A WEEK of grim news in the UK budget reveals how little the Gordon Brown Government has left in our coffers. Also, its intellectual firepower to combat the deepest recession in 60 years seems spent.
In the Far North we need much more certainty. It's all very well adopting a green wash in Westminster. It's fine to encourage electric cars. What about the huge investment needed to develop clean sources of tidal and wave power to allow us to plug in? Westminster must not hold back the ambitions shared by the Caithness community, the Scottish people and the SNP Government?
Even before the downturn the Scottish Government had moved to help high streets up and down Scotland through the small business bonus scheme. In just its first year the scheme has helped the owners of more than 64,000 business properties with their business rates, meaning 80 per cent of eligible businesses received some form of rates relief. The Federation of Small Businesses has confirmed these positive trends.
Helping the beating heart of the economy is key to recovery. In the Highland Council area we have over 5600 small businesses which have benefited. They have business rates worth £15.65 million which are now scrapped. Since 93 per cent of them are under £8000 rateable value per annum, they pay no rates at all.
This was emphasised at the upbeat SNP Spring Conference held in Glasgow last weekend. Alex Salmond stressed ways to solve problems. The SNP is not the anti-Labour Party, we are the only pro-Scotland party and that is especially important to remember as the European elections approach.
The SNP seeks to build on our six-point economic recovery programme and support businesses through the downturn. The tough trading conditions businesses are facing make it even more important that we reach those not taking advantage of the small business bonus scheme. After all, they are the vast majority of employers in the North.
We also know that there is an issue with small businesses which have multiple properties. While of course it is right that large chains with many properties are ineligible, the cabinet secretary for finance and sustainable growth has pledged to look at what more can be done for smaller businesses who find themselves unable to access rates relief due to having more than one property. The Scottish Government intends to undertake a consultation on this issue in due course.
BANKS that are now publicly owned invested in PFI/PPP projects. This should mean an opportunity to negotiate better repayment deals. The SNP conference gave its support to a resolution which urged UK Government-owned banks to provide better and fairer terms for the repayment of PFI/PPP debt.
In years to come, the Scottish Government will be making £1 billion of repayments to what are currently state-owned banks – for public sector buildings. PFI is officially dead. New rules mean this off-balance-sheet con is no more and the ridiculous situation of the UK Government bailing out PFI investors in England has exposed this scam for the mess that it is. In these extraordinary economic times, a bit of common sense should prevail and the Government should start negotiating better terms for the PFI debts held by banks in which it is now the major shareholder.
The Scottish Government is investing more government money than ever before in capital projects across Scotland, including through the Highland Council, to deliver jobs, investment and economic growth. The last thing we need is for funds that could be put into the front line of public services, or to increase that capital investment even further, going to prop up UK Government debts.
I welcome the new SNP campaign slogan, "We've got what it takes" – in this case to build infrastructure without saddling future generations of Scots with unnecessary debts.
It's time for the UK-owned banks to renegotiate the PPP debts Labour and the Lib Dems left us with. Again the SNP is proposing solutions, rather than trying to cover up issues like the state of Wick High School, which has deteriorated over decades of Tory and Labour/Lib Dem misrule.
IN the recession, Scotland needs to seize opportunities as they emerge. This includes initiatives like Homecoming, which will this year bring thousands of extra visitors to our shores. As part of Homecoming, the Drive it Home golf campaign sold out within a week. This will ensure that more than 12,000 additional golfers from across the world will travel to the home of golf this year.
The sixth Caithness and Sutherland Walking Festival, taking place from May 2 to 9 as part of Homecoming 200 is another smaller event organised by the Dunnet Head Educational Trust. It is hoped that Caledonian Iberian ConeXions, as the commercial arm of the trust in known, can bring more visitors to Scotland in this Homecoming year and long after.
This July, the largest clan gathering in history will bring over 30,000 people to Holyrood Park and a further 40,000 race fans will make their way to Stirlingshire and Perthshire as Scotland hosts the inaugural Intercontinental Rally Challenge in November. Each can be a springboard to usher more visitors to the Far North.
These snapshots of the Homecoming campaign should help Scotland exceed the target of generating an extra £40m in Scottish tourism revenue and 100,000 additional visitors to our shores, turning around the threatened downturn and giving our tourism industry a huge boost in tough economic times.
Homecoming plays on the distinctive picture that others have of Scotland. We are a land of song, dance and music as well as castles, mists and vibrant cities.
But it was a bit of a shock to find Labour Party critics of the Scottish Government claim that the cost of producing the advert, featuring Dougie MacLean's anthem "Caledonia" sung by many kenspeckle Scots including Sean Connery and Lulu, was excessive. Let's not allow these killjoys to dent our Scottish welcome or national confidence.