30 January 2013

S4M-05112 Television (South of Scotland)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Elaine Smith): The final item of business today is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-05112, in the name of Joan McAlpine, on television in the south of Scotland. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes the decision of Maria Miller, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, not to block the renewal of Channel 3 television licences in 2014; understands and welcomes that this means that STV will continue to hold the licences for central Scotland and Grampian; expresses concern that ITV, which holds the Channel 3 licence for the former Border Television area, has limited public service content obligations; understands that local news in the Borders and Dumfries and Galloway comes mainly from Gateshead; notes that recent Ofcom research reports dissatisfaction in the area with the ITV local coverage; welcomes Ms Miller’s acknowledgement of the deficiencies in ITV’s local and Scottish news coverage in the Border Television region in her letter to Ofcom of 16 November 2012; further welcomes Ms Miller’s request that Ofcom work with ITV plc. to find a solution, and would welcome real choice for viewers across the south of Scotland.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

Members may wonder why someone from the north-east of Scotland is participating in the debate. I noted that the motion refers to

“real choice for viewers across the south of Scotland”,

and thought that it might be useful to talk about what happens elsewhere in Scotland and how that might be relevant to the debate, and to talk more generally about the value of television’s being a part of communities engaging with themselves and talking to one another.

In the north-east of Scotland, we talk about “Having a news,” which involves calling on a neighbour, having a discussion and talking about things in general. Good local media support and sustain that.

Good communication and information flow also support economic and political success. Two thousand years ago, it took the Greeks 30 days to send a message to one of their outposts, and it took another 30 days to get a message back—an incredibly long time. A person would have forgotten what the question was by the time they got the answer.

The Romans improved things dramatically; they could send a message from Londinium to Roma and get a reply back on the same day by a system of hilltop signalling. It did not work at night or if there was fog, but it was a huge improvement.

To move forward rapidly, it was a huge step forward when Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the telephone in 1876. By 1881—only five years later—Edinburgh had 300 telephone subscribers. People want good-quality communications that are relevant to them.

I have done family-tree research for many years, and have a letter to my great-great-grandfather that is dated 1870. It was written over a period of a month and told him that one of his sons who lived in Scotland had died; my great-great-grandfather was in Canada. That was such a precious communication that the writer waited until the outcome of the illness before sending it. It shows that familial conversation, as well as community conversation, is important. I remember that my father’s first telephone call to the United States in 1958 had to be booked a day in advance and that it cost half the average working man’s weekly wage.

We now have a television pattern that was established when ITV started in around 1955. It will change, and it is changing. We have already seen that with STV. It is not a monolithic news service—there are four separate bulletins across Scotland. More fundamentally, as a commercial imperative STV is now reaching down into communities, with local reporters, local websites and local TV inserts, which are often picked up and used. In my constituency alone there are two STV websites—in Buckie and Peterhead. Such action will be a key part of sustaining companies that were born in the mid-1950s into the next 30 or 40 years. The future will not be like the past.

On journalists from television companies, Colin Wight at BBC Aberdeen goes out with a camera on his own. He writes for the web, he does for radio and he does for TV. That will be the pattern—people getting to the root of what is going on. A letter that I got from my relatives in Canada took 360 milliseconds to arrive—not the 360 minutes it took the Romans to talk to London. In the future, it will be so instantaneous it will not be true. We have to find ways of delivering for the Borders. Perhaps they can show the rest of us how to do it, because their need is greatest.


23 January 2013

S4M-05424 Fuel Poverty

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Elaine Smith): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-05424, in the name of Margaret Burgess, on tackling fuel poverty.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I apologise to members, because I will leave after my speech. I will read subsequent speeches in the Official Report with interest.

I welcome this important debate, which is timely as the chill hand of winter clasps us to its icy bosom for the first time this year and the reality of heating costs is hitting many homes very hard.

I listened with interest to a number of things that Liam McArthur had to say. He criticised us for suggesting that we were being thwarted by Westminster. I want to expand a little bit on the intervention by my colleague Annabelle Ewing in relation to Mike Weir’s proposed bill, which would in fact have cost nothing, as it would merely have advanced payments within the financial year. However, his bill was not given the slightest serious consideration at Westminster and was simply talked out.

