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25 December 2012

The Perfect Storm

The freakish combination of low pressure, gale-force winds and high tides has seen the coastline in the North-east severely battered over the weekend, causing damage and endangering lives throughout the area. Many of us will be aware of, or have seen first-hand, the damage caused, and know the danger and disruption it brought. However, it is thanks to the first-responders and those already working to repair the damage, that things were not more serious, and so few were in harm’s way.

People have been evacuated from their homes and workplaces, due to flooding and weather damage, and for some this is how things remain. However, had it not been for the hard-work and quick-thinking of the council staff, volunteers and the emergency services, matters could have been considerably worse. A variety of people and agencies have been working extremely hard together to help and advise those affected by the conditions and ensure people are quickly and safely re-homed, and I express my thanks to them for their vital service.

The emergency services have been on constant stand-by to react to any potential dangers. Indeed, the Peterhead lifeboat crew bravely deployed in awful conditions to rescue a group of people stranded on the east side of the harbour, potentially saving their lives.

Also, the Scottish Government Resilience Room has met to develop a response to the situation, and they have reiterated their commitment to assisting local authorities and agencies in rebuilding in the wake of the storm.

In several towns the damage has been concentrated in and around the harbour, with Fraserburgh and Peterhead particularly affected. Efforts are already underway to repair the damage to the harbours, which are vital for the local economy, with specialists being called in to assess the damage to the walls and facilities.

As people count the cost of the damage to homes and livelihoods, we should be thankful that matters were not more serious, and that so few people have been injured. Indeed, throughout the stormy conditions and damage to property I have been struck most by the community spirit shown throughout, as people have helped one another through a difficult period, which is vital as we get back on our feet in our towns and communities.

Winter assistance for Farmers

We, in the North-east, know as well as anyone how fundamental farming is to Scottish life and our communities. Agriculture plays an integral role in the wider community and sustains jobs in primary production and throughout related sectors.

We have had some extreme weather this year which has caused difficulties for Scotland’s farmers. However, the SNP and the Scottish Government are committed to helping Scotland’s farmers and producers who have been hit by the adverse weather this year and have taken steps to prioritise Single Farm Payments, and urge leniency from banks for those farmers who have yet to receive their payments.

Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs Richard Lochhead recently announced that he would be writing to banks to update them on the timing of Single Farm Payments and asking them to provide maximum flexibility for those farmers whose payments are not made at the start of December.

So these measures from the SNP Government are very welcome – we must do all we reasonably can to help support our farmers.

The Scottish Government has increased resources to pay Single Farm Payments as quickly as possible – including staff working in the evenings and weekends and given a two-month invoices extension for 2012 rural priorities capital works.

Further, those who have encountered problems with the slurry rules are being helped by staff who are working to help farmers avoid or reduce penalties in Nitrate Vulnerable Zones. It is particularly encouraging to hear that most of the small number of farmers who have contacted the Scottish Government for help have avoided penalties completely.

It is only right that we, as a nation, support those who provide for us year-round.

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Best wishes for the festive season and the new year!

11 December 2012

Christmas is Coming!

With St Andrew’s day having just passed, and so much more still to come, Scotland’s winter festival is well and truly underway.

It is at this time of year, with Christmas, Hogmanay, Up Helly Aa and, in January, Burns night that we are reminded of the importance and popularity of Scottish culture and traditions across the world. St Andrew’s day is a great opportunity to celebrate our national heritage, with many events and activities having taken place across Scotland – from ceilidhs, community singing, torchlight parades, fireworks and storytelling, as well as free or discounted entry to many historical and visitor attractions. Moreover, St Andrew’s day is increasingly being observed around the world, with Scottish diaspora celebrating their heritage in various ways, enjoying Scottish produce and developing new traditions and cultural links. Scottish exports are always in high demand at this time of year with our food, drink, arts, crafts, music and culture an essential part of Christmas and Hogmanay tradition around the world.

One of our most notable Scottish traditions, both during the festive season and throughout the year, is our generosity and neighbourliness. This is especially true in the North-east where our close-knit communities support one another, especially during hardship.

This is particularly important at this time of year, and I am heartened by the great work which is going on, publicly and privately, to ensure we can all have a happy and healthy winter festival.

With winter conditions forecast to worsen, it is likely that council and emergency services will be at full stretch trying to keep major routes open and attend to the most pressing emergencies. It is, therefore, especially important that we all ease this burden by, where possible, checking in on elderly or vulnerable neighbours, and making sure they can have heat and food.

It is also very important to recognise the hard work being put in by our public service workers, who will be doing their best to keep the country moving during the winter.

The Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for Health and Well-being has announced that NHS Grampian is to be given a share of £3m across Scotland to help manage winter pressures on the health service, and to reduce the amount of time people have to spend in hospital. By funding extra out-of-hours medical cover and at-home support staff, more beds should be freed up for the most serious cases and the burden on our hospitals eased considerably.

Our community volunteers are also deserving of praise, and only this week I lodged a motion in Scottish Parliament in recognition of the organisers and participants of The Gift Tree scheme operating in Peterhead and Buchan. Their generosity and hard work in collecting and distributing donations of toys, books, games, toiletries and food hampers makes all the difference to many families and older people facing hardship over the festive season.

Last year, the program, run by a partnership of families, social work departments and local business helped over 600 families and individuals in Peterhead and rural areas of Buchan.

I am always heartened to see this, and other similar, programs working so successfully in the North-east. The winter months, while full of joy, can also be difficult for many and I would like to express my thanks to all those who will take some time out over the busy Christmas period, to think of someone less fortunate. It’s a fine reminder of what the season is all about.

Best wishes for the festive season!

27 November 2012

Scottish Maritime Academy

The official opening of the new Scottish Maritime Academy in Peterhead last week served as a reminder of the high regard in which the fishing tradition of the north east is held across the world.

Students from across Scotland, Europe and the world will be coming to study at the Banff and Buchan College Peterhead Centre of Maritime Excellence, in the hope of developing the skills and expertise which have made Peterhead one of Europe’s premier fishing ports.

The impressive facility, overlooking the marina, offers a wide range of nautical training and even incorporates a state of the art bridge simulator.

The stunning new facility symbolises the commitment to the future of the fishing and maritime industry in the north-east. Moreover, this is a great boost for the local economy, which will benefit from an influx of people working, studying, or visiting in the area as a result.

However, with a tradition of world-leading knowledge and expertise, it is bizarre that Scotland does not have full control over its maritime and fisheries policies, nor indeed makes its own representations in the decision-making processes of, for example, the controversial European Common Fisheries Policy.

Bafflingly, even those who generally oppose Scotland having control over our own affairs, have called for a regional approach to fisheries management which would see those with the best knowledge of, and greatest stake in, local fisheries having crucial decision making powers.

Liberal Democrat MSP Tavish Scott, for example, was recently quoted as saying “Scottish fishermen need an active government focused on their interests."

For Scotland to have complete control over its own fisheries and maritime policy, not to mention all other policy areas, is the logical conclusion at the heart of the discussion surrounding regional fisheries management.

However, surely the same argument can be applied to a host of other policy areas where the Scottish Government is currently prevented from acting as a result of the current devolution settlement, leading to calls for the anti-independence parties to acknowledge the simple fact that it is people in Scotland who are best placed to take decisions affecting Scotland.

There is no doubt that we need regional fisheries management, because the Common Fisheries Policy in its current form has failed either to protect fish stocks or support livelihoods in coastal communities.

Quite simply, the people best placed to make decisions on managing the North Sea are the Governments of countries surrounding it, who by definition have the greatest stake in developing a profitable, sustainable industry.

What the anti-independence parties should acknowledge, however, is that this fact is just as true across the political spectrum. If an anti-independence party spokesman can recognise the importance of self-governance when it comes to fishing, they should acknowledge it is also true in a host of other areas.

By definition, the people who are best placed to take decisions on Scotland’s economy, taxes and benefits, to name but a few areas, are the people of Scotland.

That is why we need the powers of an independent Scotland, as only a Yes vote in 2014 will give people in Scotland the opportunity to make all of our own policy decisions.

13 November 2012

Carbon Capture and Storage

It was announced recently that Peterhead Power Station, along with a project in Grangemouth, are the two Scottish projects to have made it through to the shortlist of four Carbon Capture and Storage initiatives (CCS) which will now be considered for financial support in the new year.

Carbon Capture and storage technologies represent a vital step in reducing carbon emissions and tackling climate change by physically restricting harmful emissions from conventional power stations and storing them underground. The Peterhead project would see carbon capture and storage technology fitted to the existing facility, reducing emissions into the atmosphere.

Additionally, the Peterhead Power Station project has been included as a reserve application for €1.5 billion of European funding through the NER300 scheme, while the Sound of Islay Tidal project has full candidate status.

I firmly believe that Peterhead has an extremely strong case to make and I would certainly hope that the UK Government will fully recognise that when it makes its decisions in 2013.

