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

Sunday, September 30, 2007

A sense of humour...

Cameron pledges Tory 'fight-back'.

Get out of the wet paper bag first, before you try anything that ambitious.

Perhaps Cameron is also planning his resignation......

Private Eye

European Marine Energy Centre

Alex Salmond was absolutely on the ball when he welcomed the opening of the test centre in Orkney as being a world leader in the development of marine energy.

He was also absolutely spot-on when he described the charges proposed by Ofgem as being a tax on green energy, and as being indefensible.

The best wave conditions are around the Western Isles, so the next stage would be to ensure that the Western Isles is "marine energy ready" to ensure that the working versions are situated off our coastline, and all the benefits that this will bring to the islands.

So what are our elected representatives - Comhairle, MSP and MP - actually doing to try and ensure this happens here? I can only speak for my time in the Council when I know that we were desperately trying to ensure that the infrastructure was in place so that the islands can benefit whatever the final renewables technology was going to be.

It is that 'whatever' that seems to be the stumbling block for some people who perceive onshore wind as being the only game in town, and one that needs to be stopped. This is so short-sighted and ignorant; as the real political possibility that they should be following should be to ensure an interconnector and still stop the onshore wind.

I've made it very clear that I support onshore wind as being the best option available to us at present, but it might very well be surpassed by new technology, and we must ensure the ground is ready for whatever the technology is going to be.

Or will the ill-informed neo-Luddites triumph, only to find that 'victory' impoverishes the community they supposedly are working for.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Pakistan - 'our man' manages 'democracy'

My enemies enemy is my friend.

What an utterly corrpupting phrase, as it allows the 'friend' to cast aside good preatice, fairness and even democracy to ensure the mythical baddy to be avoided.

So it is in Pakistan, where 'in order to stop the Taliban' President General Musharaff has declared himself the official candidate in the forthcoming elections with the connivance of the judiciary.

Not that he has actually done much to stop the Taliban other than slightly cracking down on the tribal areas of North Waristan (which have been an unresolved problem since partition in 1947) in an unconvincing and unsuccessful attempt to be seen to do something to maintain the support of the US.

Now perhaps the US will take action against the junta in Pakistan by banning travel and freezing their bank accounts which have been padded with the proceeds of corruption. Or will they wait until it the regime against the interests of the US, such as in Burma and Panama?


It is our making. But we cannot solve it alone.

In 1943 the UK recruited the Karen peoples in NE Burma to fight the Japanese with the promise of independence for their region. Equiped with Lee Enfields and acting like the heroes of the old Commando comics, the Karen fought a valiant, very low profile, but extremely deadly battle against the Japanese, drawing frontline troops away to the hills where they were the easy victims of a guerilla war.

War over, we walked; but still the Karen respect the British and expect delivery. Despite attempted eradiation about which we have done nothing. Except supply weapons to the junta and then turn a blind eye to the scrapping of democratic elections.

Of course Burma has oil which it freely sells to everyone, unlike Saddam's Iraq or Iran who restrict supplies to those who were supportive, and one might get a touch cynical.

But throughout this time a UK/Burmese citizen has been the duly elected head of state, yet has been kept under house arrest for 17 years, and the UK has done nothing. Belatedetly the US has lead the way in imposing economic sanctions on the rulers (like it did with Papa Doc and Mobutu Sese Seko long after the warning signs had been ignored and indulged, and shortly before the well-signalled end was nigh The UK has belatedly and ineffectually followed suit; probably embarrassed into action.

One only hopes the end for the junta is truly nigh, and that democracy can flourish, as the Burmese want it - and not as the US or UK would like it.

Geore W Bush on climate change

Head up arse

Lesley Riddoch in the Scotsman

Mon 24 Sep 2007

Sometimes the Outer Hebrides might as well be outer space


SCOTLAND'S island communities have faced epic struggles for survival over the last century. Have the authorities learned anything from that experience?

Not much if Caledonian MacBrayne's next six-year contract is anything to go by.

The people of South Uist and Barra were hoping for an improvement in what must be the worst ferry service in Scotland - but there'll be no change. According to the Scottish Government, any added expense (or crafty redeployment of boats that might disrupt other routes) cannot be justified because of the rules on tendering and the low local population base. The self-fulfilling nature of that remark is depressing. Is this government already managing the decline of remote communities, even as it talks a very good game about Road Equivalent Tariff?

Barra's near neighbour, Mingulay, was deserted almost 100 years ago, primarily because polite calls for better transport were ignored then.

According to author Ben Buxton: "The rising population led to overcrowding in the village and disease such as typhoid, measles and influenza. It was often impossible to get to Barra to summon the doctor or the priest. People and goods were landed on rocks but boats had to be hauled up onto the beach. This necessitated wading out to chest height in the water. For much of the winter launching boats was impossible. The larger boats had to be left at anchor in Castlebay. A visitor reported, 'It is no unusual occurrence for islanders to have to throw their bags of meal into the sea and drag them ashore by means of a rope. It is easier to reach America than to get there'."

In 1896, every man on the island signed a petition taken by their MP on behalf of a "sorely-distressed community" to the Secretary of State for Scotland. They appealed for a "boat slip with a boat hauling convenience". Five years later they got a small crane instead. In 1912, every person left.

Is it a wild exaggeration to suggest that, in a decade, Barra or parts of South Uist could be next?

Their ferry journeys are currently epic. A South Uist family travelling to Glasgow this winter will leave home at 6:30am to depart Lochboisdale at 7:30am and arrive at Glasgow Queen Street at 9:25pm. That's a whopping 15-hour journey which will include travelling to neighbouring Barra and sitting for four hours at Oban for a train which departs one minute after the bus at 6:16pm.

Indeed, two boats from Mull and the daily boat from Coll and Tiree also arrive in the same public-transport-free "black hole".

Why can't a bus or train run earlier?

First Scotrail says: "We are committed to encouraging and growing integrated travel." Scottish Citylink says: "The island demand for services dips after the summer."

Neither of these answers even attempts to tackle the precise question.

Abandon public transport and travel by car and the family's weeks away will cost around £330.40. Even subsidised flights (if available) will cost about the same. A 15-hour trip or a £300 trip. On islands where the average wage is not far from the minimum wage, which option do policy makers think crofters should choose? In truth, like their neighbours a century ago, "it is easier (and cheaper) to reach America than to get there".

