Saturday, 30 September 2006

Road tax proposals would hit rural-dwellers hardest

Published: 30 September, 2006
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

THE UK party conference season has been in full swing, though I detect fewer and fewer MSPs attending their UK counterparts’ events. We in the SNP has decided to move our annual conference to an October recess spot from the 11th to the 14th in Perth.

Thus SNP MSPs should not have to take time out of term and have the annual juggle of speaking slots in Parliament for those left to hold the line. But it also interferes with the cherished October holiday breaks in the sun and with events like the National Mod. So you can’t please everyone.

It seems that UK party conferences can badly misjudge policy decisions that affect Scotland and particularly the North. Take the Lib Dems’ proposals for a huge hike in road tax. They may have been targeting 4x4s in the leafy suburbs, but any increase in road tax hits hardest the rural-dwellers with no alternative transport.

Already their Orkney and Shetland MP is pledging to seek a Highlands and Islands opt-out. Hardly a reassuring pledge when you realise that countries like Norway, with full control of their own energy policy, make sure fuel is no cheaper in the north than in their capital city Oslo, and that moves away from the carbon economy are set to account for the needs of small communities as well as urban centres.

Last Thursday the Tories led a debate on the environment. It was a bit like a truth and reconciliation commission. Nonetheless I pointed out that the Environment Minister should not gloat. He had previously told me in the Parliament that we cannot produce more than 40 per cent of our energy from renewables in Scotland but now his party’s policy is a far higher target, which the SNP welcomes.

Ross Finnie retorted, “That is absolute nonsense!”

In January 2005 I pointed out that their target is to produce 40 per cent of our electricity from renewable sources by 2020, so the bulk of our electricity – the other 60 per cent – also has to be produced. If the Government was serious, it would have said that it wanted most of our power to be produced by renewables. That could be the centrepiece of its policy, but it has not made it so.

Ross Finnie confirmed at that time why their target was 40 per cent: “It was set after extensive consultation with all sectors—not just energy producers, but communities, energy groups and environmentalists.”

Maybe Mr Finnie actually agrees with Jack McConnell, who told a fringe meeting at Labour’s UK conference in Manchester that Labour had not done enough to combat climate change. The First Minister said, “I have always had concerns that the Labour Party as a whole does not yet see environmental issues and environmental justice in particular, but also climate change, as a central issue for democratic socialism.”

We should be very concerned too. Climate change is the defining issue that governs our future. It’s up to us to meet the challenge if there’s to be any habitable Scotland a century from now.

* CAN you believe that over 60 per cent of families no longer buy lamb? So MSPs were informed during a presentation by Quality Meat Scotland during the recent Scottish Food Fortnight. Around a third of Scots farms and many more crofts draw some revenue from sheep. But we export 25 per cent of our high-class product to discerning Europeans and another 45 per cent to equally discerning eaters of lamb in England and Wales. So why don’t Scots, especially those under 45 years, eat this delicious home product?

Scots consumed only around one-third as much as their English counterparts during 2004/05.

Old scare stories about it being too fatty have run too long. Perhaps it is the reluctance of families to cook ingredients from scratch that’s at fault. Anyway, it would interesting to know what happens locally.

Meanwhile, breeding sheep numbers have reduced once again, although Scottish abattoirs have handled 8.5 per cent more lambs since the start of the current lamb season, which began in earnest in May. The samples we tasted in Parliament were taken from Shetland to Galloway. Surely such a treat is not beyond the average household food budget today.

* RECRUITING more GPs and hospital doctors to serve our scattered rural and remote communities relies on giving recruits the support they need to build a career. That’s one of the lessons of the Caithness maternity struggle which is now delivering a common-sense support for the full unit in Wick at consultant and midwife team levels. So it was with dismay that I listened to the Health Minister Andy Kerr reiterate that the health service has to be built around patient needs alone.

Mr Kerr doesn’t seem to grasp that you need to woo workers to get out of the big teaching hospital environment. Why did he set up a Remote and Rural Medicine unit based in the Western Isles if not to do that?

He parried another query from Green MSP Eleanor Scott thus: “I find it odd that, according to the argument in the member’s question, somehow our job is to provide speciality training for anybody who wants it in a particular area, which should be in line not with the needs of patients but with people’s career choices. I also find odd the suggestion that we should allow people to work wherever they want. The health service is a national service and our job is to ensure that opportunities are available nationally.”

