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The truths they don't want you to read....

Friday, June 29, 2007

Help about "HELPS"

Great Yellow BumblebeeDespite a press release in this week's Gazette claiming they are "growing in strength", I have yet to find anyone who knows anything about the Hebridean Environment and Landscape Protection Society. Google, every directory I can find and even the phone book have no entry for such an organisation. As far as I can find out, they have issued and inaugural press release, and that is all.

It appears to be a front for anti-wind farm campaigners, as the "news" is either old, old stories or factually inaccurate. The RSPB are congratulated on two schemes in North Uist, which were actually initiatives of the Local Biodiversity Action Plan (Chair: me!) and both of which were covering much wider areas, in partnership with many organisations. Strangely, HELPS never offered to help or participate in any way.

If anyone can tell me who these people are, and why the Gazette are printing factually incorrect 'cut-and-paste' press releases, then I'd be pleased to know. I'm sure the LBAP would like to know who these supportive members of the public are.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

(c) Steve Bell

Steve Bell cartoon

And our MSP's view is?

Edinburgh's trams project will proceed at the expense of transport plans in the Highlands, north Nationalist MSPs have claimed.

Highland SNP MSP Rob Gibson and Dave Thompson said it will mean less money for other road and rail improvements.

Mr Gibson said: "By voting for the Earl and trams in Edinburgh they have taken the biggest projects which are going to concentrate on the capital and denude the chance of having major transport infrastructure in the north."

He said the result of the vote was particularly bad news for projects proposed by Highlands and Islands Transport Partnership in Scotland (Hitrans).

The statutory body agreed a strategy aimed at improving road, rail, air and ferry links over the next 15 years in March.

Yet according to (BBC political correspondent) Brian Taylor's blog yesterday (27/6):-

"Defeated by the combined might of the opposition parties, John Swinney, the finance secretary, announced in Holyrood tonight that he was conceding.

Edinburgh trams will go ahead - and he’ll look again at the project to build a rail link to the capital’s airport."

So we have the intriguing prospect of the SNP having to put through a policy that they have opposed, that their SNPs oppose, and that will severely adversely affect the Western Isles. Which brings me to the title of this posting......

Health Board overspend


The Western Isles Health Board is hugely overspent again, and has been called down to the Scottish Executive to explain their performance. I understand that the Finance Director was asked for some numbers by the Minister (or the top Civil Servants) and quoted figures which the Chief Executive knew nothing about.

The organisation appears shambolic, and lacking any serious financial controls. There is some tinkering around the edges to pull some minor costs under control, but the bulk of the overspend appears to come from the GPs budget. Which is out of control, again.

Has it ever been under control?

The GPs negotiated a wonderful deal for themselves, largely due to the fact that they had a GP on the other side of the table negotiating against(sic) them. That the self same GP then benefited from this wonderful deal is a conflict of interest that should never have happened, and one that needs to be unravelled. Last I heard they were being paid £1,000 a day for sitting in A&E on a Sunday to cover for NHS24 and because the GPs no longer work weekends - except at the new enhanced enhanced rate.

There has long been a call for an in-depth investigation into the finances of the Health Board, a call avoided by the national politicians, but this latest fiasco may provide the opportunity to undertake the long needed root and branch review to ensure that we are getting the best possible service for our money.

Update 29/6/07: Further report in the Gazette about the further deficit this year. "Failure to make major savings in the coming months could threaten the ongoing viablility of the NHS Western Isles Board."

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Dammed if you do...

A school has been left without water after a stream was dammed to divert the supply to the new home of a former health board chairman.

Engineers called out to investigate the shortage at Cliasmol School on Harris found a dam had been built illegally.

Instead of supplying the school, the stream has been linked to the home of David Currie, who used to sit on Western Isles Health Board.

The local council has written to Mr Currie asking him to remove it.

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles Council) said the dam was built without permission.

Meanwhile, the council has been providing a water bowser to operate the toilets in the school and bottled water for drinking.

Drugs policy

Thankfully drugs are not a massive problem in the Western Isles, although there is more misuse going on than people recognise.

The Government approach has been to ban certain drugs, on the basis of their addictiveness. The prohibition policy has not worked, just as the prohibition of alcohol in the 20's in the US failed.

The UK and US were so concerned about the never-ending supply chain that they made it one of the key issues when they invaded Afghanistan.

The Taliban banned opium production as anti-Islamic, and quite successfully ended the planting of crops - albeit in brutal circumstances. Since the invasion, production has soared as the farmers try to make a living, and they find the production taxed by the Taliban, leading to the opium poppy now being THE major source of funding for the Taliban.

It is good to see Bill Wilson MSP asking the Executive to reconsider the entire approach to drugs policy in Scotland. He advocates both vigorous enforcement and the acquisition of the drugs at source. This has been advocated before, but requires pan-national action to take this forward.

Hopefully this will be given serious consideration, rather than just being dismissed.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Cheaper fuel

It's good to see the LibDems campaigning for lower fuel duty for the Highland and Islands, something I have argued for for a long time as part of a desire to see the islands become a duty-free zone.

