Friday, 22 May 2009

London can learn from Scotland's open democracy

IT would be just grand to think that the current crisis engulfing Westminster would lead to real democratic change. That's not going to happen by holding a general election as the Tories say.

However, a huge SNP surge in such a vote could force a fair voting system on the Thames and boost the needs of Scotland's popular claim to achieve maximum powers for Holyrood.

This would go far beyond the expenses scandal to question how any incoming government in London could build rather than thwart democracy, which Westminster has studiously avoided for centuries. The resignation of the Speaker is no solution.

People I meet on my constituency duties have been disgusted with erring MPs and their lax expenses rules. Folk are incredulous at the slipshod administration of Westminster and want to believe in anything other than the incompetence of the Brown regime that caps it all. The emptiness of debate in that place is good reason enough for a speedy solution.

As an MSP representing the Highlands and Islands, I am incensed that the London scandal prompts open season on all politicians. Our Holyrood expenses system is receipt based, strictly policed and shows all the costs and details we are allowed online. Yet the mudslinging is indiscriminate. If ever London needed to learn from a modern, open democracy it is now that Scotland, once again, shows the way.

My friend Nina MacAulay, of Drumbeg, sums up the disgust of many folk. Returning her own and her late husband's war medals to highlight the depths to which Westminster's values have fallen in people's eyes.

Meanwhile, bills have to be paid and jobs are still jeopardised by the serial failure of successive governments in London to properly regulate the banks. Despite the deep recession, commentators and journalists who lazily accepted Gordon Brown's word that boom and bust were banished for ever now need scapegoats to hide their collusion in that fantasy.

While the planet heats alarmingly, Sri Lanka burns, soldiers still die in Afghanistan, more firms file for bankruptcy, and the papers still ignore the roots of these world problems yet they search for every last ounce of scandal from the "Palace of Varieties".


MEANWHILE, I've been working with health workers, hauliers, harbour boards, distillers, green energy developers, farmers and crofters, to name a few, with their issues, problems and opportunities.

They want the good name and the good services of the Scottish Parliament and Government to help them save their jobs, services and precious family homes. I believe that Westminster must fix its broken self in time for folks to see the European elections on June 4 as a chance to let Scotland prosper again in a European community that increasingly values our clean energy, wholesome food and democratic instincts. Otherwise, those who vote will punish parties responsible for the culture of secrecy and lax financial morality that sums up the UK. Instead of hope there may be spite, instead of future prospects for Scots it could be vengeful anger at all politics.

Photo: European Parliament candidate Dr Aileen McLeod with North MSP Rob Gibson. The pair found a domestic "tirlick", or propeller, common on Caithness farms 50 years ago, during a trip to Kirkwall.


WEDNESDAY was EU Maritime Day and fell the day after the only direct shipping route to the heart of Europe restarted. The Scottish Viking sailed into Rosyth from Zeebrugge to a big welcome and a reception in Edinburgh Castle for those responsible.

More locally, last weekend I was travelling between Scrabster and Stromness on the NorthLink ferry Hamnavoe. The weather was fair and the ship on its best behaviour.

My case work on the need for a CT scanner, fair fuel prices, hospital cleanliness and tourism promotion in the Homecoming year also led me to revisit EMEC to track the progress of marine renewables development.

After hours I campaigned with my colleague Dr Aileen McLeod, one of our European election candidates. She has gained much insight into Brussels thinking as policy head for Alyn Smith MEP.

Indeed, European policies have often helped life here. No, I don't mean the disastrous Common Fisheries Policy, but two examples are farmers and those seeking clean water who have much to thank the community for. Scots know that the SNP is the only party that represents Scottish interests alone. We have the allies in Europe that will help us to turn Scotland into a member state.

In Kirkwall, earlier this week, we visited the Alternative Energy Agency. We spied an old propeller on display which drove wee domestic windmills on farms and crofts from the 1930s to 1950s. In Orkney and Caithness they were called "tirlicks". The one on display had been used on a Caithness farm. It is a Lucas Freelight and delivered 12 volts – enough to light the kitchen and the byre.

