Friday, 23 April 2010

Time now for talk on Scotland's ferry services

THE foresight and tenacity of Andrew Banks, whose company, Pentland Ferries, has come good after years of struggle, is the subject of a very welcome book.

Roy N. Pedersen has given us a blow-by-blow account in Pentland Hero, published this month by Birlinn.

It tells how crossings to Orkney from Caithness were developed from the times of Jan de Groot to the spanking new catamaran Pentalina (pictured) that plies from Gills Bay to St Margaret's Hope.

The Gills Bay Harbour Committee has been justified in supporting the development of the short-sea route to South Ronaldsay and beyond via a home-made but functional pier, linkspan and breakwater which Mr Banks's team constructed.

Also Scrabster Harbour Trust has developed a state-of-the-art terminal to meet the conditions of the NorthLink tender for "lifeline" ferry connection to Stromness under the state subsidy regime.

I'm sure a big debate will begin as a result of Roy Pedersen's book. Mounting fuel costs and efficiency savings cannot be avoided in these financially straitened times. In this very week the headlines about necessary economies on NorthLink has prompted the Scottish Government to postpone any decisions about slower services or other economies till after the high season and into the autumn.

I am a member of the transport, infrastructure and climate change committee enquiry to match transport and planning needs in this country. It follows a ferry services review we completed last year. This reported that a major debate is needed on how to deliver passengers, freight and vehicles on vessels that are economic and safe in such unruly seas and meet the best principles of regular and logical routes.

Fortunately the issue of monopoly that dogs much of the West Highlands has been avoided on the Caithness to Orkney routes. However, let us make sure that value for the public purse is debated with the short-sea crossing and the needs of Scrabster and Stromness kept in mind. The repatriation of folk stranded in Norway after the Icelandic ash plume has been possible via the NorthLink's vessel Hamnavoe. That's precisely because Pentalina can cope with traffic demand at this time.


MY concerns that the Lib Dems can't be trusted to find ways to curb rocketing fuel prices have been laid out in this column many times. That's because their party is split from top to bottom on the issue, as votes in the House of Commons show.

It took an SNP amendment to the Lib Dem motion last Thursday in the Scottish Parliament to include the widest range of UK Parliamentary options to act now. As I took part in the debate I thought it right to show the final motion that was passed.

For your readers' benefit the Scots Parliament passed the amended motion - For, 73 (SNP, Tories and Lib Dems), Against, 38 (Labour), abstentions, 1 (independent).

It reads: "That the Parliament notes the AA report of 8 April, 2010, that indicates that the average price of petrol in the United Kingdom has reached an all-time high and is likely to rise still further; recognises the high premium over the national average paid for fuel at filling stations in remote rural and, particularly, island communities; regrets the damaging financial and social impact that this has on individuals and businesses in these areas; further regrets the lack of progress that has been made on efforts to find a mechanism to reduce the price of fuel in specified remote rural and island areas of Scotland, and calls on the Scottish Government to hold urgent discussions with the UK Government and the European Commission to construct a mechanism, including consideration of a fair fuel regulator, under the EU energy products directive or otherwise, to reduce the fuel price differential between remote rural and island communities and urban areas of the UK."

Yes it is very clearly an election issue, for the London leaderships of the Tory, Labour and Lib Dem parties believe in market forces which won't help us one bit.

I have made suggestions about bulk buying by the Highland Council which was rejected by the Lib Dems' independent ally Councillor John Laing, chair of TEC services.

I repeated that suggestion again at the transport, infrastructure and climate change committee last week as the cabinet secretary for finance and sustainable growth is looking for islands and remote areas to come up with ideas. If any of your readers do, please let me know.


A COUPLE of thoughts on the UK General Election can be very good for democracy.

Every SNP candidate will sign a pledge of accessibility, accountability and openness - it will be their Community Commitment. It will be their guarantee - their contract with the voters - and it will set the standard for their work on behalf of the people they represent. It will include guarantees on publication of expenses, on regular constituency surgeries and consultation with voters and community groups. Will other parties subscribe?

Every survey of opinion tells us that people across Scotland want to see the Scottish Parliament take on more responsibilities - for our representatives here in Scotland to have the ability to do more to make our nation more successful. The SNP wants Scotland to enjoy the full responsibilities of independence. We believe the 300-year-old political union is no longer fit for purpose. It was never designed for the 21st century world. It's time for a new partnership on our isles, a social union that ensures Scotland and England are equal nations - friends and partners - both free to make our own choices.

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