Friday, 29 February 2008

Serious rethink is needed on boundary rules

By Rob Gibson MSP
Published: 29 February, 2008
John O'Groat Journal
in association with the Caithness Courier

EVERY time the Boundary Commission try to do their job, a common reaction is to say: what do "X" and "Y" have in common for our MP/MSP/councillor to represent?

I'm sure when Caithness and Sutherland first sent a joint MP to London the same criticism surfaced.

After the fiasco of the spoilt ballot papers last May, our SNP Government and many others in Holyrood think Scottish elections should be run from Edinburgh. As for the Boundary Commission, they try to even up the numbers of voters each member serves. So the resultant boundaries can be bizarre. In the Highlands the main effect has been to partition Ross-shire at each review. I well remember Ardgay and Inveroykel being in Ross and Cromarty. Wonder when these two counties were combined?

Caithness is fairly self-contained, but population change and various constitutional amendments alter the constituencies. A change of voting system could also lead to a bigger multi-member seat. Any account that may be taken in a future Scotland of distance and scattered communities would regularise the representation of island groups like Orkney and super-sparsity such as in Sutherland and Wester Ross.

Meanwhile, we are stuck with places over 100 miles apart having the same elected representative. While the Black Isle may be on or close to the A9, surely we should have a serious rethink of duties allocated to the boundary commissioners. You can have your say by writing to or Boundary Commission for Scotland, 3 Drumsheugh Gardens, Edinburgh EH3 7QJ, before March 14.

For my part I hope we remember that every Scottish constituency has eight members, one local and seven others for the region, many of whom will be local to some part of their patch. While Black Islers may be closer to Inverness than people in the Far North, we are all users of services in Inverness. Some may still shop in Dingwall or sell cattle there, but where does Durness do its shopping? Thurso or Inverness? So community of interest has to become a future measure boundary commissioners should be made to ponder. A Scottish set of rules, made in Scotland, should be our next demand.

Anyway, no matter what shape of the constituency, its name would be better as "Caithness, Sutherland, Easter Ross and the Black Isle". Anything is better than "North Highland".

THE Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) gave Scottish rural life several gold stars in a major survey made public last week. Rural Scotland has higher employment and lower unemployment than our cities, but more "remote" areas still suffer out-migration of the young and talented, poor levels of business start-ups and a lack of modern services.

While Caithness and north Sutherland may have a huge skills base fit for new marine energy challenges, we still need to find quality desk jobs, such as those in public agencies, to balance job prospects – and we most certainly need a modern railway to the Far North, better ferry links and road improvements for safety reasons.

The OECD report noted deep social and economic divides in town and country alike, but advantages of clean energy production following on from the northerly location of oil production, the broadband revolution and flight from the cities are key advantages for us. These do foster local entrepreneurs, but inflexible planning hampers affordable house-building if young and active families are to be welcomed back.

There are many key opportunities where we live that were not widely recognised even twenty years ago. But, thanks to Highlands and Islands Enterprise having its inherited social remit, cultural and community development has been far more advanced than in the bulk of Scotland looked after by Scottish Enterprise.

A week ago in the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee we took evidence from national companies such as Scottish Opera and local organisations like HI-Arts.

The rich mix of musical, theatrical and visual arts is rooted in many communities. Of course, it could be built up. However, a growing and better-paid population will make this easier to achieve.

Undoubtedly the Highlands is moving in a positive direction culturally, a clear sign that the OECD report is a good pointer to our potential.

PRESS coverage of our clean-power potential hit a jarring note this week. Graphic statistics show the gap between Scottish Government targets and what is actually being achieved, and raise fundamental questions about the poor grasp of the issues involved by Westminster.

For instance, Germany has ten times more wind power installed than the UK. This at a time when the UK has signed up to Kyoto and the new EU generation target for green power.

On the occasion of a major conference in Aberdeen, my MEP colleague Alyn Smith has sought the urgent publication of a Scottish energy strategy to bridge the gulf between UK rhetoric and the huge potential here in the Far North.

I have to add that the new concordat between Scottish and local governments should include a regular audit of progress to implement the spirit and letter of SPP6, the Government guidelines for renewable features in all new buildings, and in adopting a detailed renewables policy. I note in passing that the Highland Council has not adopted such an approach, according to Friends of the Earth.

For sure, the excellent conference on the potential of marine energy in the Pentland Firth held on Scottish budget day earlier this month needs Jim Mather, our Energy Minister, to get a national Scottish sustainable energy policy in place soon.

It is very much in my mind as I join colleagues on the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee in visiting London and Brussels this week, seeking common cause on tackling climate chaos. I will report back to you, dear readers, in my next Holyrood Diary.

