Taxes and Spending in Latest Budget
Every year, taxpayers listen with trepidation to the Budget speech by the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer as he reports on the state of the British economy - and his plans for taxation and government spending. His speech this week did not include any major shocks or changes, but he focused on improving education and improving the situation for poorer families with additional spending and allowances. The Fife-born "son of the manse" painted a rosy picture of the UK economy, with growth "on target" for 2.5% and public finances were said to be in good shape. From a Scottish perspective, the Chancellor's additional spending on education and other areas will mean that the government in Edinburgh will receive an additional £87 million over the next two years - but the Scottish Executive will decide whether the extra cash goes to the same targets as those in England and Wales. The whisky industry - which has been remarkably unscathed in recent years as far as duty on their product is concerned - welcomed another year of tax on whisky at the same rate. With the Olympics in London in 2012 on the horizon, the government is to run a "schools olympics" every year - and the first one will be hosted in Glasgow. But oil companies operating in the North Sea said that they would be paying an extra £200 million over the next three years - in addition to the billions of extra tax imposed last November.
"Think Again" Over Scotland's National Anthem
As part of the United Kingdom, Scotland's official national anthem is "God Save the Queen." But at sporting and similar events, particularly those involving international teams, other songs are often used. The rugby crowds at Murrayfield were in the forefront of this, with "Flower of Scotland" becoming the standard, despite its dirge like qualities. International football matches have followed suit. The athletes at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne over the last few weeks, however, opted for "Scotland the Brave" - which delighted a number of Scots, even though many of them didn't actually know the words - there has even been surge in page views on the words for that song on the Rampant Scotland site. Highland Cathedral (with music written by two Germans) also has a following - and was sung at Murrayfield recently, as an experiment. "Scots Wha' Hae" is a stirring song and is favoured by the Scottish National Party. With the possibility of Scotland being the host nation in 2012, if Glasgow's bid is successful, there have been calls for the confusion to be resolved - perhaps with (another) new song. A few years back, a Scottish national newspaper ran a competition for a new anthem. The winner has never been heard of since. First Minister Jack McConnell suggested in Parliament that a national debate on the subject was needed. He said his personal favourite was Highland Cathedral - but it was not the right one for mass singing at sporting events. For all the words to all these songs (and a whole lot more) see Scottish Songs Index.
Last Gasp for Smokers
The end of smoking in restaurants, bars and all public buildings in Scotland comes into effect at 6am on Sunday, 26 March. Many bars are planning special events to mark the occasion, with at least one restaurant offering a £40 three-course meal, complete with cigars. Another restaurant is bringing back "cigarette girls" for the last evening while another restaurant has a special tobacco menu - complete with smoked shallots, smoked duck, tobacco panna cotta, fillet of char (good pun that one) and ice cream and tobacco crumble. Despite the long notice given prior to implementation, there has been a rush of planning applications for awnings and beer garden areas by pubs which have the space to set these up for smokers. Scotland has suddenly seen an explosion of pavement cafes, with smokers huddled in freezing temperatures under sun-shade umbrellas. There are also reports of a surge in enquiries at help lines from smokers who have been prompted by the ban to try to give up their addiction. Local government environmental departments have recruited additional staff to visit premises to ensure that the ban is being implemented. Smokers - and the owner of the premises - will have top pay a fine if they are caught. Owners can face a fine of £200 for allowing customers to smoke and another £200 if they do not display notices about the ban.
The graphic is of a car air freshener - shaped roughly like a map of Scotland - and with an appropriate message.
Encouraging Trends in Scotland's Population Figures
Provisional figures from the Registrar General, on the births, deaths and marriages registered during 2005, show that births continued to increase, with more babies born that year (54,387) than at any time since 1999. There was also a small decrease in the number of deaths. Although cancer, coronary heart disease and strokes continue to be the biggest killers, compared with 2004, deaths from coronary heart disease fell by 4% and the number caused by strokes fell by 6%. There were 30,881 marriages in Scotland in 2005 - 4% fewer than in 2004, but divorces also fell, by almost 4%.
Scottish Water Will Not Be Privatised
A recent report by the body which regulates water supplies in England and Wales stated that Scottish Water (operated by an agency of the Scottish Executive) ranked below all 22 privatised water companies in England and Wales and that bills to householders were lower in England. Housebuilders in Scotland are frequently frustrated by the inability of Scottish Water to connect new housing projects to the water supply or drainage system. So there was a flutter of interest from consumers in Scotland when it was suggested that the Treasury in London had pinpointed the utility as a prime candidate for floating on the stock exchange - and producing a £2 billion boost to government finances. But trade unions and all the Scottish political parties are staunchly against any such move. Ross Finnie, the Scottish environment minister moved quickly to say that "There are no plans in the Scottish Executive to privatise it." It would require legislation in the Scottish Parliament to change its status. So even if Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (and potentially the next UK Prime Minister) wanted to sell off the assets, cries of "It's our water" would be heard once again across the country.
