Friday, 31 December 2010

Looking back over 2010

John O'Groat Journal

31 December 2010

2010 came in with a wintry blast and it is going out with more snow and ice warnings in the coldest December we’ve seen in decades. Our public services and neighbourly behaviour in the North is coping as ever but we don’t have transport systems that can really cope at below 10 degrees Celsius. Deep snow drifts and salt that doesn’t work at minus 15 requires a rethink along Scandinavian lines. On Holyrood’s Transport Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee I have asked for urgent reviews as a key legacy paper for our Parliament’s new team. We close this session in late March before the May election. Meanwhile my advice is - we'll keep our heads as long as we can keep our feet!

Some extra challenges have been set us. After years of Labour hostility to Scotland experienced by us from Chancellor and then PM Gordon Brown it was followed by the LibDem and Tory Coalition Government elected to Westminster last May which promised to show Scotland respect but also to balance the books.

Respect came in very strange forms. The proposed Scotland Bill could potentially cut the Scottish budget even more than the cuts we suffer this year unless the Scots Parliament Unionist majority wakes up. A specialist committee in Holyrood is led by the Calman creator, Wendy Alexander MSP. The key question is - will Scotland be allowed to invest in our abundant assets if we are to have so few borrowing powers in three or four years time? Meanwhile how are we to fill the gap in funding the renewables industry that is straining at the leash when the Fossil Fuel Levy was denied us?

Meanwhile Westminster cuts could see Stornoway and Shetland coastguards go the way of many previously cut from the Pentland Firth area. Rescue tugs including the Stornoway based ‘Anglian Prince’ is under threat. It was funded by Westminster after learning the lessons of the Braer tanker disaster off Shetland in the 90s. With the Nimrods gone from RAF Kinloss our sea areas are being exposed to greater dangers when oil, marine renewables are in full swing and fishing is still very important here. We also know that the north-west and north-east passages round Canada and Russia will soon be ice free long enough for Arctic voyages by our merchant fleets. Why should north Scotland be so ill equipped to benefit, by remote London diktat?

A hesitant end to recession and the long list of job losses in construction don't make a happy tale this year. However a rise in manufacturing is beginning to get Scotland moving. We hope that the success of Global at Invergordon and worldwide can be added to by the frustrating end to the Nigg yard stalemate.

We can also see with our own eyes that packages of cash are building up for the Scrabster harbour project with the allocation of wave and tidal leases making new demands on harbours. Nothing should be done to undermine delicate and ongoing negotiations.

That’s why the Fossil Fuel Levy denied to the Scots Government by the London Coalition is such a miss. I attended the Green Energy Awards earlier this month in Edinburgh. What a breath of youthful vigour and grit for our economy. From Scottish Government to local developers, from offshore wind farm lessees to skilled workers working in oil and gas abroad who want to come home, it's a big hope that 2011 will see the breakthrough a healthy Scots economy requires.

At Scottish level the SNP Government received deep cuts in funds from the London Tories and LibDems like Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander have cut government spending with an unwelcome passion. Student fees as in England will rocket and a Scottish solution will not bring in tuition fees like English universities. Benefit cuts hit the poorest. The privatisation of the Royal Mail threatens small post offices and the universal service obligation are hanging by a thread. My colleagues in Westminster join other MPs to demand that the London Department of Work and Pensions keep its contract to pay benefits and pensions through the trusted local post offices.

Throughout the year the Scottish Government has continued the Council Tax freeze, maintained the small business bonus and scrapped prescription charges to aid families and businesses.

A couple of sporting high spots included the impressive run of Wick Academy in the Highland League and the story of Ross County's Scottish football cup run to the final at Hampden Park. Local pride was only dented at the last moment but the dream of a wee team getting in about the big boys is the stuff of legends and a friendly confirmation that football is best when rooted in communities that care. In Caithness the start of the Halkirk sports and countryside complex is a most welcome initiative in the same community vein.

2010 saw not just the first and very successful Caithness National Mod but a vast leap in self-belief in our native music and languages which the SNP Government has backed to the hilt. The census in March 2011 will include a question on Scots, to which Caithness dialect speakers can place their ticks.

The North Highland Initiative set up by the Duke of Rothesay five years ago hopes to create more jobs. Our local food producers are well served by its expansion. I hosted the awards to the Young Highland Chef of the Year in the Burghfield House Hotel School Dornoch. Back then in autumn we could see the promise of local talent judged the cream by Albert Roux and his team of top chefs. In my village Evanton the local staff of the Coop Foodstore showed that Highland pride could beat 3,000 other stores for customer service across the UK. It was the year of food and drink and our part of Scotland played a big part.

Let's spare a thought for our troops who are at war in Afghanistan and hope for their safe return as soon as possible. And to all of you I hope you are having a Happy Christmas and will enjoy a healthy, peaceful and prosperous New Year. In 2011 together we can make Scotland better.

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