Edinburgh Rejects Vehicle Toll Scheme
There was a high turnout (61.8%) in the referendum in Edinburgh which sought to introduce a charge of £2 on vehicles entering Edinburgh, with fines of up to £60 for those who did not pay up promptly or in advance. There were 133,678 votes (74%) against and 45,965 (26%) in favour, despite an expenditure of £9 million by Edinburgh City Council backing the scheme. The cordons were to have operated from Monday to Friday with an outer one for the morning rush hour and an inner one in operation until 1830 at night. In addition to reducing traffic levels in the city, the scheme was expected to generate £761m over 20 years which would have been used on council schemes to improve public transport - including a high-profile re-introduction of a tramway network. The City Council leaders were clearly disappointed, but in view of the overwhelming "No" vote they "absolutely unequivocally accepted the decision" and will now look at "coping with more congestion." Although the sums available are now reduced, Edinburgh City Council is still pressing ahead with expenditure of nearly £1 billion over the next 20 years on public transport schemes.
Is the National Health Service Better or Worse?
As the politicians in the Scottish Parliament debated the state of the National Health Service, they traded "facts and figures" from the Information Statistics Division of NHS Scotland. Depending on the data selected, they appeared to contradict one another. Government ministers, who had undertaken to get waiting lists down, were confronted with the number of people awaiting inpatient and day case treatment had increased by 1,590 to 113,612 in the year to December 2004, its highest-ever level. The median waiting time for a hospital appointment had also gone up from 40 days to 43. So the Scottish Executive argued that median waiting times do not adequately reflect how quickly the NHS is seeing and treating patients. They pointed instead to a fall in the numbers waiting more than six months and argued that Scotland was leading the UK in the diagnosis and treatment of coronary heart disease. Spending by the government in Scotland has risen from £4.1 billion in 1995 to £8.3 billion this year. During that time, the number of out-patients treated in Scotland's hospitals has fallen by 133,000. In contrast, waiting lists for hospital appointments in England have fallen by a third since 1998 while numbers waiting in Scotland have grown. It's not that spending per head is greater in England either - Scotland has always spent more per patient than in England and Wales.
Record Profits for Royal Bank
The Royal Bank of Scotland announced that its annual pre-tax profits grew by 14% in the year to 31 December last year, rising to £6.9 billion (US$13.1 billion at current exchange rates). The bank, which is building a huge new HQ near Edinburgh airport, is the second largest in the UK and the 6th largest in the world as a consequence of major takeovers in recent years, particularly the NatWest Bank on England and a series of acquisitions in the US. 30% of its profits now come from overseas and under 10% of its UK income comes from personal accounts. Usually when a bank makes large profits, there is media comment about profiteering at the expense of business and personal customers. On this occasion, the bank's PR department must have been working overtime as there was an emphasis instead on the benefit to Scotland in having such a large bank with its headquarters here. Of course, there were demands for the bank to do more to benefit those on low incomes and complaints about the number of autobanks being operated by service providers who were making a charge for dispensing cash. But even the staff union noted approvingly that the bank pumped in nearly £500 million into the staff pension scheme. The staff profit sharing scheme will also pay out £214 million this year, with over 100,000 employees in UK and Ireland receiving a 10% bonus - an average of £2,100 each. However, that is somewhat less than the estimated £1.5 million bonus paid to the chief executive, Sir Fred Goodwin, the first head of a Scottish listed company to receive a seven-figure annual bonus.
Best School Results in Scotland
Education officials have praised East Renfrewshire for the "outstanding" performance of the area's seven secondary and 24 primary schools. Inspectors said schools in Giffnock, Clarkston and Barrhead achieved strong Higher passes and also promoted sport, music and the arts. East Renfrewshire has the two top-performing state schools in the country for Higher passes. 30% of pupils taking Highers at St Ninian's High, in Giffnock, and Williamwood High, in Clarkston, achieved five Highers or more in 2004. The council's education department has been awarded top marks in all five inspection categories - the first time any council in Scotland has achieved the feat. Of course, it helps that East Renfrewshire is one of the areas of Scotland with a high number of high wage-earners and wealthy residents.