This is all the more outrageous because it seems there was a viable alternative put forward by CalMac.

Currently, the combined Barra/South Uist service takes five hours to sail across to Oban. If it docked instead at Mallaig, the crossing time and costs could be halved, and therefore the number of daily trips to the islands could be doubled. All apparently for about half a million pounds. The obstacles?

Admittedly, the Mallaig road is a twisty nightmare for locals, but the final single-track section is being widened right now. The prospect of slashed fares through the SNP's pledge on Road Equivalent Tariff (basing ferry fares on the equivalent cost of motorway travel) may be a distraction for some.

And of course, this is a long standing complaint, politely delivered - which masks the urgency of the situation.

A programme of Hebridean school closures has not been greeted with Edinburgh-like fury - the number of children has plummeted and islanders can see young people are unwilling to stay and bring up families. Simple applications for one or two wind turbines have been subjected to the lengthy and expensive rigours of compliance that a 300 turbine wind farm would expect from SNH. Sheep are stuck on the islands because of the foot-and-mouth restrictions. Every attempt to move forward hits a tidal wall of red tape. The fight seems to have gone out of many Hebridean communities.

It is simplistic to suggest a better ferry service alone would reverse this decline. But it would show willing. It would suggest distant authorities in Stornoway, Port Glasgow and Holyrood are committed to bending the rules and burning the midnight oil to find an answer to the islanders' plight.

If islanders themselves can agree: Barra folk still want an Oban link, South Uist folk are desperate to switch to Mallaig.

I must say a two-hour flit from Mallaig sounds like a much better proposition than bobbing about for five hours from Oban in the full unsheltered glare of the stormy Atlantic. Apologies to Oban people who will miss the buzz and the old family ties of the Uist ferries (though the shorter journey time to Mallaig means a trip to Oban won't take much longer than it does at present). But it must be possible to devise a joint plan for a Mallaig-based pilot ferry.

On islands, getting away helps people stay. It's as simple as that.

Can the people of Barra and South Uist find common cause in the battle for their own survival?

Health Board funding

The Press and Journal reports today that "The independent review of NHS board funding submitted its final report yesterday. The recommendations from the NHS Scotland Resource Allocation Committee (NRAC), will now be considered by ministers."

And very worryingly that "
NHS Highland, Tayside, Shetland, Orkney and Western Isles would all lose out under the NRAC proposals."

There is then an assurance from Nicola Sturgeon that no Health Board will lose out, followed by the ominous words
"I can confirm that, if we decide to make any adjustments in health boards' relative funding, no board would receive less funding that it does at present and any changes would be phased in over a number of years."

Anyone who has ever been involved in public sector funding knows exactly what that means, rather than what it says.

And in this context I particularly point towards SINA (Special Islands Needs Allowance) which the Comhairle still receives. Due to movements in the 'Floor Mechanism', changes in 'Grant in Aid', inflation, ring-fenced grants and so on, the SINA received by the Comhairle is worth exactly Zero, but the Government is still honouring it's pledge to give the Comhairle extra assistance!

In this case, the cuts will come in over time as inflation eats into the Health Board grant, but of course they won't actually be 'cuts' just 'adjustments' to the funding from central Government.

It does not bode well an hopefully some clarity will come at the Review in December - except that the questions to Ms Sturgeon will have to be submitted in writing in advance, and she will answer some of them there and then. The rest will be the subject of a written reply later. And no spontaneous questions from the floor allowed.

Sad day we left the Croft

Sad day we left the croft - Lewis PunksThe website for the re-issued and remastered album can be found here, where you can also listen to some of the tracks.

Where are the various former band members now?

Many/most of them are now in sensible jobs with serious responsibilities and are a shadow of their former rebellious selves. Most of the time.

Perhaps someone can do a 'then' and 'now' photo for comparison purposes to give us all a laugh.

I know my pristine original copy on tape is somewhere in my loft.....

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Councillors are to have 'Away Day' to discuss the future

Please forward me an agenda, or some bullet points in due course - absolute discretion assured, as usual! (I've already been given an indication of the subject matters of prime concern)

As for the comment that "With increased salaries councillors are expected to be professional and focused and this is a means of generating strategic thought outwith the formality of a Council meeting", what will happen to those few who fail to demonstrably meet these basic criteria??

Assuming the event isn't 'secret', do the public need to put in a FoI request to be told the date, time and location? Presumably the outcomes will be available under an FoI request too!

12 year-old malt

As I passed through Edinburgh Airport this week, I was still recovering from the security checks as I strolled slowly through the duty-free shop.

Three elderly women were buying a liquid present for whomsoever they were going to see.

One, in a posh Edinburgh accent was explaining to the others which bottle they should buy: "That's a 12 year-old malt", she explained knowledgeably, "they are all 12 year-old as 1995 was such a good year for whisky."

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

SAC's and Barra Fishermen

How long before the entire island and the surrounding seas is designated in one way or another?

The Councillor for Barra has long opposed virtually every designation from protecting the "Barra Bunnies" to the seals in the Sound of Barra, all at the expense of the human population.

Our MP is missing the point entirely when he says that "We must ensure that no damage is done to the fishing interests under this Habitats Directive." The whole point is that the past track record has shown that a designation is followed tighter and tighter restrictions until such time as the aim is achieved - to put humans last and turn the islands into a widlife retreat with a few people scrapping a living on the margins.

The New Clearances.

One only needs to look at the Barvas Moor SAC to see the impact - instead of getting a new Tolsta-Ness road with the wind turbines along this new road we have ended up with the area being closed for any and every development and the long held aspirations of many people cast aside.

The fight must be to stop Designation Blight everywhere on the islands, not to accept any assurances from SNH on the back of special pleading


The Callanish factory looks to have a brighter future with Equateq opening a super Omega-3 factory.

I haven't a clue what "super Omega-3" is or whether I have too little (or too much) in my current diet, or whether I should be taking a supplement, but that's really irrelevant.

It is a wonderful opportunity to develop another high-skill product here on the islands, and attract back our graduates to work, live and bring up children here.

I wish to all the best.

A Sunday ferry?

