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.

* * *

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.

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