Thursday, 30 April 2009

Fighting Spirit

My father commanded a contingent of Gurkhas in the first Chindit raids behind Japanese lines into Burma in the second world war. He and his men had been trained in the Indian jungle by the then famous tiger hunter, Jim Corbett, who had a breed of tiger named after him. He always used to say that he was proud to have served with these loyal, dedicated and fearsome fighting men and that it was an honour to serve with them. They were, and still are, known for their fighting spirit. 45,000 Gurkhas died fighting for Britain. 26 VC's have been awarded. Yesterday, their fighting spirit, alongside the redoutable Avenger, Joanna Lumley, surfaced once again as MP's defeated the government on the right of Gurkhas who have served us all in the British Army to reside in Britain. The vote is not the end of the story as it is now for the government to bring new proposals to the house, but the message sent yesterday to Brown's crumbling authority cannot be denied. Perhaps there is hope for the UK after all. Perhaps there is still some decency and honour left.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

The Wind of Change

There are wind farms - and then there are wind farms. Whatever the pros and cons of the big installations that march across the skyline like Birnham Wood come to Dunsinane, which we won't go into here, there is the issue of much smaller, community based schems and even wind turbines for individuals. Over in Mallaig, on the west coast, the Mallaig and Morar Community Association have an emerging proposal to install two 30ft high wind turbines on waste ground next to its car park, to solve the problem of 60% of it's £10,500 per year income being swallowed up by electricity bills. But following publication of the idea in their community newsletter opposition has rolled in - from Montreal, Florida and Adelaide. An American tour operator has the temerity to say that wind turbines are not what his clients wish to see. He claims, somewhat bizarrely, that Mallaig is noted for 'small islands, forests, mountains, waterfalls and wildlife'. And Dorothy is alive and well and living in the land of Oz! (oh yes - wasn't there a windmill on Dorothy's farm, now I come to think of it) Someone in Montreal says that she is horrified at the idea of these turbines being 'close to houses' because of the 'noise levels' - but many people have this kind of turbine actually mounted on their homes, or very close by - they are not the huge whirling dervishes of the wind energy farm. And the Adelaide contribution said 'If I can ever visit again, I would be very disappointed to see such a beautiful place exhibiting such an ugly reminder of the modern world'. That's as opposed to the beautiful working fishing boats streaked with those delightful variations of the colour of rust, or the elegant railway platforms, or those neat little articulated fish lorries then?
The trouble with the global communications world is that the capacity for the eccentric, the uninfomed and the opinionated becomes infinite. Come to think of it, this blog is testament to that!

