Friday, 15 August 2008

Energising the Far North with a new mood of optimism

LAST week I saw the huge onshore drilling rig at Swiney House, Lybster, for the first time. I've been away from the Far North for six weeks. Far too long, I know, but Siberia and holidays ran hard against the end of the parliamentary session.

With the SNP Government announcement of ambitious energy grid plans between Scotland and Norway, we have a major European dimension to take into account. Thus I had the pleasure of inviting one of our EU policy advisers, Dr Aileen McLeod, to see the North's energy potential for herself. She is one of our European election candidates in her own right whilst at present working for Alyn Smith MEP.

Retaining control of energy policy in Scotland is one of the SNP's red-line issues in relation to the debate about the Lisbon Treaty. Of course its proposals, fortunately, have been kicked into touch by the majority of Irish voters in their referendum. However, with the First Minister's visit to Caithness next month, let's recognise we have a huge part to play in making Scotland energy self-sufficient. We export 10 times the oil we currently use, though the price benefits are yet to be won for our citizens instead of the London Treasury.

The Lybster rig has an important role to retrieve oil from close offshore which is symbolic of a new mood of optimism regarding energy production in the Far North. However, it underlines my long campaign to ensure that the railway to Wick is upgraded, not least to convey bulk freight to the south. The lack of interest from HITRANS and many other bodies has been revealed, but the transfer of oil from Lybster cannot be contemplated on the already overburdened A99 and A9.

My colleagues in the Dornoch Rail Link Action Group and other constituents contact me to ask what progress we can make. Others have suggested that the rail spur to Lybster could be reopened to link with the line at Wick. Indeed one correspondent asked if the possibilities of a rail route direct to Helmsdale can be surveyed. For my part I'm delighted that the First Minister announced the important upgrades to the Inverness-Perth line as well as the incremental developments on the A9. Personally, my resolve to campaign even harder to get a multi-modal transport system – i.e. rail and road fit for the 21st century – does not stop at Inverness.

THE cost of fuel is on everyone's lips. We fear for the poorest and weakest in the community when winter comes along. Incredibly Gordon Brown is bungling along without any clear ideas to help. We must await his economic plan in September. But a seemingly unintended leak has suggested that families may get a winter heating allowance. Surely plans to increase the insulation in houses would be a longer term approach? But no, nothing but a quick fix seems on the cards.

In contrast, the Scottish Government has boosted the grants for home renewables such as solar panels. But with oil on an ever-rising spiral we really have to get every family involved in energy saving.

I am glad that the Highland Council will be setting the CHaP scheme in Wick on a sound footing. Tighter management was needed and some problems need urgent attention, but it is the way ahead. I have backed it from the start but optimism needs realism to kick in and the council takeover is a statement of intent as to the delivery of the scheme in full.

THE outline of a three-year plan to help deliver a sustainable and profitable Scottish fishing industry that has adapted to high fuel costs has been published by the Scottish Government.

The plan was agreed by fisheries secretary Richard Lochhead and the industry's Fuel Task Force when they met in Aberdeen, where it was announced that, as a first step, resources totalling almost £29 million will be made available to implement the three-year plan. This includes focusing £26 million from the European Fisheries Fund on measures to help the fishing industry adapt to rising fuel prices.

The plan puts in place a range of innovative fuel efficiency measures to cut fishing boats' fuel consumption and running costs. It aims to improve the marketing of Scottish seafood to boost its brand, reputation and value, and drive forward other efficiencies by reducing some non-fuel costs, such as e-log books, and tackling the issue of discards.

Scottish ministers reiterated their determination to continue to press the UK Government and European Union for additional aid.

Richard Lochhead said: "The Scottish Government is determined to help the fishing industry adapt to high fuel costs and, although we can't control the price of fuel, we will do what we can to help in other ways. The fishing industry has been particularly hard hit with the crippling increase in fuel prices. Fuel costs count for as much as half the earnings of boats and cannot be passed on.

"Through the Fuel Task Force we have worked closely with the industry to pull together the outline of a three-year plan of action that will help the fishing industry in Scotland adapt to cope with rising fuel costs."

The Scottish Government has earmarked almost £29 million – a combination of Scottish and European funds – to support this plan of action. Despite limited resources, Edinburgh is willing to do all it can to make these go as far as possible to help our fishermen and the industries and communities like ours.

It is very disappointing to endure the continuing lack of financial support from the UK Government.

Scotland cannot alone address the wider economic impact of rising fuel prices. Therefore it will be a big issue in both European and Westminster elections when they come along.

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