Despite the repeated protests by the SNP, the Comhairle and by myself as Chair of Environmental Services, I am disappointed that our MP seems to be nowhere on this issue, other than tabling an EDM in 2005. I stand to be corrected, and I look forward to his contribution to this debate.

No nuclear waste

It is excellent news that Richard Lochhead has withdrawn the Scottish Government from discussions on the deep disposal of nuclear waste.

With two (admittedly highly unlikely) sites in the Western Isles on the short-leet, it is good news for everyone across Scotland that we will have no part in such a process.

Now, we just need to sort out what we are doing with the waste that we continue to create at Torness, Dounreay and Hunterston. Perhaps the answer is as simple as closing the plants and stop producing nuclear waste?

Another election

Gordon Brown eyesThe new dynamic team of Gordon "the Joker" Brown and Harriet "I've done it" Harman have served their 25 year apprenticeships in the Labour Party and have finally brought their vast experience and exciting new ideas to riotous applause and the vigorous enthusiasm of the public. Or possibly not.

Mrs Dromey Ms Harman has held most (shadow)/cabinet posts in the past 20 years, and been reshuffled out of them, yet I am hard-pressed to identify any success she may have had during that entire period. Or even any achievements. She - of course - sent her kids to fee-paying schools to the horror of the Labour Party, in true middle-class sycophantic style following the lead of Tony Blair. Then she cut benefits to lone parents, so she has a solid socialist pedigree behind her.

But will Gordon go to the country early to get a mandate for his leadership? In my view it is unlikely, but by putting the unctuous Douglas Alexander in charge of a potential campaign will keep the opponents on their toes. Gordon will be keeping all his options open, in the hope that a suitable moment will arise, before he is boxed into an end-of-term decision. At the moment, he will lose. Get rid of Blair and shed his memory, and he might win, but the act of holding the election may be what he needs to do to distance himself from Blair. That makes it a very much more difficult decision for him.

Sunday, June 24, 2007


Hector the InspectorNever an exciting political topic, but a very important one and one that will grow in importance over the next two years as Gordon Brown tightens the screw, I predict.

The fiasco over the 10% tax rate for private-equity firms bosses is a disaster of his own making, just like the 10% starting rate for corporation tax and the continuing failures in the Tax Credit system.

Put simply, the private equity firms turn their income into capital growth and then sell the shares. As long as the shares have been held for more than two years, the effective tax rate is 10%, and the rates that you or I pay of 22% or 40% PLUS National Insurance never come into play. It is perfectly legal and applies to everyone who sells an incorporated business and some other assets, but it was never intended that income could be wrapped up as capital and Income Tax avoided.

This just demonstrates the lack of commercial awareness of the Treasury team, and it is appalling that they have been forced to address this, rather than taken the lead. As I have mentioned before, Gordon Brown and his team seem to have an enormous blindspot for the super-rich foreigner allowing them to come to the UK and pay almost no tax. Anywhere.

The recent amnesty for people who "forgot" to declare interest earned in the Isle of Man, Jersey or Guernsey will undoubtedly hurt a lot of smallish taxpayers (and I have no sympathy, but have helped some calculate their correct tax liability) but the real big depositors will be the non-domiciled and the non-residents who are hiding ill-gotten gains for other tax authorities, and have absolutely nothing to fear from our Inland Revenue 'purge'. That being said, I really look forward to the first high-profile prosecution.

Sporran licences

Don't laugh, they're here!

So our grossly overworked Trading Standards staff are now going to be attending weddings to check sporran licences, and interrogating fishermen to ensure that their lures have no traces of dolphin. Otherwise, how is this going to be policed?

I have a rather old sporran, which may - or may not - be seal. I don't know, and frankly I don't care, because I'm not going to get it licenced, for a number of reasons, the least of which is that the sporran pre-dates 1994.

Just how they are going to determine that the fur (assuming it is real) is from the 1980's or from after 1994 is a mystery, and likely to be unenforceable.

The worst part is that the Executive are quoted as saying "The licence will allow people who possess artefacts ... to keep them". Sorry, but my sporran is not an artefact, but an item of regular, if infrequent, dress.

Could they try to prove to be more out of touch if they tried?

Friday, June 22, 2007

Nationality - it's in the genes

Or so the Foreign Office think. In an effort to be able to return illegal immigrants to the correct country, they plan to use DNA "evidence" (sic) to identify where to return someone who is to be deported.

Given that a DNA test will identify only ones' parental origins, and not ones' most recent residence, the scientific ignorance is startling.

Perhaps the Customs staff will start relearning the lost skills of Anthropometry and Craniometry, so expertly misused by the KKK and the Nazis, in an effort to identify criminals, recidivists, dole scroungers and Tory voters before they are allowed into the country. And lets just go the whole hog and rename them the preCrime squad.

Prospective MPs undergo vettingSitting MPs have their brains removed

The end of agricultural shows?

According to Shetland Today,

"MSP Tavish Scott and his Orkney counterpart Liam McArthur are working together to try to persuade the Scottish Executive to exempt the isles from plans to impose restrictions on the operations of shows and sheepdog trials.

The previous Scottish Executive had prepared a draft Animal Gatherings Order for consultation, which would have imposed unworkable restrictions on the running of shows and trials. But such was the response from those involved in such events that the order was withdrawn by the then rural affairs minister Ross Finnie."