Right to a Roof

The Scottish Government have announced a consultation on their intention to scrap the right to buy for all new council and housing association builds. It's estimated that between 2012 and 2022 such a move would retain between 10,000 and 18,000 homes in the low cost rent sector that would otherwise have been lost. The Tories introduced the right to buy back in 1980 and since then nearly half a million public sector homes have been sold, and only 42,000 built. The Government is also consulting on plans to make it easier to suspend the right to buy in areas where there is a shortage of affordable homes - something that is already in force here in Badenoch and Strathspey. Housing Minister Alex Neil has said that "ending the right to buy for new build houses will safeguard social housing for future generations across Scotland. "These changes, alongside our efforts to reverse the decades of decline in council house building, backed by £50M in finding, will support councils to begin building homes again."
Shelter Scotland have welcomed the move. Director Graeme Brown said "There's no point in running a bath with the plug out the other end and that's what we continue to do when we build good quality affordable rented homes and then sell them off at a discounted price." The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations has welcomed the move. The Liberal Democrats have welcomed the move - Jamie Stone is quoted as saying "There is now an overwhelming case to abolish right to buy for new build council and social landlord houses."
So who, I wonder, might think it not such a good idea? I'll give you two guesses .... Yes, that's right, New Labour (Old Tory) and New Tory (Old Tory). Extraordinarily, Labour spokesperson Mary Mulligan described it as a cynical attempt to divert attention from the Government's failure to help housing associations build more affordable homes. That would be £50M worth of failure then would it? And whose economic situation might it be that makes it difficult to build in the first place? Tory spokesperson Mary Scanlon said that right to buy was "One of the great successes" of the last Tory Government. What kind of rose-tinted spectacles are you wearing Mary? Sure, every council house sold off is one more opportunity for a family to get a heavily discounted hutch up onto the housing ladder, but it's also another lost affordable home for a young family just setting out and flying the nest. Why should people start on the personal profit trail if it's at the expense of those who, as a result, can't even get a roof over their heads at a sensible price when they most need it, at the start of their working lives. Perhaps a better way might be to come up with some kind of scheme that incentivises those who are considering the first rung of the ownership ladder to take the step and move out of their social housing, freeing it up for someone who needs it.
But the real iniquity of it all lies inextricably with this discredited and tired Westminster Government. Labour spokespeople in Scotland can bleat all they like about 'failure to help housing associations' - but their masters in Westminster created a spurious scheme to persuade Local Authorities to get their tenants to agree to transfer of council stock to housing associations or trusts, in return for writing off council house debt. If, as in Highland, council tenants were very happy with their councils - even if it was on a 'better the devil you know' basis - the vote was an emphatic NO to the big Westminster bribe, then tough luck - other councils can have their housing debt written off, but you can't - you've been naughty boys and not gone along with what we want, and it's our ball, so we'll take it away. Meanwhile, I think it's some 43% of all council house receipts that go towards servicing our council house debt. So it's Westminster who are the main impediment to a resumption of council house building in Highland, and it's Westminster who are agin the idea of stopping the right to buy. And for the avoidance of doubt, no, it wouldn't be any better under Cameron's cronies.

Monday, 27 April 2009

Ward Business

Every second Monday is the date for our regular ward business meetings. These involve the four councillors for the ward, and our ward manager, Sue Palmer, who hails from Sheffield - on the wrong side of the Pennines for those like me with Lancastrian leanings, but still, nobody's perfect - anyhow, I digress - The ward business meeting picks up all of the issues which are of concern to any of us, so we can decide on a course of action to address them. In some wards, political differences mean that co-operation is non-existent, but thankfully, we don't work like that here. With two Liberal Democrats, one Independent and myself, SNP, we still manage to get along just fine and make joint decisions about things that concern us. Through the ward manager, we ask that representatives of council services where we have issues, or just simply questions, attend the meeting let us know what's happening or what they are planning. Today, we had two such attend to tell us of their plans for the development of the Highland Folk Park in Newtonmore and how they proposed they might move the exhibits from the now dilapidated buildings in Kingussie to their planned new home three miles down the road. There had been a long running sore in Newtonmore that the entrance to the Folk Park is well outside the village and that this tended to mitigate against any interaction between visitors to the folk park and the village itself - and vice versa. It was very gratifying to hear that, after years of trying to get them to address this issue, they are now actively looking at a pedestrian access at the village end of the park.
Another issue discussed today was efforts to rationalise the office spaces used by the council in Kingussie - we are scattered in five locations and the plan was to try to get everyone in the same location, but this is looking problematic, to say the least.
On a lighter note, though with a serious element, we were discussing arrangements to fly the armed forces flag for seven days from June 22nd, armed forces day. Naturally, we were happy to support the brave men and women who fight for our country - even if we don't always agree with the politics that says they have to - but Councillor Gregor Rimell's impression of the hoy-poloy of the armed forces had us all in stitches - a kind of local version of It Ain't Half Hot Mum. It's always good to know that there is room for some humour in your day - whatever you do.

Turning to domestic matters, yesterday, we heard that our daughter would be performing in a choir in the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester on Sunday June 28th, just a few days before her birthday, so it was onto the Flybe website to snaffle whatever flights we could for a trip down. Turns out that my other half will fly down on Friday morning, but I will go on the Saturday as I have a Cairngorms National Park Authority Planning meeting in Ballater on the Friday. Then we'll come back on the day after her birthday. This will be a great opportunity to show off the pictures and videos from India, from whence we will have returned just a fortnight earlier.

