Friday, 13 February 2009

Borrowing is the key to upgrading country's schools

NOW that common sense prevails and the Scottish budget can set the path for our public services, parliament has turned its attention to improving the powers we need to meet the difficulties of this looming depression in London and across the financial world.

It has to be said that in the snowy north we have particular concerns about gaining cash for public investment to build a sustainable Scotland.

Last week I spoke in two debates with strong local resonance. The first concerned the need for built-in borrowing powers for all levels of government. The second, a member’s debate, concerned the state of the fabric of Wick High School.

Firstly I believe the Scottish Futures Trust must tote up borrowing requirements from around Scotland then deploy our borrowing ability to pay for many types of projects.

That part of the debate about borrowing requirements will not go away.

I said: “Although the SNP believes ultimately in full tax-raising powers – naturally borrowing powers are part of that picture, too – we recognise that the public sector has triple 'A’ credit ratings… this is a great benefit.”

The wider debate on the constitutional future of our country is taking place – through the Calman Commission agreed by the Unionist parties, but to a greater extent through the National Conversation in which there has been huge public involvement.

Scots want more powers for our parliament, enabling us to live a normal national life. As it is, having one hand tied behind our back hampers the government of Scotland.

The Scottish Parliament should have borrowing powers; we should build on them from the base up. That would be a strong step forward for the democracy of Scotland. It is essential that we move forward as fast as possible.

Therefore I am keen for non-profit distribution models to be part of the debate on borrowing powers.

It would help the Highland Council to pay for projects that get round inadequate funds available to Scotland from the London block grant.

Next year the expected £500 million reduction in that grant will need innovative ways to pay for urgent investment. That underpinned my reasoned speech on the Wick High School issue.

I said: “It is important to acknowledge the history of the problems that Highland Council has faced over decades.

“Indeed, I understand that the evaluation that ministers in the previous Executive and the current Government made of the most likely candidates for school improvement funds showed that some 50 primary schools in the Highland Council area have toilets that are not fit for purpose.”

People who were pupils of Wick High School 15 years ago tell me that there were buckets on the floor and broken roof tiles then. Some of them said that when they were concentrated on learning it was not too much of a problem for them, but in the long period since then there has been a decline in the condition of the dilapidated fabric.

I asked the minister Maureen Watt to find out, if possible, why the fabric of Wick High School has deteriorated to its current state, which has forced concerned parents to go to the local MSP with their campaign for improvement.

I understand their concerns for the current generation of pupils. Given the circumstances of this Scottish devolved administration, there is not enough money to do all the required jobs. I hope that the national classification system will put Wick High School towards the top of the tree for being dealt with.

We need to get this matter into perspective and learn from what has happened, and consider more local choices for borrowing requirements.

The potential for prudential borrowing has led, at least in the case of certain local authorities, to emergency work being done on schools. I would like to know whether something of that sort can be contemplated in this case. I will now press Maureen’s successor Keith Brown, the new minister for schools and skills, on this.


ON a sad note, the sudden passing of my colleague Bashir Ahmad, MSP for Glasgow, has been mourned by all sections of opinion.

He was the first Scots Asian MSP in the Scottish Parliament and a kinder, more concerned man would be hard to meet. As I was speaking with pupils at Dornoch Primary School last Friday morning, little did I know Bashir was ill.

I emphasised to the P7 class that no matter where we come from, as we live in Scotland it matters that we all have a place. The SNP has found the broad support of many sections of the people. Bashir was a champion for Scots Asians for Independence. He will be sadly missed.


ON a much lighter note, fans have been making the long trek from the Far North to Glasgow each January for Celtic Connections for the past 16 years. This year I enjoyed five concerts over the three-week event that kicked off this Year of Homecoming. I much enjoyed Jerry Douglas, the US Dobro player who co-hosts Transatlantic Sessions with Aly Bain both on BBC TV and at Celtic Connections.

His own concert in the Old Fruit Market was a treat of sheer musicality, from jazz funk to bluegrass. His latest album Glide is a fair showcase.

I was also struck by the support act, the all-action family band Cherryholmes who I can imagine gracing the stage at the Northern Nashville Caithness Country Music Festival at some future occasion.

Check them out on My Space Music for yourselves.

It all adds to the great wealth of Scottish musical experience to hear such an international array from across the globe. Let’s get more of it played here in Caithness.

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