Friday, 24 April 2009

Helping the Beating Heart of Economy is Key to Recovery

A WEEK of grim news in the UK budget reveals how little the Gordon Brown Government has left in our coffers. Also, its intellectual firepower to combat the deepest recession in 60 years seems spent.

In the Far North we need much more certainty. It's all very well adopting a green wash in Westminster. It's fine to encourage electric cars. What about the huge investment needed to develop clean sources of tidal and wave power to allow us to plug in? Westminster must not hold back the ambitions shared by the Caithness community, the Scottish people and the SNP Government?

Even before the downturn the Scottish Government had moved to help high streets up and down Scotland through the small business bonus scheme. In just its first year the scheme has helped the owners of more than 64,000 business properties with their business rates, meaning 80 per cent of eligible businesses received some form of rates relief. The Federation of Small Businesses has confirmed these positive trends.

Helping the beating heart of the economy is key to recovery. In the Highland Council area we have over 5600 small businesses which have benefited. They have business rates worth £15.65 million which are now scrapped. Since 93 per cent of them are under £8000 rateable value per annum, they pay no rates at all.

This was emphasised at the upbeat SNP Spring Conference held in Glasgow last weekend. Alex Salmond stressed ways to solve problems. The SNP is not the anti-Labour Party, we are the only pro-Scotland party and that is especially important to remember as the European elections approach.

The SNP seeks to build on our six-point economic recovery programme and support businesses through the downturn. The tough trading conditions businesses are facing make it even more important that we reach those not taking advantage of the small business bonus scheme. After all, they are the vast majority of employers in the North.

We also know that there is an issue with small businesses which have multiple properties. While of course it is right that large chains with many properties are ineligible, the cabinet secretary for finance and sustainable growth has pledged to look at what more can be done for smaller businesses who find themselves unable to access rates relief due to having more than one property. The Scottish Government intends to undertake a consultation on this issue in due course.


BANKS that are now publicly owned invested in PFI/PPP projects. This should mean an opportunity to negotiate better repayment deals. The SNP conference gave its support to a resolution which urged UK Government-owned banks to provide better and fairer terms for the repayment of PFI/PPP debt.

In years to come, the Scottish Government will be making £1 billion of repayments to what are currently state-owned banks – for public sector buildings. PFI is officially dead. New rules mean this off-balance-sheet con is no more and the ridiculous situation of the UK Government bailing out PFI investors in England has exposed this scam for the mess that it is. In these extraordinary economic times, a bit of common sense should prevail and the Government should start negotiating better terms for the PFI debts held by banks in which it is now the major shareholder.

The Scottish Government is investing more government money than ever before in capital projects across Scotland, including through the Highland Council, to deliver jobs, investment and economic growth. The last thing we need is for funds that could be put into the front line of public services, or to increase that capital investment even further, going to prop up UK Government debts.

I welcome the new SNP campaign slogan, "We've got what it takes" – in this case to build infrastructure without saddling future generations of Scots with unnecessary debts.

It's time for the UK-owned banks to renegotiate the PPP debts Labour and the Lib Dems left us with. Again the SNP is proposing solutions, rather than trying to cover up issues like the state of Wick High School, which has deteriorated over decades of Tory and Labour/Lib Dem misrule.


IN the recession, Scotland needs to seize opportunities as they emerge. This includes initiatives like Homecoming, which will this year bring thousands of extra visitors to our shores. As part of Homecoming, the Drive it Home golf campaign sold out within a week. This will ensure that more than 12,000 additional golfers from across the world will travel to the home of golf this year.

The sixth Caithness and Sutherland Walking Festival, taking place from May 2 to 9 as part of Homecoming 200 is another smaller event organised by the Dunnet Head Educational Trust. It is hoped that Caledonian Iberian ConeXions, as the commercial arm of the trust in known, can bring more visitors to Scotland in this Homecoming year and long after.

This July, the largest clan gathering in history will bring over 30,000 people to Holyrood Park and a further 40,000 race fans will make their way to Stirlingshire and Perthshire as Scotland hosts the inaugural Intercontinental Rally Challenge in November. Each can be a springboard to usher more visitors to the Far North.

