Friday, 31 August 2007

Councillors must join forces to demand real powers

Published: 31 August, 2007
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Couier

TAKING stock of the first hundred days since our new SNP government was elected shows a whole raft of demands from all the parties in Holyrood for more powers for our young Scottish Parliament.

But before I look at some of the pointers to exciting things to come, I'd like to turn to see what the Highland Council, elected by the Single Transferable Vote in multi-member wards, has been doing in the same timescale.

The council was radically restructured under the outgoing chief executive, Arthur McCourt. He took advantage of the voting-system changes to abolish area committees such as those for Caithness and run services for Easter Ross, Sutherland and Caithness from the expensively converted buildings at Golspie.

Additionally the appointment of ward managers was a way to give some focus to the three electoral areas, Wick, Thurso and Landward Caithness. They have yet to show any input to improve services, but it's early days yet. To my way of thinking, the wards could be a really powerful local delivery mechanism. But Mr McCourt had other ideas. So we see more and more decisions requiring the councillors to meet in Inverness and to suck more powers away from the already weakened areas. I predict that it will take a concerted campaign by ward councillors to demand real powers.

Meanwhile, the feeling that the independent/SNP coalition is slowly finding its feet is tempered with the knowledge that to achieve any transfer of budgets and powers for local areas in former counties like Caithness will require an all-Highland effort. I suggest that folk from Lochaber and Nairn, Skye and Ross-shire feel the same. So my advice to our own Far North councillors is to seek allies for a rethink to demand that powers be returned to the local wards.

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EARLIER this week the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee met in an away-day in Dunkeld to plan for this new parliamentary session. Our business programme for the next few months confirms that in its first hundred days the new SNP government has stamped a distinctive and popular agenda that will affect every part of the country. We could see that clearly in the transport field.

On its record of the first 100 days, Cabinet Secretary John Swinney reported that swift and early action has been taken in government to deliver the SNP programme to make Scotland more successful. Among the full range of measures are commitments to remove the iniquitous tolls on the Forth and Tay bridges and to set a target of cutting greenhouse-gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. A Climate Change Bill consultation will take this forward.

These items were in our discussions at Dunkeld with the minister Stewart Stevenson. But we also realise that better rail, ferry and bus services are essential if climate-change objectives are to be met in the North and all other parts. So there's an expectation of weekly and possibly twice-weekly committee meetings for the foreseeable future. That means or Tuesday afternoon slots in Holyrood could start earlier and go on later such is the volume of business.

What has been gained for Caithness? Well, if we reckon that tolls are a penalty on Fife and Angus, then steep ferry fares are a toll on our islands, for example the Orkney to Caithness services. So the logic of introducing road equivalent tariff leads to the need for Westminster to make diesel and petrol prices the same in Dunnet or Dundee and that the whole economy should benefit from reduced transport costs for delivering livestock, grain, whisky or manufactured goods to market from the North and tourists to the Highlands.

Direct benefits for Caithness from the new SNP government include the promise of legislation to end graduate endowments; funding for 300 extra teachers and 250 more teacher training places from this month, to drive down class sizes in P1 to 3; and a commitment to providing additional funding for a phased 50 per cent increase in free nursery provision.

On the crime front, ongoing negotiations are taking place with Westminster on the transfer of responsibilities for firearms legislation to the Scottish Parliament to allow action on air weapons – though it seems Westminster is not yet ready to let us get ahead with this.

A Saltire Award for innovation in industry will reward the best efforts to develop cutting-edge renewable energy technology such as tidal and wave power. That could let Caithness compete in the renewables field; the Highland Council will have to join the big businesses of Caithness such as UKAEA to ensure that our huge engineering facilities and skills are built into a strong local base.

But above all the publication of a white paper on independence and the launch of a national conversation on the steady transfer of more powers from Westminster to Holyrood has induced the opposition parties to agree in part. Labour, Tories and Lib Dems all agree, and have met to plot their stance, that the status quo of limited powers enjoyed by Holyrood today does not meet Scotland's needs. Clearly the public is enthused too, as 25,000 people have already logged on to the Scottish government website to join in. I will be holding meetings to debate issues here in the autumn.

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MANY aspects of culture in the Highlands are thriving and the Blas festival next week will show how our traditional music is cutting edge. On the other committee that I attend, Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture, we need to get over the message that the international festivals, such as those drawing to a close in Edinburgh, should give a platform to North artists. Having just returned from a book festival for island literature in Brittany where Scottish islands' authors were being celebrated, I just wonder when they will gain such recognition from festivals in our own main cities.

