Sensational By-Election Win for Liberal Democrats
At the last General Election for the UK parliament in London, the Labour candidate in the Dunfermline and West Fife constituency won with a majority of 11,500. The seat had been a safe one for the Labour party for decades and when the by-election (caused by the death of the sitting Member of Parliament) was announced, it was widely expected that it would remain in their hands, but with a reduced majority. But the voters of Dunfermline and West Fife decided otherwise, and the Liberal Democrat candidate won the election on Thursday with an 1800 majority - a 16.24% swing in their favour. The loss of a safe Labour seat is particularly embarrassing for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, whose own constituency is next door. The Chancellor had been a prominent campaigner on behalf of the Labour candidate, but clearly failed to convince the voters. The result was also a disappointment for the Scottish National Party which had hoped to take advantage of the growing unpopularity of UK Prime Minister Tony Blair's government.
Local Tax Rises Exceed Central Government Target
The Scottish Executive suggested to local authorities across the country that increases in local taxation should not exceed 2.5% this year. But as on so many occasions in the past, many local councils ignored the guidelines. One notable surprise was Glasgow, where the local councillors voted for a zero increase - but at the cost of cuts in services. Of course, Glasgow rate payers already pay the highest local taxes (based on property values) in the country. Between 1996 and 1999 council tax bills in the city soared by 50%. A number of other councils such as East Ayrshire, Moray, Renfrewshire and East Renfrewshire approved increases of just under 5% - double the target. The City of Edinburgh contained its increase to 2.3% and Aberdeen has approved an increase of 2.9%. Dundee failed to make a decision, possibly after it became clear that as a result of Glasgow's freeze, Dundee was going to become the most highly rated council in the country. While local rate payers will groan at the inflation-busting increases, the largest amount of local government funding comes from central taxation. Local councils claim that the Scottish Executive places increased demands on them and then does not provide enough cash to meet the costs. The Scottish Executive has signaled yet another shake-up of the structure of local authorities, with a reduction in the number of councils. Ministers are likely to launch an enquiry into the role, function, responsibilities and accountability of local government. In a country of 5 million people, there are 32 local councils. Regional councils were abolished in the last restructuring in 1996, so it looks as though the wheel will turn round yet again.
Prediction of Weakening Scottish Economic Growth
A business trends survey published this week suggests that the UK economy as a whole is set to accelerate in 2006, making it a better year than 2005. The forecast is for a 3.4% growth rate by the third quarter. But the latest Bank of Scotland index of leading economic indicators suggests that Scotland will be heading in the opposite direction, settling at 2% by the middle of the year and then growth will stall. It is predicted that in Scotland weakening business and consumer confidence will offset the positive effects of strong housing activity, rising share prices and lower interest rates. Scotland has experienced a relatively strong economic performance in the last two years and the outlook is still for a "soft landing". This week, the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee decided to leave base interest rates at 4.5% - unchanged since it dropped by 0.25% last August.
Energy Price Rises
Scottish Power, the UK's 5th largest energy supplier, has announced that from 1 March its gas prices will rise by 15% and electricity will go up by 8%. The company blames an 80% increase in wholesale energy costs in the last year. The price rises will affect their 5.2 million UK customers - many of whom are in Scotland. While consumer groups urge customers to "shop around", other companies will have to increase their prices too. It is being suggested in the media that British Gas, the UK's biggest energy company, is about to raise its prices by up to 25% soon.
Happy and Contented in Edinburgh
A survey, by leading opinion poll company Mori, has shown that 96% of those living in Edinburgh are "satisfied that they have everything around them they need to enjoy life." Those choosing to live in the centre of Scotland's capital were the most contented, with those in the south of the city close behind. The least happy area was the up-market southernmost fringes of Balerno, Fairmilehead, Baberton and Colinton, although even there 90% of those responding were satisfied with life in Edinburgh. Only three other location in the UK were rated more highly than Edinburgh (the English county of Northumberland, the Isle of Man and St Albans in Hertfordshire). Happiness levels in Edinburgh were found to be significantly higher than those recorded in Glasgow and London and many other UK cities. It is being suggested that the higher concentration of high salary earners in Edinburgh may be a contributory factor - those earning over £40,000 a year (around twice the national average) rated themselves the most content.
Scottish Executive Meets Rubbish Reduction Target
The latest figures on recycling of waste in Scotland suggest that the Scottish Executive met its target in the three months to September last year with 25.1% of waste recycled or composted. The rolling twelve-month figure is still only 21%. Scotland's 32 local authorities have been given almost £400m to pay for recycling initiatives - and have produced widely varying results. Clackmannanshire Council had a household recycling rate of almost 40%, homes in the Western Isles recycled just under 10% of their waste. While the remote isles may be a special case, there is no such excuse for Glasgow with only 12.7% of waste recycled and the Scottish Borders with only 14.6%. North Lanarkshire is not much better, at only 16.8%. The Scottish Executive has issued a consultation paper which suggests that consideration should be given to charging residents if they put out "too much" waste. The paper, however, acknowledges that this could have the most impact on the poor, would have high administrative costs, and could lead to more illegal dumping of waste.