His bluster shows that this Minister does not get the point. What good are unhappy staff in places they don’t want to work? What about giving recruits a happy apprenticeship and build confidence in the whole health service? We await developments on the NHS recruiting front as a repeat advert for the third consultant post at Wick’s maternity goes out.

Friday, 15 September 2006

Independence wouldn't turn us into foreigners

Published: 15 September, 2006
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

WHAT would the modern image of Ireland be like without the annual bash on St Patrick’s Day that is held around the world? It’s a day to celebrate an ancient nation with a distinctive language and culture that today is recognised as the Celtic Tiger. Against the odds, Ireland has clawed its way up to boast a higher gross domestic product than the UK, from which it fully seceded in 1937.

It was the UK Wyndham Act of 1904 that turned Irish tenants into farm owners. This further fuelled their step-by-step demands for full self-government. That said, poverty still drove many Irish people overseas, till today Irish people are returning in droves and they are even importing labourers from England like we are doing from Eastern Europe.

Today 25 per cent of people in the UK claim Irish ancestry; in London it is as high as 77 per cent. But citizens of the Irish Republic are part of a Common Travel Area set up many years ago that allows free passage all around the UK, Ireland and the Channel Islands, and now the EU has extended these bounds enormously.

So isn’t it strange that the candidate to be next Labour leader in London and his supporters argue that, because Scots have family in England and vice versa, that must mean we should be in one state and have decisions about Scottish taxes and the direction of the Scottish economy forever decided in London? It hardly makes foreigners of any of our relatives inside Europe, or even worldwide, so why would independence make foreigners of Scots in England?

Even more grudging is Labour’s man in Scotland, First Minister Jack McConnell, who has finally conceded a holiday for St Andrew’s Day just so long as we forgo another public day off. We Scots are entitled to eight public holidays annually. That’s two fewer than the Irish and four fewer than the EU average. Isn’t it about time that the gloom spread by business representatives about the loss to their tills was countered with indignation about being denied a day to celebrate Scotland, our ancient and modern nation, that wasn’t created merely by the tally of pounds and pence? We should also be demanding that the next Holyrood government actually supports the small businesses that suffer so badly from half-baked government under devolution.

TALKING about promoting successful businesses, I was heartened to meet a party from Kentucky who visited us in Parliament en route for 10 days in the Highlands and Orkney to see how we support and nurture small businesses hereabouts. These Kentuckians are volunteers from their own rural entrepreneurial institute which works to promote more self-employment and rural sustainability.

One thing each US state can do is to decide the level of taxes to be levied for state services from citizens and businesses. Indeed, some states have extremely low business taxes to attract new start-ups and firms from other states. Nebraska is a good example. The idea is simply to increase business activity, and tax revenues flow from success. Would that Scotland can make our taxes attractive so that vulnerable areas like our own can get an advantage.

That could help small businesses here in the North grow into larger ones. To promote this debate, the SNP is consulting on a Small Business Bonus Scheme in which 120,000 small businesses across Scotland could have their rates abolished and a further 30,000 businesses could benefit through higher rates relief. Put that into Highland Council terms under SNP proposals: 8900 firms would pay no business rates and 2200 would have reduced rates. That’s a big proportion of the 15,000 businesses in total across the North.

As part of our wider economic strategy, the SNP is determined to support the small business sector which has been let down under the administration of Jack McConnell and Nicol Stephen. Small businesses have traditionally been important to the economy of small towns and rural areas like Caithness for a variety of reasons: as a source of entrepreneurship and innovation, as a driver of competition and local economic vibrancy, as a mechanism for job creation and as the backbone of our rural economy.

Next year there is a straight choice between the failing Labour Party, with their Lib Dem allies, and the SNP. In preparation for government the SNP can deliver a real boost to small businesses and help Scotland reach its economic potential. At an initial £150 million cost to the Scottish budget, this should diminish as more small businesses benefit from the economic boost at the very time Scotland can also take charge of our tax system and economy. Who knows, it could tempt thousands of Scots driven south to find jobs over the years to make the same homecoming as the Irish. We can have more and more to celebrate each St Andrew’s Day when we follow the Irish success story.

Friday, 1 September 2006

Is the water quango meeting our needs?

Published: 01 September, 2006
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

SHOULD North of Scotland customers of Scottish Water agree with the Scottish government that the public utility is delivering for our needs? That’s what Highland MSPs have been asking for years, and were able to ask Scottish Water’s top brass in a cross-party meeting held in Inverness on Wednesday.

