Friday, 30 July 2010

Engineering firms can lead us out of recession

THE big push to build a durable economy for the Far North is under way. Calder Engineering Ltd, of Thurso, is to be congratulated on winning a new offshore contract.

It's a sign that engineering businesses can lead this area out of recession.

The firm has been supplying cabins to the offshore oil and gas industry and has recently won a contract to supply to the renewables industry.

With the help of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the company secured a deal to provide a suite of offshore cabins for the Sheringham Shoal wind-farm project, 10 miles off the Norfolk coastline.

Like many others, the company's work was based at Dounreay until the decommissioning programme got under way and work there began to dry up. However, keen to find new markets for its fabrication and engineering services, the company designed its range of approved offshore cabins.

The company has been working in the oil and gas supply chain for over 10 years and broke into this new market with specialist support through HIE's account management model.

With the appointment of Alex Paterson as HIE chief executive, who is due to start in August, the public will want to know that Caithness is getting the best out of the enterprise network.

The Scottish Parliament is on this tack too. The economy, energy and tourism committee, of which I am deputy convener, is set to probe HIE and Scottish Enterprise to see if their new structures are delivering more jobs and serving the Scottish Government's goals.

As readers of this column will know, I have explored on many occasions the role of HIE in its prime job to support a skilled workforce leaching from the Dounreay rundown and kick-start the marine renewables revolution.

So far it is too early to see if the HIE role has been as effective as we need.

Regenerating the Caithness economy will be led by what HIE dubs "account managed businesses".

We all agree what needs to be done, so local frustrations at a slow pace of change led me to bring economy and energy minister Jim Mather to meet a range of funders in a meeting earlier this month at Scrabster.


WITH the Scottish Parliament midway through recess and Westminster set for its very long break, we must not ignore the biggest breakthrough Scotland needs to prosper. I mean full financial powers. Some call it autonomy, others independence.

The SNP has repeated calls for Scotland to be given full financial responsibility as the Tories and Lib Dems continue to press ahead with the potentially damaging Calman proposals.

The Lib Dem Secretary of State for Scotland, Michael Moore, and his party admitted last weekend that they want more than Calman while a UK Government tax official conceded on Monday the problems the Calman plans face if the UK changes tax rates or the tax base.

North MSP Rob Gibson (far right) along with (from left): Rod Johnson, Scrabster Harbour Trust; economy and energy minister Jim Mather; Willie Calder, SHT; and Jock Campbell, SHT, who met earlier this month at Scrabster harbour.

It has been clear from day one that the Calman proposals were a political fudge not a serious policy proposal for economic growth.

Even Calman's expert economists do not think these plans would deliver growth in the Scottish economy. Meanwhile a growing body of economists, civic society and business leaders all recognise that it is only full financial powers that will give the Scottish Parliament the ability to really support growth and to tailor the Scottish economy to the needs of the Scottish people.

With Scotland facing up to Tory/Lib Dem cuts as a result of Labour Government actions, the logic behind Scotland controlling her own economy is crystal clear.

If the Lib Dems are serious about showing Scotland respect then they must seriously take forward the calls for full financial responsibility and ensure those are part of the discussions with the treasury.

For the secretary of state to put in place financial proposals he and his party do not believe in and that we know risk serious damage to the Scottish economy would be entirely wrong.

Instead of chairing a group that will try to make the best of Calman's bad job (something John Whiting, of the new Office of Tax Simplification freely admits) the treasury and secretary of state would be better to sit down with the Scottish Government and work on delivering real financial responsibility to the Scottish Parliament to support Scotland's economy and Scotland's public services.

Where do our Lib Dem MP and MSP stand on this key issue for our future?


EARLIER this week the Scottish Government took the cabinet to Dornoch as part of its summer tour.

Started in 2008, the tour gives people a chance to engage with the country's decision-makers.

However, some are opposed to taking government to the people. Condemnation has come from Liberal Democrats and Conservatives. Incidentally, the press release from Tory deputy leader Murdo Fraser attacking the tour said that Dornoch was in Caithness. Liberals and Conservatives say tours of this nature are a waste of money.

However David Cameron and Nick Clegg disagree, as they have announced a not-so UK-wide cabinet tour this year which will take place in towns around England.

Given the fact that one meeting of the UK cabinet tour will cost more than the entire Scottish tour then you might expect the Lib Dems and Tories to really chastise their Westminster amigos. Yet they do not.

