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22 July 2014

Connecting the Country

We are all living in the 21st century and everyone, not just those in cities and urban areas, should be able to enjoy the advances in technology that come along with that. I want those living in the rural areas of my constituency of Banffshire and Buchan Coast, to be able to enjoy better services that only an independent Scotland can offer.

Following a vote for independence, a Rural Connectivity Commission will be established focusing on areas such as improving mobile and broadband coverage, postal services, and transport links. With the spotlight clearly on rural communities and businesses, the people in my constituency will benefit greatly.

A new Scottish regulatory landscape will be established and make certain that Scotland’s vital utilities remain sustainable and that markets work in the long-term interests of all customers, the North-east included.

I have heard people’s frustrations with digital connections, mail services, and transportation and the Scottish Government are striving to address these. Our rural communities contribute so much and have great potential for further development.

With a yes vote, the Scottish Government will have the powers to regulate and remove barriers that are standing in the way of rural communities and businesses pushing forward and reaching this great potential.

There are five areas of rural connectivity that will be addressed in this commission, and I see all as having a great impact on Banffshire and Buchan Coast.

The first is improving digital connectivity, which includes mobile telecoms and broadband. This will allow businesses to carry out work online in rural Banffshire and Buchan Coast and help people stay in touch with friends and family via email and other online services.

The second area is fairer post and parcel delivery charges. An independent Scotland will return Royal Mail to public ownership, making prices fairer for all areas, rural included. The Universal Service Obligation will be maintained and as a minimum, a six days a week mail service.

Fuel prices and energy bills will also be impacted. Independence will allow the Scottish Government to examine the benefits of introducing a Fuel Duty Regulator to stabilise prices for all consumers and evaluate how this would work along with our Scottish Energy Fund. The Scottish Government plans an on-going and permanent cut in energy bills, which includes cutting the Warm Homes Discount and Energy Company Obligation from household energy bills. This proposal will be funded by general taxation allowing those who can afford it to contribute to these schemes.

The fourth area, one I find especially important to my constituency, which is further removed from the urban and city areas, is having better transport links. The Scottish Government has made it a priority to improve transport and that goal is still on going. This includes upgrading the A9, A96, and creating the Aberdeen West Peripheral Route and the Balmedie to Tipperty Dualling (A90). The Scottish Government still maintains its commitment to reduce Air Passenger Duty by 50 per cent, with the intent to eventually abolish it.

There have been repeated requests for APD to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament, as recommended by the Calman Commission, to give our aviation industry the economic boost it needs. Most recently this subject has been brought up in relation to the cancelled BA Aberdeen to London City flight route, with BA’s executive chairman citing APD as a factor in the closure of the service.

The last area to be tackled by the commission is making sure that rural communities benefit more from renewables. The Scottish Government has made the commitment that, with a yes vote in September, island and coastal communities would receive 100 per cent of all leasing revenues from activities in adjacent water, which includes renewables deployment. As of right now, this income is taken by the Crown Estate Commissioners, but we have the ability to change this.

I am anxious and excited for all these changes that could occur with an independent Scotland, and all the benefits that will potentially come to my constituents in Banffshire and Buchan Coast. It’s time that we have more control and powers that will not only affect the now, but will undoubtedly shape our futures.

8 July 2014

Counting the Lost Pennies

Change is not always seen as a good thing. It can be hard, time consuming and inconvenient. But when life for you or those around you is made difficult, campaigning for change can be the only way forward.

The great documented rise in food banks across Scotland have been seen as one of the results of wide scale welfare reforms from the UK government that have been implemented over the last few years since 2010.

The impact of these reforms has been most keenly felt by those in society who need the most help – whether it be those receiving incapacity benefits, tax credits, child benefit or disability living allowance.


The Scottish Parliament's Welfare Reform committee have calculated figures which explain how much the average working age adult will lose out each year once the reforms come into full effect.

Across my constituency of Banffshire and Buchan Coast, the loss per working age adult averages out at around £400 per year. In Banff and district, the figure hits £400, but in Fraserburgh it goes up to £420, with Peterhead North and Rattray coming in at £410.

Across Scotland as a whole, more than £1.6bn a year will be taken out of the Scottish economy – averaging to around £460 a year for every adult of working age.

The committee’s report on the local impact also found a clear correlation between the extent of deprivation and the scale of financial loss. The most deprived areas are hit the hardest.

The reforms to incapacity benefits are resulting in the biggest financial losses, particularly in the most disadvantaged communities. Some people are also feeling the hit from several elements of the reforms. For example, incapacity claimants can lose out because of the reforms to disability living allowance and may lose from reforms to Housing benefit if they live in the private rented sector or if they have grown up children still living at home.

Due to their not being a big surge into employment, a key effect of the welfare reforms will be to widen the gaps in income between communities.

This comes at a time when the majority of Scottish households are already feeling the pinch with the recession not long behind them, debts still looming, and low interest rates discouraging savers.

A recent Which? survey examined how people in Scotland are coping financially. It also highlighted the most economically distressed areas in the country.

Among the top 10 most distressed constituencies was the Banffshire and Buchan Coast.

The Which? report found that 36 per cent of households, amounting to 800,000 across the country, were feeling financially squeezed. Just a quarter (24 per cent) said they were living comfortably on their incomes.

Head of Which? public affairs for Scotland, Gordon MacRae, pointed out some of the reasons - that the cost of essentials remains high and levels of worry about household debt and savings are prevalent, with businesses, especially in banking and energy, needing to do a lot more to win back customer’s trust.

But the same study found that around three in 10 people who are not yet retired are not contributing to a pension and have no plans to do so. Nearly two thirds say they don’t know how much they will need to save to live comfortably in retirement.

So while there are responsibilities on everyone to make the best of what they have, certain sections of society are facing tough times every day.

And what should be noted is that the financial burden of these welfare reforms is being borne by public sector budgets in Scotland, so even if there were good intentions behind the want for reform, we will all suffer as other public services may need to be cut or slimmed down. And that’s a change we could do without.

Stewart Stevenson
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