30 October 2012

Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route

The UK Supreme Court last week rejected the final legal protests which were holding back the badly-needed Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route project.

The objectors have not only now had their day in court but also the chance to appeal at the Court of Session, where their case was comprehensively dismissed and now a third bite of the cherry which, frankly, was a step too far and only served to further delay the project and increase costs to the taxpayer.

The people of the North-east signalled their clear wish that the road construction go ahead as quickly as possible, and the Scottish Government’s announcement that work on the project will begin immediately is good news for us all.

The Scottish Government has, throughout the process, remained steadfast in its determination to deliver this vital development for the North-east and, at last, we can move towards construction, and look forward to improved traffic flow, and the benefits for people, businesses and the economy alike in the North-east.

The potential benefits for the North-east of a completed AWPR are numerous. Greatly reduced journey times are the obvious example, and the new route has the potential to cut the current Stonehaven-Dyce journey time in half.

A new transport link around Aberdeen also supports local and national business and tourism in our area, and this arterial route will inject £6 billion into the local economy. It is also expected to create 14,000 jobs.

The Scottish Government is committed to getting work on the new road underway as quickly as possible, and ground is likely to be broken in autumn 2014.

Further, the construction contract itself is set to stipulate that job opportunities connected to the AWPR project must be advertised through local job centres, as well as ensuring opportunities are created for apprentices and graduates, ensuring a longer-term boost for our community and the economy.

Thanks to the Scottish Government, who have always supported the idea that Scotland should grow, not cut, its way out of challenging economic times, this and many other capital investment projects across Scotland will be seen through to fruition, benefitting us all both now, and in the future.

Winter Preparedness

With weather forecasts predicting temperatures to near freezing, accompanied by heavy rain for later in the week, the North-east is facing a severe weather warning, and a reminder to prepare for the coming winter.

Severe weather threatens to have a huge impact on both homes and the community and we cannot count on another mild winter like last year.

With temperatures dipping close to zero, Scottish Water is advising homeowners to begin fitting their water tanks with insulation jackets and to leave heating on low in order to prevent and reduce the risk of frozen or burst pipes.

Also, an energy efficient home is cheaper and easier to heat and it is particularly important for vulnerable groups such as older people and young families that homes are effectively heated. Assistance is available for those finding it difficult to heat their homes and Scottish Government Energy Assistance Packages can help by providing tax credits, cavity and loft insulation and energy advice.

The Scottish Government has also this week launched the comprehensive winter preparedness guide Ready Scotland, containing advice and useful contacts in planning for the winter. Having a plan for clearing sudden snow fall, knowing where your local authority public grit bin is and knowing how to contact help if your mobility is limited could make all the difference should severe weather strike.

We’re hardy folk in the North-east, but working with neighbours to prepare could prevent potential trauma, expense and damage later on this winter; let’s keep safe and warm!

16 October 2012

The Local Pub

Scotland’s relationship with alcohol has been the subject of much debate and discussion of late, with differing opinions on the scale of the problem, and the appropriate solution.

A recent Alcohol Focus Scotland study, has reported that the overall estimated costs of alcohol-related harm in the Aberdeenshire Council Area stands at a shocking £64.31 million, or £262 for every person in the year 2010-11. Further, a previous Scottish Government study indicated that the costs associated with alcohol misuse across Scotland as a whole could total £3.6 billion a year.

It goes without saying that this is a very serious situation for our country, one which is totally unsustainable in both human and economic terms. Ultra-low-cost off sales alcohol is holding many people in our communities back and doing irreparable harm to individuals and families throughout Scotland.

Discount and loss-leading supermarket promotions, which aim to make alcohol prices so cheap, are costing our country dear in terms of NHS, Police and loss of productivity. The Scottish Government’s minimum pricing policy will have a positive impact but it will not on its own fix the entire issue.

We need to be aware of the scale of the threat and act now to modify our perceptions of what is, and what is no longer, acceptable in our relationship with alcohol.

One hope is to encourage reverting to traditional behaviours of social drinking in the local pub with friends, neighbours and colleagues, which offers a more sustainable prospect and a safer, more enjoyable environment for all.

The local pub is a social and responsible environment in which we can enjoy a drink, which drastically cuts the risks of over-consumption. Regulated opening hours, and behaviour policy as well as an onus on the licensee not to serve alcohol to those who have already over-indulged ensure many pubs are family-friendly environments.

This contrasts starkly with discount off sales of strong spirit or white cider, mostly consumed at home, which is about creating and maintaining alcohol dependency among our people.