I wonder what the Liberal Democrats and Tories have got against Dornoch or the cabinet meeting outside the central belt?

Friday, 16 July 2010

United in a bid for devolution

TRAVEL broadens the mind and narrows the credit limit. But travel also helps us compare and contrast aspects of life we share.

Take the World Cup final. We watched snatches on a huge screen in the Plaza Espana in Vitoria, seat of the modern Basque parliament.

Spain's regions have led devolution (inside a big European state) since those dark days. The Basques have most powers and Catalans next. Others like Galicia (in the north-west) have cultural and linguistic identifiers and a huge fishing industry.

But why is Spain a very popular (and noisy) World Cup winner? They have no preconception of superiority. All the regional strengths feed the national team. However, did the popular support for the Spanish 11 boost political centralism? Hardly, the processes of devolution and gathering powers continue apace.

For example, on July 9 more than a million people held a march in Barcelona to demand national status for Catalonia and the right to self-determination. The demonstration, which was led by the current and four former presidents of the Catalan Government and parliament, came a week after the Spanish constitutional court banned certain articles of the Catalan Statute of Autonomy, which was voted for by Catalans in a 2006 referendum. The leading banner of the demonstration summed up the united feeling - "We are a nation. We decide."

In the Basque lands the violent struggle led by ETA against the equally brutal Franco regime spilled over into the devolution era. Basque national parties tried to build more powers on the devolution settlement that left the main purse strings in Madrid, who resisted peaceful demands. Today ETA is losing support as terror tactics change to overwhelming demands for peaceful extension of powers.

We came to Pamplona to visit during the St Fermin festival, famous for its running-with-the-bulls event that kicks off each day's fun and bacchanalian mayhem. It's some sight to see tens of thousands of locals dressed from head to toe in white wearing red sashes and red bandanas in full-on party mode. Unfortunately I never met the lads from Caithness who drove there in their Highland cow van though. The early-morning start for a three-minute bull and mad human cascade through narrow streets is ancient, as are the nightly bull fights. My experience of a bull fight in Barcelona as a teenager put me off the idea for life. And today a big movement wants to outlaw bull runs and bull rings.


TOM Nairn, the Scottish political philosopher, warned that to compare nations it is best to start with differences rather than similarities when seeking conclusions.

When the Caithness Mod 2010 draws to a close in Caithness on October 16, a huge Basque language event and Basque Highland Games will begin in Pamplona.

A total of 80,000 participants and audience members are expected over three days. And I have been asked to lead a Highland Games and music contingent including a pipe band and heavy athletes. Highland councillors have given their support and representatives will attend.

Does size matter? Should we bother to make friends in the Basque lands? Will it make a difference to our esteem for the Caithness dialect of Scots or our Gaelic heritage?

The Basque Government gets strong popular backing to boost tourist and business links with sympathetic neighbours. The Scottish Government has similar aims with fewer resources at its disposal.

I hope that such cultural links lead to attracting more Basque visitors here. Our parliament is keen to see lots of business links made by smaller firms. We will explore the Basque taste for some Highland produce if we can and maybe strike up some contacts.

Too little has been done officially with our neighbours to make more trade. Whether it is Norway or Euzkadi, we can make new friends and build bridges of common interest in a world where diversity is in too short supply. I noted a shop full of salt cod from Faroes and Iceland. And, yes, the big langoustines on the menus probably arrived via a lorry from Scrabster. There are so many connections to make.

A sprinkling of Basque passion for shellfish, self government, business, music and culture would go a long way to lifting the dead hand of Westminster from our very viable way of life in our own dear land.


AS I write this column in a campsite close to Pamplona, across fields of sun flowers and ripe wheat there lies a ridge whereupon wind turbines twirl in the breeze.

All the way west, from Santander to Vigo, then all the way east via Leon and Castille to Navarra are huge wind farms. This denotes an embrace by landowners and local people. Green energy works, most days. Wind made up 14 per cent of Spain's electric generation last year.

It makes a sizable chunk of Scotland's green power too.

And by the way, big community benefits from wind farms would be good. Don Quixote tilted at old fashioned ones. Embracing clean, green electricity in our backyard could do us a power of good.

It would be most apt for the big electricity utilities to ensure communities share in their profits and a new source of power be given in cash and kind to help fund the Scottish footballers whose toughest target in the forthcoming Euro qualifiers is Spain.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Final week before summer

This MSP’s final week before recess was as packed with contents that bear importantly on Caithness and our local needs as much as other parts of Scotland.

