Friday, 28 March 2008

Recording a radio slot in the BBC's Wick studio - small and very remote!

Here I am with my assistant Gail MacDonald (wearing white shirt) in Wick along with members of the Grey Coast Theatre to discuss the Nordic Playwrights' seminar.

Here I'm campaigning with YSI Inverness High St.

Wick High solution needed

Published: 28 March, 2008
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

THE earliest Easter weekend in many decades saw snow and more snow hit the country.

But it goes to show the old caution about when you should plant your tatties, and do other spring-like activities, should be heeded.Winter's grip is slow to release, even though a fortnight ago we basked in the sun on the ferry enquiry visit to Brodick on the bonny Isle of Arran where the snow-capped peaks were a reminder that it'll be a while till spring. Even when Google displays some flowers on its title page to signify the change in the seasons, we know better in the North.

Keeping our homes, schools and offices wind and water tight is a pressing theme in these late winter weeks. Notably I was shocked on my visit by the state of Wick High School as reported in an earlier edition. However I have sought to find a solution, not to make an even bigger drama out of this crisis.

I promised the Wick parents that I would get details of a local bond issue that can be raised by local councils. Already several of these have been achieved in Scotland. They are called Non-Profit Distribution Organisations.

Three projects in Scotland have been developed using the NPDO model. My colleague, the minister for infrastructure Stewart Stevenson MSP, explained to disbelieving Labour members in a statement on March 13, that those projects are in the schools sector in the areas of Argyll and Bute Council, Aberdeen City Council and Falkirk Council. All three have reached financial closure and the model is a method of ensuring that we do not pay the excess interest rates that too many projects with which the previous Scottish Executive has been associated, have paid. The NPDO model is a way of ensuring that the profits that are derived from financing the project are delivered for public benefit. Said Mr Stevenson, "I would have thought that Labour members would welcome that approach."

The three projects outlined in the statement were in relation to school building programmes. The NPDO offers similar advantages and disadvantages to traditional PPP, the difference being there are no shareholders involved. The set-up usually involves one or more charities which benefits from any profit, although the financing is arranged in a way that profit is unlikely.

As a rough guide, £58,000 revenue can service prudential borrowing of £1m (on a 40-year term). The NPDO proposal creates a mechanism to generate funds exclusive of prudential borrowing. In some of the examples developer contributions have been built into the financing arrangements.

I have passed these details to both the Highland Council and the parents to try and rescue Wick High School from years of mismanaged repairs.


SPRING conferences are in season.

This weekend Wendy Alexander will try to paper over the cracks in Scottish Labour as they head for Aviemore. Wendy's parliamentary performance has been woeful. Additionally Henry McLeish, their former First Minister was attacked by party colleagues for saying all options on the constitutional future of Scotland should be discussed – including independence. At the same time left wingers in Labour target Alexander and Brown ahead of the Labour conference as Wendy's "vision" paper exposed the control of Gordon Brown over the Constitutional Commission and the lack of vision within her party.

This is in stark contrast to the Scottish Government's National Conversation gathering all views from across Scotland. What are the Lib Dem and Tory parties thinking now that the unionist convention they signed up to has been watered down to a "review" by Gordon Brown.

Despite what Wendy may say, neither she nor Labour have grasped the fundamental facts of last May. Labour did not just lose the election, Labour lost the support of Scotland. As the latest polls show for both Holyrood and Westminster, Labour support is ebbing away. Scotland has made a positive choice with an SNP Government that moves forward with individuals and organisations across the country taking a very positive interest in the future of Scotland. It is clear the only conversation Labour are having is with themselves.

Unsurprisingly, voters wonder what Westminster is doing. It is the fifth anniversary of the first explosions of shock and awe in the illegal Iraq war. All Ms Alexander can say is that it isn't a real issue. Meanwhile the civilised values of domestic life are being ripped up with fuel prices rocketing in the North, post office closures hitting the poorest communities and the mismanagement of the housing crisis on a massive scale stacking our taxes to shore up Northern Rock. Also we are misrepresented in Europe while Westminster politicians fail to get the best for Scotland from the EU, which is portrayed as the villain of the piece. Meanwhile the real villains sit in power around the cabinet table in Downing Street, London W1. Another case in point is the CalMac ferry tender fiasco. Europe did not insist, just Lib Lab politicians in Edinburgh with no guts to tough it out while Labour in London government couldn't care less.

My own party has chosen to hold our spring conference on April 19 and 20 in the Riccarton campus of Heriot-Watt University near Edinburgh. We will be in a position to review a positive year in Government on which the SNP can build. It's that wave of positive feelings that are flowing through the massive cracks in the unionist parties' negativity that spring from the passage of a fair budget, a council tax freeze and small business bonus which can kick-start the North.

Friday, 21 March 2008

Interviewed by Basque TV, Falcon Sq., Inverness

Friday, 14 March 2008

Europe must set climate change example

By Rob Gibson MSP
Published: 14 March, 2008
John O'Groat Journal
in association with the Caithness Courier

I PROMISED in my last column to report on my visit a fortnight ago to London and Brussels with four other members of the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee.

We were comparing the responses in Westminster, the London Assembly, the European Parliament, the European Commission and NGOs on the challenges to climate change with the ambitious Scottish Government target of 80 per cent reductions in CO2 by 2050.

