Friday, 20 July 2007

Picking a fight - or standing up for fishermen?

Published: 20 July, 2007
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

NOW that parliamentary recess is upon us, we finally have time after a very busy few months to take stock – a fairly formidable task. Everything seems (and I suppose is) different. This manifests itself on many levels.

The corridor outside my office is a case in point. When I was on the first floor, pre-election, there were only 27 SNP MSPs so you got to know the faces that passed along; you knew roughly what views you’d get from various windows. In a way, you were settled.

Post-election, that has changed – not least because there are now 47 SNP MSPs. That means new faces along the corridor – new corridor, as it happens. Having an office on the fourth floor also means new views, a new neighbour (my previous one, Jim Mather, now residing in the Ministerial tower), more light and less pigeon droppings on the window!

There is a change in the country, too – a new way of doing things; an acceptance to look at things differently. It is the same landscape but the light has changed, revealing parts of the country that previously blended into the background.

Word reaches me that Alex Salmond is in Brussels saying that Scotland should lead the delegation on fish quotas. As he points out, 70 per cent of the UK catch is caught in Scottish waters. Flanders leads for Belgium but, as it stands, Westminster leads for Scotland whilst our delegation is sidelined.

This request, I am reliably informed by sections of the media, is Alex Salmond picking a fight with Westminster. It seems to me the First Minister is standing up for the best possible deal for an industry vital to the lives of many of the people he represents.

The 25-year rule revealed that Edward Heath said fishing was expendable and could be used as a bargaining chip in negotiations during the entry process to the EEC. Some of our fishermen may presume that the policy has not changed drastically in the past few years.

Picking a fight or standing up for people and livelihoods? I suppose it depends on which way you look at it.


WHEN I was asked recently if the SNP supported a land tax, I said not immediately. It’s my view, however, that an appropriate long-term solution to stabilising or increasing the local component of local taxes in Scotland has to revisit land values as opposed to property values.

That said, the minority SNP government will have to build a majority for each change, so the initial scrapping of the unfair council tax and its replacement with a local income tax would seem most likely. Given Lib Dem support, it would be a good start to meet a popular priority across Scotland.

Also a proposed Common Good Bill by the Lib Dems would find common ground with the SNP, who want community councils to gain more powers.

Meanwhile, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment, Richard Lochhead, will inherit a pledge from the last administration to review the Land Reform Act. This could build on a Labour manifesto commitment to extend the community right to buy into more urban areas. There may be room to include a scoping exercise that extracts the LVT component of the Burt report to give it closer scrutiny.

Communities have suffered from a far-from-simple process which includes more ministerial discretion but a straitjacket for the applicants. Also the abolition of the Scottish Land Fund has not helped. Changing criteria for applicants have frustrated many would-be community initiatives. The Big Lottery Fund is not a happy home for potential land purchasers, as the Labour Chancellor sucks every penny of Lottery cash to pay for the London Olympics whose spiralling costs dwarf land price inflation itself.

Building consensus in the parliament of minorities should be possible by taking forward the Crown Estate Commission review authored by Robin Callander. It was endorsed by all local authorities in the Highlands and Islands as well as prominent Labour and Lib Dem MSPs who sat in the last session. The SNP has long sought to remove the “tax” on development that the Crown Estate levies on ports and offshore electricity transmission.

Also, Members’ Bills such as my own proposals for succession law reform could be early instalments in a new round of land reform for Scotland.

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