Friday, 17 August 2007

A positive agenda to transform Scotland

Published: 17 August, 2007
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

MOST people agree that the SNP Government led by Alex Salmond has set a very positive agenda in its first hundred days. Every part of the country has something to gain. Even the crises of a failed terror attack in Glasgow or the foot-and-mouth outbreak in Surrey have been handled skilfully.

But it's the proposals to transform Scotland that really stand out. However, I'll offer a few thoughts firstly on the effects of the FMD issue.

The Pirbright research complex in Surrey seems to have led to the contamination of farm animals three miles away. No doubt a careful inquiry will pin the cause and advise precautions for the future. Meanwhile, livestock businesses in Scotland and the rest of England and Wales take the hit. As I've said before in Parliament, farming and crofting may contribute only around two per cent of our gross domestic product, but without them nothing else can happen – unless we go completely mad and rely totally on imports and the poorer standards of food this offers.

That's why Richard Lochhead, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment, has consulted widely with all parts of the livestock industry and has made sure Scottish interests, needs and concerns are conveyed directly to GB ministers. Since Britain is one epidemiological unit in exotic disease terms, this needs careful handling so as not to disadvantage Scotland which relies far more heavily on farm incomes than down south. That's why Richard Lochhead has gained praise for his speedy, but measured, orders to free up movements to abattoirs and on the islands to keep the food chain on track from farm gate to the customer's plate.

We shall see what happens as the facts emerge on the FMD outbreak but the SNP Government will try to protect those businesses, especially in the North, whose annual pay cheques look distinctly hard hit by these faraway events such that the huge crop of small lambs are now excluded from the continental market. I have been discussing the way forward with farmers and crofters around the North and I'm sure that the previous experience gained by Richard and myself on the Environment and Rural Development Committee in Holyrood in the aftermath of the 2001 outbreak of FMD will stand us in good stead.


A BROAD range of opinion has welcomed the First Minister's announcement that broadcasting in Scotland needs a shake-up and cash support to make many more programmes here. In particular, a news-gathering operation in Glasgow working with the BBC's worldwide network could easily produce a Scottish Six – an hour of Scottish-centred but not parochial news coverage.

Such a broadcasting luminary as Alan Clements, a principal of Wark Clements and recently appointed director of content for SMG, or STV to you and me, sees the need to have Scottish political clout to dispel the myth that there is no talent here to make more programmes for the UK TV network. He knows that talent abounds in Scotland if funds can be channelled here as the three per cent current share of BBC funding alone should be nine per cent on a population basis. I did some work recently for an STV commission to cover the Highland Clearances and I can think of many Scottish subjects that have been ignored for far too long.

I was intrigued by the remarks of Philip Schlesinger, professor of cultural policy at Glasgow University, when he compared the content of the BBC's Six O'Clock News and Reporting Scotland. There is often overlap and double reporting. As for the weather forecast, he suggests turning the weather map upside down to see how the UK audience takes to seeing the North of Scotland being given proper information. Each programme can have off days but there is little reason why the increasing importance of the Scottish Government and Parliament in our lives should be sandwiched between human-interest stories and the football and almost ignored on London-based output. I believe Alex Salmond's 10 Scottish Broadcasting Commission members led by Blair Jenkins have a really positive brief to meet the needs of every part of Scotland and suggest opportunities for more control of TV output in Scotland to educate, entertain and build national confidence without robbing any viewers of their favourite programmes.


THIS week saw the launch of a national conversation on Scotland's future status and the SNP Government's ideas about the benefits of independence. It has predictably met with united Unionist party opposition to any debate. So that's why the SNP Government, which has been given unprecedented polling support for its actions so far, wants to ask people across the land what they see as the main ways we can make Scotland happier, healthier, more productive, and greener. We need to discuss how to achieve the specifics that people want us to achieve.

I will be conducting my own discussions through a series of meetings in the autumn to seek advice and hear voters' views, and I'm glad that I'll be chairing a workshop at the Caithness Partnership conference in mid-September. So I am also delighted that Jim Mather, Minister for Enterprise, Energy and Tourism, was here in the county this week to kick off discussions on the way ahead with Dounreay stakeholders and HIE Caithness and Sutherland.

I know that Jim has his own style of analysis that seeks common agreement and common ownership over the biggest things that can make a real difference to our lives. We need to guarantee secure, steady funding for decommissioning and a smooth transition of highly-skilled work into global decommissioning based here and in marine renewables associated with the Pentland Firth. It is clear to me that Caithness's future needs, and similar ones across Scotland, all point to the kinds of issues that Alex Salmond wants in the national conversation on Scotland's constitutional future. I'd be very pleased to hear from Groat readers what they see as the big changes that will secure our future.

