John calls for public ownership of ScotRail as fares rise again

Railways back in public ownership: Not for profit; Improved services; Reduced fares. After the announcement of another increase in ScotRail fares, John Finnie has urged the Scottish Government to move quickly to bring rail services back into public ownership.

As the Scottish Greens’ spokesperson on transport, John wrote to Transport Secretary Fergus Ewing MSP, pledging the support of all 6 Green MSPs for early legislation that would pave the way for an end to the disastrous privatisation of our national railway.

John said:

“Unfortunately most of us come to expect, and begrudgingly accept, an annual rise in peak ticket prices. Last year’s rise was one percent and with this 1.9 percent rise announcement, it highlights the need for action to be taken to make commuting in Scotland more affordable.

“We can expect these fare increases to undermine our goals of increasing social inclusion, encouraging traffic off the roads and onto the railway, and softening the impact of the UK’s pro-austerity and anti-EU politics on the budgets of ordinary Scots.

“With a privatised ScotRail, ticket prices are driven by the profit motive, not the public interest. ScotRail passengers, and those priced off the rails altogether, are suffering as a result.

“Despite the price increases, the corporate urge to cut corners has put train guards’ jobs under threat. I hope at least that ScotRail will listen to the RMT union and keep the guards on the trains; anything else would be putting profit ahead of safety.

“Privatised railways are an enormous failed experiment. I’ll be writing to the transport minister to offer my support to the government for putting Scotland’s railway back in public hands.”

You can read John’s letter to the Transport Minister below

:Fergus Letter Page 1Fergus Letter Page 2

Oil rig grounding shows urgent need for an emergency tug in the Western Isles

The Anglian Prince docked at Ullapool in 2008. The tug served the Minch and beyond from its base in Stornoway until it was axed in 2012. Photo: Anglian Prince by Mike Dunn. CC BY-SA 2.0.
The Anglian Prince docked at Ullapool in 2008. The tug served the Minch and beyond from its base in Stornoway until it was axed in 2012.

Photo: Anglian Prince by Mike Dunn. CC BY-SA 2.0.

John has written to the UK’s new Transport Secretary to repeat his call for the return of an emergency tug to the Western Isles, a need highlighted by the grounding of the Transocean Winner oil rig on Lewis.

The tug Anglian Prince was based at Stornoway until it was axed as part of Westminster cuts in 2012, leaving the Orkney-based Herakles as the only Emergency Towing Vessel covering Scotland’s northern waters.

John said:

“I am grateful that there were no personnel on board the Transocean Winner when it ran aground, and that therefore no-one was hurt. I also want to send my thanks to the Stornoway Coastguard and other responders, who have handled this disaster in tough weather conditions and while also responding to multiple other distress calls.

“However, we cannot yet know what the environmental damage may be, and there can be no guarantee that the next incident will pass without injuries or worse.

“This incident, along with the many others in recent years, demonstrates the urgent need for an emergency tug based in the Western Isles.

“The major inquiry held after the 1993 Braer disaster recommended as a priority that northwestern Scotland be provided with a strong emergency tug, and our seas have only got busier in the intervening three decades.

“Despite this, Westminster cuts abolished the Western Isles tug in 2012, leaving only the Orkney-based Herakles, which could take many hours to reach a vessel in distress in the Minch.

“We are a maritime nation and as such it is government’s responsibility to ensure that our seas and our coast are adequately protected. I’m repeating my call to the UK Government: reinstate the Western Isles tug, before Scotland has to pay the price.

“In the longer term, it’s clear that Scotland itself has to take responsibility for safety in Scottish waters. Our seas are being poorly served by a Westminster government for whom the far north of Scotland might as well be the far end of the world.”

Click here to read John’s letter to the Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling MP (PDF).

We can’t trust energy workers’ futures to Big Oil

An abridged version of this article appeared in the Press & Journal on Saturday 6 August 2016.

The port at Nigg, where work on the Beatrice Offshore Windfarm is creating 100 green jobs. Photo: Sea Cromarty Sparkle by Rhonda Surman. CC-BY-2.0.
The port at Nigg, where work on the Beatrice Offshore Windfarm is creating 100 green jobs.
Photo: Sea Cromarty Sparkle by Rhonda Surman. CC-BY-2.0.
I want to start this column by offering my support and solidarity to the 400 workers at the multination oil services company Wood Group, who are continuing with the first offshore strike in almost three decades.

