Saturday, 28 March 2009

Enquiring minds focus on far north renewables

I WAS delighted to encourage a cross-party group from the Scottish Parliament to visit Orkney and Caithness earlier this week.

As vice-convener of the economy, energy and tourism committee I was able to introduce MSPs from further south to the huge opportunities and challenges of the marine renewable sector in the Far North as part of the wide-ranging energy enquiry that our committee is drawing up for debate in Parliament this June.

The challenges of the Pentland Firth were underlined by the raging weather we experienced.

Some weaker tummies were severely challenged on the Stromness to Scrabster ferry on Monday afternoon.

This only underlines the conditions that will have to be catered for by wave and tidal machines and the infrastructure to support them in such stormy seas.

As ever, the various strengths on each side of the firth need to be harnessed to achieve the marine renewables revolution.

At EMEC in Stromness the can-do attitudes for building and testing the machines that are tethered to the seabed was evident.

Equally, Scrabster harbour, the Environmental Research Institute in Thurso and NES Engineering in Bower all show what eager industry leaders want to achieve.

They all want us to develop and build this new technology in Caithness, based on our huge engineering heritage from Dounreay.

They also see the ground-breaking work in tidal and wave research off Orkney as a complimentary component of the drive for success.

However, MSPs were given pause for thought when issues about regulation of the firth were touched on.

Between Scrabster trust port and Scapa Flow port, controlled by Orkney Islands Council, there is a huge sea area managed for navigation purposes by the Marine and Coastguard Agency (MCA).

The last of these is a reserved body responsible to Westminster.

That means London rules the waves. They were not in evidence to give a view to our European-level development potential.

The Scottish Parliament's enquiry will have to highlight these split responsibilities.

Also the self-interested role of the Crown Estate Commission, which rents the seabed to ports, offshore equipment, and which reports to the Treasury in London.

With devolution we have a halfway house.

We need to have more certainty over governance issues to create a single marine agency to oversee the Pentland Firth and Scapa Flow potential as a high priority.

The MSPs' visit to the Far North will feed genuine opinions and opportunities that affect the whole of Scotland and our clean, secure energy future.


LAST week BT announced that it was to implement super-fast broadband to areas including Edinburgh and Glasgow.

However, it seems that remote and rural areas will have to wait.

The news came on the day that the European Council of Ministers, as part of their economic recovery plan, agreed to make money available to programmes which will focus on promoting broadband and energy projects.

A roll-out of 40 megabyte broadband in Glasgow is all very well and good, but what about people in the Wick or north-west Sutherland postcode area who are still reliant on dial-up and reduced to speeds of half a megabyte. This hardly seems fair.

BT needs to commit itself to parity of service across the country for internet provision as opposed to the system which it currently adopts which severely hampers those in remote and rural areas.

I understand that high-speed broadband will be charged at a higher rate if you receive that rate.

Conversely those receiving woeful speeds should be charged for the actual speed they receive.

It is clear that the EU Council of Ministers highly values improved internet links as a way to get out of recession.

Subject to agreement of the European Parliament, it is making millions of euros available to help broadband projects across the member states.

These recovery packages will need to be underpinned by the cash-strapped Scottish Government.

BT also needs to help or else Scotland will lose out on a chance to narrow the wide gulf between broadband provision in remote areas and urban ones.

In my recent consultation on broadband in the Highlands and Orkney, it became clear that broadband provision is patchy and fairly unreliable, even in the outskirts of Wick.

As it is stands it is a real disincentive to people with businesses to stay in the area.

There are many strands which make up a desirable community to live in but broadband provision is fast becoming a dominant strand.

It is now time to make absolutely sure that parity is achieved throughout Scotland.


MY constituency assistant in the Wick office has begun work on a very important campaign on my behalf.

It will find out what we can do to cut down on the number of young people who are killed or injured on our roads every year in the Highland region.

Although work is in the early stages at the moment, we are starting to gather evidence and are building up a picture of what to do.

By involving the Institute of Advanced Motorists, the police, insurance companies and young people, we hope to have a meeting in the near future to discuss how we can proceed.

Some insurance companies already give young people the incentive of reduced premiums if they have taken the Pass Plus or their advanced driving test, but more sustained work over a longer period of time needs to be done.

It will fit in well with the road safety strategy being worked up by the transport minister Stewart Stevenson who I questioned on March 12 on this subject.

Also, I know it will be warmly welcomed by all my constituents, several of whom have come to surgeries in despair after a fatality has robbed us of another young life.