Naturally we, in the north-east hope that the Peterhead project is ultimately successful in its applications, and can reap the benefits of jobs and investment in the local area as a result. However, the fact that there are three major projects in Scotland competing for funding, shows the potential our country has to implement the technology successfully.

Scotland is fortunate to have some of Europe’s largest carbon storage capabilities, as well as generations of expertise in renewable energy and off-shore engineering which combine to make us ideally placed to successfully implement carbon capture technology as part of Scotland’s broad energy portfolio and ambitious environmental targets.

Sadly, Westminster has a sorry track record when it comes to supporting innovative carbon capture projects. In the past jobs and investment have been allowed to slip away at Peterhead and Longannet as dithering and indecision led to previous backers pulling out in 2007.

People in Peterhead remember all too well that they have been let down before by dithering at Westminster, so what is most important is that history is not allowed to repeat itself. A swift decision, hopefully in favour of these initiatives will be good news for the local area and the environment alike.

Ask Your Pharmacist

From 5th – 12th November I and my parliamentary colleagues will be supporting Ask Your Pharmacist public awareness week. The National Pharmacy Association is hoping to draw attention to the pharmacy-based healthcare services available to everyone, and to encourage men, in particular, to take a more active interest in their healthcare.

With the help of an accessible pharmacy team in your local area, men and women can do more to stay well. By talking face-to-face with a pharmacist, we could all learn more about using our medicines more safely and effectively, and by consulting your local pharmacist about your health and well-being in general, many of us could be better informed about using the NHS services which are available.

The success of last year’s Ask Your Pharmacist week saw an increase in people’s awareness of the availability of the local pharmacy’s services from 25% to 73%. Most pharmacies now have private consultation areas and often do not require appointments, and I certainly hope people will continue to recognise the important role local pharmacies play in the healthcare chain, often alleviating the need to visit the GP. To find out more about Ask Your Pharmacist Week, visit www.npa.co.uk or talk to your local pharmacist!

30 October 2012

Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route

The UK Supreme Court last week rejected the final legal protests which were holding back the badly-needed Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route project.

The objectors have not only now had their day in court but also the chance to appeal at the Court of Session, where their case was comprehensively dismissed and now a third bite of the cherry which, frankly, was a step too far and only served to further delay the project and increase costs to the taxpayer.

The people of the North-east signalled their clear wish that the road construction go ahead as quickly as possible, and the Scottish Government’s announcement that work on the project will begin immediately is good news for us all.

The Scottish Government has, throughout the process, remained steadfast in its determination to deliver this vital development for the North-east and, at last, we can move towards construction, and look forward to improved traffic flow, and the benefits for people, businesses and the economy alike in the North-east.

The potential benefits for the North-east of a completed AWPR are numerous. Greatly reduced journey times are the obvious example, and the new route has the potential to cut the current Stonehaven-Dyce journey time in half.

A new transport link around Aberdeen also supports local and national business and tourism in our area, and this arterial route will inject £6 billion into the local economy. It is also expected to create 14,000 jobs.

The Scottish Government is committed to getting work on the new road underway as quickly as possible, and ground is likely to be broken in autumn 2014.

Further, the construction contract itself is set to stipulate that job opportunities connected to the AWPR project must be advertised through local job centres, as well as ensuring opportunities are created for apprentices and graduates, ensuring a longer-term boost for our community and the economy.

Thanks to the Scottish Government, who have always supported the idea that Scotland should grow, not cut, its way out of challenging economic times, this and many other capital investment projects across Scotland will be seen through to fruition, benefitting us all both now, and in the future.

Winter Preparedness

With weather forecasts predicting temperatures to near freezing, accompanied by heavy rain for later in the week, the North-east is facing a severe weather warning, and a reminder to prepare for the coming winter.

Severe weather threatens to have a huge impact on both homes and the community and we cannot count on another mild winter like last year.

With temperatures dipping close to zero, Scottish Water is advising homeowners to begin fitting their water tanks with insulation jackets and to leave heating on low in order to prevent and reduce the risk of frozen or burst pipes.

Also, an energy efficient home is cheaper and easier to heat and it is particularly important for vulnerable groups such as older people and young families that homes are effectively heated. Assistance is available for those finding it difficult to heat their homes and Scottish Government Energy Assistance Packages can help by providing tax credits, cavity and loft insulation and energy advice.

The Scottish Government has also this week launched the comprehensive winter preparedness guide Ready Scotland, containing advice and useful contacts in planning for the winter. Having a plan for clearing sudden snow fall, knowing where your local authority public grit bin is and knowing how to contact help if your mobility is limited could make all the difference should severe weather strike.

We’re hardy folk in the North-east, but working with neighbours to prepare could prevent potential trauma, expense and damage later on this winter; let’s keep safe and warm!

16 October 2012

The Local Pub

Scotland’s relationship with alcohol has been the subject of much debate and discussion of late, with differing opinions on the scale of the problem, and the appropriate solution.

A recent Alcohol Focus Scotland study, has reported that the overall estimated costs of alcohol-related harm in the Aberdeenshire Council Area stands at a shocking £64.31 million, or £262 for every person in the year 2010-11. Further, a previous Scottish Government study indicated that the costs associated with alcohol misuse across Scotland as a whole could total £3.6 billion a year.

It goes without saying that this is a very serious situation for our country, one which is totally unsustainable in both human and economic terms. Ultra-low-cost off sales alcohol is holding many people in our communities back and doing irreparable harm to individuals and families throughout Scotland.

Discount and loss-leading supermarket promotions, which aim to make alcohol prices so cheap, are costing our country dear in terms of NHS, Police and loss of productivity. The Scottish Government’s minimum pricing policy will have a positive impact but it will not on its own fix the entire issue.

We need to be aware of the scale of the threat and act now to modify our perceptions of what is, and what is no longer, acceptable in our relationship with alcohol.

One hope is to encourage reverting to traditional behaviours of social drinking in the local pub with friends, neighbours and colleagues, which offers a more sustainable prospect and a safer, more enjoyable environment for all.

The local pub is a social and responsible environment in which we can enjoy a drink, which drastically cuts the risks of over-consumption. Regulated opening hours, and behaviour policy as well as an onus on the licensee not to serve alcohol to those who have already over-indulged ensure many pubs are family-friendly environments.

This contrasts starkly with discount off sales of strong spirit or white cider, mostly consumed at home, which is about creating and maintaining alcohol dependency among our people.

Sadly, however, as well as excessive consumption we are suffering the parallel trend of seeing many local pubs dying out across the country.
Research published by brewer Molson Coors reveals that since 2007, 700 pubs have closed across Scotland (including 4 in the Banff and Buchan Coast constituency area alone!) with very few new establishments opening, resulting in a 18% decrease in pub numbers.

Moreover, with over 50,000 jobs and £1.5bn of our national GDP dependent on the twin industries of beer and pubs, pub closures damage an important industry during a challenging time for the economy.

However, it is well known how valued Scottish Pubs are to the communities they serve. Indeed, this same study shows that, after the local shop, pubs were the most frequently visited amenity, with a third of Scots visiting the local at least twice a month.

Most of us will have, at some point, enjoyed a trip to the local - be it to enjoy a meal or a drink with family or watch the football with friends. It would be, therefore, not just sad if we were no longer able to take advantage of a local, but also an unhappy indicator of the way drinking culture in Scotland has changed for the worse.

Like many small business owners, publicans are currently finding trading tough and I greatly admire the level of innovation that is taking place to overcome these challenges in many instances. The tenacity and creativity of many pub owners is in fact changing the perception of the local pub, attracting new customers and injecting renewed vitality into the sector. This has created a whole new market for local publicans, who now see more women and young people visiting their premises, as a wider repertoire of food and drink nurtures a convivial, family atmosphere. This commitment to sustain the industry has wider implications for the Scottish economy.

We should, if we are able, take advantage of these local institutions and ensure that they are able to trade and provide jobs, fun and a place to socialise long into the future.

Slainte!

2 October 2012

Scottish Government Working for the People not Against Them

The Scottish Government’s recent statement on the budget highlights the stark contrast in approaches of the Scottish Government, and the opposition parties, including their Westminster cronies.

As a raft of Scottish Government announcements put jobs, growth and fairness at the heart of the Scottish Government’s spending priorities, at Westminster, the human cost of Tory/Lib Dem cuts to the welfare state were being laid bare and Nick Clegg was finally forced into a humiliating apology for breaking the Lib Dem promise on tuition fees.

The contrast between the Scottish and UK Governments could not be clearer.

There is no doubt we are living in incredibly tough financial times. However, while the UK Government stifles recovery and takes money from the most vulnerable in society, the Scottish budget has growth and fairness at its heart.

