Thursday, 29 October 2009

Questions HIE over land unit

I've gained assurances from HIE that it remains strongly committed to both its Community Land Unit and community land buy outs.

On Wednesday morning (during Scottish Government budget scrutiny) the Holyrood Economy energy and Tourism Committee, of which I am Deputy-Convener, heard from acting CEO Sandy Brady that community land buy outs can contribute to regional competitiveness and that HIE has flexible funding available should major new buy outs arise - even though HIE meets only a fraction of the total cost which has been paid by the National Lottery since the land fund was created.

The Big Lottery has indicated that there have been fewer buy out applications since 2006 (11 from the HIE area to date) compared to the 82 funded for land and buildings from 2001 to 2006 at £12.4 million.

When I asked Sandy Brady about the number of supporting applications that had been lodged, he denied that there was any loss of momentum.

There is an urgent need for the Big Lottery to deliver support for the Embo football team in their bid to turn Skelbo forest into forest crofts.

When I quizzed HIE they did not agree that the Community Land Unit was acting as a gate keeper for the Big Lottery but is doing its best to promote sound applications it receives.

Statistically in this phase of land buy outs it is important to note that 32 of 91 grants made by the Big Lottery involved applicants who had previously received a grant under the Scottish Land Fund (before 2006).

I have previously sought clarification from the Big Lottery as to their attitude to community land buy outs from their Scottish chair Alison Magee.

She assured me in a conversation at the Sutherland Summit six weeks ago that there was no change of emphasis from the approaches of the Scottish Land fund into the era of Growing Community Assets (GCA) post 2006. Community activists were quoted recently as saying the there was a 'lack of momentum' due to Scottish Government disinterest. My analysis of this phase of land buy outs and development suggests that these criticisms are inaccurate.

I will be monitoring progress with great care. If communities feel aggrieved then I need to know. However the availability of £18 million still to be allocated from the GCA Fund before mid 2010 suggests that land buy out applications should be stepped up to test the system.

Monday, 26 October 2009

We need greater recognition of clearance villages

Following reports of lack of interest by Historic Scotland in better listing and interpreting pre clearances villages I've written to the Culture Minister Mike Russell seeking clarification on Historic Scotland's policy toward categorization and promotion of these clearance village sites.

The issue was raised during debates on the reasons for the Diaspora at the Highland Homecoming Festival last weekend and whilst I was attending the final performance of Highland Homecoming's 'Flight of the Arctic Tern' (which in itself was a commemoration of the clearance emigrant Alexander Gunn), I was approached by the Mackay Country Group, (who themselves have pioneered a clearance trail around the Ceannabeinne Township near Durness) regarding the issue.

Having written myself 'The Highland Clearances Trail' which documented villages like Ceannabeinne in order to attract visitors to the sites directly associated with the Clearance it's an important issue that deserves more consideration.

There are many such sites which deserve to be listed, interpreted and remembered as part of our national story. In every part of Scotland and particularly the Highlands and Islands there are dozens of such sites. Historic Scotland has done much good work to celebrate pre-historic sites such as World Heritage Orkney. But villages inhabited for centuries before the Clearances forced their people to scatter need action. I have visited many of these. Good examples include Lorgill near Glendale in Skye; Rosal and the dozens of other settlements in Strathnaver; Badbea on the Ord of Caithness; and Crakaig near Calgary in Mull.

I look forward to renewed efforts by Historic Scotland to safeguard such sites from inappropriate development and prepare appropriate interpretation of a key parts of our history.

It would be a great legacy to leave from the Year of Homecoming to have more information on where people's homes used to be. It is also important to let people know that the wild landscapes that they travel around in the North and West are in fact often man made. The piles of stones strewn across the landscape bear testament to the fact that many people used to live here and were it not for greed and ignorance still would.

Friday, 23 October 2009

The Stakes are high for Scotland

THE SNP annual conference returned to Eden Court Theatre in Inverness for the first time in several years.

Overspill space for those unable to get seats in the main auditorium had to be provided when Alex Salmond made a statesman's address on Saturday afternoon.

The fight to carve a sustainable future for Scotland is focused on two events next year – the looming UK election before June and the SNP's proposed referendum on the Scottish constitution planned for later in the year.

Like others, I was vox pop fodder on the BBC Politics Show. Asked who I preferred as next UK prime minister, I answered that I disliked both choices, so a strong wedge of SNP MPs will be needed to extract support for Scotland. In any case, a hung parliament would be most useful and in Scotland we should be the drivers towards the independence referendum while unionists of all colours will be passengers.

It is no idle jest. The stakes are high for Scotland; will we be a member in waiting in Europe or a backward region of an ailing middle-sized country with a near worthless currency?

Efforts in Inverness and across the land, from the Far North to the Borders, are set to educate and inform voters of the stark choices before them. The SNP does so from a steady and improving voter base, even compared to our score in 2007. Having won the Euro election this year cements the growing support for far more self-government for our nation.


THE conference kicked off with a ringing endorsement of our world-leading climate change law.

