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

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Pairc wind farm

Two interesting pieces of news about renewable energy come the week before the Comhairle holds a special meeting to consider the Pairc application.

Firstly, the BBC reports that "Wind farms 'not in windy places'" which basically criticises the building of wind farms in the relative clam calm of England, and criticises the failure to connect the windiest bits to the grid. Regardless of your particular view on wind farms, it is clear that there is a major failure to have a coherent energy policy, and the Government are blaming the 'market', when they should be taking control of the situation and making decisions.

Secondly, Hebrides News reports that the Pairc community is to oppose the plans, on the back of a surprising low turnout in a local ballot. Whether this is because of the impact of recent Court decision on interposed leases turning the community against the scheme, as they won't get their share, or if it is an underlying opposition is impossible to tell. I guess the former, as the community wind farm seemed to have community support.

I'll restate my position on this application, which is that it should be recommended for approval subject to two vitally important considerations:
* A proper and acceptable level of community benefit, and
* The cumulative impact of the three applications is such that no more than two of them should be approved.

As I have also said previously, the expectation/threat/promise from the Scottish Executive and their sock-puppets that there will be a PLI on this application gives the applicant absolutely no incentive to negotiate with the community, meaning a worse result for everyone.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Tax planning

fat cat tax planningTax avoidance is legal; tax evasion is illegal.

Anyone who is self-employed or has other sources of income knows just how much grief the small taxpayer can get from the Inland Revenue.

It will bring joy and glad to your heart to hear that according to the National Audit Office report almost 1/3 of the largest business in the UK pay no tax.

That's right. Nothing. Not a penny.

And more than that, the Inland Revenue seem content with the situation....
The taxman was quick to rubbish claims that large companies were not playing fair.

‘It is ridiculous to suggest that business does not pay its fair share of tax. Businesses are using the capital allowances and deductions that government has put in place. ‘These are not loopholes ­ but are properly policed business reliefs,’ an HMRC spokesman said.

How can this happen? I've previously explained how New International pay no tax in the UK, and it seems that Labour's fawning approach to large business has allowed the multi-nationals to write the legislation is such a way that they can exploit the loopholes they author and avoid a UK tax liability.

Clearly the balance has shifted too far, and it's about time that Labour remember their redistributionist and socialist heritage and stop pandering to the global financiers.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

House prices

We are told that the Western Isles is the most affordable place in which to buy a house, with average house prices of £110,015 or 4.3 times income.

Nice, but meaningless.

And wrong.

According to HIE, average earnings in the Highland and Islands are £304.60 per week or £15,839.20 per annum, and as that includes Inverness, the average earnings in the Western Isles will be much lower and have been estimated at around £12,000. That implies a ratio of at least 9 times earnings, which makes us one of the most expensive places in the UK.

But the scandal in this is not that house prices are high, but that earnings are low. I have repeatedly argued that we should be aspiring to earning AT LEAST the Scottish average of over £18,000, or 50% higher than it is at present. If politicians want to make a difference to the islands, their success (or failure) can be measured by average incomes, and it requires a seismic shift to bring us close to what we should expect.

Share your ideas with us, boys?

Schools latest

A copy of Fiona Hyslop's letter to the Comhairle is here and here.

One Councillor described the intervention of the Minister as "inept", and reading through the letter I can see what he means.

The frosty letter implies that there may be grounds for rationalisation of the schools on the grounds of falling rolls, the PPP project and deteriorating schools, but none arise from the Curriculum for Excellence.

Er, yes, and?

Does that mean the schools should be kept open or not? We'll never know as, somewhat inconveniently, Ms Hyslop doesn't let us know what her view is. Last Thursday Mr Allan said, "There's strong support in the Western Isles for junior secondaries, and I'll be making the case for their retention." Can anyone tell us just how he made this case, as both himself and Mr MacNeil have both disappeared without trace on this issue.

The second page adds nothing to the party, with the repeated promise to find potential cost reductions (ie. cuts in the amenities in the new schools) as previously promised by John Swinney on 13 August was a bit more helpful and explicit, viz;

The Cabinet Secretary reiterated his view that the Comhairle’s hybrid model was at a stage too advanced to abandon at present, and that the Comhairle’s SPV model was very close to the Government’s proposals for “independent but still public sector” bodies such as the Scottish Futures Trust. The Comhairle has been promised intense support by the Cabinet Secretary’s officials regarding reducing the costs and complexity of the SPV, and he gave a commitment to allow re-profiling of the Revenue Support Grant (RSG) which would give a potential benefit to the Comhairle of £2m. He considers, with some justification, that the SPV model will be of service to the Comhairle in other, non-education, developments in future.

Although I'm not sure how this ties in with suggestion (since withdrawn?) by our MSP that all the plans for schools should be looked at again.

As for the last paragraph of the letter, I am unable to understand her tortuous English. Ms Hyslop seems to imply that the new build needs to go ahead regardless of anything else, and that she is surprised that the (closure?) plans have been under consideration since 2002. Perhaps if Mr Allan and Mr MacNeil had any kind of working relationship with the Comhairle, she might have had some answers rather than have to flaunt her ignorance.

Monday, August 27, 2007

School (non) closures

Update 28/8 9am: The decision was overturned by the full Council, and I am awaiting some more inside information to update the posting. One correction, the letter referred to below came from Fiona Hyslop and not Alasdair Allan.


So the Councillors ducked the decision to close schools, and sought further meetings with the Scottish Executive.

Was this the triumph of electoral self-interest over rational decision making?

Or are there more facts about the decision that came late and affected the domain?

Just what was in the letter from our MSP to the Councillors?

And where are the cuts to be made to pay for this decision?

Answers to all these questions and more to follow.....

Sunday, August 26, 2007

School closures

The final version of the report that is going to the Comhairle this week is now available here.

