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23 March 2010

The energy off our shores

Scotland has long had reason to associate the waters off our coast with the production of energy and wealth in the shape of the North Sea oil industry. Over the decades it has provided jobs to many in the North East, seen innovations made that have been exported around the world and of course provided billions of pounds to the Treasury in London.

Latest Treasury estimates anticipate that the North Sea oil and gas sector will provide £50 billion in tax revenues over the next six years, a particularly substantial sum given the dire state of the UK’s current finances. Yet as significant as the oil industry has been, and clearly continues to be, Scotland has an incredible opportunity to harness a new energy boom in the waters off our coasts.

Scotland has a quarter of Europe’s offshore wind and tidal energy potential and 10% of its wave energy potential. The scale of the green, renewable energy that can be produced in these waters is immense and has granted Scotland an incredible economic opportunity which we must do our best to take.

It is an opportunity that Banff & Buchan can play a key part in grasping, securing important investment in the area and providing a range of skilled jobs for local residents. Peterhead was recently identified as one of Scotland’s 11 strategic hubs for the future of offshore renewables, a designation that could prove critical to the economic future of the region. A report to be published later in the year will identify the public and private investment needed to create the infrastructure and facilities needed to make Peterhead a centre for the manufacture and maintenance of offshore renewable technology.

As with the oil industry, a key benefit from successfully harnessing the renewable potential off our shores will be the ability to export technology and expertise to other countries. Our aspirations of achieving this took a step forward recently with the announcement of the most ambitious plans in the world for the leasing of sites to generate 1.2 G/W of wave and tidal power, the equivalent of either of Scotland’s nuclear power stations. With such ambition we have stolen a march on our competitor countries, but there can be no room for complacency.

There are still obstacles that must be overcome, and chief amongst them is the discriminatory nature of transmission charges in the UK. When electricity producers in Aberdeenshire face a charge of almost £20 per k/W that they send to homes and businesses through the National Grid while companies in the south of England receive a subsidy of over £6 per k/W, there is clearly something very wrong with the system.

By penalising the development of renewable energy projects, which are inevitably located in more remote areas where the local weather conditions are more powerful, the current system is acting as a deterrent to future developments. As it is these penalties are completely unacceptable, but the situation would have been even worse if Ofgem had not finally been persuaded recently to drop plans to further penalise Scottish generators.

A National Grid that sees Scottish generators currently produce 12% of UK electricity but pay 40% of transmission charges is not acceptable and as more and more renewable developments are created, the situation will become even more unfair. My SNP colleagues and I have long been calling for a wholesale review of UK transmission charges and the introduction of a fairer system. The economic future of Scotland is at stake and we will not let up on our calls.

9 March 2010

Scotland’s future

Scotland recently took another step towards being able to decide its own future recently, with the publication of a draft independence referendum bill by the Scottish Government. It follows the National Conversation which engaged thousands of people across the length and breadth of Scotland, seeking their views on the shape Scotland’s constitutional future should take.

I and my SNP colleagues are in no doubt that Scotland fundamentally needs the normal powers of an independent country if we are to successfully meet the challenges and opportunities that face us as a nation. With independence we would gain our own voice in European and international affairs, giving us the ability to stand up for Scottish interests such as fishing more effectively. We would gain control of the economic levers needed to grow Scotland’s economy and speed our recovery from the current downturn. We would gain the ability to make the decisions that affect Scotland, in Scotland. Independence is not an end in itself, but a starting point from which we can use the powers we need to build a more successful future for our country.

However, it is perfectly valid that others hold different views on the future they would like to see for Scotland. There is a widespread consensus that the Scottish Parliament should have more powers, but the extent of those powers is open for debate. That is why the proposed referendum will ask two questions, one on whether Scotland should gain further powers and a second on whether Scotland should become an independent country. The consultation that was launched accompanying the bill seeks to establish which of the options for further devolved powers should also appear on the ballot paper.

