Scottish Drivers to Benefit From New Road Pricing Scheme?
The UK Transport Minister, Alistair Darling, announced this week that the government were looking at introducing a road pricing system which would create variable fees for roads depending on the amount of congestion and popularity of roads. The present road tax and petrol duty would be reduced and the charge calculated using a compulsory "black box" installed in every car. This would use a satellite navigation system to levy charges depending on miles driven and on which roads. It is argued that as Scotland's roads are not nearly as congested as those in the south of England, Scottish motorists would be net beneficiaries of the scheme. Of course, those choosing (or having to) travel on roads such as the M8 between Edinburgh and Glasgow (illustrated here) or across the Forth Road Bridge, would pay heavily for the privilege. The cost of such a sophisticated scheme would be paid for by all motorists (and government IT projects are notorious for being years late and costing several times original estimates). Civil rights groups see the project as an infringement on civil liberties as it would be easy to track motorists at all times. The transport minister argues that unless something is done soon, many roads will become grid-locked in 20-30 years' time. It is estimated that the system would not be in operation for ten years - and that assumes that development runs smoothly.
Good News for Road Travellers
As the authorities work hard to catch up on years of under-investment on road repairs, travellers cannot go far these days without meeting yet another bottle-neck, with road and lane closures abounding. But there was a pleasant surprise this week when the Forth Estuary Transport Authority announced this week that disruption on the Forth Road Bridge was to end two weeks ahead of schedule. The bridge had been closed each weekend from Friday evening for many months but, according to the bridge's general manager, "Scotland's weather has been kind" resulting in fewer delays than expected to the work. Of course, it is only a temporary respite - the weekend closures will resume in September, after the tourist season is over. Even so, anyone travelling west from the Forth Road Bridge on the A985 is likely to be faced by lengthy delays as a rickety, single-track, temporary bridge has had to be built while a bridge over a river is being repaired.
Lack of Foreign Languages Criticised
In the rest of Europe, children start to learn a foreign language (often English, it has to be said) from the age of six. In Scotland, foreign languages are often not taught until the age of ten, at the earliest. By the time they leave school, Scottish students will have learned fewer languages than any other country in Europe. A report by Eurydice, a European Union educational research organisation, criticises the lack of foreign language education here and our assumption that people from abroad will know English. Of course, 90% of European children will learn English by the time they leave secondary education, but they will probably learn a second or even a third language while at school. Only Scotland and Ireland do not include at least one foreign language as a compulsory subject in secondary schools.
Scottish Airports Take Off
The staging of the Heineken rugby cup final at Murrayfield, which involved two French teams, helped to boost passenger numbers at Edinburgh airport by 12.3% in May, compared to last year. Glasgow's growth was a more modest 2.6% last month. In the twelve months to the end of May, Glasgow's passenger numbers rose 5.5% to 8.6 million, compared to the previous year, while Edinburgh's traffic went up by 6.4% to 8.1 million in the same period. But Aberdeen outstripped them both with a 7.1% increase on a year ago. Growth by scheduled airlines such as Flyglobespan, Flybe and Air Scotland to traditional holiday destinations in Spain and the Mediterranean has produced a marked drop in international charter flights. These companies are now targeting further-flung destinations, such as Turkey, Egypt and the Caribbean.
Increase in Scottish Business Start-Ups
The latest quarterly figures on new business accounts in Scotland, published by The Committee of Scottish Clearing Bankers, show that the birth rate for start-ups increased for the first quarter of this year, the first growth seen since the second quarter in 2004. 5,459 new business enterprises opened accounts in the four Scottish clearing banks from 1 January to 31 March - the highest figure since the second quarter in 2003. The growth is largely in the area of small, self-employed companies, however. Its just a pity that the data on new businesses published this week has not been updated on the CSCB website - the most recent figures relate to Q1/2003...
Investment in Clydesdale Bank Likely
The chairman and chief executive of the National Australia Bank (NAB) and other senior officials were in Scotland this week to attend the opening of the Clydesdale Bank Financial Services Centre in the heart of Glasgow's International Financial Services District. Clydesdale, one of NAB's subsidiary companies, recently announced major cuts in the number of staff amounting to 850 in Scotland. But the NAB chairman announced that they were now looking at investment in the Clydesdale Bank's website and its ATM cash dispenser network. The new Financial Services Centre is aimed at assisting private banking clients and "getting close to the customers." The Clydesdale Bank and Yorkshire Bank, its sister UK company, have struggled for many years to maintain market share and have seen a decline in profits.
Red Carpet for Chinese Tourists
A delegation of 80 people from China's tourism industry will be entertained over three days in Scotland in the week following the Open Championship at St Andrews. Figures from VisitBritain suggest that there is an increasing interest in Scotland among Chinese tourists. The World Trade Organisation is predicting that there will be an explosion of tourism by Chinese as increasing wealth and reduction in red tape allows the Chinese people to look beyond their own borders for places to visit. Scotland welcomed 11,000 Chinese tourists last year, nearly twice the number in 2003.
