Friday, 7 July 2006

Water improvements on tap... if we had fiscal autonomy

Published: 07 July, 2006
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

THE end of term, whether at school or in parliament, is hectic. Since we try to be a family-friendly establishment, schoolchildren and MSP parents can spend some holiday time together.

At the end of term there have been record numbers of lobby groups holding “must have your attendance” events. I had to bring my Wick-based assistant, Niall, to Edinburgh to help us cover them.

From timber merchants to railway lobbyists and receptions for the president of Slovenia, then to attend the Scottish political journalists’ annual dinner where I joined the Scottish Water table. As the SNP water spokesperson, it was a chance to meet the interim chairman Ronnie Mercer, who was hurriedly recruited when Professor Alan Alexander was forced to resign by Ross Finnie in February when crisis overtook the publicly-owned water company over the delivery of the next four-year plan and meeting the swelling chorus demanding removal of development constraints.

George Gunn, in his column “From the Deck of the Pictish Navy” in last week’s Groat, noted the public dissatisfaction with the public water company alongside record water leaks, while the headlines have been dominated by news of directors’ performance bonuses and persistent rumours that the Treasury in London wants rid of our key public utility.

No issue in Holyrood better highlights the divide between the ambitions of the SNP and the half-baked approach of the Liberal Democrat and Labour government. In 2004 the Finance Committee could not agree over the way Scottish Water is funded. In a minority report my colleagues Jim Mather and Fergus Ewing, along with pensioners’ party MSP John Swinburne, exposed the facts.

Scottish Water is paying for its capital investments such as the Loch Calder plant by taking eighty-six per cent of the cost from current domestic and business customers’ bills. Since capital investments span thirty years, that is an unacceptable burden exacerbated by a restricted right to borrow. If they had consent to borrow in the market for longer-term payback, greater things could be achieved for far less pain.

It is a complete fallacy that private water companies are the answer. Their leaks and charges are no better and uncaring shareholders farm the customers. We must resist the idea of worldwide shareholders ever being allowed to soak Scottish Water customers. So what’s the answer? An SNP Scottish government wants fiscal autonomy, i.e. controlling our taxes in Scotland. Then we could set up a fund for public investment and borrow at far better rates in the market. Another way to do this is like Glas Cymru, the new version of Welsh Water that is a mutual or not-for-profit company. It’s a way to recycle the profits into the business.

Such a change of structure or borrowing consent would allow us to catch up with EU standards for water quality and sewage treatment. That would stop the biggest pain – lack of sufficient funds to make sites available for development. It would speed up house-building and end delays in site development for new business.

* HIGHLAND archives are assured of a safe home thanks to last week’s announcement of a £4.3 million Lottery grant. Although this will be sited near the Floral Hall at the Bught Park, Inverness, there are satellite offices including the one in Wick. The Highland Council is rightly pleased that the new-build facility will commence in 2007, the Scottish Year of Highland Culture, for completion in the Highland Year of Homecoming two years later.

With so many more overseas visitors tracing their roots, genealogy is big business. I am always intrigued to see how much use is made of archive materials. As a historian I should declare an interest but can only concur with the education, culture and sport chairman, Councillor Andy Anderson, that our archives are of world significance. He is no slouch himself as an avid collector of information on the Caithness Anderson families.

* A CHANCE news item from South Dakota last week whetted my appetite for family links across the ocean. It told of a nine-storey-high carving in the South Dakota hills that is nearing completion. It has taken decades to carve the face of Crazy Horse, the Oglala Sioux leader who masterminded the rout of the US 7th Cavalry led by Colonel Custer at the Little Big Horn on June 25 one hundred and thirty years ago. Eighty-year-old Ruth Ziolkowski is the proprietor of this giant sculpture on behalf of her late husband, but intriguingly her maiden name was Ruth Ross.

Two links came to mind. Crazy Horse’s sister was married to Scotty Philip, a gold-miner and eventually a successful rancher in South Dakota who bought the last pure-bred buffalo and saved the species. Philip came from Dallas in Moray. I wonder where Ruth Ross’s forebears left to live in Connecticut, USA?

Another link to the Wild West jumped out of the pages of the Caithness Book which tells of the Lockie family from John O’Groats who emigrated to Montana around 1900. A fine picture shows six sons dressed in cowboy gear on horseback

driving a herd of cattle to the railhead in 1940. Montana only became safe for settlement and homesteaders like the Lockies thanks to the murders of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, the massacre at Wounded Knee in December 1890 and the confining of Indians to the dreaded reservations. In fact the Lockie ranch at Sheffield on the Yellowstone River was under a hundred miles from the Little Bighorn battlefield.

Genealogy and archives mine a great treasure chest, so a little praise for the Highland Council is due on this occasion for a good investment to make a future from our past.