For those who heat their homes by gas or electricity and have the energy conveniently delivered automatically by the national grid, the need to pre-plan and pre-pay for their energy use is largely absent. However, many of my constituents and many of those of other members are based in a rural location and are dependent on fuel that they have to order and have delivered—fuel that they have to pay for before use. They would have found advance payment of the benefit a modest but much-valued piece of support that Westminster could have provided at zero cost. It would have involved not new expenditure but simply retiming.

Domestic oil is the main rural energy source, and it cannot readily be bought in dribs and drabs.

Liam McArthur: I certainly do not disagree with anything that Stewart Stevenson has said. However, does he welcome the move to put in place permanently an increase from £8.50 to £25 for the winter fuel payment, rather than wait for the payment to be triggered by a drop in temperatures or, indeed, a calculation of the wind-chill factor?

Stewart Stevenson: Of course I do. However, given that it generally takes a four-figure sum to top up an oil fuel tank and that there is a delay of four weeks during the cycle of rising prices that we always see as winter approaches, the increase that the member referred to would not match the increase in price that is created when people are unable to buy early, when the prices are low.

That is why it is such a disgrace that Westminster did not even consider the substantive issues in Mike Weir’s bill. It would have been fair enough if Westminster had analysed it and found it impractical. I would have been disappointed by that, but the process would have been just and fair. However, talking out bills on matters that are important to people in rural Cornwall, rural Wales and many parts of Scotland is simply an abrogation of democratic accountability and responsibility.

Of course, for my constituents, insult is added to injury when they see the flares of the St Fergus gas terminal, from where on many days the majority of the UK’s gas comes to the beach. Few of my rural constituents have access to that gas through the mains.

Before there is a vote on our having the full powers of a normal nation in 2014, what should we focus on? I very much welcome the substantial sum of £250 million that has been allocated to fuel poverty and energy efficiency by the Government in the current spending period. I will focus on fuel efficiency and energy efficiency in particular—partly because of the policy reach that is associated with the area, because in addressing fuel poverty, we also address employment and climate change. In relation to climate change, consuming less energy is closely associated with emitting less in the way of dangerous greenhouse gases. Substantial progress towards greening our energy consumption in buildings is welcome, and we must keep up the pressure on that. However, most energy still has a substantial fossil fuel element, so the message “burn less, emit less” continues to be relevant.

Energy efficiency almost always starts with simple, modestly priced adaptations of existing buildings. Home insulation is one adaptation that is particularly effective in reducing energy consumption. This is the first winter that we have had 600mm of insulation in the loft at our house—up from 200mm last winter. We have already seen a 40 per cent reduction in the consumption of oil that we burn in our boiler. Such reductions will be replicated by other people. That is kind to the climate and brilliant for the wallet. Insulation interventions also create jobs that are largely local, which keeps money in our own economy and boosts employment that is generally accessible to a wide range of unemployed people. It is therefore a win-win-win agenda.

We have heard a number of speeches in this debate, on which I will make brief comment, if I am permitted to do so.

Murdo Fraser said that we have planning control over energy. We certainly have administrative devolution, in sections 36 and 37 of the Electricity Act 1989, but we have no legislative competence to go with that.

One of the things that I was most pleased about as a minister was an early action to get Lynne Sullivan to chair a report into our buildings and how we could make them carbon efficient. We continue to inherit the benefits of having taken that action.

Like Richard Baker, I am looking forward to the Energy Action Scotland Burns supper. I am certainly preparing my contribution—I do not know whether Richard Baker is speaking as well.

We have more consensus than the plethora of amendments might immediately suggest. I hope that we can unite around the Government’s objectives, which I believe offer a sensible, practical, affordable and ultimately effective way forward for those in fuel poverty.


22 January 2013

S4M-05407 Budget (Scotland) (No 2) Bill: Stage 1

The Deputy Presiding Officer (John Scott): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-05407, in the name of John Swinney, on the Budget (Scotland) (No 2) Bill. We are pretty tight for time, so if members can confine themselves to their speaking times that would be a great help. Cabinet secretary, you have 14 minutes.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I hope to provide a more measured contribution. James Kelly may have been slightly unwise to highlight IT projects. I merely direct him at Labour’s NHS England IT project, on which £12 billion was spent before it was abandoned. We can do a great deal better in Scotland, and we always do.

