So Who's In Charge?
On Wednesday this week, the Scottish Executive had stated that a decision on raising the tolls on the Forth Road Bridge between South Queensferry and Fife had been put on hold. The bridge authority had proposed increasing the charge from £1 to as high as £4 at peak times, so as to provide finance for repairs to the rusting cables and also reduce congestion at peak times. But Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer in Tony Blair's cabinet in London, pre-empted the decision by then issuing a statement - congratulating the Scottish Executive on abandoning the 400% increase. This "bounced" Jack McConnell into announcing that indeed the increase had been turned down, much to the astonishment of Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs), including the Liberal Democrat Transport Minister in the Scottish Executive coalition. Opposition MSPs are convinced that the motivation for announcing the decision is a by-election in Dunfermline in Fife for a seat in the UK Parliament. Fife residents are understandably the most vocal in their opposition to the huge increases as many of them commute across the bridge to jobs in Edinburgh. Meantime, a decision on whether to abolish tolls on the Erskine bridge over the Clyde has been postponed. Of course, there are no by-elections in that part of Scotland.
Curtain Up on Future of Scottish Arts
Culture Minister Patricia Ferguson this week made the long-awaited announcement about the future structure and funding for the arts. This was the Scottish Executive's response to a report by the Cultural Commission, which had recommended ways to develop the nation's arts and culture. The main elements of the government's blueprint were:
~ The Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen to be scrapped and a new agency - Creative Scotland - set up.
~ Funding for Scottish Opera and National Theatre of Scotland will be direct from government rather than through an agency.
~ Many of the Cultural Commission's recommendations appeared to be dismissed as "unnecessary bureaucracy".
~ The Scottish Executive currently allocates 1% of its total budget to culture - that amounts to £187 million in the current year. Local authorities add to that sum significantly. By 2007-08, the Scottish Executive total budget will have increased, resulting in the amount allocated to the arts growing to £214 million, but it has been decided to provide an additional £20 million on top of that.
Of course, that still leaves unanswered how that cake will be allocated amongst all the competing claims.
Schools Get Caned for Lack of Physical Exercise
The Scottish Executive has set a target for pupils at primary and secondary schools to get physical exercise for two hours a week. But the latest figures published this week show that only 5/6% of pupils achieve that target and in some schools 7% of younger children and 18% of older children get fewer than 45 minutes - despite concerns that youngsters are becoming increasingly overweight. Schools in Dundee, Aberdeenshire, Orkney, Western Isles and the Highlands fare particularly badly. A spokesman for the council claimed that physical exercise was going on in schools outwith formal lessons, which was not included in the data.
Scottish Retailers Outperform UK
The Scottish Retail Consortium revealed this week that like-for-like sales in Scotland in December rose by 3.8% - the biggest increase since last February and more than double the 1.6% jump seen in November. That compared with a UK-wide rise of 2.6% - though that was a better performance than November's increase of just 0.8%. Most of the increase in Scotland came from non-food sales, particularly clothing and footwear. Total sales (which include new outlets opened in the last year) north of the Border were up by 7.3%, compared with 6.2% across the UK.
The illustration above shows Edinburgh's main shopping area, Princes Street.
Smoking Stubbed Out in Scottish Parliament
When the country-wide ban on smoking in confined public spaces comes into force at the end of March, senior parliamentarians (known as the "corporate body") are recommending that the Scottish Parliament should set a good example. Unlike many companies and organisations, they will not create an outside smoking shelter to replace their current smoking room. Presiding Officer George Reid (himself a smoker) fully supports the decision, which will now be discussed with trade unions and business managers. But with only two months to go before the ban is in force, it would probably be impossible to construct a smoking shelter in time anyway.
Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and currently the Member of Parliament in London for Banff and Buchan, is to contest the Scottish Parliamentary constituency of Gordon at the next election. The present Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) for that seat is Aberdeen-born Nora Radcliffe who won it for the Liberal_Democrats at the last election with a majority of 4,071. The SNP are aiming to win another 20 seats at the next election (in 2007) for the Scottish Parliament and they regard Buchan as the "18th most winnable." In the last race for Gordon, the SNP candidate finished third behind the Conservatives and a 7.7% swing would be needed in their favour to win the seat.