On Tuesday morning a group of us from the Economy, Energy and Tourism committee visited Burntisland Fabricators at Methil which makes the jackets to site 5MW wind turbines for Vattenfall’s Ormonde Field. They have commissioned two other production lines, one other in Fife, to up the production figures. That’s why its a scandal that the LibDem, Labour and Independent Highland Council administration has not got the compulsory purchase order in place to free up Nigg for this work which is in abundance.

We then did end of term tidying of reports on energy developments and land use planning at committees on Tuesday afternoon. This was followed by an extra meeting for me on the Climate Change targets working group. I’ve been chosen as the SNP member in the cross party high level discussion. We have to report on by early September. More news anon.

All MSPs were tied to the chamber for Wednesday morning and afternoon to finalise the Criminal Justice Bill. It is being watered down by all the opposition against the Scottish Government’s community sentencing plan.

Thursday morning was filled with dozens of amendments as Labour and LibDem members tried to remove the registration conditions in the final stage of the Crofting Bill. I had the first question at General Questions just before the First Minister was berated once again by Iain Gray at high noon. Thursday pm was spent with a debate on the prospects for the Scottish budget next year which cannot be finalised till after October as the Chancellor Osborne announces his Comprehensive Spending Review targets after Westminster’s ultra-long holidays.


This Emergency Budget made in Westminster is a result of the mess Labour made of the UK economy. They cannot escape from the fact that they left behind the largest peace-time budget deficit in history. But the Tory and Lib Dem cuts go too far and are too fast and risk damaging recovery and therefore future revenues from recovering businesses.

Certainly we must all face up to the tough financial and economic situation ahead. There must be an honest conversation as to how we address these cut and tax rises. At a government, local authority and personal level - everyone will be affected and we must work together to get through it while protecting the values of our society. In Scotland we care for those in need, we would not tax those in poverty hardest. So this mess must never be allowed to happen again.

Increasing VAT to 20% is a seriously regressive and a poorly thought-out measure. Not only does it disproportionately affect those on the lowest incomes, but it will also take millions of pounds out of Scotland’s public services –particularly the NHS. This is despite George Osborne saying during the election campaign that he had ‘no plans’ to do so.

Meanwhile in the Scots Parliament Labour’s attitude in Scotland is that spending should being going up everywhere, all the time. They simply have not faced up to the reality of the situation they created.

All this needs to be set against upbeat facts about Scotland’s potential. Government expenditure and revenue for Scotland GERS shows for the fourth year in a row Scotland’s current budget balance has been in surplus. The total in balance is £3.5bn. Meanwhile the UK built up a deficit of £72.3bn.

These figures include Scotland’s share of North Sea oil revenues. And looking to the future Scotland’s seas could supply domestic electricity needs many times over by 2050. A UK led report was recently published showing that harnessing a mere third of the 206GW potential would develop 68GW in Scotland by 2050. Of most note is the estimate of 4GW from wave energy, 5GW from tidal stream and 2Gw from tidal range. These are the prizes the Scottish Government sees Caithness playing a big part. Thousands of jobs will be created across the North. That is why the London Government must work in partnership to release that Scottish potential.

This week we also received a warning that public spending cuts would be greater in Scotland under Calman commission’s financial plans to change devolution.

Professors Andrew Hughes Hallett and Drew Scott have warned that Calman changes will have a "more severe" effect in Scotland than in other parts of the UK, and that recommendations from the commission could result in deep cuts in spending, lost income tax revenue and an inability to use higher VAT to compensate.

With the Tory/LibDem budget threatening Scottish growth and the Labour party unable to protect Scotland – having created the mess in the first place – only financial responsibility and finally independence for Scotland can help Scotland’s economy grow more strongly and build recovery.


Danny Alexander MP Chief Secretary to the Treasury appeared before the Holyrood Finance committee on Tuesday evening. It is part of the ‘respect agenda’ of the new coalition government to send its minister’s north. But he has amnesia over his demands last December in an Early Day motion.

In December 2009 the former LibDem campaign manager called on the UK Government to write-off the Highland Council's housing debt so that additional funds are available to meet the chronic need for affordable housing in the Highlands. He further called on the UK Government to provide for a reduced rate of fuel duty in remote and rural areas, which would reduce the cost of transport; and further he called on both the Scottish and UK governments to recognise the additional costs of delivering services in the Highlands in order to prevent unnecessary cuts in vital public services. Not now, but later, we were told.