PQs: Community Councils in Scotland

I lodged a series of questions on Community Councils in Scotland. I’m encouraged by the responses, which show Governmental commitment to our most local form of democracy, and hope the information provided is useful for those involved in Community Councils.

Jean Urquhart (Highlands and Islands) (Independent): To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to promote participation in community councils.(S4W-19791)

Mr Derek Mackay MSP:

As part of the Scottish Government’s work in collaboration with COSLA to enhance the role of community councils, the Improvement Service has established three Short-Life Working Groups consisting of a number of Community Council Liaison Officers who work for Scotland’s 32 local authorities.

One of these groups is considering ways to promote participation in community councils. The group’s work is at a very early stage but its findings will help inform future work to help promote participation in community councils.

Jean Urquhart (Highlands and Islands) (Independent): To ask the Scottish Government whether it will increase the number of contested community council elections from the current level of 8% and, if so, to what level. (S4W-19792)

Mr Derek Mackay MSP:

Local authorities have statutory oversight of community councils under the Local Authority Government (Scotland) Act 1973 and that includes the responsibility for community council elections. That said, the Scottish Government acknowledges that the number of community council contested elections are low across the country.

As part of the Scottish Government’s work in collaboration with COSLA to enhance the role of community councils, the Improvement Service has established three Short-Life Working Groups consisting of a number of Community Council Liaison Officers who work for Scotland’s 32 local authorities. One of these newly established groups will evaluate the use of alternative voting methods such as evoting to increase the number of community councils contested elections across Scotland. The group’s work is at a very early stage.

Jean Urquhart (Highlands and Islands) (Independent): To ask the Scottish Government what financial support is available to community councils.(S4W-19793)

Mr Derek Mackay MSP:

The Scottish Government does not provide funding to Community Councils as it is for each Local Authority to decide the level of funding for Community Councils in their area. A Scottish Government Survey of Community Councils carried out in October 2012 and published in December 2013 showed that local authorities used several different methodologies to allocate money for administration costs. The most popular (18 local authorities) is to allocate a core grant and then top it up using population/elector/community councillor numbers. The full report is available at http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/0044/00440438.pdf.
In addition local authorities have a Scottish Local Authority External Funding Officer who can advise community groups and community councils about potential external funding streams. Community Councils can also apply for BIG Lottery funding.

Jean Urquhart (Highlands and Islands) (Independent): To ask the Scottish Government what training is available for community councillors. (S4W-19794)

Mr Derek Mackay MSP:

A Scottish Government Survey of Community Councils carried out in October 2012 and published in December 2013 showed that 91% of local authorities provided training opportunities for community councillors, with planning the most common type of training provided. The full report is available at http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/0044/00440438.pdf

As part of the Scottish Government’s work in collaboration with COSLA to enhance the role of community councils, the Improvement Service has established three Short-Life Working Groups consisting of a number of Community Council Liaison Officers who work for Scotland’s 32 local authorities. One of these groups will be evaluating further training and development needs for community councillors and will explore opportunities to share existing training materials and resources. The group’s work is at a very early stage.

Jean Urquhart (Highlands and Islands) (Independent): To ask the Scottish Government what mechanisms are in place to support community councils that have become inactive. (S4W-19795)

Mr Derek Mackay MSP:

Each Local Authority has a Community Council Liaison Officer (CCLO) working directly with active and inactive community councils in their area.

To help Community Councils in their work Local Authorities have access to a Model Scheme of Establishment, a Model Constitution and a Model Standing Orders in addition to a Model Code of Conduct and Good Practice Guidance for Community Councillors. These were developed in 2009 by a group which involved the Scottish Government, COSLA and representatives of community councils and local authorities. The materials can be found on the Scottish Government website.

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Press Release on the Independence White Paper

Here is a press release from me, in which I react to the Independence White Paper, which was launched by the Scottish Government on Tuesday.

