On the pressures and strains facing local services in Stirling

It's great to be back in the Scottish Parliament again as your regional MSP after nine years away and I've enjoyed throwing myself into the work in these first few weeks. I even got my old office back at Holyrood and will be looking for a local office too in the weeks ahead.

I’m also continuing in my role as Councillor for Dunblane and Bridge of Allan until the next elections in May 2017, but will return my council salary which will hopefully go to a local charitable cause.

It’s valuable having Green representation at both levels of government and I’ve already been able to take some local issues up to the Parliament. For example, pushing for the national inquiry into Edinburgh’s PFI schools scandal to also focus on Balfron High and asking questions about lobbying in relation to the Park of Keir and Airthrey Kerse developments.

The election result shook up all the parties and with six Green MSPs we finally have some influence again. The SNP have a strong mandate, but with two votes short of a majority they will have to listen to the Parliament and the issues and concerns of people across Scotland.

It was welcome for example that the First Minister has adopted Green proposals to introduce a Young Carers Allowance that I hope will benefit many local young people who are struggling with multiple roles.

With a bigger Green MSP Group we are able to better cover all the Parliamentary topics from Education to the Economy. I have taken on the Environment, Energy and Climate Change brief and got to work lodging questions from day one on issues ranging from rail improvements, to climate action and the persecution of wildlife.

But it was with my first speech back that I focussed on recent experience in local government and the pressures and strains our local services are facing here in Stirling. It's clear that austerity is starting to bite hard and our frontline services such as education continue to take the hit as funding cuts filter through from Westminster to Holyrood and down to Viewforth.

There is a strong consensus that educational attainment gaps must be closed and that funds targeted directly at schools can help, but when Additional Support teachers and other specialists are being cut and class sizes are not falling this will be harder to achieve.

The solution is for the Scottish Government to be bold on tax, which was also one of the key recommendations of their own Poverty Advisor earlier this year. Finally abolishing the unfair Council Tax and restoring the power to councils to raise more tax locally would put decision making back into the hands of local people allowing us to protect frontline services.

Last week was an early opportunity for Parliament to vote for a ban on fracking after Green and Labour motions were accepted during a climate change debate. Two years ago the Greens first proposed a ban at Holyrood and it was voted down by all parties, this time round there was a slender majority after the SNP abstained.

It means that Parliament has sent a strong signal about the concerns communities have across Scotland about unconventional gas. The Minister confirmed to me during the debate that research on one of the most controversial technologies (UCG) will be completed over the Summer so the time is coming fast for Government to act and deliver a full and permanent ban for the sake of our local and global environment.

This article first appeared in the Stirling Observer