17 April 2012

Connecting With The World Faster

As technology develops at an ever faster pace, the internet takes on an ever greater role in our daily lives. More and more of our daily activities, whether for business or leisure, are online, making fast and reliable broadband connections more important than ever.

That is why I was delighted by the news that Buckie and Fraserburgh have both benefited from infrastructure upgrades that mean residents will be able to access the faster broadband connections they increasingly need. Faster broadband connections boost economic growth in the places that benefit from them and improve the quality of people’s day to day lives. That is why the Scottish Government has set ambitious targets to deliver world class digital infrastructure for people across Scotland by 2020.

As part of this, the objective of delivering speeds of 40-80Mbps to around 85-90% of premises in Scotland by 2015 has been set. Speeds of this kind are a step change in what has typically been available until very recently, but must become the norm if Scotland is to compete economically with other countries around the world. Achieving this will undoubtedly be a challenge, particularly in those parts of the country that the market would not otherwise deliver the necessary infrastructure to. That is why the Scottish Government will be targeting its public investment in the typically rural areas that are home to the 30% of premises that would not otherwise see broadband upgrades.

Additional funding for this purpose was an important part of the Scottish Government’s recently passed budget and will continue to be a key priority for investment in the years ahead. It is essential that in delivering the digital infrastructure necessary for the future of our economy, people are not disadvantaged by where they live. A fast internet connection is no less essential to a business or household in a rural part of the country as it is to one in one of Scotland’s cities. People across every part of Scotland should be able to get the broadband connections they need and it is right that the Scottish Government is prioritising this in its approach.

I am confident that we will see more upgrades to the broadband infrastructure in Banffshire & Buchan Coast in the near future and I know just how welcome they will be to the people in the area that are able to benefit from them.

Slow steps forward

I have written several times before about the many twists, turns and false starts that have faced efforts to bring a Carbon Capture & Storage project to Peterhead power station. Several months ago when efforts to build a CCS project at Longannet in Fife failed, the UK Government indicated that the £1 billion of public funding for carbon capture technologies would still be made available during the current Westminster term.

However, this money was subsequently reallocated for other projects by the Treasury and 2015 identified as the date when the project that wins the Carbon Capture & Storage Competition can expect to receive funding.

This was enormously frustrating and another unnecessary delay imposed by the UK Government in what is fast becoming a habit. That competition has now been launched by the UK Government and as slow progress is better than none at all it is at least a positive step forward.

I am optimistic of Peterhead’s prospects of winning through and securing the funding that will bring jobs and investment to the area. What would be utterly unacceptable, however, is if we see any further mishandling and unnecessary delays that further hinder progress.

3 April 2012

The Wrong Choices

Without doubt the biggest talking point in politics in recent days has been the UK Government’s budget and the fallout that has accompanied it. In the run up to it, the Scottish Government made clear that we believed the priority should be on encouraging economic growth through capital investment. We illustrated how quickly work could begin by providing details of shovel ready projects totalling £300 million that could have boosted the Scottish economy immediately if funding was provided.

In the event, this was completely ignored by the UK Government who instead embarked upon a set of priorities that are completely incomprehensible in these difficult times. The latest figures show how much weaker economic recovery has been here compared to the USA and that is almost entirely down to the UK Government’s decision not follow America’s example and stimulate economic growth through investment.

It would be wrong to say there were absolutely no positives from the budget. Since the Chancellor’s enormously damaging £2 billion tax raid on the North Sea industry, the SNP has been at the forefront of calls for guaranteeing tax relief on decommissioning and creating a greater incentive for oil field exploration through broadening the field allowance for such projects. We have also consistently called for tax relief for the video games sector which is increasingly important to the Scottish economy but was at risk of relocating to other countries with more favourable tax systems. Enhanced capital allowances for the enterprise zones that we have established in Dundee, Irvine and Nigg are also positive.

But those positive measures are completely overshadowed by the enormous damage that other parts of the budget will do. The reduction in the top rate of income tax from 50% to 45% will hand a substantial tax cut to 15,000 of the most well off people in the Scotland while 330,000 pensioners in Scotland will now see their taxes rise in real terms to pay for it. That is not fair by any measure of the word and will rightly cause real outrage to communities up and down the country.

As if that wasn’t enough, the UK Government is also pressing ahead with plans to further hike fuel duties by 3p later this year. Prices at the pump are already eye-wateringly high as people in Banffshire & Buchan Coast know only too well. To put up the price again at a time when household budgets are stretched to the limit simply demonstrates how out of touch the UK Government is with life in this part of Scotland.

For people in areas like Banffshire & Buchan Coast, a car is quite simply a necessity rather than a lifestyle choice. People in rural areas do not have the choice to use their car less, so price hikes at the pump hand higher bills to households that they have no way of avoiding. On top of that, higher fuel prices also affect the cost of everything we buy as businesses have no choice but to pass on the increased haulage costs they face to consumers.

Taken together, the Institute of Fiscal Studies estimates that the measures in the budget will cost an average household £790 a year. This budget was quite simply not a budget for Scotland and demonstrated, if any more proof was needed, how little Scotland features in the thoughts of the UK Government. These kinds of decisions that have such a dramatic effect on our day to day lives should be made in Scotland and show just why Scotland needs the normal powers of an independent country.

Stewart Stevenson
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