I can safely predict that this will cause massive ructions between now and the next meeting in November, and no doubt the Transportation Committee will want to make their view know - as will some of the individual Councillors.

When the planes first landed on a Sunday I made the point that supporting Sunday flights was not just about flights, but about the inevitable consequences that would flow from that decision: shops opening and ferries coming in.

The former came along very quickly, the latter looks to be just around the corner.

Except, that under the new CalMac tender, any variations in the service provision will have to be approved by the Executive and presumably changes made to the level of subsidy paid. Contracts will have to be amended, and no doubt CalMac will be highlighting the additional costs of crewing the vessel for seven days; new rosters; six days income spread over seven days etc. All to lever some more cash out of the sweaty paws of Government.

BUT, if this happens, then we won't get the RET trial on the Stornoway-Ullapool route for the simple reason that the base data for any RET trial will now be skewed by changing one other variable, which makes any assessment more difficult. Councillors - factor that into your public pronouncements before you make any demands. Of course, this could be solved by just implementing RET without any trials or conditions, as I am sure we were promised at one point by our parliamentary representatives.

Lewis chessmen

My former colleague Annie MacDonald is absolutely right to request/demand the return of the Lewis Chessmen to Lewis.

Such a move is long overdue, and those with longer memories will recall that they came here previously (in 1998?) for a previous expedition.

At that time the security at the Museum was substantially beefed up, with new burglar-proof grills and security cameras, so my guess is that these have been checked again and improved further to modern standards and hence there should be no barrier to them coming home.

I recall a previous campaign along the same lines organised by - I think - Callum Iain MacMillan which met with no success, so perhaps it is time for everyone to get more fully behind the new proposal.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Tony who?

Labour MP Keith Vaz has been caught on tape joking about the government of former prime minister Tony Blair.

Preparing for a Q&A session on stage at the Labour conference, he told Hazel Blears to wait until her microphone was in the right position before speaking. Communities Secretary Ms Blears joked: "Don't speak until you're spoken to."

Mr Vaz, a former Europe minister, replied: "Pretend it was like the old Cabinet." Both politicians laughed, not realising they had been recorded.

Alexander sorry for polls defeat

That's a start.

But what about all the other apologies that Labour still have to make.....

Sunday, September 23, 2007

£43 million

The increased annual subsidy from £31 to £43 million to CalMac may look like A Good Thing on first impressions (and who am I to decry the possibility of enhanced investment in the ferry services), but it looks like to old "smoke and mirror" trick so beloved of civil servants and the previous Labour Executive.

The increased subsidy is partially due to the provision of additional services to Gigha, Arran, Coll, Tiree, Mull and Islay. The rest of the increase presumably goes to pay the salaries of the new enhanced, expanded, management structure of the seven companies that CalMac has become i.e. to pay the bloody lawyers to draw up Service Level Agreements between all the different bodies. Seven companies means a minimum of 5,040 720 possible contracts (7! = 7x6x5x4x3x2x1 = 5,040) (6! = 6x5x4x3x2x1 = 720) and you can bet the lawyers are salivating blood at the possible feeding frenzy being dropped into their laps.

And what do the outer islands get? Nothing.

Why? Well according to a Scottish Government spokesman the Lochboisdale-Mallaig route was "unaffordable" as it would require a new ferry costing £25 million and running costs of £4 million a year.

Now read that very carefully again, and then mull it over with a small glass of RET and a bucket of scepticism and cynicism.

Right, so RET is due to be introduced soon (er, well, actually the contract for the work to undertake the research to study the costs and implications of RET is due to be awarded this year) and it is going to cost buckets. Make no mistake, supporting the island communities with RET is going to be frighteningly expensive and I will name and shame every politician who says it is TOO expensive.

So £25m for a new ferry and £4 pa is too much, yet the Government are pledged to introduce RET (er, well not actually. They are pledged to commence a study in 2007 and introduce a pilot scheme thereafter; but let's not split hairs as the failure to introduce full RET everywhere will result in the SNP losing this seat) .

Having been immersed in the murky world of politics for too long I see the wiggle-room in everything that is being said, and as I have prophesied before, don't expect RET this Parliament but expect it to be a promise for the next elections in 2009.

At least we don't live in South Ayrshire.....

Where the Chief Executive of the local council is 'retiring' according to the Herald:

Tom Cairns, chief executive of cash-strapped South Ayrshire, agreed the package after a confidential report said he lacked the "necessary skills" to take the council forward.

A source said, "Tom's a nice guy but I think the problem is he was promoted beyond his own abilities under the last administration. The corporate management team issued an ultimatum saying they had already lost confidence in him and didn't believe they could work with him. I suppose you could call that insubordination and take them out into the courtyard and shoot them, but with our luck we'd miss."

At a private meeting of the council last Friday, Hugh Hunter, the Tory council leader, proposed Mr Cairns should go immediately with a £289,000 pay-off. Labour wanted the status quo, but councillors approved an SNP move to keep him in his post until August 2008 before giving him a £233,000 package.

So, he's unable to do his job; he has lost the confidence of the Councillors; his senior management team have lost confidence in him; and the financial crisis in the authority is getting worse. Yet they decide to keep him in post for another year before sacking him giving him a pay-off in 'the interests of the efficiency of the service'.

And whilst all this was happening, what did the Chief Executive have to say about the financial and management crisis?
Mr Cairns was on holiday and could not be contacted.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Customer Service

Diligent readers will remember the comments made by Mike Russell about customer service in the Western Isles.

Tonight I had to cancel a local restaurant booking, and on cancelling I was asked when I would like to re-book for. Apart from the fact that it encourages/forces you to rebook (in the nicest way possible) yet indicates a great interest in customer service.

I will have to compliment the owners when I see then, but 10/10 to the Thai Restaurant.

Little boys at school

Gents, remember starting school a few decades back?

Big playground; lots of new mates; exploring; scary teachers who looked like your granny; not very serious fights as you tried to find when you stood in the alpha male category; football in the playground; and scary P2 kids.

What was the one other common denominator?

Yes, the ubiquitous "How high can you pee? contest"*.

It was with disbelief and an unhealthy smirk that I heard that parents of P1 pupils at Sandwick Primary had been called in to be reprimanded for their sons taking part in such a contest.

