Beware the Bribes of March
Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown presented the UK government's annual budget in parliament this week and, with a general election in the near future, announced a series of "sweeteners". The older voters (who tend to go to the polling stations more assiduously than the younger generation) came out best from the package of changes with a one-off reduction of £200 on local council tax for pensioners over 65 and the threshold of inheritance tax being raised from £263,000 to £300,000 over the next two years. Of course, that will be of more benefit, eventually, to the children of property-owning parents! The threshold of stamp duty on house purchase is also being raised and an inflation increase in duty on petrol is being postponed until September. Low-income families will get increased child tax credits and duty on spirits - including whisky - will not be increased in line with inflation. Much of the give-away will be financed by changes in North Sea oil tax. With the huge profits they are making at the moment, few will disagree with that, unless the companies pass on the extra tax they pay in higher prices at the pumps. But nearly all economic analysts believe that the Chancellor will have a "black hole" of around £10 billion as predicted tax revenues are considered to be too optimistic. Tax rises are therefore expected after the election, hence the newspaper headlines such as "Beware the Bribes of March" and "You can pay me back later".
End of an Edinburgh Era?
The ladies of Morningside in Edinburgh who frequent the tearoom of Jenner's department store - overlooking Princes Street gardens and the castle - were choking on their scones and tea this week when it was announced that the world's oldest independent department store was in advanced negotiations to sell out. The buyer is the House of Fraser but, as with other stores in the Fraser Group, Jenners will without doubt continue to trade under its well-established name. Jenners has occupied the same site at the east end of Edinburgh's Princes Street since 1838. It was founded by two young men (one of whom was Charles Jenner) who had been sacked by a local draper for skipping work without permission to attend a horse racing meeting. It soon became a unique Edinburgh institution, frequented not just by genteel Edinburghers but also by many tourists who are attracted by its wide range of quality goods in 100 departments and good "old fashioned" service. Fortunately, alterations are restricted because of planning constraints in the labyrinthine building, which is part of its charm. Externally, it is one of the few remaining original buildings on Princes Street where a spate of 1960s construction completely destroyed the character of the famous street. Jenners has faced increased competition with the arrival of London-based Harvey Nichols and has had the expense of setting up new satellite stores at Edinburgh Airport and at the Lomond Shores retail development. Those genteel Edinburgh ladies having their afternoon tea in Jenners are likely to recall that House of Fraser was founded in the less genteel city of Glasgow (a city that now fancies itself as the top UK shopping destination outside of London). Partners Hugh Fraser and James Arthur opened a small drapery shop on the corner of Argyle Street/Buchanan Street, Glasgow in 1849. The store is still there - though considerably larger than it was 150 years ago.
£868 Million for Scottish Higher Education Institutions
The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council announced this week the allocation of funding to the universities and colleges across the country amounting in total to £868 million in the academic year 2005/06. It is planned to increase spending on Higher Education in Scotland by 23% in real terms, to reach over £1 billion, by 2007/08. Funding includes ring-fenced allocations of £589 million for teaching, £216 million for research and £25 million capital funding for learning and teaching infrastructure. Edinburgh University will receive £126 million and Glasgow £117 million while Aberdeen will be allocated £59 million.
£200 Million Facelift for University Buildings
When the Royal College of Science and Technology in Glasgow metamorphosed into Strathclyde University in the mid-1960s, there was a mad scramble to find accommodation for the expanded seat of learning. Various buildings, including an empty speculative office block, were pressed into service. Since then, the campus in the centre of the city has expanded further, sometimes with further office blocks, but also with some fine new buildings. Now Strathclyde is embarking on a £200 million construction project over the next ten years. Many of the inadequate, stop-gap office blocks will be demolished or totally renovated. The 13-storey Livingstone Tower (seen here), which houses the English and Maths departments, and the McCance Building will be demolished, while the Colville Building will have its concrete facade replaced with glass. In total, 13 buildings will be refurbished and a new sports complex and biomedical building will be created. Like all other universities, Strathclyde is competing for students, especially those from abroad who pay up to £20,000 a year in tuition fees. Having an attractive campus with up-to-date facilities can make a big difference in recruiting the best students.
Approval Given for New Rail Link
After years of campaigning, the Scottish Executive has given the project to reopen the railway link from Edinburgh to the Scottish Borders an amber light and committed £130 million of the estimated £151 million cost. But Nicol Stephen, the transport minister, has admitted that the economic case for recreating the service - which closed 40 years ago because of lack of passengers - is "not the strongest". He has imposed stringent conditions to ensure that the projections made by supporters are met. The economic case is propped up by estimates of new housing which it is said the new railway line will generate. However, campaigners have recently admitted that the journey time of 61 minutes for the 35-mile route with seven station stops is not going to be attractive enough to encourage car drivers to use the service. The bill authorising the project must now be approved by the Scottish Parliament.