We deplore the London Government's refusal to allow a Scottish minister into the UK delegation to the vital Copenhagen conference this December. But many themes on tackling greenhouse gas emissions peppered the debates, speeches and fringe meetings. The vexing truth is that organs of London Government have been slow to back the renewable development which can transform the seas around Caithness and mitigate climate change though a green-energy revolution.

Firstly, the transmission charging regime of OFGEM is now subject to EU competition scrutiny. That's because it discriminates against producers the further from London that you go. My colleague Alyn Smith MEP has backed Scottish Government, HIE and local demands to slash the access tariffs to the grid. Does Gordon Brown care?

Secondly we are appalled that the Crown Estate Commission has announced it will delay till February the decisions as to who gains project licences in the Pentland Firth.

My colleague Mike Weir MP tells me even Westminster has no leverage. John Thurso has protested and I must make two points – one, what expertise does the CEC bring to decide who is best to let loose tidal and wave machines on the rip tides and eddies of the Firth? Two, it is dawning on many others what I have long believed, that the Crown Estate should be taken under democratic Scottish control and transformed to suit Scottish needs.

I detect a groundswell of support here as the CEC effectively delays vital decisions that could reduce our natural advantage for marine energy development – in whose interest? We need to campaign hard for a speedy solution.

Far North MSP Rob Gibson addressing the SNP annual conference, held at Eden Court in Inverness.


HERE'S an update on the greening of the Gibson home. Previously I won a prize from Friends of the Earth in an MSP competition for future planning to climate-proof our house.

This month the work started on a climate-friendly extension with a green sedum roof. Also a solar water system is being installed to cut our water-heating bills. The garden is like a battle zone, with a seven-tonne digger, piles of breeze blocks, sand, cement and huge heaps of top soil near engulfing the hazel and gean trees beside our rickety compost bin. I'm hoping my new study cum ceilidh lounge will emerge a fine wooden structure with top-grade insulated glass panels before Christmas.


OUR SNP conference breaks out in the evening to ceilidhs and Young Scot Nats Karaoke. But also those who like to sing found a friendly hotel lounge and 50 of us indulged in a range of songs from Scotland and far beyond.

We were joined by folk from a' the airts, from Barra to Buchan and Orkney to Ayrshire. Among them was Fiona J. MacKenzie from Dingwall, a Mod gold medallist four years ago. She also closed our conference in a packed auditorium in Highland Homecoming style with an emigration song from Assynt, in Gaelic, and "Scots Wha Hae", in Scots of course.

The combination goes so well wherever you hear it. So let me recommend Fiona's most recent project. Her daughter, clarsach playing singer Katie has teamed up with Shona Donaldson to record the songs of Robert Burns in Scots and English.

It's called The Lassies Reply and uses the Gaelic title for sisters, Púr.

Christmas stockings from Thurso to Tayvallich would be graced by receiving this modern take on our national bard in our national languages by two such talented lassies.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Let's debate Highland Hospice's financial loss

Pictured: Myself with Maria McGill, Chief Executive of Highland Hospice

I've lodged a motion for debate in the Scottish Parliament urging action from the Scottish and UK Government to help compensate Highland Hospice after it lost £658,832 following the collapse of an Icelandic bank.

Due to the nature of the Financial Services Compensation Scheme criteria some wealthy individuals have been repaid after the UK subsidiary of Icelandic bank Kaupthing, Singer and Friedlander went into administration last year. It's also important to note that despite a Westminster Treasury Committee recommendation that all charities be compensated, it still has not happened.

Paying over £25,000 in interest along since the September 2008 collapse, Highland Hospice has only managed to recover £132,294, leaving a black hole of £526,538 in its accounts in contrast to the Christie Hospital in Manchester, a situation in which the Prime Minster directly intervened, resulting in their full compensation. I understand that the reason why the Highland Hospice it has not being bailed out by the UK Government is that the new Third Sector Resilience Fund (introduced by the Scottish Government) would count against it. However I also understands that Highland Hospice does not qualify for the fund.

Therefore the Scottish Government must re-asses the criteria for the resilience fund and I call on the UK Government to fairly recompense all charities including Highland Hospice.

I hope that this motion attracts enough cross party support to allow it to be debated in Parliament. The palliative care carried out by the Hospice is invaluable and unique. It delivers great dignity to those in their final moments of life. And acts as a great comfort to their families and friends. It is important that it is not allowed to end. I hope that both the Scottish and UK Government can take action that makes sure that the excellent care provided by the Hospice throughout the Highlands and Islands can continue.

Further, I have lodged a series of written questions with the Scottish Government asking if the resilience fund can be restructured to allow applications to be made by organisations which were affected by the collapse of the Kaupthing, Singer and Friedlander bank. I will report back on those answers when they are recevied.