Friday, 15 February 2008

Serial scaremongering over budget proposals

By Rob Gibson MSP
Published: 15 February, 2008
John O'Groat Journal
in association with the Caithness Courier

OPPOSITION to the SNP national budget was seen off in truly spectacular style last Wednesday.

From the SNP benches we witnessed the final abstention of Labour and Lib Dem MSPs. This showed how negative the role of Labour and Lib Dem MSPs had been in the whole budget process whose rules they drew up themselves eight years ago. The Labour proposition was to seek changes to one per cent of the total amount, then propose a reasoned amendment on skills training and apprenticeships. After having it accepted by John Swinney, then to subsequently abstain from the final vote on the whole 100 per cent was as farcical a stance as I have witnessed in many years of politics. I am told Wendy Alexander was asking how to vote from another frontbencher, so cloudy were the tactics.

As for the Lib Dems, what a cheek they displayed in describing the budget as too opaque to amend in the finance committee. They were the inventors of opaque and thus ruled themselves out as a serious player.

The upshot is that around the country small businesses, councils and the general public see an SNP Government start to change the culture of administration which includes a historic concordat with local government, frozen council taxes, a small-business bonus, adding 500 extra police to the 500 already promised and increased funding in all departments on a modest scale.

Now let us turn to this week's Highland shenanigans. The news headlines are full of serial scaremongering by opposition MSPs and councillors. We are told that teachers will lose their posts, voluntary services will be slashed, learning centres will definitely close. The likes of Jamie Stone and Rhoda Grant have turned the debate on the budget proposals of the Highland Council's independent/SNP administration into a competition to see who can raise more fears about services among as many sections of the voters as possible. Don't ask for detailed explanations from them, headlines sound better than facts – and anyway, they just want to sound off. But foghorns won't deliver the services. That will come via proper accountability, audited behaviour and service level agreements for voluntary groups in receipt of local government support.

This week, after months of attacking the local government deal, Andy Kerr, speaking on BBC Radio Scotland, has finally broken ranks with Labour in Parliament and backed the council tax freeze. He actually might recognise the most generous spending settlement ever from a Scottish Government for Scotland's local authorities at a time when the Scottish Government has received its least generous settlement from Andy Kerr's Westminster colleagues.

Over the next three years councils will see their funding increase by 12.5 per cent and over the next few days we will see councils across the country taking that opportunity to introduce a council tax freeze. As Pat Watters, president of COSLA, said on Wednesday morning, in order to match the level of funding on offer from the Scottish Government councils would have to increase council tax by 3.5 per cent.

That was part of my argument in another recent Parliamentary debate. The extra costs of the Public/Private Partnership schemes for new schools and hospitals are quite unnecessary because the SNP is to launch a Fund for Future Investment to cut profiteering by the private sector and save public money. Compared with conventional borrowing, we have lost £2.1 billion in additional PPP costs in four years. What could local services do with that?

We need a pause for reflection. In the wake of the SNP budget, what we are witnessing is a new way of thinking. Taking stock of wasteful practices is well understood by local councils across the country who will bring in the council tax freeze. Every department will look closely at finding two per cent efficiency savings. By the way, that's below the amount of savings demanded in England by a Labour Government there.

Rob Gibson MSP visited the threatened Pulteneytown PO to assure staff of his support for the fight to retain the office, which he sees as a vital community resource.

DEVOLUTION – is it a process or an event? That is very much in focus this week. It is, of course, closely linked to the recent budget victory for the SNP and its supporters. We were told that Gordon Brown did not consider the idea of a devolution review to be the province of Wendy Alexander, the Tories and Lib Dems in Holyrood, and certainly not the SNP. He would dictate its scope and range. Any increased powers, especially tax powers, for the Scottish Government are ruled out by London. Scottish Labour soon responded. Wendy's spokesperson told London ministers they were "out of step" with Labour in Scotland.

Commentators have noted that the Unionist vehicle for constitutional debate would come off the road unless the subject of tax was openly discussed. Yet Scottish Office minister David Cairns MP then argued that fiscal powers were off limits.

Meanwhile, the SNP Government's National Conversation is to move on to more specific proposals. Alex Salmond announced this in Dublin ahead of the British-Irish ministerial meeting.

The threatened 2p increase in fuel prices due in April will cripple north hauliers and Scottish businesses of all sizes who need variation in Corporation Tax up here. These moves are anathema to Gordon Brown and his Chancellor Alistair Darling because they are seeing Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff governments probing for new ways to build their economies, while Brown faces losing control of more and more strings of central government. As a control freak he just hates that. But, as the pattern of getting more and more local flexibility for Scottish councils shows, it's a process that cannot be stopped.

