20 December 2016

Challenge and Opportunity

The theme of 2016 has been both challenge and opportunity. This has perhaps been most starkly displayed by Brexit. I am working hard with fishing interests to protect their interest in exploiting new catching opportunities.

But there is absolute silence about the UK Government's intentions. Will they sell out fishing again? We need to be very wary and watchful. What I do know is that I will not compromise on getting what is best for my constituents nor for Scotland.

However, there have been other equally important things. Perhaps most important is our First Minister’s decision to have inclusion as the unifying force in this Parliament.

Why inclusion? Very simply, because it means putting the most vulnerable in a position to succeed. It means making sure young people get the best start in life. It means the elderly have access to the best possible health care through the NHS.

But inclusion isn’t limited to the narrowness of government policy. Inclusion is about us sharing responsibility and taking care of one another.

It’s already a central aspect of Scottish society. It’s about seeing family and friends. It’s what we do on the holidays – we support one another, we do something nice for one another.
In Banffshire & Buchan Coast there are plenty examples of that inclusive connection. In Peterhead, community organisation Modo – Circus with Purpose seeks to give young people the confidence and skills to thrive. Modo creates connections and assists young people from all backgrounds.

But there’s more. We’ve seen the heroic effects of inclusivity. This year alone we’ve had Corey Tocher, a young Cub Scout Leader go to London to donate stem cells to the Anthony Nolan Trust to save another’s life. Then shortly after that, Banff firefighter Kevin Smith bravely rescued a woman from a sinking car in Macduff Harbour. These heroic acts come from a commitment to our community.

Our inclusive nature extends to the office Christmas party, Hogmanay or even at a Burns Supper – it’s already part of us. Now I realise that we can all disagree – and that’s okay. Sometimes we are going to disagree, that’s life. But we live in a culture where we can disagree and still help one another.

So this holiday season try and remember that. Our experience as human beings is made richer by the people we share it with. Go out and do something positive for your community. Do something positive for your fellow human being.

This year has seen much political rhetoric aimed at dividing us into opposing groups. No! Let Scottish traditions speak for themselves. Ultimately, there is far more that unites us than divides us.

I accept, there is more work to be done and always will be. But for today and during the holidays, let’s focus on being inclusive. Let’s give everyone the chance to enjoy being part of something. I wish you all a very happy holiday and look forward to a positive 2017 for everyone.

6 December 2016

Transport Minister Best for Scotland’s Rail

When there are big issues – it takes someone ‘big’ to take them on. It takes someone solid, with endurance and ambition.

That’s Humza Yousaf. The last few weeks we’ve seen flashes of his stony endurance, determination and ambition for Scotland’s rail. He has stood in front of Parliament and acknowledged the issues ScotRail is facing. But he’s taking them on. He’s taking the issues firmly in hand and transforming them.

Let’s be honest – being a transport minister in the UK is one of the toughest positions in government. Why? One reason and perhaps above all is the weather. Transport stands firmly facing the elements. As a former transport minister, I know about that personally! You can’t predict the weather and you certainly can’t change it. Rewind to 2014. Torrential rain hammered the UK and specifically hammered Devon and Cornwall. The ensuing storm managed to flood and wash away entire sections of rail track. Gone in an instant. So you see, transport is always first to face the storm.

But with a closer look, one realises it doesn’t take a storm to cause chaos to rail down south. As recently as July of this year Southern Rail, who operate services south of London, was dubbed Southern fail by many commuters. Why? The company decided to cut 340 daily journeys. Can you imagine the sheer numbers of people scrambling to find a way to get to work? Thousands. What’s worse is this same company, Southern Rail, had the worst punctuality of all train operators in the UK in September 2015.

But the mess doesn’t end there. We need only look at the Great Western Railway electrification from Cardiff to London for further chaos. The project was set at a cost of £874 million in January 2013 and to be completed by 2018. That same project is now being projected to cost £2.8 billion and will be finished four years late, in 2022. No, being transport minister isn’t an easy job. But I can describe rail for you down south in one word – pandemonium. And it seems they aren’t making much progress.

Meanwhile in Scotland, we’ve got some issues, but we’ve got a minister who can handle them – Humza. He’s already announced an acceleration of £16 million over two years to upgrade key junctions, track and signalling, an extra 200 carriages by 2019. This and his other investment announcements will create a massive uplift in capacity between Inverness and Aberdeen over the coming years. And I’m sure his ambitions won’t end there.

But there’s another way to improve Scotland’s rail services – a new report from Scottish think tank Reform Scotland has suggested that more than 50% of trains in Scotland were delayed due to Network Rail faults rather than ScotRail. Unsurprisingly, Labour’s former Transport Minister, Tom Harris, an author of the ‘Track to the Future’ report now supports the devolution of rail infrastructure. So do I. That makes two former transport ministers – it’s time to devolve Network Rail. Humza is the right man for the job – let’s give him the power to do it right.

Stewart Stevenson
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