Friday, 3 August 2007

Greeted by the familiar skirl of the pipes in Brittany

Photo: The Scots Guards Association Pipe Band marching to Halkirk Highland Games on Saturday, led by games chieftan John Thurso

Published: 03 August, 2007
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

THE sound of bagpipes reaches many ears each summer as pipe bands parade through our streets, at Highland gatherings and in the cut-throat competition that leads to the world finals in mid-August. During our holiday in Brittany similar sounds were in abundance.

Festivals fill summer days in most countries, but few can be so influenced by Scottish musical instruments than the import of our bagpipes to Brittany. These sunny Celts, at least in most years compared to home in the North of Scotland, lost so much of their local culture, under pressure from a monolingual French state, even before the disasters of World War Two. Against the background of repression after 1945, Breton culture was saved by the creation of pipe bands. They differ from our Highland bagpipes and drums by adding the bombard, an ancient Breton oboe with a piercing timbre that used to be played along with high-pitched Breton small pipes by pairs of players for weddings and other social gatherings.

Today the pitch and power of our Highland pipes is a great match for the bombard and allows large groups of players in each generation to revel in the old Breton tunes. They can't directly compete with Scottish bands and their freer style is far less militaristic. But along with a 2000-strong audience at the Festival de Cornouaille, in Quimper, I heard a most inspiring collaboration between the Bagad Kemper and the Clan Gregor Society Scottish (Grade One) Pipe Band produce "Scotland in Cornouaille". Add to their playing of Breton and island tunes the king of pipers, Fred Morrison, and young Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis, and we all shared a five-star evening under a huge tent.

Fast forward, seamlessly, to Halkirk last Saturday to hear the Scots Guards Association Pipe Band parading between heavy showers on the games field, while in Inverness the massed bands on the same day at the Bught Park for the European Championships where over 4500 players in 130 bands mesmerized the audience. For me one fine band at a time seems more digestible. Nevertheless, devotees of the piping world have never been so well provided for. It seems from the entry lists in the big competitions that every country wants to have a winning band. Well done to the generations of social and military pipers from Scotland who have achieved such a worldwide following for our native music.

DEMAND for our native foods is also on the rise. Ackergill provided a fitting venue this week for the Taste of Caithness and Sutherland event that gave a platform for 25 local producers with their range of premium local produce including meat, organic eggs, fish to oysters, honey to chocolate, cheese to Highland oatcakes – all produced in the North Highlands.

Undoubtedly it is time to promote more vigorously the produce of Caithness and Sutherland – as HIE chairman Willie Roe said – which would allow a much wider circle of discerning customers to taste its natural goodness. Visitors, supermarket chains and restaurant buyers came to sample the tasty exhibits but how many local residents will ever have daily access to such bounty? If, as HIE says, agriculture remains one of the main economic drivers in the North of Scotland and Taste of Caithness and Sutherland shows that we produce the highest quality, then the big push has to come through attracting as many locals to buy. A good initiative is the Gates Open project organised by the Highlands and Islands Local Food Network for September and October. Although Food for Thought, of Spittal, is the only Caithness entry in this first year, I hope many more of the fine producers represented at Ackergill will be prepared to join the farmers and growers across the Highlands to celebrate the best in local food. As many of you go on a regular basis to shop in Inverness there are plenty of Gates Open events near there. It could be extra fun for the family. Log on to to find out more.

The Scots Guards Association Pipe Band marching to Halkirk Highland Games on Saturday, led by games chieftan John Thurso. Robert MacDonald 01955 602741

I'm a co-convener of the Cross Party Group on Food in Holyrood and I can tell you local food networks get our vote. But since most food is bought in supermarkets then it's up to consumers to seek out quality and home produce to up the range that Tesco, Asda and the rest put on display. In French superstores the range is far greater and fresher in every department, even in smaller local stores, because French consumers have a keener sense of taste linked to price, rather than quantity at cut prices. What an incentive for an even more lively food-producing, job-securing, sector of our own local economy.

MINISTERS journeying to a' the airts is a feature of our long summer days. The environment minister listened to opinions in Wick, the First Minister officially opened the Clearances memorial at Helmsdale, and upgrades on the A9 at the Ord got the transport minister's green light recently. So I do hope the planned Caithness Partnership Conference in the middle of next month can combine optimism with our undoubted skills in engineering and impress with a united voice that Caithness wants to be at the cutting edge of a sustainable Scottish economy. Meanwhile I'll be lobbying the transport minister to see the Berriedale Braes and Far North rail line for himself.