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.

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