Friday, 25 February 2011


John O'Groat Journal

25 February 2011

After being trailed several times as the threatened cuts to education services in the Far North the blockbuster closures have been fleshed out now by the LibDem-led Highland Council administration. Their wish to close and amalgamate primary schools is a council-wide priority but one that starts far from Inverness.  But I believe that its ‘review’ of schools in Caithness must take as a first principle the pupils' educational needs not cost-cutting. Why is it that only in tough times do school closures loom?
I am working with my council colleagues from all over the Highlands to make it clear to the LibDem, Labour and Independent administration once again that the SNP will be watching them to ensure that they follow Scottish Government policy regarding rural schools and curriculum delivery. This wish-list of school closures would decimate rural Caithness and some town primaries too. It is to be considered by Councillors for the first time after the May Scottish election.
I also think it is vitally important to update you on the SNP position on the administration’s proposal to ‘cease provision of Classroom Assistants in the Primary Sector’. In case you did not know, on the eve of the full Council meeting of just over a fortnight ago, the Lib Dem led administration, without any reference to the opposition, advised the media that they had abandoned their proposal to dispense with the valuable services of three hundred and forty-four classroom assistants.
Whilst many families and employees of the Council took some comfort from this media coverage it is the SNP’s view that this summary was a cruel deception.

The very clear position of the administration is that they remain committed to making the saving identified in respect of classroom assistants and LibDem Councillors Foxley and Alston are both on record as advising that ‘there will be job losses in the Primary sector’.

At the full Council Meeting, the SNP Group proposed the retention of all 344 posts. It proposed funding this from the Council’s £12.957million reserves which, in turn, would be replenished, on an ongoing basis, from savings on energy resulting from the roll-out of the new IT equipment.  

Those savings were reported to the Climate Change Working Group on 3rd February 2011 as being £900,000 and despite some scepticism by the administration about ‘locating the savings’, the Resources Committee on 16th February heard confirmation that savings would be made in this coming financial year.   

It is a source of real disappointment that, for overtly party political reasons the administration was completely unwilling to consider our proposal, which would have saved all 344 posts, and moved their decision to shed posts in the Primary sector until after the Scottish Parliamentary election in May.

The SNP Highland Council Group recognises the need to continually review what the Council does. However, it remains totally opposed to any loss of classroom assistants, a stance with which I totally agree. These assistants have proved great support for teachers in making the Curriculum for Excellence a reality. We do not and will not support the pre-determined ‘review’, of the Highland Council administration, the stated outcome of which will be ‘job losses’.

Increasingly I conclude that there is far too little dialogue in detail as to the Council’s budget costs and cash requirements with the council tax payers in order to keep services in place. I think at all ward meeting the public, not just teachers, need to see how the Council’s cash is spent. Let your local councillors know if you want more details!

My travels took me as far afield as Ullapool, Kirkwall and Thurso last week. That’s why good public transport is close to my heart. Also the Caithness Transport Forum is meeting today [Friday 25th] to review the latest prospects after a hard winter has ripped up our roads and delayed trains and ferries.

The cost of running Northlink and Calmac has been budgeted for by John Swinney and was passed by Holyrood. This will increase from £77.8 million in 2010-11 to £94.4 million in 2011-12. The sharp increase is to be mainly explained by the soaring price of fuel oil which Scotrail’s diesel trains experience as do the bus services. So these shocks are added to the pumps hikes for private motorists after the $100 barrel of Brent crude was passed and VAT increases from 17 ½ % to 20% in January by the London coalition.

At the weekend I became aware of a price hike for bitumen, another oil based product that is the ingredient of our road resurfacing. £80 a tonne is the price for bitumen today for a major local contractor and he is likely to see another rise of 33% next month, just when proper road repairs can begin after the severest frosts pass. We more than ever need the fuel regulator and cap on fuel and oil products in the rural as well as island parts of my vast region. When will Westminster wake up?

Readers will recall what a problem Stagecoach has been on the long distance service to Inverness. I’m getting far too many complaints about insensitive timetable changes from constituents as far afield as Thurso to Evanton and over to Ullapool. When community representatives speak out – as you have to – remind the Inverness manager that Stagecoach receives a hefty subsidy for carrying bus pass holders.

They had better come clean about their commitment to the less profitable routes. It’s not an issue that will go away. However, the bus users of Rosemarkie got a timetabling decision reversed in the favour of their community. It should give heart to all in the North to keep up the pressure to get passenger friendly treatment from such a publicly subsidised bus company.

Thursday, 10 February 2011


John O'Groat Journal

10 February 2011

I’m sure, readers, that you will be cheered by the latest police statistics. Under this SNP Government recorded crime has fallen to a 32-year low and fire deaths have continued to fall over the long term.

In order to maintain these successes in the face of unprecedented budget cuts, reform is now necessary. However, even without the financial pressures, we would still be looking at structural reform. The current set-up for police and fire boards dates back to the 1970s, and needs to be reviewed for the 21st century. Maintaining the status quo is not an option.

