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.

Friday, 11 May 2007

Lessons must be learned after voting fiasco

Published: 11 May, 2007
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

THANKS to a swelling band of you, dear readers, the massively improved SNP vote in the Far North has sent me to Holyrood to serve you for the next four years. It is a privilege in our proportional system to be returned.

After a marathon count first for the constituency, then for the council seats, finally, at around 5.30pm on Friday – some 18 hours afters the polls closed – the Highlands and Islands total was collated to complete the list placings for the nation.

It was a huge relief for tired candidates and officials, but one postponed for a very long half-hour by the most bizarre malfunction of a polling system that had produced many long-predicted problems to plague this year's vote.

The arithmetic of the list votes under the de Hondt system should surely be on a computer program, you would think. But it seems not, for the candidates gathered were presented by the returning officer, Highland Council chief executive Arthur McCourt, with an unbelievable result that gave Lab-our four seats, the Tories two and my partner Eleanor Scott of the Greens a return berth. All present were incredulous, so we asked to see the workings on paper.

My colleague Dave Thompson, an arithmetic prize-winner at school, soon spotted the mistake at the first division that threw out the whole calculation.

After more pencil and paper work, the final figures on the list were three Labour (they had lost their last Highlands and Islands constituency seat), two Tories (they haven't won a seat in this region for many years), and two SNP – myself and my arithmetically acute friend Dave, which the huge SNP list vote indicated.

Lessons must be learned quickly to restore trust in the poll organisers. Surely the basic jobs expected of returning officers should not end with an A4 sheet and peering at eight-point type after most people had little more than three hours' sleep in the previous 48. The implications of a wrong announcement could have led to a court case. They would have denied the SNP its victory over New Labour for days or weeks to come. The momentum of building a new government would have been stalled.

So voters here and across Scotland need answers. Also there were 759 spoilt papers in the Far North list poll. There is a major grievance with the Scotland Office in London and the Lib/Lab Scottish Executive in Edinburgh who allowed big changes in voting procedure to be so shoddily laid out and rearranged. They put in place the national contract for producing and distributing postal ballot papers that left many disenfranchised.

I chased the authorities in some individual cases and have drawn my own interim conclusion that the time allowed to publish the parties contesting the poll and the production and distribution of the papers was far too tight. But it's a lesson that even folk who have had postal votes for many years suffered as much as holiday-goers applying at the last moment.

The Scotland Office minister in London, Douglas Alexander, at whose door this chaos lies, was seen at House of Commons Scottish Questions on TV to blame anyone else he could for the fiasco.

Therefore I wholeheartedly agree with a letter-writer in The Herald this week who pointed out that Mr Alexander was "the same chap who was touring the country telling us we could not manage our own affairs".


SINCE the outcome of the historic poll which defeated Scottish Labour for the first time in 50 years, Alex Salmond has been seeking partners and support to form the next government. Whilst we were sworn in two days ago, the Unionist parties are each in turn standing aside from acceptance of the results.

It seems their lack of support for an Alex Salmond-led government would seek to deny the solution to many bread-and-butter issues that we heard Messrs McConnell, Stephen and Miss Goldie trumpet in the whole campaign. Instead the excuse is that the key SNP policy of a referendum in 2010 on Scotland's independence is far more important.

As I campaigned across Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross I found many who want an SNP government to act now on domestic matters and who well understand that the merits of independence could be debated in 2010. What they wanted now was an end to the hated council tax and the liberation of small businesses from swingeing rates, along with action on unfair fuel prices and the wilful neglect of transport, housing and low pay. Uncertainties were commonplace about cash needed for Dounreay decommissioning and the importance of keeping its skilled workers gainfully employed in the North. Folk were saying we need a strong steer from a Scottish government that cares for the area because the DTI in London clearly could not care less.

In short, people vote in elections to seek solutions to pressing issues. As the biggest party chosen by Scottish electors on May 3, 2007, the SNP is committed to tackling these tasks with imagination and fresh ideas. It will be a positive benefit to North voters that so many have told me they want so badly.