And today's thought ... so there's an outbreak of swine flu in Mexico which seems to be hitting them hard - although I heard one report that the '100 dead' was nowhere near the truth and that '5' might be nearer. And someone in Spain is a little bit ill, along with a couple of folk in Scotland who have 'mild symptoms'. In the words of Douglas Adams in the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy ...

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Health and Efficiency

Those of a certain age will perhaps recall the magazine of that name, which, under the thinly disguised veil (or lack of it) of 'naturism' satisfied every schoolboy's pubescent fantasies with liberal helpings of the naked, if airbrushed, female form. My tale today is of a different Health and Efficiency - the imposition of Health and Safety considerations on what was once a simple job. Driving back from a Highland and Islands Fire Board meeting in Inverness, on the A9 trunk road, in a dual carriageway section, I came across one of those big yellow lorries with a huge flashing 'keep right' arrow on the back of it, moving very slowly. Another couple of hundred yards along the road, there was another one, performing exactly the same function, and moving equally slowly. Another hundred yards further along and guess what - there's another one. Immediately in front of this one is a little tractor, with a mowing attachment, trimming the roadside verge - a verge which, by the way, given that it's barely spring yet in the Highlands had no more than an inch of growth on it and really didn't need trimming yet. Once upon a time, this job would have been done by a machine on the verge, not one on the road with an attachment overhanging the verge, and there would have been a warning triangle or two by the road side ahead of the spot to warn of 'grass trimming'. Now, we're so ruled by the health and safety mafia that we get this kind of over-reaction - why three of the beasts, for goodness' sake? They're huge - you can't miss them - surely one would do if it's really necessary to have them at all. But what on earth is the cost per mile of trimming verges that don't need trimming using four vehicles and four drivers? And what is the value to the drivers of these vehicles of a job that must be as satisfying as being a lift operator in a bungalow?

Thursday, 23 April 2009

A Question of Planning

Wednesday night was the occasion of our regular Ward Forum - a meeting where community councils and members of the public can come along and ask questions - both lodged in advance and on the night - and usually each of these has a theme. Last night's was the perenninal issue of Planning - probably the most controversial and least understood of all matters that councils deal with. And as luck would have it, it was my turn to chair the meeting. It was no surprise that fifty people turned up - some with good questions and others with questions that revealed just how big the gulf was between what people think about planning and what the reality is. Head of Planning for Highland Council, Richard Hartland, explained the changes in planning law that are coming in this year, with disarming honesty and pulling no punches - where he felt that the Scottish Government had got it wrong, he said so, and where he felt that Highland Council could do things better, he said so, too. This was most refreshing, and I hope it was appreciated. Don McKee, Head of Planning for the Cairngorms National Park Authority added his perspective on the changes as to how the Park would handle applications. Then it was time for the questions.... Some folk think that, because councillors who are going to determine a planning application cannot comment on the merits or otherwise of an application until the day it's determined (we have to be able to evidence that we haven't 'pre-judged' an application before all the details are presented to us) that means they can't talk to us about an application, put their point of view, or ask us for advice about how to go about putting forward their viewpoint. This is totally wrong and we were able, I hope, to get across the message that councillors are always happy to listen to whatever anyone has to say - but also to make it clear that anyone means anyone - developers included! There were some folk present with definite agenda about one live planning issue or another and one who wanted to go off track and use the meeting as a vehicle for criticising his community council. I had to be firm at times - and certainly to put a stop to that line of statement - but I was conscious all the time of the need to maintain a balance between allowing people the chance to say what they wanted to, and keeping control of the meeting. By the end, I felt pretty exhausted by the process, but I kept the meeting to time and there were no complaints, so I hope I got it more or less right. The really good thing, though, is that enough people out there, who care about where they live, turned out to participate. We must never forget that planning affects people's lives and the places where they live more directly, and more permanently than anything else - a hole in the road is just a hole - and sometime it gets fixed (unless you live in Salford), but a concrete carbuncle in front of your house is there, for all practical purposes, for ever. It's the responsibility to strike the right balance that we must not lose sight of.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009