“HIGHLANDS AND ISLANDS MSP:  INDY WHITE PAPER PUTS SCOTLAND’S KIDS FIRST

Independent Highlands and Islands MSP Jean Urquhart has congratulated the Scottish Government on the independence white paper Scotland’s Future [1], saying they are right to put Scotland’s children first with a plan to provide 1,140 hours of childcare for all three and four year-olds, and all vulnerable two-year-olds.

Ms Urquhart also pointed out that many, including herself, will have some disagreements with parts the Government’s plans – such as on NATO membership, monarchy and currency – but that independence means that decisions on these issues will be finally be in the hands of the people of Scotland to take for themselves.

Ms Urquhart said:

“Our children are, to quote the title of the white paper, Scotland’s Future. They are the reason we should want to build a better nation and they’ll also be the ones who will do much of the building. So the government are to be congratulated for making world-class childcare and early years education a top priority for an independent Scotland

“Quite unlike the direction of travel at Westminster, the white paper sets out an ambition for a more equal Scotland. Greater equality for women must be central to that, and the childcare pledge will make it much easier for mothers to continue their careers if they choose to, and to flexibly share parenting duties with fathers.

“Much progress has been made on childcare in Scotland in recent years, but we need independence to achieve this radical an expansion. That’s because it is a stimulus measure that will pay for itself in the extra tax received from women choosing to work who otherwise would not be able to – but that can only work if the revenues stay in Scotland. Control of our economy by the UK Treasury makes it impossible for Scotland to pursue forward-thinking, stimulus policies like this and ties us into the austerity death spiral.

“The white paper is only one party’s vision, but it is a vision that should inspire confidence that Scotland can and will be a successful, progressive, independent country with many options available to her. The paper itself acknowledges ‘some would prefer Scotland to become a republic, to leave the EU or NATO, or to have our own currency’ – and I would prefer all of those things. But after independence I will have a fair chance to make my case to fellow Scots, while under Westminster those decisions are not ours to take.”

ENDS

For more information or comment, please contact Gary Cocker on gary.cocker@scottish.parliament.uk or 0131 348 5053.

Notes to editors:

1. The white paper Scotland’s Future is available at http://www.scotreferendum.com/ as a PDF or eBook. Hard copies can be ordered free in the UK bye by phoning 0300 012 1809 or emailing referendumwhitepaper@scotland.gsi.gov.uk.

Speech: Dundee City of Culture Bid (12th November 2013)

On behalf of the Independent and Green group, I would like to echo the support for Dundee’s city of culture bid that has been expressed by members across the chamber.

Dundee is, in many ways, a microcosm of Scotland. It is a city with a proud industrial heritage that is reinventing itself for the 21st century and leading the way in video games technology and biomedical research. Over the years, it has been infused with Irish, Italian, Polish, Asian and Chinese immigrants—to name but a few—and both of its top-class universities continue to attract students from all over the globe.

The continued investment by the Scottish Government in Dundee’s waterfront will transform the way in which its citizens interact with the city and will, I hope, add further architectural excellence to Dundee’s many cultural accomplishments. I am assured by my Dundonian researcher that the city’s football teams—of which I know absolutely nothing—particularly the one that plays in dark blue, are also worthy of mention for their European heritage and exciting style of play.

What really makes Dundee worthy of its bid, though, is its people and how they have shaped their sense of self through the bid. Artists and writers are now thriving in a city that is universally recognised to be bursting with opportunity and ambition. From Sheena Wellington’s show-stopping performance of “A Man’s a Man for a’ that” at the opening of the Parliament in 1999 to the wry observations and brilliant talent of the much-missed Michael Marra, Dundee’s contribution to Scotland’s traditional and contemporary folk scene is legendary. Its links to Deacon Blue, Snow Patrol and The View and its annual blues bonanza demonstrate that that musical legacy continues to the present day.

New publishing firms such as Teckle Books and the success of the Bob Servant novels perfectly encapsulate the irreverent Dundonian sense of humour. Those success stories beget popular events, with the DCA’s Dundead horror festival and the Dundee literary festival being other highlights of a packed cultural calendar.

