Saturday, 22 November 2008

Holyrood Diary

High speed railways here in Scotland, just like the TGV in France, still a dream I’m afraid? Thanks to gross underinvestment over past decades, the Scottish Government is bravely trying to turn round that story by constructing more miles of rail development per head of population in Scotland than they are doing in England and Wales.

To help this we have been allowed some more devolved powers over rail matters, hence my comments in this column. Looking at the rail and road needs of the Far North, we can’t let up the demands for a share of that investment. As you know I have been a regular campaigner on Far North transport, so I think an update on some issues bears comment.

Firstly I welcome the idea of seeking concessionary fares on our meandering railway to Inverness as well as on the buses. I asked the Cabinet Secretary John Swinney in the TICC committee a fortnight ago if concessionary fares could be extended from bus to rail - for if you use a train, you aren’t using a bus.

John Swinney replied “As the committee knows, the previous Administration established the concessionary travel scheme by amalgamating the schemes in different local authority areas. In some parts of the country, there was an entitlement to use rail services and in others there was none. The view was taken that the way in which to guarantee the comprehensive access that now exists for those who use the concessionary travel scheme was to use the bus network. The Government still holds that view. The scheme is extremely well utilised around the country and the Government welcomes that participation in the scheme.”

Bearing in mind the squeeze on the Scottish budget I then remarked, “Buses in the Far North take even longer than the train takes, and the train takes more than four hours between Inverness and Wick. Perhaps modernity ought to be extended to all parts of the country.”

On the buses, thankfully, Stagecoach are beginning to respond to complaints about the 25X service but the need for integrated and modern alternatives for travel are equally applicable in Caithness as Coatbridge. That’s why we need rail concessionary fares to boost the use of our railway. When you see the falling rail user numbers in recent years it beggars belief that certain people want no change in the route to take the Dornoch shortcut.

I believe that the benefits of the Strategic Transport Projects Review due in December may help to speed rail upgrades from Inverness south. But we need to see an acknowledgement that exciting Pentland Firth developments need rail and road investments to make them happen - concessionary fares for now, but real multi-million investment on high speed rail from Wick to Inverness must join the queue.

A NORTH SEA supergrid to export surplus renewable electricity from Scotland would benefit the whole of Europe. This was the message from the First Minister Alex Salmond who was speaking at the Scottish Government's publication of a milestone study for a North Sea Offshore which can make a big contribution to Europe and the world in moving to clean, green sources of energy.

This follows up his keynote speech at the Regeneration Conference in Thurso last September. He said,

"I have long argued that a North Sea offshore supergrid will encourage renewable generation and exports from Scotland, and also contribute to future energy security in Europe. We can export power from energy-rich northern Europe, to the energy-poorer areas.

"This pre-scoping study defines the potential for a full study to examine the technical, economic, social and financial feasibility of the development of an offshore transmission supergrid.

"It will allow us to explore the opportunities associated with the development of an offshore transmission network, and help make the case for commercial investment.

"We will continue to work with our North Sea neighbours and the EC with a view to formalising a partnership to make the exciting concept of a supergrid a reality.”

This work shines a beacon of light in a particularly dark November as the world-wide economic recession begins to bite. It was given a real boost when the European Commissioner confirmed the next day that a European super grid was essential to EU energy security. Alex Salmond responded,

"Never before have we been so well placed to become the green energy capital of Europe. The Commission's report designates the Blueprint for a North Sea Offshore Grid one of the six proposed infrastructure priorities.”

This gives the Far North a key role if we get a level playing field and real investment. We must not be fobbed off when we hear news from Gordon Brown’s government that their emphasis is on nuclear power stations built close to big English cites. Scotland’s European ambitions are very well founded.

POST OFFICE Card Account (POCA) contract have been saved for use in Post Offices, thank goodness. The decision had been subject to long delays since the summer, causing huge uncertainty for postmasters and their customers.

Caithness folk can be rightly proud of the part they have played in putting pressure on the London Government to allow Post Offices to continue providing this service. This decision has been long overdue and after the way in which the Post Office network has been treated in recent years by the Government this is at last some much needed relief.

There is still work to be done keeping pressure on the Government to promote vigorously the Card Account service to benefits customers and I will be encouraging those who most need the PO Accounts to sign up.


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