These workers already do a tough and sometimes risky job, have already been moved to a three-week working pattern meaning longer periods offshore away from their families, and are now being asked to accept pay cuts.

While workers’ pay is cut, the Chief Executive of the Wood Group has been given a 28% pay rise, taking his salary to £600,000 a year, and the company is handing out a generous 10% dividend to its shareholders.

This attitude exemplifies an economy that treats workers in the same way as it treats the oil and gas they drill – as a commodity to be exploited until it is no longer profitable; never mind the harm caused or the damage left behind when corporations move on to juicier profits elsewhere.

So it’s small wonder that the disregard shown for these workers’ immediate future is matched by the disinterest most oil and gas firms show in securing them a long-term working future. When the oil is done, Big Oil reasons, they will simply up sticks and never look back on the unemployment they’d leave behind.

It’s a story all too familiar to the former steel towns of the Central Belt, and it could well be played out again in the North if we go on without a plan for what comes next.

The good news is that what comes next could be an energy revolution to outshine the fossil fuel age; creating more than enough jobs to secure the future of our world-class skilled workforce and renewing the economy not only of Aberdeen, but also of town and country right across the North and the Islands.

Scotland has a quarter of the European Union’s entire offshore wind and marine energy potential, and perhaps the greatest offshore engineering tradition in the world.

As well as Aberdeen’s undisputed position as a global centre for offshore engineering, we have innovative and expert workforces in communities across the country, such as at Nigg, Orkney, Shetland and Campbeltown. Not to mention the huge injection of skills, facilities and money that could be brought to bear if Faslane was converted for socially useful, peaceful work.

By applying our unique skills to our vast renewable resources, we could put Scotland at the forefront of a global industry. We should be not only Europe’s biggest producer of clean energy, but also the place the world comes for renewable technology, engineering and services.

Workers in the oil and gas industry know that it cannot last forever, and that it may not even last until the end of their careers. They know that they may be the last generation of Scottish oil and gas workers, and wonder what the future holds for their children and their communities. Meanwhile, multinational oil firms attempt to exploit this vulnerability, gouging workers who they believe have no alternative.

Cover of the Green MSPs' report Jobs in Scotland's New Economy.
The Green MSPs’ report Jobs in Scotland’s Green Economy (PDF) shows how we could create more than 200,000 green jobs in the next 20 years.
Energy workers deserve so much better than that. They deserve a secure future for themselves and their families. They deserve to be valued for their skills, not squeezed to prop up bonuses and dividends when the declining oil age fail to satisfy corporate greed. They have the ability to build a new energy industry that will underpin Scottish prosperity for generations to come and help save the world into the bargain, and they deserve the chance to fulfil that potential.

The first glimmers of that industry are plain to see. Renewables now supply more than half of Scotland’s electricity demand, and just this week Vattenfall announced a £300m investment to build the 11-turbine, 92.4MW European Offshore Wind Development Centre in Aberdeen Bay.

But without a concerted, ambitious plan to transition from the fossil era to the clean energy age we could easily fall short of our potential. Currently-planned projects aren’t yet enough to hit the Scottish Government target of meeting 100% of our electricity needs from renewables by 2020, and the Commons Scottish Affairs Committee warned this week that uncertainty over the UK Government’s commitment to renewables could threaten future growth.

And a piecemeal, wait-and-see strategy does nothing to guarantee the futures of present oil and gas workers: they need to know where and when their future jobs are coming, and they need a guarantee of extra training or financial help if they need them.

So I encourage the Scottish Government to work with unions, employers, universities and colleges, industry bodies and all willing political parties – certainly the Greens are ready to help – to create a comprehensive and genuinely ambitious industrial strategy that maps a detailed route from the fossil-fuel economy of the 20th century to the renewable boom of the 21st century and beyond.

There’s no question that clean energy is our future; the choice we have to make now is whether we lead the world into that bright future, or merely follow it.

John opposes unfiltered sewage plan for Gairloch

Children playing in the water at Gairloch beach.
Children playing in the water at Gairloch beach.
Photo: Gairloch by Kyle Taylor. CC BY 2.0.
John Finnie has spoken out against Scottish Water plans to remove the filtration system from their waste water treatment works at Gairloch, exposing some of the Highland’s best beaches to high quantities of harmful bacteria.

John has lodged a formal objection with the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), urging them not to grant permission for the downgrade.