A copy of my motion for debate follows for reader interest and comment:

Fair Treatment for all Investors in Kaupthing, Singer and Friedlander

That the Parliament recognises that many charities lost large amounts of money when the UK-based subsidiary of Icelandic bank Kaupthing, Singer and Friedlander was placed in administration by the UK Government in 2008; notes that the Highland Hospice, the only hospice serving adults with incurable life-limiting disease in the Highlands and acknowledged as the centre of specialist palliative care expertise in the region, was one of these depositors; considers that, due to the arbitrary Financial Services Compensation Scheme criteria, some wealthy individuals have been compensated for their loss in full and that, due to a direct intervention by the Prime Minister, the Christie Hospital in Manchester, a registered charity, was fully compensated but that Highland Hospice has not been compensated for its loss, despite a Treasury Committee recommendation for charities to be recompensed, and understands that this is because the UK Government has stated that this would affect the general help provided to the third sector by the Resilience Fund launched earlier this month by the Scottish Government; understands however that Highland Hospice does not meet the criteria of the Resilience Fund, and would therefore welcome both a review of the Resilience Fund's criteria and that the Scottish Government make representations to the UK Government to fairly recompense all charities and enable Highland Hospice to continue to provide invaluable palliative and end-of-life care throughout the Highlands of Scotland.

Copy of my written questions to Scottish Government also follow below:

To ask the Scottish Executive what the criteria are for charities to receive funds from the £1.7 million Third Sector Resilience Fund.

To ask the Scottish Executive who will be responsible for the dispersal of funds from the Third Sector Resilience Fund.

To ask the Scottish Executive whether applications to the Third Sector Resilience Fund from organisations that have been affected by the collapse of the Kaupthing Bank will be given special consideration.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

EC intervention over UK transmission charges welcome

It is welcome news that the European Commission is to write to the UK Government seeking clarification of their transmission charges for renewable energy.

The EC took action following a question from SNP MEP Alyn Smith asking whether the charges which see renewable energy projects in remote areas paying more to use the system, contravenes new EU directives on discrimination against peripheral areas.

Recent estimates of transmission charges show that Shetland, Western Isles and Orkney face a charge of £20 whilst Highland is around _ that figure. Renewable projects in the South conversely, such as West Berkshire and Hampshire, receives a subsidy for production.

First and foremost clarification is needed on the issue. These charges are iniquitous and put in real danger the renewable revolution that could transform the economic future of the Highlands and Islands and Scotland.

It is in the continent's interest that Scotland is given a level playing field when it comes to the production and transmission of renewable energy. In an era of climate change and with issues of energy security at the fore it is ludicrous to have in place prohibitive charges in the very area where the vast bulk of that energy is produced.

The Highlands and Islands are well known for their potential in renewable energy, yet the transmission charges actively work against this. The latest move from the EC is encouraging and I hope they will realise the burden that these charges cause and force the UK Government into a climb down. It has long baffled me how the UK Government can justify these charges.

I hope that members of all parties, especially those from the Highlands and Islands, will support my motion on the issue, copied below for readers' interest and comment, and the intervention from the EC. I hope that they join with the SNP in calling for the UK Government to scrap this discriminatory system so that renewable energy producers in the North and West have a fair deal.

S3M-05037 Rob Gibson (Highlands and Islands) (Scottish National Party): End Discrimination in Transmission Access Charges: That the Parliament welcomes the intervention of the European Commission over the UK Government's iniquitous transmission charges that are considered to discriminate against producers of renewable energy in remote areas; notes that recent figures estimate that under these charges renewable energy producers in Shetland and Orkney pay over £21 per kilowatt hour to use the system while in some areas of the south of England a similar venture would receive a subsidy of around £7/kW, and considers that these charges are unfair and represent a risk to a viable renewable energy future for Scotland, especially the Highlands and Islands, which in turn jeopardises potential jobs as well as economic and scientific advancement.

Scottish Parliament written answer and question confirming the discrimation in charges:

Estimated cost of transmission charges in Scotland and cost and subsidy of charges in England and Wales.

S3W-27749 - Maureen Watt (North East Scotland) (SNP) (Date Lodged Friday, September 25, 2009): To ask the Scottish Executive what the average national grid transmission charge is in each local authority area.

Answered by Jim Mather (Tuesday, October 06, 2009): The generation zones used by National Grid to calculate transmission charges do not precisely match local authority boundary areas. However, according to National Grid estimates taken from their Seven Year Statement* published in May 2009, National Grid estimate average transmission tariffs for generation in each local authority area in Scotland, England and Wales are as follows:

Local Authority - Average Generation Tariff (£/kW)

Aberdeen City 21.5887
Aberdeenshire 19.5926
Angus 16.8710
Argyll and Bute 14.8222
Clackmannanshire 14.4797
Dumfries and Galloway 12.4227
Dundee City 16.8710
East Ayrshire 13.6017
East Dunbartonshire 16.8710
East Lothian 13.6017
East Renfrewshire 13.6017
Edinburgh, City of 13.6017
Eilean Siar 21.1042
Falkirk 14.4797
Fife 14.4797
Glasgow City 14.2367
Highland 19.8546
Inverclyde 13.7977
Midlothian 13.6017
Moray 21.5887
North Ayrshire 13.6017
North Lanarkshire 14.0407
Orkney Islands 21.5887**
Perth and Kinross 15.6754
Renfrewshire 13.7977
Scottish Borders 13.6017
Shetland Islands 21.5887**
South Ayrshire 12.4227
South Lanarkshire 14.0407
Stirling 15.1148
West Dunbartonshire 13.9937
West Lothian 14.0407