Had anyone heard of the draft order? As the (then) Chair of the relevant Committee in the Comhairle I had never got a hint of this either from officers (not blaming them!) or from the regular mailings I received.

Hopefully, Richard Lochhead will see sense, as his comments suggest, and it will all be a non-event.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Schools PFI

PPP schools western isles shiteJohn Swinney, SNP Finance Minister, has written to the Comhairle declining to meet with them to discuss the schools PFI PPP project. At least for the moment.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

On balance, I think it is a good thing.

Before the election Labour scaremongered that the SNP would cancel the contract and the schools wouldn't get built. The SNP countered that they would abide by the plan.

IMHO, they were both wrong.

Basically PFI (if you are a Tory) or PPP (if you are Labour) amount to the same thing. A private contractor builds the school and rents it back to the Comhairle. With lots of clauses to protect the guaranteed income stream over a 30-year period. At this point you might want to remember the successes of PFI/PPP at both the Skye Bridge and Inverness Airport.

The business model is like this. You ask me to build you a house, I am awarded the contract, and we agree a fixed price. I add lots of additional clauses, and you have no other builder to turn to as the mortgage company want you to build regardless.

After you move in, you find that you are due to make extra payments in addition to your rent. Every time there is a change in personal circumstances lo! and behold! there is an additional charge. "New baby", extra occupancy charge. "Away on holiday", under occupancy charge. "Death in the family", commiserations but the contract says....

The Comhairle will find itself tied into a 30-year lease of schools which may be half-empty in 15 years, and which need rationalisation (i.e. closing), yet still be liable for enormous sums in rents on the empty schools. Which business would take a 30-year lease on fixed terms without the ability to walk away? A possibility that the Government had ruled out, until now.

Add to that the fact that the cost of building the school will be require a commercial return to the builder, with risk premia built in, and will undoubtedly be much more expensive than the public-sector equivalent. That is until the "consultants" (paid for by the Government tell you otherwise.

From the Comhairle website:
Originally, the schools selected were The Nicolson Institute, Sir E Scott School, Barvas and Airidhantuim Schools and Bayble, Aird and Knock Schools. These were chosen due to a combination of the state of the buildings, falling school rolls and over provision of school buildings for the West Side and Point areas. Balivanich School was added to the project in 2005 after it was severely damaged in storms at the beginning of the year.

"Falling school rolls" and a fixed term contract? What to population projections for these areas tell you? Smaller schools? Flexible provision?

More tellingly:
The project team awaits confirmation of what, if any, impact the new Administration in Edinburgh will have on the project.

Cancel it now, and start the whole process of the root and branch review of educational provision in the Western Isles from scratch, but do it quickly, and merge some schools, at least until the population starts to grow again.

PFI/PPP is a through into which the financiers are diving, and which we should have no part of.

Universal Service Obligation

I understand that Cllr MacSween is raising the issue of the end of the USO today at the Council meeting, and no doubt crediting this blog with bringing the matter to his attention. :-))

It may just be a "limited" ending covering bulk mail, but it is clearly the thin end of the wedge, and you know what the next stage will be. Royal Mail is calling it "Zonal Pricing", which is about as obscure a piece of management speak as you would expect. The shear lack of transparency in the name should ring alarm bells.

Danny Alexander's EDM came about following the announcement by Postcomm on 2nd April that "Postcomm wrote to customers and operators about the application, letting them know that we had now been provided with sufficient information of good quality to assess Royal Mail's modified zonal pricing application, and that the nine-month assessment period had begun."

First it will be mailsort, then parcels, then we just won't get a service. It will be the small businesses that suffer first, closely followed by the householders.


To Cllr Norman "Curly" MacLeod, who has become the Chair of the Northern Police Board.

Norman was, and is, held in high respect by his colleagues for his abilities to analyse a position and take difficult decisions. Never one to rush into a view, Norman will be a very steady, sensible and balanced Chair. It also has the benefit of putting the Western Isles at the heart of policing decisions.

Peace envoy

The suggestion - the link, the hints, the preparation of the ground - for the announcement that Blair will become the Peace Envoy in the middle-east is as jaw-dropping as it is crass.

Already Blair is doomed, by the simple virtue of being Bush's choice. Can you imagine the reaction of the Arabic countries to the appointment of a yes-man who is there to do his master's bidding?

The two B's were involved in masterminding being told to invade Iraq on a false premise, directly causing a huge upsurge in violence, enormous anti-Western feeling in Arabic countries, and being the best recruiting sergeant for Al-Queda.

Both have been avowedly pro-Israeli, in word, deed and action. Without any understanding of the reaction this will cause in the neighbouring states. Or, more worryingly, perhaps they do.

A man without credibility in his own country, and who believes that foreign affairs issues can best be solved by press conference and walk-about rather than hard work, is desperate to stride the world stage. Not to achieve anything mind. Just stride the world stage.

Bush Blair poodle

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Parliamentary Agenda

One of the most important decisions that the new Scottish Parliament has taken is to arrange their holidays.