In preparing for the debate and scrutinising the motion before us, I found more startling the issue of omission rather than commission, in that Opposition members have omitted to lodge an amendment to the motion. Therefore, we can expect the Labour Party, which is most vocal in its demands but least visible in identifying actions, of necessity to vote for the unamended motion and thus endorse all that it contains; if Labour’s vote is one of abstention or outright opposition, it would thus seek to disrupt funding for health, transport, education and local government.

I am a little more optimistic than my colleague Kenny Gibson. Although Mystic Meg probably has a more sensible idea of what is going to happen, I was encouraged by Ken Macintosh’s opening remarks, in which he said that more

“unites us than divides us.”

Therefore, I will lay my money on the idea that, ultimately, Labour will decide that the finance secretary has produced a motion and a budget that are worthy of support. The whole issue is a matter of parliamentary process and rules. Credibility that is sought through debate absolutely falls to naught if it is not pursued by every means available.

I am sure that Government budgets are never produced without vigorous internal debate, keen external scrutiny and, where required, counterproposals that are tabled, debated and decided on. Those are somewhat missing from this debate so far, except in certain respects.

We should not imagine that finance ministers get their way all the time. The Parliament has previously rejected and then accepted our finance minister’s proposals. I will quote from Cabinet minutes to show that, on occasion, things can be no easier internally. The finance secretary’s alarm can be put to one side, because my example, which saw a finance minister have to ask

“that his dissent from this decision should be recorded”,

comes from 8 May 1919, when the chancellor was Austen Chamberlain. I am delighted that the successful proposition, which was on Royal Air Force officer pay, came from my father’s cousin James Stevenson, who was attending Cabinet. I can assure members who have not seen me at Cabinet that I was of course always impeccably behaved and supported the finance secretary, because he is always supportable.

Those with infrared eyes and who peer into the murky undergrowth can see the occasional glimpse of Labour’s agenda. Ken Macintosh talked about using underspend. Of course, in government, the Labour Party has a long history of building up huge underspends, which was an issue that the SNP Government had to confront in its first session in government.

Ken Macintosh also said that savings can be a help. We are moving from measuring the input to what we do, to looking at the value that we deliver. I cite one example that is drawn from transport in which, on this Government’s watch, a partnership between Transport Scotland and Network Rail has delivered exactly in the way that is desired. That is the Paisley canal project, the original budget for which was £28 million, but which was delivered on time for £12 million. That is the approach that the Government will take; it is less about cutting the output and more about getting effective use of the input.

Ken Macintosh: By cutting the Edinburgh to Glasgow rail improvement programme, how has the Government delivered on its promises to the commuters of Stirling, Dunblane and Alloa?

Stewart Stevenson: The member knows perfectly well that the investment programme for the railways in Scotland is far in excess of anything south of the border. Indeed, in the not-too-distant past, RAIL magazine carried a cartoon that referred to “ScotRail England”, because people south of the border want our policies.

Labour focuses on education, but it takes no responsibility for the £332 million that appears in the budget to cover public-private partnership projects, which, in essence, were done on Labour’s watch. History can speak louder than words and, for Labour, it certainly does.

On the cuts commission, killing the bus pass and losing bus routes will cost; charging the old for prescriptions will lead to increased mortality, which might save, but in ways that I do not think that we would want to; and the proposals would load debt on to students. Of course, for the UK Government, today’s deeply depressing lending figures represent about £87 billion a year in Scottish terms, which is much more than our budget.

We are in a position in which the SNP promises and delivers.


17 January 2013

S4M-05320 Biodiversity

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Elaine Smith): Good afternoon. The first item of business is a debate on motion S4M-05320, in the name of Rob Gibson, on biodiversity. I call Rob Gibson to speak to and move the motion on the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee’s behalf.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

Let me add my congratulations to the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee on securing time for this timely debate.

Among the briefings that are available to us as MSPs is the “UK Post-2010 Biodiversity Framework”, published for the four countries biodiversity group—a group that represents Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales. The introduction to the framework talks about moving

“away from a piecemeal approach dealing with different aspects of biodiversity and the environment separately, towards a new focus on managing the environment as a whole, with the true economic and societal value of nature properly acknowledged and taken into account in decision-making”.

That is a pretty good starting place.

We also have probably the most comprehensive land use strategy anywhere in the world. It was published in 2011 and is called “Getting the best from our land”—which is what it is about.