Rise in Visitors from Europe and US
Statistics published by the Office of National Statistics confirm that there was a strong growth in the number of visitors to Scotland in 2004, with total overnight visits reaching 1,877,000 compared with 1,565,000 in the previous year. The number of overnight visits by European residents went up from 622,000 to 764,000 in the same period. Likewise, the growth in North American overnight visits was from 502,000 in 2003 to 556,000. The increasing number of budget airlines with routes to European destinations is helping to swell the numbers from there - a new Glasgow to Brussels service started this week.
The illustration is of Stirling Castle, popular with many tourists.
Pupils Lose Appetite for School Meals
The government is pleased with its "Hungry for Success" programme which seeks to improve the quality and healthy options of the meals provided to Scottish pupils in schools at lunchtime. An additional £60 million was allocated to achieve this and initially there were positive reports about its success. TV chef Jamie Oliver, who has attracted a lot of publicity to improving the quality of school meals, made approving noises earlier this year. But now new statistics show that the number of pupils taking school meals has dropped from 49.3% in 1999 to 46.7% in 2004. The fall is being blamed on the low uptake of the new options with older pupils in particular going to fast food outlets instead, if there are any within the vicinity of schools. Nevertheless, the Hungry for Success programme has meant that every primary school gave fresh fruit to pupils in the first two years of schooling and that 94% of all schools now have chilled water available for staff and pupils.
Scotland's Most Polluted Street
There are 61 government air monitoring stations in UK cities and towns measuring the level of air pollution. Results published this week show that Hope Street in Glasgow has more diesel fuel particles than anywhere else in Scotland and is the third most polluted street in the UK, behind two London locations. Levels have gone up by over 25% in the last year. Of course, the location of a taxi rank nearby and Hope Street being a major route for buses belching out diesel fumes as they proceed up a hill are major contributory factors. The monitoring station at St Enoch Square elsewhere in Glasgow, records far lower levels, despite being a bus terminus.
Revamp for Battle Site
The site of the Battle of Stirling Bridge - made famous by the movie "Braveheart" - is to be the centre of a £600,000 project on the banks of the river Forth. It will produce a walkway featuring sculptures, art work and "creative areas" as well as a children's play area. The site of the bridge where William Wallace and Andrew Moray defeated the English army of King Edward on 12 September 1297 has been identified by archaeologists and has been designated by Historic Scotland as a historic monument. As part of the project, a three kilometre walkway linking the centre of Stirling with the site will be created.
Threat to Private Schools
The Labour-led administration in the Scottish Executive is introducing bills to reform the laws governing charities and one of the major impacts of this is likely to be the loss of charitable status for private, fee-paying schools. The financial impact would have resulted in a moderate increase in fees that schools would have to charge, but tax experts are now pointing out that Scottish private schools would also be forced to pay a form of capital gains tax to the Inland Revenue as a result of their loss of charitable status. Many of Scotland's top private schools own prime land in the centre of Edinburgh and Glasgow and the imposition of a tax bill of 20/30% on that value, amounting to perhaps £10/15 million, would cause them to close. George Heriot's School for example (illustrated here) is on prime land in the centre of Edinburgh. While there are those who would welcome the demise of private schools as they see them as socially divisive, there are others who see them as part of the traditional fabric of the country - and reducing the number of pupils who are educated at tax-payers expense. The problem is being blamed on the Scottish Executive making the changes without co-ordinating the legislation with London and the Inland Revenue.
Cafe in the Square Plan Demolished
Glasgow City Council claimed that there was support for their plan to create a large cafe in the city's main square (although many of the letters to newspapers were less than enthusiastic). However, after spending £24,000 on getting a number of architects to produce their design concepts for the building, it has dawned on the council that the million pound cost of construction and running the cafe would be too high - a primary school could have been built for the same money - so the project has been abandoned. It's not as if Glasgow is short of coffee shops...
Train Service to National Park
Scotrail announced this week that it is to extend the existing train service to Arrochar at the head of Loch Long and Tarbet on the shores of Loch Lomond, near the heart of the Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park. The railway link already exists, but residents in the village of Arrochar have never had a public transport service that would allow them to commute the 40 miles to Glasgow. The first train was at 10am, but now there will be an early morning service leaving at around 7am, arriving in the centre of Glasgow at 8.40am. Initially it will only run for a trial period, but if it is successful it will become permanent. If that comes to pass, it is expected to drive the already buoyant house prices in the area even higher.
"Review" of Army Museums
The Ministry of Defence has announced that it is to review the future of regimental museums, including those of Scottish units, as part of a cost-cutting exercise. It is feared that the aim is to centralise the displays of the six infantry units which existed north of the border prior to the creation of the new Royal Regiment of Scotland. This will see the demise of such regiments as the Black Watch, Royal Scots, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and Kings Own Scottish Borderers. The armed forces minister denied earlier this year that there were any plans to close or amalgamate any regimental museums, which are currently located in the traditional heartland of their recruitment area. Stand-alone museums not linked to headquarters will escape the review but most former Scottish regiments have co-located HQs and museums. Only the Highlanders has a separate museum and HQ (though they are only a few miles distant).