I have to recall the SNP-led debate last March on the work of the troubled quango after its chairman, Alan Alexander, fell on his sword following months of wrangling about the budget for the next four years’ programme that was halted by the minister in a calculated political face-saving move that ordered the appointment of a new chairman days before Mr Alexander was sacked. Alas, the little matter of a loose beam in the Parliamentary Chamber distracted attention from the vote which was delayed as a result of our urgent decant into temporary quarters.

Labour and Lib Dems agreed that Ross Finnie had displayed “good stewardship” of the quango and won by 65 votes to 47, with six abstentions. In May 2007 voters can decide whether they agree with the words of that winning amendment – “these actions by the Executive represent good stewardship of Scottish Water in the public and customer interest”.

But the question has added point this month as the Highland Council flagged up the fact that 1600 homes with planning permission cannot proceed due to lack of water investment. This is down to Scottish Water being only recently geared up to meeting the extra costs of small developments in remoter areas.

An answer to another Parliamentary Question sheds further doubt on the likelihood of a speedy solution. My colleague Stewart Stevenson, SNP MSP for Banff and Buchan, asked the Communities Minister how many new houses have been built in each constituency since 1999. In Highland the completion figures have steadily dropped from 1366 in 1999 to 847 in 2005. The Western Isles have doubled, as has Moray; Orkney has trebled and Shetland dropped to two-thirds. Most of these are much smaller councils but the problem of 1600 awaiting water schemes could take years to sort out.

It is all the more perplexing that government whips ordered rejection of the SNP motion in Parliament last March as it expressed concern over the impact of delays in investment in water and sewerage infrastructure on economic, environmental and social development in Scotland.

Dark rumours have surfaced that it is much easier for the government and Scottish Water to gain credit for large schemes completed in central Scotland rather than scattered small ones in the North, which take far greater time and costs to deliver. For example, costs for the Milngavie water treatment works sounds enormous; the Katrine Water Project is the largest single water treatment scheme in Scottish Water’s current £2.15 billion investment programme and is intended to provide Greater Glasgow with a state-of-the-art water supply. Estimated project costs stand at £120 million, with other elements having added a further £7.9 million to the original estimates. So no expenses spared to sort out Glasgow’s water issues. Can we expect the same determination to invest in our priorities up here?

I hope to get agreement across the parties for a rural priority list to fund water connections in North. Simple questions need answered. Does every house with planning permission have the same urgency? If it is to house essential workers and young or homeless people, should they not get a higher ranking? And what about new business premises? These things have to be thrashed out.

I look forward to a more sophisticated debate that delivers equitable results.

THE advantages of choosing to generate electricity from sources such as coal, gas, oil and nuclear are hard to define. Each of these sources is finite. But all fail to capture the heat produced in the power production process as practised in the UK today. That reduces their efficiency enormously and makes little or no economic or scientific sense.

Combined heat and power meets both energy efficiency and CO2 reduction targets. That’s why Sweden, Denmark and Holland, our near neighbours, have placed energy generation plants closer to the users and are now able to contemplate changing the power source from fossil and finite to infinitely renewable fuel sources. They are also replacing fossil fuels with biomass in local plants and at the national level, for example in Sweden, they aim to make their total energy economy a non-carbon one, with no nuclear element, by 2020.

This week I found out more about working Dutch technology that heats or cools huge road flyovers and airport runways and uses the heat produced to heat or cool housing blocks, industrial and commercial buildings, as required. It is being developed by a company that has been based in Ullapool for the past 10 years. Invisible Heating Systems is taking the principle of combined heat and power first of all installed in its underfloor heating systems by using the surprising capacity for tarmacadam to convert roads and driveways into giant solar panels along with a heat-exchange system that stores energy in the form of warm or cold water in the ground that can be tapped into when required.

A square metre of tarmac can absorb and deliver about half of energy of a similar-sized solar panel for under a tenth of the price. So as long as the road or bridge is near a housing scheme or swimming pool, etc., this can be applied.

It has been estimated that if a tenth of Holland’s motorways were so built they could generate as much power as the electricity companies today.

Of course it is only one of the renewable options that can be produced locally and delivered anywhere in the world. Why should we be interested? Because every time oil prices rise, more and more people are looking to invest in cash-saving and energy-saving alternatives. The trick for the North of Scotland is to get a mix of systems going to transform our comfort and energy efficiency.

If we follow ideas like those that Henc Verweijmeren and Liz Stewart and their team of 16 employees are growing in Ullapool, they could even lead to future steps to create buildings that need zero heat input. But why not get wise now to the uses of the heat source of the Earth to help solve our heat and electricity problems?