The bid for city of culture status gives Dundee an opportunity to celebrate all her heroes. There are too many other cultural strings to Dundee’s bow to mention: the McManus Galleries, the impending V&A museum, DC Thomson, Brian Cox, AL Kennedy, William McGonagall—I could go on.

It is worth noting in particular the continuing success of Dundee Contemporary Arts and Dundee Rep, not least because both were established at a time when some would have suggested that arts funding should be a lower priority for the city. As two key drivers of Dundee’s continued regeneration, I believe that they have demonstrated the intrinsic worth of cultural investment, and they are two potent symbols of the dedication of the city of Dundee to its artistic community. They are successful because they are used—and used well—by the folk of Dundee.

Dundee fully deserves to be awarded city of culture status, and I hope that, when the judges take in the spectacular view as their train travels over the silvery Tay, they realise that they have just arrived in a city of great culture in any year.

PRESS RELEASE: GEOPARK CASH BOOST WELCOMED

Jean Urquhart, the Independent MSP for the Highlands and Islands, has welcomed First Minister Alex Samond’s announcement of £280,000 in new funding for Scotland’s two UNESCO Geoparks in Shetland and the North-West Highlands. The First Minster announced the cash yesterday afternoon during the Cabinet’s visit to Shetland.

Jean met with representatives of the two Geoparks yesterday in Shetland to celebrate the news and discuss plans for the future.

Jean said:

“I’m delighted by this announcement, and I know the hardworking, passionate teams of the two Geoparks are too. This funding means that their international status is secure, and they can build on their fantastic record of developing the educational and tourist potential of our magnificent geology.

“Scotland is the home of modern geology, and our Geoparks recognise two of the world’s most scientifically important and visually stunning landscapes.

“The many faults running through Shetland’s rock mean that you can see geology from all over the North of Scotland side by side. Geologically, Shetland is the Highlands in miniature.

“The North-West Highlands are home to the oldest rocks in Britain. At 3 Billion years old, some are well over half the age of the planet. The Moine Thrust that runs right through the NW Highlands Geopark was instrumental in proving that the continents are moving – a debate that wasn’t settled until the 1960s.

“We Scots are rightly proud of our landscape. We want to experience it, to learn about it, and to show it off to our friends from around the world. That’s what our Geoparks are all about, and it’s great to know that they will go from strength to strength.”

The funding, of £140,000 per year for 2013/14 and 2014/15, is the first the Geoparks have received from the Scottish Government. Without it the international status of the two parks could have been at risk, as UNESCO requires that Geoparks be financially secure in order to remain a member of the European Geoparks Network and Global Geoparks Network.

Climate Challenge Fund Advice Surgeries

 

The Scottish Government’s Climate Challenge Fund (CCF) has made 563 awards to the value of over £46.9 million since its launch in 2008. The fund helps community groups who have projects designed to help reduce their carbon footprint, and funded projects in the past have included community growing projects, initiatives to reduce, reuse and recycle and energy efficiency advice.

To encourage potential applicants, the Scottish Government will be holding two further advice surgeries in the Highlands and Islands next week to provide information to local community groups and interested parties. These will be held between 9.30am and 12.30pm on Tuesday 23rd July at the Merkinch Community Centre in Inverness and between 9.30am and 2pm on Thursday 25th July at the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar Council Building in Stornoway (with videolinks to the Council Offices in Balivanich and Barra).

I would encourage any and all community groups with any ideas to pop along to these events in Inverness and Stornoway to hear more from the CCF. More information can be found at their website.

PRESS RELEASE:Local MSPs Lend Support to Raasay Crofters

 

Highlands and Islands MSPs Jean Urquhart and John Finnie have lodged a Parliamentary motion expressing concern at the “loss of local control and community involvement” on the island of Raasay after the news that fishing and shooting rights on the island have been tendered to a South Ayrshire stalking firm.

The motion, marked for Members’ Business, has already attracted cross-party support among MSPs following national coverage of the Government’s decision to award the lease to South Ayrshire Stalkers, whose bid for the lease was £2000 more than the bid submitted by the Raasay Crofters’ Association who have operated the lease since 1995.