The illustration is of Loch Katrine, which supplies much of the water consumed in Glasgow.
Success of Housing Transfer - So Far
The public accounting watchdog AuditScotland has reported that the transfer of housing stock from local government control to a not-for-profit trust has brought more investment (almost double in some areas), boosted tenant control and was keeping rent rises down. Around 60% of ex-council tenants felt the transfer improved their circumstances. However, the organisation also considered that the Scottish Executive and councils had under-estimated the work involved in transferring the housing stock. Tenants in Edinburgh rejected a proposal to transfer their houses in this fashion but Glasgow, Dumfries and Galloway, and Scottish Borders have transferred all their houses to trusts, involving over 100,000 properties. Other councils, with another 50,000 homes, are in the process of doing the same.
Scotland's Best - And Worst - Hospitals for Over-50s
The new Edinburgh Royal Infirmary (ERI) has not been without its problems. Average waiting times at the Accident and Emergency department have deteriorated since the move to the new building at Little France - and were found to be the worst in Scotland, not for the first time. And public transport to the hospital leaves a lot to be desired while day patients or visitors who travel there by car find parking is a nightmare. But a report published this week says that the ERI is Scotland's best hospital for caring for the over-50s. Performance in four key areas seen as important by the over-50s was measured and the ERI was judged to be giving "excellent" service; only 27 hospitals out of 265 in Britain reached that standard. But three hospitals in Lanarkshire (Hairmyres Hospital, in East Kilbride, Wishaw General and Monklands, in Airdrie) came bottom in the survey of the treatment of patients aged 50, as did Raigmore Hospital in Inverness. The Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley also came out near the foot of the table. The Royal Infirmary, Gartnavel General, the Victoria Infirmary, the Southern General, and the Western Infirmary - all in Glasgow - also scored on the low side. The Western General in Edinburgh, St John's in Livingston, Ninewells in Dundee and Perth Royal Infirmary, however, were rated 'outstanding'.
Drive to Attract Chinese Golfers
First Minister Jack McConnell was in Beijing this week as a deal was signed involving the tourist agency VisitScotland, British Airways and Chinese golf clubs. Chinese golfers are being offered special packages of up to five nights and golf at courses such as St Andrews, Carnoustie and Kingsbarns. Golf is apparently booming in China and the number of courses there is expected to double. Scotland is being marketed as the birthplace of golf, as the Chinese have a strong attachment to traditions and history. It is estimated that Chinese tourism (not just to golf courses) will be worth £70 million to Scotland over the next four years.
Clyde Shipyard Workers Give Up Tea Breaks - For £1,000
The long-standing tradition of a mid-morning tea break is to disappear from BAE Systems shipyards on the river Clyde at Scotstoun and Govan. In return, the 1,400 workers have concluded a pay deal which will give them a lump sum of £1,000 and a two-year pay deal worth 11.5%. Not that the workers will be giving up a refreshing cup of tea entirely - they can still drink it down while working on the job instead of downing tools and moving to a canteen. But the vote to approve the new arrangements was passed by the workers by only a small majority and there will be a trial run for six months before it becomes a permanent change. Last month, the Scotstoun yard launched the UK's most advanced warship ever, the Type 45 destroyer HMS Daring. This was the first of six to be built at Scotstoun and BAE's other yard in Govan.
Investment Growing in Edinburgh Parks
Edinburgh City Council has embarked on a multi-million pound programme to upgrade the city's public parks over the next three years. It will be the biggest investment for more than 40 years and will see improvements to premier open spaces such as Princes Street Gardens as well as play parks and woodlands at 60 locations. The council has pledged £5.6 million towards the work, but expect to be able to generate the same amount again from external sources. New parks will also be created, including one beside the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary at Little France.
Faulty Tower Closed "Indefinitely"
The £10 million Glasgow Tower, which has been closed for more days than it has been open since it was launched as a tourist attraction in 2001, is to remain closed indefinitely, with the management unable to give any date as to when it is to reopen. The 416ft tower is Scotland's tallest free standing structure and the only tourist attraction in the world that can rotate 360 degrees. But its advanced technology has caused problems - it rotates on ball bearings and computer controls move it so that the streamlined observation car always faces into the wind. In January last year, ten people had to be rescued when the glass-sided lift got stuck 165ft in the air. It took six months to resolve that problem - but it operated for only three months before closing again last September due to "technical problems." The adjacent Glasgow Science Centre attracted over 1.3 million visitors during its first three years but that number could have been higher if the tower, which provides panoramic views over the city, had also been available.