Stopping the Rot
The Scottish Executive has announced an additional £150 million for National Health Service (NHS) dentistry over the next three years to improve the health of children's teeth. The number of NHS dentists has been rapidly declining in recent years - large areas of Scotland do not have such services due to dentists moving to take on more lucrative work serving private patients. So much of the extra cash will have to be used to attract dentists back to the NHS. Those going into the private sector also claim that NHS fee structure does not allow them to provide patients with the right level of treatment, particularly in regard to preventive dental procedures. The Scottish Executive's aim is to allow every child in Scotland to have access to dental care on starting nursery school by March 2008. Recognising that parents also have a role in ensuring that children learn oral hygiene at an early age, the government in Scotland is introducing the largest supervised toothbrushing programme in Europe. Over 120,000 children will receive free toothbrushes and toothpaste and take part in daily brushing at nurseries and schools across the country. It is claimed that the new measures will be the biggest shake-up of National Health Service dentistry in Scotland since the creation of the NHS in 1948.
UK Health Secretary Dr John Reid surprised BBC TV interviewer Jeremy Paxman (pictured here) by bridling at being called an "attack dog". Reid suggested that Paxman's description was due to his Glasgow accent. Later, the interviewer (who can be bit of a Rottweiler himself) said in an interview with the Sunday Times that he admired the health secretary's "knowledge" and "strength of character," but could not understand why Dr Reid had gone "doolally" The TV frontman then commented "I mean, down here we live under a sort of Scottish Raj... I don't see why there is any reason for them to feel chippy. Do we complain about it? No we don't." The British Raj (from the Hindi term ‘Raj’ meaning rule) was the nickname given to the colonial administration which ran India for over 100 years. Chancellor Gordon Brown, Transport Secretary Alistair Darling and Lord Falconer (the third Scottish lord chancellor in succession).are other key members of the current cabinet who are Scottish. Prime Minister Tony Blair was born in Edinburgh and can claim to be Scottish (but usually doesn't). Robin Cook, who was the Foreign Secretary until resigning over the Iraq war is also a Scot, as is Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democrat Party. Meantime, on TV, Paxman will know only too well that Andrew Marr (born in Dundee) is the main BBC political editor and one of the most recognised faces on television. Over on Channel 5, Kirsty Young (credited with changing the way British television news is presented) still has her Scottish accent showing through her cultivated tones. Maybe Paxman has been having a hard time with his co-presenter on Newsnight - Kirsty Wark, a grand dame of the Scottish media. She got into trouble recently by having the Jack McConnell, the Scottish First Minister, on a vacation at her Majorcan holiday home over Christmas. Maybe Paxman has a point....
Studying Orkney Genes
A two-year project to study the genes of 1,000 volunteers from Orkney has begun. It aims to establish risk factors for heart diseases, strokes and diabetes. The Orkney Cardiovascular Disease Study hopes to find out the extent to which how these diseases are influenced by hereditary factors and how much by diet and life-style.
Glasgow to London Trains "Worst in Britain"
New figures published this week show that trains between Glasgow and London are the worst in Britain for punctuality. In October to December 2004 only 66.4% of trains arrived within ten minutes of schedule - down from 74.5% the year before. The West Coast line is currently undergoing a £9 billion refurbishment, which is not expected to be completed until 2008. Last year the train operator, Virgin West Coast trains headed by Richard Branson, launched their new high-speed "tilting" trains on the route. Although signalling failures contributed to the delays, teething problems with the new rolling stock were also a major factor in creating delays. The company claims that there will be a "marked improvement this year" and that in recent weeks more trains have been arriving on time.
Architects Going Ape
Edinburgh Zoo has launched a design competition for a new £4 million state-o-the-art monkey house - and architects from across Europe are queuing up to produce tenders. The design concept issued by the Zoo incorporates an enclosure aping the home of the chimpanzees in Rwandan rain forest, a 200-seater auditorium, video screens and interactive displays. The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, who own Edinburgh Zoo, has a history of creating award winning enclosures - the most famous being that for their collection of penguins.
A New Star in the Aberdeen Sky
City Star Airline is the UK trading name of the Iceland-based airline Landsflug EHF which is commencing services linking Aberdeen to the Norwegian capital of Oslo on 28th March. There will be twice-daily flights from Monday to Friday, with times clearly aimed at busy oil executives but no doubt tourists in both directions will find the service useful too. The new airline is using Dornier 328 Turbo Prop aircraft with 32 seats.
Squinty Bridge Costs Double
So it's not just the Scottish Parliament building where costs can escalate. A new bridge across the river Clyde at Finnieston in Glasgow (which is crossing at an angle, rather than straight across - hence it's nickname, the "Squinty Bridge") has been years in the planning stage as various objections to its construction were overcome. The most recent appeal to the Court of Session was by one resident from Kinning Park who claimed that the bridge would result in the end of dredging of the river, thus increasing the chances of his home being flooded. Now that all the legal hurdles appear to have been overcome, over a year after construction was supposed to begin, the city council has recalculated the costs of the crossing. They have been told that the original price tag of under £10 million has soared to £30.3 million because of the delays and costs which were not accounted for. BBC Scotland's move from their old building in Queen Margaret Drive to a new HQ at Pacific Quay on the south side of the river was based on the creation of the new four-lane crossing to improve road access.
