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.