So the Chancellor of the Exchequer has given us all the benefit of his wisdom in the form of the Budget statement, and we are all supposed to be eternally grateful that we have such experienced and capable hands at the helm of the United Kingdom's economy. The same hands, of course, that steered us into this mess in the first place. The same image of prudence that watched over banks out of control and city fat cats getting rich quick off the back of spiralling speculation. But this budget represents the ultimate betrayal. In effecting huge cuts in public spending - 'efficiency savings' he euphamistically calls them - the last remnant of any prospect that New Labour might be considered as a socialist party has been stripped away, and New Labour has now finally and fully adopted the mantle of Old Conservative. But worse, this budget, created by two Scots who should be ashamed of themselves, is the ultimate betrayal of Scotland. Here, both last year and this, we have done great things - we have boosted the pockets of every household in the country with a nationally agreed freeze on Council Tax, supported by extra money from the Scottish Government to Local Authorities to make this possible. We have cut prescription charges two years running. We have reduced to zero the non domestic rates for every small business with rateable value below £8,000, and reduced costs for those between £8,000 and £15,000. We have put money into housebuilding and more. And we have done all this within a background this year of the most measly of settlements from Westminster. We have done this through collective efforts to secure genuine efficiency savings to balance the books. That the Darling Bud of Westminster should say that 'Scotland must take it's share' of the cuts they now propose totally fails to recognise that the real home of prudence, care for our people and drive for efficiency is here in Scotland. Been there, done that, got the benefits. So what more can we achieve in the name of 'efficiency'? Am I alone in asserting that this is a clear, considered and deliberate ploy on the part of the Westminster Government to undermine all that the SNP Government has done in Scotland? I don't think so - but I just hope that enough of us will see through this thin veil, not be fooled by Westminster's betrayal of socialist values and of Scotland, and see off the dogs that rifle through the dustbins of economic downturn, scratching around for bits of meat. And to Scottish Liberal Democrats, I say 'can you really support the pathetic economic efforts of this Westminster government?' 'Can you really support what Broon and Darling would do to Scotland?' Perhaps it is time to join with us and make the Scottish Government a yet more powerful force for change.

A Long Day's Short Meeting

Back last Friday, I was asked by the Convener of the National Park Authority, to represent the authority at a Tourism Workshop yesterday (Tuesday) in Edinburgh hosted by Jim Mather MSP, the Scottish Government Minister for Tourism. This was to be from 11am to 2pm at a hotel in Ingliston, just outside the capital city. And so, at 6.55am, I left the house to catch the 07.22 train out of Aviemore, which arrived, painlessly enough, in Edinburgh at around 10am. With me were Andrew Harper, a senior staff member of the CNPA, and Alan Rankin, CEO of the Aviemore and the Cairngorms Destination Management Organisation (DMO). A taxi took us speedily to our destination, where we were first to arrive. The meeting itself explored issues about how to raise the profile of tourism, effective marketing, the roles of local authorities and of visitscotland, and also the roles of individual businesses and collective business organisations. I made the point that I felt for many small businesses, who simply didn't have the resources to be able to become directly involved, the only organisations that they could trust to represent their position properly were business organisations, like DMO's and Chambers of Commerce - as only they really understood the issues from a business perspective. Both Andrew and Alan chipped in with comments too - but this wasn't the kind of forum where it would have been welcomed if I had said what I really felt - that visitscotland's role should be to attract people to come to Scotland, but not to try to manage their needs once they arrived. If it were down to me, I would remove the visitscotland role of running visitor information centres altogether, and place this responsibility with tourism business organisations locally, to work with local businesses in each town and village to provide the services and information visitors need. After all, who knows the local area better than local people? And in whose interest is it that visitors are provided with all that they need and are kept happy more than that of local businesses? There is a natural synergy here that goes unheeded and unexploited. But to get there needs a softly softly approach. Highlight of the meeting was watching Jim Mather's expertise in using mind mapping software on the fly whilst running the meeting - quite a trick - and one I'd like to learn. But by 2pm, all was over, and time to make our way back to Edinburgh Haymarket station for the 15.39 train to Perth where we had forty minutes to wait for the train to Aviemore. I got back home at ten past seven. So that was over a twelve hour day, for a three hour meeting. At least there was the compensation of a lively discussion and exploration of the possible with Andrew and Alan on the way down. And the thought that, thank God, Jim Mather was mind mapping a whole meeting - if it had been mine alone.......?