I think that it clearly lays out the difficult options in front of the department, as just how they have come to the decision, which is largely about the inability to deliver the new curriculum for Secondary 1-3 in the existing buildings.

For me the key element was given in paragraph 16.1, which I reproduce below:

Although a small number of Headteachers were positive about a possible move to an S1-3 structure provided the additional resource was made available, some Headteachers had broader educational concerns about a whole scale move to S1-3 provision in the current S1-2 schools. These included:
  • The feasibility of providing meaningful choice with such small rolls.
  • The lack of social interaction and group dynamics in small groupings.

  • Insufficient personal challenge for the more able pupils.

  • The adequacy of preparation for certification from S4.

  • The view that while many parents have been supportive of their children remaining within their own communities for S1-2, there were doubts that parents and pupils would wish to continue in the school for a further year.

Although the report by itself doesn't have all the information, and I have the benefit of some knowledge gained from my eight years in the Council, I think the recommendations make sense
as the way forward. However, I still think that the schools PPP is going to prove to be a millstone around the neck in years to come.

I was reminded that I have previously commented on school rolls, and the threat to schools unless there was a miraculous growth in population, and that I specifically made comments on this when we were discussing the windfarms which featured in the Gazette and Grampian TV IIRC. I was told I was scaremongering, and the schools were safe.

Little did any of us know....

Friday, August 24, 2007

The constituency under threat

Some 'news' in the Stornoway Gazette about this issue.

As regular readers will know, I raised this issue in early July.

The game is already a bogey on this one, simply because as soon as the Boundary Commission were instructed to start work the framework became unchangeable. In a spectacular piece of incomprehension, Alasdair Allan said, "It would be impossible to merge the Western Isles with another seat". It's not about merging! The seats are going to be cut up and rebundled to 'balance' up the voter numbers.

The game was probably up in 1998 when the legislation mentioned Orkney and Shetland by name, and this was compounded when the 2004 Act went through, omitting the Western Isles.

In the 1970's when this was last raised, the Western Isles SNP and the Skye SNP joined together to oppose the proposals, successfully. This time the only escape is going to be if the Secretary of State for Scotland (Douglas Alexander) vetos the plans. As this gives him the chance to hurt the person who started the "Cash for Honours" fiasco, what do you think he will do?

Angus MacNeil seeks to blame those who were in Parliament in 1998 for not doing more. Perhaps someone can find any reference by any political party to the Western Isles constituency when this was being debated. I can't, at present, but I do vaguely remember it being raised at the time. Perhaps Angus MacNeil should have done something to remedy this omission over the past two years, rather than rely on the unlikely goodwill of the Labour Party.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Calling in

Word reaches me that the Comhairle are appalled at our MP and MSP campaigning against the school restructuring.

I understand that senior Councillors and Officers are disgusted that they have attacked the Council discussion on the future of education in the Western Isles, instead of working with the Comhairle to campaign for increased resources to keep the schools open. "They ignore the Council, and work for the their party", said a very senior individual.

This comes on top of repeated failures of the representatives to keep in touch with the Comhairle. When I was there, Mr MacNeil repeatedly refused to meet with the Convener, Vice-Convener and Chief Executive to be appraised of the plans for renewable energy, and it took over six months and a threat before he deigned to come in. Even then, he sneaked in at short notice, and the relevant Chairmen were not told and able to hear what he had to say. I understand it has got worse since then.

I'd welcome details of the discussions in due course.

Letter to Fiona Hyslop

Dear Ms Hyslop


Congratulations on your new position which although challenging provides you with a major opportunity to make a real difference to people's lives.

I represent an area of the Western Isles that has waited for too long to have our educational facilities brought into the 21st Century.

Bayble School was identified as a priority for the site of a new community school under the previous administration. Our community accepted that the "quid pro quo" for this would be substantial rationalisation involving the closure of two local primary schools. We did this in the knowledge that this was the only way we could move education provision in the Point area forward . The initiative was supported by all the school boards and the local community council.

Since the turn of the year the Western Isles Schools initiative has been in a state of flux until the commitments of the new administration were confirmed. We welcomed your commitment to continue the financial commitment of over £50 million to the Western Isles Schools initiative .


Over the years many of us have grown cynical about national politicians promising anything to get elected but Mr Allan takes the biscuit!

How can you square your departments policy that rationalisation and improvement of Educational Resources must be accompanied by closure of schools whose school rolls have declined to a point that the quality of the continued provision of education there is questionable?

Also, Mr Allan's cynical attempt to raise expectations with some parents in the full knowledge that he can turn round and deny any implication - if closures go ahead - is the action of the worst kind of political opportunist who is not worthy of the status of MSP.

Many of us have been impressed with the professional way in which the new ministers have gone about their first 100 days . This favourable impression has been destroyed by your party's representative in the Western Isles failing to check the rationale and facts behind the local authority's approach to improving the resources and effectiveness of schools provision in the Western Isles to bring them into the 21st Century . Also he does not appear to have given any thought to your departments policy of improving utilisation , effectiveness and efficiency.

I would be grateful if you would confirm, as a matter of urgency, that you do not share Mr Allan's views on this issue.


Councillor DJ MacSween,

Sgire an Rubha.

It could have been handled better...

Said Fiona Hyslop about the fact that the Comhairle are having to make tough decisions to find the funds to line the pockets of lawyers, accountants and construction companies - as instructed last week by Finance Minister, John Swinney.

Perhaps the intrusion of reality into a photo-opportunity was too much to bear.

As for handling it better --- I am reliably informed that Ms Hyslop failed to handle it very well as she traipsed around some of the schools.

Accompanied by Morag Munro, Chair of Education, and Murdo MacLeod, Director of Education, she was described as being like "A bear with a sore head", and stormed around.

I understand that when she visited some of the schools, Morag and Murdo were forced to sit outside - so as not to impinge on the photoshoot - whilst Ms Hyslop and Mr Allan spoke to pupils, teachers and staff. How to win friends and influence people!!