Scotland's Labour Market Continues to Shine
Unemployment in Scotland fell last month, which contrasted with a further rise in unemployment across the UK. On the claimant-count measure, unemployment in Scotland fell by a seasonally-adjusted 200 in December to 85,500. UK-wide, claimant-count unemployment rose by 7,200 to 909,100 last month - up 84,100 on a year earlier. On the International Labour Organisation measure, UK employment between September and November was down 22,000 on the previous three months at 28.76 million. In Scotland, employment was up 4,000 on this comparison at 2.469 million. It seems that a higher percentage of the potential labour force is now actively seeking employment or in employment in Scotland - National Statistics put the proportion of economically inactive at 21.4% UK-wide and at 20.2% in Scotland.
Bank Staff Pension Entitlement Cut
3,500 staff working for the Clydesdale Bank have been told that the terms of their pension scheme are to be reduced. The present arrangements, where pensions are calculated on the final salary being earned at the time of retiring or leaving the organisation (with increases in subsequent years at the rate of inflation) will be replaced by a less generous scheme from the end of March 2006. Many companies are facing a shortfall in funding for their pension schemes (having enjoyed reduced or zero contributions for many years, when the stock market was booming) and have closed final salary schemes to new employees. Clydesdale Bank, a subsidiary of the National Australian Banking Group, is going a step further and slashing benefits for existing staff, many of whom have worked for a lifetime with the prospect of an agreed pension when they retired.
Local Authority Staff to Work an Extra Five Years?
200,000 workers in local governments are to lose the right to claim a full pension at 60 if Scottish Executive plans announced this week are implemented. Staff would need to work to 65 to get the full pension (one sixtieth of final salary for each year of service, resulting in a pension of two-thirds of final salary for those working 40 years). The decision, which does not affect teachers and those working in the National Health Service, was slipped out as part of a parliamentary answer by the Finance Minister at the Scottish parliament this week. The Executive argue that the changes are needed to comply with European age discrimination legislation.
Capital's Tram Line Derailed
Soaring costs have led to Edinburgh City Council having to postpone the planned tramcar loop around the city centre, leaving just one route which will start in Leith, run through the city centre and then out to Edinburgh airport. Costs for the two routes had rocketed from £473 million to £714 million - incredibly, the original estimates had made no allowance for inflation and there was no contingency funding. The Scottish Executive has capped at £375 million the amount of Scottish taxpayers money that will be put into the scheme and any shortfall would have had to be made up by local Edinburgh taxpayers - who are already reeling from huge increases in recent years. The single route is now planned to be up and running by 2010. This "phase one" will save the council at least £200 million. One other side effect of the "postponement" of phase two is that the Roseburn Urban Wildlife Corridor - a picturesque area popular with cyclists and walkers - will be saved from trams for the time being.
Pensioners' Wealth Increased by £8 Billion Last Year
Rising property prices in the last year meant that property owned by retired home owners in Scotland rose in value by £8 billion in the last year. The total value now stands at nearly £61 billion for the 539,000 pensioners who own their own homes. Of course, for the majority of pensioners it is a paper profit only - and the benefit will be passed on to those who eventually inherit the houses.
Edinburgh Zoo Selling Land to Fund Redevelopment
It may be a bit like selling the family silver, but the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, which runs Edinburgh Zoo, has struck a deal in principle with a development firm set up by the city council. 12 acres of land (out of the 90-acre site) have been earmarked as surplus to requirements and will be used to build housing. The £15 million from selling the land will go towards the £58 million cost of redeveloping the attraction. It is hoped to obtain funds also from the Scottish Executive, the National Lottery and the city council. The redevelopment is to be phased over the next twenty years
Increased Off-Licence Alcohol Sales?
