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.

Friday, 6 July 2007

Our minority government has the wind in its sails

Published: 06 July, 2007
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

WHAT a six weeks it's been since the Scottish elections produced a slim SNP victory at Holyrood.

Minority government is a rare experience, but exhilarating announcements were made that will be followed by legislation. Session three was then marked by the formal opening by the Queen of Scots, ably introduced by our new Presiding Officer Alex Fergusson and replied to in style by First Minister Alex Salmond.

A breath of fresh air has passed through the corridors of devolved power in Edinburgh, and the celebrations on the Royal Mile and at the picnic and entertainment on the green spaces outside the Parliament were a popular success, even if the latter acts last Saturday afternoon played in the prevailing rain that has so marred this June.

Later that evening MSPs and invited guests were privileged to attend a special performance of the award-winning production of Black Watch. It was a masterstroke by the First Minister to secure sponsorship and provide performances for Black Watch families and finally for MSPs for a play that is being adapted for performance in North America.

I can think of no more symbolic statement that the health of our culture is at the heart of Scotland's new government policy. It is a searing indictment of policies that have destroyed so many Iraqis and hundreds of our forces sent in to create stability. Vicky Featherstone, the artistic director and chief executive of the National Theatre of Scotland, rose to the challenge and relished the chance to mount these special performances at relatively short notice. She rightly denied the charge by one arts journalist that a Parliament "command performance" was inappropriate.

I chatted with Vicky and some of the cast to add my congratulations after the show, and we recalled meeting at the first performance of Home which the National Theatre staged in the former Caithness Glass factory early last year. Under the watchful eye of our new Culture Minister Linda Fabiani there are widespread hopes of seeing many more innovative moves to celebrate the arts across Scotland. In an answer to me at the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture meeting last week she assured me that local centres of excellence in drama and theatre are very much a part of her plans.


TRANSPORT, shipping and the conservation of the waters around our shores were controversial debates before this summer recess. I spoke in support of an all-Scotland transport strategy that ensured rail and road improvements in our neck of the woods. Although Highland Lib Dem, Labour and Tory MSPs supported the profligate Edinburgh Airport Rail Link and Edinburgh trams scheme, I have a hunch that EARL just won't come about and we can get the cash saved to invest in North transport needs.

Also I heard the Transport Minister Stewart Stevenson declare he was about to review the submissions of HITRANS and other regional transport partnerships. I guess he will greet their contribution as a wish-list and not a strategy. So watch this space when he gets to the Far North to see for himself.

On the threat of ship-to-ship crude oil transfers in the Firth of Forth, there was unanimity. But why had the previous Executive failed to get London engaged over the past two years? At least there will be no nasty surprises from Forth Ports Authority over the summer as we have now voted for an order to call in any such plan. This does not reflect badly on ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore transfers of oil at Sullom Voe, Scapa Flow or Nigg, as these have been conducted safely for many years in sheltered waters.

Hopefully a Marine Act for Scotland will pass through Holyrood later in this session, but it has to rationalise 85 Acts from Westminster so it would not immediately solve the Forth Ports issue. But it begs the question how interested the new Brown Government in London will be in removing our immediate fears by amending the Merchant Shipping Acts.


FLOTILLAS in the past have too often meant the massing of warships. Last week, however, the Moray Firth Flotilla was a peaceful triumph in the calendar of 2007 celebrating Scotland's Year of Highland Culture. Wick's HarbourFest was a huge crowd-puller, as was each leg of the voyage to Portsoy.

I caught up with the show at Helmsdale at the ceilidh after the arrivals of the day had taken to the floor. My storytelling friend Ian Stephen, aboard An Sulaire, the open fishing yawl from Port of Ness in Lewis, was in fine form as he had been in Lybster, spinning yarns for local schoolchildren earlier that day.

I'm sure the spirits of many more were raised in every port of call. Huge congratulations to the Caithness Courier for the pages of pictures and reports of the HarbourFest.

That reminds me how well newspapers in Brittany, our holiday destination – reached by road and ferry, I would add – cover local music events and huge boating festivals, and I look forward to such in-depth coverage becoming more normal in our papers. The refurbished fishing craft made a fine sight and this reminds us of what a draw sailing the Scottish coast is for yachtspeople today. Scandinavian and Dutch boats sail more and more often to our small harbours. It's a great way to welcome overseas visitors.

Such peaceful seafarers spend more, stay longer, and don't get caught up in the chaos of air travel. Alas, so many of our own folk heading off in the school holidays are booked to fly abroad and this weekend showed us how al-Qa'ida terrorism knows no boundaries in targeting London and Glasgow. Let's be pleased our Scottish Government is part of the wider security net, but let us also work harder for co-operation to establish the modern rule of international law. A revitalised United Nations is needed where the SNP wants Scotland to take its place among the nations. Meanwhile, I hope Gordon Brown's new Government will take a change of tack from being world policeman to champion of a stronger UN.