If that had been me who had been so insulted, I would have walked ... and let the press know why, but Morag and Murdo are exceptionally nice and polite individuals.

Did Ms Hyslop discuss the reasons for the debate on the possible closures with Mrs Munro
and Mr MacLeod? I understand not, yet John Swinney was happy to demand the financial framework for the schools PFI that necessitates those very closures.

Talk about joined-up Government.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

School closures

I hope Fiona Hyslop enjoys her visit to Lionel Secondary tomorrow, as the following is the recommendation going to a special meeting of the Education Committee on Monday:

DaliburghCLOSURE 2008
BaybleCLOSURE 2008
Sgoil nan Loch
PaibleCLOSURE 2009
ShawbostCLOSURE 2010
LionelCLOSURE 2012
BackCLOSURE 2013


AND, as if that wasn't enough:

"That further reports be submitted to the Comhairle as further consideration for the closure of primary schools are proposed in accordance with the criteria that no primary pupil should be required to travel on home to school transport for more than 30 minutes to and from school; and that there is adequate capacity in the proposed receiving school"

The reasons being given are:
  • The proposed new 3-18 curriculum and its implications
  • The need to release and redirect the financial resources required to fund the proportion of the cost of the Western Isles Schools Project which falls to the Comhairle.
  • The continuing decline in the school rolls. In 2006/07 the total P7 roll was 50% higher than the total P1 roll.
  • The generally tightening financial settlements. As rolls fall total funding falls in proportion.
The full report is available here. Read it and weep for the future of our community.

* 23/8/07: A Council spokesman said, Daliburgh is not on the final list - I have an early draft of the report, and how the hell did I get my hands on it? This list seems to have been lifted and copied by all the media, keeping the unnamed Council spokesman (Nigel) quite busy.

Kallin Harbour

Kallin harbourAs everyone who has been to this harbour knows, it is a great success story, and the demand from fishermen far exceeds the capacity of the facility. Far from being under-specified at the beginning, it was a classic case of "Built it and they will come".

It need expansion a long time ago, but funding, design and demand issues all delayed the project, and at one stage it looked like not going ahead, ever.

Working with the Estate, the Comhairle and the fishermen, the Committee did a marvellous job in driving this project forward.

It nearly got dropped from the capital programme last year, but pressure from Donald MacLean and Archie Campbell meant that it remained. I spoke strongly for the project, as I know from my clients (an interest I declared) just how vital it is for the east side of the Uists.

The photo shows one of the three huge concrete boxes that is being brought across and dropped into place this week. When all three arrive and are fitted together, I am sure that this will be a huge improvement to the harbour.

I look forward to seeing the finished pier, and congratulations to all involved.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


It's good to see the yard at Arnish delivering it's first contract for 16 wind towers in Belgium.

It is also very good for the island to hear that there are many more contracts in the pipeline and that over 50 people are employed.

You can tell when Arnish is doing well, as the amount of cash wages injected into the local economy makes a substantial difference to the shop keepers, publicans and the domestic builders. When Arnish is facing an uncertain future, the spending dries up noticeably, as the employees sit on their cash, and at the present time we are still at that stage.

Hopefully the contracts will be won, and the local economy will prosper on the back of it.

(Photo from

Schools policy

With the possible closure of schools ('rationalisation') back on the agenda following a seminar in the Comhairle last week, it is an appropriate time for the Education Minister to visit the islands.

Hopefully she will have some rational explanation for why the Comhairle is having to build the new schools on a 30-year HP scheme, when the population changes are quite substantial. There are fewer pupils and the different schools are barely able to accurately project school roles over the next 10 years, far less tie themselves into a 30-year scheme.

But the real questions has got to be, why are the Executive happy to fund £1 million in legal fees and an extra £50 million (?) in borrowing costs for the five schools, but cannot find the money for free school milk for children?

free school milkNo milk: and the lawyers get the cream

Monday, August 20, 2007

Expectations and a new Government

The cynical politician (ie the most effective) knows that you introduce the harsh measures in the first years, so that the public have a chance to forget before the next election.

A look at Gordon Brown's pattern of raising taxes (and the Thatcher Government before that) demonstrate the truth of that assertion.

I am at a loss to understand the motivation of SNP Government in promising everything to everyone and raising expectation with every new announcement. Today, Alex Salmond is quoted in the Herald as expecting the next budget for Scotland to be very tight, yet the financial promises are being thrown around like there is no tomorrow.

As I previously forecast, Gordon Brown has a tough Scottish budget planned, pulling funding in centrally for 'contingency' spending, which will allow him Alasdair Darling to get Alex Salmond to take the blame for all the cuts whilst redistributing the spending to pet projects - think of the Directors taking 20% off your budget in the name of efficiency, and then awarding all the other departments extra money to bring them back to where they were. You're stuffed, and there are no fingerprints but yours on the cuts.

The silly promise (in political terms) to freeze Council Tax is yet another salami slice taken off the budget that in turn becomes a noose around your neck. Every promise becomes the danger of letting down the voters, or the desperate urge to find 'savings' elsewhere.

Whatever happened to the promise to find savings in the Executive? It might upset too many voters and vested interests?

The cuts will be made in a thousand small places, where no large group will be too upset - such as ADS and the RET promise? - but possibly without the insight that a thousand upset small groups is as bad as one enormous cut.

The next few years will see a tactical battle between Brown and Salmond over money, and we will be caught in the middle. Who will prevail? I don't know, but Brown has the money whilst Salmond is the master tactician with emotion on his side.

It would be fascinating, were we not collateral damage in the clash of egos.

Multi-member wards

These are settling down and the councillor are getting into the routine of treading on each others toes, irritating each other, duplicating time and effort on the same problems, and getting played-off one against the other by a few 'difficult' constituents.