These holidays are (sharp intake of breath):-

30 June - 2 September 2007

6 - 21 October 2007

22 December 2007- 4 January 2008

9 - 17 February 2008

29 March - 13 April 2008

28 June - 31 August 2008

The first of these dates is - and the MSP's seem to have had an irony bypass here - the official opening of the 3rd Scottish Parliament, which involves a large garden party, lots of guests, and presumably a few drinks for the members. Life is tough!

Monday, June 18, 2007

Postal charges

I think everyone can agree with the Early Day Motion in the House of Commons proposed by Danny Alexander (LibDem - Inverness):

That this House notes with deep concern the common industry practice of applying a surcharge on the delivery of parcels in the north of Scotland; believes that this is discriminatory and unfair to consumers and businesses in the North; notes with further concern the application by Royal Mail to charge different prices for business mail depending on where in the UK their mail is delivered; believes that, if granted by Postcomm, the move by Royal Mail could pave the way for future attempts to undermine the Universal Service Obligation; welcomes the extension of the Postcomm consultation on zonal charging to 1st June 2007; and believes that the Universal Service Obligation, providing equal access to the postal system regardless of location, is an essential part of the postal system and that any attempt to erode it must be rejected.

The attempt by Royal Mail to remove the USO is the most serious threat. This potentially will result in us paying excessive amounts to send and receive post. It is also the utterly wrong way about to deal with the threat from other mail operators. The answer - and I have said this before - is to ensure that every company authorised to deliver mail has a USO imposed, so that the costs are spread equally, and the burden spread.

About two years ago in the Comhairle Chamber, when this matter was raised by Mr D J MacSween, I said that the loss of the USO was what we had to look out for. This does not look good for the islands, and all who live and work here.

As you will see, Angus MacNeil was the 13th signature. Early Day Motions are the graffiti of the House of Commons, as they mean little but the local press headlines give the impression of doing something. Occassionally an EDM is picked up action is taken.

Having a look at the list of EDMs signed by our MP is fascinating, with his interests ranging from "Save the Koala" (188 - Sponsor), "Head Lice" (728) to the impact of a "British Tsunami" (996) on the Severn Estuary.


My mother announced last weekend that she wished to be buried in a biodegradable coffin.

This caused some consternation, and bemusement, followed by some gentle questioning to determine whether this was a prelude to some more serious news. As in "Have you ever thought about opening a pet cemetery?": "By the way, I ran over your cat on the way here."

Thankfully, the entire conversation came about after she read an article in the weekend FT about "green funerals", and she has decided to make a stand. Or more accurately, go green whilst lying down.

Having allowed some time to elapse, just to check there wasn't anything she hadn't told us, I think that a call to the local undertakers - to determine their supply arrangements - is in order.

Assuming her trip to St Kilda today - not bad going for someone in their late 70's - is uneventful, a sample coffin might look like this.

Failing which, there's always the wormery ....

Friday, June 15, 2007

The Clock School

Oh happy days.....Clock School, Stornowaywhen we left they demolished it. Cause or effect?

Actually, and here I bear a serious grudge, there were four of us with the same birthday (or within a day or two) and only three badges for "5th birthday". The twins(?) who left shortly thereafter and another girl got the badges, and I had to do without. This probably explains my attitude to authority.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Starting school

Our eldest went to school today for his induction before he starts properly in August. We met all his mates from nursery and lots of new friends, and went off to meet the teacher and see the new classroom. There were lots of tears.

From mum.

Turning up to the school in my zimmer and incontinence pants, I fully expected to be the butt of fun from the young mothers. Surprisingly the average age of the parents was much older than I expected.

Actually this is very worrying for the islands. I would estimate that 25% of the parents who were there were over 40, and than only 25% were under 30. Factor in that some new starts are not first children and the average age of the parents was still worryingly high.

When I started school (and I am sure someone will correct my faulty memory) there were three - or was it four - very full classes for Primary 1, say 90-120 children. This year, the same school has two Primary One classes and a Gaelic Medium Unit totalling (I think) fewer than 30 pupils pupils. The following table is taken from the Council website, which I have quoted before, on last year's numbers

Locale P1 P2 P3 P4 P5 P6 P7
Stornoway Primary School 36 35 46 44 46 53 61
Empty classrooms
We see lots of young women pushing prams past our office, so where are the children going? Off the island along with their parents, I would suggest. The overall school rolls for the entire islands last year were:

Locale P1 P2 P3 P4 P5 P6 P7
Overall Totals 226 276 273 291 276 329 362

It seems to me that we are losing the youngsters who would normally repopulate the islands and the schools are only being kept going by the 'new' older parents. This suggests a very serious crash in pupil numbers in the next five years, which will potentially be the precipice for a vicious circle.

I so hope I am wrong.

No nukes

Congratulations to the Scottish Parliament for voting to oppose the US controlled Trident system*.

Will the vote have any impact on the Westminster decision? That depends who the Labour abstainers were.

A reading of the motion, and the selected amendments is very interesting:

S3M-169 Patrick Harvie: Trident—That the Parliament congratulates the majority of Scottish MPs for voting on 14 March 2007 to reject the replacement of Trident and calls on the UK Government not to go ahead at this time with the proposal in the White Paper, The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent.

