Thursday, 2 October 2008

Far North is key to Scottish economy take off

Photo: Rob and Danny Miller display Mey Selections produce.

CONFERENCE season for political parties can be inspiring, or fretful. Following the gaffes of Lib Dem UK leader Nick Clegg where he promised tax cuts, MSPs asked last week in the Less Favoured Areas debate why Lib Dems wanted more spending on their favourite causes.

From what part of their planned £800 million cuts in the Scottish budget would they come? Can we expect Wick High School to be replaced? Can we really get fair fuel prices while London holds tight on the purse strings?

Meanwhile New Labour in Manchester this week reminds us of a tale of two governments. London Labour is on the way out while the SNP Government is getting on with the job of governing. Newly-elected Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray spoke of being born in the NHS, meanwhile Nicola Sturgeon was restoring fairness to the NHS with the launch of a legally enforceable 12-week waiting time for surgery, Scotland's police were recording record drug seizures and Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond was continuing his fight to keep Bank of Scotland jobs in Scotland.

Iain Gray attracted a very poor turnout for his conference speech as he faced another electoral disaster for his party and for himself. That's what a huge UK-wide analysis of real elections shows – that he would lose his own seat at the next Scottish Parliament elections.

In recent real elections such as in Glasgow last Thursday, the SNP won with a seven per cent swing from Labour. And with another election coming up in Glenrothes, voters know the SNP is on their side over rising fuel and energy bills whilst a distant Labour party is out of touch. In contrast the SNP conference scheduled for Perth from 16 to 19 October will be well-attended and upbeat.

NEVERTHELESS the mood music behind today's politics is scored by a precarious economy. It is a sobering reminder that Gordon Brown's 10-year stint as chancellor charted no end to boom and bust as he promised. Indeed the 18-year trade cycle hit its last big bust in 1992. That was part of the substance of my questions to panels of bankers and house builders in the economy, energy and tourism committee.

The credit crunch was our subject, the local threats to banks in Thurso, Wick, Kirkwall and Tain where there are both HBOS and Lloyds TSB branches, was very much in mind. What has to be explained is the increasingly lax regulation of our financial system during the Gordon Brown years. Also the outrageous nationalisation of key firms such as AIG in the USA and Northern Rock in the UK merely keep the current flawed system limping on. But investors and shareholders in previously sound companies are big losers along with every family that seeks a bank loan or mortgage. As for bank employees, First Minister Alex Salmond is trying to save the Bank of Scotland's jobs and repute through a cross-party banking summit.

It remains to be seen how we maintain access to development funds for the likes of tidal power, for rebuilding schools and all other public sector-led projects. That's why the Scottish Future's Trust set up by the SNP Government is crucial. Local moves could also try prudent borrowing for repair projects such as the Wick High School swimming pool, and the setting-up of credit unions in each part of the country. The issue of credit able to be repaid is at the roots of our economic revival. I note with interest that the value of farm and estate land hasn't been affected by the global uncertainties.

We are told that borrowers on the strength of a piece of land have to put up a third of the value in cash before having loans approved. That clearly has not happened in the housing market. Also MSPs noted that the French and German economies are not as deeply affected as that of the UK. So the market in housing has to be transformed if we are to avoid another credit crunch.

Debating the problems facing Less Favoured Areas, such as Caithness and Orkney, MSPs agreed that the wise words of the report on our hills and islands produced by the Royal Society of Edinburgh quite correctly recognised that vibrant communities are the key to life in any part of the country.

AS we have just celebrated Scottish Food Fortnight I am deeply impressed that growing much more of our own food and seeing it on supermarket shelves is a top priority. My recent visit to Mey Selections is evidence that good food, local markets, wider supermarket sales and supporting local hotels with top grade produce all go hand in hand.

Here in Caithness we have a model that is the envy of others. Doing what we do best such as producing fine cattle and sheep for market must be supported. Also this week I was delighted to read that Monty Don, the recent presenter of the BBC's Gardener's World agrees. He backs the SNP Government and its national food policy which aims to feed the nation better from our resources.

But we can do much more, I do hope that the Caithness Regeneration Conference next week will see a burst of renewed confidence for the county.

Certainly the plans for tidal power schemes are developing, the much expanded Caithness Chamber of Commerce should be able to take an industry lead to expand our energy potential using the multi-layered skills of the Far North work force. When Alex Salmond addresses the delegates there should be no doubt left in anyone's mind, Caithness, north Sutherland and Orkney are key bases for take-off in the Scottish economy.

Photo: Rob conducted the transport workshop with thirty participants in a mind mapping exercise at the Caithness regeneration Conference in Thurso on 29th September

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