I was never a fan of multi-member wards - indeed, I spoke against them repeatedly - as I could see what would happen.

Most Councillors have split up the bigger wards into their 'own' territories, so that they continue to take care of a specific group of constituents. So far so good, expect it kind of makes a mockery of the principle of larger wards.

Those with more time on their hands, those who do not have outside commitments, are finding it less easy to adapt to any restrictions on their activities, and as a consequence they are treading all over the toes of their nominal colleagues.

Every one is getting fraught about this, and with good reason, as communications between the various councillor appears not to be the best - whether that is deliberate or not is difficult to judge. In most cases.

There is a simple solution to this, but I'll save that for when I return to the Comhairle ;-)

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Interposed leases

As I have previously mentioned, interposed leases are the device whereby the landowner can ensure that any community buyout does not get its hands on the income from windfarms.

The Courts have now decided that they are legal, in the circumstances that arise in Pairc, and the impact is clear.

The land is owned by PC who gives a lease of the sites for the turbine bases to PR, who then receives the income for the windfarm. If the community buyout happens then the crofters will acquire PC only, and will have no right to the income generated by PR, nor can they revoke or vary the leases.

The fact that PC and PR are owned by the same person is irrelevant; he will keep the profits, even is he loses the land.

But what value is there in the crofters acquiring the land without the rights to operate the windfarm? Virtually none.

How long before the landowners hive off all the other profitable elements of the estate such as salmon beats, in order to defeat community buy-outs? Answer: very quickly, as the possibility of the legislation being changed to stop interposed leases must be on the horizon.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Exam results

With children everywhere having received their results, their thoughts must turn to the future, and what they are going to achieve with those results.

The high-flyers have a clear path. Those who are less academic are waiting for an opportunity to leave school. Those in the middle - the majority - may need just some encouragement to get decent grades and hence improve their prospects.

For the benefit of those who (like me) only understand Ordinary, Higher Grade and CSYS, the qualifications are now:
LevelQualifications included
7Advanced Higher @ A-C
6Higher @ A-C
SCE Higher A-C
5Standard Grade @ 1-2
Intermediate 2 @ A-C
4Standard Grade @ 3-4
Intermediate 1 @ A-C
3Standard Grade @ 5-6
Access 3 Cluster

I hear that pupils in the Nicolson Institute who got a "2" at Standard Grade (Level 5 on the chart) are NOT being allowed to progress to Highers. The reason being given by the new Rector is that they are unlikely to pass Highers, and will drag the performance statistics down.

Now, this may be correct - on average - for the average pupil, but where does this leave pupils who had a "bad day" when they sat Standard Grade; those who aspire to do better; or those parents who want to push their children after a bad result?

The answer seems to be that they are being left in limbo.

Despite repeated and continual demands from parents, the new rector is not moving from his stance.

So what do parents and pupils do, when there are no reasonable alternatives educational opportunities for the kids? It is not practicable for parents to move their children to Sir E Scott School in Tarbert, Harris which is the nearest school offering Highers. For the benefit of those outside the islands, it is 40 miles from Stornoway, across the highest hills on the islands, a journey that is frequently disrupted by bad weather.

Are the children being made to resit Standard Grades until they get a "1"? Where does this leave a student who got seven 2's? How many children does this affect? How many children who get 2's in Standard Grade attain level 6, and how many who get 1's don't attain level 6?

All these questions and more remain unanswered, yet a number of children are now being branded as failures and their future prospects being diminished with no chance of appeal and no alternative educational choices available.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

You really did make it up

Whoever is behind the Alasdair Allan website (in the best traditions of Private Eye, and particularly Craig Brown) has done a marvellous job.

Reading the Gazette today, you can see that they have got the phrasing and stlye totally spot on.

I've added a link from this website, but as that blog doesn't allow comments, please feel free....

Meals on wheels

Exclusive news direct from the Comhairle on the hugely anticipated Meals on Wheels taste test being undertaken by those bon viveurs who represent us.

The outcome was split:
* Males - enjoyed it, and thought the food was acceptable
* Females - thought the meals were disgusting and unacceptable

I think that means that the food is unacceptable.

Thankfully, I managed to get some surreptitious video footage of the Councillors undergoing the process...

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Scary Wendy

As she announces her candidacy for the leadership of the Scottish Labour Party, Wendy Alexander
brings a frightening work ethic to the post.

On previous visits to the islands she was renown for working her mobile phone constantly, issuing instructions (not asking advice, mind), demanding information, taking decisions and being generally hyperactive.

Her social interaction was restricted to putting the mobile down long enough to pass some pleasantries, shake a few hands, talk some banalities, praise the good work done by (fill in blank here) and how it couldn't have succeeded without the Labour Executive.

And on to the next phone call appointment.

Her civil servants were knackered trying to keep up with her.

In short, she will be a formidable leader.

Fjord Seafood in danger

The BBC reports undated concerns that the future of the Fjord operation was in doubt.

Is anyone able to stop the closure of the factory in the name of rationalisation?

Fishupdate reports:
"Alan Anderson, managing director of OHS, said that contrary to local rumour he had not left the company, but said that he could add very little at this stage."

Can anyone add anything to this story?


Somewhat belatedly I've become aware of a change in policy at the Hebridean Housing Partnership whereby contractors will no longer be paid for the time spent by apprentices.

In the past, the arrangement with the Comhairle was that the Housing Department paid for apprentices to learn the trade, as part of the greater "social good" role of the public sector.

This arrangement was unilaterally changed by HHP, in effect penalising good employers and to the benefit of those who cannot, will not or do not train apprentices.

This is despite an explicit promise in the privatisation document. Do the Board know what is happening?

A look at the minutes doesn't help, as none are made public. This is obviously unhelpful as far as public confidence is concerned.

Have a look at the agendas, though. The June 2007 agenda allows precisely 10 minutes for the Board to consider, discuss and seek clarification over the 5 year cash flow. Please tell me that this is not right.