Bath and North East Somerset -1.6032
Bedfordshire 2.1105
Blackburn with Darwen 6.1423
Blackpool 6.1423
Blaenau Gwent -1.6032
Bournemouth -3.2820
Bracknell Forest -1.3867
Bridgend -1.6032
Brighton and Hove -1.3867
Bristol -1.6032
Buckinghamshire 0.3619
Caerphilly -1.6032
Cambridgeshire 3.1542
Cardiff -1.6032
Carmarthenshire 0.2537
Ceredigion 2.1105
Cheshire 3.1542
Conwy 5.7534
Cornwall -6.6838
Cumbria 6.1423
Darlington 9.8537
Denbighshire 4.1979
Derby 2.1105
Derbyshire 3.1542
Devon -4.9829
Dorset -3.2820
Durham 9.8537
East Riding of Yorkshire 6.1423
East Sussex -1.3867
Essex 1.1825
Flintshire 4.1979
Gloucestershire -0.2931
Greater London -2.7034
Greater Manchester 5.1701
Gwynedd 5.1938
Halton 6.1423
Hampshire -2.3343
Hartlepool 9.8537
Herefordshire 0.2537
Hertfordshire 0.3261
Isle of Anglesey 6.8725
Kent 0.2545
Kingston upon Hull 6.1423
Lancashire 6.1423
Leicester 2.1105
Leicestershire 3.1542
Lincolnshire 4.1979
Luton 2.1105
Medway 0.2545
Merseyside 5.1701
Merthyr Tydfil -1.6032
Middlesbrough 9.8537
Milton Keynes 2.1105
Monmouthshire -1.6032
Neath Port Talbot -1.6032
Newport -1.6032
Norfolk 3.1542
North East Lincolnshire 6.1423
North Lincolnshire 5.1701
North Somerset -1.6032
North Yorkshire 7.9980
Northamptonshire 2.1105
Northumberland 11.7277
Nottingham 2.1105
Nottinghamshire 3.1542
Oxfordshire 0.3619
Pembrokeshire -1.6032
Peterborough 3.1542
Plymouth -6.6838
Poole -3.2820
Portsmouth -1.3867
Powys 0.2537
Reading -1.3867
Redcar and Cleveland 9.8537
Rhondda, Cynon, Taff -1.6032
Rutland 3.1542
Shropshire 2.1105
Slough -1.3867
Somerset -3.2820
South Gloucestershire -1.6032
South Yorkshire 4.1979
Southampton -3.2820
Southend-on-Sea 0.2545
Staffordshire 2.1105
Stockton-on-Tees 9.8537
Stoke-on-Trent 2.1105
Suffolk 2.1105
Surrey -0.5661
Swansea -1.6032
Swindon -1.4949
Telford and Wrekin 2.1105
Thurrock 0.2545
Torbay -3.2820
Torfaen -1.6032
Tyne and Wear 9.8537
Vale of Glamorgan -1.6032
Warrington 6.1423
Warwickshire 2.1105
West Berkshire -1.3867
West Midlands 2.1105
West Sussex -1.3867
West Yorkshire 6.1423
Wiltshire -2.0906
Windsor and Maidenhead -1.3867
Wokingham -1.3867
Worcestershire 2.1105
Wrexham 2.1105
York 6.1423

*Information to existing and prospective new users of the GB transmission system to help them assess opportunities for new or additional use of the grid system.
**Shetland and Orkney will have additional offshore tariffs once the offshore Transmission Operator tender process is complete, however these tariffs have not yet been determined.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Clydesdale Bank’s new £20 bank notes enter circulation

The first of Clydesdale Bank’s new world heritage bank notes will entered circulation on the 19th of October. The new £20 notes are now available in Clydesdale Bank retail branches and the majority of ATMs across the country.

The £20 note features iconic images of the historic mill house New Lanark on one side and Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland, on the other.

Clydesdale Bank’s new world heritage note collection showcases the best of Scotland’s heritage, people and culture and is the first time in over 20 years the Bank has launched a completely new set of notes.

Introduced to mark the year of the Homecoming, the front of each new note will honour a prominent and innovative Scot while the reverse will feature one of Scotland’s five World Heritage sites.

Clydesdale Bank is the largest issuer of notes in Scotland, with over £1.1bn in circulation in any given week.

The new notes will be the first in the UK to use a new ‘depth image’ hologram security feature.

