Friday, 14 March 2008
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 métro 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.