Considering the technological leap to today, with the Whitelee wind farm on Eaglesham moor able to power all homes in Glasgow, we have seen a Scottish renewables revolution. And to think that the waves, tides and sun can do the same is magic. Except it is more than that. Future generations of Scots will thank us for being pioneers. Amazingly we can lead the world in marine power. Twelve volts in 1940has led us to 12 gigawatts in 2020.

Rob Gibson MSP

Monday, 11 May 2009

Window of Opportunity Closing - VOTE in Euro Elections

You can register for Postal Vote till 18 May.

Don't forget!

The SNP is the only party speaking for Scotland in Europe

Click on the title above or the link below to be taken to the European Parliament's Election web page:

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Fight to Win Back Northern Landmark

Scotland on Sunday
-By Tom Peterkin, Scottish Political Editor

A LITTLE piece of England that stands on the very edge of Scotland's most famous promontory is to become the scene of an ownership battle that will see locals attempt to repatriate the dilapidated Victorian hotel which overlooks John O'Groats.

A campaign has begun to wrest the John O'Groats House Hotel from English hands after years of neglect have seen the once handsome Gothic building fall into disrepair.

Leading the charge is Rob Gibson, the SNP MSP for the Highlands and Islands, who claims the owners, Liverpool-based Heritage Great Britain Ltd, have allowed the landmark to deteriorate so severely.

Photo: Rob in front of the derelict building.

Gibson is now lobbying locals and councillors in an attempt to get Highlands and Islands Council to buy the building by means of a compulsory purchase order, the legal mechanism that allows bodies to purchase property without the consent of the owner.

"The idea would be to get it into local hands," said Gibson last night. "It has lain derelict for years and the people responsible for it are watching it go downhill.

"The council should compulsory purchase it. It is far more likely to succeed, if it is owned by locals."

The hotel has had a chequered history and was last owned by people from the area back in the 1980s. Towards the end of that decade, it was bought by the America's Cup entrepreneur Peter de Savary, who at that point also owned Britain's southernmost extremity Land's End in Cornwall.

In 1996, it was sold to a company which is now part of Liverpool-based Heritage Great Britain Ltd, whose portfolio includes Land's End, the Snowdon Mountain Railway and Needles Park on the Isle of Wight.

"The company owns a whole lot of other things," Gibson said. "But this doesn't seem to be a priority. Perhaps a compulsory purchase order would persuade them to do something about it. But eventually it would be far more likely to be sustainable if local people owned it."

Trudy Morris, the chief executive of Caithness Chamber of Commerce, was sympathetic to the idea of a compulsory purchase order, which would cost between £500,000 and £1m.

"Obviously something needs to be done." she said.

"The John O'Groats name is iconic. Yet nothing has been done about it and the ownership has been an issue. We would be happy to get involved in that. However, we would need to make sure that people were not forced out and that there was going to be an overall benefit on all counts."

Ian Ross, the Lib Dem chairman of the Planning, Environment and Development committee, did not rule out Gibson's suggestion.

"If someone approaches us with proposals, I would be very happy to discuss them. We have done compulsory purchases before, but we would need to very carefully consider the full range of legal implications," he said.

John O'Groats is a Mecca for the 4,000 people who make the gruelling 874-mile traverse of mainland Britain each year and is visited by a further 170,000 tourists. Among its more unusual visitors have been Ian Botham on his charity walks and a rather chillier Naked Rambler.

But more often than not they are disappointed when they arrive. The Lonely Planet guide to Scotland describes the scattered village with the shabby hotel at its heart as the country's "worst and most embarrassing tourist attraction".

The hotel has not taken guests for around a decade and its bar closed last summer.

"The roof has gone and water is pouring through it," said David Body, the owner of the nearby John O'Groats Pottery.

"As far as the hotel is concerned, it is just dragging us all down. It is possible that a compulsory purchase order would force the owner's hands.

"It could be quite a prestigious hotel, but it is in such a poor state that it is basically unusable. It is an iconic building and other hotel groups would die for a brand and a location like this."

Heritage GB declined to respond after they were contacted by Scotland on Sunday.

But the company has given its backing to a recently launched plan by Highlands and Islands Enterprise that aims to regenerate the area and transform the economy by attracting new investment to the famous Scottish village overlooking the Pentland Firth.