Caption contest 2

To commemorate the resignation of Jack McConnell...

Scottish Independence

Of course it's a good idea, the question is how and when it will happen.

I haven't read the White Paper yet, but I was not surprised at the utterly predictable behaviour of the other parties.

About 18 months ago I was asked by the Chicago Tribune if I thought the 2007 election result in a majority for the SNP. I retorted "Absolutely not", but that I expected the 2011 election to have that result.

I based my thinking on the expectation that the SNP would not form the Government, which would give them the perfect platform on which to easily build support.

Being the Government means difficult decisions, being the target of all attacks, and being blamed for everything that goes wrong.

Is the current proposal going to be a winner?

I think not, but I'm not sure that that is the intention. The best result would be for the Unionists to dig their heels in and act like spoilt brats and try to prevent a debate. They are showing signs of doing so, and that is playing right into the SNP hands.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The biggest obstacle

John Swinney brought a number of CalMac worthies to Stornoway - at the taxpayers expense - for the big non-announcement on RET.

So what is the biggest obstacle in the delivery of RET to the Western Isles?

Political will-power?
The coming Comprehensive Spending Review?

The answer is actually - and regular readers of the blog will not be surprised - CalMac itself.

Which senior officer of CalMac, civil servant, answerable to the First Minister, and employee of you and me made the following outrageous comments after the press announcement as an aside, sotto voce, but to those who he needed to hear it? These comments are not repeated verbatim, but capture the tone and essence of his message to the Board....

The idea of RET is foolish
It won't work as the ferries are full already
It won't work as the hotels in Stornoway are full already
Who wants to come to Stornoway, anyway?

All enquiries to CalMac's spokesman, and master of tact and political nous, Hugh Dan MacLennan. I suspect Mr Swinney may be the first to call and ask "WTF ...?"

Monday, August 13, 2007

Dear Councillor

As I know that the Councillors haven't been told, the itinerary for John Swinney's visit is as follows:-

0900 meeting with Convener, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar
1100 visit to Voluntary Action Lewis, 30 Francis Street, Stornoway (PHOTOCALL)
1315 John Swinney making anouncement (sic) relating to ferries - Pier No 3, Stornoway Harbour
(PHOTOCALL, with camera set up from 1245)
1400 Visit to businesses at Arnish (details and availability of photo ops to be confirmed)
1430 visit to Hydrogen labs, Lews Castle College, Stornoway (PHOTOCALL)
1700 meeting with local SNP members

If someone sees either the Chair or Vice-Chair of the Transportation Committee can you tell them about the BIG announcement, as they have not been invited to the pier to hear it. I think Mr Manford might have been invited to the meeting at 5pm.

It'll have to be a quick announcement (that's 2 'n's) to allow 30 minutes to visit Arnish and tour both businesses.

Local work for local businesses

The home care problems and the schools PPP both appear to have a similar mentality behind them, which is hurting the local economy.

I know that the Vice-Convener was very strong on this, but it is important that local businesses are treated as viable competitors when work is put out to tender by the Comhairle.

In the case of the meals on wheels, the Comhairle should be encouraging the use of local produce, prepared locally, rather than shipping in pre-packaged, pre-processed boxes from where ever.

In the case of the schools PPP (if it goes ahead) , the work should be packaged in such a way that local contractors have the opportunity for first refusal.

Instead, in both cases the work is being framed in such a way as to actively exclude local firms from competing. Is there a mind-set that only big mainland firms can do the job properly? Or is it just thoughtlessness?

What is the point in having an economic development section in the Comhairle if the Comhairle itself tries to undermine it's activities?

Answers on a postcard to the Comhairle....


I received an anonymous link to a website satirising a politician, asking for my opinion. Without a email address to respond to, it is kind of difficult.

Although it is quite humorous, and obviously still under construction, can I suggest that you change the second item, as it is probably libellous.

Please let me know when I can publicise the site. :-)

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Transport announcement

I am very reliably informed that John Swinney, Finance Minister, is in Lewis on Monday and will be making an announcement about Transport Issues.

Will this be the immediate introduction of RET?

Perhaps an announcement that the ADS will continue past March 2008? (Assiduous readers of the Gazette will remember that Alasdair Allan wrote to the Transport Minister in May asking for confirmation that it would continue, but no PUBLIC answer has been forthcoming. Perhaps an FoI request might elicit some answers.)

My guess is an announcement that the study into RET promised in the manifesto will be undertaken before the end of the year; otherwise the Transport Minister himself would be here to get the glory (sic).

Be still my beating heart; hold me back; and constraint my desperate urges to whisper 'whoopee'. Delivering on a promise to get someone else to consider why the Executive should think about doing something is hardly a rallying call to action.

As always, I hope I am wrong and that we are having something delivered rather than being part of a consultants report, but the cynic in me says not.

Perhaps someone can send me the itinerary for the day?

Update 13/8/07: Thanks for the itinerary. Despite supposedly being about transport, I notice that the Chair of the Transportation Committee - and SNP Group Leader - is frozen out for most of the day.

Quite intriguingly the trip includes a visit to Arnish. Will Mr MacNeil go there, having previously refused to visit the site?

Meals on Wheels

meals on wheels?The pensioners of the West Side of Lewis are, and here I generalise, from a generation who grew their own potatoes, kept their own sheep and caught their own fish.

The food they grew up with was fresh, local and delicious, and prepared daily with great care.

Is it any surprise that half the "customers" have dropped out from the scheme if the produce is reheated frozen meals shipped in from the mainland, dropped in by carers in a rush (through no fault of their own) and followed by a mass-produced cold sandwich for their evening meal.

Would you be happy with that?

Social care comes at a price, and is not a bottomless money pit, but some things need more consideration before being enforced onto those who need care and attention in every aspect of their lives. I hope that the Council will abandon the scheme, and start thinking about the options all over again.