"Oui" to Another Twin for Glasgow
Scotland's largest city may be twinned already with Nuremberg, Turin and Havana as well as Rostov-on-Don in Russia and the Chinese city of Dalian. But although the rules on twinning have been tightened, to ensure that they do actually produce real trade and cultural benefits, Glasgow City Council is moving towards closer ties, leading to twinning, with the French Mediterranean port of Marseilles. It is being predicted that the links will increase the export of goods and services, tourism and the number of students coming to study at Glasgow's universities. Marseilles is France's second largest city, with an estimated population of 800,000 and it is the country's largest commercial port and gateway to the Mediterranean.
Chaffinch Heads Scotland's Pecking Order
The results of the RSPB "Big Garden Bird Watch" were published this week. Thousands of people all over the UK joined the world's biggest annual bird survey. They counted the number of wild birds in their gardens for an hour in one weekend in January and supplied their data to the bird protection charity. The figures show that in Scotland the chaffinch (pictured here) is the most frequently observed bird. Last year the house sparrow had knocked the chaffinch off its perch at the top of the Scottish-wide table, a position it had held for the previous seven years. Sparrow numbers have declined by over half since 1979 and although the starling is in third place this year, its numbers have gone down by 25% since 1979. Within Scotland, there are of course regional differences - the sparrow remained in the top spot in Edinburgh and in the capital the magpie took 7th place, although it is not in the top ten in the country at large.
Ospreys Return to Wildlife Reserve
When they left their winter quarters in Africa, the ospreys that nest each summer in Scotland are unaware of what the weather is going to be like here when they complete their journey. But the first female bird has already arrived at the Loch of Lowes in Perthshire and will be laying her eggs next month - hopefully the weather will be a bit milder by then. The Osprey is nearly two feet long with a wingspan of over five feet. Its spectacular dives to catch fish in lochs in many parts of Scotland have delighted bird watchers for the last 40 years. But with under 200 breeding pairs, the RSPB and volunteers have to mount a round-the-clock watch on nests to ensure that the eggs are left undisturbed by collectors.
Tunnocks Takes the Biscuit at Glasgow Airport
A new departure lounge at Glasgow Airport, which is opening on 1 April, is to be sponsored by Tunnocks, the Scottish manufacturer of chocolate teacakes and caramel wafers. The idea is that passengers can get some comfort food ahead of their flights - which with the growth of budget airlines, are often without any free catering services. The new pier is also to have a business departure lounge sponsored by Glasgow's "Scotland With Style" brand. But entry to the new "Skylounge" is not free, except for passengers using a few selected airlines. Otherwise, adults pay £17.50 and children get in for £7. So they are going to have to eat a lot of teacakes (or, more likely, consume the free soft and alcoholic drinks) or play a lot of video games to justify the cost.
Belligerent Bob Gives Red Cars the Bird
Glamis Castle is well-known for the friendly welcome extended to thousands of visitors every year. But anyone arriving in a red car at the home of the Earl of Strathmore is being given the bird by an unpleasant pheasant named Bob who gets into a flap whenever he sees one approach. The flighty bird chases alongside and has even been known to give a peck at the castle chaplain (who unfortunately drives a red car with a wing and a prayer). Visitors are now warned about Belligerent Bob with a notice greeting visitors which reads:
Beneath this old yew tree lives a fiery red pheasant.
He chases red cars - which isn’t too pleasant.
Weather in Scotland This Week
Although temperatures did rise to 11C (52F) in Glasgow last Sunday, the thermometer soon plunged back down again, with a maximum daytime level of only 5/8C (41/46F) for the next few days. The sun at least made a lengthy appearance on Tuesday, with both Aberdeen and Glasgow recoding over 8 hours of sun that day. Snow returned to the Highlands on Thursday, creating hazardous driving conditions and closing ten schools. Although it gradually got a bit milder towards the end of the week, that also produced more cloud and rain. The outlook is for temperatures to rise to around 11/13C (52/55F) early next week - before falling again.
The photo of the pink rhododendron was taken on Tuesday - when the sun shone.
Despite the low temperatures, British Summer Time begins at 2am on Sunday as the clocks "spring forward" by one hour.
This Week's Colour Supplement
This week's online photographs taken in Scotland to show the current season and its flora and fauna include snow on Ben Lomond, Redshanks, courting Eider Ducks, Rhododendrons, Helleborus and Sunset from Helensburgh.
See this week's Colour Supplement.