These snapshots of the Homecoming campaign should help Scotland exceed the target of generating an extra £40m in Scottish tourism revenue and 100,000 additional visitors to our shores, turning around the threatened downturn and giving our tourism industry a huge boost in tough economic times.

Homecoming plays on the distinctive picture that others have of Scotland. We are a land of song, dance and music as well as castles, mists and vibrant cities.

But it was a bit of a shock to find Labour Party critics of the Scottish Government claim that the cost of producing the advert, featuring Dougie MacLean's anthem "Caledonia" sung by many kenspeckle Scots including Sean Connery and Lulu, was excessive. Let's not allow these killjoys to dent our Scottish welcome or national confidence.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Stop Climate Chaos rally

Here I am with Stuart Housden, Director for Scotland RSPB, and an endangered black grouse all rallying for tougher action against climate change. Below that is a photo with all the figures of the people who deserve smiles on their faces, which will only happen through passing a tough climate change bill. Then we can turn the economy to end poverty and build resilience in all local communities.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Credibility of nuclear deterent in 'tatters'

Published in the John O'Groat Journal, 10 April 2009
MARINE spatial planning is much in the news. Its importance to the diverse uses of the Pentland Firth cannot be overstated.

It will be supervised by the new marine management body Marine Scotland which has direct responsibility for marine science, planning, policy development, management and compliance monitoring measures. It is also clear that the gulf or divide between devolved and reserved powers of Holyrood and Westminster affect how this will develop.

When my colleagues from the energy committee were up here last month the various regulatory regimes came into focus. Scrabster harbour controls waters out to Dunnet Head, Orkney Islands Council controls Scapa Flow. Meanwhile, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency has responsibility for shipping and the Crown Estate rubs its hands with glee at the thought of enhanced rents from harbours and marine renewable sites when they develop wave and tidal power capacity.

I am glad Scottish ministers will publish a renewables action plan later this year and that they recognise our ports sector in Scotland is diverse and adaptable. Also, I am glad to see recognition that our Caithness ports are well placed to pursue commercial opportunities in partnership with the expanding marine renewables sector, as Stewart Stevenson told me last week at finance and sustainable growth question time.

He confirmed that the recently-reconvened forum for renewable energy development in Scotland's marine energy group is considering the marine renewable industry's port and transport needs. The identified needs will be set out in the Scottish Government's renewables' action plan.

I went on to ask him to identify the Scottish, UK and European Union funding streams which ports such as Scrabster, Scapa Flow and those in the Cromarty Firth can access to speed up the development of tidal and wave devices in the Pentland Firth.

He replied that it is indeed important that we maximise access to all sorts of funding sources for our harbours, and that funds are available from all. That is particularly the case in light of the substantially higher than expected interest from developers, as a result of the Crown Estate's recent round one leasing programme for the area. The Scottish Government is keeping a very close eye on funding from all possible sources.


I HAVE always been concerned that one of the hidden snags to using the huge power of the Pentland Firth would be that other reserved power outwith the civil law, the Ministry of Defence. Just what its approach is to new equipment in the seas used by their ships and submarines has yet to be fathomed.

On a wider level of UK defence policy, it was shocking to learn last week, through an admission by the MoD, that UK nuclear submarines had been involved in 14 collisions since 1979. Parliamentary questions also revealed that there had been 213 fires on board nuclear submarines.

Last month's mid-Atlantic collision between HMS Vanguard and Le Triomphant was serious enough, but the catalogue of near disasters is extremely disturbing. One collision is one too many – especially when it involves a submarine carrying weapons of mass destruction. The possible consequences are unthinkable and, additionally, more than 200 fires aboard nuclear submarines over the past 20 years is equally grave. We do not know what use subs make of the seas around Caithness and Orkney but it is a factor to be openly explored.


THE overture by President Obama to Russian President Medvedev at the recent G20 meeting in London was a breath of fresh air as he sought the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. However, Prime Minister Brown is still seeking to upgrade Trident.