The sale of alcohol at supermarkets and off-licence shops is expected to soar once the no-smoking ban in bars and restaurants comes into force at the end of March. Consumers who also smoke are thought likely to drink (and smoke) more at home - a similar pattern was reported in Ireland when a ban was introduced there, in March 2004. The change in the Republic of Ireland also resulted in more consumption of wine and a drop in beer sales. Overall, alcohol consumption is expected to increase as people tend to pour larger measures for themselves or finish a bottle. Last year, Strathclyde Fire and Rescue revealed that the typical fire victim was a male smoker, aged 50 or over, who lived alone. While the change in habits will lead to more passive smoking by children in the home, campaigners argue that a ban does more than any other initiative to encourage smokers to quit.
Adventure Sports Park for Midlothian
The Hillend Ski Slope in the Pentland Hills Regional Park in Midlothian, a few miles south of Edinburgh, is the largest dry ski slope in Europe. It attracts 140,000 visitors a year to ski or snowboard, plus another 220,000 who come to spectate, walk in the country park or take the chair lift to the viewpoint high in the hills. Now there are plans for the Midlothian Snowsports Centre to be transformed by a £13.5 million expansion, which would add an indoor ice climbing wall, complete with viewing gallery a curling rink, plus an indoor skateboard and wheeled sport facility. A series of graded mountain bike trails would be built as a year-round national training centre. Of course, all these wonderful ideas depend on obtaining finance and an application for National Lottery funding is in the pipeline.
TomTom Navigates to Edinburgh Software Company
Leading satellite navigation specialist TomTom has bought over Edinburgh software company Applied Generics. Founded seven years ago, Applied Generics has created software which calculates traffic congestion by reading the signals from mobile phones. Many mobile phone users (even those without "hands free" operation) make calls if they are held up in traffic. TomTom is one of the biggest names in the portable satellite navigation sector. All the major players are trying to incorporate live traffic data into their systems but Applied Technology's developments is ahead of the pack as it applies to secondary routes as well as main trunk roads.
Welcome to Braveheart Airport?
Scottish Socialist Member of the Scottish Parliament, Tommy Sheridan, has called on the Transport Minister to rename Glasgow Airport as "Glasgow William Wallace International Airport". He also gave support to a suggestion made some time ago that Prestwick Airport in Ayrshire (seen here) should be renamed Robert Burns International. He even joked that Edinburgh's hub should become Harry Potter Airport as author J K Rowling wrote the first books about the wizard in an Edinburgh cafe. British Airports Authority, who run the Glasgow and Edinburgh terminals, said they had no plans to change the names of their airports and there was no merit in altering names which had been in place for many decades.
New Hotel to Land at Aberdeen Airport?
Planning consent in principle has been given for the construction of a 120-room hotel on prime land next to Aberdeen Airport and a number of hotel operators are said to be interested in building there. Aberdeen Airport currently has two nearby hotels, the Airport Thistle and the Speedbird. The owners of the airport are progressing a £50million investment programme over the next decade to transform it into a world-class hub and cater for passenger growth (estimated to double by 2030) and international flights. The main runway is to be extended by 1000 feet to attract long-haul flights, and a new, high-quality hotel would be a major boost to the north-east's tourism industry as well as the airport.
Young Pretender Going Trendy?
Drambuie, an after-dinner liqueur, uses a recipe given to the MacKinnon family by Bonnie Prince Charlie for helping him escape to France after the failure of the Jacobite Uprising in 1745/46. It has long been popular as an after-dinner drink, particularly amongst the older generation. But sales have been slipping for the blend of whisky, heather honey and herbs and the Drambuie company has been making a loss in recent years. At its peak, it was selling 700,000 cases a year, but that figure has halved. Now it is being relaunched amongst the trendy young set as a cocktail, served with soda and a twist of lime - and well stirred to ensure the heavy liqueur does not sit at the foot of the glass. The new combination has been tried out by 3,000 young Americans in New York and Los Angeles and tasting is to be extended to 50 upmarket British bars in the spring, as part of a £1.2 million promotional campaign. An advertising campaign, using the slogan "Drambuie has been left on the shelf for years; now it has a new partner." The company claims that if Bonnie Prince Charlie (also known as the Young Pretender) were around now, he would approve as it would mean that his "spirit" lives on. Others might think that Charlie might ask for his recipe back....