I don't know who should be more embarrassed - the teacher or the parents - but either way it is like trying to stop the tide; it ain't going to work!

* This doesn't always stop at P1 - some males have been known to continue this contest until much later.

Perhaps AnonyMrs can tell us about girls going into the boys toilets!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Credit card numbers

Ever wondered how your credit card number is formed, and how it is quickly checked by the card machines?

Today I discovered the Lunh algorithm which defines each card as being valid.

Put simply, the algorithm is "For a card with an even number of digits, double every odd numbered digit and subtract 9 if the product is greater than 9. Add up all the even digits as well as the doubled-odd digits, and the result must be a multiple of 10 or it's not a valid card. If the card has an odd number of digits, perform the same addition doubling the even numbered digits instead."

The simple worked examples in the above link explain clearly how the numbers work and what they mean.

ps Don't try this in binary.

Airport upgrade

It is excellent news that the airport is being upgraded with a £4m programme of improvements.

£3m on lighting, £600k on the northern runway and £330k on ramping should make a big difference.

£3m on lighting??? Can anyone with specialist knowledge shed any, er, light on why it costs so much to replace the bulbs (that is tongue in cheek).

(We still need enough controllers so the planes are allowed to land!)

CalMac tendering

So the whole farce has come to an end and after six years work in preparing the tender document, Cal-Mac have been declared the winners in a one horse race. And they are pleased by this!

I have so many problems with this whole process that I barely know where to start.

This whole tendering process was utterly unnecessary, as has been demonstrated on a number of occasions, yet Labour pushed ahead and caused this problem. The SNP allowed it to come to completion thereby giving it further validity and the stamp of approval, which means Cal-Mac will have to go through the entire process again in six years. Which means starting the whole process again, now.

We now have a complex group of companies with some owning the assets (Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd) and another running the routes (CalMac Ferries Ltd) and we all know just how well this worked when the same trick was pulled on the railways.

In the meantime, if it wasn't in the tender specification it ain't going to happen without huge dollops of cash. So goodbye to any hope of late night ferries from Ullapool, a new Lochboisdale to Mallaig route, or anything that smacks of innovation.

How much has all this palaver cost??? Tens of millions I would guess, which would be enough to pay for a new ferry or to fund RET on some routes. Still, we mustn't let the possibility of improved operation of the ferries delay the creation of another layer of bureaucracy. The consultants must be laughing all the way to the bank, with our money.

Notable by their absence in the Press Releases was any mention of Caledonian MacBrayne Crewing (Guernsey) Limited or Caledonian MacBrayne HR (UK) Limited both of which are additional complications in the whole matter.

The former is especially disgraceful, with all shipborne staff now employed via the Channel Isles
to save National Insurance contributions.

That a publicly controlled company behaves in such a fashion is contemptable - not just at Board level, but also at Government level - and now that the contract has been won, CalMac must be instructed by their sole shareholder (A Salmond) as a matter of public policy to transfer the crew back to a UK employer.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A new school

Nicolson InstituteLet me start by saying that I have a client who may have a financial interest in this matter, which is why I haven't blogged about it before.

The Herald reports the recent Education Committee meeting which decided that a rebuild was out of the question for a number of reasons, and that a new build elsewhere in the town was appropriate.

I've been saying this for quite some time, and it illustrates the need for flexibility in the planning of schools to react to all the different matters that affect the education provision.

My first concern about the site occurred when the planning application for flats at the old auction mart site came in front of the Comhairle and had to be refused as it was too close to the gas works on Sandwick Road.

At that time, I pointed out that a huge area of Stornoway was sterilised for development as a result of the advice from the HSE. I specifically warned the Education and Housing Departments of the implications for their departments, but the PFI project was so advanced (sic) that no changes to the proposals were possible - according to the then Government.

I believe the final straws were the cost of preserving the listed façade of the school together with the safety concerns around rebuilding the entire school on a small site around 800 pupils whilst still trying to deliver classes.

This is now an opportunity to review the entire educational provision in the Broadbay area, and ensure that the plans for the next 30 years allow the flexibility to react to population growth or decrease.

In other words, scrap the PFI plans; consolidate schools; and deliver a much higher quality education in a much higher quality school for a larger number of pupils on a greenfield site.

Yes, that will involve busing more pupils to and from school (and to and from the sports facilities), but if the quality and range of education is higher, how can parents complain?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Salmon escape

I can't bring myself to feel much surprise at the huge loss of salmon in Loch Roag, and whilst not wanting to favour the fishing Estates, I am worried that the timing of the loss may very really affect the salmon stocks that the local fishermen seek to catch.

This event was inevitable, as Loch Roag has been under horrendous pressure from the different users for far too long. One of the matters that we tried to bring forward in the last Council was for the various users to reach agreement on the use of the loch (and others) to ensure that there was segregation between the leisure craft; the fishermen; the fish and mussel farmers; the estates; and everyone else.

I commented at the time that this was only the first stage of the process, as what the Council should be doing - when it got the appropriate powers - would be to designate particular lochs or sea areas for specific activities to allow faster planning approval. Effectively a Marine Local Plan for each area, with stricter zoning.

Now some of the questions that require to be answered are:
* Seals: a pest to be exterminated or a tourist attraction to be cuddled?
* How do we segregate the different users and expectations for the loch?
* Are there other locations that the fish farmers should move to, and if so who pays to relocate them?

No doubt this incident - on top of the others - will focus minds on a business that employs a large number of people in the islands and puts a huge amount into the local economy.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

RET - the downside

Let me start by saying that I am 100% behind RET and that it is A Good Thing for the community as a whole, and the sooner it is introduced the better. I've already had a go at the SNP for delaying the introduction for yet another study, for good reason too, and I'll give them the plaudits when (if?) we get an unconstrained implementation.

Despite being A Good Thing, some sectors of the business community will be hurt and they need to adapt in advance or see their business disappear. Over the past few weeks a number of these businesses have identified this as a risk and have been in discussions seeking advice on how to change.

Now, they know RET is A Good Thing, and want it to go ahead, but they fear two things:-
* Customers going to Inverness to buy the product, or
* Competitors moving here

The former is, of course, bad for the local community by taking money out of the system, but the latter is not necessarily a bad thing. Competition should cause prices to fall and variety to increase - compare the choice in Chemists between today and ten years ago.

