Friday, 27 August 2010

North can't afford to miss the boat

GOOD news for council tax payers this week on the results of the three-year freeze. And it was added to by rising take-up of business rate relief that was pioneered by the SNP Government.

The freeze each year since 2008 has saved council tax payers hundreds of pounds based on what they would have had to pay to fill the gap had our local authority not received its share of the £70 million across Scotland.

The cumulative difference is £164 for band-D council tax payers in Highland. And this week the CBI has warned against calls from council administrations like the Lib Dem, Labour and Independent one in Inverness which wants to increase the council tax.

CBI sees council tax increases in the past 10 years rising 10 per cent above inflation rates at a time when more cash came from the Treasury as a whole.

Of course, in times of deep cuts ushered in by the Con/Dem coalition Government in London - in response to the previous Labour Government's financial black hole - protecting Scottish taxpayers is a prime task of the SNP Government.

Additionally, small businesses, the backbone of our communities, show increased take-up of the SNP's Small Business Bonus Scheme (SBBS).

An estimated 18 per cent more Scottish small business properties benefited from various non-domestic rates reliefs over the last year.

This means that 85 per cent of eligible small business properties paid less. Under the SBBS alone, some 63,000 business properties (almost 30 per cent of all non-domestic properties) were helped in tough times. A further 11,000 properties had 50 or 25 per cent of their bills cut.

Around 110,500 premises in Scotland received rates relief in 2009/10 compared with 94,000 in 2008/09, according to new uptake figures published by Scotland's chief statistician.

These include around 74,000 business properties that paid zero or reduced business rates due to the SBBS in 2009/10 - up from 64,000 recipients the year before.

The Scottish Government has been working closely with the Federation of Small Businesses (Scotland) and local authorities to increase take-up and the first minister will now write to thousands more small firms potentially eligible for relief under the SBBS. Good news indeed in this hard-to-cast-off recession.


IT is good to read in the Groat that encouraging progress is being made with redevelopment plans for Scrabster harbour.

The employment of a Halcrow team as funding go-getters will speed the plans that have the approval in principal of SNP ministers and public agencies.

The need for these facilities to be ready for marine renewables and offshore wind construction, operation and maintenance was driven home to me by the launch of the scoping study by Moray Offshore Renewables Ltd (MORL).Though launched in Inverness it will tour many communities around the shores of the firth.

The roadshow visits Wick on Tuesday from noon to 8pm in Mackay's Hotel. Helmsdale, Brora and Tain, all the way to Peterhead, follow on.

What makes this so important for all around the firth? MORL combines a Portuguese wind energy company, EDP, that is the third biggest in the world with SeaEnergy, which installed the two test turbines beside the Beatrice platform.

Their plan is to build 200 five to eight MW wind towers in the Eastern Bloc before 2020.

It will take support from many surrounding harbours and facilities, and create hundreds of jobs in the process. Not to forget that building the jackets will employ many more as the prospects for Nigg and Ardersier look up.

Many say that they'll believe it when they see it. Why develop the Far North when there are easy pickings in shallower seas?

The Moray Firth wind towers will be in much deeper water than others and promise worldwide application. This time the North can't afford to miss the boat.

Each power source compliments the other and the careful progress of MORL helps our ports such as Wick, where a survey boat sails to the grounds east of Beatrice, and our commercial port at Scrabster to seek their share of this work.

These plans are underpinned by NRIP, the National Renewables Action Plan, now in its third phase as produced for the Scottish Government by Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise.


REAL money is pouring in to develop wave, tidal and offshore wind. The preparatory work by MORL alone costs £40m. However, the story of the siege of RBS HQ at Gogarburn in Edinburgh has a link.

RBS has been very poor in its investment in Scottish renewables, before and after the crash. That means a new bank to pump prime development is needed to augment government support from London and Edinburgh.

I am campaigning for a green investment bank (GIB) to be based in Scotland. My motion in parliament notes that the UK Government's proposal for a GIB would channel public and private sector investment into energy infrastructure.

I consider that Scotland has enormous potential to develop on and offshore renewable energy with wave and tidal power resources in areas such as the Pentland Firth, and therefore urge the UK Government to base the GIB in Scotland near the companies and individuals working at the front line of decarbonising the economy.

