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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.

Stewart Stevenson
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