The Scottish Government announcement outlined a number of measures designed to boost jobs and protect those on the lowest incomes, including investment in construction, skills and the green economy, money brought forward for the Schools for the Future programme, a £40 million additional investment in affordable housing, £18 million for skills training and a modest wage increase for most public sector employees, and a commitment to uprate the living wage.

The Scottish Government also recognises the paramount importance of capital investment to support economic recovery. That’s why the hundreds of millions of pounds being poured into vital projects such as the new prison for Peterhead – supporting thousands of jobs in the process - are particularly welcome.

And of course the living wage, the council tax freeze, free prescriptions, concessionary travel and free university tuition are all helping to put money back into families’ pockets.

It is all the more disappointing then that the opposition parties, under orders from Westminster, obstinately refuse to support Scottish Government policy.

Indeed, this disparity in political and social outlook does not just exist between the Scottish Government and the UK Government. The increasingly neo-conservative Labour Party is just as far out of touch with the public conscience.

A baffling speech from Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont this week make it abundantly clear that the Labour party have dispensed with any remaining commitment to social welfare or public services.

In this speech Ms Lamont revealed her party’s desire to do away with everything from free care for the elderly to free prescription charges. She also underlined her wishes to impose tuition fees for university students reduce the number of modern apprenticeships and even end the council tax freeze.

The Labour party have shown their true colours on a variety of social and economic matters and confirmed the party’s dramatic swing toward the neo-conservative, in line with their Westminster bosses. While many people across the country already feel let down by the Labour party in recent years, this latest development will no doubt leave members feeling betrayed and is likely to swell the exodus from the party.

Suspicions of Labour’s slump to the right have abounded since the Labour party allied with the Liberal/Conservative coalition parties in the anti-independence collaboration. However, few could have foreseen how completely the Labour party would dispense with its supposed core philosophy.

This once again underlines the fact that the only party committed to defending high quality social services, education and healthcare in Scotland is the SNP.

Small wonder then that people in Scotland overwhelmingly trust the Scottish Government to make the right decisions for Scotland, while fewer than one in five trust the Westminster Government.
However, if we are to protect social services and our proud tradition of fairness, if we are to reject austerity and focus on economic growth as the solution to testing times, we must ensure that the people of Scotland have the means to do so. This, of course, requires full transfer of powers to Holyrood. After all, it is the people of Scotland who have the greatest stake in our country’s future, and only with independence can we achieve our full potential.

18 September 2012

Higher Education

In this column in August, I discussed the arrival of exam results for school students in Scotland and the multitude of options and opportunities young people in Scotland have. Developments since have ensured that, in particular, higher education has not left the headlines.

Figures released by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) show that a record number of young Scots will attend University in Scotland this year. This is as a result of the best ever school exam results, which have opened the door for 22, 292 Scottish students to go to Scottish Universities. This is before including the 3000 unprocessed applications, and the potential for entry through the UCAS clearing system.

However, there is more to this story than high achieving young Scots. Scotland has a long and proud tradition of access to high quality education based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay. In fact, the Scottish Government recently announced that, as well as maintaining free tuition, legislation is to come into force in 2013 which will ensure that students from low income families have access to a living income through bursaries and loans, all students will be eligible for a student loan of at least £4500 and part-time working students who do not earn over a £25k threshold will receive full support for tuition fees.

Ensuring access to free higher education is not only a source of great pride for Scotland, the only country in the UK to provide this, but also an economic boon for our country, and an invaluable investment for the future. This is because it is the same bright young Scots who attend university this year, that emerge as top-level graduates in fields from science and engineering to the arts, social sciences and medicine who we will look to in the future.

To take a specific example, it was revealed this year, after the Scottish Government funded an additional 1000 places at the University of the Highlands and Islands, that for every £1 invested in the institution, the equivalent of £4 is returned to the Scottish economy.

Evidently, this is money well spent, and with more bright students full of potential entering higher education every year, they will be in an excellent position to take their place at the heart of Scotland’s economy in the coming years.

Healthcare

The Scottish Government has always been an outspoken defender of frontline healthcare and brought in a target of reducing senior management positions in the NHS by 25% by 2015 to ensure frontline services are protected. The latest figures show that since March 2010 a drop of 16.1% has been achieved so far, which demonstrates that we are well on our way to achieving the target.

The reduction in senior management positions comes as figures show that the NHS workforce in Scotland is 2.6% higher than it was in September 2006 before the SNP took office, while there are also more qualified nurses employed by the NHS in Scotland since that time.

The SNP is committed to protecting frontline healthcare and ensuring that people in Scotland continue to receive the exceptional level of care they currently get from the NHS. Drawing this sort of balance is never easy, but at a time when resources are tight, it is more important than ever that frontline healthcare is the top priority. You will not find many people who would not agree that money should be used to employ health staff ahead of senior managers.

The fact that the NHS in Scotland is effectively independent shows what we can achieve when decisions are made by a Scottish Parliament, 100% elected in Scotland. Of course to truly protect Scotland’s health service from the spending decisions of the Tory-led coalition, we need the normal powers of an independent country.

4 September 2012

Marine Renewable Energy

Scotland’s huge renewable energy potential is world-renowned and the envy of many of our neighbouring countries. A large part of that potential is at sea and with so much dramatic coastline, Scotland enjoys 25% of Europe’s wave and tidal potential energy. Hence, it is not just for their unspoiled beauty that our coastal areas are so valued.

To make the best use of this resource, we must continue to develop the very best in wave and tidal power technology. However, while the rough seas around Scotland’s coast provide some of the greatest concentrated wave and tidal resources in the world they also present considerable challenges for development, installation and operation of marine energy technology.

To support research and development in this key sector, the Scottish Government has announced this week that five marine energy developers are to benefit from £7.9 million funding to further develop testing of new wave and tidal prototypes in the seas around Scotland.

The second round of WATERS (Wave & Tidal Energy: Research, Development & Demonstration Support) funding is to enable Scottish developers to capture an increased share of the growing international marine energy market, which could be worth up to £4 billion to Scotland’s economy by 2020.

Over and above this, the Scottish Government has unveiled the four companies competing for the £10m clean energy Saltire Prize. The largest renewables innovation award of its kind, the Saltire Prize will be won by the team that achieves the greatest volume of electrical output in Scottish waters over a continuous two-year period, using only the power of the sea. Three of these projects will be based in the Pentland Firth & Orkney Waters, while the Oyster wave energy converter will be deployed off the Isle of Lewis.

These, and other innovative renewable energy systems are vital components in achieving the Scottish Government’s ambitious renewables target of meeting the equivalent of 100 per cent of gross annual electricity demand entirely from renewables by 2020.

2011 was a record breaker, with enough green electricity being produced in Scotland to comfortably beat our yearly target. Indeed, Scotland met almost 40 per cent of the UK’s renewables output in 2011, demonstrating just how much the rest of the UK relies upon our energy.

Scotland is currently at the cutting edge of marine power technology and the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney (a world leader, which hosts more devices than at any other single site in the world) demonstrates how far this young and expanding industry has come in recent years. The investment in pioneering technology and Saltire Prize challenge have helped draw international attention to the planet-saving potential of wave and tidal power, and will serve to drive the development of similar large-scare, commercial marine electricity generation from which we can all benefit.

Renewable energy offers our country incredible opportunities and this investment is our latest step towards the reindustrialisation of Scotland. There are already more than 11,000 people employed in jobs linked to Scotland’s renewables industry and key to bringing in future jobs and investment is to ensure we remain at the forefront of innovation, which is why these projects are so important.

The long-term boost to our economy that these technological developments could bring simply cannot be underestimated and, with Scotland’s tradition of marine expertise in high demand, the future is bright for Scotland’s on- and off-shore engineering industry.

21 August 2012

Exam Results

Last week, young people across Scotland were handed by their postie an envelope which would potentially affect the course of the rest of their lives.

Exam results day is a source of the most polarised of emotions for pupils, students and their families as they take stock of their achievements, and inevitably compare them with their expectations.

While, results and expectations are different for everyone, what every student receiving their results has in common is the need to ask him or herself the question “what next?” Happily however, all of the possible answers to this question are potentially routes to success and fulfilment of potential.

Scotland’s inspiring young people have more options than ever to consider when thinking about their prospects for the future. Some will opt to join the workforce immediately, others to develop a trade through a modern apprenticeship while many choose to pursue further education.

What we, in Scotland, can all be proud of is our tradition of investing in our young people, and providing for them the sort of options which will best allow them to flourish as young men and women, and us all to flourish as a nation.

The Scottish Government has been and remains unwavering in its commitment to providing a work, training or education opportunity for every single 16-19 year old in Scotland.

To achieve this, the Scottish Government has implemented an ambitious programme of measures to ensure for our young people the brightest possible future. This includes appointing the UK’s first dedicated Minister for Youth Employment, in conjunction with the broader strategy to continue large-scale investment in Scotland, bringing job opportunities for us all.