The local business must realise that they will have to take steps to protect their position, but I still foresee a shake out on the (metaphorical) high street and a significant change in the nature and type of businesses on the islands as a result of RET. It will change these islands for the better, but we mustn't forget those who will lose out.

Ofgem charging

It is excellent news that Ofgem are to reconsider the charging regime applying to 'remote' renewable energy sources.

Alex Salmond has been bitching about this for some time, and the recent HIE report has certainly brought the truth of the matter home. This is great news for the Highland and Islands as Rob Gibson MSP is reported to have commented in the Scotsman, "there was no way that any part of the Highlands and Islands could hope to develop renewable energy production if the charges went ahead."

Obviously the prospects for the community plans in Point, Barra and many other places on the islands stand to benefit hugely, with lower costs meaning higher returns to the community. It also allows the possibility for larger community schemes to come on line,and crucially allows the potential for tidal and offshore wind in the Western Isles to be fully exploited.

The numerous opportunities should be opening up in front of us.

So why no comment from our MP and MSP? Are they so opposed to the large wind farms that they will sacrifice the communities ambitions for their own narrow view?

Home brew

demijohnThe kit has been bought; the festive party planned; the guest list drafted; and now the home brew vodka is bubbling nicely.

In a mere four weeks we should have a gallon of the finest vodka ready to age(!) and mature before being guzzled by our guests.

Next week the second kit will be started, and a gallon of the finest coconut rum will be bottled.

The apple rum that I made last year was a stunning success - i.e. most of the guests left the house somewhat stunned after a few glasses - and we hope to repeat this trick this year again.

The usual suspects will get an invite in due course.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Storas Uibhist - not an apology

Brian Wilson has apparently been doing the rounds of the critics of Storas Uibhist to try to stop them criticising.

Not that I have had a visit. Yet.

The message is "The community enterprise must succeed, regardless."

Sorry, but I don't sign up to that, and I won't apologise for highlighting failings by Storas in delivering what they promise.

My message is "The community enterprise WILL succeed, but only if it takes the community with it."

Storas needs to be more open, more involved, and less (apparently) dictatorial and lose the appearance and impression of being a personal fiefdom. The public perception is not good, and that is not being addressed.

Health Board Chief Executive

I have been told by a reliable source in the know that the current (?) Chief Executive was appointed after the short leet was drawn up by one civil servant in the Executive/Government without any input from the personnel/HR section.

It was only after the short leet was drawn up that the specialists were allowed to get involved.

I know for a fact that the local Board were kept out of the decision making, and have the leet imposed upon them, and although they were nominally involved in the interview process, in fact the decisions were all taken by civil servants and rubber-stamped by Ministers.

If this is the case, then heads need to roll. And be seen to roll.

Banking system

The entire banking system is built on an illusion. But an illusion that works, and one that needs to work to ensure the entire economy survives and grows.

It is also an illusion that every businessman has used at one time or another, and one that every businessman has seen dissolve many times.

The banks don't have your money to return to you. The banks have enough cash to meet the expectations for cash withdrawals any day, plus a bit for a safety margin. As most of us deal with cheques and electronic payments, the daily square up between banks - the money the Royal Bank owes the Bank of Scotland, less the money owed the other way - is a matter of bookkeeping rather than money fivers from branch to branch.

It is also predictable, meaning that the rest of the deposits are lent out to others, usually long term as loans and mortgages.

As every businessman knows, sometimes a business will fail despite it having loads of assets, simply because it has no cash to pay it's bills day-to-day. Businesses trade using the expectation of cash coming in to fund the cash going out; when that confidence fails you are insolvent.

The Northern Rock faces the problem of turning it's long term lending into fivers to fund what is effectively a run on the bank. This problem quickly becomes a vicious circle with the Northern Rock becoming more and more desperate to become liquid to pay exiting depositors, needing to borrow at higher and higher interest rates or sell assets at lower prices.

The danger is that this problem infects the entire system, and other banks suffers the same fate.

The unknown is just how much of this is an underlying fundamental problem such as exposure to the sub-prime market in the US and how much is simply liquidity and loss of confidence. Only time will tell.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Bornish Church

Following the previous comment, I have been told that the Storas HQ at Bornish Church has hit a few problems.

Renovated, rewired and fitted out as a full office facility, Storas have only now decided to speak to the Church for a lease.

You can guess the rest!

The Church have stood back, laughed, and said no chance! At least on those terms.

M'learned friends in the legal profession seem to be only the winners out of all of this, which is very sad for the community.

Askernish Golf Course

Askernish golf clubI understand that the impasse between Storas Uibhist (the community company who acquired South Uist) and the crofters in Askernish is about to be broken.

The dispute arose over the plans to refurbish and extend the nine-hole course at Askernish and create an eighteen hole course, based on the original course designed by Old Tom Morris. Or at least as supposedly designed by Old Tom Morris.

When this came through Committee I remember that it was fraught and contentious with both sides producing screeds of paper to prove their particular argument.

Relationships between the two parties were strained (to breaking point) at that time, and have got worse since.

Both parties are running around waving various documents at each other, both claiming that they have exclusive or first use of the land.

I now understand that the crofters have told the golfers to remove all the golfing equipment from the machair or the crofters will plough up the course.

It is appalling that matters have deteriorated to such an extent, and hopefully good sense will
prevail, but I suspect this one is going to end up in Court, with the lawyers doing well, and the community losing out.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Grid charges

The report commissioned by HIE on grid charging from Xero Energy is excellent as it clearly demonstrates that the locations where the power is and the opportunities exist are those areas who have to pay most.

Using pan-European comparisons it shows in a very simple manner just how badly done by we are, and more importantly just what we could be achieving were the playing-field to be level.

What the report doesn't address (as it isn't in it's remit) is the local political position.

All the economic incentives in the world won't bring renewable energy to the Western Isles as long as our MP and MSP continue to oppose the massive opportunities that exist in wind, wave and tidal because they do not want to understand the bigger picture, preferring to focus their attention on one specific element.

What is doubly frustrating is that no alternatives are being offered, or actively sought, by the opponents of renewable energy, simply continuing dependence on the state, rather than doing something for ourselves.