Scotland's Convincing Defeat of France
France's rugby team left Murrayfield in Edinburgh last Sunday, shocked that they had been defeated 20-16 by Scotland - their first loss at that stadium for ten years. Sports commentators on national TV and radio networks were equally astonished, describing it as a "magnificent victory". Scotland's new coach Frank Hadden pulled off one of the biggest shocks in Six Nations history. After all, France are rated the second best rugby team in the world - and Scotland are rated 50-1 outsiders to win the Six Nations tournament, having won only one match out of ten in the last two seasons. It was Scotland who scored first, in the 11th minute, with a great try and by half-time were in the lead by 13 points to 3. They went further ahead with another extraordinary drive and try early in the second half to make the score unbelievably 20-3. But France fought back and scored two tries - one only minutes from the end. But the Scots held on grimly and there was elation as the final whistle blew on a well-deserved victory.
Normally this item would have been in the sports section - but some readers may not regularly go to those items.
Delay for Tram Link to Leith
Edinburgh City councillors, who were being questioned by a committee of the Scottish Parliament this week, admitted that it could be "at least" 2015 before the tram link from Princes Street to Roseburn, Granton, Leith and back again was completed and the section further along the shoreline faces being put back to 2020. The later phases of the project had to be postponed as a result of escalating costs. The only line that is surviving budget shortfalls and time delays is the Leith Western Harbour to Edinburgh Airport line, via Edinburgh city centre, which is to be built in phases and will be completed by 2010.
Valentine's Day Deadline for Chip and Pin
Whoever said that bank managers don't have a sense of humour will have to think again as the banking industry opted for St Valentine's Day (14 February) this year to make it mandatory for most customers to use their Personal Identification Number (PIN) when making credit and debit card purchases in shops. The "I Love PIN" campaign told retailers and their customers that a signature transaction on a chip and PIN card would be declined by card companies after Valentine’s Day 2006. However, even after this date there are some exceptions to this rule, including a few cardholders with old style cards, customers from overseas and a small number of disabled cardholders. The new system has already cut fraud on plastic cards (£36 million reduction in the first half of 2005) and has cut down the time spent queuing at the checkout. Even so, staff at check-outs are still prone to ask customers "Do you have a number?" Some of us use our credit cards so often we now know the PIN better than our signatures!
Airport Rail Link Unveiled
Computerised graphics of the planned rail link between central Glasgow and the airport at Renfrew were published this week. They show a dedicated platform at Glasgow Central Station, a new bridge over the M8 (see artist's impression), a controversial viaduct over St James' playing fields in Paisley and a state-of-the-art elevated station at the airport connected to the terminal by a moving walkway. A bill seeking approval for the £160 million project is currently working its way through the Scottish Parliament. Assuming that this is expedited, the new route, which is utilising a large section of existing railway line, with an extension from Paisley Gilmour Street station, could be operational by the end of next year.
Spanish Firm Considering Offer for Airports
Shares in British Airports Authority (BAA), whose portfolio includes Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen airports as well as London's Heathrow, shot up 20% this week as Spanish infrastructure giant Grupo Ferrovial announced that they were considering making a takeover bid for BAA. They insisted that considerations were at an early stage and that there was no certainty that an offer would be made. BAA has seen passenger numbers and profits grow in recent years as budget airlines have encouraged people to take short break holidays in a wide variety of destinations in Europe and further afield.
Record £3 Billion House Sales
Edinburgh Solicitors Property Centre, which acts as a central estate agency for lawyers in and around Edinburgh, has reported that last year it sold 18,500 homes, worth almost £3 billion - the highest figures on record. Nearly 5000 homes were sold in the final quarter of 2005, a rise of almost 10% on the same period in 2004. The average house price in Edinburgh was £175,199, according to the agency. The escalating price of property in the capital is making increasing numbers of prospective purchasers move further out from Edinburgh, driving up prices there too. In Falkirk they jumped last year by an average of 19.6% to £115,842, while in Fife the average price of a home rose to £123,170 - an increase of 6.1%.
Central Hotel Refurbishment Begins
The 125-year-old Central Hotel in Glasgow is undergoing a £3 million revamp which will see the remaining 73 of its 222 guest rooms being upgraded and air conditioning installed. Situated beside the Central Station, it is one of many prestige hotels built beside rail terminals in the 19th century as the railways expanded across the country. It is 15 years since work on the exterior stonework has been carried out and work will include the restoration of the clock tower. Over the years, the hotel has welcomed many big names, including John F Kennedy and Frank Sinatra. It was also used as a base for transmitting the first long distance TV pictures by John Logie Baird.