This follows a procurement debacle which has seen the MoD unable to answer basic questions as to whether new missiles will fit in the replacement Trident submarines. The credibility of the nuclear deterrent is in tatters and it should be scrapped.

Most Scots oppose the Trident weapons system, based on the Clyde, and the worrying catalogue of incidents raises serious safety concerns. As my Westminster colleague Angus Robertson MP, the SNP defence spokesperson, said: "Now, more than ever, the time is right to remove nuclear weapons from our waters". We could recycle the taxes into peaceful marine uses.


A NEW business development programme, designed to help food and drink producers secure lucrative supermarket listings, has been launched by Scotland Food and Drink, Sainsbury's and the Scottish Government.

Eleven food and drink companies from all over Scotland will soon start the six-month programme. A similar course, operated by Scottish Enterprise in 2001, resulted in sales boosts in excess of £10 million – an increase of 85 per cent.

The programme will consist of hands-on workshops to introduce companies to buyers and success stories. Mey Selections, our local brand of iconic Scottish meat, biscuits, cakes and cheese – all of which originate from within a 100-mile radius of the Castle of Mey – has been chosen. This is one of many imaginative moves by the Scottish Government food policy.
Published in the John O'Groat Journal, 10 April 2009

Richard Lochhead, cabinet secretary for rural affairs and the environment explained: "In the current economic climate we are determined to do everything we can to help deliver a sustainable and profitable future for our retailers, farmers, producers and suppliers. Later this year we will unveil the next steps in Scotland's first-ever national food and drink policy, which is aiming to boost business and put more Scottish food on consumers' plates, while at the same time delivering major health and environmental benefits."

The Highlands and Islands needs a fully functioning food network. Unlike Jamie Stone (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross Lib Dem MSP) and other opposition members, I know that a sustainable model is not dependent on HIE funding changes. Budget cuts are not the issue as he and Labour colleagues allege. The SNP is seeking to ensure a sound future for food producers here and across Scotland.

Andrew de Moray Project NEWS

Notice to members - keep your eye on our website:

The AGM of the Andrew de Moray Project will take place in the Station Hotel, Avoch at 6.30pm on the 16th May 2009 after the march and flagraising ceremony. watch site for details.

An approach was made to Neil Oliver to speak at Avoch this year . His agent replied that he was too engaged in work to take part. We hoped he might expand on his views in Scotland’s History that merely touched on Moray’s name as he explained the Stirling Bridge Battle. Surely it would do the story much good if a wider audience saw Ormond Hill and the related sites...

Plans for this year’s commemoration will be published soon, both in print and on our web site. Thanks for assistance to Haley St Dennis in getting us back on track after a duff unworkable site was started and closed. So now we are back to and hope this works for you all…

Interest in the local history group at Tarland near Culblean will see my new pamphlet The Battle of Culblean—St Andrews Day 1335 incorporated in their own local magazine to coincide with this year’s event at the cairn. The pamphlet is now available from my address. Price £2.00 plus post…

In May we hope to maintain the formula of mid afternoon march and ceremony meeting at 2.45pm at Avoch football pitch. Please put in you diaries. The evening kicks off with the AGM at 6.30pm and ceilidh to follow. Details soon to remind you…

I was glad to address the Nairn branch of the University of the Third Age U3A on 8th April. Some members from there hope to attend the Ormond Hill event this year...

Monday, 20 April 2009

Andrew de Moray Project - News

This winter Charlie Beattie has been taking care of the plaque from our cairn on Ormond Hill. It needed some tlc and will be replaced in due course.

I was glad to address the Nairn branch of the University of the Third Age U3A on 8th April. Some members from there hope to attend the Ormond Hill event this year…

The Project needs some more active hands to help develop our ideas. E..G Cllr Craig Fraser suggested we should plan to have a statue on the hill...

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Housing bubble

Letter published in the Sunday Herald, 12 April 2009


Isn't it odd that your astute commentator Iain MacWhirter and savvy LibDem front bencher Vince Cable both spot the problem but offer no answer when the housing bubble burst? [review SH 12.4.09] Especially in this centenary year of the Lloyd George People's Budget there might just be some clues.