Of course, strategies are all very well, but they are not worth a great deal until they move into becoming plans, which are lists of actions to take place, and plans in their own way are of no value until they devolve into actual work on the ground.

National plans are important—they set the context—but at the end of the day it is individuals and local groups that can pick up and respond to the challenges right now. They do not need to wait. Such groups do not need to try to solve every problem. Perhaps at national level we can look at the gaps that local activity is leaving and seek to fill them, but we should encourage individuals and local groups to take action.

We can look around and see need, and we can see opportunity and advantage in addressing the issues on a micro scale. The macro-scale strategy is something else altogether, but it will succeed if a sufficient amount of local, micro action takes place.

A range of members have spoken about specific opportunities and challenges. In particular, Jayne Baxter spoke of the importance of local ownership of action, and I absolutely agree.

When I get up in the morning, I do so in a rural area. There are probably about seven houses within a mile. The weather can travel seasonally from the -21°C that it was in winter 2009 to the nearly 40°C that it was in high summer last year. That is a range of nearly 60°C, which is quite unexpected in Scotland, which is generally thought of as having a relatively mild climate.

Where I stay, I am surrounded on three sides by a monoculture of poorly and densely planted firs—I am not an arborist, but I think that I can say that without much challenge. That forest has a significant negative influence on local biodiversity. We have roe deer, badgers, foxes and weasels that live in and off the environment that is created, but if we look at the ground beneath the trees we see that the forest canopy has left it all but sterile. Nothing grows there, not even an effective mulch that returns what comes off the trees to the ground.

With that forest perhaps overdue for felling and therefore likely soon to leave us open to the elements in our hilltop location, over the past 10 years my wife and I have looked at a mitigation plan that is relevant to us. We have planted a hedge and about 50 trees, and in doing that we have focused on supporting biodiversity and bug life in particular.

I am absolutely delighted that the diversity in our new hedge, the blossom on our trees and our garden plants have clearly increased local insect biodiversity. I am especially pleased to see and hear a substantial increase in bumblebees in particular. I am not very good at identifying different species—I have managed to track down a decent book that has photographs, although I still find it very difficult—but I am quite certain that I have two species and may have three. There is nothing better than going out to look at the bees feeding on the flowers, covered in pollen and moving to other plants.

We are fortunate that we are not in an area where there is a great degree of agriculture; it is mostly beasts and sheep near us, so we are not particularly exposed to the adverse effects of neonicotinoids and other things that might be used.

Insects are at the bottom of the food chain, but they therefore make a very important contribution to a wide range of other species. I do not know whether the appearance in the past four years, for the first time since we have been there, of golden eagles for a few weeks each year is part of that evolving local ecosystem, but I very much welcome and enjoy it. The next thing that I am going to have a look at is the Reidside Moss that is visibly drying out, which is 1,000m away.

I had a wildlife camera given to me as my Christmas present. My wife is getting a bit peed off that I have not yet managed to get it working or to try it out in the forest. I very much look forward to doing that. If we all get engaged with the wildlife around us, we can all identify ways in which we can help.

There was an engineer in the 1930s who said that if we had to measure an improvement, we probably had not made one. We are now in a position in which incremental change ain’t gonna be good enough. We need step change that we can see, which we do not have to measure.


16 January 2013

S4M-04966 Sustainable Biomass

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Elaine Smith): The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-04966, in the name of Rhoda Grant, on sustainable biomass. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament welcomes the Scottish Government’s stated intention that sustainable biomass should be recognised as a limited resource and that it should be used at an appropriate scale and primarily for heat and high-efficiency combined heat and power; notes that the EU renewable energy directive calls for a minimum efficiency rating of 70% for industrial applications; also notes concerns in the wood processing industry throughout Scotland and particularly in the Highlands and Islands regarding wood supply and understands that wood products provide a carbon store; looks forward to the outcome of and would welcome a widespread response to the Scottish Government’s supplementary consultation on the Renewables Obligations Banding Review, for which the deadline for views on the proposals on biomass sustainability criteria is 11 January 2013.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I, too, welcome the debate and thank Rhoda Grant for giving us the opportunity to debate this important subject.

Small-scale biomass is quite easy to support and it is sensible to make use of waste material close to the point at which it is available, be it from forestry or otherwise. It is also sensible to contemplate small-scale local coppicing of resources, if that is appropriate. However, as other members have said, importing substantial timber from halfway round the world makes absolutely no sense. It is worth looking at the effect that might derive from that large-scale delivery of timber from one part of the world to another.