Hotels in the Western Isles

"Service and quality are a joke in Western Isles, says minister"

Just as well Mike Russell is not Tourism Minister. As someone who travels through the islands regularly, I have to disagree with him - service is very high, and the quality is getting progressively better. The only places I feel ripped off are in Edinburgh & Glasgow where they try to charge you £2.50+ for a scabby paper cup of brown water mis-described as coffee.

"There was criticism for arbitrary opening hours and surly bar service on the ferry from Oban to Barra."

Complain the the owners then! The owners being - of course - the Scottish Executive.

Now, perhaps, he understands what the rest of us have to put up with as a matter of course.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Press releases

Wholly unexpectedly, all the political parties in the Western Isles keep me off their mailing lists.

Please - and this is an open plea on bended knees - put me back on your lists, and I promise not to humiliate or attack you. Unless you are talking out of your bum.

Failing which, I promise complete anonymity to everyone who can forward any and every press release from any and every politician.

I may carry them in full, if they are good.

I WILL carry them in full if they are rubbish.

If you want to cut and paste them into a blog comment, your anonymity will definitely be preserved and I'll make a posting out of it.

Impending financial crisis?

For some time I have been concerned that the whole economy was on a shoogly nail, as I though consumer credit was running rampant and out of control, resulting in excessive borrowings and insane house price growth. Indeed, I have been advocating a return to cash ahead of the slump, on the basis of the deals becoming more outrageous, and greed - rather than common sense - making the running in the markets.

I was beginning to think I might be wrong, when the Robert Preston financial blog caught my eye and made some comments on the sub-prime market in the US...

I am a long way from a properly functioning computer screen. But thanks to the miracle of mobile telephony I have been able to read BNP Paribas's explanation for prohibiting investors from cashing in more than a billion pounds of funds linked to the US subprime market.

BNP's statement is scary, to put it mildly. The giant French bank says that it cannot value the assets in these funds due to the "complete evaporation of liquidity in certain market segments of the US securitization market".

The terrifying bit is not BNP's citing of the disappearance of two-way trade in bonds and derivatives linked to poor quality US home loans, or what it calls the "evaporation of liquidity". That's just a statement of the obvious, bad news we've known about for some weeks.

No. What gives the game away is that BNP, the pride of France and one of Europe's biggest banks, doesn't dare take the long view and offer to buy these illiquid investments from investors who want to sell.

The sub-prime market is not just in melt-down, but it is starting to drag down other financial institutions with it. What matters in financial markets is confidence. One that goes, the game is over. In this case, BNP are saying that they cannot value an investment - not even at a fire-sale price - and they are having to stop people trying to redeem their own investments as a consequence.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Register of Members' Interests

The Register on Comhairle nan Eilean Siar always provides good reading, and is a legal requirement that the first declaration be lodged within 1 month of accepting your positions as a Councillor.

No doubt the missing 4 declarations have been completed and just haven't been put on the web...

Schools PFI

The penny has finally dropped for the Commons Education Select Committee.

Three PFI schools are closing because of a lack of pupils, but councils are still contracted to pay the bills.

In Brighton the local authority is having to pay £4.5m to release itself from the contract.

The committee says ensuring that a contract covers all the possibilities that might arise in the 25 years or so it is set to run is "virtually impossible".

Hopefully the Executive will take on board the constructive criticism of the Commons and will abandon this stupid, expensive and restrictive idea and allow the Comhairle to build, operate and control the schools rather than mortgaging the pupils' future.

I understand that Cllr Norman MacLeod, and his fellow Point Councillors are livid at the prospect of further delay in rebuilding schools in Point. If this insane scheme continues, the problems and delays won't have even started yet.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007


I received a letter from Western Isles Health Board today, which - as most readers will know - is printed in both English and Gaelic.

If you have one, go and get it now!

Bottom right - Chair: John A MacKay
Bottom left - Cathraiche: Daibhidh MacMhuirich

Even us monoglots recognise that there might be a slight flaw with the translation process here.

Looks like the Ancien Regime has had some lasting effect....

Fertility rate

I was slightly surprised to see that the fertility rate in the Western Isles was the highest in Scotland, according to the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy.

Fertility rate is a crude measure of live births per adult female aged 15-44, and should be a leading indicator for changes in population.

My first reaction was that this couldn't be correct, as the falling population didn't bear this out. But of course the indicator doesn't adjust for migration, and the General Register Office shows that in 2002 the Western Isles also had the highest fertility rate in Scotland. So the message may be that we are breeding well, but then losing the families as - presumably - work takes them and the young children away.

On the other hand, it was noticeable at the hospital just how many parent were having larger families, and this was commented upon by staff and patients alike. This is a very favourable trend, and I hope it is also a leading indicator.

Is my pessimism over the adverse demographics in the Western Isles well founded? In discussion with clients and friends, I think it is, but I'd love to be wrong - and badly wrong - on this one, and signs like this are

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Foot & Mouth

Grimshader turbines

As I was heading that way, I stopped off at the three turbines at Grimshader earlier this morning.

It was a wild, wild morning, with the rivers bursting their banks and the wind blowing intermittently fiercely.

Two of the three turbines were turning slowly, elegantly, in the teeth of a gale.

Standing just below the bases, at the gate closing the site, I could hear a faint whoosh as the wind blew across the blades and they cut the air. Mostly, however, it was drowned out by the wind noise. After a couple of minutes I could take the cold and rain no more, and climbed back into the car.

Despite having read the literature, studied the studies and had the discussions, nothing beats the actual real-life experience of hearing the real-life noise - or lack thereof.

I can strongly recommend that everyone stand at the foot of the turbines and hear the noise for themselves, and compare it to the wild claims and scaremongering we heard from some objectors.