Collectable notes from the new collection were part of Clydesdale Bank’s recent auctions of rare and valuable bank notes, where a £1 note sold for £9,000 breaking the previous world record for the sale of a Scottish bank note. In total, across the two auctions, the Bank raised over £200,000 for charities across the UK.
The designs on the rest of the notes are:
• £5 Featuring Sir Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin, on the front and St Kilda on the reverse.
• £10 Featuring Robert Burns on the front and The Old & New Towns of Edinburgh on the reverse.
• £20 Featuring Robert the Bruce on the front and New Lanark on the reverse.
• £50 Featuring Elsie Inglis, a suffragette and surgeon, on the front and the Antonine Wall on the reverse.
• £100 Featuring Charles Rennie Mackintosh, architect and designer, on the front and the Heart of Neolithic Orkney on the reverse.

Monday, 19 October 2009

SNP back further progress on land reform

At last weekend's annual SNP Conference, I was pleased to have two resolutions on land reform backed by an overwhelming majority of the delegates. The resolutions call for the speeding up and increases in community buyouts as well as new information on who owns Scotland .

In presenting each motion to Conference I also urged, and would do so again now, the agencies which are responsible to speed the land reform process. HIE must make a speedy commitment to back its Community Land Unit and ensure it is funded. Also, it has to be far more pro-active to support volunteers who apply for funds and stop giving the impression that it is a gate keeper for the Big lottery.

The Big Lottery itself has applications for buy outs, such as the one from the Embo football team, to set up forest crofts in Skelbo woods. The Big Lottery says it is carrying on best practice from the Scottish Land Fund days but that has to include buying government owned land for community uses and I will be writing them to seek clarification on the progress of the Embo and other bids.

This is still very much a live issue for the SNP. Overall, the SNP conference underlined the party's long held commitment to thorough land reform. At Eden Court the delegates endorsed my proposals to seek compulsory registration for all land holdings over 100 acres on the computerised land register. Means to identify and ban secretive offshore trusts from owning Scots land was called for. Enforcing residency obligations on overseas and absent land owners of large tracts of Scotland can ensure they are registered and accountable for their actions - this was also approved overwhelmingly.

Land reform in Scotland still has a long way to go. However the resolutions and support of the SNP show that we are well placed to take it forward. There is an appetite in the Scottish Government to make sure that all Scotland's assets are put to their best use, land is prime among these, I look forward to further progress on this issue and copy both resolution below for reader comment:


32 Community Buy-Outs
Conference notes the low numbers of community buy out approvals and calls on the Big Lottery Fund to end its presumption against funding the purchase of government land.

34 Land Reform
Conference calls for the preparation of land reform measures by the Scottish Government to make optimum use of Scotland's basic natural resource in keeping with the principles of sustainable development. Conference recognises the slow pace of land registration through the National Registers of Scotland and seeks consideration of mechanisms which will speed up the process including means to identify beneficial owners of large areas of Scotland and the consideration of compulsory registration by landowners for all holdings of 100 acres and above. Conference also seeks an assessment of the practicalities of enforcing residency obligations on all land owners from overseas and gathering evidence on means to ban offshore trusts and companies and private trusts from owning land in Scotland

Friday, 16 October 2009

Growing mood of optimism

Published in the Ross-shire Journal

THIS week's SNP Annual Conference returned to the Highlands now that Eden Court Theatre is all in fine working order. The mood of delegates from all over Scotland after two-and-a-half years in minority government at Holyrood is one of quiet optimism. The SNP could not have found itself in government at a more difficult time with the credit crunch bearing down on government spend. Britain tightens our belts without us deciding which notch on the buckle.

The opportunities presented to the Highlands to be at the centre of a major strand in our economic recovery are a great plus.

Renewable energy aplenty on and offshore can help drive the steep targets we all agreed to set when the Climate Change Act passed unanimously last June. But just to underscore how petty London Labour can get, a request for a Scottish minister to join the UK delegation to the UN Climate Summit this December in Copenhagen has been turned down.

The Conference backed the calls for Scotland to have the borrowing powers of a normal nation and the rights of all peoples to decide our constitutional future by a referendum held under internationally verified conditions. We are discussing recovery for our financial services industries. We need a seat at the top table in Europe as a full member state that affects many domestic issues. Since LibDem, Tory and Labour conferences have all attacked the right of Scots to make far more of ourselves, we in the North know that a new vibrant future for our nation has to be decided here. After all with huge natural resources, a strong record of educational excellence and growing self-confidence, our nation can at last come into its own.

TALKS are being held with the Transport Minister on the railway crossings issue. Members of the Transport Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee, of which I am the only Highland member, agreed to receive a report as the facts become clear on the Halkirk accident. Also I fully back the aims of the motion raised by my colleague Willie Coffey for debate. It points out the complexity of the regulatory regime.

The Parliament regrets the continuing loss of life at railway level crossings, most recently at Halkirk in Caithness and, in January 2009, at Gatehead in Kilmarnock and Loudoun; notes the large number of organisations involved in the investigation of rail accidents and incidents in Scotland, the Rail Accident Investigation Branch, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, the British Transport Police, Scotland's eight police forces and the Office of Rail Regulation, and considers that, following the Review of Fatal Accident Inquiry Legislation being conducted by Lord Cullen, a modernised system of fatal accident inquiries can contribute to greater coordination and scrutiny of any inquiries, including the implementation of any recommendations, by whichever agency, following such tragic incidents.