Transformation Plan for Greenock Harbour
Victoria Harbour and East India Docks, a disused harbour area in Greenock, on the Firth of Clyde, is to be converted into a mixed-use development with a maritime focus. The £45 million plan will create a thriving residential, commercial and leisure facility in a semi-derelict area of the town. There will be 290 new homes and wide waterfront walkways. There will also be a 220-berth marina and space for events such as the Tall Ships extravaganza.
No Unlucky 13 for Edinburgh Tattoo Organiser
Brigadier Mel Jameson, who took over as organiser for the Edinburgh Military Tattoo in 1994, is to retire after this summer's event - his 12th. When he took over, 20% of the tickets were unsold by the opening night. Since then, he has created a spectacular success with tickets selling out well in advance of the event. Tickets for this year's show went on sale only four weeks ago and already 85% of the 217,000 tickets available have been snapped up. The last eight Tattoos have been a sell-out and this year will be no exception. So the 61-year-old Brigadier can retire, confident that his mission has been successfully completed.
Rabbie Goes Punjabi
Vegetarian haggis is now well known, but the latest addition to the celebration of Burns night includes green chilli and garam masala. The ladies of an Edinburgh community group working with the Sikh population in the capital came up with the idea of curried haggis while they were trying to find ways of making the traditionally high-fat Sikh diet healthier. An Edinburgh hotel was so impressed that it has decided to put it on their restaurant menu to tempt diners in the run-up to Burns Night. The Sikh Sanjog group has also created Haggis Pakora. They hope that the new varieties will not only convert the Asian community to haggis, but will appeal to Scots as well - many of whom are already keen on curries and other food from the Indian sub-continent.
Fake Tan Lessons for School Pupils
School teachers have become so concerned about the number of pupils using sunbeds at a local sun-tan parlour that they are arranging to give lessons on how to apply a fake tan out of a bottle instead. An expert from a Scots-based cosmetic company (called Fake Bake), is to run seminars at Thomas Muir High School in Bishopbriggs, Glasgow. They will also warn about the dangers of sunbeds and skin cancer. The number of deaths from skin cancer among Scots has steadily increased over the past 10 years, as more people try to achieve the bronze look which is so popular with many celebrities.
Climate Change Research for Scotland
Initial findings from research into the changes in climate over the last forty years in Scotland were released this week. The report shows that temperatures have increased in every season and in all parts of Scotland since 1961. The research will be used to produce a handbook of regional changes in Scotland's climate to be published in spring 2006. Key findings from the study include:
~ The period since 1961 has been the fastest period of warming identified in the analysed records (1914 to 2004).
~ Since 1961, daily maximum temperatures have been increasing at a faster rate than minimum temperatures. This is contrary to the trends seen since 1914 in Scotland (and globally) when minimum, or night time, temperatures increased at the faster rate.
~ Since 1961, Scotland has become wetter with an average increase of almost 60% in winter months in northern and western Scotland but in the majority of the country there has not been a large-scale significant change in rainfall in summer months. Contrary to the national trend, Aberdeenshire has seen little change in precipitation in winter months although this is compensated in this region by significant increase in precipitation in autumn (September to November).
Weather in Scotland This Week
In the early part of the week, temperatures were largely around 6/7C (43/45F) but on Wednesday and Thursday milder weather from the Atlantic came in, raising the maximum daily temperatures to around 11/12C (52/54F) although Aberdeen reached 13C (55F). The westerly winds also brought in cloud and rain, however. Over Thursday and Friday the main recording stations across Scotland registered only around five minutes of sunshine (at Aviemore) with the rest of the country not seeing a blink of sun. Rainfall in Glasgow over Thursday and Friday amounted to nearly an inch. The weather outlook is for temperatures to fall again as cold air comes in from the continent.
The picture of catkins shown here was taken on Friday and illustrates very well the advance towards spring.
This week's further online photographs taken in Scotland to show the current season and its flora and fauna include the Campsie Fells, Gadwall, Mallard with unusual colours, a swan in full threat pose and Greylag Goose.
See Colour Supplement - 21 January 2006.