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.

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