Friday, 24 November 2006

Putting our transport needs on the right track

Published: 24 November, 2006
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

PARLIAMENTARY business has focused on planning law and transport issues recently.

It's a reminder we all must demand a say at the earliest stage if new ideas for housing, businesses and transport upgrades are planned. If not then nasty surprises can force us at a late hour to choose for or against somebody's not-so-bright idea.

MSPs spent a day and a half on the third stage of the Planning Bill. Amendments on third-party rights of appeal, controlling high hedges, multiple occupancy housing and the like were knocked down like skittles by the government majority. Certainly projects of national significance should be given priority treatment to speed them up. But the utmost care is needed as big ideas can disrupt many lives.

Take the Beauly to Denny power line. Giant pylons could carry clean power from our tidal resources in the Pentland Firth. But should they go in undersea cables instead? I predict that's the kind of scheme that will be badly served by the forthcoming but narrowly focused planning enquiry.

With local plans now due to run for five-year terms, there is much more chance to influence where houses should go or how flooding should be tackled. But we have to take part. Before I was elected MSP in 2003 the Ross and Cromarty East Local Plan was being consulted. It is only displayed in its final form in our post offices this month. That just won't do.


THIS week we have been debating the first stage of a Transport and Works (Scotland) Bill. It should relieve MSPs of truly marathon sittings in a quasi-judicial role at stage two. For months on end I spent Mondays wading through objection by objection in the Edinburgh Tram (Line One) Bill when objectors and developers slugged it out. A reporter with judicial training can do this part better and free up precious MSP time for helping constituents. They adopted that in England years ago but failed to put it in the 1998 Scotland Act.

Transport plans for the North have also featured strongly. We had a briefing in Parliament from HITRANS on a draft regional transport strategy for the Highlands and Islands. It is out for consultation till January 2007 and will inform the Scottish transport plans for the next ten years with timetables for priorities for our communications network. Allied to this, the Caithness Association of Community Councils had its views on the prospects for rail upgrades and a Dornoch rail link debated by the Public Petitions Committee.

HITRANS and the transport group in the Caithness Socio-Economic Strategy could do with meeting because HITRANS talks of steady population decline in the Far North, as if that was a good reason to do little for our road and rail needs. The Caithness Partnership had other ideas so we must get realistic, costed options submitted before HITRANS runs away and spends a load of money on "higher priorities" around Inverness. In that light I am delighted that the Dornoch Link Action Group has commissioned one of today's leading rail consultants, Corus, to show how the Far North line can be transformed. It will feed the debate with a can-do approach to counter the "managed decline" of the doom merchants.

Talking of which, the Friends of the Far North Line will be holding its AGM in Brora this Saturday, not in Thurso as previously suggested. It makes a change from Inverness and Beauly. But interestingly there is an amendment proposed to the meeting for a constitutional change of AGM dates to May, June or July instead of November. Why? So that members from central Scotland and England can make it to a future AGM in Caithness. As they can't easily do the return journey in a day, they could stay overnight and enjoy a summer's day along the Pentland Firth.

Meanwhile, Brora is just accessible to them but not for a 2.15pm start for arrivals from Caithness. Doesn't that say it all? Wouldn't you think that FoFNL should back a Dornoch rail short cut? But they don't! Wending your way North for four hours from Inverness for a leisurely overnight stay does not meet the needs of all who live in the area and wish to reach all points north of Golspie throughout the year.

I'll be in Brora, all being well, and hope to hear FoFNL president Lord Thurso change the group's tune. Doesn't he also convene the Caithness Partnership that backs the Dornoch crossing? I hope another speaker, Bill Reeve, director of rail delivery from Transport Scotland, will suggest how, for much less cash than the price of the rail link to Edinburgh Airport, all the Highland rail routes can be sorted.

Finally I'll be most interested to hear why the Highland Rail Partnership submission to the Parliament Petitions Committee managed to miss out any mention of the Dornoch crossing in its submission, as the HRP full-time officer Frank Roach will give a brief account of current rail developments to FoFNL members.

SCOTTISH Ambulance Service officials meet Highland MSPs on a regular basis at their Inverness HQ. We were updated on progress with their combined ambulance and NHS control room. With winter and possible flu epidemics in mind, we were happy to hear that NHS 24 has got a simpler set of questions when you phone in for advice or help. A wee tip to pass on – do keep the NHS 24 number on your mobile phone. It is 08454 242424, not so easy as 999 to remember, but most useful.