Solutions are not as simple as placing barriers on ungated crossings. Have the cameras at the three Dingwall crossings had any effect? Only when we get a reasoned response to tragic accidents such as those at Delny and Halkirk and Kilmarnock will we see the way ahead.

I welcomed the Invergordon incinerator protesters' visit to Holyrood along with other groups round the country. Their call is for thorough repair, reuse and recycling of waste. Similarly Dennis Scott of Northern Tyre Recycling UK Ltd., Evanton suggested to me the use of bales of old tyres to provide road foundations as another proven carbon reduction tool. Highland Council could lower the carbon intensity of road building over boggy ground.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Murphy is a political tourist with warm words

CAITHNESS Transport Forum (CTF) met last Friday, as ever purposefully, with updates on how to make the county more connected in the coming years.

However, part of the rail report hit raw nerves concerning the tragic deaths of three elderly car users at the Bridge Street level crossing at Halkirk.

On my way to the meeting, relatives of one of the deceased raised hopes that solutions to rail crossings can be found. Another less temperate e-mail demanded to know whether I support the erection of barriers at every ungated crossing in the North.

The general mood of the CTF was one of restraint. Let's wait and see what the rail accident investigators report. But there has been no shortage of comments in the press and TV.

I have taken a long-term interest in the safety of our railways and level crossings. There are a small number of trains per day on the Far North line but there are issues about low sun in drivers' eyes and questions arise as to whether rail crossing equipment always works. In the current Halkirk case, klaxons were heard as the warning lights engaged.

We owe it to those who perished to get it right. However, fully-gated crossings come at a price of £1 million plus. So investment of that scale would deflect from improvements to rail timetables, tracks and signalling.

Lives lost are beyond price, but I do hope that both road and rail users can be spared future trauma. Particularly the train driver and the families of those killed.


WITH no parliamentary pairing system as at Westminster, unless members of all four big parties are on business, we in the SNP are unable to attend constituency events such as the Caithness Regeneration Conference last Thursday.

John Thurso MP invited the Secretary of State for Scotland, Jim Murphy MP, to address the gathering. As I predicted, the latter was merely a political tourist with nothing but warm words to offer those present.

The previous afternoon I made the closing speech on behalf of the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee in the parliamentary debate following the Scottish Government's response to our year-long energy enquiry.

That had included a visit to Orkney and Caithness involving members of four parties and was followed by the publication in July of the Scottish Government's Renewables Action Plan, which addresses costs and timings of projects and harbour developments to deliver the renewables bonanza.

In a personal capacity, I noted that the opportunity for the Highlands requires the Beauly to Denny power line.

Once it has been installed, the North of Scotland, which in the past has received social support, can be a huge contributor instead. We are now at the cutting edge of Scottish society and can take forward work that is of national and international importance. The committee saw that if developments in the Pentland Firth are to proceed, we need harbours and other transport infrastructure in place because that will determine what equipment we put in the sea.

A shared determination to ensure the delivery of the sustainable energy made the debate on Wednesday, September 30, a major benchmark, giving a united voice.


WE had our first star witness at the economy, energy and tourism committee's banking enquiry on Wednesday, September 30. Love him or hate him, Robert Peston, the BBC's business editor, is big news.

I asked him if root-and-branch reform was proposed by Gordon Brown's Government to make it clear where discussions take place between the Financial Services Authority (FSA), the Bank of England and the treasury, and would we be able to see a lot more transparency of regulation?

Mr Peston replied that it is not simply a question of tweaking the rules, but that since the crisis there has already been one quite big regulatory change: the Bank of England has been given the power to take over a failed bank, which it has done.

This allows the deposits to be hived off and kept whole and is an important step in the right direction. Many would say that it was long overdue.

He continued: "When it comes to the systemic issues, it is not 100 per cent clear to me who is in charge, or rather, who will be in charge when the bill becomes law.

It is unsatisfactory that, at the moment, the systemic issue falls between the Bank of England and the FSA. There must be oversight of the system as a whole.

"When excessive risks are being taken, it is hugely important that they are monitored and that judgements are made and acted on. However, it is unclear to me whether, after the legislation has been passed, we will be clear enough about precisely where the buck stops," said Mr Peston.

A Holyrood sketch in The Times the following day suggested that I tried to lead Mr Peston into political point-scoring by inviting him to criticise Mr Brown for not putting in place sufficient regulation of the banks. I believe I succeeded.

Read at your pleasure further details of the committee meeting with the full transcript found here:


I AM delighted that Cabinet Secretary for Education Fiona Hyslop has announced that every pupil in Scotland will be taught the key personal finance skills they need to be successful in the future.

While many schools have excellent practices in place, provision for pupils is variable.

So Learning and Teaching Scotland (LTS) is to produce a delivery plan which will ensure good-quality financial education is delivered to every pupil in every school in Scotland through the new numeracy curriculum.

