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23 January 2002

Land Reform

My two Committees in Parliament are deeply involved in the Land Reform Bill. And that has meant getting out and about in Scotland.

So I’ve been travelling all over Scotland in the last couple of weeks.

Today I’m just back from the Isle of Lewis and one thing struck me. The roads are pretty good and a lot less busy than we have in the North-East. So what is the policy of the local council towards free school transport? In fact more generous than Aberdeenshire.

So the assertions that our council has been more generous than elsewhere is found to be wrong. And in fact it seems that many councils do better than the Liberals on Aberdeenshire.

So when the people of Macduff, Sandhaven, Fetterangus, Longside and elsewhere felt let down when new charges came in last year, it seems they were entirely justified.
Chalmers Hospital

At long last a ‘win’ for the North-East. I first discussed the Chalmers Hospital redevelopment with Grampian Health in the middle of last year. And they promised me that we’d get an answer by the end of October.

Well it’s not just been the campaigners who’ve been chewing their nails but a whole community as far afield as Turiff who’ve been waiting, waiting, waiting.

But now we really do owe a huge debt of gratitude to the campaigners who’ve worked so hard and so publicly and made my role in chivvying and questioning so much easier and more effective. But it’s properly their victory, the community’s victory.

But when will we get our new hospital? Don’t know. Will the Scottish Executive authorise a new build? Not sure. But will we relax now? Definitely not!

Peterhead Prison

With one win under our belt, we need an early decision on another ‘running sore’. The Scottish Prison Service has been holding the sword of Damocles over Peterhead Prison for two years now and the uncertainty is unbearable.

But the reasons for the further delay are probably helpful to Peterhead’s cause.

The new First Minister wants to make his decisions based on what prisons deliver more than on simply their costs. And on this score Peterhead comes out well ahead of the pack.

With the staff having won a stack of awards and with the cost per prisoner below the target for 2002-2003, they desrve a result to match that with the Banff Chalmers Hospital ‘win’.

Transport

I’ve been speaking in Parliament about the need for better roads in our area. And I’ll continue to do so until we see the A90 at least being improved.

But my trip to Stornoway showed that some areas of Scotland really suffer. The return airfare was £280 from Glasgow. Wow!

I read recently about a flight in Australia where the stewardess closed the door and welcomed passengers aboard. She then had to admit that there was no pilot aboard and open up again to let one on.

Just like transport provision for the North-East. No one at the wheel.

18 January 2002

How to Parliament?

The troubles on the railways are a mild discouragement to the regular traveller who, like me, knows that a few bad journies will be evened out – eventually - by many that are relaxing and comfortable. Although our rail travel is nothing like the fast reliable and comfortable trains on the Continent.

Commuting from the North-East to Parliament by car is much less fun what with BEAR’s miserable care of the main roads and the congestion around Aberdeen.

But for shorter journies there is an eco-friendly, cheap and healthy alternative. The Parliament will actually pay members for going about their business by bike. Not a lot mind you. But if you paid £5 for your bike at a local roup as I did that’s fine.

My cheap two wheels didn’t come with lights so I’m a strictly daytime rider and my flourescent jacket makes me visible. So it’s good to see our local police encouraging safe winter use of bikes. And getting a good reception for doing so.

Inverness

A visit to Inverness on Parliamentary business was much more welcome than the usual trek to Edinburgh. And not just because it’s closer.

If the Scottish Parliament is to mean anything, it has to be a Parliament for all of Scotland. So a visit of our Justice Committee to take evidence in the north was very welcome indeed.

With the subject being the Land Reform Bill it was particularly appropriate to be in a rural area.

The Bill is likely to receive widespread support for its principles. But attempts to exclude guides and others who are paid to help people access our country from the Bill’s new access rights is proving pretty contentious.

If the evidence given in Inverness is anything to go by, we’ll get that changed.

Rural Affairs

One of the delights and one of the dangers in the Scots Parliament is that every word one utters is recorded and published for all the world to read. Thankfully the writers of the Official Record seem to understand grammar and puncuation better than most MSPs and hence it’s more readable than the speakers notes would have been.

So I receive letters about my comments in Parliament.