New Visitor Reception at Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh's famous castle attracts more visitors than any other tourist attraction in Scotland charging an entrance fee. It welcomed 1,243,304 visitors last year, according to statistics from the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions. Historic Scotland, who look after the historic building, is constantly looking at ways of making it more attractive and adding to the exhibits on show. Now an architect is drawing up plans to create new "visitor reception arrangements". Currently, the first port of call for visitors to the castle is a temporary ticket office on the esplanade in front of the castle (the white rectangle behind the cars in the illustration here) - not the best start for what can be an enjoyable day-long visit. Historic Scotland have budgeted £1.3 million for the new facility.
Prison Population in Scotland Reaches New High
According to official statistics, Scotland's prison population reached a new high of over 7,000 last year. Numbers rose by 4% from the previous year, with 2,914 prisoners sentenced to four years and over, an increase of 5%. There are plans for two new prisons in Scotland as well as proposals to electronically tag those waiting for a court appearance.
Expansion for Retail Park
The Glasgow Fort retail park in the east side of the city has created over 1,500 new jobs since it opened four months ago. A further 600 staff will be required as the Morrisons supermarket and Boots chain of chemist shops open their doors, along with a branch of the giant book store Borders. The new retail park has been a major catalyst in regenerating the Easterhouse area of the city. Unlike many recent retail developments, Glasgow Fort does not have a covered mall for shoppers moving from one store to another. While this creates an impression of an urban High Street, it does mean that in an area which has an appreciable rainfall, customers have to go armed with umbrellas and raincoats instead of walking from covered car parks to an enclosed mall.
Edinburgh Road Accidents Fall
The number of road accidents in Edinburgh has fallen by over 25% in the last ten years, with the number of fatalities down from 12 in 1994 to 8 in 2004. Politicians claim that the decrease is due to additional speed cameras and education campaigns. The compulsory wearing of seatbelts have also contributed to the number injured falling from 2,491 in 1994 to 1,796 in 2004. There has been a significant increase in the number of vehicles on the roads during the last ten years - but congestion and dedicated bus lanes, which have reduced the width of roads available to motor cars by 50%, have also caused average speeds to fall. There have been no fatalities involving children on Edinburgh's roads since 2002 - the introduction of 20mph speed restrictions near schools has been a factor in that improvement.
Heritage Staff Reject Move to Inverness
A survey by Scottish Natural Heritage shows that only 14% of its Edinburgh staff have opted to take part in the controversial relocation to Inverness - a relocation forced upon the government agency by the Scottish Executive. Despite a generous relocation package, most of the staff are unwilling to uproot their families and lose the quality of life in Edinburgh. However, it seems that some staff in offices in other parts of the country may be willing to move to Inverness while some Edinburgh-based staff may be willing to be redeployed to other SNH offices in places such as Perth, Clydebank and Stirling, rather than accept the redundancy package. The illustration shows the new SNH HQ building in Inverness.
Architecture and Design Tsar Defends Cumbernauld
The town of Cumbernauld, which was developed from the 1950s onwards as a "new town" to take the overspill from the crowded city of Glasgow, has frequently been the focus of negative comment about its architecture and design. The producers of a new TV series "Demolition", which aims to select one of Britain's ugliest buildings, were surprised to find that some of the residents of Cumbernauld had nominated the entire town to be razed to the ground. But the newly appointed chief executive of Architecture and Design Scotland has leapt to the defence of the much maligned urban area, saying that it has some of the best modern housing of its era. The town was designed to keep traffic and residential housing apart, so the views of many who pass through Cumbernauld is dominated by fast roads - and that ugly carbuncle dominating the landscape, known officially as the "town shopping centre." Cumbernauld pioneered walkways and pedestrian underpasses, so there are many areas of Cumbernauld where pedestrians can escape from the traffic. Architecture and Design Scotland is a government quango which has been set up to promote well-designed and attractive cities, towns and villages.
