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.”

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.”