This was no luxury for the MSPs. While we met MPs in Portcullis House, the House of Lords was debating the UK Climate Change Bill. Though this has not generated headlines, like the obscure tactics played out by the Lib Dems in debates at Westminster on the Lisbon Treaty, it has to mesh with our efforts in Scotland and indeed we have already given legislative consent – a Sewell motion – to tap into some of the UK Climate Change targets and calculations.

Sharing the load between Scotland and London is essential, but no less important is co-operation within Europe to give us any chance of a future that stops the disastrous rise in temperatures that has been triggered by 300 years of industrialisation. If other, less motivated countries are to take the global-warming issue seriously then the nations of Europe have to set the best example.

Certainly we gained much practical detail on our tour and the officers of the London mayor, Ken Livingstone, were top value. They are tackling traffic congestion, energy-saving for domestic and commercial properties and water-conservation measures in the city to combat global warming while seeking more local sources of clean green power. Also they aim for a car-free Olympics in 2012. Meanwhile, they have rolled their sleeves up and set us examples. We have some very different problems; while several hundred Londoners died of heatstroke two years ago, few here did, but we have big numbers of cattle and sheep that produce their own greenhouse gases and the advantage here of being able to produce huge amounts of wave, tidal and wind power.

The Saltire fluttered outside the corner of the ninth-floor boardroom of Scotland House, the base for various Scottish businesses and the Scottish Government's European presence. It overlooks the refurbished iconic Barleymont EU offices in the European quarter of Brussels. Farther away the atrium of the European Parliament could be seen on the skyline. We were gathered in the second-biggest centre of world representatives outside Washington and New York. Where the nations gather, Scotland has to be. So we learned that the EU targets for 2020 include a carbon trading scheme, plans for a 20 per cent increase in energy efficiency, binding increases in all renewable sources of energy across the community to 20 per cent, and carbon capture pilot schemes.

One speaker from the European Commission in our sessions at Scotland House summed up. He said, "Global leadership needs domestic action." That means individuals, families, communities, council areas, nations and world partners are all responsible. That's why the Scottish Parliament is moving to set targets and actions in a Bill to be lodged later this year. Our Scottish TICC committee wants to include many practical steps to adapt and mitigate climate-change effects. Without action now the costs could be huge in future.

Before returning to more local matters, let me just comment on our travel to and from Edinburgh. We went by National Express train to London on the Monday morning, tube and taxis in London (due to tube disruption), the Eurostar to Brussels on the Monday evening, then we left by m├ętro to Brussels Midi station, two local trains to Bruges and Zeebrugge, thence by ferry to Rosyth. There we took parliament contract taxis to get back on time just after First Minister's Questions.

MSPs from the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change committee on board the Superfast ferry leaving Zeebrugge – (from left) David Stewart, Alison McInnes, Rob Gibson, Patrick Harvie (committee convener) and Alex Johnstone.

WICK High School parent council made a powerful presentation on the state of the school fabric last week. I had to go to Oban that night for a full TICC hearing on our ferries inquiry. In offering my apologies to the parent council I promised to meet them this week. Little did I think that Labour MSP Peter Peacock, the former council convener who subsequently became Education Minister until 2006, would have the temerity to demand speedy action to solve Wick's problems. His oral question last Thursday was met by a predictable ministerial response from my colleague Maureen Watt MSP.

Then we learned at the weekend about Alpha Schools (Highland) Limited, a British-registered company and liable for UK tax, that built and refurbished 11 of our schools for a cool £134 million. But one of the firms with a 50 per cent equity stake in Alpha is 3i Infrastructure Ltd, a Jersey-based outfit.

3i Infrastructure is London Stock Exchange-listed and committed about £7.9m to the project. This company's income amounted to £20.7m for the nine months up to September 2007, while its gain on investments totalled £21.2m.

The Jersey link is controversial because Treasury rules are that Government departments should pay attention to the "propriety of tax arrangements" of firms entering into public/private partnership (PPP) deals. Since PPP companies can sell on assets, there is no guarantee that councils can ever be sure they aren't paying through the nose to tax-avoiders.

Peter Peacock as Minister urged councils to solve their school-building issues through PPP. In all, £2.1 billion extra was paid for PPP debts across Scotland over conventional finance. So Highland will have to find £30 million a year for 30 years to pay up.

This may be no consolation to Wick parents, or to even more needy schools such as Thurso and Lochaber, plus 50 outdated primaries, but the warning is plain: London Treasury denies Scotland the block grant to meet our needs so Scotland will have to innovate. I believe a local bond issue would fit the SNP Futures Trust plan. Meanwhile, we need realistic maintenance programmes to stop schools deteriorating like Wick High School. It's another false economy to keep mum. The Wick parents are quite right, but the solution is less simple than it should be.

Saturday, 8 March 2008

On the beautiful hills above Blair Atholl (Jan. 2007). Myself and fellow MSPs gathered in Blair Atholl to hear evidence on John Swinney's Bill to extend the boundary of the Cairngorm National Park to include north Perthshire. Unfortunately this was originally rejected under the Labour Lib Dem Exec but is now underway through secondary legislation under the Scottish Government!
(pictured: Atholl Estates head game keeper; Ted Brocklebank [Con]; me; Eleanor Scott [Green]; and Nora Radcliffe [LibDem])