Number of Airline Passengers Double
Since 1990, the number of passengers flying from Scottish airports has more than doubled, largely due to the low-cost, no-frills budget airlines. International scheduled routes have rocketed from just 10 to 40 in the last 14 years, with the biggest increase at Prestwick, which has grown from zero to 12 thanks largely to Irish airline Ryanair. The increase brought criticism from environmental organisations and a spokesman for the Green Party commented that "The Scottish Executive appears quite happy to let (air travel) run out of control... Lifeline flights are OK, but short-haul flights where rail travel is a real alternative is a worry."
Flights to Paris and Amsterdam for £1
Air Scotland has announced that it is to begin direct flights between Glasgow and the continental destinations of Paris (Charles de Gaulle airport) and Amsterdam. Initially, fares are being offered as low as £1 each way - though airport taxes bump that price up to £52 for the return flight. Flights will operate twice a week to each destination. Air Scotland had a number of problems when it began to operate two years ago (with one aircraft) and it now says that it will concentrate on low-cost links between Glasgow and European cities rather than holiday resorts.
Scotland's Oldest Carpet Maker Closes
Kilmarnock-based Stoddards International began making carpets 150 years ago. It made the red carpet for the Queen's wedding day in 1947, the new Scottish parliament last year and for the film "Titanic." At its peak, it employed 500 people at a number of locations in Scotland, including Elderslie, its original HQ. But after running up operating losses, it was forced to call in the receivers in January. Despite strenuous efforts to find a buyer, chronic over-capacity in the UK carpet manufacturing sector and overseas competition meant that nobody was willing to take on the company. So the factory, which was continuing to lose money at the rate of £100,000 a week and had accumulated debts of £9 million, has had to close.
Highland Chief to Wed Border TV Presenter
The Borders and the Highlands are being united in a wedding in May when Sir Malcolm Macgregor of MacGregor, the 24th clan chief, marries Fiona Armstrong a TV presenter who is now anchor woman at Border TV. The Armstrongs are very much a Border family and Fiona was chairperson of the Armstrong Clan for six years - the clan has not had a chief since 1611. The couple are both keen on fishing and met while they were both working in Alaska.
Tornado Crash-Lands at Lossiemouth
An RAF Tornado fighter bomber was forced to land on two wheels at its base at Lossiemouth near the Moray Firth when the starboard undercarriage failed to come down. The pilot had elected to land instead of ejecting over the sea and allowing the jet to crash. He made a text-book landing at 180mph and an arrester cable across the runway brought the jet to a rapid halt. But a fuel tank ruptured as the wing scraped along the runway and the sparks ignited a fire which was rapidly extinguished by the waiting emergency crews. The aircraft is apparently capable of being repaired - and the RAF crew involved were back flying on another aircraft the next day.
Food Gourmet Praises Scotland's Chefs
Scotland's food is often characterised by deep fried Mars Bars and haggis, neeps and tatties. That does a disservice to the many fine restaurants across the country. So it was perhaps not surprising that the latest Egon Ronay guide to the 200 best restaurants in the UK included 17 from Scotland, despite the weight of London-based establishments. The food guru described Scotland as "gastronomically the UK's most impressive region". Ronay's guide, the first for eight years after winning a court battle over the right to use his name in print, gave the highest accolade to Andrew Fairlie at the restaurant in the Gleneagles Hotel and Martin Wishart's Restaurant in Edinburgh.
Glasgow's Oldest Restaurant For Sale
The Buttery restaurant on Argyle Street in Glasgow dates back to 1856 and at one time was a favourite haunt of the city's businessmen. Redevelopment in the Anderston area, however, in the 1960s and 1970s, with the Kingston Bridge across the river Clyde slicing Argyle Street in two, resulted in the restaurant being in an isolated cul-de-sac. That, and the decline of expense account business lunches led to a decline and after passing through the hands of many owners, it closed its doors three years ago. It was soon snapped up by a top Scots restaurateur Ian Fleming. Mr Fleming, who was behind the award-winning Auchterarder House in Perthshire, said that he aimed to make it a culinary icon - as it once was. He seemed to be succeeding, winning the AA Restaurant of the Year Award and other prizes and - even more importantly - doubling the turnover. But now Ian Fleming has put the restaurant back on the market, saying that he is "hungry for another challenge." Fleming recently headed the takeover of the fashionable Lake of Menteith hotel in the Trossachs, with backing from top chef Nick Nairn.