Zany Irn-Bru Adverts Boost Russian Sales
Scottish soft drinks manufacturer A G Barr has gained a reputation in this country for zany "off-the-wall" adverts. For example, a close up of a suckling baby with a contented smile is accompanied by the words "Mmmmm, mum's been at the Irn-Bru again." Others include bizarre happenings on the football field - completely missed by one spectator who has been engrossed in drinking his Irn-Bru. Now the concept has been translated into Russian and shows a performance of synchronised swimmers being disrupted by water polo players. An exuberant, heavy-weight spectator joins in the mayhem by diving into the pool from the diving board - and then returns to the high diving board to drop his shorts. The crowd rise to greet him ecstatically - except for one Irn-Bru drinker who misses all the action, but still announces "Phenomenal" (in Russian) as he lowers the can. Apparently the Russians have a good sense of humour and sales of the orange-coloured fizzy drink have escalated. by 25% on a year ago.
No Beavering Away
The Scottish Executive deputy environment minister has expressed concerns about the plan to reintroduce beavers into Scotland after a gap of 400 years, in an estate in Argyll. Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) have been advocating the release of 18 Norwegian beavers for a number of years. The organisation believes that there is overwhelming evidence that the animals cause little environmental damage and will increase tourism in the area. Indeed, SNH argue that there are benefits to the environment caused by beavers creating wetlands and clearings in forests. But the minister has been told that six beavers were introduced into Sweden in 1922 - and there are now over 100,000. If numbers of beavers increased in Scotland so that a cull was required, there could be a similar outcry to that arising from the cull of hedgehogs in the Western Isles. These were introduced a few decades ago and are eating the eggs of protected ground-nesting birds; Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) are now having to capture and kill the hedgehogs. SNH argue that beavers are not prolific breeders and that there is now no credible opposition to the project - though some landowners still have concerns that the beavers could cause harm to the environment.
Fall in Numbers of Migrating Birds
A survey of the numbers of birds which migrate each year to the UK from their winter quarters in Africa, have shown that the number of swallows (illustrated here), spotted fly-catchers, willow warblers and chiffchaffs have declined. Thousands of bird watchers contribute to the study each year and they have reported that the number of swallows have dropped by 15% compared with the last two years while chiffchaffs are down by 20%. Poor weather along the migration route - and the gradual expansion of the Sahara desert - are thought to be contributory factors. When birds arrived in April, there was a particularly cold spell of weather, which reduced the amount of insects available. Some birds are thought to have flown off to the continent in search of better conditions.
House for Sale with Special Feature - a Witch's Ledge
Estate agents are always looking for special features which will help to sell a house and those handling the sale of a farmhouse near Melrose in the Scottish Borders found one which was a "must-have" in the 15th and 16th century - a witch's ledge. At a time when anyone suspected of being a witch was often burned at the stake or drowned, householders nevertheless tried to gain the protection of any witch passing by on her broomstick. By creating a ledge which allowed a witch to rest - and park her broom at the same time - it was hoped that the house would be safeguarded from evil by showing that she was welcome to rest there. The farmhouse, which has six bedrooms, is being sold for "offers over £825,000" so any witch planning to make a bid had better be well heeled.
Weather in Scotland This Week
Last Sunday the weather turned chilly again, with Edinburgh's maximum daytime temperature only reaching 9C (48F). But as the week progressed, the thermometer rose and by Wednesday/Thursday most places experienced temperatures around 20/21C (68/70F) and Aberdeen even reached 22C (72F). There was plenty of sunshine, too - in the five days from Monday to Friday Aberdeen recorded 48.6 hours of sun. Further south in the central belt, the sunshine was not so reliable but Glasgow and Edinburgh had around 10 hours sun on Tuesday and Friday. There was very little rain in Scotland throughout the week.
The pictures taken this week to illustrate the current season in Scotland show first of all an azalea in full bloom at Finlaystone Country Estate on the border between Inverclyde and Renfrewshire. While some of the azaleas were past their best, many of them (such as this one) were caught at their best this week.
These irises were also photographed at Finlaystone Country Estate. In addition to these multi-coloured ones, there were some beautiful yellow ones on display.
At Finlaystone the herb garden is a riot of colour too, with these chives making a great contribution.
This bee, busy in the heart of a Mecanopsis, was spotted in the gardens of Glendoick House, Perthshire (just off the main road between Perth and Dundee). Poor weather earlier in the year will have had a detrimental impact on the bees and the honey they produce.
This is a particularly late flowering variety of Magnolia. The tree grows at the edge of the woodland area of Glendoick House.