Monday, August 06, 2007


Rush hour in Berneray aka the M25Word reaches me that the otherwise peaceable and beautiful island of Berneray is in the midst of civil war over who is and isn't allowed to use the local shop.

With the only shop on the island currently for sale, Ardmaree Stores has resorted to banning those residents who criticise - however constructively - the current management arrangements.

A classic case of shooting the messenger.

Council Tax to be frozen?

The report in today's Herald suggests that the impact of freezing the Council Tax at current levels will cost £420m. How many better ways are there to spend such an enormous sum?

Probably 420 million.

The Council Tax may well be discredited, but the National Local Income Tax promises to be worse; and although many have nay-sayed my views, no-one has actually challenged the figures I have produced, and how they will severely adversely affect the people of the Western Isles.

But the intention to freeze the figures is a spectacular misjudgement on many levels. There will be plenty of credit to the Executive in the short-term for their stance, but it betrays a lack of thought of the long-term political impact.

Councils get a lot of flak for every Council Tax increase, and I guess that they will for once get the credit for any stand still in the bills.

But the real damage will start to occur in the three years of stasis. Every Council budget cut, every saving that has to be made, and every hard choice, will be blamed on the Executive cutting the budgets, as they seek to make up the £420m shortfall. If you were the Councillor having to close a service, of course you are going to blame someone else - it's not quite the first skill you acquire, but close to it.

But that is going to be as nothing as to the next stage. The Executive introduce the NLIT, and there are two choices:
1. Find another £210m each and every year to keep bills low, or
2. Dramatically increase the NLIT bills to recoup the losses to date.

Well, I think we can rule out option 2; meaning that instead of expecting small sums from the public each and every year, the public sector will now face largish cuts each and every year for a quick and easy (and short-lived) political gain.

And then the losers in the new NLIT - such as the people of the Western Isles - start to scream, and we have some kind of balancing mechanism to prevent large increases or decreases in payments, meaning more bureaucracy, confusion and inevitably more cost to the taxpayer. Just before the next election. Good thinking!

Factor in the Comprehensive Spending Review (i.e. cuts) due to be approved by Gordon Brown shortly, which will result in large cuts for an SNP lead Executive (but, as I said before, without any political fingerprints on the whole decision making process), and suddenly the budgetary process looks complex and precarious. Just before the next election.

Oh, the political innocence of it all.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Harris -- a National Park

The Ramblers Association want to designate Harris as a National Park.

The 'advantages' of being in a National Park can be seen here, where a member of the Executive rails (nicely and politely) against the restrictions it brings.

In case you were wondering where I stood on piling yet another designation on Harris in addition to the National Scenic Area, Special Site of Scientific Interest, Special Area of Conservation and Special Protection Area.

No, No, No, NO, NO, No, NO, NO!

What were the North Harris Trust thinking when they wrote this letter to the Executive? It may have been an attempt to stop the Marine Park (another loopy idea) but they might as well have put the 12-bore inside their wellies and the wellies in their mouths before the pulling the trigger by signing this letter.

Minister contemplating North Harris Trust windfarm application: "They are in an NSA and want to be an National Park? If they want to be a National Park, then we really need to put the windfarms on the back-burner."

Renewal energy

Low emission cars came about because California mandated that a certain percentage of the vehicles on their roads had to be low emission by a fixed deadline. The State's buying power meant that the manufactures complied, and a virtuous circle began. In a similar, the smoking ban in Wales lead to a UK wide smoking ban.

The development of renewable energy - that is at a cost-effective and efficient price - requires Government incentives and direct action to distort the market to drive it in a particular direction. The decision to ban traditional light bulbs in favour of low energy models is such an example. The price advantage is still with the traditional models, but soon, as volumes grow, the energy efficient models will drop in price and people will realise that it is cheaper and better in the long run to buy the fluorescent bulbs.

So it with a glad heart that I see that the Democrats in the House of Representatives have decided to give further tax breaks to renewables in a further effort to stimulate their development. If anything will achieve this aim, it will be the sheer might and buying power of the US.

If anything can try to stop this, it is the puppet/muppet in the White House and his paymasters in the oil companies who see the loss of £8,000,000,000 in annual subsidies as part of a complementary disincentive programme.

Yes, the US Government pays £8bn in subsidies to Big Oil. Why? How can that be justified when Exxon alone makes $10,000,000,000 per quarter or $1,300 per second, all of which goes to private shareholders.

However, the outlook for the planet is good, and I suspect we will see new and unexpected delivery mechanisms sooner rather than later, and covering the whole range of possibilities.

Western Isles Hospital

No matter how much of a go I have at the NHS Board here in the islands, one thing is for certain, the quality of service delivered by the staff is second to none. Yesterday a team of them worked ceaselessly and professionally yet in an entirely personal and caring manner to deliver our new baby girl.

Our heartfelt thanks to all the staff in maternity for the wonderful job they do.

(Incidentally, this was the real reason I stood down from the Council. Family; work; council; one had to give.)

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Foot & Mouth

I somewhat light-heartedly made previous comments about the proposed (and cancelled) restrictions on the movement of cattle for agricultural shows.

Having been involved in the planning during the previous foot and mouth scares, and being the person who would have carried the can if anything had happened, I know a bit about the difficulties, dangers and threats the Western Isles face.

The Executive are completely correct to take a precautionary stance and to ban animal movements until such time that the outbreak is resolved. The questions that must be answered are, "Where did the infection come from?" and "How can we stop it happening again?"

Friday, August 03, 2007

Health and safety

vodka hospitalAs I sat in the League of Friends teabar at the Western Isles Hospital today, a man sat down on the other side of the room nursing his lunchtime cuppa.

He appeared to be a tradesman, who was working at the hospital, judging by his dress and demeanour, and not a Health Board employee judging by the absence of any badges, official passes, or anything that marked him out as having any kind of responsibility for anything.