Meanwhile, in my column, published on August 14, I said that the digital TV switchover would be free for those over 75, the disabled and blind or partially sighted.

In order to clarify this point, while some groups of people mentioned qualify for a free switchover, it is possible not all will. This can be confirmed through the "Am I eligible?" section in the switchover literature. The standard charge for the scheme is £40.

Friday, 9 October 2009

New info on non lecture

New information has come to light and it seems the advertised lecture due to be given by the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England Charles Bean at UHI Millennium Institute this month was never going to take place, despite it being publically advertised, I've just learned.

This only renews my calls for a representative from the Bank of England to give evidence to the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee of the Scottish Parliament banking crisis inquiry.

It seems the Bank of England had never sanctioned a public lecture by Mr Bean in the first place but WILL meet privately with business people at various points in Scotland - just not publically.

The central fact still remains that they refuse to come to the Scottish Parliament and be accountable to it. Their information would be a vital part of the committee's findings yet for reasons only known to themselves they refuse to attend.

I call for them yet again to recognise these unprecedented economic times, that they are open and transparent to the institutions of Scotland and that they appear in front of the Committee, which has had good will and co-operation from many agencies, institutions and individuals north and south of the border.

In search of Mr Bean the Banker

As Deputy Convenor of the Economy Committee I have a number of times over the past year requested the presence of the Bank of England to give evidence and speak to the comittee as part of our inquiry into the banking system.

I am now bemused to learn of the disappearance of the Bank Of England's Depute Governor, Charles Bean, from a lecture he was due to give in Inverness.

Only earlier this week I challenged Mr Bean, or any of the Bank's other senior representatives, to appear in front of the Committee only to receive a snub reply that they refused. This is in stark contrast to the Office of Fair Trading, the Financial Services Authority and UK Financial Investments who are all set to give evidence at the inquiry.

As it turns out, just following their refusal, Mr Bean has since cancelled the speaking engagement in Inverness without explanation. It is a shame as well as I would have liked to ask him in person why he or anyone else from the bank refuses to appear in front of the committee.

Their information would be a vital strand in the overall inquiry which has already taken evidence from the BBC's Robert Peston, and will receive written from the Treasury as will addressed by the Financial Services Authority in due course.

It beggars belief that they can make themselves available all over Scotland but not in the country’s Parliament! This is an important inquiry, but without an examination of the Bank of England’s role in recent economic events we cannot get to the bottom of what happened in the industry and, more importantly, focus on the future.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Real change for rural housing is needed

I took the opportunity in the Rural Housing debate in chamber today to call for an end to rural clearances and a return to rural re-settlement. The debate was prompted by the rural housing report of the Rural Affairs and Environment Committee, encouraging the Scottish Government to encourage more housing in rural areas.

I am glad that the matter had been brought to the fore under an SNP administration. As in the last Parliament myself and Richard Lochead, the now Cabinet Secretary for Rural affairs, were blocked by other committee members for introducing such a report.

Real change to the planning system is needed to help deliver more homes in rural areas. When local plans come up for production, the proposals are put forward by the planners, who have an holistic view— in theory —about how settlements ought to operate, and why it is more economic to have people living in small areas so that dwellings can be serviced more easily. We have to challenge that view; the SNP believes that there are issues around the way in which village envelopes are currently structured, and that has to change. Why should a person have to have a job in agriculture to live and work in the countryside? We must find a way around that.

Arran, for one, is a prime example of why change is needed for the whole of Scotland…One applicant there is trying to get a plot for his son to live and start a business. The plot is based 10 minutes from Brodick pier. North Ayrshire Council has denied the application as they stated that they did not think that the site was 'appealing' enough for the applicant. It's remoteness and the use of mechanical transport would distract from the appeal of the area and it would set a precedent which would be 'undesirable'.

Rural affordable housing has been allowed to become further out of reach to the general population for generations. This report is a start and I welcome it. However, there needs to be greater practical change in planning departments for a real difference to be felt and made. Repopulating rural areas is something which will breath new life into the country and is an aspiration worth achieving.

Comments and thoughts always welcome on this page!

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Holding the MoD to account

North West Sutherland Councillor George Farlow and I have written to the Ministery of Defense following up on last Wednesday's accident on Laxford Bridge. The MoD must take responsibility for this incident which nearly killed 3 soldiers and debilitated a lifeline road into the north of Scotland.

Their insurance money should be used in full to repair the bridge and substantially improve its approaches, especially given their long-term and continued use on this route. In the meantime, HGV traffic serving ports of Lochinver and Kinlochbervie face a detour of 50 to 100 miles because only vehicle under 7.5 are able to use the damaged bridge right now.

George and I are asking that the MoD act positively, and give something back to the community it utilises so heavily. The wear and tear which the MoD's exercises put on an infrastructure in the North West, which it was never meant to bear, is worrying at the least. I fear that there could be further instances such as those that happened last week which could have far worse consequences. It is time that the MoD takes responsibility for the pressure it puts on the roads and bridges of North West Sutherland. Repairing, strengthening and improving Laxford Bridge is a good way to start.