Friday, 8 May 2009

The Way is Clear from a Small Island

STANDING on a small island you may be able to see the way more clearly for the whole country. Granted it could be as misty there as elsewhere in the North.

But last weekend I was privileged to take part in the Giant's Footsteps Family Festival on the Isle of Eigg.

Knowing how Stroma and Eilean nan Ron were depopulated and Handa on the west coast supports a huge bird population, it's a pity these islands proved unsustainable for human habitation. But Eigg is also a wee island, about six miles long. Eighty-five people live there and it has stunning geology, rich wildlife and a vibrant and sometimes violent history. It is populated by a dynamic community which made Eigg an even more special place when, with friends and supporters worldwide, they achieved the historic buyout of the island from its feudal laird in 1997.

It's an hour's sail to Eigg in the Sheerwater from Arisaig on a bumpy sea, only a little short of Orkney in distance. Over the weekend we had fog, bright sun and heavy rain, even hailstones – after all it is early May in the Highlands. Now the island has the chance to steer its own course for the future.

The point of the weekend was that while this community is surrounded by water, a village, a street, a block of flats or an office can call themselves an "island". With just five simple steps every community can become green, but it is easier to do so working with others.

One of the huge achievements of Eigg has been to install a renewable electricity scheme for all the homes on the island. It cost £1.7 million and relies on four windmills, a small hydro plant and photovoltaic cells to provide everyone with 5kw per household. That's far less than most homes on the mainland use each day, but compared to the previous use of diesel generators it is far cheaper and far more reliable.

By popular acclaim the highlight of the weekend was a children's play, The Isle of Egg, an ecological fable that had the kids in the audience shouting for more and the adults in gales of laughter. Produced by Eco Drama it should be taken on a national tour of every primary school because the youngsters who see it will urge adults to change their habits as no government leaflets will.

But here's the rub, TV star Martin Clunes has visited lots of islands to make films of their life, the first broadcast last Sunday. I've read trenchant criticisms of his programme from Shetland. I heard Eigg folk lambast the items he used from their isle, and as for his portrayal of Lewis, namely psalm-singing and shooting deer, what a travesty! It sums up the usual London ITV view of the quaint natives.

It is peddling an old myth that small islands are heavily subsidised. Clunes said it again. Value judgements were being made by such tosh without any facts to back them. I have complained to ITV and I hope others will too, for our islands and small rural communities are vital to the diversity of Scotland and a lifeline to the future.


Rob Gibson beside the wind turbines at the Sgurr of Eigg last weekend. The development is part of the island's successful renewable electricity scheme.

FREEDOM of Information (FOI) is used increasingly to challenge governments. The crisis over the duty hike for whisky last year brought no action or intervention from Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy, according to FOI requests to the Scotland Office in London. Mr Murphy's inaction at a time of crisis for a major Scottish industry destroyed the myth of him as a "hyper-energetic" Scottish secretary.

Last year saw two duty increases on whisky by the UK Government, meaning they planned a 17 per cent rise in a single year, one of the largest such hikes in history. The first nine per cent rise last March caused the Scottish Whisky Association (SWA) "extreme dismay" and they called it "punitive" and likely to set a damaging precedent for the export market. The second planned rise of eight per cent in the autumn was swiftly reduced to four per cent.

The SNP asked the Scotland Office for details of all meetings that took place in the run-up to that second hike with either the Treasury or the SWA, but the FOI request was rebuffed as being against the public interest. A follow-up request was made simply asking whether any such meetings had taken place. The reply stated that there was no record of any meeting with industry representatives.

So much for the role of the Scotland Office performing a vital function within Whitehall in standing up for Scottish interests; this is the first really concrete example of the gap between the rhetoric and the PR with the reality of what the Scotland Office and the Secretary of State actually do, especially with their burgeoning workforce and budget.


THIS week saw the biggest debating time given in the Holyrood chamber this session for any one bill. It took place over two afternoons on Wednesday and Thursday on the Climate Change Bill stage one report made by the transport infrastructure and climate change committee, of which I am a member.