As he sat down, poking from the back pocket of his jeans was a red topped bottle of what appeared to be vodka. Opened, and judging from the absence of liquid when it was lying on it's side in his pocket, more empty than full.

Having finished his tea, he sauntered off back towards one of the wards to fix whatever piece of (please, God!) non-essential equipment he was working on.

Happy bunnies

According to the paper of record, er I mean the Daily Record....
As far as neighbourhoods were concerned, satisfaction levels varied from 85 percent in Glasgow to 99 per cent in the Western Isles.

The Western Isles are definitely the best place to live, but we knew that anyway.

happy crofter enjoying life in the Western IslesA happy crofter celebrates

And is the case wasn't strong enough, today's Independent makes the case, again ....

Best beach
The best beach depends, of course, on exactly what you seek from the strand of sand. For surfers, Fistral Beach in Newquay is north Cornwall's surfers' paradise, where the breakers roll in unimpeded from the Atlantic to collide with the dramatic coastline (above). Tenby in South Wales scores highly in the sunlounger stakes for family holidays, while Scarborough provides the optimum infrastructure for a Yorkshire seaside holiday with the bonus of a dramatic setting. But for the most inspirational cusp of land and sea, head back to the Western Isles and make the long haul to the beach at Luskentyre on the Isle of Harris.

The Outer Hebrides represent Britain – no, the planet – at its most elemental, the earth stripped of all embellishment to clash with the angry ocean. This conflict is resolved exquisitely at Luskentyre, where sand, sea and sky converge to perfection. My first visit, five years ago, brought tears to my eyes – and it wasn't just the stiff March breeze: "Tenacious grasses bind together a backdrop of dunes," I noted. "Below them, ice-white sand has been sculpted into unworldly shapes by the wind. When a blade of sunlight slices through the cloud, the dazzle of the beach turns the Atlantic to deep blue ink." Ooh er: better get back to Southsea before memory overwhelms me. And getting there (to Harris, not Southsea), via the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry from Skye or Ullapool, provides the ideal overture to the final glory of Britain.

Luskentyre beach, Harris

New schools

It is reassuring to see that the Chair of Education Committee on the Comhairle has asked the Finance Minister if the Comhairle can restructure the entire schools refurbishment scheme.

As I have previously blogged, the costs of setting up this scheme are huge, involving a Special Purpose Vehicle, seemingly required for no reason other than to keep the lawyers in Ferraris.

The SPV is a limited company wholly owned by the Comhairle, which will take over the schools that are to be refurbished, and then negotiate with the developers to fund and deliver the scheme. The rebuilt schools will be owned by the developers, who will deliver a contractual service to the Comhairle on the basis of the contract negotiated by the SPV. Remember, of course, that those people who are directors of the SPV must negotiate in the best interests of the SPV, and not the best interests of the Comahirle (although they may be the same.)

Clear about all that?

If the Comhairle were to borrow the money and deliver the new buildings, they would use the Public Works Loan Board, which is currently offering a 30-year fixed loan at 5.25%. As a public body the Comhairle can borrow at very, very, very good rates. The developer will have to pay a commercial premium, and charge a further premium, and add a risk premium, probably pushing the cost up to 7%. We, the taxpayers, pay the difference.

When HHP took over the Council stock, the solicitors acting for HHP required the Comhairle to deliver title deeds for every property. Then have a contaminated land survey on every property and then get an indemnity from the Comhairle about the results. Six to nine months of lawyers sweating hard to stretch their fees and find 'issues' that no-one knew existed or were of any concern to either of the parties.

Hopefully, when John Swinney is here next week he will be able to announce that the Comhairle can arrange the rebuild of the schools directly, and in a sensible order of delivery, rather than adhere to the discredited PPP scheme of his predecessors.

Oh yes, and find the extra £5m required to replace the schools.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Gaelic Media Service

Two cheers for the announcement of the start date of March 2008 for the Gaelic digital TV channel; after a consultation on the 'public value test'.

According to reports the channel is expected to cost £16-£17m per annum. That's where my concerns start.

My first concern is that the 'box has been ticked' and that Gaelic TV has been delivered into a ghetto that actually does nothing for the language.

Secondly, the 'cost of the channel' is nothing of the sort. It is the budget allocated for the channel.

Deduct the infrastructure costs, the administration costs, the marketing budget and how many hours broadcasting are you actually getting? S4C has an annual budget of £63m.

The third concern, and this is much more parochial, is how much of this money will be spent in the Gaelic areas to secure the language and the businesses that should develop here? The channel will only have a fundamental effect on the language if the production companies can use the money to underpin their operation and become a viable business, delivering programmes in English and Gaelic, and developing the infrastructure in the GaeltachtGaidhealtachd.

Having authored a major report for the Gaelic TV Service in the early 1990's, I know how little such a small sum will actually produce in TV hours.

It all smells of a small sum to placate the natives, rather than a serious attempt to do something for the language.

My children find the cartoons on the TV where ever we go. They will happily watch anything in any language, and enjoy it. Our Freeview box has TeleG as one of the selections, but only once have I ever seen anything being broadcast on it. They do see (and enjoy) Gaelic programmes on BBC2, but will this remain? If the service becomes a series of dubbed imports augmented by the occasional home-produced programme, replacing, rather than supplementing, all Gaelic broadcasting on other channels - such as Europa - then it will be almost pointless.

Will we see new opportunities in the islands or will it be Glasgow West-End TV?

Wednesday, August 01, 2007


I've been otherwise engaged for the past few days - for reasons that will be obvious in the next few days - but despite my regular scans of the news wires, gossips with key sources, and hearing the crac through town, nothing much is happening.

Last time I suggested this, it all went mental and I got the blame despite - for once - being blameless.

It's easy to see that all the politicians are on holiday, as nothing is being done; for the simple reason that they are too important to allow anything to happen in their absence. Roll on the return of the Parliaments and the Comhairle so I have some imbecilic comments to make light of.