Argyll police stations face closure threat

John Finnie 2John Finnie has written to the Chief Constable after it emerged that dozens of police stations – including several in Argyll – are under threat of closure.

A Freedom of Information request by BBC Scotland has revealed that Police Scotland buildings in 58 locations are being reviewed, including Oban, Loghgilphead, Campbelltown, Inverary and Taynuilt.

John is the Justice spokesperson for the Scottish Greens and MSP for the Highlands and Islands. He said:

“Of course all organisations should review processes.

“I don’t doubt some of these buildings will be less than ideal for modern needs, some of the locations on the list are very worrying whilst closure of any of the Argyll stations is unacceptable.

“With five stations in Argyll under threat suggests we could have next to no visible police presence on the West coast at all.

“While many people do use phone and the internet to interact with police, there is still a significant number of people – many elderly and vulnerable – who do not. Accessibility is paramount.

“In the past, Police Scotland have handled counter closures badly, so lessons must be learned.

“While there is much to be said for co-location of public services, such as Police and Fire or Police and Council sharing, we must prevent withdrawal from communities.

“Public confidence is vital. I look forward to the Chief Constable’s reply.”

Islands Bill could kickstart a revolution in local democracy

John Finnie speaking at the University of the Highlands and IslandsIslands Minister Humza Yousaf has announced that the government will be publishing their Islands Bill within the next 12 months, the culmination of years of work by island communities and the island councils to make the case for more local democracy and a better deal from national government.

John Finnie has given a warm welcome to the news, saying:

“It’s great news that we’ll be able to move forward quickly with the Islands Bill. I’m looking forward to making it a genuinely radical and transformative event for Scotland’s islands, to fulfil the vision of the Our Islands Our Future campaign, whose hard work and ambition has brought us to this point.

“Power in Scotland is incredibly centralised, so the priority for Greens is to bring powers from Edinburgh back to island communities. For example, giving island councils control over the sea bed (currently in the hands of the Crown Estate) and flexible powers to decide their own taxes and raise more of their own funds would allow them to unlock the huge marine energy potential and the jobs and revenues that come with it.

“I’ll also want to make sure that the Bill recognises the similarity between island communities and many of our more remote mainland communities, especially on the western peninsulas of the Highlands and Argyll and Bute. It’s likely that many of the Bill’s provisions would also benefit these communities, and I’ll be arguing to have them included.

“I hope the Islands Bill can be the start of a much wider debate about where power lies in Scotland, and how it can be brought closer to the people. Island communities have taken the initiative to demand decentralisation of power, but they are certainly not the only communities that need it.

“As local democracy campaigner Andy Wightman (now Green MSP forthe Lothians) described in his eye-opening report Renewing Local Democracy, Scotland is one of the most centralised countries in Europe. The average population of a local council area in the European Union is less than 6,000 people; in Scotland it’s 166,000. The average European local authority gets more than 40% of its income from its own locally-controlled taxes; in Scotland it’s a quarter of that.

“The Islands Bill is a precious opportunity to make our island communities the pioneers of a powerful, decentralised, participatory local democracy, showing the way for change across Scotland.”

If you want to dive into the detail of the Scottish Government’s proposals so far, you can read their original consultation document, all the public responses, and the analysis of responses on the consultation website.

John asks Nicola Sturgeon to save Argyll training jobs

Click here to read John Finnie's letter to Nicola Sturgeon.
Click here to read John Finnie’s letter to Nicola Sturgeon.
John has appealed to the First Minister to save the jobs of 16 Argyll workers who provide vital employability training to help others into work.

Argyll Training Ltd, who provide employability training on behalf of government, is at a “critical point” as a result of cuts to the Scottish Government’s Employability Fund, changes to the funding of Modern Apprenticeships, and the gap between the end of UK Government schemes and the start of devolved replacements.

The well-respected training provider has already been forced to close offices in Campbeltown and Rothesay. Four staff have taken voluntary redundancy, and the remaining 16 employees have been given 90 days’ notice.

John made a request to raise the issue with Nicola Sturgeon in person at yesterday’s First Ministers’ Questions, but was not selected. Instead, he has written to the First Minister directly.

He said:

“The closure of Argyll Training would be a disaster for the area. Argyll’s economy has limitless potential but right now it is undeniably fragile, and it can ill afford to lose these jobs or the invaluable training they provide.

“The First Minister has committed to creating jobs, improving skills, supporting the rural economy and reversing population decline – goals that will all be set back if this vital service is lost.

“This is a critical point. Without action, Argyll Training’s 16 remaining staff will be unemployed in three months’ time. I sincerely hope that Nicola Sturgeon will move quickly to prevent this body blow to the Argyll economy.”

Read John’s letter to Nicola Sturgeon here.

Save the Gauldrons: John urges alternative site for Kintyre fish hatchery

The Gauldrons by Brendan Campbell, licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.
The Gauldrons by Brendan Campbell. CC BY-ND 2.0.
John Finnie has urged the fish-farming company Marine Harvest not to site a proposed wrasse hatchery on the environmentally important Gauldrons near Machrihanish on Kintyre, and instead work with the community to find a more suitable local site.

