Hospital Waiting Times Improved?
In parts of the world where patients do not have lengthy waits for treatment, it may come as a surprise to find that the Scottish Executive is proudly proclaiming that nobody now has to wait longer than six months between a GP referring a patient to hospital and their first appointment with a consultant. And the waiting time for those who have been diagnosed has been cut to a maximum of 24 weeks. Of course, many patients are dealt with in much less time. But four years ago, the wait to see a consultant, even for some heart conditions, could be over a year and 11,000 patients had been waiting for treatment for over six months. Since then billions of extra pounds have poured in to the service. Andy Kerr, the Scottish Executive health minister announced the latest figures this week and claimed that the National Health Service was driving down delays further, with new targets for 2007. But critics point out that 34,977 patients (representing almost a third of those on the waiting list) are excluded from the official figures because they have low-priority conditions or failed to show up for treatment at the appointed time. The number of these has grown by more than 5000 since 2002. And although the new target for 2007 is to cut waiting times to 18 weeks, the maximum wait in England for an outpatient appointment is already down to 12 weeks.
Toll on Erskine Bridge to be Scrapped?
Although the Scottish Executive will not finally decide until next week, it is looking increasingly likely that the toll paid by drivers using the Erskine Bridge (pictured here) across the river Clyde will be scrapped, after a long campaign by the local authorities and businesses on both sides of the river. Ten million vehicles a year cross the bridge - private cars pay 60p and commercial vehicles more. Since the toll in the Forth Bridge only applies in one direction, that made the Erskine Bridge the most expensive in Scotland for those making a return journey. Business leaders claim that although the government will lose around £5.6 million in toll revenue, the local economy would save £20 million a year and jobs would created.
It is also expected that the government will not allow an increase on the Forth Road Bridge meantime - that crossing copes with around 25 million vehicles a year, twice the design capacity. The Executive want to wait until experts have reported on how the corrosion on the cables supporting the bridge can be fixed. This will take a considerable amount of time - probably until after the next Scottish Parliament elections - and there are concerns that if a "quick fix" cannot be found, it could be too late to build a new bridge before the present one has to be closed, at least to commercial vehicles. There were complaints from some folk in Fife, who say that the only remaining tolls in Scotland are on the bridges over the Forth and the Tay in the north of the county. Some Members of the Scottish Parliament representing constituencies in the "Kingdom" called that "discrimination against Fifers." However, it would be foolish to encourage more traffic by removing the toll on the overloaded Forth Bridge. The tolls on the bridge to the Isle of Skye were removed in January 2005, but with less than 800,000 vehicle crossings in a year, the government revenue implications were not major.
Visitor Numbers to Scottish Attractions
The Association of Leading Visitor Attractions in the UK has reported a slump in the numbers going to the UK's top attractions in London following the terrorist bombings there on 7 July, although that led to some sites outside of that city benefiting from displaced visitors. Numbers to the London Eye, for example, were down by 30% after the bombings, but Kew Gardens on the outskirts had an increase of 25% in their numbers. In Scotland, numbers were down at both Edinburgh and Stirling Castle in 2005, said to be because of the G8 protest marches, although weather last year may also have been a factor. However, the Museum of Scotland in the capital saw numbers rising by 9% while the Falkirk Wheel, which was not affected by the G8 protests, slumped by 30%. The Museum of Flight had a 116% increase in visitor numbers - but that was due to the arrival of the Concorde supersonic aircraft.
National Trust Chief Resigns
Dr Robin Pellew, the chief executive of the National Trust for Scotland, the largest conservation charity in the country, has astounded members of the board by resigning. He is quoted as saying that he had "simply had enough of balancing the books" and could not "face another term sorting out its financial difficulties". The Trust is celebrating the 75th anniversary of its creation (in April 1931) and Pellew is credited with modernising the organisation and getting its finances onto a firmer financial basis. Before he took over, there was a continuing cash crisis and declining visitor numbers. Although many of the Trust properties will never cover their cost of maintenance, he has managed to significantly trim the losses and has increased membership of the Trust and has seen overall visitor numbers grow - particularly at gems such as Culzean Castle (seen here). But he has described his five years at the helm as a "roller-coaster." There was concern that his departure might affect some high profile projects such as rescuing the Burns Heritage Park in Alloway (at the request of the Scottish Executive) and Abbotsford, built by Sir Walter Scott as his home in the Scottish Borders. The Trust looks after more than 100 famous castles, country houses and gardens as well as 185,000 acres of countryside.