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Caman watch this

Did I mention shinty? No, perhaps I didn't - so it's time to put that right. Shinty is a unique Scottish sport, played mainly in the Highlands, but also by some of those Sassenachs down south in Glasgow and Edinburgh (Sassenach is from the Gaelic word for 'Lowlander' and has nothing at all to do with being English....). Some have tried to paraphrase the spirit on the sport with the disarmingly simple, but utterly incorrect description that it's like hockey, with nae rules. Actually, shinty has many rules - and a far better offside rule than football ever managed - this one's a beaut - there is an area, shaped like a D surrounding the goal - known, strangely enough, as either 'the D' or the goal area. If an attacking player enters this area before the ball does, when the ball does finally enter the area, the player is offside. In the words of Alexander the Meerkat, simples! Hence the interestingly named but beautifully written shinty blog at - not mine - but in terms of writing quality, I wish it were.

Anyhow, I digress - My Saturday job is to write on shinty for the Strathspey and Badenoch Herald, and take the photographs for the paper (which I also put up on the web, when I get round to it at ) Today I went down to Newtonmore for the second team game there against Kilmallie (near neighbours of Fort William on the west coast for the uninitiated). An entertaining game for the first half, which I watched, though the visitors capitalised on the few chances they created to take a 2-0 half time lead whilst the home side failed to capitalise on the rather more opporchancities (rip the late, great, Rikki Fulton) that they created. I left at half time to go to Kincraig (eight miles down the road) for the second half of the game there against visitors Lochbroom (from Ullapool, on the north west coast). Lochbroom were far too strong for Kincraig, whose mixture of ageing, but able players and enthusiastic youth has rather too much of the enthusiastic youth who run around a lot, but have a tendency to take their eyes off the ball and miss it altogether. Consequently, the defence leaks like a sieve as more experienced attackers take full advantage. Hence the end result - 7-2 to Lochbroom. But Kincraig soldier on in North Division 3, sometimes against all the odds, as their much bigger Premier League neighbours at Kingussie and Newtonmore inevitably get the pick of the talent.

And so to the picture above - it illustrated the basics of the game - the caman - or curved stick, and the quite lightweight leather ball, which has a wound worsted centre. But this picture also illustrates something else interesting - it's the old adage, once a sportsman, always a sportsman - the Kincraig player is none other than Andrew Freshwater - one time no 1 British skier, and currently commentator on ski-ing for the British Eurosport channel. And the picture below ...

well that just illustrates that, for the faithful, on a beautiful spring afternoon, even when your side's going down by a 7-2 margin, there's still something to smuile about, good company, and what we call up here 'the craic'.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Parking Problems