The Presiding Officer has selected the following amendments

S3M-169.3 Michael McMahon: Trident—As an amendment to motion (S3M-169) in the name of Patrick Harvie, leave out from "congratulates" to end and insert "affirms that defence policy is, and should remain, the responsibility of the UK Parliament".

S3M-169.1 Murdo Fraser: Trident—As an amendment to motion (S3M-169) in the name of Patrick Harvie, leave out from "congratulates" to end and insert "notes that defence matters are wholly reserved to Scotland’s other Parliament at Westminster and that on 14 March 2007 a majority of MPs voted for the replacement of Trident".

S3M-169.4 Mike Rumbles: Trident—As an amendment to motion (S3M-169) in the name of Patrick Harvie, after "Trident" insert "recognises that decisions on matters of defence are matters within the responsibility of the UK Government and Parliament".

Patrick Harvie is Green, Michael McMahon is Lab, Murdo Fraser is Tory and Mike Rumbles is a LibDem.

* Didn't know that? Targeting systems can be switched on and off by the US.

Strengthening democracy

I was fed an idea by the Berneray scribe, who suggested that the proceedings in the Comhairle should have a live web feed to encourage participation and understanding of what is going on. Yeah, right!

More practically, there are a couple of very small changes that can be made to bridge the gap between the public and the politicians in their ivory tower. Or at least the hideous - too hot! too cold! - 1970's pre-cast concrete edifice, known locally as "The White House".

I have been trying to find a photo to show the beauty of the building, but Google can't find anything, probably on the ground of taste. Google Maps gives a bit of a flavour...

Step one: At present the Agendas and supporting papers are copied probably 100 times for Councillors, Directors, Assistant Directors, Officers, Press, Libraries and any of the public who are mad enough to attend. The public and press copies have the confidential items taken out before being circulated.

Scan the press copy and post a pdf on the web, so that the full detail of what is being discussed can be seen by the public. In the first instance, no indexing or quick links, just a straight pdf.

Step two: Most meetings are recorded for accuracy and in case of FoI requests later. Open that feed up over the web, and let the public hear what is actually being said by their representatives, for good or bad. With the pdf agenda open, they can at least follow what is going on, and may get some flavour of what is happening.

Of course, the Powerpoint shows won't be accessible, but that is step x.

When it comes to the private matters, as well as physically excluding the public from the meeting, you can disconnect the web feed, but store the recording on the servers, rather than an old tape system.

You could then podcast the best bits every week. Or perhaps not.

Step three: have a couple of fixed view webcams feeding from the meeting to allow the public to choose a view and get sound and vision of what Councillor X is doing and saying - or even if he is there. Perhaps this could tie in with the planned Digital Gaelic TV channel.

Step four: a premium rate phone poll once a quarter to vote out an inhabitant of The White House.

Steps one and two are relatively simple to implement if the political will is there. Step three is more ambitious, but could be an aim.

Thank the Lords

It looks like David MacLean's attempt to exclude MPs from the Freedom of Information Act will fail, not because MPs see it as a step too far, but because no-one will sponsor it in the House of Lords.

Although ostensibly about protecting MPs correspondence - which is already covered by other exemptions - it was actually to do with hiding their expenses. All the more reason to look very, very, closely at next year's claims when they are published.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Parliamentary Committees

Like Council Committees, your appointment to Committees of the Scottish Parliament is very much a measure of your standing in the party, in the eyes of your colleagues and also carries so many messages for the politically aware.

The Parliamentary Committees are:
Economy, Energy and Tourism
Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture
Equal Opportunities
European and External Relations
Health and Sport
Local Government and Communities
Public Petitions
Procedures, Standards and Public Appointments
Rural Affairs and Environment
Subordinate Legislation
Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change

So which Committee did our new MSP get onto. This is not a trick question - look at the options, and judge which are the most appropriate and suitable for a representative of the Western Isles. Tourism, Culture, Petitions (on windfarms!), Rural Affairs, or even Transport.

Er, no. Local Government, which is ironic for someone who visited the Comhairle twice before being elected, flanked both times by MWT supporters, and avoided talking to any of the Councillors.

Just to rub it in, the SNP appointed as follows:
Culture - Rob Gibson and two Central Scotland lists MSPs
Petitions - three Central Belt MSPs
Rural Affairs - Roseanna Cunningham (Perth) and two Central Belt MSPs
Transport - Rob Gibson and a Lothians MSP

Poor Mr Allan Dr Alasdair Allan SNP Western Islesfinds himself on a Committee Chaired by the highly experienced and respected Duncan MacNeil (Lab), and facing the equally experienced Johann Lamont, Michael McMahon and David McLethcie.

Never has being lobby fodder seemed less attractive.

At least the inanity of a referendum on planning applications seems much less likely as the sidelines beckon.

Student debt

The 'Graduate Endowment' has been abolished.

"It's a significant first step from the SNP in reducing graduate debt, however, more has got to be done to acknowledge that students do live in absolute hardship", said James Alexander of NUS Scotland.

I cannot agree more.

As one of the last to enjoy grants instead of loans, my earning capacity has increased dramatically as a result of my education, and my extra contribution back to the Exchequer has more than outweighed the miserly grants I actually received.

