28 July 2009

Removing the obstacles to our energy future

Shortly before the Scottish Parliament entered its summer recess at the end of June, Scotland’s Climate Change Bill completed its passage through Parliament and passed into law. Given that climate change falls within my portfolio, this was an enormously pleasing event for me.

Scotland now has the most ambitious climate change legislation in the world, with a legal commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 42% by 2020 and 80% by 2050. These are extremely challenging targets, but they are targets that Scotland can achieve and in doing so lay down a challenge for the rest of the world to play its part in fighting climate change.

Key to success will be the enormous potential that Scotland has to be a renewable energy powerhouse. With 25% of Europe’s offshore wind and wave energy potential and 10% of Europe’s tidal energy potential located off our shores, the environmental and economic opportunities that Scotland has are massive.

However, if we are to be successful in this area we need the UK Government to do its bit by removing the barriers that currently stand in the way of Scotland’s developing renewables industry. As things stand, transmission charges for the national grid penalise energy companies north of the border - particularly those in remote areas – for sending their electricity to consumers.

If the UK Government is serious about tackling climate change, there is a clear need for the transmission charging regime to be overhauled to create a level playing field. It cannot be right that it is the companies producing clean, renewable energy that are paying the most for transmitting their electricity.

There is enormous economic potential in producing green, renewable energy in Scotland in coming years but we cannot afford for the UK Government to threaten this with unfair charges. The SNP group in Westminster is pushing strongly for the necessary changes to be made and I hope that they will succeed in their efforts.

Coordinating our food and drink sector

Recent weeks also saw the launch of Scotland’s first ever national food and drink policy, something that could have profound implications for the future of Banff & Buchan’s fishing and farming sectors. Scotland has an international reputation for producing top quality food and drink and the food and drink manufacturing sector already generates £7.3 billion for our economy every year through sales.

Yet there is enormous potential for growth in the sector, something that this new policy aims to encourage. With the right targets and programmes in place, the sector can increase to the point of generating £10 billion a year by 2017. Through marketing Scotland as a ‘Land of Food and Drink’, the Scottish Government aims to build upon our already excellent reputation for quality produce and maximise the opportunities available to sell Scottish food and drink around the world. By helping people to learn new skills related to the industry, we can help ensure that there are more new entrants into a wide range of food and drink related jobs and enable successful businesses to recruit more people as they expand. With carefully targeted funding, the Scottish Government can help many food and drink businesses flourish.

By developing a holistic, joined up approach, the national food and drink policy has real potential to increase the profits of everyone involved in the manufacture or sale of food and drink. Given the high number of people involved in the sector in some way in Banff & Buchan, there are few places that stand to gain more from the new policy.

14 July 2009

Celebrating the Homecoming

As school pupils across Banff & Buchan start their summer holidays and many families head off for well earned breaks, it seems an appropriate time to consider the success that Homecoming Scotland 2009 is having in attracting visitors from all over the world to Scotland.

Thousands of people have already taken part in large numbers of events so far this year, with many more yet to come. Many annual attractions with a Homecoming theme all over Scotland have reported record attendances as visitors from across the globe flock to the wide variety of events taking place. The indications are that the Homecoming celebrations are proving to be highly successful, both with visitors and people from Scotland.

As well as being an extremely fitting way to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, the success of the Homecoming is also a timely economic boost to many businesses across Scotland. There is still much more to come this year, something confirmed when the First Minister Alex Salmond was able to announce that an additional 44 attractions were being added to the Homecoming programme while he attended one of Banff & Buchan’s key Homecoming events, the Portsoy Traditional Boat Festival.

The four day celebration of the traditional skills and boats that were historically common in the coastal villages of Banff & Buchan was an enormous success this year, having been expanded from its usual two days especially for Homecoming Scotland 2009, and has proved a wonderful part of the Homecoming calendar. Many residents of Banff & Buchan will have attended and I am sure that they will have found the experience thoroughly enjoyable.

I extend my warmest congratulations to the organisers of the festival and everyone involved in making this year’s event such an enormous success. Clearly the other Homecoming celebrations taking place in Banff & Buchan over the course of the year, such as the Peterhead Scottish Week or the Fraserburgh Heritage Fair, will have to work hard to meet the standard that the events so far this year have set.

Scotland’s dangerous relationship with the drink

While we may be celebrating many aspects of Scottish culture as part of the Homecoming festivities, statistics released recently reveal a disturbing picture of one side of our culture that nobody will be proud of. New research has shown that alcohol could be responsible for the death of up to one in twenty people in Scotland, a truly shocking statistic.

This number is twice as high as had previously been thought and could mean that one person in Scotland is dying from alcohol related causes every three hours.

This has massive cost implications for the NHS, the police and other relevant professions in financial terms, but an absolutely incalculable one in terms of the suffering endured by those who lose loved ones through circumstances relating to alcohol. Clearly something fundamentally has to change in our society.