We also need to open up access to Scotland's fossil fuel levy with around £200m sitting in a London bank and introduce a fair transmission charging regime.

Between them they would demonstrate the UK Government's understanding of and commitment to Scotland's renewables potential.

Apart from a Green MSP, all who have signed up to my motion so far are Nats. We need cross-party support to succeed.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Fighting to realise Caithness, Sutherland & Ross' potential

I am honoured to have been selected as the SNP's candidate for the new seat of Caithness, Sutherland and Ross in the 2011 Scottish Election.

It is a great honour to contest the new seat of Caithness Sutherland and Ross. However the potential of the area is more and more important and obvious to a lot of people. As a member for the Highlands and Islands I have continually spoken out for the remote and rural communities in the west and North. I look forward to making the case for the new seat.

We stand on cusp of something life changing in the North and West harnessing the powers of the seas and oceans will drive this country and the continent forward. We already see beginnings of it. However we need to constantly talk up the potential so that as many high quality jobs can come to the area and help stimulate the area.

There are other great opportunities in the Caithness, Sutherland and Ross from tourism, agriculture, and our general quality of life is a huge incentive to make things even better here. Following the resignation of the sitting MSP, and the SNP’s strong second place in the 2007 elections, the party is now in a key position to win the trust of local voters.

Tor Achility site visit

he public can walk across hydro electric dams in the Highlands which don't have flood control gear.

This was revealed to me by Scottish Southern Electricity expressing my concern that there was no longer any public access across Torr Achilty dam on the River Conon. Following complaints about the refusal of access to walkers and cyclists, I sought clarification from SSE.

Trevor Williams, hydro operations manager at Torr Achilty Power Station, said: "Scottish Hydro Electric have about 80 dams throughout the north of Scotland.

"We allow public access across some 90% of these. Some require gates to be overcome, but the majority are free access.

"Of the 80 dams, eight house very large flood control gates, of which Torr Achilty is one such.

"The dams are all classed as industrial installations under the access code and, as such, do not require to be made accessible to the general public.

"We regularly suffer vandalism at many of these dams."

SSE has recently carried out in-depth safety risk assessments of the dams that house the flood gates, with the assistance of professional experts.

At Torr Achilty they have found that the level of protection required to ensure public safety in the prevention of an uncontrolled rise in water level downstream of the dam equates to safety integrity level two.

This means that they require a much more sophisticated floodgate control system and a higher level of general security at the dam in order to protect the flood gate operation and control system. Work has now begun on installing the new equipment. It is impractical to screen off the equipment and it is also impractical to provide a fenced off public footpath across the dam, said SSE.
I was honoured to be able to have these words printed in the West Highland Free Press 2000th edition

"I welcomed and contributed to the radicalism and diverse ideas
that drove the early years of the Free Press. I hope that
spirit can be recaptured in future because editorial values
have sagged over the years into doctrinaire stances that have
failed to serve the paper's catchment as the early fervour
promised. We need diverse opinions in a truly free press in
this evolving nation and particularly those which seeks to
enlighten rather than lecture. Good luck with the task. The
land, the languages and the people of the West Coast deserve
it".[by that way I have nearly every copy of the paper to refer to]
Rob Gibson

Friday, 13 August 2010

SNP speaks up for rural Scotland

THE approach of harvest allows time to take stock, chew the fat and enjoy what short burst of sunshine there is.

Prospects are great for wheat and barley prices that have skyrocketed because Russian corn growing areas have suffered the worst forest, field and peat fires in anyone's memory plus choking smog in Moscow.

And people still deny that these extreme weather events are not part of global warming at an unacceptable level.

Promotion and support for our rural communities is very much a touchstone with the SNP Government. For the country as a whole to progress, we need every area to be empowered. This takes time, but a couple of announcements made in the last fortnight by cabinet secretary for rural affairs Richard Lochhead will take us forward.

He set up the Rural Development Council. Its report, Speak Up for Rural Scotland, is a consultation that poses ways for rural Scotland and its people to have a central role in strengthening Scotland's economy.

