Friday, 25 September 2009

We are not too wee to achieve sustainable growth

THIS week the word "cuts" has dominated the language of politics in Scotland and across the UK. As the British parties enter their autumn conference season, we see each interpret what they wish us to see.

What a pity that each in turn – Lib Dems, Labour and Tories – do not recognise that demands, with which they say they agree, for more powers in Holyrood stem from a deep-rooted injustice. That injustice is the unionist denial of a right of Scots to vote in a referendum to have tax-raising powers all normal countries possess.

Lib Dems keep telling us local people should decide. But they face both ways as usual as their leaders showed in Bournemouth earlier this week. When it comes to Scots, they deny a referendum bill is our right. No doubt they will show this by opposing the bill the SNP Government seeks to introduce on St Andrew's Day.

When finance minister John Swinney introduced his draft Scottish budget last week it marked the first real-term decline in spending for 17 years. Even Labour academics agree that a cash-term increase is a real-term decrease.

The Scottish Government wants to keep up the work of ending the recession so we need the right to bring forward more funds from next year's budget to build on the investment made this year. This year's acceleration amounted to £347 million and helped housing, construction, enterprise projects and colleges, among others, to accelerate the economy and safeguard 8700 jobs.

Will Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who told the G20 ministers to keep going with government economic stimulus to revive the world economy, tell us we don't need it in Scotland? Of course none of that would matter if we had the borrowing powers of a normal nation. But the UK parties, including the Lib Dems, don't want us to be normal at all.

THE Scottish Government has become the first administration in the world to produce a carbon assessment alongside its budget. In a unique move, John Swinney published the first Carbon Assessment of the Budget for 2010/2011 together with the draft economic budget itself.

The Scottish Government recognises that climate change will have far-reaching effects on Scotland's economy, its people and its environment and is determined to play its part in rising to this challenge.

Mr Swinney said: "By publishing our Carbon Assessment of the Budget, we are taking a significant and, to some extent, experimental step towards recognising carbon implications in the budget process."

I am not aware of any other government in the world committed to delivering this work with their budgets and, once again, Scotland is proving to be a world leader.

In a practical way, this is aided by strong support for low-carbon renewable energy development which we will debate in parliament on Wednesday. This debate very much affects us in Caithness. With the regeneration conference in Wick due the day after the parliamentary debate, I am sure of the commitments of the Scottish Government.

Power production is still controlled by Westminster and the National Grid has rejected a scheme proposed by Scottish and Southern Energy, backed by others, to make grid access easier in Scotland.

Therefore, questions persist as to the fairness of a system that places charges 10 times the cost in Caithness as they do on would-be producers in London. Who can ignore this drawback and what messages we will hear when London Labour sends its representative up north? Can Jim Murphy put economic recovery through renewables deployment before an outdated, Thatcherite model of competition for grid access?

HERE's a sobering thought from across the North Sea. Three quarters of Norway's voters turned out last week and narrowly re-elected the Red/Green coalition government of Jens Stoltenberg. Firstly, it was the country's lowest turn out for decades and, secondly, voters resisted the blandishments of a Norwegian clone of Maggie Thatcher who wanted to dip into the oil funds to reduce taxes on health and education.

The national oil fund was created in 1990 to secure investment for Norwegians in future generations. It is second or third in the world among sovereign wealth funds – worth £259 billion and growing. That easily dwarfs the UK public debt burden of £175bn.

That's why Scots should closely question why the oil and gas wealth, mainly generated in the Scottish sector of the North Sea should have been used to prop up such a rake's progress in the UK economy led by unrepentant City bankers. Britain, unlike Norway, also has huge personal indebtedness due to easy credit for over a decade as well as UK Government spending which failed to save in the good times for any likely downturn. Greed and light-touch regulation has met its nemesis in the crash of sub-prime property in the USA. And the global economy pays a huge price.

Why, oh why, should we in Scotland listen to the London Government's excuses any longer? Surely the way to go is to match savings with borrowings in the old-fashioned way? Surely investment in making renewable energy, wholesome food and a return to training for the necessary skills must be the priorities?

Who is best placed to achieve sustainable growth, London or Scotland? We are not too wee, or too poor, or too stupid to do it. Do Norwegians think like that?

