John appeals for Minister’s help to keep two historic Orkney sites open

Maeshowe Cairn, Orkney
Maeshowe Cairn by Holly Hayes. CC BY-NC 2.0.
John Finnie has asked the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, Fiona Hislop, for her help to keep two of Orkney’s most important historic visitor attractions open to visitors.

Historic Environment Scotland have announced that the Neolithic burial cairn of Maeshowe and the neighbouring Tormiston Mill will be closed to visitors from Monday 26 September. The closure is a response to concerns about the safety of traffic movements around the two attractions and is described as temporary, but Historic Environment Scotland have not said when it might end.

During Culture, Tourism and External Affairs Questions in the Scottish Parliament, John asked Ms Hislop why the closure had been announced without consultation, and urged her to find a solution that will keep the two sites open.

The Cabinet Secretary replied that she had expressed her concern to the Chair of Historic Environment Scotland, but that she would not interfere in operational matters.

John said:

“Local people have identified four solutions that could solve the traffic problem and keep Maeshowe and Tormiston Mill open – an according to the Minister today, a fifth option is also being considered – but none of these options are being implemented and instead local people and visitors are to be denied access to this important site.

“Maeshowe is one of Orkney’s most visited historic sites. The summer crowds may have gone but the Winter Solstice in December is a big day at Maeshowe, and if we can’t be sure whether the site will be open that would be a real blow for the Islands’ winter tourism business.

“Orkney can’t afford to have Maeshowe and Tormiston Mill shuttered indefinitely while various committees drag their feet.

“I’m appealing again to Fiona Hislop and to Historic Environment Scotland: please get together with the local community and put in place whatever traffic solutions are needed right now, and keep our historic sites open.”

In a letter to John Finnie, the Acting Chief Executive of Historic Environment Scotland, Dr David Mitchell, said that the Board of the agency had considered solutions to the traffic issue but “wish to discuss the project further… after our new Chief Executive arrives later in the month.”

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.

Long wait for Ministers’ answer on shipping rules to protect Scapa Flow

John Finnie speaking at the University of the Highlands and IslandsJohn Finnie is pressing the Environment Minister for answers on the long-overdue review of ballast water management rules designed to protect Scapa Flow from ecological damage.

Neither Aileen McLeod nor her predecessor as Minister for Environment and Climate Change, Paul Wheelhouse, have made any announcement on the review since Mr Wheelhouse told the Scottish Parliament it was underway almost a year and a half ago.

John said:

“The environment of Scapa Flow and Orkney’s shipping industry are both of huge importance, not only to the Islands but to Scotland as a whole. They can’t be treated as an afterthought or put on the back burner.

“I’m perplexed as to how the Scottish Government review of the ballast water management policy could have taken almost a year and a half, with no updates or explanations along the way.

“Meanwhile, Orcadians are left wondering whether the Minister will ever get round to it.

“I hope the Minister will respond with a clear answer on when the review will be published, so that the many people that rely on a healthy ecosystem and a well-run port at Scapa Flow can stop wondering what’s going on.”

The dumping of ships’ ballast water in sensitive habitats like Scapa Flow is strictly controlled because it can release industrial pollutants from ships, and invasive plant and animal species from their previous destinations, into the local ecosystem.

Under the EU Habitats Directive, the Scottish Government is required to oversee these rules, as Mr Wheelhouse confirmed when he told Holyrood that his officials had begun a review of new ballast water rules proposed by Orkney Islands Council.

In a written answer on 16 July 2014, Mr Wheelhouse said:

“Orkney Islands Council approved a revised Ballast Water Management Policy for Scapa Flow on 10 December 2013. Scottish Natural Heritage, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and stakeholders have expressed concerns about the proposals and the need to ensure compliance with European legal requirements. In view of these concerns and Scottish Ministers’ statutory responsibilities, my officials have been reviewing the council’s appropriate assessment to determine whether we are satisfied that the proposals are compliant and, if not, whether or not there is a need to use statutory powers available to ministers in the regulations implementing the EU Habitats Directive.”

In the seventeen months since, no Scottish Government minister has said anything further about the review. Now John has lodged a formal Parliamentary Question to press Ms Campbell to update MSPs and commit to a publication date:

Question S4W-29897: John Finnie, Highlands and Islands, Independent, Date Lodged: 10/02/2016
To ask the Scottish Government, further to the answer to question S4W-21880 by Paul Wheelhouse on 16 July 2014, what the conclusions are of its review and whether it plans to publish them.

According to the Standing Orders of the Scottish Parliament, Ms McLeod is expected to reply by Thursday 9 March 2016.

Orkney and Shetland voters should get the final say on Carmichael

John Finnie has called on Alistair Carmichael to consider his position after a court found that the Lib Dem MP lied to voters during the UK General Election campaign earlier this year.

Although Carmichael was found not guilty of the specific offence under the Representation of the People Act, the court found that he had been guilty of a “blatant lie” for the purposes of improving his chances of re-election.

The MP for Orkney and Shetland lied about a civil service memo which described, second-hand, a discussion between Nicola Sturgeon and the French Ambasssador to the UK. Mr Carmichael ordered his special advisor to leak the memo to the Daily Telegraph, and later claimed that he had no knowledge of the memo or the leak.

John said:

“A lie is a lie. Whatever the result of this case was going to be, Mr Carmichael’s integrity was shot to pieces when he admitted after the election that he had lied, not only to his constituents, but to the whole country.

“I believe Mr Carmichael should seriously consider his position following this hairsplit decision by the court. Perhaps he wants to consider resigning and go into a by-election to allow him to face his constituents with the full facts and the opportunity to regain their support.”

You can read the summary of the court’s damning verdict here, and the full judgement here.