The UK is likely to turn to the Philippines and Brazil, where the sources are likely to be very quick-growing cane crops. The effect of continually replanting crops in a monoculture way simply to burn them elsewhere is to deplete minerals, to reduce biological load in the soil and to reduce biodiversity dramatically in a way that is likely to be uncontrolled. By contrast, when we use local resources in a controlled and limited fashion, we do so in the context of a forestry system that is tightly regulated and requires the replanting of felled timber. That is a truly fungible approach whereby the replacement of a consumer resource is not merely possible but required.

Like other members, I welcome the withdrawal of financial support for new proposals of more than 10MW. It is important that we protect the vital role that trees, and vegetation in general, have in capturing CO2 and returning it to its constituents. We should focus on small-scale developments, as they can be something that local communities can get involved in and can benefit from, both economically and environmentally. Wherever possible, those communities should, as a minimum, be partners.

It is interesting that our timber industry opposes large-scale biomass. One might think that increased demand, which would drive up the price of timber, would benefit the industry, but the industry recognises that, as the price rises, that will drive buyers out of the market—particularly local, small-scale buyers—reducing the number of buyers and leaving a few very large-scale buyers in the market who will then control the subsequent price. In this particular case, increasing demand does not necessarily benefit the seller.

We do not have legislative competence in the area of energy; we have merely the administrative powers that have been devolved to us. I am not quite certain where this sits, but one area in which difficulty arises in exploiting the heat that is part of small-scale local biomass concerns freestanding heritable rights of access, which, south of the border, are known as wayleaves. It would be interesting to hear what the minister has to say on that subject. I recall visiting a plant in Dundee that had excess heat that it wanted to deliver to housing that was only a few hundred metres away, but it could not get the necessary protected permissions for the pipes to do so.

I very much welcome the debate, agree with the sentiments expressed and approve of the fact that we will not be burning precious resource in major plants—small scale and local is the way to go.


15 January 2013

S4M-04875 Coal Industry

The Deputy Presiding Officer (John Scott): The final item of business today is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-04875, in the name of Adam Ingram, on the Scottish coal industry. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises the importance of the coal industry, which it considers has been and remains a significant contributor to local and rural economies in East Ayrshire, Fife, South Lanarkshire, Dumfries and Galloway, North Lanarkshire, Midlothian and West Lothian; considers the industry a mainstay occupation in the Scottish economy, generating £450 million of economic value to Scotland every year and, with its wider supply chain, employing on average 4,000 people; welcomes the fact that two Scottish projects are being considered to take forward the next phase of the UK Government’s £1 billion carbon capture and storage programme to demonstrate the potential to greatly reduce the carbon impact of fossil fuel power generation as Scotland moves to a low-carbon future, but is concerned that future investment in the industry is being threatened by an adverse and unintended effect of the carbon reduction commitment and proposals by the Office of Rail Regulation to hike freight access charges for Scottish coal producers.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I thank Adam Ingram for the opportunity to debate this important subject. Anne McTaggart said that many of us have family members with connections to the industry. The 1841 census for Muir of Bannockburn showed that 328 Stevensons lived in the area, almost all of whom were miners. One of them was James Stevenson, who was my great-grandfather. His father, John Stevenson, probably died in the 1830s in a mining accident. Of course, in those days they did not even bother to record deaths in the mining industry, so I shall probably never get to the reality of that. However, the mining industry touches families across Scotland, including perhaps quite unlikely families, it might be thought.

I want to touch on an experience that I had as a minister, when I visited the Nith at the request of the fishing interests there. I found a fascinating coalition of interests, with a huge environmental benefit, between the opencast mining industry and the salmon fishing industry. With the need to open up ground to get access to coal in the area, there was a need to reroute the River Nith.

The consequence of doing that and restoring the Nith has been to dramatically reduce the pollution, which has given it a much more effective environment for salmon—four times as many salmon now reach the headwaters of the Nith as was the case before the opencast coal mining industry. When we consider the coal mining and other industries that can be polluting, we need to see opportunities for those industries to work for the benefit of communities, in terms not only of the employment that they give—substantial as that unquestionably is—but of the related environmental benefits.