Online Booking of Doctor Appointments for Edinburgh Patients
Anyone who has tried to book an appointment with their doctor - especially on a Monday morning - will know the frustration of seemingly endless engaged tones as they try to get through to the receptionist. Now, at last, some patients in Edinburgh are to be amongst the first in Scotland to be able to book appointments online. Patients have to register first, using their National Health Service number and a special code handed out by their doctor's practice. In addition to making the appointment, patients can add notes describing their symptoms or reason for the visit to the doctor. The system has been in use in England for two years and surgeries there report that around 40% of appointments are now made online. And the system means that receptionists are not having to deal with so many phone calls.
Aberdeen Boosts Civic Pride
All newborn children in the City of Aberdeen are to receive a free gold-bordered "Civic Pride" certificate when their birth is registered. The aim is to encourage citizens to take a lifetime pride in the city of their birth. Aberdeen is the first city in Scotland to introduce such a scheme. The decorative certificate features a short message from the Lord Provost which says (in part) "The city values each and every one of its citizens and it is my sincere hope that you will always take pride in the city of your birth." The Provost believes that people who have chosen to come to live and work in Aberdeen feel a strong emotional attachment to the city. The certificate is one way of articulating that sentiment on paper and encouraging everyone to value their citizenship and take a lifelong civic pride in the city. There were 2449 births registered in Aberdeen last year (approximately 80% of which were babies born in the city).
Reprieve for Coal-Fired Power Station
Scottish Power has announced that it is to install new emission-reducing technology at Longannet power station in Fife at a cost of £170 million. The decision, made at the last minute to meet a European directive on reducing emissions, was a reversal of previous policy. It means that the 35-year-old power station, the second largest power station in the UK, will be able to continue using Scottish open-cast coal, which has a relatively high sulphur content. It will also mean a reduction in the amount of imported coal - which is landed in Ayrshire and taken by rail to Longannet on the east coast.
Be A Ski Instructor - On the Banks of the River Clyde
The Xscape snow complex in Braehead on the banks of the river Clyde, which is due to open in April, is advertising for staff with experience of skiing and snowboarding to act as instructors at Scotland's first indoor ski slope. In addition to the ski slope covered in 1,500 tonnes of real snow, the complex will house climbing walls, an aerial assault course, a multiplex cinema, a 24-lane 10-pin bowling alley, shops and bars. The massive building is on a site overlooking the river Clyde, beside the Braehead Shopping centre at Renfrew. The complex is aimed at attracting over three million visitors a year.
Bring Your Mac
People in Scotland are often apologetic to visitors from abroad about the changeable Scottish weather - even though many tourists insist that if they wanted to lie on the beach and get a sun-tan, they would not have come to Scotland in the first place. But now the tourism agency in Banffshire is turning the situation to their advantage and are attempting to attract a growing number of "storm watchers" who chase extreme weather. They say that "spectacular" storms are a feature of the north-facing Moray Firth coastline in winter. There are plenty of high cliffs and rugged coastline from which to watch a storm riding in and giant waves pounding the shore. In the summer, however, the area is one of the driest and warmest in Scotland, where flat calm seas encourage people to participate in water sports.
Congregation of 20,000 Rooks and Jackdaws
Around 20,000 rooks and jackdaws roost in a wood near Alford in Aberdeenshire every winter, creating one of the most spectacular wildlife displays in the region. Bird watchers flock to the area to see the large flocks of the birds - known as "congregations". Meiklemoss Wood is midway between Whitehouse and Alford, just off the main A944 Aberdeen to Alford road.
Weather in Scotland This Week
The first part of the week saw a continuation of the dull and overcast conditions of the previous week.. Temperatures rose to around 9/10C (48/50F) on Monday and Tuesday, with Aberdeen even reaching 12C (54F) on Monday. As the skies cleared on Tuesday night, temperatures dropped rapidly, however, with weather stations reporting daytime maxima of around 4/5C (39/41F). But the sunshine in the central belt made it look and feel warmer. Glasgow and St Andrews recorded nearly 8 hours of sun on Thursday and Edinburgh had nearly 7 hours of sun on Friday. But by Friday night the clouds had rolled back in, bringing with them heavy rain for Saturday.
The illustration here is of cyclamen - inside the greenhouse at the Kelvingrove Botanic Hardens in Glasgow.
This week's online photographs taken in Scotland to show the current season and its flora and fauna include sunset over the water at Gadloch, near Lenzie; Snowdrop and Crocus at Colzium Estate, near Kilsyth; Chaffinch; Orchids at Kelvingrove Botanic Gardens. See this week's Colour Supplement.