Giving his backing to the local Save the Gauldrons campaign, John welcomed the investment and innovation represented by the project, but said that the proposed site’s great scenic value made it an unacceptable location for the development.

The proposal is a sizeable expansion of an existing project, run by Marine Harvest in partnership with the University of Stirling, that aims to develop the use of wrasse to control sea lice in salmon farms.

The high density of salmon in farms makes the cages ideal breeding ground for the lice, which feed on the living salmon and can completely destroy fins and tails. As the cages are open to the sea, the infestation easily spreads to wild salmon populations in the area. The chemical pesticides used to try to tackle lice also pass into the open sea, damaging local ecosystems.

It is hoped that introducing wrasse, which feed on lice, into the salmon cages could help to control sea lice while reducing the use of chemical pesticides.

The site identified for approximately 20,000 square meters of tanks and other facilities is on the aesthetically important Gauldrons, a coastal grassland that has inspired painters and songwriters, is recognised by Scottish Natural Heritage as an area of outstanding scenic attraction, and has been listed among Scotland’s best coastal walks.

The area also provides a habitat for a great many species including Lapwings, whose numbers have declined dramatically due to land-use changes.

John said:

“The partnership between Marine Harvest and the University of Stirling is a promising one. The use of wrasse instead of chemical pesticides to control lice could reduce the ecological damage caused by salmon farming, and the investment means much-needed jobs for Kintyre.

“However, the environmentally important Gauldrons are an unsuitable site for the development. Sacrificing the tremendous scenic beauty of the area would come at great cost, both to tourism and to the quality of life of the people of Machrihanish.

“I believe that, with sufficient will, we can deliver this project in a way that will secure jobs and investment for the area without giving up precious natural assets like the Gauldrons.”

John calls for Tourist Bed Tax to fight Argyll and Bute cuts

John Finnie speaking at the University of the Highlands and IslandsJohn Finnie has proposed a Tourist Bed Tax for Argyll and Bute, which could raise the money needed to save threatened council services.

Mr Finnie said a tiny charge of just £1 per night would raise millions of pounds to prevent cuts, without hurting Argyll and Bute’s vital tourism industry.

The proposal comes as part of John’s response (PDF) to Argyll and Bute Council’s public consultation on their “Service Choices” cuts programme. John wrote:

“I propose a Tourist Bed Tax to generate income. Argyll and Bute is an exceptionally beautiful part of Scotland which attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors, staying for a total of millions of nights per year. Even a tiny charge – for example, £1 per person per night – would deliver a very significant new revenue stream for the Council without creating any disincentive to tourism.”

In the submission, John also criticises the Council for proposing swingeing cuts without establishing what the real impact on local people would be – a concern echoed in the Audit Scotland report on the Council published last week – saying:

“To propose such large budget reductions across so many absolutely essential services without having undertaken a proper impact assessment seems both irresponsible and uncaring… I urge the Council not to pursue any of the proposals above without undertaking, and sharing with the people of Argyll & Bute, a truly comprehensive assessment of the personal, social, economic and environmental impacts we can expect as a result.”

In his consultation response, John welcomes the rejection of a proposed 45% cut to assistants for children with Additional Support Needs, but particularly criticises the remaining deep cuts to education budgets. He also warns that cuts to services like Citizens’ Advice may actually cost the area money in underclaimed benefits, and calls for a fundamental overhaul of waste management policy to save jobs and address Argyll and Bute’s poor recycling record.

Mr Finnie expressed his hope that the Scottish Government would scrap the Council Tax and replace it with a Land Value Tax, a Scottish Greens policy that the cross-party Commission on Local Tax Reform described last week as a “promising” solution.

Commenting on his Tourist Bed Tax idea, John said:

“Argyll and Bute Council provides some of the most essential services that people rely on, from early years education to social care for the elderly. Deep cuts of the kind being proposed would be devastating, and hurt vulnerable people most.

“Of course, the cuts are not necessary; they are the result of the UK Government’s austerity ideology. But with limited powers, Councils have to be bold and creative in finding ways to resist the cuts.

“One way they could do that would be to introduce a small Tourist Bed Tax of just a pound a night. As anyone who has visited Argyll and Bute knows, it is an astonishingly beautiful part of the world and, unsurprisingly, attracts great numbers of tourists. Even such a tiny charge could raise millions of pounds a year.

“This revenue would save some of the lifeline services that are currently on the chopping block. It would also allow the Council to carry on doing the environmental work that keeps Argyll and Bute beautiful and keeps tourists coming back. All for a levy so small that visitors would hardly notice, meaning it wouldn’t hurt tourist numbers.

“There may be many other such ideas that the Council could pursue, but this kind of boldness is missing from the Council’s consultation, as is any real estimate of the damage that their proposed cuts would cause. I’m asking Argyll and Bute Council not to go ahead with the cuts until they’ve fully considered the impact of the cuts and explored more creative ways of saving services.”