In capturing, via carbon capture and storage, the carbon dioxide that comes from the combustion of coal, we are playing to a secure local supply of energy. That is to be preferred to putting ourselves in the situation of importing—as the UK Government appears to want to do—wood, coal and gas from across the world. It is clear that being self-sufficient in energy is important.

Carbon capture has huge economic opportunities as a technology, not only because we can export it but because we have the depleted oil reservoirs in the North Sea into which we can pump our own and others’ CO2 . The abandoned Miller field is a particularly good example of where we can put our CO2. It was a sour oilfield—the oil that came out was acidic, so the pipes that go to the field are more resistant to acidic corrosion than other pipes to oilfields. Of course, carbonic acid is mildly acidic, so that is the perfect first field that we might contemplate using—and with a reduced cost of doing so.

I did a quick sum on rail access. If the cost increases by £4 a tonne, that is £9,200 per train, which puts that access cost into context. The rail network is a national asset that should be bound, in Scottish terms, by the public bodies’ duties in the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009. They should give due intent to carrying freight on the rail network. If only that was the case more generally. I hope that we see a more effective regime for carrying freight on the rail network; it has a big role to play.


S4M-05358 Planning Reform

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Elaine Smith): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-05358, in the name of Derek Mackay, on planning reform, next steps.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I welcome the addition to the funding that is available to increase young people’s involvement in the planning system, to which Jamie Hepburn made some substantial reference. I have seen youngsters from the age of eight take part in planning for real exercises in my constituency. Such exercises are a limited way in which a much wider range of people than is normally the case can participate meaningfully in strategic planning.

I also welcome the planned work on charrettes. As a minister, I participated in a charrette in Aberdeen a few years ago. Charrettes are an example of an excellent approach, which I understand that Willie Coffey will speak about later. They open the door to the involvement of a wider range of people in local development. Whatever we are doing in relation to the continual evolution of the planning system at a strategic and a specific level, if we can find new ways of getting people meaningfully involved at the right time, that will be good.

That draws the contrast between the difficulty of engaging the general public in strategic planning and the energy that is brought to decisions that are local in their scope. Mark Griffin raised that issue and illustrated the difficulty. He perhaps failed to take on board the role that we elected members can play in examining strategic plans of whatever nature and identifying and taking forward issues that are of relevance to the people whom we represent.

To rely on advertisements in papers or elsewhere will not be sufficient. When there is local discontent that is focused on a local proposal, the essence of that discontent often hangs on the strategic framework within which the proposal has been brought forward, which is often little consulted on and little understood. A key part of what we should do is deconstruct the barriers to engagement and strategic planning, because that will lead to improved local decision making.

The minister referred to the planning professionals who are at the heart of the system; the enthusiasm of young planners, in particular, is to be commended. Many of the planning proposals that cause greatest difficulty do so because of the approach of the applicant rather than because of the response of the planners. In an intervention, Sarah Boyack indicated that she seemed to think that all the delays are down to the planning system and Government departments, but the reality—developers acknowledge this—is that inadequate applications are often the source of what is seen to be an inadequate planning response. Therefore, I hope that the planning system will continue to engage with developers to assist them to make their contribution to the planning system substantially better—in other words, to help them to raise their game.

I look forward greatly to NPF 3. I am much encouraged by the substantial environmental focus, especially the linkage with addressing climate change, which is a critical subject. As a minister, I brought forward NPF 2, which prioritised the central Scotland green network. Yesterday, I was delighted to hear reference to that network during a visit to Cumbernauld on a regeneration exercise as part of the Local Government and Regeneration Committee’s work.

In talking about fracking, the Labour amendment focuses on an issue that many local communities will get involved in, but it merely illustrates perfectly—I welcome its doing so—the limitations of this Parliament’s powers and the difficulties that that creates. I am always willing to hear of a recruit to the argument for greater powers for this place in relation to fracking.

I welcome the concerns that have been expressed about enforcement mechanisms. Few of us will not have been approached by constituents about perceived imperfections in the enforcement process. I welcome the idea that we can do more on that.

