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29 March 2002

Rural Lanes

The roads which connect us to the south are simply not fit for purpose.

We had a debate on the government’s transport priorities in Parliament this week. A bypass for Aberdeen is on the list of things to do. But there is no money in the budget.

So the bottleneck that strangles our links to the rest of Scotland will remain for years to come.

But in a sense that is an inheritance from the twentieth century.

Irritating in the long term, will be the electronic rural lane we are getting fobbed off with for the 21st century.

The subject of ‘broadband’ communications means something to only a few people. And even less are getting hot under the collar – so far.

But with cities – again – getting the electronic motorways which are broadband communications and rural areas being left behind, there is a very real danger that the next generation of businesses will shun the countryside.

And the irony is that internet businesses depend very largely on individual flair and creativity. So they can be one-man bands and are perfectly suited to rural locations.

So is there hope? Yes and no. BT are now offering a satellite based service which is expensive to install but affordable to run. Although more costly than offerings in cities it is still a help.

But it turns out that Pennan is one village which won’t benefit. Planners won’t allow satellite dishes as it is a conservation area.

A small ray of hope for the likes of Fraserburgh comes not from BT but from a small company called Tele2. If a hundred users want a service, they say they will come to anywhere in the UK.

I suspect until the canny folk of the North-East can see it working there won’t be one customer let alone 100.

27 March 2002

Lock-Up Time?

The announcement of a recommendation to close Peterhead Prison has dominated both the news headlines and my time.

But the closure is not a ‘done deal’ and there is everything to play for.

So it was an important step in the campaign having the Parliament’s Justice 1 Committee members visit the jail. Let me quote Donald Gorrie’s report to the formal meeting of the Committee after his visit. And remember too that he is a member of a government party.

“On all visits, we are never quite sure about the extent to which the wool is pulled over our eyes. On this occasion, I genuinely felt that the prison was very well run and that everyone involved, including all the staff—of every species—was committed to the approach adopted at Peterhead, which is very different from that of other jails. It was directed towards ensuring that sex offenders, when released, did not offend again. I was extremely impressed by the whole team.”

While the Committee Convenor, Christine Graham, said, “Inside and outside, the buildings were clean and in good condition. Peterhead is not like Barlinnie. I was struck by the cleanliness and the way in which the men kept their cells neat.”

So over the next few months it is clear that we can build on the support that exists across political parties to keep Peterhead Prison and build on its success.

Educating our Legislators

It has been quite some time since Aberdeenshire Council started to charge some 1,200 children for transport to school who previously went there for free.

The campaigners on the subject petitioned Parliament back in June last year. It took the Liberal-led Council and the Labour Executive in Edinburgh until February this year to respond to the Petitions Committee’s request for comment.

But now we have it and things are starting to move forward.

I went to the Parliament’s Education Committee and joined in their discussion of the situation.

They had various bits of information before them. The most devastating was probably a paper on how Councils across Scotland dealt with school transport. This was prepared by SPICe, our Scottish Parliament Information Centre, and it showed that Aberdeenshire now has one of the poorest and most expensive set of arrangements for our kids’ buses.

So it wasn’t surprising that our Education Committee felt that something should be done. They agreed with our local campaigners that the safety of pupils should be the main, perhaps even the only, consideration applied by Councils when they work out a local policy. So they have asked the Scottish Executive, our Scottish government, to comment on how the rules could be changed.

A good example of how input from ordinary folk, affected by the work of politicians, can influence and change things that matter.

It certainly would not have happened if there was no Scottish Parliament.

Scotland’s Web World

There is a rather strange organisation called ‘Scotland the Brand’. You and I meet this when we see their logo – a rather odd, multi-coloured, wavy representation of the word ‘Scotland’ with a hint of tartan woven through it – in adverts.

This is part of a cross-industry marketing campaign to sell Scotland as a tourist destination and to sell Scottish products and services. Because Scotland has ‘brand recognition’. Huh?

Well, all over the world, people can conjure up a view of what is meant when you say something is Scottish. And generally that is good. They think of they things we do well – whisky (of course!), tartan and bagpipes, and safe reliable hands for their money.

But as the hoo-hah about SCO on our number plates has shown, there is a definite limit to our ‘brand identity’. Because although there is now a wide international recognition of SCO among ordinary people, officialdom pretends not to understand because Scotland is not a country sitting at the top table.

And with the Internet becoming an ever more important part of our lives with each passing day, the same problem is afflicting is there too.