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?
A study of over 1,000 UK adults has shown that Scots host fewer dinners than those living in the rest of the UK - but when they do, they spend more on food and drink. It is estimated that British families spend £39.5 billion a year on entertaining friends and family, with one in eight hosts admitting that they pass off pre-prepared dishes or food provided by caterers as their own cooking. Scots hold an average of eight dinner parties a year, according to the study, though many would not use the "posh" term of dinner party to describe their entertaining. Somewhat surprisingly, it's the younger age groups who entertain at home more frequently - perhaps because they can't afford restaurant prices, especially with their high mark-up on wine and other alcohol. Scottish delicatessen chain Peckhams agrees that it is a myth that Scots are mean when it comes to entertaining. Dinner parties are a way of life in parts of Edinburgh and Glasgow's West End with customers paying high prices for good wine and fresh ingredients. Harvey Nichols in Edinburgh say that they sell more food than their sister stores in Leeds and Manchester.
Recipe for Success
Baxters Food Group, the 136-year-old canned food company based at Fochabers on the River Spey, has reported that profits grew by 11% last year to £6.7 million while turnover was up by 10%. Including recent acquisitions, however, turnover grew by 18%. The family-owned company - which is best known for its quality range of soups, jams and marmalades - has embarked on a development strategy to increase turnover by 300% to £300 million over the next 15 years. In the UK, Baxters is second only to Heinz in the tinned soup market. The company is aiming to expand in overseas markets. Baxters is regarded as a prime takeover target and has reputedly rejected 191 takeover bids.
Highland Spring Sparkles
New figures by market research companies show that Perthshire bottled water company has retained its position as the top-selling sparkling water supplier in the UK, accounting for 10% of all purchases. Part of the reason for this is the increase in sales of sparkling water in the UK grocery sector which grew by 38% in the year to February 2005. Scottish consumers have played their part too, preferring to buy quality Scottish products. Scotland had the fastest growing sales of sparkling and still bottled water in the UK, demand increasing by 6% here, compared with a 1% growth nationally.
340 New Buses
Perth-based road and rail travel company Stagecoach has placed orders for 340 new buses for its UK operations, at a cost estimated to be worth around £35 million. About £30 million of this investment will be going to Falkirk-based Alexander Dennis - Stagecoach bosses Brian Souter and his sister, Ann Gloag, were part of a consortium which rescued the bus construction company when it went into administrative receivership, threatening the loss of 1,400 jobs. However, they deliberately did not get involved in the tendering process for the order.
Shortage of Oil Rigs Hampers Exploration
The rising price of oil has generated renewed interest in North Sea oil exploration, but companies wanting to drill exploration wells have found that there is a shortage of the specialised rigs they need. As the oil industry in the North Sea has ebbed and flowed, there have been times when there were rows of unused oil rigs moored in the Cromarty Firth. Not any more. The problem has been building up over the last year and as the number of available resources dwindled, the cost of hiring them has soared too. Low prices and extra taxes imposed by the government led to lower investment a few years ago and many exploration rigs were taken to less mature markets, such as Africa.
Scottish Bank Needs a Scarecrow?
The massive £350 million Royal Bank of Scotland headquarters being built at Gogarburn on the western edge of Edinburgh is conveniently near to Edinburgh Airport. But when the airport authority found that the bank planned to install a small loch in the grounds of the building, they voiced concern over the danger of attracting birds into the airport flight path. So the bank has established a "Bird Control Management Plan" with security guards using TV cameras to mount a surveillance of the loch. As part of their duties, the guards will have to handle the "immediate dispersal" of "hazardous species" - in other words, act as human scarecrows. The 3,250 staff will also be asked to maintain a "no feeding policy" as far as any birds are concerned. The bank will also have to follow guidelines warning against the planting of trees with berries which attract birds.
Weather in Scotland This Week
Last weekend, Scotland still seemed to be in the grip of winter again with temperatures down to 2C (36F) in Aberdeen and further heavy falls of snow in the north of the country. But a few days later Aberdeen was basking in several consecutive days of temperatures reaching 17C (63F) as milder winds originating in the eastern Mediterranean swept in. Temperatures reached 14C (57F) overnight in Aberdeen on Thursday, the warmest March night since records began 50 years ago. Although Aberdeen had a fair amount of sunshine on Wednesday and Thursday, the same could not be said of the west where the milder weather brought in moisture-laden clouds. Glasgow had two inches of rain over the four days from Tuesday to Friday.
Despite the prolonged colder weather, the spring flowers are still bursting into bloom as these photos taken at the Finlaystone Country Estate illustrate. The Ribes (commonly known as "Flowering Currant") not only has its pendulous flowers but delicate green leaves. Below, are a flowering Pieris, which is just aas attractive as the variety which produces flame red leaves in spring. No collection of spring flowers would be complete without daffodils - the one below is a variety with a double trumpet. Finally, surviving the frosts of earlier this month, the pink camellia was in a sunny spot which encouraged it to flower early.