Eventually we would like to run a pilot scheme with some young people in the area to actually see the benefits and prove to young people that it's cool to be safe.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Earth Hour 2009

Motion debated:

That the Parliament supports WWF's Earth Hour 2009, which aims to encourage millions of people worldwide and across Scotland to switch off their lights for an hour at 8.30 pm on Saturday 28 March 2009, to send a powerful global message that we care enough about climate change to take action and demonstrate widespread public support for an equitable, binding and scientifically credible global deal on climate change and, in Scotland, strong Scottish climate change legislation; considers that 2009 is a critical year for action on climate change with a new global deal to be agreed in Copenhagen in December; acknowledges the opportunity for Scotland to take a global lead with the most progressive legislation in the world through a strong Climate Change (Scotland) Bill; recognises that the global deal must address the historical responsibility of the United Kingdom and other developed countries as major contributors to climate change; commends local government in Edinburgh alongside the many individuals who are early signatories to support WWF's Earth Hour in Scotland, and further considers that the Scottish and UK governments are in an ideal position to take a proactive, progressive and leading role throughout the 2009 negotiations.

Rob Gibson (Highlands and Islands) (SNP): I congratulate Shirley-Anne Somerville on bringing the debate to the chamber. I fully support the protest of switching off the lights for earth hour in 2009, and for every year until we make it happen for real by turning the economy round to become a carbon-saving economy…...

Earth hour will be difficult to illustrate—we will really only be able to tell that there is a shroud of darkness by looking at the earth from outer space. The famous photographs that show where the earth is lit up at night ought to show far less of that if earth hour succeeds. I hope that we can get some images to show how successful it is as we go along.

Earth hour, on Saturday night at 8.30 pm, will bring other opportunities. Some people will not necessarily be watching the football—indeed, there might be some surprise candlelit dinners for two, or for many more. That would be a good thing to do—and I did not mention the idea of candlelight for nothing. In the past, candles were made from beeswax, and part of the biodiversity of the planet involves ensuring that there are bees left to make that wax in the future.

In celebrating our earth hour, it might be a good idea for us to ensure that we remember how those things are all connected—perhaps a candlelit dinner would be a good celebration for earth hour this year.

The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson): I, too, thank Shirley-Anne Somerville for bringing the matter to the Parliament for debate.

On behalf of the Government, I am pleased to support WWF's earth hour 2009, as countries throughout the world will do. On 28 March, we will turn off non-essential lights in all 44 of our core buildings, as indeed will the Parliament. Earth hour raises awareness of sustainability and climate change globally and throughout Scotland…..

I am delighted that Rob Gibson's partner Eleanor is in for a surprise dinner on Saturday night. I, too, think that protecting bees is important if only because I have a rather sticky complaint in the back of my throat. Some royal jelly—which was, of course, the Queen mum's favourite remedy for many problems—is probably called for.

Friday, 20 March 2009

No folly over firefighters

ROSS-shire's retained firefighters don't need scaremongering about the invaluable service they provide, particularly those in remote and rural areas.

Setting a 48-hour maximum to the working week as currently proposed in relation to retained firefighters could greatly reduce the hours for which they would be available for duty, to the detriment of fire services. LibDem disarray and hype won't do.

SNP MEPs voted against the move in the recent European Parliament vote as we recognise the concerns raised by the Retained Firefighters Union in relation to the ending of the UK opt-out to the EU working time directive. We agree with the STUC and Fire Brigades Union that, as the issue is now subject to negotiations at European level, there is no immediate threat to fire provision, and hopes that the mature and responsible joint efforts by the Scottish and UK governments will ensure that any future changes to the EU working time directive ensure the flexibility required to allow the continuation of retained firefighters and the protection of workers' rights.


EVERY effort must be made to resist the threat to close Hugh Miller's cottage in Cromarty by a cash-strapped National Trust for Scotland.

I fully back my Black Isle councillor colleague Craig Fraser with his campaign and on-line petition.

Additionally, questions at the national level need to be raised. When the NTS was founded in 1931 the Trust began to act as guardian of the nation's magnificent heritage of architectural, scenic and historic treasures.

At that time the bequest of wild land such as Glencoe by Percy Unna was a key driver to protect an iconic area of Scotland's scenery. This was long before National Parks were established. Soon historic properties were added especially in lieu of death duties which brought castles, gardens and more mountain areas such as the Arran Hills.

