23 June 2015

Empowering People

A further step on the path to self-determination was recently taken in the Scottish Parliament with a debate on giving greater powers to local communities, and to put decision making in the hands of local people.

The Community Empowerment Bill aims to give locals the tools they need to shape the future of the areas in which they live – from local job creation, to ownership of land and buildings, to renewable energy generation.

These are the kinds of measures that can transform a community and galvanise an area to make the best with what they have. We need to be given the means to cultivate what we have here in the north east of Scotland.

One of the things that the bill proposes is to extend the Community Right to Buy to add urban areas and larger rural towns. This would include the compulsory right to buy land and buildings that are abandoned or neglected – so that they can deliver greater public benefit. This also fits in to the Government target of having 1 million acres of land in community ownership by 2020.

So far, there is a total of 127 community bodies that have been created since May 2007, and all applications where a right to buy has been triggered have been approved.

A key part of the thought process behind this new legislation is a desire to firm up the process that ordinary people can get involved in the development of their community.

Community Planning Aberdeen recognised it as “an opportunity to ensure genuine community engagement, consultation and active participation by citizens in identifying local needs and involvement in setting priority outcomes and how they should be addressed.”

As with so many things – efficient and pertinent communication can go a long way when it comes to making good ideas a reality.

But this is not just a set of good ideas - a new Empowering Communities Fund of £10 million will make sure that people get more involved in the planning process – removing barriers and making it necessary for the public sector to engage well with communities.

Also, the bill will give local authorities the power to create business rates relief schemes to support the local economy.

For the Scottish islands, ‘Our Islands Our Future’ was launched in June 2013 committed to devolving powers to our most northerly outposts, and a consultation is due this summer.

Much evidence has shown that involving people more regularly and more effectively in decisions that affect them leads to a better use of the talent that already exists within the community, and increases confidence and more positive relationships between local movers and shakers.

Back in November 2013, I welcomed consultation for the new Community Empowerment Bill – at that time in the very early stages in its development.

I would like to reiterate what I said at that time – the people who know best what needs to be done to improve life in a local community are the people who live and work there – in this case, Banff and Buchan Coast.

The launch of this bill is a significant step towards greater local self-determination – this is a major opportunity to build upon Scotland’s world leading community right to buy legislation and empower communities across Scotland.

I maintain this opinion and although the bill is far and wide reaching, it is worth communities across the north east taking the time to discover how they can benefit from the truly empowering reforms that this bill proposes.

9 June 2015

Our friends abroad

At the beginning of this month First Minister Nicola Sturgeon spoke for the first time in Brussels to set out the case for Scotland to remain in the European Union. It was the same week that 40 years ago, the United Kingdom voted in a referendum to stay in the European Economic Community.

The Scottish Government did not want a referendum to address this subject again – this time on the UK’s membership of the EU - but now that it has been decided, we are determined to explain the positive reasons why we should be a working part of Europe, and what this great union of nations contributes to our society.

The fundamental vision of the EU is that independent nations work together for the common good, and I believe that this appeals to the hard working people of this country also.

Stewart Stevenson MSP's maiden speech on Fisheries, 14 June 2001

But there is room for us to reform some of the workings of the EU. My maiden speech in the Scottish Parliament in June 2001 was on the Common Fisheries Policy. In recent times, Scotland has contributed to the reforms which were agreed by the EU to the Common Fisheries Policy. They involve changes to allow more decisions to be made at regional rather than at EU level. This will make regulations more proportionate and less burdensome for the industry, and reflects an approach that we would like to see adopted more widely. Not enough yet, but progress made.

It’s worth taking the time to look at what the EU does for us. There are more than around 300,000 jobs in Scotland associated with exports to the EU, and the combination of nations provides the market for 46 per cent of our international exports – worth £12.9 million in 2013.

Ernst and Young recently published a survey which confirmed that Scotland has become the most successful part of the UK outside of London for attracting inward investment projects. For many investors, our EU membership is a vital selling point. 

We also cannot take for granted the freedom to travel, study and work across Europe, and the benefits that are brought to Scotland. There are currently 171,000 people from elsewhere in the European Union who live and work in this country. It goes without saying that these people contribute in a hugely significant way to our culture, economy and our society.

There are also the practical benefits that being an EU member brings. From climate change to energy security and international trade - decisions taken by the European Union are more effective than those made by 28 individual nations. One example is air quality.  European decisions helped us to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions by almost 9/10 in the last four decades. 

Research collaborations in areas such as renewable energy, life sciences and sustainable planning are also vital - where Scottish universities and research institutions can be part of a larger conversation in these areas.

The EU is not perfect, but I believe that by working with our neighbours across the continent, the achievements are far more significant than the shortcomings. Rather than leave, we want to work to improve what we have.

Each of the individual regions of Scotland, including of course the North East, have so much to offer the EU, and we have a lot to learn. But the benefits of trade, jobs and the ability to study and travel across 28 countries cannot be diminished. Scotland can be a positive force within the EU for many decades to come – contributing and benefiting in equal measure, and this is why we should vote to remain within this community of nations.

Stewart Stevenson
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