the way up to the Meadowmill roundabout.

In your introductory remarks you also mentioned the possibility of a legal challenge to NPF3 in Europe. I presume that that would be a last resort.

Gareth Jones (Coastal Regeneration Alliance)

Yes. I do not think that anybody would want to do that. However, we have come to realise that the whole thing came out of the blue—there was no public consultation and the proposal appeared from nowhere in NPF3. It was not in NPF2 or the MIR for NPF3, and it is not in the national renewables infrastructure plan. Cockenzie is not identified as a site for an energy park. Where did the proposal come from and why was nobody told about it? In May this year, we all opened our local paper and thought, “What’s going on?” Nobody knew about it. That is at the core of why we are so concerned about it—as well as the fact that it is a massive-scale proposal, of course.

We have done a little bit of work. We have spent several months poring over mountains of information on the background to the proposal, and it appears to us that this is about as clear a case as is humanly possible under the Aarhus convention of a lack of transparency in the planning system and a lack of community involvement on a matter of environmental planning. People are telling us that such a legal challenge is what we will have to pursue if we do not manage to get the proposal put on hold now.

David Torrance

I have some sympathy with your petition. Fife energy park, which is in the area that I represent, has redeveloped and regenerated a run-down area and created a lot of high-skilled and well-paid jobs. It regenerated the whole of the Levenmouth area and it has the potential to be developed further. We are now compulsorily purchasing additional land to make room for more industries to come into the area.

There was a lot of consultation with Scottish Enterprise. We have the Fife coastal path, which gets half a million visitors a year, so there has been a lot of consultation with local groups, Scottish Enterprise and the Fife Coast and Countryside Trust, to protect all the areas round the energy park. Could dialogue not take place with the local community on what it wants in the area, to influence the plan before it goes ahead?

Gareth Jones

It would be great if there was dialogue, but there just has not been any. Scottish Enterprise presented a consultation that included four A1 boards in a community centre, for the biggest proposal that East Lothian has ever seen. There seems to be a lack of information being given out about the fact that the proposal does not just include the power station site. There would not be anything like this stushie if it was just the power station site, but it is not. It is a huge area that includes the battlefield of Prestonpans and the greenhills, which are public open spaces—green spaces. Fundamentally, the proposal is for something in the middle of communities. It is not on the outskirts or on a previously industrial site, although some of it was industrial in the 19th century.

There has not been any consultation. There might be scope for some, but it would be nice if it came sooner rather than later. It has not appeared so far.

David Torrance

I have a question about a major concern that affects my area, as well: the plans for underground coal gasification. The energy park will probably be used for that. Underground coal gasification licences are issued by Westminster. Last night at Westminster, a motion to stop fracking and underground coal gasification underneath houses was defeated. It would have no relevance to the energy park whether this went ahead or not.

Gareth Jones

Sorry, but I did not catch the question.

David Torrance

One of your objections is that the proposal would facilitate underground coal gasification in the area but, even if the energy park is not there, licensed companies will still go ahead with underground coal gasification.

Gareth Jones

That is probably right. We recognise that the designation of an energy park, wherever it may be, could easily be used for coal gasification. It seems that coal gasification is one of the things that has not been mentioned at all in connection with the Cockenzie site, although it is eminently suitable for it. In fact, some coal gasification proposers use the Firth of Forth, with the north and south sides—Methil across to Cockenzie, presumably—on their plans. However, there has been no consultation. Most locals are completely oblivious to the issue and some of the main protagonists in the debate—Scottish Enterprise, Scottish Power, to a point, and East Lothian Council—laugh when we mention coal gasification, as if it will never happen here.

The Convener

If no other colleagues wish to ask questions or make any points, I will ask a final question.

One would clearly not want to take a case to Europe under the Aarhus convention, because that would be a lengthy, and presumably very expensive, process. Have you explored that route? Do you, or does anyone in your group, have any experience of such a process?

Gareth Jones

We do not. We are just a bunch of local people. We are not a bunch of battle geeks or busybodies; we are just really worried about what is happening in the middle of our towns. We have had no experience of such a process, but we have taken advice from a Queen’s counsel who is sympathetic to us. We would have to take the matter forward with him, which would involve some expense. We obviously do not want to do that—we do not have the money to do it—but we would if we had to. We do not want to let 8,000 people down.

Shona Brash

We hope that the committee members sitting in front of us today, and our Parliament and Government, will listen to the folk who live in the area. The energy park proposal will slice down the middle of communities. The catchment area for our local high school covers Prestonpans, Cockenzie and Port Seton and Longniddry. Our bairns walk the pathways and use the road where all those things would go.

I know that Methil has found ways to get round that, but we have been able to demonstrate that industry, energy and communities can sit together. We would like the proposals as they stand to be halted, and for people to start looking at a plan that will allow us to work together and which will complement the community. Nobody is saying no to jobs, or to anything. We want to work together for a sensible outcome.

The Convener

Thank you for your evidence. The next step is for us to consider the next stage for the committee. You have both given clear and straightforward evidence on the issue, as has Iain Gray.

It would clearly be sensible to write to the Scottish Government, Scottish Power, Scottish Enterprise and East Lothian Council about the issue. We can then discuss it further once we have the full information before us. That is my suggestion, but as always the committee may have a different view. Does the committee agree that we should consult those organisations?

I am happy for us to consult them. Can we also ask how much consultation they have done with the local community and what input the community has had to the final draft plans?

Thank you for that.

John Wilson

I agree with David Torrance. When we write to the Scottish Government, we should focus on NPF3, because I am concerned about the issues that have been raised today. The proposal seems to have landed in NPF3 in the latter stages, rather than the early stage, of consultation.

Thank you. Other members may have a different view.

Kenny MacAskill

It would be better to try to get parties to work together. From listening to Iain Gray and Shona Brash, it seems that industrial development is not precluded. It is recognised that the worst thing might be simply to go on the market to the highest bidder, which might be even worse than the worst extremes of what is before us.

We need to seek public engagement. Given the size of the footprint, there must be an opportunity to achieve some of the things that can be delivered, taking a view of Scotland’s future energy needs in the 21st century, while ensuring that public assets and public goods can be retained. We need to encourage the parties to come together and work constructively rather than one side giving an edict or a diktat, although it has doubtless been well researched. The tone and the tenor are important, as we are trying to reach an accord. People might not necessarily be on opposite sides, and they could sit down and chat.

Shona Brash

It feels as if a spaceship came from outer space and landed at Cockenzie, and everyone thought, “Help ma boab! What are we going to do about this?” We really are just local folk. We are not experts—we have never sat in a room like this before with people like you, and it is overwhelming.

It is a case of, “Houston, we have a problem.”

Shona Brash

Aye—and how do we fix it?

The Convener

I thank our witnesses for coming along. It is obviously a huge issue but, as I said at the start, we are also looking at the wider issues. We have agreed to write to the Scottish Government, Scottish Power, Scottish Enterprise and East Lothian Council, looking in particular at the issue of consultation and at NPF3, which is a vital aspect. I thank you all for giving such clear evidence—that includes Iain Gray. I will suspend the meeting for two minutes to allow our new witnesses to take their seats.

11:44 Meeting suspended.  

11:46 On resuming—