Also, we in Scotland can be proud of our unstinting rejection of tuition fees and our commitment to ensuring young minds remain in education based on their ability to learn, not their ability to pay. On top of this, the Scottish Government has supported the creation of 25,000 new-start Modern Apprenticeships in 2011/12 alone.

Each of these is part of the £1.5 billion per year investment in post-16 education and training that underlines the Scottish Government’s commitment to allowing our young people to continue becoming successful, confident learners, effective contributors and responsible citizens.

Freshwater Fisheries Consultation

We are well aware in the North East of the importance of the fishing industry to our economy, and our communities. However, aquaculture and freshwater fisheries also play an important economic and social role throughout Scotland, particularly in rural areas. That’s why the Scottish Government has recently consulted on new legislation that will aim to ensure both sectors have a viable, long term future.

Engagement with the consultation has been broad and encouraging, and 1342 responses were received on proposals for the introduction of an Aquaculture and Fisheries Bill, the findings of which have now been published.

Fish and shellfish farming is a growing industry that directly employs more than 1,500 people, with salmon being Scotland’s largest food export. In 2010 150,000 tonnes of farmed salmon was produced, worth around £540 million. Scotland's freshwater fisheries are world famous and their management supports one of the largest wild salmon populations in Europe, while Scottish brown trout fisheries are also an important tourism draw.

Naturally, I welcome the strong level of engagement in this consultation, reflecting the desire of the respondents that we have a balanced and proportionate Bill, building on the successes we already have in these sectors. The provisions within the Bill will ensure that farmed and wild fisheries – and their interactions with each other – are managed effectively, maximising their combined contribution to supporting sustainable economic growth.

Indeed, some of the proposals are challenging and ambitious – but this reflects the Scottish Government’s firm desire for both sectors to succeed. I believe this now gives us the platform for a positive way ahead and I look forward to introducing the Bill to Parliament this autumn.

7 August 2012

Supporting our Veterans

Recently, I welcomed the distribution to various healthcare providers of a leaflet drawing attention to the issues faced by many of our ex-service personnel. This leaflet contained new advice and specialist information for both healthcare workers and our armed forces veterans and is intended to work alongside the veteran healthcare guide, which is available online, to help ensure that healthcare workers can identify veterans and ensure they receive the best, and most appropriate care.

Making sure that veterans are known to health workers is an important part of ensuring that they are able to access specialist services through the NHS, including priority treatment for service-related conditions where needed and advice on physical and mental recovery relating to health concerns specific to veterans.

Ensuring that healthcare providers are fully aware of the support and priority treatment that is available to veterans will go a long way towards ensuring that as many veterans as possible are accessing the help they are entitled to.

It is important that we do everything we can to support our veterans. After everything they have given on our behalf, we have a duty to ensure that they have all the support and care that they may need. Making sure that veterans have access to all the information they need is an important part of making the readjustment back to civilian life.

This is a positive new source of advice for Scotland’s veteran community and a further demonstration of the Scottish Government’s determination to do all that it can to support our veterans.

Out and About

Our lengthy wet spell has so far failed to put a dampener on summer activity in the North East and recent weeks have seen a host of well-attended events going ahead. The New Deer Show, the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival, Peterhead Scottish Week and various local galas and pageants have seen local people, and those from further afield, come together to celebrate all aspects of our culture. With plenty more shows and events still to come in August, a good turn-out (hopefully aided by better weather and an influx of visitors) will serve to boost our local economy and heighten the profile of the North East as a fun, friendly and welcoming place to live, work and visit.

On the subject of entertainment, Peterhead F.C. also managed to put in a spirited performance against SPL side Dundee F.C., before losing narrowly on penalties in the Scottish Communities League Cup. However, despite the club facing Premier League opposition attendance, away fans notwithstanding, was not as high as might have been expected.

With so much football, from all over the world, so readily available on TV, clubs across the country are struggling with dwindling attendances. In a bid to reverse this trend August 11 sees the culmination of the national SellOutSaturday campaign, which is aimed at encouraging all of us to go along and support our local football team, no matter who they are or how well they might be doing. From Forres to Forfar, Peterhead to Pittodrie, many of us will have experienced the magic of seeing our team stride out on a summer’s day in front of a crowd bristling with excitement and expectation for the new season.

Just as attending the town gala or agricultural show brings us together as a community, by going along with friends and family to support our local team we can ensure they will be there for future generations to cheer on.

Mine’s a Bovril!

24 July 2012

Crown Estates

The appetite for independence for Scotland is fundamentally based on the principle that those who live in a particular community, in a particular territory are best placed to determine its destiny as they have the greatest stake in its future.

The continuing success of devolution has demonstrated this, and there has been no demand from the people of Scotland to surrender any powers from Holyrood to Westminster. Indeed the desire to see Scotland have control over all of her affairs, as is natural, continues to grow.

It is all the more surprising therefore, that the UK Government deems that there are still areas of the political process which the people of Scotland should not be responsible for themselves. The most recent example of this is the UK Government’s confirmation that they will not devolve control of the Crown Estate to the Scottish Parliament, ignoring both good sense and the wishes of the people of Scotland.

The Crown Estate comprises large amounts of land around Scotland’s coast, as well as several inland areas. This is public land in Scotland and should, therefore, be accountable to the Scottish Parliament – especially when the majority of environmental, agriculture, fisheries and economic development issues are devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

It is only logical that Scotland can and should have responsibility for the conservation, development and economic benefit of her own coastline, seabed and offshore territory, not to mention local development such as the pier at Crovie. In fact, I have no doubt that if responsibility for the Crown Estate had lain with the Scottish Parliament local people campaigning for repairs to the pier at Crovie would have found it much easier to convince the authorities of the need for action.

The irony of this is that in opposition the LibDems actively campaigned for devolution of the Crown Estate, but in coalition government with the Tories, they have reneged on that by rejecting cross-party calls for full devolution of these considerable assets to the Scottish Parliament.

For those of us in coastal communities seeking fair influence over the Crown Estate, and indeed any of our local and national affairs, it is increasingly clear that the only way forward is with a Yes vote for independence.

Spilt milk

As milk prices continue to plummet, while costs and overheads continue to rise, Scotland’s dairy farmers have had a tough time of it. Little wonder that farmers from across the UK attended a mass demonstration at Westminster to voice their concerns about the latest round of milk price cuts.

The National Farmers Union Scotland has highlighted that these price cuts could force farmers out of business, ultimately pushing up the price of milk for all of us in the long term.

The frustration our dairy farmers are feeling has served to underline the need for action to tackle the issue of dairy prices. In response, the Scottish Government has unveiled a five-point action plan to tackle these pricing issues.

The action plan comprises calling for a ministerial summit to discuss solutions and legislation; asking for the appointment of an independent facilitator to establish a voluntary code of practice between producers and processors; demanding that retailers make clear to consumers how much producers receive for their milk; commissioning a long-term strategic review of the dairy industry and ensuring the Scottish Agricultural Organisations Society can continue and develop their work on producers’ organisations and co-operatives.

It is incumbent upon us as politicians, as well as everyone in the supply chain to find a sustainable solution which meets the needs of our dairy farmers, ensuring they are paid a fair price for their product, while maximising this valuable economic asset for Scotland.

10 July 2012

EU Fisheries

Some crucial developments for the trade have seen the fishing industry hit the headlines recently.

There had been no let-up of the frustration that I, and a huge part of the fishing industry, held about the behaviour of Iceland and the Faroe Islands in relation to Mackerel quotas. Both countries have been unilaterally giving themselves massive quota hikes since 2008 with repeated attempts to negotiate an agreement having fallen flat, this dangerous approach looked set to continue.

The scale of the quota hikes was evident from the fact that the Faroes don’t even have the capacity to catch all the Mackerel they had awarded themselves and were instead inviting foreign vessels into their waters to catch the stock on their behalf.

Encouragingly, however I, and many in the fishing industry, welcomed the recent news that the EU has reached an agreement with the Danish Presidency on a comprehensive sanctions regime for fleets engaging in irresponsible fishing practices.

The package agreed upon by the EU provides for, where appropriate, the imposition of trade sanctions on those countries employing unsustainable fishing practices. These include quantitative restrictions on the importation of fish into the EU, restrictions on port access by vessels under the flag of the offending country or territory and embargoes on the sale of vessels and equipment.  

Ideally, of course, these sanctions will never need to be implemented, and the intention is that that they serve as a deterrent against the unsustainable plundering of fish stocks, and a catalyst for the return to the negotiating table.

However, it is reassuring to know that we are not powerless to respond where and when irresponsible fishing practices do occur, and that action can be taken to prevent the sort of activity which threatens the fishing industry in Scotland and beyond.

Local Land

When it comes to supporting and sustaining our rural communities, many of us have come to realise that there is little more important, or more effective, than empowerment. The Scottish Government is therefore determined to, wherever possible, help more of our rural areas to take control of their own destinies and build successful, flourishing communities.

