21 January 2004

Transport Agency

Everyday experience tells us that our transport infrastructure is poor. Compared to the price and frequency of buses and trains in the central belt, our area does very badly.

And our roads are slow and often dangerous.

The Scottish Government, the Executive, are planning to establish a Transport Agency. Although we have yet to see their detailed plans, it seems likely that it will establish transport “executives” across Scotland.

If that means a co-ordinated approach, that will be fine.

But how much more focussed would they be on rural transport issues if they lived and worked in a rural area and experienced the difficulties at first hand.

Would they be astonished at the twists and turns on our “main” roads? Would they miss dual carriageways? Would they fume at Aberdeen station at the interminable wait there is for the connecting train to Inverurie or Huntly?

And the Transport Agency is not another “Scottish Natural Heritage”. SNH staff, about 200 of them, are being forced to consider moving with their employer to Inverness. Not something I personally would resist if trapped in Edinburgh but immensely disruptive for those with working partners or children at local schools.
No, we are looking at a new agency here. It would be a signal that rural transport issues are being taken seriously if the agency was established in a rural area.

Special Constables

When I went out on night patrol for five hours with Fraserburgh Police some time ago, the duty Inspector had been hoping that he might have some support from Special Constables.

I confess that at that time I had little knowledge of the important role played by these unpaid volunteers. This despite my having had one work for me in my previous career before becoming an MSP.

Paul was 6 foot 8 inches tall – a real gentle giant. But when he was in his Police uniform and on patrol at “events”, not many felt the need to “noise him up”.

Like about 1,100 others across Scotland, he was a volunteer working with the police on the front line because he believed it was a worthwhile community activity.

But a Parliamentary answer I have obtained shows that numbers of “Specials” in Grampian have dropped dramatically in recent years. This mirrors the situation in England where more than a quarter have stood down since Labour came to power.

In Tayside they are conducting an experiment whereby they pay Special Constables. While I am personally as dubious about this as I am about suggestions that we pay blood donors, I am prepared to wait and see.

I am not in favour of “policing on the cheap”. But having volunteers working with our police strikes me as a useful way of building links back into our communities. Because the police cannot solve many of our problems alone.

An increase in the numbers of Special Constables would be very welcome in the next few years. Along with more full-time cops on our streets.

Longside Airfield

The many North-East folk who work offshore will be among those who will welcome the results of research undertaken at Longside Airfield.

Night landings on oil rigs and production platforms have long been – in pilot’s jargon – “interesting”. The confusing mixture of platform lights and landing lights has made the task of setting the helicopter down safely one of their more challenging activities.

But experiments with a circle of blue lights laid on the runway at Longside has shown that improvements can be made. Longside also makes a contribution to offshore activity as a “diversion” airfield. What is missing is the regular activity that would provide local employment and income.

After all, many of the helicopters inbound to Aberdeen fly straight and low over our local airfield so we experience much of the noise already.

It would save oil companies money to make use of Longside. We have more to contribute than simply as an experimental base.

Granada TV

In a few weeks time I shall be down at Granada TV’s studios in Manchester. Not for one of their political programs. No – I am instead following Westminster MPs into a lion’s den. The Scottish Parliament will have a team in the next series of Granada’s University Challenge, The Professionals.

Our aims as a team are modest. We wish to do better than the MPs did last time. They achieved an all-time record low score of 25 points. If we get 30 plus we “beat” them.

But worst of all for the MPs, they were beaten by a team of journalists.

7 January 2004

Do the handcuffs fit?

A statement this week in Parliament from Liberal Fisheries Minister Ross Finnie has confirmed, in his words – “further difficulties” – for our fishing industry.

And we do not have to take his word for it. Fishermen know it. And they look with envy at – for example – Danish and Belgian fishermen.

Our fleet has seen two successive years of de-commissioning – state-sponsored redundancy without money to the people most affected by that – to the point where the number of people in the white-fish sector is as small as it has ever been, others sail on and fish on.

Even though the number of “trawler days” available to Scots fishing have been dramatically cut by the huge reduction in our fleet, there is no relief from the drastic days-at-sea limits.

But while our boats have to sit in the harbour for half the month, the Belgian and Danish fleets – unaffected by draconian de-commissioning – have no restrictions on day to fish.

I asked Finnie why so in Parliament after his statement. Answer came there none.
No surprise there.

With a Euro election on 10th June, perhaps that’s when our industry’s people with give him their answer. And it won’t be a surprise either.

Fat or fit?

January may be an awkward time for some to look down at the news from the bathroom scales. But with over a fifth of Scotland’s population obese there is probably no more appropriate time.

When my wife and I married nearly 35 years ago, one present we received was a set of such scales. Time has taken its toll and we binned it recently.

The space next the bath they once occupied remains empty and I measure my weight by the notch on my belt and the occasional glance at the mirror.

Before Parliament I had a very sedentary occupation and there was little opportunity during the working day for exercise. And my belt showed it – notches progressing rightward across my front with time.

But I now get my thirty minutes exercise a day and the presence of two previously used belt notches now reclaimed by my shrinking waistline boast of it.

Not that I go out of the way to the gym. My treadmill is free – or at least paid for by Edinburgh taxpayers – the streets and steps between accommodation and Parliament. And I very rarely use the lift between my second floor office and the debating chamber up the street.

If my legs feel a bit tight and stiff at the end of the day, I see that as good news. More exercise than usual.

Walking is good for you and requires no special equipment.

But not everyone has such a simple solution to achieving the health professionals’ recommendations of 30 minutes of exercise per day for adults and an hour for children. If your work requires the walk, you get the benefit, otherwise you need make a positive decision.

There are some signs that Scots are taking their health more seriously.

Numbers smoking have fallen. The Charity, Cancer UK, has found that a quarter of men are now ex-smokers. And the payoff is seen in a three-year drop of an eighth in the number of lung cancer cases among males.

Women are not doing so well – yet. A slight fall in lung cancer. Too many young women taking up smoking and not enough giving up.

For health care professionals it has been a 20-year struggle to persuade people to stop smoking and they still have nearly a third of our population who remain smokers to work on.

It is today’s dramatic rises in obesity that can present the biggest future challenge.

So this week’s announcement of “fat czars” – 600 of them – to work in schools to raise exercise levels sounds a good idea.

However when you look at the funding which – to quote from the Scottish Government’s press release, “is funded by the Executive from the £24 million set aside in the 2002 Scottish budget” – one is left unclear how much will be available. Even if it were the whole £24 million, that is still only about £9.50 per year for each obese person in Scotland.

And if our children’s diet remains dependent on prepared meals from the supermarket – high in fat, high in sugar, high in salt – low in locally-sourced, quality ingredients – increasing exercise, welcome as that would be, might not make enough difference.

Who are the government’s new 600 people and what qualifications will they have. Are they ersatz physical education teachers – all the responsibilities but none of the training? Is this PE on the cheap? What are these “co-ordinators” to co-ordinate?
If exercise, diet and obesity is moving up the political agenda, that should be welcomed.

But it will take more than £24 million to replace fat with fit.

Stewart Stevenson
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