Campaign Begins Against Aberdeen By-Pass Plan
A road to by-pass Aberdeen and reduce congestion in the city has been debated for decades. Finally, it took five years of campaigning by business leaders and politicians in the north-east to get the Scottish Executive to commit the finance to the project in January 2003. There have been a range of routes and options under consideration since then and last December the Scottish Executive announced what they claimed was a "compromise" solution. They claimed this addressed some of the major objections to the five routes which were under consideration. It also happens to be the cheapest option and will take a year less to build than the other routes. But now residents who are directly affected by the chosen route are organising a campaign to get it changed and are pledging to take the issue to the European courts if they do not get the result they want from a public enquiry. The surprise decision to have a spur from Stonehaven seems to be causing the greatest volume of objections as it has an impact on a number of up-market residential properties. The aim of the spur was to take traffic going north of Aberdeen away from the coastal road between Stonehaven and Aberdeen. The Scottish Executive claim that upgrading that road would have affected property along that route and created greater engineering challenges and greater disruption during construction.
Drop in Road Accidents Involving Children
The number of children under the age of 15 injured on Scottish roads has fallen from 12,035 in 2002 to 10,108 last year. The number admitted to hospital after road accidents fell by nearly 25%, from 923 in 2002 to 699 in 2005. Some of that reduction may be due to improvements in treatment so that fewer children need to be admitted to hospital - and a sedentary life style means fewer children out playing on roads. However, campaigners say that there is a greater awareness of safety measures and accident prevention initiatives. Many schools now have the roads in their vicinity with 20mph speed restrictions imposed when kids are going to or from school at the start and end of the school day and at lunchtime. A large number of minor roads in residential areas also have permanent 20mph advisory speed limits. Statistically, Aberdeen has more hospital admissions per 1,000 children than any other part of Scotland with Dumfries and Galloway recording the lowest such figures.
The reputation of Scots for thriftiness was gained in the days when most folk in the country were not earning very much. These days, salaries are much higher but in a society where conspicuous consumption is an important element in the lives of many, savings are not rated a very high priority. So maybe the Bank of Scotland's survey of the savings habits of its customers should come as no surprise. The report says that the average Scot has a nest egg of around £6,000 set aside for a rainy day. That's about 31% of gross annual average earnings. But in Glasgow, savings are only £4,270 on average, which equates to 22% of annual earnings in Scotland's largest city. Shetland, on the other hand, tops the league table with average savings of £8,587 which is equivalent to around 46% of local gross average earnings. Only West Lothian comes out worse than Glasgow - although average earnings are high at £22,500, savings amount to only £4,106. Of course, these figures were compiled from customers savings accounts - maybe the high flyers of West Lothian have stocks and shares or other investments? On the other hand, averages can be deceptive - another survey claims that over 30% of Scots have only £100 or less in savings, including savings and shares. Consumer debt in the UK has now reached £1.1 trillion, of which Scots will account for around 8%.
Edinburgh Commuters Bus to Work
Figures released by the Scottish Executive this week show that more people in Edinburgh travel to work by bus than anywhere else in Scotland. 26% of residents in the capital use a bus to get to work - that's double the national average and higher than in Glasgow and Dundee where 20/21% of people make their journeys to work on a bus. Whether that is because the public transport service is better in the capital or because of policies aimed at keeping cars out of the city - or a combination of both factors - is a matter for debate. Overall, Scots make 16% more local bus journeys than the British average - again, this may be due in part to a lower car ownership level north of the border. Local bus trips increased by 2% last year - the sixth consecutive annual increase in the number of journeys. Even so, overall passenger numbers are 9% lower than they were ten years ago. About 80% of those aged over 60 have a concessionary bus pass which allows them free travel at off-peak times.