In fact, as of 2 July 2012, rural communities can able to apply for financial support to buy out land in their area, thanks to the new £6m Scottish Land Fund.

The Scottish Government is fully behind local people, who have a clear idea of how best to develop land for the benefit of their community, being supported and empowered to acquire it.

Approximately half a million acres of Scottish land are now in the ownership of their local communities and many of these projects have been great successes.

The Crossgates Community Woodland, for example, is a great demonstration of what can be achieved. Crossgates was the first community in Scotland to successfully purchase land through the community right to buy provisions in 2005. Since the purchase, the Crossgates Community has developed their local woodland area so that it can be enjoyed by all. They’ve planted several thousand trees and installed a play park and miles of pathways to improve access.

Similarly, the Galson Estate on Lewis this year marked its fifth anniversary in community ownership and continues to develop its tourism trade by focussing on its natural heritage and wildlife.

Land ownership is the foundation of strong rural communities, with a sense of pride and togetherness. Built on the right plan, community buyouts can therefore have huge benefits for our rural areas and Scotland as a whole. I would encourage any community with an idea for the best use of their local area and considering purchasing land for it to contact the Scottish Land Fund and wee how they could benefit.

26 June 2012

What’s Your Beef?

It is well-established that Scotland produces some of the best red meat in the world. We also have a strong tradition of exporting fine produce and cattle to everywhere from Beijing to Buenos Aires to satisfy connoisseur demand.

This global demand has, as for many of Scotland’s exports, never been higher and producers across the country are being encouraged to look to the long term to prepare for rapidly expanding market opportunities. With the world’s hunger for Scotch beef continuing to grow and its market price continuing to rise, new markets and export opportunities arise for every day.

We know how hard our producers have been, and will be working to satisfy this demand, and we also know that they require support to do this efficiently. It is therefore as important as ever that Scotland receives a fair share of the investment and support available to our competitors. A crucial factor in the success of Scotland’s farming industry, be it livestock or arable, is the European Common Agricultural Policy. We are working hard in Scotland and Brussels to ensure the best possible deal in terms of CAP – and that means a fair share of the budget.

Scotland’s producers need a Common Agricultural Policy budget which allows our meat industry to flourish now and also to prepare for the future.

While the powers to affect this remain with Westminster, the UK Government will have a role to play in ensuring a policy framework is in place which supports and provides for Scotland’s red meat industry, rather than one which holds it back.

Unfortunately, the situation at present is that Scotland gets a pretty raw deal in terms of CAP budget. Previous UK Governments and key decision-makers have failed us in this respect and I, and my Scottish Government colleagues, are calling on the UK Government, on behalf of Scotland’s farmers, to do what they can to support our producers.

Forecasts show that in an independent Scotland we will see vastly improved CAP investment of between £100 a £200 million extra each year, with the decisions which affect us all, particularly our producers, being taken by those who know our farming system best. That’s my idea of a fair deal.

Dental Strategy Launched

I am very proud to be part of a Scottish Government which is delivering on our election commitments and tackling the problems of the accessibility of dental treatment in the North East after many years of neglect. I am also delighted that in the period since the SNP Scottish Government came to power we have seen a marked increase in the level of access to an NHS dentist that people across Scotland enjoy. That we are listening to the issues people face and living up to our promises is something I am will be welcomed across the region.

Good dental hygiene is something that is vital to everyone’s health and wellbeing. This is especially true of vulnerable groups and dental neglect can often be connected to other health problems.

This highlights the importance of the new Scottish Government Dental Strategy, launched this week, with a focus on priority groups such as the elderly, the mentally ill and homeless people. Maintaining oral health can be very challenging for vulnerable groups and this new strategy will make sure that these people have the same opportunities as others to enjoy good oral health.

The new strategy, backed up with £1.4m funding a year, will ensure that people in these priority groups get the treatment they need to prevent oral disease, and are included in a consistent and effective strategy for good oral health across Scotland.

12 June 2012

A chance for common sense

Over the years that I have been writing these columns, the need for fundamental reform of the utterly failed Common Fisheries Policy has been a recurring theme. I have written in the past about the moves that are underway to secure just that reform, with the fundamental nature of the CFP currently up for negotiation in Europe.

Those negotiations have now reached a critical juncture with a fisheries council about to take place to hammer out a new framework for the fishing industry. The Scottish Government has been consistently clear that the over-centralised status quo that has failed to achieve its aims must be replaced with a regionally based system of management that sees decisions made closer to the people whose livelihoods rely upon the fish in our seas.

It is the current rules in place and the fact they are so inappropriate for a mixed fishery like the North Sea that has led to the appalling waste of fishing vessels discarding fish. There could scarcely be a clearer example of the harm being caused by blanket decisions being made centrally.

It would be far more preferable for fish management policies to be made on a regional basis where solutions appropriate to local conditions can be put in place. It is only common sense that those with the most knowledge and experience of a particular fishery are given the responsibility to draw up a tailored management plan for that fishery.

Scotland’s fishing industry has led the way in Europe when it comes to addressing the problem of discards within the current framework, and indeed the Scottish fleet has achieved the largest reduction in Cod discards of any EU country. That is a significant achievement, but reform of the CFP will allow us to go further and truly tackle the heart-breaking waste of fish discards. Scotland is leading the way when it comes to discards and on this issue the reforms that are agreed must untie our hands to do more rather than impose any inappropriate blanket measure that would unfairly punish our fishing industry.

These discussions are a critical opportunity to achieve a better future for our fishing industry, but it is also important to recognise that there are also dangers to the industry in some of the proposals that others have made. Protecting Scotland’s historic fishing rights is a critical priority for the Scottish Government.

There have been proposals to impose Transferable Fishing Concessions which would have enabled the transfer of quota from our fishermen and in all likelihood lead to the decline of our fishing communities. At this time it seems that the European Commission is heeding the Scottish Government’s warnings on this issue, but we can take nothing for granted and continue to stand firm on this issue.

Of course the Scottish Government’s ability to do just that would be greatly enhanced if we had the powers of an independent country and the direct representation in these councils that comes with it. Yet even without that direct representation, the Fisheries Secretary Richard Lochhead will be doing his utmost to secure a positive outcome for Scotland and working to ensure that the UK position reflects the needs of the industry in Scotland. A situation where the industry is regarded as expendable by the UK, as once happened under a previous Tory Government, can never be repeated.

These negotiations must achieve genuine and substantial reform to allow our fishing industry to achieve a profitable, sustainable future. Our fishing communities cannot afford another missed opportunity for reform and the outcome of the coming discussions is critical to the livelihoods of people across Banffshire & Buchan Coast.

29 May 2012

Our Hydro-Nation

As a nation with an extensive coastline and frequent rainfall, water is something that we can at times all take for granted. Yet not only is it one of the fundamental requirements of life, it is also a significant and growing source of the electricity we all use.

Scotland of course has a long history of generating power through hydro-electric projects, using the resources our landscape offers us to good effect. However, it is off our shores in the form of marine renewables that much of our power will be drawn in future years. Scotland is home to 25% of Europe’s potential offshore wind and tidal resources and 10% of Europe’s potential wave resources and there is huge economic potential for our country waiting to be unlocked.

This will have a significant impact on Banffshire & Buchan Coast, with Peterhead having been identified as one of the key sites for the improved infrastructure that will be needed to harness this potential. The significant sum of £70 million has been earmarked for making infrastructure improvements in places like Peterhead that have been identified as key sites, and the first funding award from this National Renewables Infrastructure Fund has now been made.

Improved infrastructure at Peterhead will bring more jobs to the area and will represent a significant economic boost to the whole of Banffshire & Buchan Coast. We have a long history of making a living from the waters off our shores and these plans mean that will continue for many years to come.

Yet while Scotland may be blessed by the quantity and potential offered to us by water, other countries around the world are not so fortunate. One in eight of the world’s population do not have access to clean water and a staggering 2.5 billion people live without basic sanitation. It is a problem that is only due to get worse as climate change and expanding populations expected to lead to a 30% increase in the demand for fresh water over the next 20 years.

As well as taking a world leading position on tackling climate change, Scotland has a wealth of expertise to share with the world in managing water resources. The Scottish Government is determined that we should make use of that expertise to help share our knowledge and technology with people around the world.

That is why international experts from around the world recently came together in Glasgow for the Global Water Scarcity Conference. As a Hydro-Nation we have an important role to play and I am proud that Scotland is stepping up to the challenge of helping to improve the way that other countries manage their water resources.

Warnings must be heeded

The need for the UK Government to put aside its stubborn refusal to take action necessary to get the economy growing again has been put into sharp focus with the International Monetary Fund calling on the Chancellor to change course. The IMF is the latest voice warning that a lack of growth will cripple any prospect of economic recovery and that action needs to be taken now.