As I have said before, our average income should be 50% higher than it is, yet too many people seem happy to keep us in poverty by denying us the opportunities.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Colletes mining bee

Colletes mining beeOne of the great fascinations about being a Councillor was the ability to get confidential information denied to the general public, and much of it was fascinating; but little was repeatable.

One of the finest examples that was repeatable (with certain omissions) was the location of the Colletes mining bee in the Western Isles.

A fascinating creature, that digs burrows on the machair, below the sand, and at the edges of the marram grass, it's survival is precarious as the impact of humans, other wildlife and coastal erosion threaten it every day.

How it evolved, how it survives, and how it can be encouraged to expand it's range is anyone's guess at present, but it is such a unique creature that we should do all we can to look after it's environment.

The discovery of extra burrows and locations is excellent news and I hope that the Biodiversity Action Plan is successful in securing a future for these species whose life on the edge reflects so closely the life of the people of these islands.

Increased allowances for MSPs

Not content with getting about £250,000 from the public purse our MSP has joined forces with George "another whisky please" Foulkes to demand extra funding for MSP on the grounds that they are under-resourced.

The submission to the Parliamentary Allowances Review is sadly naive and boils down to two complaints:

* I have a large constituency (not that I'm special pleading, but...)
* MSPs do more work than MPs

The rational reaction to the latter is to suggest that resources are transferred or Westminster constituencies are merged, but neither suggestion arises, just another snout in the trough. However, I have no doubt that the absence of work for the MP will be picked up by the Boundary Commission and will further undermine the independence of the constituency.

I particularly (dis)liked the suggestion that the Parliament should rent a flat for Mr Allan, given that he previously promised not to avail himself of these parliamentary allowances, and he owns a house in the Lothians which is in commuting distance of Edinburgh. But, let's not let that get in the way of a extra tax-free bonus.

However, the biggest insult is that he knew the terms and conditions when he took the job (and a job with a very fat pension it is), and now wants to renegotiate the terms using our money.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

What is going on?

Nicola Sturgeon (Minister for Health) - Monday at the Health Board - cancelled.

Jim Mather (Minster for Enterprise) - Thursday in Barra to speak at the Initiative at the Edge conference - cancelled.

Richard Lochhead (Minister for Rural Affairs) - Friday in Stornoway to Chair the "Coast Hebrides" conference on the impact of global warming on the islands, and to give a keynote speech - cancelled.

The finger is being pointed at the MP and MSP for being at loggerheads with the Council,but I think the answer is slightly more complex than that.

Certain people in the Council are happy to keep the MP and MSP at arms length and to have a rift, and the MP and MSP are walking straight into it by refusing to take advice from the SNP Group in the Comhairle, and by their continuing and repeated failure to engage with the Council.

It has been strongly suggested to me that the strongly dismissive words in the recent article (Part 1 and Part 2) by John MacLeod are attributable to Mr Allan: "We have been doing our best to persuade the new ministers that the Western Isles simply are not stupid and incompetent", says a despairing source, "because that's what Edinburgh civil servants tell them all the time."

That was most certainly NOT the case in the dealings I had with the civil service, and suggests that a lot has gone wrong since the election. Any civil servant who describes other public servants or elected politicians as "stupid" should be hung, drawn and quartered and it shows the level of inexperience in the Government that they are allowing themselves to be manipulated in such an easy fashion.

MSP attacked - by the Comhairle!

In what is one of the most astonishing exchanges of correspondence that I have seen for some time, the Director of Education has written to Head Teachers advising them to ignore a piece of correspondence from Alasdair Allan MSP.

The original letter is a masterpiece of banality, with Mr Allan firmly nailing his opinions to both sides of the argument, and wanting to hear from others before he decides where he stands: "I would be keen to have any opportunity to meet with your staff and parents to hear your views about these matters and wondered if you might be willing to contact my office with a view to arranging such a meeting." Such leadership and dynamism!

That he has provoked the Director of Education - a mild-mannered and enormously respected individual - to write a letter to the Headteachers pointing out that "It is inappropriate for the MSP to approach Comhairle employees in this way and I must now instruct you to disregard the contents of his letter."

Then Murdo MacLeod has written to the MSP, " would be quite inappropriate for those employees to engage in any action of this kind..." and "...if, in future, you wish to contact Headteachers you should send me a copy of such correspondence."

It seems clear that the breakdown in relations with Ms Hyslop results from the lack of understanding of the situation by the MP and MSP, and the protestations of the Minister are nothing but bluster.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The super-rich

Brendan Barber, speaking for the TUC makes a series of good points:

Speaking ahead of the TUC annual congress, which starts in Brighton on Monday, he said: "Today a significant group of super-rich float free from the rest of society, and think that tax is for the little people.

Yes, thanks to Gordon Brown refusing to close the loopholes.

"Today the rest of society pays a heavy price for the wealth gap - whether middle, low or no income." Mr Barber said this "distorted" the housing market, adding: "The gap harms social cohesion - and without joining the moral panic about crime rates in the UK, it's noticeable that many countries with a fairer distribution of income have lower crime rates."

Yes, let's close the wealth gap as it is the level of relative poverty that is related to crime rates not the Gini co-efficient.

Some 112,000 people currently benefit from "non-domiciliary tax breaks", he added. When asked about the size of City bonuses, Mr Barber said they had reached £14bn in total this year.

So is Gordon Brown going to close the tax breaks then?

Are you going to lobby so that people like people like Sir Philip Green pay tax in the UK on UK earnings?

Perhaps you might even suggest that UK based companies actually pay UK tax, rather than shuffling it off-shore?

But he added that the TUC was not calling for a change in the rate of income tax for the highest earners.

Obviously none of the above. They pulled their punches and don't want to say anything practical and controversial that might rock the boat (berthed in Monaco!) and upset Gordon Brown. I am sure that many union members would be more than happy to see a 50% tax rate on earnings over, say, £250,000 and let's say 60% above £1,000,000. That'll achieve much of what the TUC claim they want to see happen.

Green Energy Day

It is a momentous time now that Scotland produces more energy from renewables than from nuclear, and let us hope that this trend continues until nuclear power becomes a relic of the past.

BUT, to achieve that requires prompt and difficult decisions that the Government must not and cannot duck.

