21 February 2007

Essential to keep health services local

HEALTH care is a matter always close to home, and my SNP colleagues and I are campaigning to ensure it remains so.

Indeed, I spoke in a parliamentary debate this week on the very topic of taking the NHS local. I stressed the basic principle that health care should be kept as local as possible, and as specialised as necessary.

In recent years, we have seen the Scottish Executive continually attempt to centralise our health service and downgrade local hospitals. The closure of eight A and E services across Scotland is testimony to this.

As we are all aware, two of our local maternity units were recently under threat of closure by NHS Grampian. Following active community-based campaigns, however, a welcome announcement by the Health Minister confirmed that birthing units will remain in Banff and Fraserburgh.

I took the opportunity to commend the Minister in parliament on righting what would have been a serious wrong against the people of Banff and Buchan. People have the right to give birth and undergo other medical procedures, as far as is possible, within their local vicinities, without the hassle and stress of having to travel to the nearest city.

The SNP has always maintained the simple belief that patients should be treated as quickly and as close to home as possible and, if elected in May, we will be committed to retaining local health provision.

IN THIS age of mass car use, stories of road fatalities are sadly never far from the headlines. This is especially true in the North-east, where 62 people died on the roads last year, and 209 were seriously injured. Predictably, most of these tragedies involved young men aged 17 to 25.

In the many rural parts of Banff and Buchan, driving is an everyday necessity, increasing the number of cars on our roads and hence the risk of accidents.

Each of these deaths comes as a severe blow to the victim's community and society in general, not to mention the sheer devastation suffered by the bereaved family and friends.

Added to the immense emotional cost of these accidents is the staggering financial cost. Last month police estimated that road carnage cost the local economy more than £80m.

What's more, road incidents have become a huge strain on public resources – on the police force, the NHS and even the fire service. Grampian Fire Service reported that it is now more often called out to car crashes than house fires.

The time has come for some radical thinking to combat this persistent problem and prevent the carnage continuing – one death on the road is one too many.

The root of the problem lies partly in the poor state of our roads. In its time in power, the Lib-Lab Executive has allowed thoroughfares to continually deteriorate, particularly our trunk road network.

However, securing the architecture of our roads is not alone sufficient to reverse this trend – the very mentality of drivers must be addressed. In this case, youth attitudes are clearly the issue. Education of our young people in road safety is the key to tackling the recklessness which lies behind so many of these crashes.

This is why I welcomed the introduction last week of the 'Pass-Plus' scheme, a pilot advanced driving course for young drivers in the North-east.

Though I lament the fact that it is not offered to all young drivers free of charge, it is a definite step in the right direction. To demonstrate my commitment, I pledged to pay, or refund, the £15 Pass-Plus entry fee for the first ten under-25s from the constituency who have passed their driving test in the last twelve months.

Under an SNP government, young people will be introduced to the concept of road safety at a much earlier stage and will be allowed to sit the theory component of their driving test at school. Early intervention will ensure a high standard of road safety awareness in young people across the board at the crucial point – before they get behind the wheel.

7 February 2007

Defending local stores from the giants

FEW can dispute the integral contribution of local groceries and retailers to our rural communities and indeed town centres.

They make up the very essence of our towns and villages, and the principle reason many of us venture to the streets.

However, independent stores have found themselves under increasing strain to maintain lucrative businesses and survive in recent years, due to unfair competition from supermarkets. With supermarket giants selling products at prices lower than independent retailers can buy them from wholesalers, competing with the 'big four' – Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury and Morrisons – is not an option for smaller shops.

Added to this, many major supermarkets are now located in anti-social out-of-town sites, threatening to make our once bustling market-town centres somewhat redundant.

Preservation of town centres, urban and rural, is vital to a healthy community, as I highlighted in my recent visit to Maud village, where the regeneration of the former Aberdeen and Northern Marts site is going a long way to rejuvenating the village.

Two reports published this week by the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) Scotland and the Competition Commission examined the extent of supermarkets' growing monopoly and its consequences.

The reports found that up to 80% of shoppers are now doing the majority of their food shopping in out-of-town supermarkets, and 78% shop less in the town centre, while the number of stores operated by the 'big four' has doubled since 2000. Not only is this monopoly harmful to our communities and town centres, but also affects each of us as consumers.

If local shops continue to lose business in this way and are increasingly forced out of the market we will ultimately be faced with a situation in which we may have to travel several miles to our nearest grocery outlet. It is the vulnerable groups in society with limited mobility and access to transport, such as the elderly, who will suffer the most from this worrying trend.

Monopoly also spells a lack of choice and variety for the customer, as smaller competitors selling diverse produce are squeezed out of the market. The report also raised concerns over the future of dairy farming, with farmers receiving vastly unfair prices for their milk from supermarkets which, as I've previously highlighted, puts their livelihoods under serious danger.

I welcome these reports as a clear sign that awareness of the threat posed by supermarket dominance.


SOME harsh home truths came to light last week when the real story of Scotland's back seat position in Europe was finally exposed.

The reports of Scotland's marginalisation were quite incredible – it is hard to fathom that Ministers could be relegated to a listening room while the fate of Scottish policy was being decided within council meetings.

Indeed, the leaked report clearly states: "This is a blow to a number of policy areas, but especially fisheries policy, where the Scottish position is different to that of the rest of the UK."

Stewart Stevenson
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