The Scottish Government provided details of £300 million of shovel ready projects that could be immediately launched to boost growth in Scotland if funding was made available, but despite the Prime Minister having requested this list it was subsequently ignored in the budget.

That was a grave mistake and economic stimulus is needed more than ever to create jobs and boost demand in the economy. The UK Government is acting as a barrier to that growth and must heed the warnings before it is too late.

15 May 2012

Eyes Of The World On Scotland

As a nation, Scotland has never been slow to remind the world of the influence that we have had in shaping the modern world. Whether through the seemingly endless list of ground-breaking inventions or the philosophical ideas that underpin our society, Scotland has had an impact on the world that is disproportionate to our size.

Yet our relatively small size means that we often forget that people around the world do pay attention with interest to what happens within our borders. In the run-up to the independence referendum there has already been a huge amount of international interest in the future of our country and no doubt that will grow as the date of the referendum draws nearer.

The fact that the rest of the world is watching as we debate and decide our future course is not something that should be feared, but rather should be positively welcomed. Indeed, that was the very point made by Philip Grant the top Scottish executive at Lloyds Banking Group who in evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s finance committee said that global markets are more aware of “the brand of Scotland” thanks to the interest that the referendum is generating.

In a competitive global market place, making investors around the world aware of the great strengths and opportunities available in Scotland can be a challenge, so this positive by-product of the ongoing referendum debate should be welcome to everyone with Scotland’s interests at heart.

A recent survey by Ernst and Young found that Scotland had been the most successful nation in the UK when it came to attracting inward investment in recent years and despite the problems in the world economy, many substantial international companies have continued to invest in Scotland.

The debate and discussion between now and 2014 should be a positive one and allow all Scots to contribute their vision of the future of our nation. It is a fantastic opportunity to shape our future in its own right, but if on top of that it draws the eyes of the world to Scotland and highlights the opportunities that exist here, I am sure that is an outcome we can all be pleased about.

A fantastic endorsement

In my last column I wrote about my hope that people in Banffshire & Buchan Coast would take full advantage of the opportunity offered by the local government elections to shape the future of the council in their area. I am delighted that so many people took that message to heart and delivered a resounding endorsement of the SNP. In every ward within Banffshire & Buchan Coast the SNP gained the most first preferences, with 9 councillors elected in the Aberdeenshire Council part of the constituency along with 2 councillors in the Moray council part of the constituency.

Across Aberdeenshire the SNP won 28 seats making it the largest party on the council by some distance with a similar situation in Moray where the SNP won 10 seats. Across Scotland the SNP topped the poll by getting 424 councillors elected, 30 more than our nearest rivals and an increase of 62 on the last local government elections in 2007.

These are a fantastic set of results, both locally and across the country, and I am looking forward to working with the councillors in Banffshire & Buchan Coast to deliver more progress for the area. Whether new or returning faces, I am sure they will be eager to build upon the endorsement they have received and live up to the trust that the electorate has placed in them.

1 May 2012

Positive Signs

Amid the economic gloom that we have all had to get used to in recent years, it is often the case that people strain hard to see recovery heralded in the smallest of signs. Yet recently published figures do show positive movements for the Scottish economy in the final months of 2011.

While GDP in the UK and in the Eurozone fell by 0.3% in the final quarter of last year, in Scotland the reduction was a more modest 0.1%. A small difference to be sure, but a welcome sign that in that period at least the Scottish economy outperformed that of the rest of the UK.

That figure was underpinned by figures published at the same time showing that Scotland has a lower rate of unemployment, a higher rate of employment and lower economic inactivity than the UK as a whole. These are welcome signs in all three of the key labour market statistics.

One of the key factors that have helped to boost Scotland’s economic performance relative to the rest of the UK has been the Scottish Government’s Small Business Bonus Scheme. This has seen rates bills abolished or substantially reduced for thousands of businesses across Scotland, keeping money in their balance sheets at a time when the margins businesses are operating in are tighter than ever.

In Aberdeenshire alone, this support has seen businesses save more than £20 million in taxation since the policy was brought in during 2008. Across Scotland, the figure that has been saved is over £400 million.

This is a substantial level of support that has been instrumental in keeping the small businesses which form the lifeblood of our economy afloat during harsh economic times. It is one of the Scottish Government achievements of which I am most proud and our commitment to maintaining this essential policy has not wavered.

With the publication of first quarter data for 2012 showing that the UK economy as a whole has again contracted, meaning that it has fallen into a double-dip recession, it is measures such as the Small Business Bonus that will help maximise Scotland’s economic performance.

With first quarter figures for Scotland not yet available, I know that people across the country will sincerely hope that the positive signs that are there in the Scottish economy will help us to avoid the fate of the rest of the UK.

Making your vote count

For the first time in many years, the 3rd of May will see local government elections held in Scotland with no other elections taking place at the same time. After the large number of spoilt ballot papers in the 2007 elections, making sure that council elections take place on a separate date was one of the key recommendations that were made by the inquiry that was subsequently held into what had happened.

Holding the elections on their own day should help to reduce confusion, but everyone should also remember that in this election they need to vote using numbers to rank the candidates in order of preference. The decisions that local authorities make have a huge impact on our day to day lives so I hope that we will see a substantial turnout in Banffshire & Buchan Coast as people play their part in the democratic process.

The importance of these elections should not be underestimated, particularly in these difficult economic times where the decisions local authorities make are particularly critical, so I look forward to working with the new and returning councillors which local residents elect on the 3rd of May.

17 April 2012

Connecting With The World Faster

As technology develops at an ever faster pace, the internet takes on an ever greater role in our daily lives. More and more of our daily activities, whether for business or leisure, are online, making fast and reliable broadband connections more important than ever.

That is why I was delighted by the news that Buckie and Fraserburgh have both benefited from infrastructure upgrades that mean residents will be able to access the faster broadband connections they increasingly need. Faster broadband connections boost economic growth in the places that benefit from them and improve the quality of people’s day to day lives. That is why the Scottish Government has set ambitious targets to deliver world class digital infrastructure for people across Scotland by 2020.

As part of this, the objective of delivering speeds of 40-80Mbps to around 85-90% of premises in Scotland by 2015 has been set. Speeds of this kind are a step change in what has typically been available until very recently, but must become the norm if Scotland is to compete economically with other countries around the world. Achieving this will undoubtedly be a challenge, particularly in those parts of the country that the market would not otherwise deliver the necessary infrastructure to. That is why the Scottish Government will be targeting its public investment in the typically rural areas that are home to the 30% of premises that would not otherwise see broadband upgrades.

Additional funding for this purpose was an important part of the Scottish Government’s recently passed budget and will continue to be a key priority for investment in the years ahead. It is essential that in delivering the digital infrastructure necessary for the future of our economy, people are not disadvantaged by where they live. A fast internet connection is no less essential to a business or household in a rural part of the country as it is to one in one of Scotland’s cities. People across every part of Scotland should be able to get the broadband connections they need and it is right that the Scottish Government is prioritising this in its approach.

I am confident that we will see more upgrades to the broadband infrastructure in Banffshire & Buchan Coast in the near future and I know just how welcome they will be to the people in the area that are able to benefit from them.

Slow steps forward

I have written several times before about the many twists, turns and false starts that have faced efforts to bring a Carbon Capture & Storage project to Peterhead power station. Several months ago when efforts to build a CCS project at Longannet in Fife failed, the UK Government indicated that the £1 billion of public funding for carbon capture technologies would still be made available during the current Westminster term.

However, this money was subsequently reallocated for other projects by the Treasury and 2015 identified as the date when the project that wins the Carbon Capture & Storage Competition can expect to receive funding.

This was enormously frustrating and another unnecessary delay imposed by the UK Government in what is fast becoming a habit. That competition has now been launched by the UK Government and as slow progress is better than none at all it is at least a positive step forward.

I am optimistic of Peterhead’s prospects of winning through and securing the funding that will bring jobs and investment to the area. What would be utterly unacceptable, however, is if we see any further mishandling and unnecessary delays that further hinder progress.

3 April 2012

The Wrong Choices

Without doubt the biggest talking point in politics in recent days has been the UK Government’s budget and the fallout that has accompanied it. In the run up to it, the Scottish Government made clear that we believed the priority should be on encouraging economic growth through capital investment. We illustrated how quickly work could begin by providing details of shovel ready projects totalling £300 million that could have boosted the Scottish economy immediately if funding was provided.

In the event, this was completely ignored by the UK Government who instead embarked upon a set of priorities that are completely incomprehensible in these difficult times. The latest figures show how much weaker economic recovery has been here compared to the USA and that is almost entirely down to the UK Government’s decision not follow America’s example and stimulate economic growth through investment.

