Friday, 28 May 2010

ERI's First Annual Lecture

The immediate importance of the ERI's work has never been more clear. Some key parts of that work are focused on peatland monitoring and marine currents and wave action in the Pentland Firth, which is set to host marine energy are critical to sustainable futures for the this part of Scotland.

I commend the ERI's development as an internationally recognised success story in the UHI's family of excellence.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Map system promotes a positive future for crofting

The importance that a legally valid mapping system has to promoting a positive future for crofting communities was highlighted in Thursday's Stage 1 debate on the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Bill.

Such a system would root out absenteeism and give crofters greater security.

I very much welcome the vote which passed the first stage of the Government's Bill on Crofting reforms in the Scottish Parliament without amendment. The amendment proposed by the Labor Party (which was voted down) would have kept crofting in the 19th Century. This Bill has the potential to take crofting into the 21st century.

In response to Labour and LibDem MSP who oppose a map based croft register, I would say that previous governments before and after devolution have failed to instruct the Crofters Commission to root out neglect and deal with absenteeism. In the 21st century the mapping of all land holdings is seen as key to plan land use and give individual land holders secure, legally binding title.

Crofters who sell part of their crofts pay for registration, in around 500 cases a year, this SNP Government welcomes agreement by MSPs that a community based croft mapping scheme is acceptable. But ultimately boundary disputes and individual crofters responsibilities will be best served by a legally-binding map based register.

I am delighted that the Labour amendment was defeated. This would hold back crofting regulation into a pattern more suited to the 19th century. I hope to see the new Crofting Commission draw up crofting development plans. These will help planners and crofters to build a bright future.

I also hope to introduce an amendment to the bill at the next stage to introduce simple annual reports by Grazing Committees as to the uses and misuses of crofting land. This should act as a spur to the Crofting Commission to prioritise the removal of the worst examples of neglect and help crofters make far better use of the available land.

A wasteful decision

Disappointingly, following an appeal, a waste to energy plant has been given the go-ahead for Invergordon after it was blocked by Councillors earlier this year.

The huge carbon footprint of gathering waste for such a plant should be spurring us to reuse, repair, recycle as these are our best weapons against any economic case for such a waste to power plant.

We should be looking to produce less waste not more,so that they can power waste to energy incinerators. This is a retrograde step which will not be welcomed by the vast majority of people in Invergordon and surrounding area.

And it was disingenuous to blame the SNP Scottish Government for the decision. It bears noting that the reporter was independent of the SNP and the decision was not party political.

These are points I raised on Wednesday speaking in the Zero Waste debate in the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday, and I will continue advocating this.

The LibDem administration has no cause to lash out. Along with SNP Cllr Maxine Smith we have been strong and consistent opponents of the scheme and will continue to be.

However now we see the Lib Dem led Highland Council administration in their true light. If they oppose incinerators, why was there no amendment by their MSPs in the Zero Waste debate in Parliament to that effect? Or are they merely as divided as ever when it comes to the crunch?

Monday, 10 May 2010

WW2 Arctic Convoys directly contributed to Allied Victory

Welsh Guards paraded in Red Square Moscow this weekend to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the victory of the Allies in WW2.

Meanwhile I paid my respects to some of those who made the victory possible, travelling to Wester Ross to lay flowers at the Arctic Convoy Club Memorial at Rudha an t'Sasain on the south shore of Loch Ewe.


Ferry questions that need detailed answers

A week before last I lodged a series of questions on the costs of running Northlink Ferries - which are due to be answered next week.

Stocks of a new book 'Pentland Hero' by Roy N Pedersen have sold out in the first print run. It raises major questions about many aspects of ferry contracts and competition to serve these islands.

Since an in-depth ferries review is due from the Scottish Ministers it imperative that we know as much about the costs of ferry services as possible. I have been acutely aware of the superficial claims made in the wake of the Iceland volcano ash crisis about the uses made of the 'Hamnavoe'. Orkney citizens and those in Shetland and the Western Isles need to know that truly lifeline ferries can be delivered at reasonable costs.

Roy Pedersen's book notes that a Private Finance Initiative arrangement was struck by the LibDem/Labour Executive in 2002. I'm sure that this contract to lease the three Northlink ferries which runs to 2015 is the starting point for some forensic analysis. I'm more attracted to sort out our ferries, than to shout 'hands off'. I'm sure most Orcadians will feel the same.

Written Questions lodged Thursday 30th April:

S3W-33471 Rob Gibson: To ask the Scottish Executive what the annual costs are of leasing the three ships in the Northlink fleet which commenced in 2002.

S3W-33472 Rob Gibson: To ask the Scottish Executive what the annual cost of bunker fuel has been in each year from April 2003 for the three ships in the Northlink fleet.

S3W-33473 Rob Gibson: To ask the Scottish Executive whether the quality of oil burned by the three ships in the Northlink fleet has ever changed since 2003.

S3W-33474 Rob Gibson: To ask the Scottish Executive what the annual figures are for (a) passengers, (b) cars and (c) commercial vehicles carried on each ship in the Northlink fleet since April 2003.

S3W-33475 Rob Gibson: To ask the Scottish Executive on how many days have the Scrabster to Stromness and the Stromness to Scrabster services been interrupted by adverse weather conditions in each year since April 2003.

S3W-33476 Rob Gibson: To ask the Scottish Executive on how many days have the Aberdeen to Lerwick service and the Lerwick to Aberdeen services been interrupted by adverse weather conditions in each year since April 2003.

S3W-33477 Rob Gibson: To ask the Scottish Executive how many times has the scheduled call at Kirkwall in the Aberdeen to Lerwick Northlink service and the Lerwick to Aberdeen service been abandoned since April 2003.