Sadly, however, as well as excessive consumption we are suffering the parallel trend of seeing many local pubs dying out across the country.
Research published by brewer Molson Coors reveals that since 2007, 700 pubs have closed across Scotland (including 4 in the Banff and Buchan Coast constituency area alone!) with very few new establishments opening, resulting in a 18% decrease in pub numbers.

Moreover, with over 50,000 jobs and £1.5bn of our national GDP dependent on the twin industries of beer and pubs, pub closures damage an important industry during a challenging time for the economy.

However, it is well known how valued Scottish Pubs are to the communities they serve. Indeed, this same study shows that, after the local shop, pubs were the most frequently visited amenity, with a third of Scots visiting the local at least twice a month.

Most of us will have, at some point, enjoyed a trip to the local - be it to enjoy a meal or a drink with family or watch the football with friends. It would be, therefore, not just sad if we were no longer able to take advantage of a local, but also an unhappy indicator of the way drinking culture in Scotland has changed for the worse.

Like many small business owners, publicans are currently finding trading tough and I greatly admire the level of innovation that is taking place to overcome these challenges in many instances. The tenacity and creativity of many pub owners is in fact changing the perception of the local pub, attracting new customers and injecting renewed vitality into the sector. This has created a whole new market for local publicans, who now see more women and young people visiting their premises, as a wider repertoire of food and drink nurtures a convivial, family atmosphere. This commitment to sustain the industry has wider implications for the Scottish economy.

We should, if we are able, take advantage of these local institutions and ensure that they are able to trade and provide jobs, fun and a place to socialise long into the future.


2 October 2012

Scottish Government Working for the People not Against Them

The Scottish Government’s recent statement on the budget highlights the stark contrast in approaches of the Scottish Government, and the opposition parties, including their Westminster cronies.

As a raft of Scottish Government announcements put jobs, growth and fairness at the heart of the Scottish Government’s spending priorities, at Westminster, the human cost of Tory/Lib Dem cuts to the welfare state were being laid bare and Nick Clegg was finally forced into a humiliating apology for breaking the Lib Dem promise on tuition fees.

The contrast between the Scottish and UK Governments could not be clearer.

There is no doubt we are living in incredibly tough financial times. However, while the UK Government stifles recovery and takes money from the most vulnerable in society, the Scottish budget has growth and fairness at its heart.

The Scottish Government announcement outlined a number of measures designed to boost jobs and protect those on the lowest incomes, including investment in construction, skills and the green economy, money brought forward for the Schools for the Future programme, a £40 million additional investment in affordable housing, £18 million for skills training and a modest wage increase for most public sector employees, and a commitment to uprate the living wage.

The Scottish Government also recognises the paramount importance of capital investment to support economic recovery. That’s why the hundreds of millions of pounds being poured into vital projects such as the new prison for Peterhead – supporting thousands of jobs in the process - are particularly welcome.

And of course the living wage, the council tax freeze, free prescriptions, concessionary travel and free university tuition are all helping to put money back into families’ pockets.

It is all the more disappointing then that the opposition parties, under orders from Westminster, obstinately refuse to support Scottish Government policy.

Indeed, this disparity in political and social outlook does not just exist between the Scottish Government and the UK Government. The increasingly neo-conservative Labour Party is just as far out of touch with the public conscience.

A baffling speech from Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont this week make it abundantly clear that the Labour party have dispensed with any remaining commitment to social welfare or public services.

In this speech Ms Lamont revealed her party’s desire to do away with everything from free care for the elderly to free prescription charges. She also underlined her wishes to impose tuition fees for university students reduce the number of modern apprenticeships and even end the council tax freeze.

The Labour party have shown their true colours on a variety of social and economic matters and confirmed the party’s dramatic swing toward the neo-conservative, in line with their Westminster bosses. While many people across the country already feel let down by the Labour party in recent years, this latest development will no doubt leave members feeling betrayed and is likely to swell the exodus from the party.

Suspicions of Labour’s slump to the right have abounded since the Labour party allied with the Liberal/Conservative coalition parties in the anti-independence collaboration. However, few could have foreseen how completely the Labour party would dispense with its supposed core philosophy.

This once again underlines the fact that the only party committed to defending high quality social services, education and healthcare in Scotland is the SNP.

Small wonder then that people in Scotland overwhelmingly trust the Scottish Government to make the right decisions for Scotland, while fewer than one in five trust the Westminster Government.
However, if we are to protect social services and our proud tradition of fairness, if we are to reject austerity and focus on economic growth as the solution to testing times, we must ensure that the people of Scotland have the means to do so. This, of course, requires full transfer of powers to Holyrood. After all, it is the people of Scotland who have the greatest stake in our country’s future, and only with independence can we achieve our full potential.

Stewart Stevenson
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