I had the privilege of speaking on issues directly related to the Far North. I dwelt on Scotland's prime good luck to be at the forefront of marine renewable energy. I spoke about changing lifestyles and the need for every section of the nation to make measurable moves to reduce significantly our greenhouse gas emissions. I gave some of the examples of the challenges faced on Eigg, and I welcomed the way the SNP Government, which has introduced such radical ideas, was pressing ahead to make it the best climate change bill in the world. Now we must make it work...

Thursday, 7 May 2009

All Party Support for Principals of SNP Climate Change Bill

Rob Gibson (Highlands and Islands) (SNP): The radical Scots academic Dr Malcolm Slesser died at the age of 80 only two months after the Scottish National Party Government was elected in 2007. He was twice an SNP candidate, a renowned mountaineer and a valued fellow of the Centre for Human Ecology. Before that, he lectured at the University of Strathclyde in the 1970s, where he wrote about his concerns for the planet.

In his groundbreaking book The Politics of Environment: Including a Guide to Scottish Thought and Action, which was published in 1972, he examined how modern technology was being exploited by an irrational economy of

"unlimited industrial expansion in limited space",

which, as the blurb in his book states,

"must inevitably destroy itself, the land, the community and very probably, hazard the future of mankind".

He was an inspiration to many of us in the SNP, an eco-hero who will not be forgotten. His message appeals across party lines, so it is most fitting that in addressing the challenges of climate change, the bill puts practical steps in place to reduce radically greenhouse gases, a science which was in its infancy and of which Malcolm Slesser was only beginning to be aware in the 1970s.

We need action plans to ensure that Scotland shows a lead to other nations by taking our full share of the fight against climate chaos in time for the Copenhagen conference in December. I want to focus on a couple of issues that can make a real difference via the bill. Scotland has many advantages in playing its carbon-busting part. We now know how blessed Scotland is with the largest proportion of high winds, big waves and strong tides in Europe. That gives us a huge economic opportunity to contribute to the UK contribution to the EU's 2020 targets. Tidal and wave power in the Pentland Firth will follow on from the huge arrays of offshore wind turbines to provide secure and safe green power to ourselves and our neighbours to the south and across the North Sea.

Heat represents more than 50 per cent of our energy needs in Scotland, yet heat generated from renewable sources represents less than 1 per cent of demand. A massive increase in the delivery of renewable heat will be required in the domestic and commercial sectors in the years ahead if overall targets for greenhouse gas emission reduction are to be met alongside the targets for renewable energy. The further behind we get on delivering renewable heat, the steeper the targets will need to be in the electricity and transport sectors to meet overall energy targets, and the steeper the targets will need to be across the whole of society in order to meet climate change targets.

I therefore welcome the response from the Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change to the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee's report, in which he pledged that the renewable heat action plan will contain a target to supply 11 per cent of heat demand from renewable heat by 2020 as part of the overall EU targets.

With regard to job opportunities from climate change mitigation, the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee's conclusion on the financial memorandum in its stage 1 report discusses the Government's estimate that 16,000 jobs will be created in the field of renewable energy. Members were "extremely concerned" about the veracity of that estimate, but I am glad to say that at the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee yesterday we heard evidence that verifies that figure—indeed, we heard evidence from some who believe it to be a conservative estimate.

As a member who represents the Highlands and Islands and has a long-standing interest in land use and tenure, I agree with RSPB Scotland on the need for an holistic approach to rural land use. Scottish land plays a big part in our greenhouse gas emissions. Emissions are falling slightly, but they must fall faster. Scottish risk impacts reports must be prepared for our Government, to complement the advice from the UK Committee on Climate Change. Particular features, such as the huge blanket peat bogs in the flow country in my region and our precious native pine woods, would then be subject to technical scrutiny from dedicated Scotland-based scientists. Such reports would provide that scrutiny and an annual reporting mechanism. Annual reporting is already provided for in the UK Climate Change Act 2008, and it should appear in our bill. I hope to hear from the minister on that.