The Scottish Parliament took the first major steps last week; the Highland Council is likely to do so this week. It's good for taxpayers and it's time we harnessed our huge resources to build Scotland and not pay for any more London mismanagement. You only need to look at the sorry saga of the destruction of our post offices to know Scottish control will be a lot more sensitive to community needs.

Friday, 1 February 2008

Too many examples of climate chaos to ignore

By Rob Gibson MSP
Published: 01 February, 2008
John O'Groat Journal
in association with the Caithness Courier

ALL over Scotland residents, businesses and public bodies are being urged by the SNP Government to decide what they can do to help our nation achieve ambitious plans to tackle climate change.

This week my colleague John Swinney, Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth, announced that he was launching a consultation on Scotland's first Climate Change Bill that includes the proposal for a statutory target to reduce Scottish emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.

As I wrote in my Holyrood Diary on January 4, I have been deciding how my own home can be climate-proofed. So, along with many of you, I will be delving into the government proposals that include robust annual scrutiny and reporting of progress; a framework of carbon budgets for Scottish emissions; and the publication of transparent and independent advice on when, and to what level, cuts in emissions should be made by us all.

John Swinney said: "Climate change is having a major impact on the world we live in. As a society we are at a crossroads, and we must now choose which world we will pass on to our children."

The Scottish Government is determined to play a leading role in action on climate change. Indeed actions taken today could bring clear and tangible benefits to Scotland now and in the future.

How will we go about moving to a low-carbon economy? Can we really create new jobs and improve local environments as part of our drive to generate sustainable economic growth?

I hope that you, dear readers, will agree that government, business and all of the people of Scotland must be ready to rise to the challenge of climate change. Your views on these proposals are crucial to ensure that we have the right framework to inform our actions for the next 40 years and that we build the right future for Scots to enjoy.

As a member of the Parliament's Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee I will be finding ways to make these ideas work. But I am conscious that people still say: how can my little effort help? That's why this is the most exciting time to be in politics. Scotland is moving towards greater decision-taking powers and we are asking all who live in our beautiful land to commit their actions to ensure it has a bright future.

Already pressure groups such as Stop Climate Chaos have welcomed this landmark bill. Their spokesperson Jess Pepper, of WWF, has agreed that it is a great opportunity for Scotland to become a world leader in tackling climate change.

More than 30 of Scotland's most respected organisations campaigning on climate change have greeted it with enthusiasm. They agree that the consultation is a good start and are encouraged by the Scottish Government's acknowledgement of the two degrees Celsius global-warming danger threshold and the need for policy to reflect the most recent science.

But they warn us that to meet overall targets it is essential that there is a commitment to annual reductions of at least three per cent per year. Without it, the SNP manifesto commitment can't be met. Stop Climate Chaos wants emissions from international aviation included in the SNP targets, a subject that will be hotly debated. But it is correct to see this as vital so that the Scottish Climate Change Bill is seen in a global context.

TV pictures from the Pacific and Indian oceans show low-lying islands in danger of succumbing to rising tides and changing weather patterns. This surely must lead all of us in Scotland to acknowledge that poor people around the world are already feeling the real impact of climate change, as atolls we thought were idyllic holiday destinations actually face an increased risk of disasters threatening the very lives of their inhabitants.

There are too many examples of climate chaos to ignore. You can imagine how frustrated I felt when Newsnight Scotland last week focused on a saga in Bearsden where Lib Dem councillors wanted to have bin collections every second week and Tory councillors routed them at the polls last May. The piece signally failed to show any hint of a change in behaviour that people have to make in something as simple as regulating what you put in your bins and when.

If you look at the Scottish Government website it shows 10 simple ways to reduce climate-change impacts right away. But be prepared – much more will be needed each year from all of us.

THIS week's debate on the importance of Scottish history in our school curriculum was a landmark event. Only three years ago the then Labour Minister was suggesting that any history taught could be covered in Secondary 1 and 2 as part of social subjects, not as a discrete and central part of every child's experience. Shamefully, some schools around Glasgow had already ditched the subject totally from the curriculum.

Today, Learning and Teaching Scotland, HM Inspectorate of Education, the Scottish Qualifications Authority, academics and the main teaching union the EIS all show willing to make history an experience throughout pupils' school careers.

We all want to emphasise that Scottish history delivered through local examples is needed before young people can appreciate the world around them. It's about successful learning, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors as the Curriculum for Excellence insists.

I was proud to take part in the debate and look forward to fighting for enough resources for our schools to deliver a broad sweep of history rooted in our own country but outward-looking as ever.