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Diageo debate

Rob Gibson (Highlands and Islands) (SNP): Among his remarks, the cabinet secretary urged us to learn from the Johnnie Walker decision and to look to the future. We must consider that the decision has arisen from Diageo following a consolidation agenda.

In 2007, Diageo announced the investment of hundreds of millions of pounds in a huge new malt distillery at Roseisle on Speyside and in the development of Cameronbridge and Shieldhall, but that was before the world recession. At a time of flattened demand, there is a difference between the sales progress of white and brown spirits. As Wendy Alexander said in the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee on 9 September:

"The issue then was the loss of brown spirits to white spirits—demand was growing much more quickly for vodka than for whisky". —[Official Report, Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee, 9 September 2009; c 2340.]

We have to ask ourselves what Diageo's priorities are. In August, it stated that net sales had increase by 15 per cent. Smirnoff sales were up 17 per cent, Captain Morgan sales were up 29 per cent and Johnnie Walker sales were up 4 per cent. The debate must take into account the effects of Diageo's priorities on the company's thinking and on people throughout Scotland.

A farmer who lives close to me, Hector Munro of Foulis, said in a recent letter that there are "large surpluses of malting barley in both UK and Europe plus World grain stocks" are "generally higher than they have been at any time in the past decade ... Faced with this scenario and with no regional protection for Scottish malting barley, the vital ingredient of that iconic-branded product, Scotch Whisky", which he grows, his business is in doubt. We need to take account of the way in which Diageo's demand for products affects people such as our barley farmers.

Diageo has a range of distilleries, including 15 small distilleries in Speyside. In volume terms, they do not add up to the production of its main competitors—Glenfiddich or the Macallan—hence the idea of developing Roseisle. Will we see a consolidation of malt whisky distilling if world demand for brown spirits continues to move more slowly than demand for white spirits?

As a Scottish distiller, Diageo needs to show sustained loyalty to the complete process of whisky distilling in Scotland. As Wendy Alexander also said at committee:

"The right analogy is with French wine production, and the real issue, which the GMB raised, is whether bottling in Scotland is compelled. Because of the influence of some of the large players in the industry, the Scotch Whisky Association does not support bottling in Scotland, which is astonishing ... The big strategic decision on whisky is whether there is a move to insisting on its being distilled and bottled here. It is interesting that the trade body for Scotch whisky does not favour that position." —[Official Report, Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee, 9 September 2009; c 2341.]

This is the danger in which we find ourselves.

Can we in the Highlands and Islands expect to see consolidation in malt distilling, as has happened with grain distilling? When Guinness took over DCL, it said that it would not cut the number of distilleries. However, the question of cutting the number of distilleries in regions of Scotland and consolidating production has not been removed.

With mega-distilleries replacing the diverse regional nature of our iconic whisky industry, Diageo has to be asked what positive legacy it will leave for Scotland. Is what is good for the Diageo business model also good for Scotland? What level of value will be retained in Scotland? As a previous speaker said, that must be maximised.

I am concerned when Diageo makes statements such as:

"The company has created a flavour map to categorise whisky by taste rather than region in an attempt to demystify the drink and attract new customers."

Scotland wishes to retain the regional nature of whisky production and bottling. We do not wish to be left with a bad taste in the mouth from Diageo's business decisions.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Edinburgh celebrates Catalan National Day

I had the pleasuer of meeting with Xavier Solano, Head of the Catalan Delegation to the United Kingdom on the 16th. The occassion was a gathering in Our Dynamic Earth, Edinbrugh where for the first time the Catalan National Day was clebrated officially in Edinburgh. A fine selection of Catalan wine, tapas, sausages and cheese famed in the Catalan nation greeted the gathering.
Realtions with Catalunya were formally forged by the previous administration in 2002 and the longstanding cooperation between the SNP and Catalan autonomous government were cemented by Parliament Minister Bruce Crawford who greeted the Catalan Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation of the Government of Catalonia on the evening.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Sutherland Summit

Cllr George Farlow and I took a very active part in the Sutherland summit held in Lairg on Monday 14th September. It was probably the most representative meeting of Sutherland folk ever held and developed a range of ideas following a mind mapping session led by Jim Mather MSP Minister for Enterprise, Energy and Tourism and Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham. There was much enthusiasm and food for thought and action throughout the day.