A recent one was on the Rural Stewardship Scheme. Frankly I can only describe the introduction of this worthy attempt to reward farmers for looking after nature in ways other than simply planting crops as appaling.

When I spoke about it was in Committee. We were discussing its introduction. And being invited to approve the new scheme – four days after it came into operation.

Could we vote against it and deny hundreds of small farmers their grants in a year when food and mouth has devastated rural businesses throughout Scotland? Of course not.

And it’s not as if the scheme is structured to spread the benefit evenly. Unlike its predecessor, there’s no upper limit on an individual grant and it could be that a few estates may get most of the limited pot of money.

How would that help people in rural Scotland? Not much!

Another case for the New Labour-Liberal Democrat government to get its act together.

Winter’s Woes

As I write, I alternate between sniffles, sneezes and a cough. My local pharmacist’s profits must be soaring as I had to queue for advice. But as this very personal indication of winter will pass – my father used to say, “If you treat a cold it lasts a week and if you don’t it will be seven days” – the news just reaching my desk is a much longer term concern.

After two years of deliberation, New Labour’s First Minister has decided not to publish the document which would have told of the future for Peterhead Prison. Or at least not to publish it yet. A delay of a ‘few months’ is envisaged while a further review is undertaken.

But it may not all be bad news. The word is that the criteria are three – public safety, deterrence and the rehabilitation of offenders. No longer at the top of the list is money. It’s long been thought that the Head of the Scottish Prison Service had an anti-Peterhead Prison agenda and that cost would be his excuse.

The staff at the prison reduced costs and took away that excuse. And their achievements in one of the new key areas – rehabilitation of offenders – must now give us hope.

But as the argument has been won, there is no excuse for further delay.

16 January 2002

Winter’s Woes

As I write, I alternate between sniffles, sneezes and a cough. My local pharmacist’s profits must be soaring as I had to queue for advice. But as this very personal indication of winter will pass – my father used to say, “If you treat a cold it lasts a week and if you don’t it will be seven days” – the news just reaching my desk is a much longer term concern.

After two years of deliberation, New Labour’s First Minister has decided not to publish the document which would have told of the future for Peterhead Prison. Or at least not to publish it yet. A delay of a ‘few months’ is envisaged while a further review is undertaken.

But it may not all be bad news. The word is that the criteria are three – public safety, deterrence and the rehabilitation of offenders. No longer at the top of the list is money. It’s long been thought that the Head of the Scottish Prison Service had an anti-Peterhead Prison agenda and that cost would be his excuse.

The staff at the prison reduced costs and took away that excuse. And their achievements in one of the new key areas – rehabilitation of offenders – must now give us hope.

But as the argument has been won, there is no excuse for further delay.

Inverness

A visit to Inverness on Parliamentary business was much more welcome than the usual trek to Edinburgh. And not just because it’s closer.

If the Scottish Parliament is to mean anything, it has to be a Parliament for all of Scotland. So a visit of our Justice Committee to take evidence in the north was very welcome indeed.

With the subject being the Land Reform Bill it was particularly appropriate to be in a rural area.

The Bill is likely to receive widespread support for its principles. But attempts to exclude guides and others who are paid to help people access our country from the Bill’s new access rights is proving pretty contentious.

If the evidence given in Inverness is anything to go by, we’ll get that changed.

Road and Rail

There may be no railways in Banff and Buchan, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t matter to us.

For me they are a more comfortable journey to Edinburgh, although I have to get to Huntly first. And for many others they are a vital link for long distance journies.
The chaos on the railways has mirrored what we’ve experienced in the North-East with BEAR’s failures on our roads.

We hear that the Aberdeen bypass may at last be on the agenda. But it seems that it’s only to take traffic from the South round to the Inverness road. The needs of Buchan appear overlooked.

Is this short-sightedness or is it that transport investment is now being diverted to some high-profile projects such as connecting Glasgow and Edinburgh airports to the rail network?

I think once again quick political fixes are being put in place before much needed, long delayed infrastructure projects that will help the country north of Aberdeen.
Rural Affairs

One of the delights and one of the dangers in the Scots Parliament is that every word one utters is recorded and published for all the world to read. Thankfully the writers of the Official Record seem to understand grammar and puncuation better than most MSPs and hence it’s more readable than the speakers notes would have been.