You cannot take installed capacity out of the system and not replace it, unless you can slash consumption; and that seems to be the one course of action that is unattainable at present. Yes, there will be some consumption reduction, but not anything significant, as the policies to deliver that are just not being put forward by any party.

Let's get rid of nuclear, but how do we keep the lights on?

Coal seems to be rearing it's ugly and dirty head, for obvious party political reasons, but without any way to clean the outputs you end up badly potentially polluting the surrounding areas. Gas scrubbing technology will get rid of some of the pollutants, but not enough.

The only alternative sources that the Government seem to be supporting are the possible tidal technology in the Pentland Firth, and the use of carbon dioxide sequestration to pump more oil from the North Sea.

I have a problem with the later, as it does nothing to reduce the production of CO2 and merely gives everyone an excuse to continue with wasteful behaviour.

To bridge the gap there are going to have to be some quick decisions; if tidal works in the Pentland Firth then it will have to be rolled out everywhere quickly, and that means pylons striding the hills to bring the power to market. Already the first stories opposing wave power as it will affect dolphins have started to appear.

However, the biggest challenge will be finding any SNP politician who supports any major development in their own back yard.

Virtually every SNP MSP has opposed any windfarm development proposed for their own area, whilst blithely making warn noises about supporting renewable energy. It is perhaps best summed up by the quote from our own MSP in Saturday's Times, "Where a community sees it has ownership of a windfarm*, most people are very positive. Where they see a big corporate interest coming in that is a very different thing."

So there you have it, corporate investment in the Western Isles for renewable energy is A Bad Thing, but BP setting up a gas burning power station in Peterhead (Alex Salmond' s constituency) is apparently the sort of big corporate interest that people don't see as a very different thing - or some such similar verbal gymnastics.

So, just how are the SNP going to square the energy circle? Leave it for the next Government?

* The Western Isles would own at least 25% of the Lewis windfarm for community benefit, a fact that Mr Allan and Mr MacNeil ignore, as they refuse to engage with the Council to ascertain these facts.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Chief Executive's review

Basil Fawlty CnESWhen the Chief Executive of the Comhairle was appointed in June 2005, one of his first tasks was to undertake a review of the structures, and to bring forward recommendations for restructuring.

By the time the first draft reached the Councillors, I had already decided I wasn't standing again, and to my discredit I took less interest in the proposals than I should have. I did, however, express my disquiet that they were still in early draft and had not been fully consulted upon with staff, unions or employees who were directly affected.

Two years later, the proposals are still not finished, leaving employees disheartened, unsure of their future prospects, unable to plan with any certainty, and some desperately trying to work out where they fit (if at all) in the possible new structure, as revised.

We all know the impact of poor management on staff, and part of the requirements are for the leadership to be clear and decisive about any changes, and to implement them as quickly as possible to avoid uncertainty, and to keep the staff in general, as happy as possible. Of course some will be upset, but unreasonable delays upset many more.

I understand that the Unions in the Comhairle have had enough and have written to the Chief Executive requesting that further restructuring be cancelled or they will lodge a Grievance, which will result in external organisations assessing the process that has been followed. This is obviously a serious step, and one that shows the extent to which the Unions (and the staff) have become disenchanted with the delay, and indeed the whole process.

One employee described the organisation as "dysfunctional" which is perhaps a bit harsh, but the new council certainly needs to up its game.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Who's been suspended?

I understand an unnamed very senior employee of the Health Board has been suspended pending an investigation into their CV.

My understanding is that this reaches to the very top of the organisation, and resulted not from any background checks by the recruitment agency or the employer or the interviewers or even from any Disclosure checks that may have been made, but from someone reading his name in the press and being surprised!

This one will run and run.....

Update 6pm; Nicola Sturgeon cancels her Monday visit; the Government and the MSP issue press releases minutes after the Health Board; and, no-one can confirm or deny that the Chief Executive is the party invovled.

Investigation into our MSP?

The Comhairle threw this out last night, but it shows how appallingly poor the relationship between the MP/MSP and the Council is, and it is clear that no-one is able to bridge the gap.

One senior Councillor described the current Council as actively party political, sometimes nasty, and not a pleasant place to be, and left me gobsmacked when they proceeded to describe our MP and MSP as "plonkers, er I mean politicians". And that person is an SNP supporter.

I cannot remember a Council Committee ever launching such a serious attack on a sitting representative, and perhaps it is an indication of how things are going to be for at least the next two years, as Labour start to fight back. Crudely.

Harris turbines

So the PLI has now been cancelled following the withdrawal of the objection from SNH, who as impartial independent advisors to the Government, no doubt told the Minister:

* The construction of turbines will damage the environment
* Therefore we must object, and force a PLI
* But as we are the only objectors, we withdraw our objection, because we don't want a PLI is appropriate
* BTW, the proposal still damages the environment, but lets ignore our statutory obligation to object
* Er, sorry, but is that what you want us to say as independent advisors?

Grubby paw-prints everywhere, and no-one is covered in glory. A salutary lesson in how not to conduct oneself.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

A legislative programme for Government

Reading the SNP proposals for legislation......

is it just me, or are they a bit light on real delivery (other than the abolition of the Graduate Endowment)?

What is the answer?

The Committee Decision report of the Environmental Services Committee, ratified by the Comhairle, requires the Chief Executive to undertake an investigation - and report back - to the Comhairle on whether "Alasdair Allan MSP has breached any code of conduct" in his actions relating to the wind farm applications.

(I'll get the full text posted when I get back to Stornoway)

Knowing the Council, like I know the Council, whoever asked for this investigation obviously has the answer and will undoubtedly provide the necessary information to the Chief Executive to point the investigation in the right direction.

Who started this hare running?

And, what information do they have?

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Dining in Skye

A taste of the veldt in the Uig Hotel, where wild boar pate was followed by a delightful loin of springbok. I skipped the wildebeest, as I was told it was more chewy and less tender than my choice. The crocodile tails were not available. No! Honestly.

Having been acquired by South Africans in 2003, it is being steadily refurbished, but the décor and the menu reflect the origins of the owners, and the staff.

It certainly was a fantastic option, served beautifully with a light sauce and modest – but excellent – portions of fresh vegetables, including unpeeled baby carrots, parsnip and swede.

And I didn’t have far to go in the morning for the ferry to Uist.

What could be

Across the water in Skye on business, I couldn’t help but notice just how busy Portree was.

Even at this time of year, the visitors seemed to outnumber the locals, and they were descending on every shop like locusts.

Whilst the ferry across had been quite busy with a coach party and a fair number of tourists, it was as nothing compared to the hoards on Skye.

Hopefully the RET study will attempt to quantify the tourism business that is lost to the islands by the very high fares, and will bounce the Government into introducing the full scheme sooner rather than later.

Monday, September 03, 2007

SNH: The Great Whore of Ardhasaig

Like a toothless, arthritic, bedridden, senile nonagenarian street-walker promising to give up The Game, the withdrawal of the objection by SNH to the turbines in North Harris is as meaningless as it is self-serving.

A Public Local Inquiry has been called BECAUSE SNH objected to a community windfarm, and now they withdraw the objection as a PLI has been called. Nonsense!

As primary scientific advisors to Government, it was always unclear how they could also actually be participants in the planning process, but now their strategy is clear.

It's now obvious -- withdraw the objection and then they can objectively advise Government,as they are no longer part of the process. Not just having your cake and eating it, but telling the baker how to bake it, get them to pay for the ingredients, then complaining about the quality and wanting to be the judge, jury and executioner.

The logic is now quite clear; in the minds of SNH facts are objective. The environment will only be 'damaged' as long as SNH object. Withdraw the objection, and the 'damage' is miraculously mitigated.

This, as you will remember, the organisation whose new environmentally friendly building in Inverness killed so many birds, that lights had to be burning all night to 'protect the environment'.

I used the term 'planning blight' to describe the impact of designations on the ability of communities in the Western Isles to expand. This is worse - it is malicious planning blight.

The Government must now cancel the PLI, allow the development, and kick SNH up the arse. Hard and frequently.

Western Isles Labour Party

I followed the link on Dave Stewart MSP (H&I, Labour for those with a short attention span) to the Highlands & Islands Labour Party web site.

I knew the local Labour Party were down after the election results but to find that neither the WI CLP or either of the two Councillors are acknowledged, far less linked to, is a major surprise.

If even your (supposed) colleagues forget about you, what do you expect the electorate to do?

Or perhaps they have disbanded is despair.....

RET - a red herring

I sincerely hope that Ministers do not listen to Dave Stewart MSP (Highlands & Islands, Lab) when he calls for an enquiry by the transport committee into the total impact of transport costs on the economy of the islands.

[If I hadn't added the descriptor, would you know who he was?]

Not that the points is makes are wrong, but the danger with an enquiry with such a wide remit is that it will take a very long time to gather evidence, and even longer to come to a conclusion. The economic impacts have to be assessed and the overall displacement impact quantified - it could take the rest of the parliamentary term to come to any kind of conclusion.

The remit is very similar to that to be set by the Executive Government for the test in the Western Isles, and I worry that the Government will pounce on any excuse to draw out the evaluation phase, and it could be even longer before RET is introduced.

He said that ferry transport had been the number one issue raised by local authorities, the health boards and island communities during his recent visits to Shetland, the Western Isles and Argyll and Bute.

This is news to him!! Having been elected in 1997 - he should have got out more and he would have heard this message loud and clear. Or was it perhaps that the Labour Party are late converts to RET?

Sunday, September 02, 2007

The immutable lesson of politics

When you move from opposition to Government you suddenly realise what it is like to be under the intensive glare of unfriendly media.

Is there any truth in the story? That's not really the issue, as the defence is that "everyone else does it", and it can be dressed up in any way the SNP wish to make it appear 'proper'.

Having spent year in opposition deriding Labour and the Tories for doing this self-same thing, it appears that the snouts can't get into the trough fast enough. Or at least that will be the public perception, and that is all that matters.

It would be funny, if it wasn't such a sad commentary on national politics today.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

New music

Three new albums hit the CD player this week and were on continuous rotation whilst feeding and entertaining baby daughter.
- Maximo Park was an immediate hit, and is highly recommended
- Get Cape.Wear Cape. Fly was a grower, and after four or five listens is a current favourite
- Kings of Leon lasted for three listens before we decided it was bland and samey, and has been replaced by Icky Thump from the White Stripes (which itself was a grower, taking three or four listens before we appreciated it's qualities)

No doubt KoL will get another listen, but not for some time.

The next elections

A senior activist in the local SNP was bending my ear recently about his despair about the performance of the MP and MSP.

What had prompted this was the comment of a well-connected and very community aware floating voter who had voted SNP in 2005 and 2007 and now had nothing but contempt for Mr MacNeil, feeling badly let down by the non-delivery of a number of promises, and his low profile. On asking around, the activist discovered just how widespread this feeling was, and he was also surprised at the awareness of the public about the failure of the MP and MSP to get involved with community representatives, preferring to float regally above the public.

Not that this activist wasn't aware of this, but he thought it was restricted knowledge, and when the scales were lifted off his eyes to the extent of this being in the public domain, well....."They just don't know how to be elected representatives", was his conclusion.

Which takes me to the Labour challengers for 2008 or 2009.

There are four runners, juggling for position at present.
1. Desperate for it. Too obviously.
2. Long time activist ready to move to the next level.
3. Prominent individual, playing a clever game.
4. Experienced politician, deciding whether to go public.

One of these is likely to face a major hurdle before he can get to the starting blocks, and I don't think he appreciates how difficult that might be; which will be a shame for him.

At least one of the others prefers to go for Holyrood, but might be persuaded to try Westminster.

Whoever it is, they will be using one simple slogan - which you will have seen before, but according to the SNP activist is proving devastatingly effective: "Tell me 5 things Angus MacNeil has done?"

Interesting times.....

Harris turbines

At the Environment Committee last week the Chair urged the Executive to reconsider the decision to have a PLI to consider the three turbines in Harris.

Quite right too, but the Comhairle is on a hiding to nothing without the support of the MP and the MSP on this one, and no-one seems to know just what their view is on the matter.

If they support the PLI, then why are they running around trying to tell the people of Harris that it's not really a PLI?

If they oppose the PLI (for Harris, forget the others) then why haven't they said so?

And who can forget Mr MacNeil's nudge and wink on the Lesley Riddoch show that HE would be able to get the Executive to reconsider their decision!