Friday, 27 October 2006

Time for us to think big on energy and the environment

Published: 27 October, 2006
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

THERE are good reasons why Swedish dentists have been seeking work in this country. Their people have achieved one of the best records for oral health in the world, so Sweden needs far more dental hygienists than dentists.

In sharp contrast, figures released this week show only 24 per cent of adults in the Highlands are even registered with a dentist.

Is it taking the throwaway society to a new low to think that false teeth could be the lot of a growing number of our young people, not to mention a big proportion of the 75 per cent not registered with dentists? NHS provision of salaried dentists may be too little, but let's hope it's not too late.

However, the Scottish government has to resolve the central issue. In a rich country, when will we train enough dentists who are willing to work in the Far North and across the land? Secondly, what is a reasonable salary for a dentist that does not make registration with private practice so far out of reach for the low-paid?

I wonder if the Convention of the Highlands and Islands that meets in Forres next week will discuss the dental crisis. Who knows, but does this organisation do anything to ensure we get basic services we need?

According to its website the Scottish Executive meets its main partner agencies, represented by the chairperson of each organisation. Held twice yearly, hosted by a different local authority each time with alternating mainland and island locations, it seeks to strengthen co-ordination between member organisations, the Executive and other representative bodies to better inform the development and realisation of strategic economic, environmental, cultural and social justice objectives.

Since they came to power New Labour and the Lib Dems have excluded Highlands and Islands MSPs and MPs, except as observers. So there is little democratic input and it sums up a tick-box mentality. Endless rounds of meetings hide the huge gaps in delivering better government. The Forres meeting will provide helpful public-relations pictures for ministers. But it's a moribund symptom of the deep lack of democratic accountability in this hangover from Westminster rule.


A CONFIDENT SNP conference in Perth rallied as party leader Alex Salmond strongly urged voters that it is time to think big. He argued that, seven years after a spirit of optimism was abroad in this country in 1999 when the MSPs were cheered into the first Parliament building, Scotland has been let down.

"It is not just the track record of the Executive," he said, "it is the total lack of ambition. It is what they have not done – as well as where they have failed. They have raised mediocrity to an art form which is summed up in the First Minister's favourite slogan, 'Scotland is the best small country in the world.'

"This one phrase encapsulates everything that is wrong with the First Minister, with the Executive and with our national tourist agency – the only one in the world named after a website. It combines the worst of 'Wha's like us?' with the worst of an inferiority complex. We are not the best wee country in the world – not by any measurement.

"Perhaps we could be, but not now. But why should we think of ourselves as a small country? Scotland is only small to those who think small. It is time to think big."

Our nearest neighbours to the east, north and west – Norway, Iceland and Ireland – are the second, fourth and six wealthiest nations on the planet. Why not Scotland too? Scotland needs big thinking on energy and the environment, but let us contrast our political opponents' claims they are going green – actions speak louder than words.

The UK has spent £500 million in the past three years developing alternative energies. Seems like loads of money. In fact, it is but one tenth of the spending on the war in Iraq.

Here we are in the North of Scotland with all the advantages of land, water and infinite clean power and yet between them this blundering Executive and the Department of Trade and Industry have failed us. Suffice it to say that our communities are in a state of mutiny, being denied the local benefit from our energy resources that is the norm in Norway for long-term local investment.

Generating local sources of wealth will be one big way to remove that feeling of dependency and remoteness that a dozen Conventions of the Highlands and Islands cannot achieve behind closed doors. To every community of Scotland, the message from the SNP conference is: we have heard you, we're coming, and we are bringing a message of hope and change for Scotland, because it is time.


I HAD great fun writing the short title to a current motion which fifteen colleagues have so far signed: "Congratulations to Eejits." It praises Itchy Coo Publications on the success of its book The Eejits, a best-selling Scots translation of Roald Dahl's children's favourite The Twits.

Itchy Coo's development officer, Matthew Fitt, who translated The Eejits, has made over 500 school visits in the past four years to encourage pupils to recognise how much of the Scots language they know and use.

I went on to deplore the status of the Scots tongue whereby few pupils when asked can name their own language as Scots, Doric or Lallans and not slang. So here in Caithness the blend of Scots and Norse tongue fits the bill too, and I hope Matthew Fitt will be able to inspire our youngsters here in due course.