It would be wrong to say there were absolutely no positives from the budget. Since the Chancellor’s enormously damaging £2 billion tax raid on the North Sea industry, the SNP has been at the forefront of calls for guaranteeing tax relief on decommissioning and creating a greater incentive for oil field exploration through broadening the field allowance for such projects. We have also consistently called for tax relief for the video games sector which is increasingly important to the Scottish economy but was at risk of relocating to other countries with more favourable tax systems. Enhanced capital allowances for the enterprise zones that we have established in Dundee, Irvine and Nigg are also positive.

But those positive measures are completely overshadowed by the enormous damage that other parts of the budget will do. The reduction in the top rate of income tax from 50% to 45% will hand a substantial tax cut to 15,000 of the most well off people in the Scotland while 330,000 pensioners in Scotland will now see their taxes rise in real terms to pay for it. That is not fair by any measure of the word and will rightly cause real outrage to communities up and down the country.

As if that wasn’t enough, the UK Government is also pressing ahead with plans to further hike fuel duties by 3p later this year. Prices at the pump are already eye-wateringly high as people in Banffshire & Buchan Coast know only too well. To put up the price again at a time when household budgets are stretched to the limit simply demonstrates how out of touch the UK Government is with life in this part of Scotland.

For people in areas like Banffshire & Buchan Coast, a car is quite simply a necessity rather than a lifestyle choice. People in rural areas do not have the choice to use their car less, so price hikes at the pump hand higher bills to households that they have no way of avoiding. On top of that, higher fuel prices also affect the cost of everything we buy as businesses have no choice but to pass on the increased haulage costs they face to consumers.

Taken together, the Institute of Fiscal Studies estimates that the measures in the budget will cost an average household £790 a year. This budget was quite simply not a budget for Scotland and demonstrated, if any more proof was needed, how little Scotland features in the thoughts of the UK Government. These kinds of decisions that have such a dramatic effect on our day to day lives should be made in Scotland and show just why Scotland needs the normal powers of an independent country.

20 March 2012

A Critical Year

One year ago when I was given the opportunity to write an article for the Fishing Review, I wrote about the frustration that I, and a huge part of the fishing industry, held about the behaviour of Iceland and the Faroe Islands in relation to Mackerel quotas. Both countries have been unilaterally giving themselves massive quota hikes since 2008 and with the latest attempts to negotiate an agreement having ended without movement, this dangerous approach will continue in 2012.

The fact that a full twelve months have passed and we are now facing a third consecutive year without an agreement in place is extremely disappointing to say the least. The scale of the quota hikes can be seen from the fact that the Faroes don’t even have the capacity to catch all the Mackerel they have awarded themselves and are instead inviting foreign vessels into their waters to catch the stock on their behalf.

This is selfish short-termism at its worst and is a fast-track to Mackerel stocks, which was Scotland’s most valuable fishing stock in 2010, falling below safe limits thanks to overfishing. The EU needs to fast-track its plans for sanctions and ensure that a tough stand is taken before the damage that is being done becomes irreparable.

One area where the fishing industry could have benefited from the EU taking less speed was with the nonsensical proposals late last year that would have seen days at sea reduced across the industry while several fishing quotas were rising. Thankfully this threat was seen off and those vessels that are subject to the annual days at sea reduction as part of the Cod Recovery Plan will be able to see them reinstated through adopting Cod avoidance measures after the Commission accepted Scotland’s interpretation of the rules.

The annual negotiations eventually saw quotas for several key fish stocks rise, but once again the key lesson that can be drawn from the fraught negotiations over the failed and discredited CFP is that the reforms this year cannot come soon enough. We urgently need to replace the CFP with a system of regional management that sees those with the greatest knowledge and stake in the success of the fishing industry given responsibility for managing it.

Some good news for the year ahead though was the Scottish Government’s announcement that Fraserburgh Harbour is to receive £7.5 million to deepen part of the harbour, improving access, and to upgrade facilities at the site. Work is expected to start in the near future and these improvements will represent a real boost for the town and the fishing industry in the area.

Despite the many trials that it has faced over the years and continues to have ahead of it, the fishing industry is integral to the fabric of Banffshire & Buchan Coast. The Scottish Government is firmly committed to supporting our fishing industry and allocating funding such as this to critical projects such as the improvements to Fraserburgh Harbour demonstrates that clearly.

Unfinished Business


During the last session of parliament when the SNP was in a minority administration, we brought forward a series of measures aimed at making progress on tackling Scotland’s hugely damaging relationship with alcohol. Every year, excessive alcohol consumption costs Scotland £3.56 billion or about £900 for every adult in Scotland. The scale of this cost, which forms a huge part of health and policing budgets, is immense and does not even take into account the severe human cost of seeing loved ones lives ruined by alcohol abuse.

The most publicised measure that we brought to parliament during the last session was our plans to introduce a minimum price per unit for alcohol. The weight of evidence makes clear that the cost of alcohol is a key factor in how much of it is consumed and this would have had the effect of raising the price of the dirt cheap ciders and spirits favoured by problem drinkers.

The price we proposed was for 45p per unit which to put in some kind of context would have made the minimum price for an average bottle of wine £4.05 while a normal strength can of lager would be 90p. Clearly this is little change from what a supermarket already charges for these items, but what would change markedly is how much is charged for own label spirits or bottles of high strength cider which can in some cases be bought just now for less than a bottle of water.

The evidence underpinning the plans shows that within 10 years there will be around 200 fewer alcohol related deaths, thousands fewer hospital admissions, more than 300 fewer cases of violent crime and 19,600 fewer days missed from work. It will reduce the costs to health, crime and employment by £606 million over 10 years.

In the event, the opposition parties which outnumbered the SNP in the last parliament stripped minimum pricing out of the legislation that was passed. While we have never claimed it was a silver bullet, it was and remains an important tool that will help us to tackle the problem of alcohol abuse. It is telling that it is supported by a host of health professionals, the police, the licenced trade and indeed several well-known drinks producers including Tennents and Molson Coors.

That is why we regarded this as unfinished business and promised to bring back this measure now that we are in a majority situation at Holyrood. Recent days saw us do just that with the legislation necessary to introduce the measure passing its first hurdle in Parliament. This time around, opposition parties dropped their previous resistance with Lib Dems and Tories voting for the plans while most Labour MSPs abstained.

The change in attitude at Holyrood reflects the direction of travel across these islands, with the UK Government signalling its support for its own version of the measure while the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland have entered into talks over introducing a similar plan.

By its very nature, a minimum price has the biggest effect on those who buy and consume the most alcohol. With alcohol sales in Scotland 23% higher than in England and Wales and staggering financial and human costs accompanying our troubling relationship with alcohol, this policy is a tool we desperately need to get our hands on.

I welcome the progress that has been made in parliament on this issue and look forward to the positive impact that I am sure it will have once it completes its passage into law

6 March 2012

Protecting A Reputation

With the close links to the fishing industry that so many people in Banffshire & Buchan Coast have, there can scarcely be anyone who does not know someone who has been affected by the difficulties the fishing industry has faced over the years.

There have been enormous challenges that have had to be overcome and sacrifices that have been made to meet the requirements of the failed Common Fisheries Policy.

However, the fact that the CFP has manifestly failed to conserve fish stocks or deliver a profitable, sustainable fishing industry is not a justification for ignoring the rules that are currently in place. The innovations that the Scottish industry have been allowed to bring in such as the Catch Quota System has only been possible on the back of the reputation for following the rules that the Scottish fishing industry has built up.

That is why the recent sentencing of fishermen who illegally landed black fish worth millions of pounds several years ago brought to an end an incredibly disappointing episode.

Their actions put at risk the hard worn reputation that the rest of the industry had managed to build up through extreme sacrifices and put the livelihoods of others at risk. Yet what happened was clearly not representative of the vast majority of the industry. If we are to successfully make the case for fisheries reform, it will be on the back of the incredibly positive reputation that the Scottish fishing industry has built up.

What is important is that those who have done wrong have been punished and the reputation of the industry as a whole is maintained going forward. This is a critical time for the fishing industry’s future and we cannot afford the previous misdeeds of a few to tarnish the outstanding reputation of the industry today.

Healthcare in the local community

When it comes to healthcare, the service that the National Health Service provides is something that we often take for granted. Yet anyone who has received treatment or has a loved one who has needed it will know only too well the incredible efforts that NHS staff make to make us healthy. They face enormous challenges, but regularly overcome them to deliver the best quality care possible.

Yet one of the challenges that NHS staff should not need to face is inappropriate facilities in which to treat patients. Whether it is a GP check-up or a longer hospital stay, we all want to have access to clean and modern healthcare facilities as close to home as possible.

That is why the official re-opening of Chalmers Hospital in Banff following its £15 million redevelopment is fantastic news for the local community and indeed the wider Banffshire & Buchan Coast area. The re-developed hospital will provide a range of services including casualty, minor procedures, x-ray, renal dialysis, an outpatients’ clinic, a telemedicine facility and a GP ward.

