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.

No comments: