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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!

Stewart Stevenson
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