There are also upgraded facilities for physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech & language therapy and podiatry. It has taken some time for these improvements to be made, but now that they are in place people in and around Banff have access to fantastic health facilities right on their own doorsteps, making some of the long journeys that patients have faced a thing of the past.

I know that both patients and the staff working there will be delighted that the work to upgrade the hospital is complete and I am positive that it will let the incredibly dedicated NHS staff in the area deliver an even higher standard of care than ever before.

21 February 2012

Budgeting For Growth

It is a testament to the negotiating skills of Finance Secretary John Swinney that the passing of the Scottish Government’s annual budget has largely become seen as an important, but smooth process in the public eye. When the SNP was first elected to Government in 2007, there were many commentators who believed that our then minority administration would collapse at the first budget, unable to secure the agreement needed from other parties for our spending plans.

Of course in the event that budget passed, and with one exception when opposition parties initially voted down the Scottish Government’s budget before passing an identical version of it the following week, every subsequent budget also made it through Holyrood despite the SNP’s then minority status.

The budget for the coming financial year has also just completed its passage through the Scottish Parliament, although given that the SNP has now moved from a minority to a majority government, there was little reason to doubt that it would do so. Yet despite that majority, John Swinney again sought to build consensus across the chamber by listening to the changes other parties and groups across Scotland wanted to see to the plans.

Although yet again no formal amendments to the budget plans were submitted by other parties, additional funding was found amongst other things for supporting college students; for improving broadband infrastructure, particularly in rural areas; for sustainable and active travel; and for more affordable housing. While it is disappointing that most of the other parties failed to actually back these measures that they had been seeking by voting for the budget, it is an important fact that the Scottish Government’s approach was to try and listen to others and attempt to build a consensus.

The budget as it was passed comes against the background of ongoing severe real terms cuts to the Scottish budget, particularly in capital spending, as a result of spending decisions made by the UK Government. Without the powers of a normal independent country, the Scottish Government is simply handed the cuts in its finances and has to adjust its spending plans accordingly.

Without significant tax powers, the main measure that the Scottish Government has to encourage growth is its capital spending budget. It is what creates jobs in our economy, something that is more important now than ever. That is why the decision was taken to reprofile £750 million of revenue spending to capital spending and to use other innovative measures to boost capital spending as much as possible.

This will have tangible effects in Banffshire & Buchan Coast, with funding in place for a replacement prison in Peterhead and for the construction of the AWPR once legal hurdles can be overcome. The improved journey times to and from Banffshire & Buchan Coast from the rest of the country will have a significant economic benefit once the road is complete.

The budget also contains funding to maintain the council tax freeze for another year. Since it was first frozen by the SNP Government, an average band D council tax payer in Aberdeenshire will now have saved £246 compared to what they would otherwise have had to pay.

The Small Business Bonus Scheme which has abolished or substantially reduced business rates for thousands of small businesses across the country, providing an absolutely vital boost to the businesses that are the lifeblood of our economy in these difficult times.

Tough decisions have had to be made, but the budget has done everything possible to boost jobs and economic growth as we continue to work towards economic recovery.

7 February 2012


Tackling youth unemployment

The difficult economic times that Scotland has endured over the last few years has had damaging consequences in a number of areas. It has seen businesses run into extreme difficulties, threatening the jobs and livelihoods of all too many people. It has seen massive budget cuts passed on to the Scottish Government as a result of UK Government spending decisions, hindering our ability to grow the Scottish economy. Yet perhaps the worst consequence of all is the growth in youth unemployment that has accompanied the economic downturn.

The long term impact of youth unemployment should not be underestimated. Being unable to enter the job market at the start of a person’s working life can have hugely damaging consequences for the rest of their life. If somebody cannot get experience of work at the lower rungs of the ladder, they will in time be competing with a new generation of young people for the same positions and struggle to gain employment throughout their life.

The rate of unemployment for 16-24 year olds is unacceptably high, running as it is at 24% - although it should be noted that because of the way the figure is measured, 35% of this figure is made up of people currently in full time education. High youth unemployment risks creating a legacy of people having a lifetime out of work that we will all pay the price for in years to come and is a threat that the SNP Government takes extremely seriously. It would be wrong to suggest there is a single solution to what is ultimately a complex problem, which is why we have appointed a dedicated Minister for Youth Employment to draw together the diverse strands of actions that the Scottish Government is taking on this issue.

Under our Opportunities for All programme, we have given a guarantee to every 16-19 year old not currently in work, training or receiving education that they will be offered a learning or training opportunity. As part of this, there will be 46,000 training places available in every single year of this current parliamentary term. This includes 25,000 Modern Apprenticeships which are directly linked to real jobs, a record number in Scotland.

We have also included a provision in the Scottish Government’s Infrastructure Investment Plan that every single company in receipt of significant government contracts must produce a training and apprenticeship plan outlining how they will provide opportunities for young people. This will ensure that when major public infrastructure investments are being made, opportunities for training and employment will accompany them. These are important actions and demonstrate how determined we are to tackle this issue.

A future for Sangs

People across Banffshire & Buchan Coast will undoubtedly share my concern over the sudden entry into administration of soft drink producer Sangs in Macduff recently. Whether they are directly affected by the move or simply people who enjoy the fantastic products Sangs produce, it is undoubtedly a matter of great concern to a huge number of people in the area.

It is clear to anyone who knows the business that Sangs remains a wholly viable business, but what is needed is time while potential buyers are identified. Both myself and Eilidh Whiteford MP have met with staff at the company and the Scottish Government is doing what it can to try and secure the breathing space that Sangs needs to secure a deal for the future.

The fact that this has happened is an extremely worrying symptom of the current state of the economy, but everyone involved is working hard to secure a viable future for Sangs and its workforce.

19 January 2012

Stewart's Rio+20 Green Dream



Stewart Stevenson is the Scottish Government's Environment & Climate Change Minister. He is working to ensure that Scotland is a world leader when it comes to taking positive action to reduce the impact of climate change, and he hopes people will be inspired by the green dreams of others to make changes in their lives.

This is his contribution to the Green Dream website set up in advance of the Rio+20 Climate Conference which will take place in Brazil in June 2012.

10 January 2012

Supporting Scotland's Creativity

The celebrations the length and breadth of Scotland which marked the passing of 2011 and the beginning of 2012 are something which will have been enjoyed by many thousands of people from all over the world. Scotland has a well deserved reputation of being able to mark such occasions in style, but Hogmanay is just one of the many key dates on Scotland's cultural calendar in a cultural year that will be even more packed than usual.

With the new year upon us, the Year of Creative Scotland has begun which will showcase the best of Scotland's rich culture and creative heritage. Yet for Scotland’s cultural sector to truly thrive, it needs to be fully nurtured and supported.

One of the early actions taken when the SNP Government was first elected in 2007 was to phase in the abolition or substantial reduction of business rates for small businesses. Such enterprises are the lifeblood of Scotland's economy and by reducing the burden of taxation that they have faced, the Scottish Government's actions have enabled many to survive the current economic difficulties where otherwise they would not have.

That support in the form of reduced rates bills has been particularly important to the tourism and culture sectors, with 57% of such premises in Scotland paying no or reduced rates in the current financial year. That boost to both our tourist and culture sectors will enable more people to visit Scotland with the economic benefits that such visitors bring with them.

Promoting our cultural sector and tourist industry in this way is an essential part of drawing in visitors to Scotland and helping our country weather the economic storm. Attracting tourists to Scotland has never been more important and this Year of Creative Scotland gives us a fantastic opportunity to do so. I am looking forward to the many events and attractions that will take place across Scotland over the course of the year, and in particular to those in Banffshire & Buchan Coast.

Past and present failures

The closing months of last year saw the hopes of jobs and investment through the development of carbon capture and storage technology in Peterhead raised and then severely undermined by the UK Government. Their decision to reallocate the bulk of funding that was to be available to develop this technology until the next parliamentary term is a deeply disappointing one and comes on the back of a previous project to develop CCS technology at Peterhead Power Station collapse in 2007, again as a result of the Westminster Government.

Yet such failings when it comes to creating jobs and boosting the economy of Peterhead are not a new thing, as papers from the 1980s recently released under the 30 year rule have made clear. It has come to light that in 1981, Margaret Thatcher vetoed plans for a £1.5 billion oil pipeline that would have created 15,000 jobs in Peterhead and Nigg.

Whether it is repeated let-downs over developing Carbon Capture technology at Peterhead Power Station today, or decisions not to see massive numbers of new jobs created 30 years ago, the UK Government has a long legacy of neglect when it comes to Peterhead and the wider region. Jobs on this scale would have benefited not just Peterhead itself, but households and businesses across all of Banffshire & Buchan Coast.

The repeated and infuriating failings on the part of Westminster are the clearest possible demonstration, if any more were needed, that we need the power to make these decisions ourselves in Scotland before any more opportunities are allowed to slip away.

Stewart Stevenson
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