The current configuration of eight police and fire boards dates back to the 1970s. They align with the old regional councils, which were abolished in 1996 and as such have no relevance to the current setup. Indeed the Northern Joint Police and Fire Boards take in four of these council areas.

Lib Dem politicians seem attached to Northern Constabulary. That’s no protection for a local service or making the police accountable. The key to locally accountable policing needs a whole new approach. Yet LibDems have made it clear what they are against change. Why not ensure that all councillors keep an eye on the local police area commanders and their staff? So far LibDem spokespeople refuse to say what they are for. Typical!

Labour’s claim that “where they lead, the SNP follow” is somewhat undermined by the drip-drip of Labour politicians appearing in the press to condemn Iain Gray’s support for a single police force. Meanwhile every councillor could grill the police, not just the one in eight who are appointed to police boards and travel the Highlands and Islands rather a lot.

The Scottish Government and most stakeholders including the Police Federation and Fire Brigade Union within the fire and rescue service have reached a consensus that eight services are not sustainable over the longer term. The Ministerial Advisory Group recommended change to the SNP Government which believes there are significant arguments for a single service, but the SNP will continue to consider all options that can demonstrate long term sustainability.

Significant arguments have been made for a single police service, as recognised
by many others across the political parties. However, we want to consult the people
of Scotland. The Cabinet Secretary, Kenny MacAskill wants to widen the debate and that everyone should have their say. Unlike the Lib Dems, the SNP are determined to put bobbies before boundaries.

Our priority is frontline policing and we continue to meet our one thousand extra officers pledge with 17,371 police officers in Scotland. At 30 September 2010 there were 1,137 more police officers in Scotland than at March 2007. Talk of cuts in police staff numbers and compulsory redundancies are based on speculative estimates of possible funding cuts, put together before the SNP published the current budget for 2011/12 with a settlement of 2.6% reduction in police funding.

There will have to be new ways for the police to investigate misdemeanours so that the process is nationally acceptable. But it could mean that we get a major part of the police structure run from somewhere in the highland area – not necessarily Inverness.

The consultation launched this week presents a range of options for both the fire and police services. These include eight services but with enhanced collaboration; a regional structure with fewer boards; and a single service.

Hard times for public services must not be allowed to overshadow good news. A huge milestone was reached last week with the granting of full status for the University of the Highlands and Islands. I know it is born into difficult circumstance but it can underpin jobs, ideas, careers, young returners to the North and international student intakes to many of its courses.

Thanks are due to the tenacity of many campaigners from the 1930s onwards. However two men in particular set the wheels in motion in 1986. SNP councillor Sandy Lindsay retired from the Aviemore ward and he encouraged his successor Dr Iain Glen to put the creation of a Highland University in his manifesto.

On his election he called for and joined a committee with other councillors including the late Sandy Russell of Kingussie and Cllr Val MacIver of Evanton and others which led to a pact with the Highlands and Islands Development Board. In 1987 the Regional Council and HIDB each pledged £100,000 to kick start the university campaign.

I know it took twenty-five years to arrive at full status but my involvement with the North Highland College and particularly its Environmental Research Institute at Thurso and the Dornoch campus with its Burghfield Hotel School are ground breaking. They deserve a place in the confident future of this collegiate university with campuses scattered from Shetland to Perth.

The most recent fatalities near Castletown were on my mind at the beginning of the TICC committee short enquiry into road safety and young drivers than began this week.

A key witness, Professor Frank McKenna of Reading University, said many campaigns aimed at making young drivers safer were not effective, and could even be counter-productive to their original aim. I asked him about the use of road safety education to influence teenage drivers.

He said: "I think, sadly, the evidence for a great deal of road safety interventions is nil. I think there are all sorts of reasons for that. Road safety is full of well-motivated interventions that are not based on either solid evidence or formal theory.

"When they are assessed often, they have no effects and sometimes they have counter-productive effects."

Prof McKenna said despite enthusiasm for such campaigns among politicians and those who deliver them, they are often not evaluated, and when they are, they are "not effective".

Measures such as increased supervised experience for young drivers and graduated licensing, where the new driver is gradually exposed to more risks, such as night-time driving, had been shown to work. A report will be delivered to Parliament before dissolution in March.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Tackling soaring fuel prices

As a Highland MSP I have pledged to bring together Albyn Housing,Scottish and Southern Energy and residents to seek solutions to mountains of debt from electricity bills in so-called affordable homes in Strathpeffer.

Following local press coverage lst weekend I visited residents in Ulladale Crescent, Strathpeffer while campaigning in the village.

I was shocked to read then hear first hand of the debt mountain the heating systems have led to.

I aim to help residents reduce huge bills they pay in houses that are only a few years old.

Rob visits residents in Ulladale Crescent

It is clear to me that a breakdown in communications exists between residents, Albyn housing and the power utility SSE that needs to be mended.