A county like Caithness is certainly a key player and can help meet the nation's challenges in relation to food, water and energy security - all critical to our efforts in tackling climate change.

Rural areas, such as the Far North, will help make the country self-reliant, secure and sustainable. These goals are going to be much more important in the future for countries around the globe, and Caithness is ideally placed to help Scotland forward.

The cabinet secretary also welcomed recommendations from the Brian Pack-led inquiry into farm support. This means new rules can be introduced which should ensure that only truly active farmers receive support payments.

Single Farm Payments should be made to those who are genuinely working the land and contributing to the economic wellbeing of the country and countryside. The president of NFU Scotland, Jim McLaren, said: "Mr Lochhead's approval of these recommendations will go a long way towards addressing the current situation which allows farmers who are doing very little to receive support in the form of the SFP."

Swift action from the SNP Government will make sure that those who deserve payments receive them.

These may seem small steps, but Scotland's parliament can build the foundations of success for the national economy, and in rural Scotland there are very good examples of the business skills we need already in practice. I met many people at the Black Isle Show who agreed.

With full borrowing and tax powers, Scotland can be at its best - but on the way we must ensure that the energy and enterprising spirit of rural communities can continue.


SENDING a letter at a flat rate anywhere in the UK is something that we have taken for granted, yet there is a potential danger to that.

As the Con/Lib Government looks to sell off more of the family silver (in what seems like Thatcherism mark two), it is rushing forward with the part privatisation of the Post Office, which Labour planned last year. This would be wrong for many reasons, not least because of the threat to the Universal Service Obligation.

Richard and Carolyn Spray with North MSP Rob Gibson (right) at the couple's Pentland Biomass stall at the Black Isle Show last week.

With Richard and Carolyn Spray at their Pentland Biomass stall at the Black Isle Show last week.

In the North we are already suffering from a form of geographical tax. I am sure I need not remind you of the extra charges that are often added for private carriers to deliver here if you happen to live north of Perth.

Another example hits the producers of green energy from the land and seas of northern Scotland who are charged more for access to the grid. This is bad enough, but the thought of the demise of the USO would surely hit us very hard.

The potential is that with the USO abolished, there would be nothing to stop Royal Mail from varying charges for delivering letters sent throughout the UK. I think it is a safe bet that those in Caithness and neighbouring counties and islands would have to stump up more for a stamp than many others in the UK.

There is no doubt that this is something that would hinder rather than help rural and remote living, and all who use the postal services for business purposes. Therefore, I hope that, before the Conservatives and Liberals start merrily privatising what little remains of the Post Office, they make sure that the USO is retained. Or is one United Kingdom for postage already lost?

Oh and, while they are at it, perhaps the Liberal Democrat energy secretary Chris Huhne could ensure a level-playing field for energy transmission in the UK.


NEW statistics give us particular comfort about our energy potential.

Firstly, in 2009 and 2010, in Europe and the USA more electricity was generated from renewable sources, such as wind and solar, than from conventional sources such as coal, gas and nuclear - despite the global financial recession which has affected some investment in large-scale solar and biofuel plants.

In that light, I was glad to meet Richard and Carolyn Spray, the owners of Pentland Biomass, at the Black Isle Show last week.

Not our Pentland Firth but the hills near Edinburgh give the company its name. It sells domestic wood-pellet boilers and has successfully cut the fuel bills in Carolyn's leading bedding plant business. Yes, she is the Carolyn Spray of BBC's Beechgrove Garden.

They can see a big demand for domestic boilers as families count the cost of spiralling gas and oil.

Now the SNP Government and Scottish Parliament are focusing on community benefits from renewable production. Landowners already reap a cash harvest for site rental for wind farms as we well know. Farmers and crofters as well as new wind co-operatives can also see the profits to be made as producers on their own land. Speak Up for Rural Scotland makes this very point, for the first time.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Celtic Connections

A small island off the Atlantic coast of France has adopted its own tartan to mark its Celtic heritage.

Locals on the island of Ouessant have filed the design with the Scottish Register of Tartans.

The cloth includes black and white stripes which come from the Breton flag and red and yellow to reflect the island's crest.