Highland Airports Passenger Numbers Take Off
Although the numbers of passengers do not compare with those of Scotland's main airports at Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, there has been growth also at the 10 airports operated by Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (Hial). Wick showed the biggest gain in the last year, with numbers up by 41%. The passengers using Inverness grew by an impressive 28% and even the number of air travellers to and from Islay and Tiree went up by 18%. In total, the airports have handled 975,876 passengers in the last ten months - a 12.4% growth over the same period last year. The statistics were published in a week in which the first direct air service between Inverness and Leed/Bradford airport in the north of England was announced by Eastern Airways. The new route will start on April 24 and is another success for the government's Route Development Fund, which subsides new air services from Scotland.
Boulders Fall from Edinburgh Castle
Part of the rock face below Edinburgh Castle had to be shored up and a road was closed last week after large rocks fell onto Johnstone Terrace. Nobody was injured and it has been suggested that during recent cold weather water may have seeped into cracks and frozen, fracturing the rocks. Historic Scotland, who look after the castle, say that they have specialist maintenance and conservation teams to check the volcanic rock beneath the castle on a very regular basis. They assess its condition, monitor any damage caused by weather, ensure that there are no loose sections, and assess if any work is required. In the aftermath of the fall, Historic Scotland said they were considering covering part of the rock with safety nets as public safety had to take precedence over the beauty of the castle's setting. Hopefully any such measures will only be temporary.
Freedom of Aberdeen for New Regiment
The Royal Regiment of Scotland is set to be conferred with the Freedom of the City of Aberdeen. The recommendation will be discussed at next week’s meeting of the City Council. This will enable the regiment to march through the city on Saturday, July 1, after returning from overseas duties in Iraq, with "bayonets fixed, drums beating and colours flying". The Freedom of the City was granted to the Gordon Highlanders in 1949. Officers of the Royal Regiment of Scotland consider that there is no automatic right of 'inheritance' by the Royal Regiment of the Freedom granted to the Gordon Highlanders, so a new conferral of the Freedom is required.
Impact of Relocation on Scottish Natural Heritage
The chief executive of Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has reported that the move of the agency from Edinburgh to Inverness continues to pose a risk to its ability to do its work, due to the loss of experienced personnel. Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act show less than 20% of the 270 staff currently based in the capital have agreed to move, despite a generous relocation package. A new £15 million HQ has been built in the Highland capital - see artist's impression of the new building. The revelations came as scores of staff at the national sports agency Sportscotland have threatened to quit if its HQ is moved from Edinburgh to Glasgow. The moves are part of the Scottish Executive's policy of dispersing public sector jobs throughout the country, to spread the benefits of devolution.
Scotland Walks the Walk
A study commissioned by the government agencies VisitScotland, Scottish Natural Heritage, Scottish Enterprise and Forestry Commission Scotland has shown that Scotland is regarded as a top destination for walkers who come to Scotland for its scenery, easily accessible walks and "safe" wildlife as well as its culture and heritage. VisitScotland has just produced a new guide to promote the country for outdoor holidays. "Walking in Scotland" lists 50 routes of varying levels of difficulty, from the Borders to the Shetland Isles, as well as walking events and festivals. It is estimated that tourists who go walking as part of their holiday in Scotland spend almost £1bn each year.
Government Rejects Support for Perth City Status
There was disappointment amongst civic leaders in Perth when the Scottish Executive announced that it would not support moves by the "Fair City" to be given official "city" status. It was pointed out that the UK government had not brought forward any plans to have a competition for city status (as they had in recent years when Stirling and Inverness in Scotland had won this award). In the past, being a city was largely a status issue, but since the introduction of the government's "Cities Growth Fund" other towns have become more interested. See Scotland's Cities on the background to Scotland's current cities - and those aspiring to the title.
