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.

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