Friday, 13 October 2006

Supermarket debate needed a good food balance

Published: 13 October, 2006
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

TWO Wednesdays ago I had to sum up for the SNP in the Food Chain Enquiry debate in Parliament. Often you have to reflect in such speeches on what others have already said. However I had plenty of material to add to the tally.

I had in front of me the comments of councillors over the Asda planning application for a Thurso store. They said it would only be fair to have Asda in Thurso to balance Tesco in Wick and hoped to get cheap petrol at both. Nonetheless, I believe that the supermarket monopoly needs wider grounds for discussion by planners if we are to get any balance of shops and real choice of wholesome food.

Regarding consumers demands for cheap food I stated: “There is a warning in the environment and rural development committee report on the position of the consumer. Paragraph 62 warns that to allow a short-term focus solely on the current prices faced by consumers risks undermining the viability of farm businesses, which will have long-term effects on the choice, freshness, quality and price of food available to consumers.”

I believe that the minister, Ross Finnie, as part of the Scottish Government, should be helping people to live more healthy lives.

Does he ensure that consumers are given better education and are better equipped to tackle what they are presented with on supermarket shelves, because convenience food is often poor food?

Shouldn’t our councillors have wider powers to measure retail applications? After all a crisis has led the Competition Commission to undertake its current enquiry into supermarket practices.

I suggested: “People can park for nothing in the car parks of out-of-town supermarkets whereas, if they use a small shop in the town centre, they will probably need to pay parking charges. I do not suggest for a minute that the large numbers of people who use supermarkets should be required to pay parking charges, but the supermarkets should be paying far higher rates. The supermarkets could also be encouraged to stock local produce and to carry their goods by rail in order to reduce problems on our roads. However, the planning bills that we consider never deal with those issues. The Executive must get involved in such regulation and start to help consumers and producers alike.”

Paradoxically it is anonymous shareholders of these supermarket chains who are farming us! How can it be, I asked, that “the Tescos of this world make such bloated profits at our expense, not only from our pockets but from our health”?

Surely governments can to some extent help to create a fairer market? If not why do we not demand they do?

* I HOPE you were as delighted as I was to read that Tom Farmer has donated £100,000 to the SNP, that should help to even up the election campaign leading to next May’s Scottish and local polls. With the large sums available to the British parties the case for Scotland’s future needs a more evenly balanced argument.

The SNP does not rely on dodgy loans and donations for peerages like other UK parties but relies on its members and local supporters for cash. Let’s hope other business people recognise that we have sound economic policies and contribute too.

* I AM watching the development and promotion of the Caithness and North Sutherland Socio-Economic Strategy. I see that the need for a supremo to drive forward the vision in this document has yet to be agreed. Although chaired by John Thurso MP the strategy needs a leader above the political fray.

Since I have discussed the similarities of the Caithness group’s aims with those of the SNP in our consultation Let Scotland Flourish I would venture to say that Scottish ministers should be asked to take the plans for the Far North under their wing. We still need a popular local champion but the split between Scottish Government and London Government powers is a definite hindrance

I suggested in the Caithness consultation that three immediate priorities form the basis for a very public campaign. They can all be decided here in Scotland right now.

Firstly we need a highly vocal demand for a 21st-century railway to the Far North including realistic costings for the Dornoch link that have yet to be established independently. This is needed alongside various programmed road improvements, not one or the other.

Secondly we need a commitment from HIE and the enterprise minister to back a centre of excellence based in Caithness for both the development and export of nuclear decommissioning skills and also to set up a major collaboration with the EMEC centre in Orkney to promote wave and tidal power in the Pentland Firth.

Thirdly we should be campaigning for enhanced democratic decision-taking at county level and to develop the powers of multi-member wards to make decisions about local development needs.

For now I’ll focus on North rail needs. This week’s news shows that decades of underinvestment have scuppered the extension of Inverness suburban services, the Invernet, to Elgin. The local papers in Inverness are full of it. But we need a comprehensive study to show the value of investment from Inverness to Thurso and Wick as the strategy admits.

Too many councillors and some MSPs see this as a low priority. But just like Tom Farmer giving the SNP a financial boost, I am appealing to benefactors large and small to help the Dornoch Link Action Group to commission a modern rail consultant to end the negative vibes of the “uneconomic” headlines. Hitrans, who have given rail a low priority even for Inverness to Elgin, have virtually ignored the Far North line. You can contact me through my Wick office for more details or via my e-mail address below.