Flying Scotsman on Pakistan TV
A senior teacher from Keith, in Moray, went on an exchange posting to north-east Pakistan recently and taught the pupils at Lahore Lyceum School Scottish country dancing as well as English. Cathy Francis was in the middle of a dance class when a local Geo-News team turned up and filmed the dancing of a Virginia Reel and The Flying Scotsman. The item was broadcast on national TV the next day. Pupils in Keith are now getting ready to welcome a teacher from Lahore next month. The cultural link began in 2004 when pupils at the two schools exchanged messages and photographs. Since then, there has been frequent communication as the youngsters learn about each other's country.
Snowy Owls Home in the Western Isles
Movement of birds southwards from their usual territory is not what you would expect with global warming having such an impact. But the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in Scotland has recorded the largest influx of snowy owls into the Outer Hebrides since the early 1970s. These large birds (they stand almost two feet tall and have a wingspan of over five feet) are normally found near the Arctic Circle - and are well known as the postal delivery mechanism in Harry Potter. A number of snowy owls have been spotted in North Uist in isolated areas - where there is a good supply of rabbits. Other individual snowy owls have been seen in Shetland, Wester Ross and Aberdeenshire. The photo shows a snowy owl in captivity at the Palacerigg Country Park.
Crofters Say Townies Ruin Country Life
The Scottish Crofting Foundation (SCF) says it has come across evidence of the increasing numbers of town dwellers moving to the countryside - and then complain about cows mooing, barking dogs, sheep wandering on the road and "noisy" tractors. While some of the stories just raise a laugh, some crofters have been taken to court for allowing sheep and cattle - or muck - on the roads and they are having to put up more fences to stop sheep wandering into gardens. The SCF says that the moan about noisy tractors by former urban dwellers was like a crofter moving to the city and complaining about buses running past his house. The organisation fears that urban courts are creating case law in favour of those who come to visit or live in the countryside and have their perception of country living clouded by urban values. In the past, if complaints had been made to the police about sheep or cows getting into gardens, they would have told the home owner to make sure the gate was shut or their fence was repaired. Now that has been turned on its head and it is becoming the responsibility of the owner of the stock.
Moths Decline by Over 30%
The Butterfly Conservation organisation has reported that the number of common moths in Britain has fallen by a third since 1968 - although Scotland has not suffered to the same extent. 75% of moth species in southern Britain have declined since 1968 but in norther Britain the fall affects "only" 55% of moth species. The cause has yet to be established, but habitat destruction, pesticides, pollution and climate change are the main suspects. The loss of such insects has serious implications for moth predators - such as birds and bats. The illustration shows a small magpie moth.
Sweeney Codd Wins National Title
A shop selling fried fish and chips (French fries) in Ness, the most northerly point of the Western Isle of Lewis, is described as "the last chippie before Canada". But its fish and chips have been voted in a national newspaper as the best in Scotland and one of the top ten in the UK. Called "Sweeney Todd - The Frying Squad" it is run by a couple who were originally from the island but who packed up a job in London to return to Lewis. When they were first told about the accolade, they thought it was a hoax and it is still a mystery how the remote outlet's fame had spread. There are tourists who visit the area and they may have been pleasantly surprised to find such facilities there - and the fish is bound to be fresh off the local boats.
Weather in Scotland This Week
Although temperatures this week were largely in the range 6-8C (43-46F) it has felt cold than this as a strong easterly wind has been blowing much of the time. That has meant that the east coast has been cloudier than the west and there has been shower activity in the east too. There has not been a lot of sunshine around although Aberdeen managed to record an appreciable number of hours on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The cold winds look like continuing into next week as there is a "Greenland Block" (high pressure over Greenland and also over continental Europe) which sends cold Arctic winds down over Scotland and the UK. Forecasters are predicting low overnight temperatures and possibly even snow as the wind chill factor makes it feel even colder, with the "real feel" below freezing point even during the day, until the end of next week.
Despite the colder weather, the spring flowers are continuing to burst forth - this is one of the first daffodils I've seen, photographed earlier this week.
This Week's Colour Supplement
This week's online photographs taken in Scotland to show the current season and its flora and fauna include a number of views of Loch Lomond and Ben Lomond, Canada Geese, Oystercatchers and Helleborus.
See Colour Supplement - 25 February 2006.