A quick look back at the SNP Manifesto shows three unequivocal promises, "An SNP government will abolish the Graduate Endowment tuition fee and replace the expensive and discredited Student Loans system with means-tested student grants. We will remove the burden of debt repayments owed by Scottish domiciled and resident graduates."

Now deliver the entire package, and encourage the young to get an education not a huge burden of debt. Society will benefit.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Intermittent power supplies

It's not just wind that is an intermittent power source, nuclear can be too. Despite what the nay-sayers claim.

However, if a wind turbine goes wrong it might spectacularly self-destruct, but at least it doesn't cause death and contamination across a wide area.

And the moral of this little tale - we need to diversify our power generation sources.

Electricity prices

We just had a letter from Scottish Gas Business advising us that our new contract was being renewed automatically from 21 July for two years, unless we phoned to tell them otherwise.

Page 2 told us that the unit cost was going up by 27%.

One phone call later, we were given a new offer - a 12% increase - on the grounds that "distribution costs in Scotland are higher". And "12% isn't much", said the salesperson.

Looks like we are shopping around - and I'll let you know just who is cheapest for the islands.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Members Informal

Every series of meetings at the Comhairle, there is an informal meeting, usually on the Monday, at which the key issues for the week are outlined, and at which members can identify matters that concern them.

Contrary to popular belief, no decisions are taken, and it is usually an opportunity to give a verbal going over to the Convener, Vice-Convener and/or the Chief Executive on anything they have done wrong. Or have been perceived to have done wrong. Or sometimes, just for sport.

Whispers reach me that this blog may feature at the next Informal, with one member very keen to rebut any suggestions of double-dealing, duplicity, being two-faced and generally trying to protect (what he thinks is) his reputation. Hopefully, he'll remember to mention the threatening lawyers letters he sent me about the blog.

No doubt there will be much sniggering behind hands as the sanctimonious words are mixed with staged self-pity, and I hope to have an early full report with some verbatim extracts for your delectation.


It was good to see the extensive coverage of the shipping and export of the towers from Arnish*.

The facility is back in use, and has delivered on time on a contract that the previous operators weren't able to complete.

I understand that the ship was loaded 24 hours ahead of schedule and left on Saturday morning taking the towers off to Holland.

Hopefully on the back of this successful contract the 50+ jobs will be retained and new contracts can be attracted.

* Irony. I didn't see a single piece of news about this anywhere.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Tropical weather

Stornoway is positively roasting today, with temperatures up at a scarily warm 14C.

The family have adjourned to the garden, with the kids covered in sun cream, where I was pleasantly surprised to find that my wireless broadband connection seems to be even quicker than the two PCs in the house. My mission is now to find out why - but, I think I'll solve it by getting IT guy in to fix it for me.

The pubs are doing a roaring trade, with the beer garden (or more accurately patio) in the Whaler's bursting at the seams. It's not family friendly, so it's time to sit in the sun with a glass of something cold and watch the kids run themselves into the ground.

Maybe global warming has an upside (joke!)

Standards Commission

Readers of the Stornoway Gazette may remember that a complaint was lodged with the Standard Commission just before the elections, claiming that a number of members were in Breach of the Code of Conduct. This was specifically as a result of our involvement in various bodies dealing with the windfarm applications.

I was specifically accused of having compromised my objectivity by being a member of the 'Focus Group' to discuss the detail of benefits with developers, whilst also being Chair of the Environmental Services Committee. The decision is that none of us contravened the Code and the case is closed, but it raises wider issues.

I was placed onto the Focus Group because of my specialist skills and knowledge of the planning system combined with my business and professional skills. Would some of the public prefer that the Comhairle negotiate from a position of weakness rather than have the best skills available?

I also recognised the possibility of a conflict, so that I removed myself from active participation in the Focus Group when there was a live planning application if front of the Comhairle, which as it turned out, meant the vast majority of the time.

The role of the objector needs to be looked at, and he has graced these pages before. Murdo "Esso" Morrison lives in Wishaw, where he is a JP and frequent contributor on anti-windfarm themes to the Stornoway Gazette, in fancy, overblown and generally insulting terms. One attributes such "Lord of the Manor" attitudes to his experiences as a Tory Candidate in the Western Isles, a place he visits briefly and occasionally.

As a retired publicity man for Exxon, Murdo is well placed to advise the wider community on the harm that windfarms can bring to an area, compared to the benefits of traditional sources. However, not one to let a single conflict of interest affect his judgement or his pension, Murdo has another string on his bow.

His holiday home.

The reason for Murdo's ire is that he believes that the view from his holiday home - the old family home - will be adversely affected by the windfarm development, and consequently that his not insubstantial income might be diminished. Does that conflict of interest ever get mentioned in his complaint?

What particularly irritated me was an offensive and threatening email I received from Murdo in 2006. One Sunday - obviously after a long leisurely heavy lunch - Murdo threatened my three houses (?!?), and promised I would get what was coming to me(!), based entirely on a complete misreading of my entry in the Register of Members Interests. I was very close to reporting it to the Police, but instead emailed back advising that I would do so if ever wrote anything similar again. Perhaps the Justices of the Peace Committee in North Lanarkshire would be interested...

