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23 July 2004

Beef

For the first time in ten years, Sandra and I have managed to visit France for our fortnight's holiday. And it has been quite revealing.

Every restaurant has to display where they source their meat. So when we stopped for a snack at a motorway service station, there it was – meat from Brazil, Germany and France.

None of our prime Scottish beef anywhere.

But that was not all. I picked up a well-produced leaflet about all the steps being taken to ensure that French customers eat safe meat. It described many of the types of beef available in France – including Irish “Aberdeen Angus” beef, described as superior beef – but no mention of our fine meat.

Any why is this? Yes – because of BSE – but mainly because of our government's inaction.

We know that failures in government administration of beef in England were largely the cause of the BSE problem. But that need not have been a major problem for Scotland if the Dutch approach had been adopted.

With regional variations in the incidence of BSE across the Netherlands, they broke their country into beef regions and allowed farmers in areas not much touched by BSE to continue exporting.

But for Scotland's Labour government the idea that Scotland should have a distinctive solution to a very different situation to that in the South-West of England was abhorrent.

And the result? – a very successful export trade killed off at a stroke and the French now believing that Aberdeen Angus beef comes from Ireland.

Trains

The failures of the Tory rail privatisation are too well known to be worth revisiting. But the return to the idea that infrastructure – the big networks of roads, rail, communications and the like, that enable other things – should be created as a result of government action has to be welcomed.

As Sandra and I motored across France we saw just how different things can be when government takes such responsibility on to its shoulders.

The TGV [Train Grand Vittesse] is a model of effective, high speed rail travel. And would not have happened without government action.

But it does not stand alone. We saw that the TGV station for Lyon was integrated with the local airport terminal and the bus station was adjacent. Even the car hire rental facilities were there. So true “inter-modal” transport in action.

Meantime we see a West Coast rail link from Glasgow to the south being delayed and possibly abandoned in its original form.

For us in the North-East, the most vivid demonstration of a failure to support railway infrastructure relates to freight facilities between Aberdeen and Dundee. To accommodate modern container traffic on our railway we need £2.6 million of upgrades. That is less than the cost of a small suburban railway station such as that built on the west of Edinburgh at Edinburgh Park.

The return on investment for our modest upgrade is way above that delivered by current railway projects. But progress? A study but no commitment to do the work.

One cannot help noticing that the announcement of additional powers for the Scottish Parliament in relation to our rail network was made in London – and without comment from the Scottish government. That does not exactly fill me with confidence about their preparedness for the additional responsibility.

But it is a start, even if light years away from the French approach to railway, road and communications development.

Scottish Water

As with most people who live in the country, we do not have access to mains sewerage facilities. We rely on our own drains and septic tank.

And last week we needed a blockage in our sewer cleared before I could have a bath. This happens occasionally because the pipe has a slight dip where it should not. When the problem recurs, the remedy is obvious and relatively quickly implemented.

But for people in urban areas, the option of the septic tank and direct control over their own facilities, is not practical.

So they have their sewerage provided by Scottish Water. Or not. Because the investment guidance provided by the Scottish government has directed money away from domestic housing developments.

We therefore have the spectacle of new house building across Scotland being delayed by Scottish Water's inability to provide connection to the mains sewer.

Too much time wasted ignoring problems of waste.

Stewart Stevenson
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