The publication of numbers on the performance of different local authorities can be particularly interesting. The Government publishes such figures. Looking at the performance of the local authority that forms the majority of my constituency, I see that on local developments—the number is big enough for the percentage to be meaningful—the average time that is taken for a decision is 50 per cent higher than the Scottish average. In Aberdeenshire and Aberdeen City, the level of planning applications has continued at the level that existed before the economic crunch. Given that there has been a reduction in the number of planning applications across Scotland, it is disappointing that there has not been an improvement in the performance of the planning system, which is what we would expect when the resource is there but the number of applications reduces. I hope that councils are not taking the opportunity to deprioritise planning, because it remains a vital spring for sustainable economic growth. It matters—often in a very small degree—to householders who want to make changes that do not fall within permitted development rights, as well as to big local and international developers.

I was delighted to hear from the minister about the substantial progress that is being made, and I am delighted that the challenge that remains is being engaged with.

I have a family connection to planning. My great-uncle, Alexander Stevenson, chaired the first Scottish meeting of the Royal Town Planning Institute in the late 1920s, and I am delighted to continue to have some involvement in the issue.

The minister referred to pace and pragmatism, which should be the watchwords for the issue. I look forward to supporting the Government’s motion at decision time.


09 January 2013

S4M-05310 Oil and Gas Sector

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Elaine Smith): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-05310, in the name of Fergus Ewing, on oil and gas—the success and opportunities. ...

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I will pick up on what my colleague just said. Banff and Buchan College, which is based in Fraserburgh and elsewhere and is part of the energy skills academy, is a welcome addition in employment and in supporting what the industry needs in the way of skills.

The energetica corridor extends from Aberdeen up to Peterhead in my constituency. It will be an important axis for the next generation of energy, just as it has been in the exploitation of oil and gas resources off our coasts over the past decades. That axis has largely insulated the north-east of Scotland from the economic downturn. If members go to Aberdeen, they will see an environment that is different from almost all the rest of Scotland, so we value the industry highly.

Hydrocarbons, about which we have been talking and of which we have many decades yet to come, are not only used to generate electricity and to power transport but are important as a chemical feedstock. One of the things that we will see over the period of our exploitation of that natural, but limited, resource is a move away from using it for transportation and generating electricity.

Patrick Harvie: Does Stewart Stevenson worry—as I do—that the MSPs who stand here to debate such issues in the 2050s will curse us for burning the hydrocarbons that they will consider too valuable to burn?

Stewart Stevenson: We must map our transition not just in Scotland but across Europe and the world. A huge economic and environmental opportunity comes from the development of carbon capture and storage not simply for us, but as an exportable technology and a technology that we can use our engineers to support.

I have discussed that subject on a couple of occasions—for example, with ministers in the Polish Government. In Poland, 90 per cent to 95 per cent of the electricity comes from coal or lignite, which is not just CO2 polluting but is hugely sulphurous. We could play a key role in helping countries such as Poland to address their issues, because their transition to a different world will be much lengthier and more difficult. That is not simply a matter of economic imperative; it also has an environmental benefit.

We have heard a bit about the need for certainty, about which I will say a few words. The chief corporate officer of Iberdrola, Keith Anderson—he also heads ScottishPower Renewables, so an intimate link across the energy sector exists—captured the issue for the industry when he said:

“Give the clarity now and let us understand the mechanism and you will see the investment come through in an orderly fashion.”

That was in the context of the Energy Bill, because the industry is uncomfortable about what it sees—it wants such certainty.

Another interesting aspect is whether the way forward depends on fracking. I particularly tak tent of Charles Hendry, who was the UK energy minister—I know that our minister knows him well. Charles Hendry pointed out that shale gas is very unlikely to play a significant role in the UK. The reasons for that are partly environmental and partly economic. Shale gas just will not make sense in the UK, so there will be a fundamental and continuing role for renewable energy and huge economic opportunities for us.

Rhoda Grant raised proper questions about the transition to an independent Scotland. I popped out of the chamber, Presiding Officer, to get the factual information that I knew that I had online. Since 1946, the UK Government has passed 23 acts of independence, so it is quite experienced in that. All the acts are short—the longest is eight pages long. The legal transfer is almost invariably expressed in the following terms:

“Subject to the provisions of this section, the existing laws shall, notwithstanding the revocation of the existing Orders or the establishment of a Republic”

I am quoting the legislation for Kiribati—

“continue in force on and after Independence Day”.

Legal certainty is available at that level.

The question was posed: what happens to contracts? It is worth saying that legislation by Parliaments trumps contracts but, in any event, contracts in the commercial world are rarely without a provision for novation, which is about the transfer of the purchaser or the supplier to another party. That applies in commercial terms.

