Friday, 25 May 2007

Overcoming barriers to business

Published: 25 May, 2007
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

"THIS administration will seek to be fair to all parts of Scotland," said Alex Salmond, the First Minister of the first SNP government.

That means those who live in Caithness have to weigh up what we need to let us flourish and state it loud and clear. I'm glad that the Caithness Partnership and socio-economic forum will be holding a conference later in the year to address these points to Scottish Ministers.

In the presentation of the Scottish government plans announced in Parliament on Wednesday there are huge opportunities for the Caithness economy, whose future success is one part of the prerequisite to fuel other governmental priorities.

That needs a world-class education system with due attention to keeping open viable nurseries, making smaller classes in early years of primary school, ensuring that secondary schools have enough IT equipment, and so on.

A properly funded and respected National Health Service hereabouts needs no more threats of reviews to cut services in Wick. We must get young people into employment as a means of fostering a sense of responsibility and social cohesion so that all those youngsters over 16 years of age not in jobs, in training or at school receive a personal programme to get them into productive work.

The SNP sees barriers to business as barriers to national progress, so SNP policy to abolish business rates for the smallest firms could be a big boost in all our villages and small towns. I found this a most appealing message at the election and within a year we should have agreement with enough parties to have a real change of delivery.

Businessmen and women have a huge role to play in this nation's future. It is the SNP government's role to make their job easier, not harder. But the second part of that priority is just as important as economic growth has to allow all of our citizens to benefit from that wealth. As your regional MSP I relish this task in this four-year term.


HAVING a clear Scottish voice to tackle the reserved powers of the London government is also in the news this week.

The UK energy review takes a very different attitude to electricity security than we need to do in Scotland. As an energy-rich nation, Scotland (unlike England) has many options – these must not be squandered by putting our eggs in one expensive basket. Scottish consumers are not so dependent on uncertain supplies of imported gas and we have great opportunities to create far more local networks of supply that do not rely solely on the national grid.

Looking at the Danes for a minute reminds us that they began their 250 combined heat and power systems in many localities. With the streets dug up we can see the benefits snaking out from such a plant at our local distillery in Pulteneytown.

Also the Danes began wind-power developments in a flat landscape when a few local farmers determined to create co-operatives to make a sustainable local power supply. They were not driven by a national scheme that rewards the big players and makes it hard for small ones. Indeed they faced a barrier to such big thinking as there were 48 grids in the country! Their own communities immediately benefited and welcomed that approach.

One thing the SNP government can do is to insist on local energy production proposals being agreed democratically to feed the Scottish Energy Plan. These will also feed into the statutory local plans that guide all planning decisions by the Highland Council and will now be upgraded every five years. So there are very good reasons to demand a say in local energy plan developments. This approach can, instead, take the heat out of arguments that rage across these columns each week.


TAKING another look at how we attract more visitors to the far north and west of Scotland is overdue. That's why I welcome wholeheartedly the plans announced for a John Lennon Northern Lights Festival due in the autumn at Durness where the late lamented Beatle spent many youthful holidays.

Knowing the troubles of making the Northlands Festival viable, I applaud Mike Merritt and his team who have taken an idea dreamed up at the start of this year of Highland culture and produced an international bill worthy of putting Durness on the map for reasons far beyond the notorious bombing range.

Having had 132,000 hits on their website in just two days after the launch date speaks volumes. When readers plan their leisure time this is certainly one event to make a date with. Though spend power is limited, I hope you'll find something to make you take the high road to the far north-west.


I HOPE that the Caithness socio-economic planners will do much more to attract visitors to come here. I'm glad that local hoteliers like Murray Lamont of Mackay's Hotel, Wick, are looking for collaborations to do just that.

The feeling is that people want to come here to see our wealth of natural attractions and activities such as the world-renowned Thurso surf, and tourism development is one way of encouraging staff made redundant from Dounreay to stay in the area. Making this a happening place is the task. Why should visitors merely pass through en route to Orkney? There is much to savour in our own backyard – yet it is too much of a secret at present.

I believe the new SNP government needs to have a radical look at and give local initiatives much more direct access to enquiries. Few tourist operators think the call centre at Livingston does any justice to the great variety of places in Scotland that want to attract new customers. Hearing a rich Caithness accent respond to your enquiries should be a part of that experience.

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