Jean, an Independent MSP for the Highlands and Islands, said:

“This move has sent shockwaves through the local community on Raasay and the Association, who have done an excellent job in developing the facilities on the island since control was given to the community.

“Taking away what has been a successfully controlled lease from the local community cannot be justified on the grounds of ‘best value’, as ‘best value’ surely encompasses more than financial considerations.

“It’s only right and proper that Parliament has a chance to debate the issue of what we really mean by community empowerment and land reform.”

John, also an Independent MSP for the Highlands and Islands, added:

“I was pleased to support Jean’s motion, which highlights the excellent work undertaken by the local community in maintaining and developing facilities on the island.

“While I have no doubt that the successful bidder has only good intentions for Raasay, the principle of community control, particularly where it has a proven record of success, must be upheld, and I hope that this decision can be reviewed.”

Motion: Raasay Crofters’ Association

Motion S4M-05704: Jean Urquhart, Highlands and Islands, Independent, Date Lodged: 21/02/2013

Raasay Crofters’ Association
That the Parliament notes with concern the transfer of fishing and shooting rights on the island of Raasay from the Raasay Crofters’ Association to a South Ayrshire stalking firm; further notes that the association, which represents 11 crofters and has paid an annual fee of £650, was set up in 1994 to manage these rights on behalf of the local community; understands that the association held the lease from 1995 until November 2012 and that during that period it made the enterprise a success through its investment in training and facilities; queries if this success, which, it understands, resulted in a profitable butcher’s trade operating on the island, is one of the primary reasons that the lease was put out to tender for the first time in November 2012; understands that the Scottish Government informed the association that ministers were not obliged to accept the highest offer, and expresses concern at what it sees as this loss of local control and community involvement.

Events: Climate Challenge Fund Information Events in Lerwick and Kirkwall

Next week, the Climate Challenge Fund team will visit both Lerwick and Kirkwall to discuss how CCF grants can help fund community projects looking to reduce their carbon footprint. So far, the CCF has helped to fund projects that provide energy efficiency advice, the promotion of reducing, reusing and recycling and lower carbon transport, with £44.7 million awarded to 399 different community groups.

The Kirkwall event will take place at the St Magnus Centre on February 7th between 11am-3pm and 6pm-8pm, and the Lerwick event will be held at the Museum and Archives Centre on February 5th from 11am-3pm and 6pm-8pm. The event is free, and any group or individual can drop in. For more information, please visit the CCF events page:

http://ccf.keepscotlandbeautiful.org/events.aspx

Speech: Stage 1 of Budget Debate (January 23rd)

Jean Urquhart (Highlands and Islands) (Ind): I will use the time that I have in this stage 1 debate to reflect on the difficult choices that the cabinet secretary and the Government have faced in preparing the budget.

I am mindful of Professor David Bell’s conclusion in his report on the budget back in September:

“The Cabinet secretary is largely constrained by the settlement from the UK government, which in turn reflects its policy towards the UK’s current fiscal deficit.”

In the face of those constraints, and as I said in the Finance Committee debate on the draft budget before Christmas, I fully support the cabinet secretary’s budget for 2013-14 and the choices that he has made. We do not have the flexibility of normal countries as our budget is handed to us from on high. For example, restoring money to our colleges would mean cuts elsewhere—cuts that others have failed to outline or propose. In many instances, the choice that we have is Sophie’s choice, where money that could be used in so many different areas cannot be allocated to them all.

I was pleased to see the cabinet secretary’s thoughtful and considered written response to the Finance Committee’s report, which was debated in the chamber on 20 December, as the response answered many of the points that were raised in our report. I was particularly heartened by the information that the Government outlined on the economic impact of public sector investment in next generation broadband, with almost 14,000 indirect jobs being created between 2013 and 2028. That might seem a long period of time, but the ambition is welcome.