Thursday, 6 May 2010


A briefing note sent to Councillors from Planning Director, Stuart Black has highlighted the fact that valuable time has been wasted in getting Nigg back to work by not pursuing Compulsory purchase more vigorously.

The note highlights work that has to be done and revisits timescales for action first discussed in 2007. The report refers to a forthcoming Strategic Planning Committee in May but has been sent ahead of an SNP motion to Highland Council next week to urge the Council to.

An early Compulsory Purchase Order could have led to the area being ready to take advantage of a substantial jobs boost for a large part of Highland. Our fears have always been that there has been a lack of will to get the job done. I think folk in Highland will have to look at this Lib Dem led Council and ask why they are no further forward. If Highland loses out on Nigg’s potential then they will know where to look.

Former Strategic Planning Chair and SNP Council Group Finance spokesman, Councillor Drew Hendry has said “The briefing note restates what Councillors were told previously and it is a huge disappointment that the document seems to indicate a further significant period of time to get things going. We were given outline times of 18 months to 2 years for the process to obtain a “back to back” agreement and work required for a CPO in 2007 and in 2008. Consultants have produced a Masterplan for Nigg, but what we have here is a clear sign that work has effectively stopped whilst KBR were, ultimately, wasting time. Any background work should have been done alongside the fruitless waiting around for KBR”

He added “It is vital for Highland that we finally get this thing by the scruff of the neck and get a move on, every additional delay pushes our ability to take advantage of new jobs further away. I believe that we could have a World leading renewable industry here and that will only be achieved if those in control start showing some urgency.

Local SNP Councillor, Maxine Smith, Cromarty Firth further commented, “The detail of the report is largely old news, but the admission that we are virtually back to square one is alarming. It is also worrying that officers seem to be briefing with a recommendation ahead of a member’s motion to Council, I think that opens up serious questions about the lack of political leadership on the council, if, once more, officers are trying to “frame” responses to get the results that they want as opposed to the view of the elected members representing their constituents"

The briefing note read as follows:


The Council is committed to securing the early release of the Nigg site in line with its approved Masterplan which focuses on the renewable energy potential of the Yard.

A report will be submitted to the PED Committee on the 26th May covering three issues:

a) The announcement by KBR on the 14th April that it would not be proceeding with its plans to re-develop the yard but would be seeking alternatives for the redeployment of the site including the prospective sale of the facility
b) To consider various options for securing the future development of the site including the prospect of promoting a CPO. In essence following a twin track approach by supporting the sale and release of the entire Nigg site whilst keeping the pressure on by undertaking the preparatory work to promote a CPO.
c) The first step in the CPO process is to draft a Back to Back Agreement which would be advertised in the OJEU for interested parties with the aim of securing a ‘preferred bidder’ before the CPO process begins.

The PED Committee will consider a paper to instruct Officers to procure external assistance to prepare the Back to Back Agreement. Thereafter the Draft document would be brought back for approval before advertising in the OJEU.


1. The Nigg Development Masterplan and associated documentation has gone through all necessary stages as has been approved by the Council as ‘supplementary guidance’.
2. This would underpin any CPO process.
3. There has been no direct contact from KBR with the Council since their announcement on the 15th April.
4. DSM has completed the acquisition of the adjacent 800 acre Dow Chemicals Site and are understood to have approached KBR to discuss the Nigg Yard site in which they have an interest. They propose to develop the Dow Chemical land and the Nigg Yard as a Business Park for large scale assembly/fabrication and to use some 20-30 acres of the yard area for decommissioning.
5. It is understood that KBR’s selling agents DTZ are awaiting instructions from their client on whether the sale will be on the open market or whether discussions are to be opened with DSM or other parties who have expressed an interest in the site.
6. The major stumbling point has been a clause in the lease of the Wakelyn Trust land to KBR which requires the lessee to reinstate the land to dunes at the conclusion of the lease in 2031. This would present a major impediment and disincentive to any developer even were the Wakelyn Trust prepared to assign the lease to them.
7. Were the site to be sold it is likely that the Wakelyn Trust would also wish KBR to ‘buy out’ this lease condition which would further complicate matters.


1. The Convener has written to Scottish Ministers urging them to consider bringing the Nigg Yard into Public Ownership.
2. Officers of HIE and the Council have jointly prepared an options appraisal for the Nigg site which considers five scenarios ranging from ’do nothing’ leaving this to the market to dictate and outcome through to a public sector purchase by HIE, a CPO with ‘back to Back Agreement’ by the Highland Council or possibly a public sector/Joint Venture agreement. All options have pros and cons., differing likelihoods of success and timescales.
3. HIE may have difficulty in taking forward a public sector purchase whilst there are indications of private sector interest. They would only intervene where there is market failure.
4. The key decisions for the Council to make to move matters on are:
a) to instruct officers to commence work on the ‘Back to Back Agreement’;
b) in parallel with this to begin preparatory work to promote a CPO.
5. There is a risk of abortive costs in excess of a six figure sum being incurred in preparing a Back to Back Agreement and promoting a CPO if the site were sold before these could be applied.
6. From commencement to completion the estimated timescale for a Back to Back Agreement would be of the order of 15 months.
7. The CPO could not begin in earnest until the Back to Back Agreement nears finalisation with a preferred bidder appointed. It would take a minimum of 10 months thereafter to complete if it was not challenged by the landowners and anything up to 22 months if challenged through the courts.
8. The time frames outlined above represent an optimistic assessment but this clearly demonstrates that a CPO cannot be the only approach given the rapidly closing window of opportunity for entry into the Renewable Energy Market.

Stuart Black, Director of Planning & Development
Geoff Robson, Head of Environment & Development
5 May 2010"