Friday, 28 March 2008

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.

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