A disproportionately large part of our heritage held by NTS is in the form of country mansions and castles with their gardens and policies. This inevitably leads to huge upkeep costs. Also at a time of falling entry charges the whole basis of the NTS is far from sustainable. I believe that the time is ripe for the Parliament to investigate how to fund and prioritise the uses to which NTS properties and those in the guardianship of Historic Scotland.


THE bureaucratic crawl towards freeing up the Nigg yard must speed up if it is to play its part in the national fight against climate change. The need to secure land bases to build the structures to capture offshore windpower is urgent. I am delighted that the SNP members of Highland Council started the ball rolling in mid-2007. Yet in March 2009 the much-needed Compulsory Purchase powers are still to be agreed.

I take part in the Parliament's Energy Enquiry. Its remit is to determine what type of future we want in Scotland in terms of the production, distribution and more efficient use of energy, and how and when it can be delivered to meet the Scottish Government's objectives of increasing renewable energy generation and reducing emissions. Also we are considering how energy supplies can be secured at an affordable price and how economic benefits from the energy industries can be maximised.

This week we are promised action by May by the planning chiefs in Highland Council. Meanwhile I read of the opposition to CPO procedures by major companies involved with Nigg.

I believe that the local and national interest must override any further delays.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Waste Warrior

I attended the RoWAN Ross-shire Waste Action Network meeting, introducing a new generation to how to reduce, reuse and recycle in Dingwall last Saturday. Appropriately the Waste Warrior attracted lots of kids to get their photo, including the big kid in me. Its message is clear and I know that progress with other MSPs on the Climate Change Bill and Energy Enquiry will only happen when all our people support the message.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Truly on the verge of a renewables takeoff

On Thursday 5th March we debated National Planning Framework 2 that identifies national planning priorities for the next ten to fifteen years. I majored on the potential of the Pentland Firth marine power, of the container hub at Scapa Flow, but particularly welcomed the commitment to upgrade electricity lines south from Dounreay.

I can’t underline enough the sequence of development needed to harness our wave, wind and tidal electricity resources. We need power lines upgraded on land and later undersea cables. This is because it will take far longer to get the undersea cables laid and relies on big developments offshore which will take between three and fifteen years.

This was confirmed by a cross party meeting also held that day in the Parliament. I was able to discuss the developments planned by SeaEnergy and their Portuguese partners EDP renewables, the fourth largest wind farm developer in the world. They have submitted bids to the Crown Estate for UK Round 3, and hope to hear of a successful outcome by the end of 2009.
Photo: Rob with SeaEnergy Renewables group in the Parliament

Scotland is truly on the verge of a huge renewables take off.


I attended a crisis meeting of the Scottish Building Federation in Inverness last Friday. The firms present from Highland and Moray employers were hoping against hope that the public sector can kick start their businesses. Agreed spending targets at Scottish Government level have to be turned into new projects to stop inevitable redundancies of apprentices and tradespeople who work for house builders and general contractors.

We all agreed that the banking crisis had stopped building in its tracks in the Highlands as elsewhere. The Downing Street downturn is well understood. What firms want is agreement to start projects earlier than planned. But we hear that Highland Council feels it does not have matching cash to start council house building. New build by Housing Associations will be key. How we facilitate this will be a high priority for me in quizzing Ministers.

We know that the SNP Government has made sure Scotland is ahead of the rest of the UK in tackling the economic downturn by acting quickly to bring forward measures to give businesses and households a helping hand. Some key points are as follows:-

1. The Scottish Government’s spending of £120 million on the Affordable Housing Investment Programme is roughly twice, on a pro-rata basis, as the £550m English package dedicated to new supply.

2. The Scottish Government is making £25 million available to support the building of new council houses. The provisional figure for the number of new council houses started in England in 2007-8 was 250 compared to 432 in Scotland.

3. The Scottish Government launched its new energy assistance package and spends more pro rata. For 2009-10 the £55.8m budget in Scotland, is almost 15% of English Warm Deal Budget (£374m) while for 2010-11 Scotland’s £55.8m is almost 28% of Westminster’s £200m.
This is swift, decisive action by the Scottish Government in responding to the challenges thrown up by the current economic climate. The SNP’s six-point economic recovery plan announced by Scottish Ministers last October – more than a month ahead of the UK Government’s plans – forms the basis of the Government’s strategy for making sure Scotland is well-placed to weather the downturn and emerge stronger, and in a position to take advantage of new opportunities.
I will be seeking opinions around the North to gain our share on top of the NDA work and tidal powers development. Please feel free to contact me.


