John asks Comhairle to protect Isles’ few remaining trees

Tree at Loch Druidibeg, South Uist, by Molly Duker. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Tree at Loch Druidibeg, South Uist, by Molly Duker. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
John Finnie has written to the Chief Executive of the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, asking the council to use its powers to defend the Western Isles’ trees.

The islands’ natural condition is to be covered by forest, but deforestation by humans has led to the present environment, described by Scottish Natural Heritage as “generally treeless”.

Mr Finnie has asked the council to grant Tree Preservation Orders (TPOs) to the Western Isles’ remaining trees, to defend the those that still exist and provide a stable base for expanding woodland on the islands.

John said:

“Woodland is good for people, for wild plant and animal species, and for the rural economy. The Western Isles are one of the most deforested parts of Scotland, so it makes sense to use already existing powers to defend the remaining trees.

“Native woodland in the Western Isles is even more seriously threatened. The 2004 Native Woodlands Habitat Action Plan estimated that there was just 200 hectares of semi-natural woodland left on the islands, and set a target of ensuring no net loss in area or reduction in quality of these ecologically and historically precious areas.

“The rules for TPOs specify that the Order must protect either ‘amenity’ or trees of ‘cultural or historical significance’. Any further loss of trees on the islands would clearly be a blow to local people’s wellbeing – or ‘amenity’ – and there can be no doubt that our remaining native woodland is of both cultural and historical significance.”

John’s letter to the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar Chief Executive, Malcolm Burr, reads:

Dear Malcolm,

Thank you for your email of 24 August regarding Tree Preservation Orders (TPO).

I disagree that it is self-evident that a TPO protecting all of the Western Isles’ non-commercial trees would fail the tests set by statute.

From having been a substantially wooded archipelago when they were settled by humans after the last ice age, the Western Isles have become, in the words of Scottish Natural Heritage “generally treeless”.

Given the known positive social impact of trees, I would argue that the Isles’ treelessness is of sufficient concern that protecting what few trees remain is very much “expedient in the interest of amenity”.

The situation of native woodlands in particular is even more grave. In 2004, the Native Woodlands Habitat Action Plan estimated the area of semi-natural woodland in the Western Isles at just 200ha, and set a target of “ensur[ing] no net loss in area or reduction in quality of native woodlands. In this context, the remaining native woodland would seem to be of “cultural or historical significance”, and warrant protection via TPOs.

I am certain that the Planning Service is reactive and does take into account the amenity and historic value of trees when considering planning applications, but removal of trees in and of itself does not require planning permission. Without TPOs, the Council has no locus to intervene.

Given the precarious situation of woodland in the Western Isles, and the great importance of woodland to environmental and public health, I would be grateful if you would reconsider my proposal to make a Tree Preservation Order, or a number of contiguous Tree Preservation Orders, to defend the Western Isles’ non-commercial trees.

Kind regards

John Finnie MSP

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.

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).

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 puts Grazing Committee crisis at the top of new Minister’s agenda

John Finnie is seeking an urgent meeting with the new minister responsible for crofting, after two Grazing Committees on the Isle of Lewis were removed from office by the Crofting Commission.

The situation on Lewis suggests wider problems in the relationship between the Commission and Grazing Committees, which are elected by local crofters to manage common grazing land. There are also unanswered questions concerning the legality of the Commission’s decision to remove the Grazing Committees for Mangersta and Upper Coll, with noted crofting law expert Brian Inkster arguing that the Magersta decision was unlawful

John said:

“Direct management of common grazings by a Crofting Commission-appointed Constable is no substitute for the local, democratic control that Grazing Committees exist to provide. It is imperative that Grazing Committees are supported by the Commission, but the situation in Mangersta and Upper Coll suggests that there is a growing problem in that relationship.

“I will be seeking an urgent meeting with the new crofting minister, as soon as he or she is appointed, to discuss how this problem arose and how the partnership between the Commission and the Grazings can be repaired.

“Significant questions surround the action of the Crofting Commission in removing the Mangersta committee from office, with experts including the Crofting Law Reform Group’s Brian Inkster casting doubt on the legality of that action. I have written to the Chief Executive of the Commission, asking him to suspend the Mangersta shareholders meeting called by the Commission until he has responded to those legal questions and given the former Grazing Committee members time to seek further legal advice.

“I have also tried to submit a Parliamentary Question on the issue, which itself has become subject of legal debate by the Parliamentary authorities, a further indication, if any were needed, of the need for early resolution.”

UPDATE at 3.50pm on Wednesday 18 May — John’s question has now been ruled admissible by the Parliament’s lawyers, and has been submitted for answer by the Minister. It reads:

S5W-00122: To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the suspended Mangersta grazing committee on the Isle of Lewis and whether it has a role to play in the mediation of this matter.