Despite few residents wishing to speak out, there are too many people suffering winter fuel bills that would heat up the sky. Meanwhile they are getting themselves into an electricity and rent debt spiral.

I am trying to set up a round table discussion with all parties. There are residents in many streets in the north and all over Scotland in fuel poverty who need this help. This is happening in the most energy-rich nation in Europe but scots are not yet in control of the revenues. I will focus on Ulladale Crescent, Strathpeffer to try to help but I am seeking information from others in a similar heating bill plight. I hope they will contact me with their stories.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Independence and delivering on promises

A week-long independence referendum promises days of hope in this New Year for the people of South Sudan. They are likely to vote strongly in favour of breaking from the Khartoum-based regime. It is mainly peaceful and joyful. Good luck to them and every support will be needed to end years of neglect and harassment. However they are far from resource poor. Major oil concessions have delayed the change but can fuel their recovery.

Hopefully other examples of newly independent states such as Montenegro can get positive recognition by Scots i.e. when you ignore the sour comments of Labour’s Scottish Parliament leader Iain Gray. In the Far North of Scotland we can see even with the bank crisis that Iceland, Faroes and of course Norway are contenders for sustainable nations with large lists of resources to sustain their future.

This news suggests Scots need to think hard about our future and heed the stark choices that the Scottish Parliament election offers on May 5th.

I glanced this week at reports in The Economist publication, The World in 2011, that per capita income at purchasing power parity (PPP) in each of Austria, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and even what it considers to be the much maligned Republic of Ireland is higher than each of France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom. In Norway’s case PPP is 64% higher than in the UK; recognises that the population of each of the more prosperous nations ranges from 4.1 to 9.5 million and that medium-sized nations such as Belgium and the Netherlands and tiny countries such as Iceland, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg all have PPP higher than the five larger nations, each of which has 46 to 83 million inhabitants.

Therefore there is no reason to believe that an independent, resource-rich Scotland could not be as prosperous as so many of our small European neighbours that enjoy less child and pensioner poverty, lower crime levels and better quality of life than in the UK. Unionist politicians must stop decrying other nations and questioning the ability of Scots to successfully run an independent Scotland better than it is run from London.


Like many of you I had to fill up with diesel for my car after New Year. What a rip off the VAT hike and petrol prices have become. Costs to us in the North are far higher due to VAT and delivery charges soaring far from the refineries.

When in opposition down south Tory and Lib Dem parties promised to cut soaring fuel prices. At that time the SNP vowed to make the need for a Fuel Duty Regulator and bring down the cost at the pumps. The Coalition in London have stalled, so petrol, diesel and heating fuel costs have to become key Holyrood election issues.

If fuel taxes were cut by 10p per litre in Scotland that would only cost about half of the estimated £1 billion in extra revenue the Treasury is set to rake in as a result of rising oil prices.

I am finding that this is a huge issue on the doorstep and the forecourts. It is a key illustration of why we need to build up Scotland’s Parliament, and equip it with the full powers of financial responsibility.

A Fuel Duty Regulator – which the Tories supported before the election – would bring duty down when oil prices go up. Cutting fuel by 10p per litre in Scotland would only cost about half of the estimated £1 billion in extra revenue the Treasury is set to rake in as a result of rising oil prices.

It’s a national scandal that in Europe’s oil-richest country, Scots are paying among the highest fuel prices.


Isn’t it good news that the Highlands and Islands could soon have its own university after the UHI Millennium Institute [UHI] cleared a major hurdle to achieving its aim of becoming the University of the Highlands and Islands?

Following a Board meeting shortly before Christmas, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) formally advised the Scottish Government that it has assessed UHI as fully meeting the quality and standards that university title carries with it.

The Scottish Government held a public consultation earlier in 2010 after UHI’s initial application to the Privy Council last May. The results of that consultation are now being considered by Ministers who will make a recommendation before the final decision is made by the Privy Council early this year.

That would mean the streamlining of funding and administration and the concerns about adequate resources for North Highland College and all the other partners could be placed on a stronger footing.

The great news that the internationally-renowned Environmental Research Institute is set to move into its new high-tech hub on the Thurso college campus is part of a steady improvement in education provision and incidentally like other public investment keep construction industry jobs going in Caithness.

The backing of the Scottish Government for higher and further education is out to consultation. Realistic sums have to be raised to back quality. I hope many of you who want your children to get the best third stage education possible will take part.


The SNP has confirmed that a continued council tax freeze into 2012/13 will be one of the party’s central manifesto pledges at the Holyrood election as First Minister Alex Salmond is set to write to a million Scottish households outlining plans to protect household budgets in these tough times - and detailing the very real costs to families of Labour's plans to increase council tax.

Alex Salmond’s letter will underline the real difference between the SNP and Labour. The message is powerful and compelling, the only way to continue the council tax freeze is to vote SNP.