Friday, 11 September 2009

John O'Groat Plans would be a boon

Photo: An aerial impression of what John O'Groats could look like if the new masterplan is implemented.
(Source: John O'Groat Journal)

Well the £15million blueprint designed to breath new life into the derilect John O'Groat Hotel and surrounding area was warmly welcomed by owners and residents alike.

This third attempt to get a viable plan for John O'Groats - but it seems acceptable and ambitious. I believe that step by step its recommendations can be developed.

I fear though that we will not see immediate progress if there is no compulsion on the owners of to modernise it. The council and HIE need to act in the interests of the local community by placing developments into local and committed hands.


The two recent articles give further impression:

Waste Aware Scotland campaign

I had the pleasure of helping Waste Aware Scotland, the Community Recycling Network for Scotland and their Highland campaign partners launch their new furniture reuse campaign on the 11th of September at the Eastegate Shopping Centre in Inverness.
Too appropriately, the Cabinet Secretary Richard Lochhead was their to help launch the campaign as well.
How sensible it is to donate the old furniture you no longer use, in order that a less fortunate family or person has access to these perfectly functional goods. It's an easy yet dramatic difference to make, to help those who are more vulnerable in our communities, as well as lessen our impact on the environment, by donating good quality furniture to reuse organisations like Waste Aware and the Community Recycling Network, instead of sending it to an untimely demise at landfills.
There are many exemplary reuse organisations across the Highlands, and if you have any furniture that no longer serves purpose in your household, get in touch with any one of those below to pass it onto someone who would put it to good use:
  • Blythswood Care is headquartered in Evanton and operates an international network of 56 charity shops, including 18 in the Highland region. Three of these shops sell large items of furniture (Inverness, Evanton, Wick) and others sell smaller household goods. It also diverts large quantities of textiles, books, CDs and bric-a-brac and provides emergency food parcels.
  • HomeAid Caithness is a community-based reuse charity with a shop and warehouse space in Thurso. It operates a referral system for providing emergency furniture packages to homelessness and social work referrals. The project is also expanding its reach to include the west coast communities of Lochinver and Kinlochbervie.
  • New Start Highland is the main furniture project operating in and around Inverness. It provides a range of support services to people moving into social tenancies, including providing furniture and home starter packs. It also runs two community shops, with more in development.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Slainte Blas!

S3M-04809 Rob Gibson (Highlands and Islands) (Scottish National Party): Slainte Blas — That the Parliament applauds the start of the fifth Blas Festival, taking place throughout the Highlands from 4 to 12 September 2009; notes the contribution that the festival makes to cultural and community life in the region and the emphasis placed on the Gaelic language; recognises the variety of venues used, ranging from Eilean Donan Castle to community venues such as village halls the length and breadth of the Highlands, making it a truly local and grassroots festival that offers a unique taste of Highland and traditional culture; congratulates the organisers and participants, including artists from Nova Scotia, for an excellent opening weekend, which saw the premier of Blair Douglas’s Gaelic mass at St Andrew’s Cathedral, Inverness, as well as a host of concerts in a range of venues across the region; recognises the importance of this festival in the annual cultural patchwork of Scotland, and encourages further support from funders and satisfied audiences for the future of Blas.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Pride over Megrahi decision

THE opposition party leaders in Scotland have been finding ways to oppose for the sake of opposition the compassionate release of the convicted Lockerbie bomber.

While they persist in putting up a smoke screen, their masters in London have clinched deals in Tripoli over oil and gas contracts.

It makes you even more proud of Kenny MacAskill's due process and compassionate Scottish response to a legal situation crafted originally by the UK, USA and Libya in which a show trial and imprisonment on conviction in Scotland were agreed in return for normalisation of trade with Colonel Gaddafi.

The news that Nelson Mandela backs the Scottish Justice Secretary confirmed the faith of reasonable people in this small nation. We are backed by a world figure who brokered the trial under Scots law in the Netherlands. So Mr Megrahi's plea to die among his family is logical in Scottish terms if not in that of the vengeful United States.