Would it not be great if our ‘brand identity’ was distinctive there too?

I would like my parliamentary email address to be stewart.stevenson.msp@parliament.sco but it can’t be. Because the Internet uses two character ‘names’ for countries and .SC is allocated to the Seychelles.

But that hasn’t stopped some enterprising Glasgow lawyers bypassing the Labour government’s reluctance to do anything about this.

They have simply gone out the Mahe and bought .SC from the Seychelles. So now Scotland really is ‘on the internet’. I have been to the web site at www.scregistrars.com and msp@stewartstevenson.sc will shortly be my new email address.

So Scotland still has entrepreneurs prepared to ‘make it happen’.

20 March 2002

Business

Last week I met with Peterhead Business Forum and a few days earlier I answered questions at a forum in Turriff organised by the Federation of Small Businesses.

In Peterhead I found a wide range of matters aired. Despite the negative effects on individuals of closures such Cleveland and Crosse & Blackwell, unemployment doesn’t appear to have risen in our area. It remains below the Scottish average.

But that can’t be the whole story surely? And it ain’t.

We are now below the national average wage because although there are still jobs around, many are part-time or lower skilled.

But there are local success stories too. Score Europe and ASCo are big players in Peterhead and contribute hugely to the whole economy in the area.

Today’s small employers are our major employers. And some at least will become tomorrow’s majors – if we create the environment they need to grow and prosper.

And there is the rub that concerns all the business people I have been meeting.

We have a long tradition of working at sea. We don’t have the biggest white fish port in Europe by accident. And the many processors on shore were orginally utterly dependent on our trawlers.

Today men and women from the North-East can be found all over the world exploiting the skills they acquired here.

But we can feel the hands around our neck. The RAF Buchan run-down is in progress. Several factories are shrinking and the prison is under threat.

So our business people are focussing on how we might be left behind. We have poor roads, no railways and new internet technologies like ‘broadband’ are far distant.

But we developed a few ways to put our area on the map. Perhaps the wackiest – mine – was the idea that we could generate some publicity and perhaps get some of the thousands of Irish tourists flying to Aberdeen to come further North. We ask Ryanair to name one of their new aircraft after our area. There’s no such thing as bad publicity – they say.

Back to School

My office manager Stephen is a vital link back to the local community when I am down in Edinburgh. Even more so when Committee meetings take me as far away as the Solway Firth. I was there on Monday.

So it wasn’t surprising that it was he who elected to come with me on a visit to his old school, Longhaven Primary.

Every member of Primary 5 to 7 asked me a question. “Do you know any pop stars?”; Yes – SNP MP Pete Wishart from Runrig.

“What don’t you like about the job?”; The seven hours a week I spend driving between Whitehills and Edinburgh.

“What do you do?”; the difficult one which took five minutes to answer.

But if the engagement and curiosity of these bright youngsters is anything to go by we’ll see levels of voting rise in years to come.

13 March 2002

Don’t Mix Me Up

As a politician I get asked lots of questions.

This week it was a phone call from Fishing News asking me about something I had said – only it turns I hadn’t. So who said what when and why am I fizzing?

It is my misfortune that there is another politician with a very similar name, but very different politics. He chairs the European Parliament’s Fishing Committee. And he’s a Tory.

MEP Struan Stevenson – see where the confusion about names comes in? – said at a Tory rally that fishing skippers are cheats. He complained that they are taking their payout for decommissioning their fishing vessel and then buying another.

But this Tory insults our fishermen and doesn’t understand what’s happening.

The scheme to take fishing vessels out of our industry is also taking fishing licences out of the fleet. So even if a new vessel is bought or built it can’t really create more catching capacity.

So I think it would be right for this Tory to apologise to our fishermen. And maybe a change of his name would be useful too. I would certainly welcome it.

Stormy Weather

The Aggregates tax is not the most fascinating subject for most people. But that doesn’t mean that it is unimportant.

There is one wee wrinkle that everyone should take note of. This tax on rock products from our quarries is a pro-environment tax - maybe. And we all know that Scotland has not been doing too well on other environmentally friendly subjects. On re-cycling we are bottom of the class for example.

So where is the worry? It is dust.

You can guess that there is a bit of dust around if you are breaking rocks. But you may not have realised that it actually has a commercial value. Not much, but some.

Today it is possible to sell rock dust at about £1 per ton. It goes into pre-cast concrete and other such products.

