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.