There is no difficulty about the mechanics of the transfer. The issue is whether, post-independence, the Scottish Government would be motivated to maintain the certainty and an environment that would be internationally competitive for the investments that we need and which would enable the industry to have a long-term future with us. When we look at the economic benefits that we derive in our communities in north-east Scotland and elsewhere, beyond peradventure the answer is yes.


08 January 2013

S4M-05276 Employability

The Deputy Presiding Officer (John Scott): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-05276, in the name of Kenneth Gibson, on the Finance Committee’s report “Improving employability”.

... ... ...

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

Like other members, I congratulate the committee members and thank them for their considerable efforts. The report focuses mainly on preparing potential employees for work and in particular on those who are most distant from the prospect of early employment. There are perhaps two other factors that affect prospects. One is having control over all aspects of our economy, and the other is a bit more subtle—it is an aspect that we could do something about and it relates to employers.

I have just gone through a recruitment exercise for my constituency office. It did not involve people whom I would describe as hard to employ, but it illustrated something that is quite important. We had a good-quality group of applicants, all of whom were sourced through the website that I run. We brought in five applicants for an interview, before which we had a 30-minute practical test. The interview picked up on things from that test.

That process was not quite as straightforward as members might think, because it turned out that three of the five people whom we brought in could not commence the skills test, as they had neither pen nor pencil in their pocket. That told me something about me as an employer as much as it told me something about the potential employees. We are moving to an electronic world; as an employer, am I still stuck in the old world when I assess candidates’ qualities? As others have—properly—said, when we take on new people, we bring in new attitudes and new skills, which will be enormously valuable.

The committee has not neglected that issue. At paragraph 184, it says:

“The Committee ... considers it crucial that SMEs”

which are large recruiters—

“receive appropriate support to enable them to offer sustainable employment opportunities to those furthest from the labour market.”

That picks up on Minerva People’s point that few SME businesses have a human resources department or a specialist with the necessary skills and experience in recruitment and selection. I am glad that the cabinet secretary’s response to that point was that it is necessary to look at a bit of management training for small companies.

We must look at the recruitment process. A successful recruitment process is not simply about ensuring continuity for the enterprise concerned, but about getting new skills and attitudes into companies and ensuring that they benefit from the process—that means not just filling a chair but filling minds with new ideas.

As she did in December, Kezia Dugdale has raised today the issue of the my world of work website. I took the opportunity to see whether I am suitable for anything and I found that, at my age and with my skills set, there are limited opportunities for me—thank goodness I got lucky and I got here.

We are absolutely underplaying the role of computers in training and educating people. It is clear that Kezia Dugdale will not be flying in the near future. The majority of the first revenue flights of the A380 Airbus—the latest aircraft into the fleet—are undertaken by pilots who have never flown that aircraft type before those first revenue flights. That is because, nowadays, the computers and simulators do the whole job.

We are moving towards a position in which computers can, by drawing on the skills and knowledge of a wide range of people and delivering them through a single access point, genuinely provide a set of skills that are much greater than those that can be delivered one on one. However, that does not remove the need for one-on-one interaction, which remains important too.

The committee looked at the my world of work website, and SDS made the point that an individual who wants to speak to an adviser can do so. However, the website personalises the computer experience based on the input from the people who use it. To imagine that using a computer involves the loss of personalisation is to fail to understand how modern computer systems should and do work. SDS also said that work coaches will work with and case manage young people, so it is a hybrid system—and properly so—that involves computers and other aspects.

People will have to change. Employers—such as me in my constituency office—and employees will be very different. The world will probably see very few people using pens and pencils in 10, 20 or 30 years’ time. I do not know when exactly that will be, but the evidence shows that it is happening already. That is the world for which we must ensure that people are equipped.

To adapt what St Thomas Aquinas said—I think that it was him; I am never quite sure—“Oh Lord, give me change, but let it not change anything.” That is often the way that people feel about things.

One point that we have not mentioned so far concerns a disadvantaged sector that it might be worth making a further effort to look at: we need to get people who have suffered from mental ill health back into work. That is a significant problem in our society, and it is a difficult area. People who have suffered from mental ill health particularly benefit from getting back into work, and from the social interaction as well as the financial benefits.


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