John welcomes Caledonian Sleeper to Oban

Oban waterfront
Oban by Daniel Stockman.
Used under a Creative Commons license.
John Finnie has welcomed news that the Caledonian Sleeper will travel between London and Oban during February 2016. The Sleeper normally travels between London and Fort William, but as a result of engineering works it will end in Oban on the weekends of 12-14, 19-21 and 26-28 February.

The alternative route will bring passengers to the Gateway to the Isles and will allow the Caledonian Sleeper the opportunity to examine the potential of making Oban a permanent destination on the route.

John said:

“I met recently with Peter Strachan, Managing Director of the Caledonian Sleeper, to discuss not only the timeframe for enhancements to the existing service but also the potential for route expansion and, given the rail line splits at Crianlarich, the possibility of Oban being on the Sleeper route.

“I am delighted that the line improvements to Fort-William mean the Sleeper will travel to Oban in February bringing benefit to Lorn and the Isles and indeed beyond.

“The Caledonian Sleeper will be evaluating this temporary arrangement and I call on everyone to lend their full support to the service, which will hopefully result in Oban being a permanent Sleeper destination.”

John asks Argyll & Bute councillors to reject election poster ban

Photo by DorkyMum on Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Photo by DorkyMum on Flickr.
Used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
John has written to each of Argyll & Bute’s 36 councillors asking them to vote down a plan to ban the traditional display of election posters on lampposts, when it is considered by the meeting of the full Council, this Thursday (22 January).

The ban proposal was narrowly passed by the Council’s Environment, Development and Infrastructure Committee when the Chair, Liberal Democrat Ellen Morton, used her casting vote to break a tie on the issue. The ban was originally proposed by Cllr Morton and Conservative councillor David Kinniburgh.

Mr Finnie intervened after he was alerted to the plan by Stacey Felgate, the Chair of Oban’s new community café, Grassroots. The café is intended to provide a place for people to socialise and discuss community issues, and it was one such discussion that led to a campaign group being set up to oppose the poster ban.

John said:

“The election-time display of candidates’ posters is a Scottish tradition and a visible expression of our democratic values. It reminds us that an election should be – as the referendum was – an occasion for community discussion, not just an order form for the private expression of self-interest.

“With the wonderful exception of the referendum, Scotland has a crisis of democratic participation. Scotland has lower turnout, fewer candidates per seat, and less of our population putting themselves forward for election than any comparable European country. It is perverse to attack a tradition that is one of the few factors mitigating this situation.

“Sadly there have already been other Councils that have banned election posters, while of course doing nothing that might inconvenience commercial advertisers. Banishing our democratic process from the streets is another step along the path to privatisation of public space, where making and spending money are the only acceptable activities.

“This proposal has passed through the Council with unseemly haste, with the result that councillors have very little real evidence to go on. For example, it is claimed that the measure is necessary to save expense caused by candidates being late in taking their posters down, but councillors have net even been told how much the cost to the Council is – or if there even is one.

“I suspect there are some who support the ban precisely because it will harm participation. There is a certain kind of politician that doesn’t want to deal with the demands of an engaged electorate. I hope the Councillors of Argyll & Bute will show that they are the kind who are unafraid of democracy – in all its noise and colour – by voting down this ban on Thursday.”

John urges halt to centralising Argyll police reorganisation

John Finnie has called on Police Scotland to drop plans to effectively merge the Argyll & West Dunbartonshire and Renfrewshire & Inverclyde divisions (also known as L Division and K Division) into a single command.

John is a former police officer and a member of the Scottish Parliament’s Justice and Policing Committees. He criticised the proposal as centralisation that would undermine the cause of community policing, saying:

“Despite saying all the right things about community policing, Police Scotland’s actions, including this proposal, tell a different story. The national service suffers from an instinct to centralisation that frustrates the public’s wish for responsive, local policing.

“This is felt particularly keenly in rural police divisions, where there are greater distances and greater diversity between communities. Throwing Port Appin in together with Port Glasgow is not a recipe for locally-sensitive decision making.

“The switch from regional police services to a national one wasn’t ideal, but was made necessary by the UK Government’s cuts to the Scottish budget. I am determined that we minimise the downsides of national policing by making sure local communities are always involved in policing decisions.

“Police Scotland recently questioned, but significantly did not deny, my revealing their plan to remove specialist Road Policing Units from 24-hour cover north of Perth.

“There have been welcome moves like the introduction of a Policing Plan for every council ward, but decisions like the Road Policing Units cuts and now this reorganisation make it feel like we are going one step forward and two steps back.

“Policing in Argyll and Bute has altered enough in recent years, and not always for the better. I think we need to take the time to reflect on the less than two years’ experience of the single service. I’d like to see a moratorium on any further change which will inevitably see rural policing lose out.

“The folk of Argyll and Bute want ‘bobbies on the beat’ that they can trust. They don’t want the policing of their communities treated like some remote table-top management exercise.”