More than a decade on from the referendum that saw the Scottish Parliament reconvened, the SNP will once again be going to voters and asking them to vote yes-yes in a referendum. If they believe in their position, other parties should be willing to go to the people of Scotland and campaign for the constitutional position that they support.

Regardless of how they would vote in it, opinion polling has shown time and time again that the overwhelming majority of people in Scotland want the right to decide upon Scotland’s constitutional future for themselves. It is not for politicians of any political stripe to dictate a position on such an important issue to people, but rather for the public to decide for themselves in a referendum. For other parties to seek to block such a vote, as they are currently threatening to do, is simply unacceptable and is something that they will have to explain to the people who voted for them.

At a time when the UK Government is preparing to hold a referendum on changing the voting system for Westminster elections and the National Assembly for Wales is planning one over increasing their devolved powers, it is clearly the right time for Scotland to make our own decision on our constitutional future too.

Being vigilant for scams

Aberdeenshire Council recently issued a warning over reports of telephone scams from people pretending to be conducting a survey on behalf of the council. Although there are times when organisations like Aberdeenshire Council may undertake telephone surveys or residents may wish to pay bills over the phone, I would encourage everyone in Banff & Buchan to remain vigilant when it comes to giving out their personal or financial details.

Taking the time to be cautious is a small price to pay if it stops identities from being stolen or bank accounts being emptied.

A focus on the future for fishing

That the last twelve months have been tough for Banff & Buchan’s fishing industry is something that will not come as news to anyone. The economic problems that have affected so many businesses have not spared the already hard pressed fishing industry, with many skippers and processors feeling the squeeze. However, despite the immediate challenges the industry faces, the past year has also been a time when discussions on the future of fishing have been at the forefront of many people’s minds.

The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy has been an abject failure since its inception, neither preventing a decline in fish stocks nor supporting fishing as a viable industry. Annual gladiatorial battles between member states over quotas have seen rigid and inappropriate measures introduced to mixed fisheries and have left skippers unable to plan their livelihoods with any degree of certainty.

Yet at last there is the possibility of change, with the EU having accepted that the CFP must be reformed. Although it will not happen overnight, discussions are currently in full swing in Brussels and in fishing communities across Europe about what kind of model should replace the CFP.

An over-centralised approach has been at the heart of the CFP’s failure to secure a sustainable, profitable fishing industry in Scotland, and I am in no doubt that what replaces it must see responsibility for managing fisheries returned to Europe’s nations, working together on a regional basis. Fundamental to this is the protection of historical fishing rights, to ensure that decisions are taken as close to where it matters as possible.

Ending these historical rights could see a free-for-all in Scotland’s waters and threaten the livelihoods of many people in Banff & Buchan’s fishing industry, yet that is exactly what the UK Government has recently sought to do by recommending that MEPs back the abolition of historical fishing rights. It is the action of a Government that does not understand the fishing industry and does not care for its future, yet it is what we have come to expect from administrations of varying political hues in London over the years.

Banff & Buchan’s fishing industry and the hard working men and woman in it need their voices to be heard in Europe, particularly as high stakes discussions on the future of the CFP are being held. However, as long as the UK is responsible for discussions with Europe, that voice will never be heard as effectively as it should be. Banff & Buchan’s fishing industry needs a distinctive Scottish voice in Europe to fight its corner, a voice that will only come with Scottish independence.

The Scottish Government and my SNP colleagues in the European Parliament are clear about the need for a return to regional management of fisheries, based on historical fishing rights and will continue to do all that they can to see that brought about. Working together, the Scottish Government and Scotland’s fishing industry are better placed to find solutions to the challenge of managing fish stocks than centralised decision making in Brussels ever could be.

The Scottish fishing fleet has been at the forefront of introducing innovative conservation measures to try and increase the sustainability of the industry while maintaining its future as a profitable venture, demonstrating just how effectively Scotland could manage its own fisheries. The challenge is now to ensure that we are given the opportunity to do so.

Stewart Stevenson
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