Supermarket Says "Come Awa' In"
Supermarket giant Asda is hoping to attract extra customers to its new store in Peterhead by speaking the same language as the customers. So shoppers will be greeted with "Come Awa' In" and instead of their usual slogan of "Pocket the difference" it will be "pooch the change." Staff "wid aye gie ye a han'" (are always there to help) and as customers leave they will be exhorted with "Haste ye back" (return soon). And any shoppers who have to "spend a penny" in the store will find the gents and ladies facilities marked "loons and "quines". The company has used a similar strategy in Wales and Cornwall. Of course, by recruiting check-out and other staff from the local community, there will be more than just signage speaking in Doric (the language of the north-east).
Golf Course Bunkered by Ministry of Defence
A £30 million golf resort in the Mull of Kintyre is being blocked because of objections by the Ministry of Defence. The site is on private land next door to the redundant air base at Macrahanish which closed in 1996, devastating the local economy. In the last ten years the population in the area has declined from 10,000 to 6,000. The championship golf course and 32 timeshare homes is being supported by the local council, Scottish Natural Heritage and Historic Scotland, but now the decision on whether the project goes ahead rests with the UK Minister for Defence, Geoff Hoon. The Ministry of Defence say that they "might have to reactivate the base in the future" and the golf resort would have "safety implications."
Playing "Keepie-Uppie" With Wembley Bridge
The Wembley Stadium in London is an icon of English football - and the scene of many scraps between the national sides of Scotland and England. A crowning moment there (in Scottish eyes at least) was the 3-2 defeat of England in 1967, in which Jim Baxter played "keepie-uppie" (keeping the ball in the air with repeated taps at the ball) to show his disregard for the English side (that had been crowned World Champions the year before). So when the London Development Agency asked "Whatís the most significant name or moment in Wembley Stadiumís history?" with a view to naming a new footbridge linking the new National Stadium to the railway station, they expected the names suggested would be an English sporting hero. But Scottish supporters have been sending round-robin e-mails to contacts encouraging them to vote for Jim Baxter. So far, they appear to have been successful, and Baxter was tied in the lead with Scott Gibb, the former Welsh rugby player (clearly the Welsh are getting organised too). If you wish to participate in the on-line vote, go to London Development Agency Bridge.
Weather in Scotland This Week
Just when we thought winter was over and there were distinct signs of spring, winds began to blow from Siberia this week and brought freezing temperatures and snow-falls, with the east and north of Scotland the worst affected. All schools in Dundee and Midlothian were shut on Wednesday, along with 113 in Fife and around 100 in Aberdeenshire. A gritter sent out to clear the M90 motorway in Fife got stuck and created a nine-mile tail-back of rush-hour traffic. Overnight temperatures in the Highlands fell as low as -8C (18F). Maximum day-time levels were in the range 3/5C (37/41F) but the biting north and east winds made it feel much colder than that. The west of the country experienced the low temperatures but escaped most of the snow and instead had a fair amount of sunshine on a number of days this week.
This first of this week's illustrations of current weather conditions in Scotland shows the sun trying to break through a snow storm in Drumpellier Country Park in North Lanarkshire. The photo below, of a mallard, gadwall and teal, was taken about ten minutes later - when the sun won over the snowfall. The changing seasons are illustrated by the two gulls - the blackheaded gull adopts white feathers during the winter (as on the first picture) and gradually regains its black head in the spring (as in the second picture). Both pictures were taken on the same day. Finally, the yellow crocus in the sunshine brightens any day.