Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Plea for calm in stormy waters of recession

IN the second budget round of this SNP Government we are thrust into the most difficult times Scotland and other developed countries have faced for decades.

Some say we have never faced such economic fallout since the 1930s.

As John Swinney, the finance secretary, argues for calm and steady management there have been far-from-helpful signals from Westminster with the certainty of a £500 million cut to the Scottish purse this year.

Yet the Scottish Government identified ways to secure jobs from the sources of cash available to us months before Gordon Brown's ministers got their act together.

This week the SNP's second budget is having to work with one hand tied behind its back.

Why? Westminster has borrowing powers; even the Northern Ireland Assembly has them.

But devolution as written in 1998 would not allow us the chance.

So the clamour from a cross-section of far-sighted business people to back the SNP demand for more financial powers is growing in strength.

They can see that as we begin to feel the full effects of the downturn, the choices we made 14 months ago in Scotland mean tens of thousands of small business will pay no business rates at all from April this year.

And it is the SNP's foresight that put in place the resources to freeze the hated council tax, providing vital relief for hard-pressed bill payers.

What's on offer in this £30 billion budget is the chance to ensure that almost 5000 jobs will be secured in the next year.

That is set out in the Budget Bill for 2009/10. Spending amounting to £230 million has been brought forward to help weather the economic storm.

This includes the building of safer road junctions, health and dental centres, as well as college and university facilities that are among the projects being accelerated through the additional funds.

These spending decisions have at their heart our plans to help Scotland weather the economic storm and spark a strong recovery.

Across Scotland, local councils are to receive £90 million of the accelerated spending to support schools and housing.

So the arguments made by Lib Dem and Labour councillors that the Highland Council is short of money is to do with the credit crunch and PPP debt, not the historic concordat between Scottish Government and local councils.

The Scottish Government is also providing additional funding to local authorities for a council-tax freeze again next year.

As the budget was debated in parliament this week, Mr Swinney said he remained open to possible changes proposed by opposition parties on the final make-up of these spending plans. He said: "If we're going to improve expenditure in one area, we've got to identify where the money is coming from."

That's why the SNP has already ruled out a two-pence income tax cut proposed by the Liberal Democrats which would cost £800 million to the public purse. So demands by Jamie Stone for dualling the A9 from Tore to Tain looks like a cruel hoax on voters.


ONE of the best ways to underpin sound development of the Highland economy is to see the full university status granted to the UHI Millennium Institute.

Recently I asked the Scottish Government what progress is being made towards granting university title to the University of the Highlands and Islands, given that it now has the ability to award its own taught degrees.

The cabinet secretary for education and lifelong learning, Fiona Hyslop, said that the Scottish Government, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council are actively working with the UHI Millennium Institute to assist with its preparations for an application for university title.

The timing of such an application to the Privy Council is ultimately a matter for the UHI Millennium Institute in the light of its assessment of its ability to reach the quality and standards that university title in Scotland carries with it.

In addition, I asked Fiona Hyslop if she agreed that it would seem appropriate for the UHI to achieve full university status in the Year of Homecoming, given that the collegiate model that it represents has been exported throughout the world, and that the UHI can and will play a huge role in leading the Highlands and Islands towards sustainable development.

She shares my ambition, and perhaps impatience, to proceed to university title.

However, it is important to recognise that university status will be granted not only on the basis of taught-degree awarding powers, but on the basis of research.

That is a differentiation between the Scottish university system and the system in England, where the number of teaching-only institutions is increasing.

The Scottish Government officials and the sponsoring universities for the UHI are working to ensure that provisions are in place and that the concerns that the QAA has raised are dealt with swiftly but properly, to allow university title to be granted.

That could be one of the biggest rays of hope in an economically bleak year.


TWO particular parliamentary events affect us in the Far North.

Firstly, the Scottish Housing Expo was celebrated in the Garden Lobby.

It's a practical competition and display of advanced housing designs that are aimed to go on show in August 2010 on the outskirts of Inverness.

Of course if it succeeds then every two years a brand new set of designs can be displayed and bought. It shows that family homes can be affordable.

It shows also that we can build carbon-neutral homes for average house prices.

The ideas came from Finland and we need to show the way in Britain.

So the Highlands have architects who won places in the competition and were lauded in parliament. That could be the second bright spark for a sustainable and desirable future for young families in Caithness this year.

Finally, the Scottish Homecoming year kicks off with Burns Night.

My office is trying to contact people from places round the globe with Far North place names like Thurso and Halkirk.

Every family has relations abroad, why not encourage them to join us this year and celebrate? Ironically the weak pound sterling can be the biggest opportunity for another bright spot in the Scottish year.

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