First in 1909 the land owning Tory dominated House of Lords lopped off the land tax planned by the Liberal Government to raise revenue towards Lloyd George's sickness benefits and pensions plan.

Second, this led the Liberals and Labour to support site value rating, a form of land value tax for several decades. This tax aims to take the sting out of land prices driven high by house building in prime locations. Every 18 years they crash and end the trade cycle.

Third, in the 1990s I have heard Charles Kennedy recognise site value rating as an option. When did the Clegg/Cable LibDems drop that option that prevents land holders making windfall profits in the housing market from the demand for scarce site in desirable locations, locations that are formed by the fixed asset - land, the very one they can't remove?

Iain and Vince both recognise the current housing bubble is the root cause of the global trade cycle and accompanying bank crash. How about revisiting Land Value Tax LVT, not to replace the local Income Tax LIT which both SNP and LibDems want to introduce, but as a new source of revenue that can steady housing markets in future?

Sparing families the grief of negative equity and its sad retinue could be replicated in each country. And finally the Scottish Parliament did not rule out any such option in its recent debate on financing local government.


Rob Gibson SNP MSP Highlands and Islands,
4 Grant St., Wick, Caithness KW1 5 AY

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Highlands & Islands Local Food Network


I'm sure that Ruaridh Ferguson is not suggesting that I or the SNP Government disagree that 'Fragile areas need support' [letter Gazette 9.4.9]. He goes on to obscure the issues surrounding the need to review the structure of the Highlands and Islands Food Network which has now been acknowledged by all concerned as overdue. I'm sure we will hear soon of ways to build on the good work of the HILFN in recent years. It does need to be able to support every area of the Highlands and Islands and perhaps a more federal structure will emerge.

Mr Ferguson implies that I have no knowledge of local food production issues because he hasn't seen me at HILFN conferences and training events. I am a co-convener of the Parliament's cross party group on food. I am a member of the SCF and Soil Association and other food related organisations mentioned in my register of interests. I recently proposed my motion in support of conventional plant breeding in a Member's Debate on 1st April. In short I have long supported sustainable local food production in the North and believe a strong sustainable HILFN will remerge.

Finally, Mr Ferguson signs himself as LHHP Co-ordinator but his arguments about the refocusing the HIE strategy by the SNP Government look very party political. Coincidentally his LibDem colleagues have focused on alleged cuts in HIE funding. He ignores the opening of the new Gateway through local government, in case CnES which began this month. So small producers need not fear lack of support for their emerging local food businesses.

I hope this matter can be resolved to co-ordinate the marketing and skills involved in local food production. Political or personal point scoring by the likes of Mr Ferguson do not help.


Rob Gibson SNP MSP Highlands and Islands,
4 Grant St., Wick, Caithness KW1 5AY

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

HILFN Sustainable Future

Letter published in the Ross-shire Journal, West Highland FreePress, Stornoway Gazette and Inverness Courier


I welcome calls by members of the board of Highlands and Islands Local Food Network HILFN for a period of reflection and review of the best structure to promote local food in future.

A letter from HILFN board chair Drew Ratter has pinpointed the real causes of the news that the current operation is suspended on 1st April.

I was deeply disappointed that LibDem and Labour MPs, MSPs and councillors have failed to investigate the underlying causes of the HILFN announcement before making comments about HIE funding. I understand that many local food groups in the Highlands and Islands of long standing wish to see a thorough review of the HILFN structure.

The issue is not fundamentally about available public money from HIE which offers seed money to developing businesses. But it is based on evidence about doubts about the organisation's ability to offer core services on a sustainable basis.

The claims about lack of HIE funding made by certain agricultural journalists and spokespeople from SRPBA and NUFS along with several concerned individuals have been made without a full understanding of the months of scrutiny into HILFN last year that ended with the dramatic announcement by Jo Hunt, its director, on March 17th.

I am glad that calmer heads in government and local food networks have been joined by some of the HILFN board who know that a review of the structure can secure effective Highlands and Islands wide support for local producers and long standing food groups.


Rob Gibson SNP MSP Highlands and Islands,
4 Grant St., Wick KW1 5AY