No doubt Murdo is sitting back furious with the Standards Commission for not agreeing with him. So can I suggest he use his energies on opposing the ship-to-ship transfers in the Forth, which is near at hand, and given that he has such important and invaluable experience of how oil companies operate. Or perhaps his pension is more important.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Grid connection

Whilst many people from elsewhere appear to want the Western Isles to be a 'no go' area for renewable energy under any circumstances, Shetland are going full steam ahead.

Their latest piece of smart thinking follows on from my previous posts about the possibility of private cables, and they are exploring the possibility of owning the two inter-connector cables and keeping the profits in the Shetlands.

Brilliant, lateral thinking.

Why is no-one objecting to windfarms in Shetland, yet they seem to be falling over themselves to object here? No promise/threat of a referendum from any quarter. Yet in Shetland the SNP supports windpower. At least in 2005 it did.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Bribery and corruption

If you are going to do it, then do it big.

The UK Government appear to have been sanctioning a British company (British Aerospace) to allow a Saudi Government Minister to take a cut of the price being paid by his Government for new military equipment.

The BBC reports suggests that the 'consultancy' money was paid into Saudi bank accounts in Washington where the Prince drew it for his own living expenses.

And then the UK Government - successfully - close the investigation to avoid damaging our 'relationship' with the Saudis.

Am I being stupid, but are we actually saying that selling weapons to a corrupt, theocratic misogynistic regime who deny women the vote, regularly torture those who question the government, and who treat non-Saudi workers as second class chattels.

Remember the absence of official complaints when the British Oil workers were imprisoned and tortured for drinking? Like to guess why that happened?

But the worst of it is that the taxpayer - you and I - subsidise this through the Export Credit Guarantee Department of the DTI, and bribes are accepted as part of the normal course of business at up to 10% of the deal value. Whatever happened to the ethical foreign policy so vigorously espoused by Robin Cook.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Living in the past

Anyone else notice that the Scottish Labour Party are still advertising on the Stornoway Gazette site? Top right, and it links to Alasdair Morrison MSP (Who he? I hear you cry), and hence to his website.

I've already archived all the pages, so if someone takes it down, I might resurrect it elsewhere, just for posterity. I note that the link to goes to a dormant site, which says a lot about the Labour campaign team and organisation.

Alasdair (or Taylor), if you are reading this, pull the site now.

Technology goes too far?

Scientists have developed a talking paper.

Just imagine the Stornoway Gazette reading the Court pages to you on a Thursday morning .....

The next, next Labour Candidate?

It's funny how these things can be so obvious and you don't see them until you step back or hear a comment that starts you thinking.

I previously blogged about Cllr Norman MacDonald being Chair of most of the Committees in the Comhairle but until a Labour Party member made an off the cuff remark I was not seeing the obvious.

As Chair of Environment Committee, the Employment Committee, the Infrastructure Committee AND third in charge of the entire Council, Emperor MacDonald will be the council spokesperson on everything, but everything, which gives him three new job opportunities: MP, MSP and Convener.

He has a chance of being selected due to his high profile if - and only if - he keeps his fellow Labour Party members from sticking the knife in.

"Keep your friends close and your enemies closer" Sun-Tzu, former Councillor for Shiant (very) East

Grid connection

Bloomberg report that Scottish & Southern may have to compete with third party companies to deliver electricity to the grid. This is particularly focussed on renewable projects in the islands.

This is excellent news for the Western Isles, as it raises the possibility of different connections, which I have highlighted before. I don't think that it changes the chance of the application being approved or rejected, but it does have one huge benefit which I hope everyone will support.

The worst case scenario - and I have said this repeatedly - is that the large scale applications for wind power in the islands get approval, but then are not developed due to problems with the transmission network i.e. the pylons between Beauly-Denny are refused.

This would create planning blight in the Islands, while no-one knew what was happening, or whether the best/worst was going to occur.

This new plan gives the proposals (if they are approved) another way to be delivered - the AMEC owned cable, I have long forecast as being the most likely outcome.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Community Care

I've just finished doing a distressing piece of work for a client whose husband is suffering from Alzheimer's.

The impact on the other spouse is potentially horrendous, both emotionally and particularly financially.

Having researched the situation, it looks like half their savings are going to be hoovered up in a few short years to pay for care. This is regardless of the fact that they have both worked non-stop from leaving school to past retirement age, and paid all their taxes without fail.

Instead of being able to help the grandchildren - on whom they dote - to go to University and College they face paying over £600 per week for the bed and care that will be received. That's £33,800 per annum, and the philosophy seems to be that everyone must now be expected to make provision for long-term care.

This is appalling, and what can be done is limited. The Alzheimer's Scotland website was particularly useful and concise on this matter, and is blunt and too the point. This legislation needs to be changed (and paid for out of general taxation) before it affects you and I - directly or indirectly.

HIE wages/low wages

With the average wage in the Western Isles being a paltry £14,250 compared to a Scottish average of £21,500 it is disappointing for HIE to be paying staff a paltry £11,808.

Looking objectively, the bell curve means that some will always earn less than the average.

But that's not the issue.

The average wage in the Western Isles is 2/3 of the Scottish average, and has been for some time. Cost of living is higher - heating, food, building materials - and house prices are lower.