Today's main event was a meeting of the Cairngorms National Park Planning Committee, to do what's called the 'call in report', followed by an informal board discussion and a visit to the opening of an affordable housing development in Kincraig. So, I hear you avidly ask, what's a call in report? This is clearly the burning issue of the day.
Planning in the Cairngorms National Park is unique. There is nowhere else where the planning authorities remain the Local Authorities (Highland, Moray, Aberdeenshire, Angus) but the Park has the option, within twenty one days of the lodging of an application, to decide that the application raises issues of significance to the aims of the Park and that therefore, the Park's planning officers and the Park planning committee (which consists of the entire board) should decide on the application. Most applications don't get called in in this way - but some do - either because they are obviously controversial, or simply because they do directly impact on one or more of the Park aims. Call in doesn't mean that the Park is 'against' an application - it just means it thinks it is important enough for them to want to have a say. The side effect of this is that, since we have to decide this within twenty one days of any application being lodged, we have to meet every fourteen days - spring, summer, winter or autumn, in between Christmas and New Year included - keeps us on our toes....
The informal discussion invloved a presentation by the entertaining duo of 'Gergask Air' - Councillor Jaci Douglas and board member Lucy Grant, who transported us in their make believe world to the year 2050 and what the Park had achieved, by making changes in how it inter-related with partners and public, beginning way back in 2009. Fortunately they transported us all back to 2009 (apart from Convener David Green, who they seemed to want to leave lost in space), with plenty of food for thought on how we might improve things. From that we went on to a couple of working groups to look at what we do well and what we do not so well.
After lunch, we turned to the vexed question of a web portal for the Park, which has been in gestation for two years now, but still has issues in relation to delivering fair and equitable linkages to all members of all business organisations who have quality accreditation and should therefore appear on the portal. This is a really complicated problem because there are so many organisations that tourism businesses - especially accommodation providers - might choose to join - andwe can't be seen to be favouring one over any other. We need to work with the business community to obtain concensus on a way forward - but quickly!
Then on the Ard Gheal, the new group of four affordable houses built under the auspices of the Highland Small Communities Housing Trust, on land made available by the Forestry Commission. The houses actually cost around £160,000 each to build in the end, but with grants and part ownership, the price for each family was much reduced. Fergus Ewing MSP did the honours opening the development. Back then to the car, where a flat offside rear tyre greeted me - but a trip down to the boathouse at Loch Insh Watersports found Jonny Freshwater with a compressor to hand to oblige with a refill.
And finally .... today's beef - BBC Breakfast TV did a piece this morning on how the Royal Mail were withdrawing five post bus services from remote parts of the Western Highlands - but totally failed to mention that Hiughland Council had reacted swiftly to put emergency measures in place to maintain a public transport service in these areas whilst a more permanent solution was worked out. They had their story, and they were sticking to it, even when I contacted them to point out what we were doing. Such is life!

Thursday, 16 April 2009

First of the many

It's a bit on the wierd side to be sitting here tonight, gone 61 years of ancient, yet posting my first blog. I took this notion for no particular reason other than to try to get across what it's like being an SNP Elected Councillor in a Scottish Local Authority. Truth be told, I'm also a nominated member of the Cairngorms National Park Authority and, when I get the chance in between, an Artist - in which capacity, my claim to fame is having painted the pictures for Susan Hampshire's starring role in the BBC TV series 'Monarch of the Glen'. That's it, then, the briefest of introductions over - and time to put some meat in the sandwich.
So lets try and make a start.
This morning saw me make the trip which my sit up and beg Ford Fusion can now make on its own, up to Inverness - the Headquarters of almost all things Highland Council - for a meeting of the Audit and Scrutiny Committee - the only committee chaired by the official opposition - which we in the SNP currently are. It's role is to scrutinise and audit pretty much anything and everything - if it moves, scrutinise it till it stops, then audit it.
OK, so that's not really what it's about, but it has a serious role in ensuring that decisions are taken properly, policies and procedures are fully followed, and money is spent appropriately. Most interesting issue this time was an audit of job appointments, in which, amongst other things, it was discovered that five out of a sample of thirty five new appointments didn't get issued with contracts of employment. The audit recommendation was to ensure that all service managers informed human resources as they should so that contracts could be issued. But I know that there are many people washing around in the Council system who have never had a contract of employement, so I asked what they were going to do to track these down and fix it. They seem to have something planned, so we'll see.
After a bite of lunch - HQ's notoriously unidentifiable sandwiches - it was back home to log on to have a look at the test site for the National Park's new web portal - not yet launched, but intended to link to via local tourism marketing organisations' sites. The more I dug, the worse it got - inconsistent results and problems with some businesses not being found, or not being linked to. There is still some way to go with this, so I needed to take a trip down the four miles to Grantown to talk things through with the staff involved and agree what I was going to say at tomorrow's board meeting, and why. Perhaps there'll be more on this subject later. For those with a high boredom threshold and a death wish, watch this space.