The proposal to replace the current membrane filter system with simple septic tanks would result in bacteria from human waste, such as E. Coli, being pumped into the Loch. Scottish Water’s own studies show that the bacteria would make the waters and beaches unfit for bathing up to 3 kilometres from the outflow – an area that includes the much-loved beaches at Gairloch and Big Sand.

John said:

Registry Department, Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, Graesser House, Fodderty Way, Dingwall, IV15 9XB. Thursday 4 August 2016. Dear Sir/Madam,  Fhasaich (Gairloch) Sewage Treatment Works, CAR/L/1002928.  I wish to object to the above application by Scottish Water, which seeks permission to replace the present membrane filtration system with a system of septic tanks.  The applicant describes its proposal as “more sustainable” than the present arrangement, but the accompanying dispersion study demonstrates that it would increase the discharge of faecal coliform in volumes sufficient to render the surrounding beaches unfit for bathing.  Though the beaches at Big Sand and Gairloch are not yet designated bathing waters, they are in fact well-used for swimming and other watersports, and I understand the local community has recently applied for bathing designation. These beaches are important to the local tourist economy, and to the quality of life of local people, and both are well within the 3000m of the outflow within which the Scottish Water dispersal study calculates both the mandatory and guideline standards for designated bathing waters would be breached if the application is granted.  Loch Gairloch boasts two sites on the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s North West Highlands Snorkel Trail, including at Carn Dearg, approximately 1000m from the proposed outflow. At that range the dispersion study calculates the concentration of faecal coliform would exceed the mandatory limit by over 200% (6790/100ml as against a limit of 2000/100ml).  The downgrading of effluent treatment proposed in this application is justified by cost savings alone; there appears to be no suggestion from any party that the proposal represents an improvement in environmental protection.  The greatly increased bacterial pollution that would result from the license variation would be likely to damage the economy of the local area, and the health of both local and tourist users of the Loch. It would also unfairly pre-empt the community’s application for designation as a bathing area.  I believe that these adverse social and economic impacts are more than sufficient to conclude that the application should be denied. Yours sincerely, John Finnie MSP
Click here to read John’s letter of objection to the Gairloch sewage plan (PDF).
“Big Sand was recently voted the best beach in the Highlands, with Gairloch coming in fourth. These beautiful beaches are well-used by tourists and locals alike for swimming, snorkelling, kayaking and other watersports.

“If the proposed downgrade of the sewage works goes ahead, both beaches would be exposed to a volume of dangerous bacteria that would breach the safety limits set for designated bathing areas. This would be particularly unfair given that the community are right now trying to gain designated bathing status for their beaches – this would pre-empt their efforts by spoiling the water before they have a chance to protect it.

“Scottish Water cannot be given permission to endanger the health of bathers, the economy of the community and the quality of life of local people just to save some money. I very much hope that SEPA will recognise the unacceptable cost to the area, and decline this unnecessary and damaging proposal.”

A third of Scotland’s roads in need of repair

This graph from the Audit Scotland's Maintaining Scotland's Roads: a follow-up report shows how road maintenance spending has declined.
This graph from the Audit Scotland’s Maintaining Scotland’s Roads: a follow-up report shows how road maintenance spending has declined.
John Finnie has called for urgent repairs to take priority over new roadbuilding, after a damning report found that 37% of council-maintained roads are in an unacceptable condition.

The Audit Scotland report Maintaining Scotland’s Roads: a follow-up report reveals how local authority spending on roads maintenance “continues to decrease” and that councils spent £33 million less on maintenance in 2014/15 than the Society of Chief Officers of Transportation Scotland (SCOTS) “considers necessary to maintain the current condition of local roads”.

Meanwhile, Transport Scotland, who are responsible for major routes, spent £24 million less than is needed to maintain the condition of trunk roads.

Argyll & Bute and Eilean Siar are the council areas with the highest and third-highest proportion of local roads in unacceptable condition, with over half the roads in Argyll and Bute in need of repair. This tallies with maintenance spending in these council areas: Argyll and Bute has the biggest gap in the country between current repair spending and what SCOTS says is necessary, and Highland the third-biggest gap. Both councils spends more than £10m less than is necessary to maintain the roads in their current condition. Orkney has the lowest number of roads in unacceptable condition, with almost four out of five roads making the grade.