The tartan was displayed during a visit by MSP Rob Gibson, vice president of the Brittany-Scotland Association.

Designer Serge Cariou said: "A few of us wear kilts on Ouessant, to cock a snook at outsiders as a joke. So, after a trip to Scotland, we thought 'Why not design a tartan in our island's colours'?"

Ouessant, known as Enez Eusa in Breton and Ushant in English, lies about 20 miles off the Breton peninsula, making it the most westerly inhabited territory in France. It shares Brittany's Celtic culture and traditions.

The new Ouessant tartan also has blue and green elements in honour of the robes of ancient Celtic druids and bards, according to Mr Cariou.

He added: "Those are the colours of the Eussaf clan, an ancient family that gave its name to Ouessant.

Jean-Yves Cozan, Ouessant regional councillor said: "This tartan is not a gimmick, it's an act of cultural identity to assert that we have roots."

Mr Cozan authorised the use of the name Ouessant and Eusa for the registration of the tartan.

The Eusa design has been entered on the Scottish Register of Tartans as number 10,236.

Pictured below is me with Jean-Yves Cozan, the Breton Regional Councillor for Ouessant who authorised the tartan design locally.

Pictured up top is myself giving a thumbs up to designer Serge Cariou, holding the tartan swatch and certificate from the Scottish Tartan Authority.

Friday, 6 August 2010

So many treats in our larder

IN this week of the 173rd Black Isle Show, harvest approaches; it's time to chew the fat over prices, meet old friends and have some well deserved fun for the family.

There's also lots of lobbying of our trade bodies, and politics wags a lot of chins.

We are slowly scaling the steep climb out of a deep recession in the general economy, yet the food and drink sector has never been healthier. Indeed Scottish food and drink exports increased by 10 per cent in value up to the end of March this year.

The full story of the success of our national larder is far wider. It's not just tourism that contributes to food and drink sales. Farmers markets, village markets and supermarkets all stock more Scottish produce and the Highlands have a big part to produce the goods.

Last week the Scottish Cabinet began its third summer tour in the Burghfield Hotel School in Dornoch. Local food producers were lauded, local opinion sought and a point made that the Scottish Government goes out to meet the people with confidence in Scotland's future.

In a sour note, some LibDems complained about the cost of the Scots Cabinet circuit that also takes in Stirling, Kilmarnock and the Isle of Bute. One UK Cabinet visit out of London cost far more than the whole Scots government tour. Silence among the LibDem and Tory ranks over that.


THIS week Rural Affairs secretary Richard Lochhead attended the Black Isle Show and has commissioned the Rural Development Council report Speak Up for Rural Scotland. He launched the consultation which claims that rural Scotland and its people have a central role to play in strengthening Scotland's economy.

A county like Ross-shire can help meet the nation's challenges in relation to food, water and energy security and is critical to our efforts to tackle climate change. Your feedback is needed by the Scottish Government.

Short of full powers, Scotland's Parliament can build the foundations of success for the national economy and rural Scots are very good examples of business skills. With full borrowing and tax powers Scotland can be at its best but on the way we must ensure that the energy and enterprising spirit of rural communities can continue to punch above their weight.


TWO new statistics give us particular comfort about our future. First in 2009 for the second time in a row Europe and the USA added more electricity generation from renewable sources such as wind and solar than from conventional sources such as coal gas and nuclear. Secondly, the global financial recession has affected some investment in large scale solar and biofuel power.

I have been pressing for Nigg to be a production hub for marine renewables so I am heartened that bids are now in place to get the yard moving. Globally 18 per cent of electricity production is from renewables. Scotland aims to reach 31 per cent by 2011. On our doorsteps the run of river hydro scheme on the River Glass at Evanton is taking shape and the extension of the longstanding Novar windfarm is the evidence for our own eyes.

The SNP government and Scottish Parliament are focusing on community benefits from renewable production. Landowners already reap a cash harvest for site rental. Farmers and crofters as well as new wind cooperatives can see the profits to be made as producers on their own land.

Richard Lochhead's consultation Speak Up For Rural Scotland wants community benefit from clean energy production to support community assets like village halls and music makers and sports teams.