Such responsibility is not without precedence. Local authorities regularly put demands on developers to upgrade infrastructure before planning permission is granted, so it asking the MoD to upgrade the infrastructure to complement their uses, the transport of 1,000 pound gun transporters for example, is a reasonable ask.

Monday, 5 October 2009

MoD must take responsibility

Life in NW Sutherland has been dramatically disrupted by the potentially fatal accident at Laxford Bridge involving a Ministry of Defence articulated lorry last Thursday (1 Oct.)
The parapet at Laxford Bridge on the A838 was destroyed, the bridge is barely operable, and three soldiers nearly lost their lives. The background to this accident of course being the MoD's continual use of the road for hauling and delivering 1000 lb bombs for firing at Cape Wrath. The exercises are detrimental to our wildlife and breeding bird numbers, crofters continually suffer stillborn lambs when there is bombing during lambing, and now, when we are trying to extend the tourist season, Cape Wrath is closed to the public - the other obvious, yet consistently ignored, detriment being the clogging of this lifeline artery on the Highland roads network due to heavy MoD use.

The MoD uses this route to take enormous amounts of equipment north to the bombing range at Cape Wrath and this pinch point hits hardest where the main road from the south, the A894, meets the road from Lairg and the Inner Moray Firth before both going north to Durness and Kinlochbervie.

North West Sutherland Councillor George Farlow has called for the MoD to pay up - to dual track this demolished bridge and the short section of single track road so that it is made safe for all to use and the communities in remote Highland gain from this unfortunate incident.

I fully support George's calls and I will be writing to the MoD to seek a full explanation and agreement by them to pay full costs so that local people are not out of pocket and any environmental damage as well as damage to the bridge is made good as soon as they can. The Royal engineers are always touting for bridge building activities. They are needed urgently now to fix Laxford Bridge. It's not a lot to ask and certainly, with the bridge now demolished, an obvious reparation for the most recent damage done.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

The Links Fair, Golspie

On Saturday I had the great pleasure of opening a new green office space in Golspie, appropriately dubbed 'The Links', and take part in the first ever Links Fair.

The Links was first approved to be built in October 2007, with the Cabinet Secretary Richard Lochhead formally cutting the first sod. It is the new home for five public bodies - Scottish Government Rural Payments and Inspections Directorate, Forestry Commission Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Community Energy Scotland.
Included on the Fair's agenda were “Roots and Flutes” musical entertainment by Bob Pegg, The Green Machine mobile Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime display manned by The Northern Constabulary, nest box making and willow sculpture activities, a demonstration of “greenwood” working, a native tree stall, mountain bike activities (bikes included!) and a venison burger bar provided by the Forestry Commission with venison from their own properties.

The Links Fair was the perfect event to not only provides an opportunity for local people to see the new Government office facilities in East Sutherland but also raise awareness of environmental issues and show the importance of the environment to many Scottish Government objectives.

This building represents a partnership of public bodies who all aim to provide a more efficient and effective service by providing easy access to information and advice; a consistent and responsive service, and delivering a service which focuses on customer needs. And as I am told, staff working in The Links are already noticing the benefits of having partner agencies “next door”.

The rural agencies under one ecologically friendly purpose built roof is an example for other parts of Scotland.
Pictured: Visiting with Fiona Cameron, Development Officer for the Leader Programme in Caithness, at the Fair.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Thurso Groaties Take the Biscuit

It's official, Reids of Caithness in Thurso has won the gold star award for their treacle and toffee biscuits in this year's Great Taste Awards.
This local company has been running in the area since the 60's and it was a pleasure to extend my, and the Parliament's, congratulations to their accomplishment in an official motion (below). I made sure to deliver a copy of this to Reids over the weekend and shake their hand (and hopefully taste their biscuits!) in person.
The Great Taste Awards have been described as the Oscars of the food world and this comparison demonstrates just how important this award is. I wish them every success in future ventures and sincerely hope this is the start of many more accolades in the future!

S3M-04946 Rob Gibson (Highlands and Islands) (Scottish National Party): Thurso Groaties Take the Biscuit— That the Parliament congratulates Reids of Caithness, in Thurso, for its win in the 2009 Great Taste Awards, organised by the Guild of Fine Food; recognises the hard work and innovation that goes into devising products of a high enough standard to gain a gold star, such as Reids’ Groaties; further recognises the commitment of the Reid family to the baking industry in Caithness since the 1960s and wishes them every success with their business in the future.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Visit from Thurso High

As an MSP I often get the pleasure of meeting with students in Parliament that have travelled down from my constituency to see the building and its operations.

On Thursday I got to meet with the students of Thurso High and explain to them a little bit about an average day for me and answer any questions they had. It's encouraging to connect with Scotland's next generation of leaders, and now that the Parliament has made free and very available all tours throughout the building, I expect to have this opportunity even more so in the future.