John is the Scottish Greens’ spokesperson on transport. He said:

“The findings of this report will not surprise many. What’s important now is that action is taken to allocate adequate resources to ensure that Scotland’s roads are fit for purpose.

“With the tightening of local authority budgets, it’s understandable that many councils have struggled to keep up with road maintenance.

“That’s why Scottish Greens are fully supportive of expenditure being used to maintain our existing infrastructure rather than spending obscene sums on building new roads.”

Holyrood congrats for Uist school

Ronnie MacPhee of Sgoil an Iochdair carrying the Commonwealth Games baton
Ronnie MacPhee of Sgoil an Iochdair carrying the Commonwealth Games baton. Ronnie led Sgoil an Iochdair’s youth club for 17 years.
Photo: Sgoil an Iochdair.
Uist’s Sgoil an Iochdar has been recognised in Parliament after a successful year that saw the school awarded Gaelic School status for the first time.

John Finnie has lodged a motion of congratulations at Holyrood, listing just a few of the highlights from the school year.

Volunteer Ronnie MacPhee is singled out for particular thanks, as he retires after leading the school’s youth club for 17 years.

John said:

“It’s fantastic to see a school so connected to the local community. The imagination and dedication of teachers, and the close involvement and support of parents, is what makes Sgoil an Iochdar able to offer such a varied and fun programme of events and clubs.

“The school’s success in Gaelic is particularly impressive, given it only became a Gaelic School this year. Their joint project with Sgoil Dhalabroig saw children – including English-medium pupils – write and perform their own Gaelic plays and took the two schools to joint runner-up in the Scottish Education Awards.

“And Sgoil an Iochdar not only hosted the Uist Provincial Mod, but won more points than any other primary school, including the most points in Gaelic.

“I’m especially grateful for the school community’s welcome to families fleeing the war in Syria. The Parent Council’s offer to help refugee families settle into Uist life exemplifies the warm, active and open-minded community spirit that is key to Sgoil an Iochdar’s success.”

The motion has already been signed by 7 other MSPs, and reads:

S5M-00793 John Finnie: A Great Year at Sgoil an Iochdair, South Uist

That the Parliament congratulates the pupils, staff and community of Sgoil an Iochdair, which is on South Uist, on the primary school’s many achievements over the last year, its first as a designated Gaelic school, which included being named runner-up alongside Sgoil Dhalabroig in the Gaelic award at the Scottish Education Awards for the joint drama initiative, in which pupils from both schools wrote and performed original plays in Gaelic; notes that the school also hosted both the Feis Tir A’Mhuran and the Uist provincial mod, at which it won the most points of any primary; considers the involvement of the community to be a key factor in its success, with parent volunteers making it possible to establish many clubs, such as football, music and drama; recognises in particular the contribution of Ronnie MacPhee, who has retired after 17 years of leading the school’s youth club, and thanks the members of the Parent Council for their warm welcome and generous offer of help to refugee families who have fled Syria and have arrived in the Outer Hebrides.

John asks Highland Council to stop bankrolling Big Tobacco

John Finnie speaking at the Edinburgh University building occupied by students in protest at fossil fuel investments
John Finnie speaking at a protest by students opposed to Edinburgh University’s fossil fuel investments
A Press and Journal investigation has found that British American Tobacco is the second-biggest equity holding in Highland Council’s pension scheme. The scheme increased its investment in the tobacco giant last year from £12.6 million to £15.2 million.

John Finnie has been campaigning to persuade pension schemes – including the Scottish Parliament’s own scheme – to stop bankrolling the tobacco, weapons and fossil fuel industries and direct their investment into more socially useful activities. He urged the Highland Council scheme to dump its tobacco shares:

“The Highland Council pension scheme manages one and a half billion pounds that could be providing a secure future for employees while investing in work that benefits society. Instead they are choosing to bankroll an industry which kills over 10,000 Scots every year.

“I don’t believe Council employees, who have chosen a career working for the wellbeing of the Highland community, want their retirement to rely on the profits of Big Tobacco.

“Ethical investments which avoid supporting harmful industries perform just as well for savers without profiting from suffering.

“And schemes like the Housing Fund for Scotland allow pension funds to invest directly in the homes and jobs Scotland needs – an opportunity Falkirk Council has already taken up.

“I’m asking Highland Council’s pension fund to stop bankrolling Big Tobacco, Big Oil and the arms industry, and build a secure future for its members on investments that will help make a better world for them to retire into.”