The causes are well know - transport costs being the main one - which all combine to prevent new businesses making a success on the islands, and further depress the average income.

The challenge for HIE has been to reduce that differential, and they have failed. So has Tony Blair. So did Jack McConnell. Can Alex Salmond make a difference, because the effect on individuals concerned would be immense.

The anonymous employee getting £11,808 would be on £17,712 if the Western Isles were at the same level as the rest of Scotland. That might be a bit ambitious, but it's better than accepting our current status of "cheap labour".

SNP Transport policy

The SNP Transport policies are turning into a bit of a mess, at least as they relate to the Western Isles.

The Benbecula-Inverness flight is removed due to under-use, and the knee-jerk reaction is to demand a meeting with the Minister, to discuss a PSO. A PSO is a subsidy to the company to run an under-capacity plane at a fixed price, not a mechanism to reduce the fares. Unless the PSO provides a realistic subsidy to the travel, you will end up with an empty plane being paid to fly AND still have high fares.

Perhaps the money would be better spent on a Benbecula-Edinburgh (or Aberdeen?) flight, rather than assuming that what we have must be the best answer.

On RET, our MP and MSP are suggesting that the SNP abandon its weak Manifesto pledge "we will undertake a pilot project on RET to the Western Isles" and move to an immediate introduction of RET without the studies. Good move, but why wasn't it argued for before? And why wasn't it in the Manifesto.

It would be churlish to point out that Transport is a devolved matter, but our MP has more to say on the topic than our MSP.

However, MacNeil's comment that "I am confident that the Western Isles has the flair and the enterpreneurs to take advantage of a more favourable economic climate, which reduced ferry fares will bring", could only be made by someone who has never been in business.

The Western Isles are bursting with entrepreneurs and fantastic businesses all of whom have been screaming for decades about ferry fares. I've signed goodness knows how many petitions on this very topic, many originated by the SNP, many before Mr MacNeil became politically active, and promoted the same through the Comhairle.

Any further delay is going to hit the local economy further. Act now and release our potential.

Friday, June 01, 2007


The good weather and sheer tiredness of us both encouraged us to close the office eary today and go home at 3pm. Well, not exactly home, but first off to the shops to buy supplies for the first barbecue of the year.

That was actually sixth on the agenda, after running an errant or two, getting the post in the post box, having a drink or two in HS1, and collecting the kids from nursery and granny.

A quick scrub and clean of the gas barbecue and it was fired up and ready to cook.

With temperatures supposedly nearing 18C it was postively balmy and (look away now if you are eating) I stripped to my shorts to undertake the traditional male role of hunter-killer and chief food burner.

Being good Lewis boys, and uncertain what to do in the absence of clouds and rain, in the absence of clear instructions the kids attempted to mimic their father and dress for the weather. The fact that they were already dressed for the weather was - of course - irrelevant and they quickly assumed the traditional costume of the young Lewis lad ready to explore a garden and play football - underwear and wellies.

Garden wellies underwear


Uist causewayAfter the fatal storms of over two years ago we were promised action to replace and renew the causeways and improve the situation for the people of Uist.


There is no sign of anything happening, and although the money has been promised (repeatedly, and ad infinitum) and we have been promised that the work is starting, we are now too far into the year for the work to be done before next year at the earliest.

Having driven across these causeways a lot over the past week, the state of most of them is appalling and urgent action is required before they are destroyed in the coming winter storms. Many of the causeways still have substandard (or non-existent) edging which is dangerous and far from attractive for visitors.

Of particular concern is the Gramsdale to Grimsay section where, I understand, lorries are experiencing difficult under-wheel conditions, and hauliers are concerned about the causeways deteriorating rapidly before next year.

But, the big trick is still being missed. These causeways should also be tidal barriers, harnessing the massive and strong currents to gerneate electricity on the islands. The previous Scottish Executive refused to countenance this possibility. New Executive, new thinking?

Time for a quick win, if our MP and MSP are prepared to lobby for this. There's the challenge. It shouldn't affect the timescales, but will cost more, in the short-term. Or were the promises of sustainability only for election purposes?

Wardriving in Uist

Not a phrase I had ever thought I would use, but that's life.

Wardriving n. is the act of searching for Wi-Fi wireless networks by a person in a moving vehicle using a Wi-Fi-equipped computer, such as a laptop or a PDA, to detect the networks.

It's different from piggybacking, which is the unauthorised use of said found network, which - of course - I hypothetically wrote about doing, allegedly - and wouldn't actually do as it is naughty, which someone pointed out to me after the supposed fact. No matter how desperate one might be.

Anyway, after my experiences in Lochmaddy, I found myself stopping as I approached my later appointments and checking for available networks in the area in a kind of desperate, adrenalin rush, ooh 'amn't I dangerous' sort of way. It was quite amazing to see the number of unsecured networks I was picking up, and devices that tried to identify themselves to me.

Anyway, lots of identified weaknesses if I was that way inclined - which I am not - and I have marked for other wardrivers, but not piggybackers.

The Uist 'warchalk' markings are as follows:
Open node - blue plastic bag tied to the fence and knotted
Closed node - sheep tied to fence
WEP node - salmon feed bag tied to fence

You can't miss these markings - have fun!