I was privileged to visit Eigg last weekend to see its self-sufficiency drive for renewable energy for all houses on the island. From four windmills, a solar voltaic array and a run-of-river hydro plant, each home gets 5kW of electricity. Few in the cities could cope with such low amounts of electricity, but Eigg folk are leading the fight in limiting demand and securing clean energy supplies.

Malcolm Slesser would be proud that we, as members of the Scottish Parliament, are finding our way to the best means to stop climate chaos. Some 37 years ago, in "The Politics of Environment", he wrote:

"Modern technology need no longer be the servant of economics. It is now able to halt expansion-for-expansion's sake without entailing unemployment and recession. There is now no excuse whatever for trying to impose this servant 'economics' willy-nilly over the more biological, nourishing, attributes of human communities".

The principles of the bill are world class, and the amendments at stage 2 must make it easier for Scots to adapt to climate change. I believe that members of the Parliament can empower the citizens by our scrutiny of the bill now and after it is passed, and I fully support it.


Friday, 1 May 2009

Budget Blow to the Highlands

THE Westminster Budget details have damaged the North of Scotland once again. Diesel fuel duty dealt an above inflation increase and whisky at 14p a bottle dearer. Each hits major economic activity in our area.

The First Minister Alex Salmond has just raised the international profile of whisky on a recent trip to China, then inexplicably the UK Government target the industry unfairly.

This point was rammed home by Gerry O'Donnell, director of The Famous Grouse, at a reception I hosted in Parliament last week. It was a collaboration with the RSPB to safeguard the Black Grouse that attracts 50p from every bottle of Black Grouse whisky. It does not deserve to fail.


Alex Salmond as an MP has spoken in the House of Commons of the need to reflate the Scots economy. Bogus 'efficiency savings' could amount to £500 million each year jeopardising thousands of jobs. This may well contribute to Scottish opinion that sees the SNP Government as far more competent than the UK Labour regime.

Certainly with Mr Brown's moral compass in smithereens and dodgy forecasts of good economic news before this year's end from Chancellor Darling we surely need full powers in Scotland to tackle the problem.

Remember, the big banks based here collapsed due to poor regulation in London. Scotland, like our neighbours in Europe wants re-regulation as fast as possible.

This makes the views of the SNP all the more relevant in the European election in June as they coincide with those of most of our continental partners.

Along with my colleague Linda Fabiani we have asked both the conveners of the Holyrood Economy and Finance Committees to explore a plan for a joint enquiry into the banking crisis that has cost us so dear. We await any support from Labour and Tory members Earlier this week the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Richard Lochhead visited Alness to discuss with local people how their "drive, determination, talent and imagination have made a great difference in their areas". I quote from the opening to the Scottish Government, Rural Funding Opportunities Guide. When we sat round the table in the Board Room at Alness Heritage Centre last Monday morning the upbeat tale of the Easter Ross town's revival unfolded. We then visited the Alness allotments society at Milnafua.

If anything illustrates the current spirit of the town it is the huge demand for allotments. People want to grow fresh food and gain from cheaper produce during the recession. But the issue of growing more locally requires a Highland-wide policy. I'm delighted to see the Council will issue a consultation on allotments next month.

However the key issue is available land. As one of my SNP councillor friends put it, there is no shortage of land in the Highlands. Only the price demanded by housing developers has pushed this up. I was delighted to hear ideas for other areas of Alness. I most certainly believe that the Milnafua allotments set a new standard. Surely the old land settlement laws can be invoked to provide more sites?


ON Tuesday I hosted a seminar entitled Voices of Congolese Women, in partnership with The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) on its 94th Anniversary. One of its founders was Chrystal Macmillan, a suffragette from Scotland.

The situation in the DRC has never been worse as we heard from several Congolese women themselves. In many African countries women represent the majority of the population and are responsible for the daily survival of their communities, yet are frequently abused, ignored or barred from the decision making process.

That must change if progress is to be made.

Photos: Top from left to right - Rob Gibson MSP, Anne McLaughlin MSP, Minister for External Affairs Michael Russell, a young student and interested member of the Congolese community living in Glasgow, Dr Aileen McLeod, another interested member of the Congolese community living in Glasgow, Maureen Watt MSP.

Bottom - The event's speakers, guests and MSPs coming together after the seminar.