By the way, a Happy St Andrew's Day on November 30. Next year it could be a holiday.

Friday, 10 November 2006

Imperial dreams must be consigned to the past

Published: 10 November, 2006
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

IRAQ and Afghanistan overshadow yet another Remembrance Day as our troops cope with near-impossible tasks in hostile lands.

In past wars Scotland has given more than our fair share of service personnel who made the ultimate sacrifice. But the horrors of the Middle East are piling up civilian casualties on a par with those suffered in World War Two Russia.

I'm sure that those who gather to remember the fallen will spare a thought for citizens of countries in which Britain's leaders have meddled. Tony Blair's political epitaph will undoubtedly contain the word "Iraq", so I question how he can appear at the Cenotaph on Sunday with any kind of clear conscience. We all have a duty to see that the world of the future learns from our own history. Messrs Blair and Bush seem to have missed the messages of imperial failure to annex Afghanistan that started as far back as the 1870s.

I don't visit war memorials often, but in many communities you can't help but be drawn to read the names emblazoned thereon. It was a similar feeling when I paid my respects at the Highland Division monument at St Valéry en Caux in Normandy last summer. So many forced to surrender after the French cavalry hopelessly charging the German tanks, the calculations of politicians like Winston Churchill, and the four-year imprisonment of so many Highlanders and Islanders in debilitating captivity.

If the service rendered to this country by our soldiers, sailors and aircrew is to be duly honoured then it is our duty to elect future governments that will reduce their exposure to live fire and restrict our military activity to homeland security and to serve the UN. The days of imperial dreams are hopefully gone, but the subsequent role adopted by London governments as a world policeman cannot be allowed to take more lives.


FOLLOWING the floods and gales I sought a Ministerial Statement to bring home to Parliament how pictures of the floods and damage from Dingwall to Thurso and Kirkwall were so awful.

If 150 miles of Scotland in the central belt had been affected, camera crews would have combed the countryside. But the A9 got blocked in several places so the photos that appeared in local papers the following week, while vivid, only hint at the huge repair and restoration task to come.

The statement was granted two Wednesdays ago before decision time at 5pm. Then I was able to put on record the SNP's praise for the tireless work of the emergency services and our sympathy for householders and businesses so badly affected by these sudden and severe floods and gales, and particularly for the families of the Meridian crew after the fishing boat was lost in the oilfields east of Aberdeen.

As for action, we need a root-and-branch review of the Scottish government's preparations along with new pledges to open the coffers and provide expert advice to mitigate the disruption caused to communications, homes and businesses from such severe weather events.

It will take months to assess the full impact of this event, made worse by climate change, so, in the meantime, the government has to extend other funds to cash-strapped local authorities and utilities for the multi-million pounds of unforeseen costs that do not fit neatly into those for flood-prevention schemes.

As this cuts across the work of many government departments, the First Minister will have to ensure outstanding remedial work from this and previous severe-weather events, such as in the Uists in January 2005, do not drag on. The major issue of island links that can still let raging Atlantic waters filter through is yet to be agreed nearly two years on. So those wanting preparations made to protect crossings on the River Thurso need to get started soon.

Climate-change mitigation will cost a lot, but little or no investment would cost even more in future in terms of the increasing damage that would have to be put right. In the flat river valleys of Caithness, flooded rivers have to be given room to spread out and seep away. Too many choke points at road bridges have to be reassessed. Certainly low-lying areas prone to flooding should not be built on, and a local plan compiled with local knowledge will be essential.


HOW many of our youngsters are Homesmart? Last week I attended a reception organised by the Scottish Council for Single Homeless, hosted by my Central Scotland colleague Linda Fabiani. It attracted seven MSPs from the SNP, Greens, Tories and SSP. They heard about the information campaign to help prevent youth homelessness.

In Scotland in the past year over 4300 young people between 16 and 17 turned to their local authorities because they had nowhere safe and secure to stay. In all 19,400 in the 16 to 24 age bracket sought help. That's over 35 per cent of all homelessness applications.

As more and more of our young people go off to the cities the issue is top priority. That's not to say that in the villages and towns of Caithness there are not circumstances which force youngsters to leave home. That's why the teaching packs for S4 students have been produced. Also young people and their families can access advice about avoiding homelessness on

I'm sure that MSPs of all parties will want to give our young people the best start in life. The SNP is committed to see the building of affordable housing where needed and more conciliation services to be staffed to keep families together where possible.