As a Highlands and Islands representative, I very much welcome the cabinet secretary’s recognition of the need to deliver improved connectivity in areas where next generation speeds are not yet possible. A reliable broadband service in the Highlands and Islands is the greatest gift that the budget could deliver to the region, as it would open up opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises that are currently at a disadvantage due to their geographic location. It is no use having superfast broadband in Kilmarnock if Kiltarlity does not even have a dial-up service. The Government’s commitment to all parts of Scotland is to be lauded.

I was also glad to hear, in response to recommendations that were made by the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee, more details of the work that the Government is undertaking on public procurement. As Jim and Margaret Cuthbert attested to in their evidence to the committee, Germany’s strategy of breaking down larger contracts into smaller chunks to enable small and medium-sized enterprises to bid for them is eminently sensible. Given the preponderance of SMEs in the Scottish economy, I am keen for the Government to continue to consider the idea as part of its bid to make the most of what we have.

As a member of the Finance Committee, which agreed its report on the budget, I hoped to see the helpful and constructive tone of our evidence-taking sessions extend to the chamber. I think that, in taking evidence from various organisations and other committees, every member of the committee was acutely aware of the difficult decisions that are being faced in these difficult times. I am convinced that the cabinet secretary has produced the best possible deal for Scotland, but I look forward to hearing positive, constructive and costed suggestions from the Opposition parties on how they would propose to improve it.

Blog: The Real Threat to EU Membership

Scotland’s future within (or outside) the European Union (EU) has once again hit the headlines, with the Scotsman reporting that “the European Commission has written to a House of Lords committee stating that if Scots voters back independence, existing treaties which cover the UK’s EU membership willcease to apply’”. The Scotland Office is quoted in the article as saying that Scots have the right to know the full implications for Scotland if it were to “leave the UK family”.

Before we reach the meat of this topic, it’s rather disingenuous to claim that standing on your own two feet is akin to leaving a family. When our sons and daughters grow up and make decisions for themselves, it’s the mark of a developing, mature relationship, not of abandonment. An internationalist, co-operative Scotland would seek the same relationship, as is already shared with the other nations on the British Isles through the British-Irish Council.

Anyway, pedantry aside, we must remember that the Scotland Office’s argument should cut both ways. It looks likely that, regardless of who wins the next Westminster election, there will be a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.  David Cameron, under fire from the right wing of his party and the growing prominence of UKIP, has all but promised one should the Conservatives emerge victorious; senior Labour MPs have suggested holding one and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats promised one in their 2010 manifesto.

Opinion polls consistently show that, although the small number of Scots in each survey are more evenly divided on EU membership, a strong plurality of UK voters would vote to leave the EU in a referendum.  For example, in the latest YouGov poll, this antipathy towards the EU translates into outright majorities in favour of withdrawal in the North of England and the South of England and 48% in the Midlands and Wales. This ‘cold house’ is hardly surprising, given that the UK press, whose attitudes towards Europe range from critically supportive to spluttering outrage, can hardly be described as being well-disposed towards Europe.

So, given that both major parties at Westminster would hold a referendum on EU membership after the next election and that there’s a consistent public and media majority in the UK in favour of leaving the EU, why do the No campaign continue to show their concern over Scottish EU membership? Surely it’s more at threat as part of the UK than as an independent country?

Of course, an independent Scotland would need to negotiate new terms of membership, as the Scottish Government itself says. However, it would do so from within the UK (and the EU) in the 2 years between the referendum result and the planned first elections for an independent Scottish Parliament in May 2016.

To suggest that the EU would be willing to perform an expensive and elaborate hokey-cokey, where Scotland was in, out and then in again, is ludicrous. Given the human, financial and natural resources that Scotland contributes to the EU at a time of uncertainty and financial instability across Europe, does anybody honestly expect the EU to wilfully eject a long-standing partner of almost 40 years?

Over the next 2 years, there will be attempts to obfuscate the debate by attempting to boil down 50 years of complex European treaties into doom-laden, doubt-ridden claims about Scottish membership of the EU while ignoring the very real threat posed by Westminster sabre-rattling. I hope, and believe, that the people of Scotland can see through the scaremongering and apply the common sense logic that has served us well in the past.