The SNP’s positive approach is in sharp contrast to Secretary of State for Scotland Jim Murphy’s speech at Labour’s Spring Conference last weekend in Dundee. He should have said three things in his speech.

First, he should have apologised for the UK Government’s role in causing the recession. For 12 years, they have presided over the ‘age of irresponsibility’, resulting in the Downing Street downturn.

Second, he should have announced the scrapping of Labour’s disastrous plans to impose £500 million of cuts each year in Scotland’s budget.

And third, he should have said that Labour’s part-privatisation of the Post Office will be scrapped.

Since Jim Murphy did none of these things this confirms that he is indeed the UK Cabinet’s man in Scotland. It was an unremittingly negative conference – almost entirely focussed on criticising the SNP. This was a reminder of exactly why Labour lost the last election.

The SNP are entirely confident about taking our positive case for Scotland to be an equal and independent nation – with full economic and financial powers so that we can overcome the downturn – to the people in a referendum. It is Labour and the other London parties who are running away from the people’s verdict.

Two years into government and the SNP Government are ahead in the polls on the basis of our excellent record of policy delivery.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

The North's contribution to the national picture

At long last, we are seeing measures that will support the clean energy developments in the far north. The development of the Pentland Firth as an area for co-ordinated action on clean energy can go ahead. The National Planning Framework points to the importance of that development in relation to our efforts to reduce emissions and tackle climate change. If we do not go ahead with that development, in the medium to longer term, we will have bigger problems than we think.

Photo: Rob with SeaEnergy Renewables group in the Parliament - A group whose vision statement is to be the world’s pre-eminent marine renewable energy company, developing, owning and operating large-scale offshore power generation assets globally.

The Scapa Flow transhipment development in Orkney puts the north of Scotland—which was ignored by many transport projects of the past—into the planning framework for Scotland for the first time. That kind of thinking might allow us to be a Parliament for the whole of Scotland, now that we have a Government for the whole of Scotland.

We can see from the approaches that have been taken to upgrading the railways towards Inverness that it has been ignored until now. To suggest that the Halbeath exercise, which is important if we are to link up parts of the central belt with points further north, should be added should not take away from the fact that we need to deliver quickly the time savings that can be made on journeys between, for example, Aberdeen and Inverness and Perth and Inverness.

On the development of the high-speed rail network, the Scottish National Party's manifesto mentioned that positively. Across the debating chamber, we have people who believe that the high-speed rail network should be a priority. However, that is one very good example of the fact that projects come along out of phase with the creation of the national planning framework, as is the rebuild of the Beauly to Denny power line.

On that issue, I point out to people who lobby us from organisations such as Highlands before Pylons that the transmission of electricity from the north of Scotland to the centre and the south relies on land transmission and, eventually, on undersea transmission. We cannot have one without the other, because the process of expanding our clean power development relies on those upgrades. I am delighted that the east-coast upgrades and the one from Dounreay to Beauly are included in the NPF.

We are beginning to get a rational view of what the parts of Scotland that have often been ignored can contribute to the national picture.

A truly global affair

I met the penguins who visited the Parliament to promote The Big Ask Scotland campaign that seeks to comabt dangerous climate change. It was organised by Freinds of the Earth Scotland [FoES] to coincide with the final evidence from Climate change Minister Stewart Stevenson MSP given to the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change committee. The penguins danced a strip the willow to the sound of John Lewis pipes and drums.
I took along my WWF polar bear 'Rolly polar' to make it a truly global affair. As the Big Ask leaflet says, "It's not just penguins and polar bears that will be affected..." It is the poorest communities in the poorest countries who face the worst consequences of extreme weather events - flooding, drought, food and water shortages and the spread of disease.

Hopefully the Scottish Climate Change Bill will deliver a morally sound and properly deliverable emission cut of 80% by 2050. The SNP is trying to take this nation on a journey to a cleaner, greener future in which we have set an example to others. It will be tough but acheivable to be on the right road before the Copenhagen climate conference later this year. The real penguins, the real polar bears and all the world's inhabitants rely on our actions.

Monday, 9 March 2009

SNP MEP Candidate Dr Aileen McLeod

MEP candidate Dr Aileen McLeod spoke at the Highland Euro Hustings in Eden Court on Saturday 21st February and since then at various Hustings across the country. Ballot papers have been circulated to all SNP members and the last day to vote is TOMORROW!

To read her candidate statement or find out more about EuroThinking, visit her blog at: