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

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

CalMac subsidy

As someone who was deeply involved in trying to understand the Altmark judgement, which seemed to give the go ahead for subsidies on essential public services, I am in despair at the way in which that latest EU intervention into the debate is panning out.

The problem stems from the decision of the LibLab Executive to decide that Altmark didn't mean that you could give subsidies to essential services, but that you had to put the services out to tender before you could give the subsidy.

This was an individual, nay unique, interpretation of the permission by the EU Court of Justice that you DIDN'T have to put services out to tender to award a subsidy. One that Donald Manford and I fought hard to get the Comhairle to accept. No -- fought hard to get them to understand. The the Executive turned a blind eye in the most perverse manner.

Now, as the report in The Herald makes clear, the whole subsidy issue is up in the air again:-
    The European transport commissioner arrives in Scotland tonight and will begin taking evidence on how the country subsidises its ferry services. His visit comes as fears grow of new threats to the Caledonian MacBrayne network, presented by the European Commission itself.
CalMac ferry
In essence, the EU may rule that all the subsidies were illegal BECAUSE the service was put out to a tender designed to give the services to the winner - CalMac; whilst if CalMac had been given the subsidy without a tender then it may have been perfectly legal.

I almost despair at the call by Alyn Smith MEP (SNP) for the EU to investigate the subsidy issue to provide "clarity", as being dangerous in the extreme. This is what has opened the whole issue up for debate again, and instead of burying the issue (and blaming Labour!) the SNP seem determined to spend endless hours arguing with the Commission about the finer points of tendering, distracting all and sundry from the real issues of supporting the island communities.

I've given Labour enough kickings on this issue - as they are the root cause - but if the SNP make it even more difficult for the CalMac regime to continue, then they will get an even bigger kicking.

Tesco's plans

Good to see civilisation reaching Lewis, as we all welcome the coming of a new supermarket to bring joy and light into an otherwise dull and boring community.

Oh! what a sad life we lead, if that is the best we have to talk about.

A tiny, minuscule, piece of paper on the door of Somerfield (deceased) indicates the intention of Tesco to apply for an off-sales licence 10am to 10pm seven days a week.

Given Tesco's reputation for ruthlessly commercial behaviour, could this explain why they are recruiting 50 extra (part-time) staff - to open on a Sunday?

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Use of consultants

In the very week when the BBC are having a go at Councils for spending £67m on "Consultants", a very pertinent report crosses my desk. I'd love to scan it and post it up, but my copy has identifying marks, so it is straight into the shredder after I have absorbed the contents.

There is nothing wrong with the use of consultants per se, what is wrong is the profligate or unnecessary use of consultants; or worse, unjustified use thereof.

But the Councils are the only sinners in this matter, all too often central Government demands the use of 'Benchmarking' (or some similar meaningless phrase) to determine if the Council is doing a good job. This involves flying in a consultant, usually selected from a very short list approved by the Government, to ask inane questions and to produce an inane report that no-one pays much attention to.

Except Audit Scotland who fly in a team of consultants to determine why you have insufficient 24-hour pay toilets, or too many recycling bins per tonne collected, or just the right number of corners per mile of road.

The Comhairle's share of £67m will be about £350,000, which given that they have been instructed by Government to spend in excess of £1m (by my best estimate) on the Housing Stock Transfer and the schools PPP/PFI alone, actually shows a degree of prudence © Gordon Brown of which we should be proud.

That makes the events of last week even sadder.

A private Report to Policy and Resources Committee (sic) aka the Policy and Finance Committee, in the name of the Chief Executive proposed a restructuring of the Social Work and Education departments to establish a new Children's Services Department* and the proposed course of action was:
  • The appointment of a consultant (without tendering) to oversee the function
  • The appointment of Mrs Chief Executive as a consultant to the process
  • A new Head of Service post to be considered
The appointment of consultants without tendering is a difficult process fraught with danger, but where the report makes no reference to the costs to be incurred (except to say that they can be met from within the budget for restructuring) or the duration of the contract period (other than a hope to have the report by late June), then one is bound to ask questions about the whole process.

Why was there no time to put the consultancy post out to tender?

Can no-one see the difficulty in having Mrs Chief Executive (however appropriately well qualified) inputing a crucial contribution to a report to Mr Chief Executive about a potentially fundamental change to the structure of the Comhairle, including the creation of a Head of Service post for which she would seem to be eminently qualified? We had this problem before in the Education sector, and no-one stopped a very expensive and ultimately futile policy proceeding. A policy that had only two beneficiaries and 26,000 losers.

Presumably this went through, but as the Council web site only gives Minutes up to October 2007, and no details of any forthcoming agenda items, I remain in the dark.

* Presumably this is part of the restructuring plan due to have been delivered by the Chief Executive in 2006.

Many thanks to my mole for the copy report, but can any Councillors provide me with the justification for why this all really happened.

Health Board

Have they really balanced the books for the first time in years?

Subject to the normal checking processes, it looks like the Board might be back on track, and the pressure might just (possibly) be lifted.

If this is the case, then I am delighted, and as one of the many doubters I was not sure it could ever have been achieved, but the new, new, management seem to have achieved this.

Of course, the next big question is "How is the accumulated deficit to be recovered?" and what impact will that have on services for the coming years?

Still, I'm not going to carp. At least until the answers to the above become clear.

Update 11.30: I'm told that part of the cost savings has been to no longer have a radiographer on duty or on call at the weekends. Consequently, people with broken limbs have been told to come back on Monday. If this is true.....

Monday, April 28, 2008

A policy for windfarms?

I am indebted to Hebrides News for drawing my attention to a House of Lords Inquiry into the potential benefits and disbenefits of renewable energy.

As a taxpayer, I am conscious that much energy policy is being made on the hoof by Ministers, without a long-term strategy in place, and it would be good to ensure that any such polices were actually coherent and sensible.

I suspect that they are often not, as one only has to look at Tony Blair's great 'love-in' with nuclear to appreciate just how badly thought through that policy was and is.
    Among the issues being examined in the inquiry are financial incentives to encourage renewable technology, connections to the national grid and charges to export electricity.
This contrasts dramatically with the meeting between Alex Salmond and Ofgem, which appears to have been completely unproductive.

The aspiration must be that the periphery (as Ofgem sees us) is not priced out of the market, when we clearly have the widest range of alternative energy sources on our doorstep.

But there is one very interesting aspect of the inquiry, and that is the externalities that renewable energy (as with any development) cause to the environment.

As I have said before, there is nothing wrong with zoning areas for development, or for no development, and as long as the process is transparent, then no-one can have any argument.

BUT, if an area is to be prohibited from development due to the scenic value, national importance or other reasons, then compensatory measures should be put in place.

This is where the elected representatives of the Western Isles missed a trick, and cost the islands the opportunity for large economic regeneration.

The Barvas Moor was worth some £6m per annum to the community from Amec; the argument should have been that refusal of planning permission should have been accompanied by a payment equal to the amount foregone. It might have been tied in with obligations to maintain and protect the moor, and to attract all the new tourists, but who would have been upset about that?

Where was the demand for funds to boost tourism?

Where was the demand for anything to boost the community?

Bought-off with the half-hearted RET scheme, and their innate fear of rocking the boat.

Friday, April 25, 2008

MPs expenses

In an earlier posting there was much comment on MP's expenses, and someone with inside knowledge made the statement that
    Out of the £86,299 it may interest you to know that Angus MacNeil paid three full-time salaries, which is not an unreasonable amount of money. He would also have been responsible for paying part of the salary for a member of the SNP Westminster staff. Hardly higher than average wages.
Yesterday, I tripped across an offical SNP document, detailing the staffing arrangements:
    Angus MacNeil MP shares a constituency office with Western Isles SNP MSP Alasdair Allan. Angus' staff assist with constituency inquiries and casework. Angus' staff are:

    Kenny MacLeod - Office Manager
    Rona MacDonald (sic) - Parliamentary Officer
    Jane MacNeil - part-time Parliamentary Assistant (Jane is married to Angus)

    At Westminster Angus shares staff with the other SNP Westminster MPs:

    Luke Skipper - Chief of Staff
    Alexander Anderson - Head of Communications
    Anne Harvey - Parliamentary Business Manager
    Richard Thomson - Head of Research
And today 106 MPs have declared that they employ family, although it doesn't yet appear on the Register of Members Interests (see page 78), and I look forward with interest to the full list being made available.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

New school for Balivanich

A simple but intelligent use of technology by the Comhairle is allowing the public the opportunity to have their say on the possible sites for the new school in Balivanich.

A very large round of applause is due, but the real plaudits will have to wait until we see how the site is publicised, results are announced, and they are then used.

And of course, a lot of helpful and constructive comments from the general public will encourage the Council to extend this type of consultation.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Government IT systems

If you are filling in an on-line form and you put in a wrong date of birth, then the system will usually pick it up and prevent you proceeding without correcting the data.

This simple idea is called "error trapping".

Other software processes will check that the cumulative data you have entered makes some kind of sense by testing the data against norms.

It is good to know that such simple ideas can help prevent fraud, or at least detect it quite quickly, as this story illustrates.

    A father-of-two has admitted fraudulently claiming almost £80,000 in benefits for 36 children.

    Irvin Fraser, 30, claimed child tax credits over three years from two addresses in Aberdeen.
Then he kind of blows his credibility by adding...
    Fraser said: "I was claiming child tax credit for my son and just added another name by chance.
That is just so easy to do. It's so common to hear people telling you about their family, and just adding one or two, or thirty-five extra children. All living in a very two-bedroom house.

Then the finger is pointed.
    "They never asked for any documents. It went on for two years and I got away with it. "I couldn't understand why they did not pick up on it. How could someone claim to have so many children but not be old enough to have them?"
How bloody stupid. Does he really, really think that the Inland Revenue have nothing better to do than undertake some kind of logic test on the information in front of them? Ludicrous. It must be normal enough to have twin, triplets, quads and quins interspersed with other children during the normal gestation period.

But seriously, how many others have done this and just not been prosecuted? Is this why online claims were stopped? Have the software providers been asked why their system didn't do simple checks? Or were they simply given the wrong specification, and provided what was asked for?

At least the national ID scheme (partially deceased) won't have these sort of stupid mistakes in the data base will it?

Another step forward?

NPower have today lodged their planning application for the wave power station in Shader.

This is another great potential leap forward for the islands, but just how are they going to get the power off the island and into the National Grid? Details of the application will follow.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Beinn Mhor Power

...this is probably not the time to announce it, but the Comhairle have asked me to consider attending the PLI as their witness.

I'm deeply impressed that one of the readers of this blog knew about this before I did.

The tourist boom

With all the tourists expected on the islands, it is a bit of a surprise to see the Lochmaddy Hotel, Taigh Dearg and Temple View all for sale.

Contrary to denials in the press last week, it looks like the Carinish Inn might be up for sale too:-
    Proposal: Change of use from hotel to manse, church and church hall/cafe area

    Agent: Mr J MacAulay, Clerk To Free Church Deacons' Court, C/o Malacleit, Sollas, Isle Of North Uist

Monday, April 21, 2008


With the imminent opening of the first Tesco in the Western Isles, I have been privy to some top-secret top secrets doing the rounds which will explain exactly what the wonderful new world will bring. Trust me, they are all true - they must be, as they all came from reliable sources.
  • The new superstore which will open in just a few weeks will have an extra floor
  • The absence of the sign of any building work having started will not stop this being completed in time for the opening, as all the work will be done in the few weeks that the shop is being refurbished
  • The shop will have a hugely increased number of staff, and not the current "skeleton staff" in Somerfield
  • Tesco will be paying all these staff high wages
  • The stock range will cover everything from caviar* to an entire ladies clothing section
  • The competition will be good for the local shops
  • Everything will be cheaper
* That's a sort of fish roe. Think posh salmon eggs.

Oh, and....
  • The planning application announced today includes a 400m wind turbine on the roof
  • They are going to buy Engebret's Filling Station and Manor Filling Station and sell petrol from both for under £1 per gallon
All this information, and more is to be released to the Stock Exchange tomorrow, so rush to the Co-op tonight (late opening in anticipation of Tesco's arrival) and buy a box of Tesco shares now, before the prices go up.

Wind farm refused

The Stornoway Gazette seem to have this story ahead of anyone else, including the Government website; so perhaps an embargo has been breached.

If this is true, then I am very disappointed; and no number of bland and meaningless promises from the Government about its intentions for the Islands will fill the huge economic gap.

If the area is now sterilised, and no economic development is allowed in that area, then at least we are clear about the position; but I fail to understand how the ruling can be extended from the SPA to the Stornoway Trust land, unless there is a simple determination to refuse the application, regardless.

If this is the case, then we now need to move forward with whatever ideas we can muster to generate income to fill the void; but that is going to prove to be an enormous challenge.

Will it all end here? I suspect not. I wouldn't be surprised to see LWP challenge the decision in the Courts, but irrespective of this, the other options must be explored quickly.


Please see statement below on behalf of Lewis Wind Power.

“Lewis Wind Power is bitterly disappointed by the Scottish Government’s decision to reject our proposal for a wind farm on Lewis. Over the 6 years of this project, we have conducted extensive environmental and economic studies and designed the development around these findings. As a result, we believe we had put forward a detailed case showing the benefits of our proposal and the benefits it would bring to Lewis, the Highlands & Islands region and to Scotland. We also believe that during our discussions with the Government, we demonstrated that this proposal could have been approved without violating European law.

The local authority and all of Scotland’s major business organisations fully recognised the huge benefits that this proposal would have delivered. The economic benefits included the creation of around 400 local jobs, 680 jobs across Scotland, during the construction process, as well as providing much needed investment to the Arnish Yard to make it a global competitor for other projects. The proposed community ownership of up to 15% of the wind farm would also have provided sustained income to the local community to invest in further sustainable economic activity.

The wind farm would have contributed 650MW of renewable energy to help the fight against climate change and paved the way for an interconnector to the mainland to encourage more investment in other renewable technologies. Sadly all of this has been lost because of the Government decision which, we believe, represents a huge missed opportunity.

We will be considering the Government’s response in detail before deciding on our next move”


The Government statement is here.


11:03-- Oh! Joy and glad - I've just had the first loony on the phone. I think he was trying to gloat, but he makes so little sense at the best of times ....

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Unlikely headlines.....

Prescott tells of bulimia battle

John Prescott - fat bastard
Of course, as we now know, the taxpayer was funding most of this 'munch and chuck' orgy via MP's allowances. Just as we paid for his affair. But don't you just love the big lump, continuing to demonstrate that lack of ability does not preclude joining the gravy train.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

New council houses

It was a step in the right direction for Nicola Sturgeon to announce £25m for new Council house building over the next three years.

But the devil is in the detail. As always.

£25m over three years by 5m people by 26,000 in the Western Isles = £43,333 each year.


About 50% of a decent house each year.

Forgive my doubting, but I expect that this will turn out to be support for 'prudential borrowing' i.e. the Government will fund the interest on the loans, while the Comhairle runs up yet more debts. Remember, 20% of its total income goes to pay its debts, and this will just exacerbate the position, especially when the housing agencies are finding their funding being cut as part of the 2% saving demanded by the same Government.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Small business rates

We've just received our Rates bill and I studied the bill carefully, in light of the promises that were at the last election.

We are no longer entitled to Small Business Rates Relief, and now have to apply for Small Business Bonus Scheme. Which is, er, a scheme of Rates Relief for Small Businesses.

The old scheme was clear: up to 50% discount if the rateable value was under £8,000, and a 5% discount if the rateable value was between £8,000 and £11,500.

The new scheme is 80% discount if the RV is under £8,000; 40% if the RV is between £8,000 and £10,000; 20% on a RV between £10,000 and £15,000; and a surcharge of 0.4% if the RV is over £29,000.

The SNP election promise was clearer: 100% relief on a RV under £8,000; 50% on a RV between £8,000 and £10,000; 25% on a RV between £10,000 and £15,000. So only 2/10 for trying to meet a promise (which I thought was a piece of nonsense anyway).

But like all the best duplicitous 'savings' the old scheme is withdrawn, and new applications have to be made, despite there being no change in the Rateable Value as printed on your Rates Notice.

End result - lots of irate phone calls to the Comhairle about the increased bills, lots of wrong direct debits drawn, and a only very small saving to most business.

All-in-all a very modest and mediocre idea that will deliver little, and which will be seen as a promise not delivered.

Credit crunch

With Gordon Brown throwing our money at banks in a desperate attempt to plug the holes he caused, it is a an appropriate time to consider the demise of Prudence and the rise of Desperation.

The credit crunch is caused by lax lending policies - 125% mortgages - feeding a property buying boom, where everyone has to stay on the escalator for the game to work. Eventually some of the property buyers could no longer service their mortgages, and the death spiral began.

So just what is Gordon trying to do?

He is offering the banks the ability to sell mortgages to the Government in exchange for Bonds
so that they can continue their lending policies.

The lack of liquidity in the market is caused by the banks fear that they might need cash sometime in the future, and they are reluctant to lend to each other. The measure of this is LIBOR (the London Inter-Bank Offer Rate), which is currently about 1% higher than Base, and is an indicator of the risk adverse nature of the markets at present. Historically it has normally been around 0.25% higher.

So Gordon, using our money remember, is prepared to buy mortgages that the other banks won't touch, with an unknown risk factor, in exchange for guarantees to allow the banks to continue to lend.

Now, don't get me wrong, the principle is right - to encourage liquidity in the markets - but the ability of the Government to manage this process is where my worries lie.

Given the Northern Rock fiasco, where the will-he/won't-he dance of the Chancellor as Gordon pulled his strings indicated a desperate inability to be decisive, and a desire for matters to take their course, before anything was done. As Matthew Parris in the Times noted, Brown has had a reputation for Machiavellian manoeuvring behind the scenes during all his years in Number 11, in reality it was a crippling inability to take decisions.

Having flown in complete anonymity to New York to have a power breakfast with some bankers who didn't have a clue who he was, Gordon Brown doesn't realise that is not the way to solve a crisis and construct a new economic policy.

With banks having made huge profits, and employees on multi-million pound bonuses , the benefits of selling these risks and generating cash out of nothing, have flown to a few very fat and greedy hands. Instead of dealing with this greed, the Chancellor now wants to throw more money at the problem. Our money. To those who have a lower tax rate than their cleaners. And to those - such as the new Chief Executive and Finance Director of Northern Rock - who don't pay tax in the UK.

Thankfully, one Bank has seen the obscenity in this and is going to those who shared the gains - the shareholders - to ask for the money to fund the future cash requirements. This is risky, given that market sentiment is unclear, but it is ultimately the only way that banks will escape from the hole of their own making. Expect to see more banks making rights issues.

The next stage is to tackle the obscene profits being made by the bank employees, and to tie them to the impact of their decisions. I have long advocated higher tax rates for the most wealthy, but in addition I would like to see a more punitive rate for the very highest earners unless they take it in the shares of their company and hold them for (let's say) at least 5 years, hence making them thing about the long-term risk of their wheeling-dealing rather than the £m Xmas bonus.

10% tax rate

With the abolition of the 10% band of tax announced in the Budget last year, the Labour MPs were cheering it to the rafters in the usual blind-faith unthinking way that a well-whipped bunch of no-brains do.

Having had 12 months to think about it, the massed ranks of sheep didn't think about it.

Within minutes of its implementation they were up in arms, screaming about the unfairness of it, and how 'they would fight' the legislation they had cheered and implemented.

Treasury Ministerial Aide (i.e. junior bag carrier) Angela Smith went further and announced her intention to resign from the Government as a result of her principled opposition to the policy that she had voted through last year.

So far so principled, until Gordon Brown nobbled her and she withdrew her now non-existent resignation.

Good to see that our politicians are not scared to take a position and stick to it.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

An invitation (?)

I don't think I was supposed to receive the invitation, but I'll not name the sender in case I remain accidentally on the email mailing list. I'm also going to rewrite it, so that the sender is not identifiable. Suffice to say, they are an old acquaintance from the mainland.


Dear Councillor

You are invited to attend the SNP Spring Conference at Heriot-Watt University on Saturday 19th and Sunday 20th April 2006. All Councillors must attend a confidential Councillors meeting on Friday.


The rewritten comment from my source added in their comment to other colleagues:-

"Obviously, we are to be summonsed at our own expense to be told what to say and think for the next few years!"

Declaration of interest

Which Councillor has omitted some highly relevant sources of income/assets from their declaration of interest, thereby voting on matters in which s/he is a potential financial beneficiary without declaring this fact?

When they get round to making a full and frank disclosure, then full details will appear here.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Government Budget savings

This process was formerly known as 'making cuts', but is now much more positively spun. Unless you are on the receiving end.

It is a hell of an ambitious target to find 2% savings across the entire budget, and I am sure that Thatcher or major tried the same, and were torn apart by the Labour Party as they fiddled the figures to try to prove success.

If the Government succeed in achieving this, then it will be an amazing achievement; but one thing is certain, that there will be lots of tears before the process is completed.

I've scanned the plans and picked up some of the key areas that I can see, with the following cuts/savings over the next three years:
  • £3m from the HIAL budget
  • £3m from CalMac
  • £3m from VisitScotland
  • £11m from HIE and Scottish Enterprise
  • £1,048m from local Government (2% from each and every Council)
I'm sure that there are other significant matters, but these are the one that jump out at me.

Nothing like being ambitious. But just how will this affect service delivery?

Question and answer

I tripped across this vitriolic attack on our MP on another blog.

I'm not in a position to make any comment on the substance of the allegations, but one stood out which needs answering, one way or another.

Were the questions from the school children given to Mr MacNeil in advance of the session?

Surely not.....

Monday, April 14, 2008

Association of internet researchers: conference paper

My thanks to John Kirriemuir for alerting me to the conference in beautiful Copenhagen in October.

Sadly, I won't be able to attend, but John has kindly provided me with a summary of his paper which has been accepted by the powers-that-be. He must be mad to let me put this in the public domain :-)


Anonymous online content in an isolated community John William Kirriemuir


Research question

"To what extent does the high degree of local name/person "recognition", in the community on an isolated archipelago, contribute to residents anonymising their online identity and content?"

The Outer Hebrides

The Outer Hebrides are an archipelago over 200 kilometres in length, but with a total population of only 26,000. Of these, 8,000 live in one town (Stornoway), while most of the rest are distributed through small villages.
The main industries are fishing, crofting (small-scale farming) and tourism; unlike other counties in the UK, the first language of most residents is Gaelic. The very high cost of travel, on planes and ferries, has resulted in partial isolation, making the socio-economic structures change more slowly than in other first world countries and regions.

Despite the distributed nature of the population, residents possess an unusually detailed knowledge about each other. Key factors for this sociological phenomena are:

- The historical isolation of the islands resulting in many residents being related, either genetically or through marriage. An extremely strong sense of who is related to each other - even distantly - is evident in people's Gaelic names, and linguistic elements e.g. on first meeting, residents ask variations on "To whom [family] do you belong?"
- A large proportion of the population are employed by just a few employers, namely the Comhairle (council) who employ over a quarter of working residents, WIE (Western Isles Enterprise) and the Arnish Shipyard.
- A traditional ethos of co-dependence in industries such as fishing and crofting resulting in fellow workers knowing many of the other workers, even those residing on different islands.

Anonymous Internet-based participation

Internet-takeup within the Hebrides is unusually high compared to the rest of the UK. A local survey in 2004 indicated that over 70% of households had internet access, being used primarily for online shopping and emailing distant relatives. Children, too, are major drivers of Internet provision, with high proportions uploading content to social networking services such as Bebo and MySpace (Author, 2007). However, broadband usage is proportionally the lowest in the UK, primarily due to the lack of such internet access from much of the Hebrides.

As in other parts of the world, new online services such as photo uploading and blogs have developed over time. However, it is here that there are cultural peculiarities. A high proportion of the postings and comments, to such services, are anonymous e.g. or use pseudonyms e.g. Stornoway Chat. This seems to be an entrenched culture over several years. For example, Hebridean Graffiti was a notorious Hebrides website where residents could leave anonymous comments criticising council employees. More recently, a disgruntled ex-employee of the council ( has set up a blog where other residents can also anonymously attack the council.

An informal analysis of some of the comments written by residents indicates possible reasons for this anonymisation:

- Residents not wanting to (openly) attack an organisation they depend on for employment.
- Residents not wanting any negative reaction from the relatives, friends of work colleagues of the person they are attacking.
- Residents using a way of criticising a person who they frequently meet e.g. locally, or at work, without the attackee knowing who it is and therefore avoiding confrontation.
- Residents of one political alignment wishing to attack another political alignment with libellous content, while avoiding legal consequences.

An underlying factor of these, and other potential reasons, is - possibly - the close community, family or work connections between the attacker and the organisation or person they are trying to attack.

The research outlined in this paper impartially examines the frequency and nature of this local anonymous online content, as well as trying to understand the rationale for it. Methodological issues, such as trying to identify "multiple online personality" commenters, will also be discussed.


Stage 1: Examples from five types of online services, where Outer Hebrides residents contribute significant amounts of were identified:

1.1 Comments written on specific blogs operated by Hebridean residents
1.2 Picture comments on Flickr (a picture-oriented social network with considerable Hebridean take-up
1.3 Forums aimed at Hebridean people
1.4 On-line petitions concerning local issues e.g. for reinstatement of a local ferry on a Sunday
1.5 Facebook group postings and discussions

Stage 2: Take appropriate samples of the comments.

Stage 3: Identify content, within each sample, which use pseudonyms or are anonymised. Attempt to identify, from the content and the context of its use, the reason(s) why the content provider has concealed their identity.
Question the owners of the identified services on why they think commenters have anonymised their identity.

Stage 4: Carry out stages 1 to 3 with a control group of content from similar mainland online services. Compare the results with the Hebridean group of content.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Fuel Prices

Part one of an HIE study is now available here, addressing some of the preliminary issues about the extent and nature of fuel supplies in the HIE area.

I look forward to Part 2 arriving in the near future which will start to address some of the underlying causal effects of the type and nature of the existing supply, and where the market is failing to perform adequately.

I doubt that there will be many surprises for residents of the Western Isles, with Diesel costing £1.30 per litre in Harris from Monday, but hopefully there may be some proposed solutions.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Shark attack!

At the airport we wander like some kind of Ancient Mariner family, looking for food, souvenirs, trinkets or anything else to absorb some time and entertain the kids until the flight boards.

In one of the shops there is a mechanical sharks head into which tourists are encouraged to place their arms and take photos as the jaws close around the movement.

Normally, this entertains the tourists with a laugh and sends them home with a smile and a nice photo.

Oldest son decides to improve the experience by sticking his entire head in the jaws which clamp shut to screams, cries and a dozen shoppers dashing from every direction. Thankfully, there was no injury, other than extreme embarrassment and a hasty exit!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Council Local Income National Tax

The prospect of the SNP introducing a Local/National Income/Council Tax has provoked the expected reaction from Westminster.

And like an alligator being poked with a stick there is absolutely no surprise about the nature of the response.

Indeed, one would be forgiven for thinking that the proposal is being floated just for the incompetent, thoughtless, and politically inept response from a thoughtless, incompetent and inept Scottish Office.

According to Westminster, the proposal was legally incompetent.

That'll really get the punters in Drumchapel talking -- only about how the "English Government" are stopping the Scottish Government from introducing a 'fairer' tax to replace the Council Tax.

CLINT - as I have now called it - has enough holes in it that any competent opposition (and remember Labour, that is what you are!) could take it apart, or scaremonger enough that the issue of legality, or otherwise, would become an irrelevant side issue.

Some of the holes that Wendy are missing include:
  • The basic unfairness of the proposals
  • The loopholes for the wealthy
  • The lack of local control and hence local accountability for setting the CLINT rate
  • The disincentives for local authorities to encourage wealth creation in their areas
  • The services that aren't being provided to fund the £400m subsidy to the scheme
  • The need to employ additional tax inspectors to determine where you live - Western Isles or Aberdeen; Scotland or England
  • The administrative cost to be paid out of the tax yield
  • The interaction between various pieces of of tax legislation e.g. if I own a second house in England an elect to have it treated as my Principal Private Residence for Capital Gains Tax purposes, then how does that affect my CLINT liability?
As it happens, I don't think any of these are insurmountable, but equally none of these are quickly and easily resolved either. Unless the SNP return to their original proposal to have the tax set locally; that is to say to directly replace the Council Tax with LIT.

Which - of course - was the proposal until the last election was won.

In the meantime watch the ritualised battle go through the same predictable dance whilst nothing moves forward.

Alex SalmondClint "Do you feel lucky, Wendy?" Salmond


Now I know this will sound like a far-fetched story to many local readers, but - believe it or not - there are places in the world where it is not possible to buy a copy of the Stornoway Gazette for love or money.

Despite repeated pleading in my local news agents, the best they could offer was a copy of El Pais, the Irish Times or the Daily Record (European edition) all at least 36 hours old.

This apparent poverty of information came home to me as we crossed La Rubicon on the way to the airport, and I thought about what I might be missing. And then I worried that there had been something important. And then I stopped worrying.

To have been largely out of touch with the news - bar a flickering intermittent CCN Europe and BBC World service - has been refreshing, and the prospect of being smothered in everything I have missed over the past two weeks is almost frightening.

Hopefully, there will be three copies of the Gazette waiting for me, so I can catch up on the Butt to Barra News and read all the letters from serial correspondents bringing heat, but rarely light, into the hot topic of the week. Usually, this is some major religious dispute about some arcane aspect which has the audience snoring in their seats.

Thankfully, my cynicism glands are fully recharged and refilled and I hope to entertain and irritate in equal measure until my next well-earned break.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Price of Power

One of the greatest challenges of being in a position of power is having the responsibility for everything and anything that might go wrong in your area of control. Whether or not you are to blame.

The usual response is to blame your predecessor or external forces, but that can only last so long. Despite this blindingly obvious truism, the Labour Party are still trying to suggest that they are undoing the effects of the Thatcherism, and for that reason Policy X still hasn't been delivered. (For the benefit of younger readers, Margaret Thatcher was a Conservative Prime Minister. She was eventually replaced as leader of the Party by another right-wing ideologue, Tony Blair.)

And so the story goes on in Aberdeen, where the new SNP/LibDem Council Leadership is faced with a funding crisis, which they have attempted to address with some crude cuts of voluntary services and schools. And they appear surprised by the resultant outcry.

According to the Council, the problem is years of underfunding by Government. According to the Government, it is due to the actions of other political parties(!)

It is interesting that a semi-supportive Council are implicitly criticising the most recent financial settlement, whilst this is implicitly acknowledged by John Swinney.

Update 10/4/08 (this post was originally written on 6/4): An article in the Daily Telegraph by Alan Cochrane reminds his readers that he had forecast that John Swinney would have to pick a fight with Councils sooner or later, as the budget settlement was never going to stretch far enough to be acceptable.

I cannot argue with that view, as I have long forecast that this budget round was going to be tight. What it highlights is that profligate spending in the early years of the Parliament will restrict the options in later years, when the more painful decisions will have to be taken.

And that is the lesson of being in power - quick wins are all well and good, but when the compromise long-term options then they should be avoided.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Price of Energy

With the Scottish Government offering a £10m prize for developing marine energy, and the Comhairle at the forefront of Hydrogen technology, the prospects for renewable energy becoming the mainstream have never looked better.

Which is just as well with oil seemingly settling above $100pb.

(Anyone remember Brian Wilson, the then Energy Minister furiously denying that oil would ever stabilise above $20pb?)

It is clear that renewables WILL be the future, if planning and environmental concerns can be balanced, addressed or compensated for.

Largely as a result of the prize, I now believe that we will see a major breakthrough in marine technology in Scotland in the next 10 years, and if we can tap into the technology we will be at the leading edge for decades. The lessons of Salter’s Duck need to be learned – we invented the technology and did nothing with it.

I also foresee that onshore wind will remain a cost-effective technology for less than one building cycle, and will largely be replaced by wave and tidal by the end of that cycle. That means that more than ever, the Western Isles will have to ensure that it is ready to adapt and adopt the next leading edge as part of a cycle of develop -> enhance -> supersede.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

The Price of Fuel

It is good to see former Comhairle Trading Standards Officer, Dave Thompson MSP – an old family friend - raise the issue of fuel prices with the OFT.

That is raise the issue again. Again.

After the Comhairle calling for an investigation, and a previous OFT investigation into the retailers, and investigation into the wholesalers/manufacturers/oligopolists is long overdue.

Just one thought.

As Dave is an MSP and this is a reserved power, shouldn’t this have been raised by Angus MacNeil MP?

Friday, April 04, 2008

Shark Attack

I sat looking at the Atlantic the other day, taking in the vastness of the ocean and watching the waves wash against the beautiful pristine beach. The older children paddled in the waves and were chased up and down the beach by the incoming tide, as their sandcastles were knocked down or demolished by the builders to be rebuilt in bigger and better fashion. Youngest child tried to eat the sand.

Finally, I announced that I was going for a swim, and the boys gathered around promising to watch for sharks – it was unclear if this was for my security or in the hope of some sport – as I slipped into the chilly waters and plunged beneath the waves.

Sitting later with the boys on the edge of the level part of the beach as the waves tried to sweep us up and down as they crashed in and swept back out, I got thinking about the important questions of life.

Who would I like to see eat by a shark, and why?

I started to make a top five list, which was a bit harder than I first imagined, but I had to abandon that as the list was becoming crowded and I was trying to cheat – do the entire British National Party wrapped in bloody entrails and tied to a buoy, count as one person or not? – and I realised that the problem could be compounded by the nature of the shark.

The thoughts of a Labour Party Pathetic Shark (toothless, smugly superior) having a fight to the death with Alex Salmond (lots of eating, smugly superior), and probably resulting in the sharks being persuaded to eat themselves, faded as I had to rouse myself to return to the hotel.

Our youngest boy then demanded to go into the big pool for the first time, and with the purchase of a pair of water-wings he launched himself in and swam a breadth unaided. After almost an hour we got him out, tired and cold, but confident enough to jump in and go under water. Our hearts melted, as any parents would.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Tourism sector

Having had the opportunity to examine the tourism sector at first hand over the past few days, I think that it is time that some of the home truths were spelt out.

Tourism is good for the economy in the same way that every economic activity is good for the economy, but to consider it the be all and end all for the economy of the Western Isles is so misguided and short-sighted as to be deliberately wrong.

The facts are that any large scale ‘hospitality’ will create a large number of part-time poorly paid jobs, utterly depended on the whim of the market; weather conditions; currency rates and the comparative virtues of Disneyworld. Small scale niche tourism will create a very few potentially high value opportunities, few of which will give a decent financial reward for those who benefit, although here will be a huge level of personal satisfaction.

Having spoken to some of the staff in this industry, they are working long, long hours barely to scrape by and this I certainly no magical cure-all for the economy of the Western Isles.

The reports of the ‘success’ of the tourism sector have been repeatedly inflated, largely due to a high level of inaccuracy in the figures, and whilst it is very important and significant, we should not overplay the level of success.

As I have previously demonstrated, the oft-repeated figure of £60m generated from ‘tourism’ to the Western Isles is factual nonsense, including as it does every journey – business, personal and tourist – to and from the islands.

Having left the islands to spend some family holiday time elsewhere, my airfare is included in the £60m ‘tourist’ spend; as was Dick Manson’s frequent flier* programme; as are DR MacLeod’s lorries crossing the Minch filled with supplies for the Co-op.

One thing I know for certain, the hospitality industry is not a particularly nice option for those at the bottom of the pile.

* Did he get Airmiles on all those flights? If so, what did he use those Airmiles for? I feel an FoI request coming on.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Theological debates

Rev David Robertson of the Free Church is quite right in his attack on UHI for inviting Prof Dawkins to come and speak about his book the God Delusion.

As Rev Robertson rightly highlights, the UHI is also hosting a lecture from Rev Dr Andrew McGowan, principal of the Highland Theological College, who will be putting the counter-argument.

As Rev Robertson says, "All that is going to happen is Dawkins' people will go to see him and Christians will go to listen to John Lennox.”

"What would be more balanced is having them on at the same time, that makes a whole lot more sense."

Absolutely correct; let’s have a full and open debate, discussion and argument about the issues, and let the public decide through the medium of informed advice, constructive criticism and the power of rational thought.

What good is there if the public decide, by their own free choice, to attend a meeting at which an individual dictates a view of the world, and the spiritual context without allowing alternative interpretations to be heard? You are simply telling those who attend what they want to hear – and what the speaker wants them to think - and not helping develop or disseminate the argument in any meaningful way.

For those reasons, I think the Rev Robertson should therefore look very closely at how he delivers his Church services, and the message he is communicating, before criticising others.

In the meantime, Rev Robertson will presumably oppose Rev Dr McGowan’s lecture for exactly the same reasons as he opposes Prof Dawkins. I’m not holding my breath.