So I receive letters about my comments in Parliament.

A recent one was on the Rural Stewardship Scheme. Frankly I can only describe the introduction of this worthy attempt to reward farmers for looking after nature in ways other than simply planting crops as appaling.

When I spoke about it was in Committee. We discussing its introduction. And being invited to approve the new scheme – four days after it came into operation.

Could we vote against it and deny hundreds of small farmers their grants in a year when food and mouth has devastated rural businesses throughout Scotland? Of course not.

And it’s not as if the scheme is structured to spread the benefit evenly. Unlike its predecessor, there’s no upper limit on an individual grant and it could be that a few estates may get most of the limited pot of money.

How would that help people in rural Scotland? Not much!

Another case for the New Labour-Liberal Democrat government to get its act together.

9 January 2002

A Devolution Checkpoint

Forest owners everywhere will celebrate this New Year. If my Parliamentary in-tray is anything to go by that is.

It’s interesting how the different devolved bodies vary. And how they all vary from London.

The Welsh Assembly uses computers even in the debating chamber. The Scottish Parliament’s chamber only has computers for the Presiding Officer and clerks. Members vote electronically. Northern Ireland is similar. In each, every member receives more correspondence by email than on paper.

Westminster is a combination of 1950s and 1750s. Each member has a place to hang their sword. Voting is done by walking through a door. Computer use is slight.

In Scotland, we need paper when we attend debates or committees. Today I carried papers weighing about a kilo, about 10 cms high and comprising nearly 300 separate items to this morning’s meeting. Roll on a fully computerised parliament!

But it’s Northern Ireland that may be most interesting. Their technology is very similar to Scotland. But in how they relate to London, very different.

I’ve taken an interest in the Aggregates Tax issue. You might recall that this is a tax on stone and might cost a Peterhead harbour project about £2 million if it goes through.

But the real point is that Northern Ireland has said they don’t want it and London has said a (partial) OK. So they’ve changed UK tax policy even without any power having been given to them. And they benefited.

So why doesn’t the Labour-Liberal government in Scotland get us similar deals? Because they don’t want offend their patrons in government in London.

Maybe it would be worth chopping down just one more tree to make paper to send a letter to London.

Land Reform

And what was all that paper I was carrying around? It’s on the government’s Land Reform Bill.

Firstly it seeks to put into law the belief that everyone has that we have no law of trespass in Scotland. And that would mean walkers could roam (responsibly) over most of the country. But not at night. But not if they’re being paid to guide a party of walkers. But not if the local authority decides otherwise.

It also creates a framework for communities and crofters to buy the land on which they live and work. Interestingly it seems that to be a farm tenant you must operate it in person or live on it. But the bill does nothing to place the same requirement on owners.

So the, admittedly minority of, large landowners who abuse their rights and prevent locals from developing their own businesses will be untouched by this timid Bill.

The 100 years of debate about changing the face of land ownership have produced something that won’t much change it. We’ll still have less than 5,000 people owning more than half of Scotland.

But then maybe we’ll be able to beef it up a bit over the next few months.

At the expense of even more trees, even more paper.

1 January 2002

New Year

A New Year, new opportunities for Scotland, a new look at the world.

2002 will be the hundredth anniversary of Enrico Caruso's first record. Will we also see a follow-up CD from local teenagers Empathy who sang so movingly of the plight of our fishermen in 2001?

2002 will be the hundredth anniversary of Cuba's independence. They have one of the best health services in the world. Will 2002 be the year when the New Labour-Liberal Democrat Executive finally starts to move our health service forward?

For our area 2001 was more interesting than we wanted. Farming suffered through foot and mouth. Fishing became even more challenging. Uncertainty still hangs over the Prison. And the long review of our local health service continues. Job losses continue.

And yet we should go into 2002 with optimism and a determination that we shall take control.

The argument for the Prison is won. Now we need government commitment. RAF Buchan wins new business. Now we need support to win more elsewhere.

I'm enjoying my new role as MSP. And looking forward to selling our area when Parliament comes to Aberdeen in May.

Let's all work together and deliver a happy and prosperous 2002.

Stewart Stevenson
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