The Scottish Government is determined not to shy away from this difficult issue and recently held an Alcohol Summit so that people from all political parties, retailers, health professionals, the alcohol industry and others could come together and discuss the problem and some of the ways to improve the situation that have been suggested.

While some of the solutions that are being discussed are not universally popular, it is clear that in order to confront the damage being caused by Scotland’s relationship with alcohol we must be prepared to go further than has previously been attempted. With so many lives at stake, inaction is simply not an option.

1 July 2009

Our £3.6bn blueprint for Scotland's railways

(from Rail News "Guest Opinion")

As a minister who has used the train over 600 times since coming into Government, I have a real passion and enthusiasm for rail. Commuting to and from work on the train each day has given me a chance to experience the rail network at first-hand and those experiences have given me a clear vision about what I, and this Government, want to achieve in Scotland.

And we are seeing some real movement in the industry north of the border.

Having set some of the most ambitious targets for reducing carbon emissions in the world, we've placed a strong focus on investing directly in transport initiatives which address the threats posed by climate change.

To achieve this, we are building new rail lines - re-opening many stations closed during the Beeching cuts. We are more than half-way through our current rail infrastructure enhancement programme and already well on our way to delivering £3 billion worth of investment on infrastructure projects by 2012.

Achievements to date include the recently completed Edinburgh Waverley upgrade - our doorway to Scotland for many visitors from across the UK - and, of course, the Stirling-Alloa-Kincardine route where passenger numbers in the first year were treble original forecasts.

Further commitments will deliver a fleet of Class 380 electric trains, which will add more than 9,000 passenger seats to the Scottish rail network from September 2010.These 38 new trains have 23-metre coaches, as opposed to 20 metre, bringing an improved passenger environment.

To house these, we are expanding Shields Road train depot in Glasgow through a £24 million refurbishment, turning it into a purpose-built maintenance and overhaul facility.

But not all projects cost tens of £millions; smaller investments are making a real difference, too.

Our £3.5 million renovation of Laurencekirk station in Aberdeenshire has allowed the return of passenger trains for the first time in over 40 years. The station, which was left derelict following the Beeching cuts, re-opened in May 2009 and is already providing the local community with access to education and employment opportunities.

The Airdrie-Bathgate route is on course for opening in December 2010, and will be electrified throughout from the start; work has started to enhance the capacity of the important Paisley corridor, and we have recently announced our plans for taking forward the re-opening of the Borders railway.

We also made a firm commitment for the electrification of the main Edinburgh - Glasgow line and associated routes, including a new west Edinburgh station to link with the city's airport.

This is an ambitious, exciting programme of works that aims to reduce journey times between these two important cities by around 15 minutes. It is estimated that every minute we save in journey times has the potential to generate £60 million for the Scottish economy.

The Scottish High Level Output Specification (HLOS) sets out our £3.6 billion blueprint for railways in Scotland from 2009 to 2014: it focuses on reducing journey times, increasing capacity and meeting rising passenger and freight demand. Our planning assumption is for 23 per cent passenger growth by 2014 and our strategy for meeting this includes rolling stock improvements and incremental enhancements such as capacity improvements on the Highland main line and the Glasgow to Kilmarnock via Barrhead route.

We also expect to address emerging capacity issues at Glasgow's two main terminal stations over the next decade.

Rail plays a vital role across the country, but particularly so in the west of Scotland which has the largest suburban rail network outside London. It is therefore vital we work now with the rest of the industry to cater for a growing passenger market.

We have always recognised the potential of electrification in our strategy, partly because key routes - most of the Glasgow network and both of the main cross-border lines - are already wired, creating major opportunities for optimising use of fleet. We are confident that the electrification of the Edinburgh-Glasgow route will be just a starting point, and that it will provide the basis for a rolling programme for wider electrification of the Scottish network over the coming decade.

Our ultimate aim is for the majority of rail passenger journeys in Scotland to be made in electric rolling stock.

Looking to the future, we recently announced the outcome of the Strategic Transport Projects Review. This future programme of nationally significant measures and initiatives supports the Government's aim of achieving sustainable economic growth. The STPR identifies transport interventions that best contribute to achieving this from the current programme and beyond, with rail featuring heavily in our vision. The majority of interventions are based on rail improvements, ticketing, safety and modal shift. Seventeen of the 29 packages are public-transport based.

Taken together, our high-level modelling suggests that the overall package of schemes could cut between 100,000 and 150,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year against business as usual.

We firmly believe that high-speed rail links between Scotland and England present fantastic economic and environmental opportunities for Scotland. That is why we support the development of a Scottish team to bring forward the case for extending high-speed rail links between Scotland and England.

There is much work to be done to keep Scotland moving. This is an exciting time for Scottish transport and it is a privilege to be part of the team helping meet the challenge of delivering a world class transport network for Scotland.

Stewart Stevenson
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