The new aggregates tax to be £1.60 per ton. Therefore dust will become more than twice as expensive than now. Quarry owners are pretty certain that the market for dust at £2.60 per ton is non-existent.

So what? Well if the dust cannot be sold what will happen to it? It will lie about in ‘spoil heaps’ at quarries, an unloved waste product that no-one wants.

And dust does not lie around for long when there is a strong nor’east wind. It gets lifted up and blown away.

So this fine so-called pro-environment tax will actually harm our countryside as the dust gathers on fields, roads and houses.

Not only is this tax increasing costs and making it difficult to build the planned new breakwater that Peterhead Harbour needs to make it an all-weather port but it will actually harm the environment.

And with Labour’s First Minister’s new ‘do less, do better’ strategy it means that they will not look at the effects on Scotland of something that is a tax from Westminster. So we know who won’t stand up for Scotland.

Local Trade

I have written before in my column about how good our local products are. I enjoy beef from my local butcher. Dry cure bacon is a new favourite. And fish an absolute must.

But I am just back from a Fairtrade breakfast.

We get many invitations in the Parliament and I have to say that an appointment for 8am does not get every Parliamentarian reaching for his or her diary.

On this occasion it was different. There were four SNP members, one Green and one Labour MSP present to hear about how Fairtrade is helping one Costa Rican coffee farmer and his family.

We do not produce many coffee beans in the North East of Scotland. And I have noticed that local bananas are in short supply.

So we have to import. As George Bush famously commented about a year ago, most imports come from abroad. Well I think we can agree with that one Dubya!

Guillermo Vargas Leiton was the star of our breakfast. He told me that his family’s 5 hectare farm in Costa Rica produce enough coffee beans to make about 180,000 cups of coffee.

But the really interesting thing is that by using the Fairtrade way of selling Guillermo gets 126 cents a Kilo compared to about 50 cents if he sells to the big multi-nationals.

So what is the Fairtrade scheme? Basically it is a world-wide co-operative that connects the original farmers more directly to the market. And the products stand comparison with any. My breakfast was proof of that!

So when we buy Fairtrade products in our supermarkets or corner shop we help local farmers in their own country. We are actually buying local just as we do when we buy Buchan beef.

6 March 2002

Goldeneye

I recently visited Shell at the St Fergus Gas Terminal for an update regarding the Goldeneye project, which will see the creation of jobs in Banff and Buchan in the early part of 2003. The new build at the Shell plant will need a wide range of staff.

Yes, sometimes people forget that St Fergus is not just about offshore work. There is a lot of work which is carried out onshore. There will be local roadshows and I welcome their commitment to employ local labour wherever possible. Although the majority of jobs won’t start until 2003, tendering has already began for the major contracts.

Meantime details on the project are on the web at www.goldeneye-venture.com.

As well as a discussion about Goldeneye, which incidentally is so called named after a beautiful duck, I was given the chance of a visit around the plant. Unfortunately it was on a very wet and dreary day!

The control room was a place to linger – indoors and looking a bit like the bridge from Star Trek. I dared not touch any anything for fear of a plant shut down. And run by just five members of staff.

I couldn’t help but notice the size of the plant and equipment on site. So does it get there? The answer gave a new twist on the general discontent about our roads. Shell use the Peterhead to Fraserburgh and Aberdeen to Peterhead roads to transport the necessary equipment.

And some of it can be very large. I was told of a load being 200 tonnes. Just try and imagine that size of load on a lorry going over the Inverugie bridge! Also, just like you and me, Shell do not want their lorries congesting the roads.

Yet another reminder that good roads matter in our area – and we don’t have them.

Rod Fishing

A consultation has just been announced into a possible ban on the sale of rod caught trout and salmon. Now let me say at once that I used to spend a lot of time with my father catching brown trout using a worm and hook. And very successful we were.

But is this the thin end of the wedge? Some people have been heard to suggest that rod and line fishing should be banned. I don’t agree. It is one of our most popular pastimes.

Now the argument appears to be based around the declining number of sporting fish – salmon and sea trout to you and me – that are being caught year on year. And owners of fishing rights are generally only allowing catch and return. Only occasionally are fish actually taken out.

On the other hand there are quite a few fish farms which offer anglers the opportunity to catch and take fish by rod. Is that to be banned too?

So you heard it here first. The Scottish government say they want your views on this. If you have any, give them to them now before it is too late.

Stewart Stevenson
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