I have received many communications on this issue, the vast bulk like those who recorded their views in the Ross-shire Journal poll backed the Scottish Justice Secretary. Now we need an international enquiry that can satisfy the families of the Lockerbie victims and a world seeking the truth.


HIGHER history in Scottish schools will include a compulsory section on Scottish history for the first time in 2011. The paper covers, the Wars of Independence, Reformation, Act of Union, 19th Century migration and the impact of the First World War on Scotland.

The omission of the Highland Clearances is said by some to be controversial. However (and I say this as someone who has studied and written extensively on the subject) I am not sure if the benefits of the Scottish Diaspora can ignore the downside back home or the fight back in the 1880s of the Highland Land League. Teaching about the Clearances in the context of the modernisation of Scotland can take place earlier in our schools as few students reach the Higher exams.

Picking aspects of a thousand years of rich, vibrant and colourful history is an unenviable task. There will always be important parts which cannot be covered fully, the Enlightenment and the formation of Scotland by the Picts and Scots spring to mind.

However the very fact that there is a compulsory Scottish element in the new higher is a victory. Scottish history had been discouraged and shamefully ignored by successive governments. A country that has no idea of its history has no real sense of itself. The SNP Government has started to change that and I hope that Scottish History will become a bigger part of Scotland's education, not at the expense of World or European history but as a key part of it.


THE middle of a recession isn't the best time to raise tax on fuel duty but yet again the Prime Minster and Chancellor have raised the fuel tax by 2p per litre this week.

The same Chancellor whilst holidaying in the Western Isles last year expressed his shock at the price of fuel. I wonder what he would say now? Readers in remote and rural areas of Ross-shire understand the curse of high fuel prices for they will suffer the most. This (Gordon) Brown tax is no green tax. It will hit households and businesses especially haulers in the north. The UK Government should help businesses at the moment not hit them where it hurts.

I heard that this tax increase will gather over a billion pounds. How much of it will be given to improve public transport in Scotland?

Be Waste Aware

S3M-04783 Rob Gibson (Highlands and Islands) (Scottish National Party): Waste Aware Scotland-wide — That the Parliament expresses concern at the reported £1 billion worth of food thrown away in Scotland each year, equating to an average of £550 per year thrown out by each household; notes that over two thirds of what is binned could have been used if it had been stored properly and if meals had been better planned; highlights the work of Golspie Recycling and Environmental Action Network, a community-based social enterprise recycling firm in Sutherland, and other good examples around Scotland that set a benchmark to promote positive community awareness on waste minimisation, and encourages Scottish families and households to be wiser with their waste, one of the many simple ways to reduce their carbon footprints and save money.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

World Development Movement new report

S3M-04767 Rob Gibson (Highlands and Islands) (Scottish National Party): Power of Scotland Renewed — That the Parliament notes the publication by Friends of the Earth Scotland, the World Development Movement, WWF Scotland and RSPB Scotland of a new report, The Power of Scotland Renewed; welcomes its findings that by 2030 renewable energy could meet between 60% and 143% of Scotland’s projected annual electricity demand, even when avoiding sensitive wildlife and landscape sites; believes that this demonstrates that centralised power plants can be rapidly replaced by more decentralised forms of generation; further believes that this vindicates the view that a new generation of nuclear power in Scotland is not needed, and calls for priority to be given to energy conservation and renewables and the supporting framework required to decarbonise electricity generation.

To view the report:

Caithness Summer Football Champs

One more round of congratulations to the team and supporters. RG

S3M-04749 Rob Gibson (Highlands and Islands) (Scottish National Party): Caithness Summer Football Champs— That the Parliament congratulates Wick Groats Football Club on its successful 2009 season in which it won the Caithness County League Division One, won the Wick League, won the David Allan Shield, reached the semi-finals of the Highland Amateur Cup and produced the County Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year; congratulates young player/manager Stewart Ross on taking the team from the second division two years ago and leading them to such success; further congratulates Staxigoe United FC on winning the Caithness County League Division Two and the Steven Cup in its first year and Thurso Swifts FC on winning the Eain Macintosh Cup; recognises the importance of summer football in the far north for all ages, and wishes all the teams involved a restful winter and an equally exciting season next year.