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Council Elections - Landward Caithness - Bill Mowat - Independent

14th April 2012

Photograph of Council Elections - Landward Caithness - Bill Mowat - Independent

Highland Council Election, May 3rd, 2012.



My name is Bill Mowat and I'm writing as I'm a Candidate for your area, in the Council Elections to be held on Thursday May 3rd 2012.

The election is for the Landward Caithness ward and I'm asking you to consider me as one of four Councillors chosen to represent you on the Inverness-based authority. Voting at your local polling station (from 7:00am till 10:00pm) is done under a 'proportional representation' system, so complex that a specialist computer programme is needed to find the winners.

That means that you don't use the traditional X, but instead write numbers from 1 to 4 on the ballot paper to 'rank' the candidates in your preferred order. In practice, under this system known as 'Single Transferable Vote', only a 1 (first choice) and 2 (second preference) are likely to have much impact on the result, due to so-called 'weighting'.

Born in Thurso, I was brought up in John O'Groats, the son of a 'crofter fisherman' and, after schooling at Wick High, was the first member of my family to go on to University.

I got involved early in the tourist trade, making and selling ladies necklaces from pierced groatie buckies (cowrie shells). I founded my own tourism business as a teenager which has traded continuously since then, with family members (brother Walter & nephew Andrew) expanding it over the years.

My first elected office was in the Scottish Union of Students. After graduation, I was appointed editor of the Caithness Courier during Dounreay's heyday for world-class atomic-energy research and development.

That period gave me an insight as to how local politics could be combined with a bit of flair and knowledge to benefit the wider 'community'. Younger Courier readers knew me best under my 'Tim Hunt' music-column pen-name. I managed professional local-origin rockers Spiggy Topes, who went on to play to a nationwide 22-million audience on 'BBC Radio One Club' and to top the bill at the best clubs in Glasgow; several members have had long music industry careers.

I worked as a writer on energy subjects in the early days of North Sea Oil when onshore yards, engineering shops and terminals were established. I was also a director of a small specialist print firm and had a financial interest in a Caithness skipper's trawler; sadly that ended with the separate sudden deaths of both business partners in their 40s. I operate a small residential property business.

I served for 16 years as the elected, but then unpaid, Councillor for NE Caithness, so I broadly know how the Highland Council operates. No formal qualifications are needed but good doze of 'common sense' is helpful, as is being able to speak reasonably clearly in public. There's an ability to get on with and listen carefully to people of diverse backgrounds, including those met at my regular 'councillor clinics' and, of course, a 'thick hide'. And I'm certainly not seeking 'gongs'!

Like the majority of the British public, I preferred the system whereby individual Councillors were elected by those scoring the most votes in wards of manageable size. The changeover to the PR system was made as a condition of the Liberals joining the ruling Scottish Parliament coalition in 2003. The Nationalists also favour PR, so 'Landward Caithness' remained as an amalgamation of four previous wards.

I am the unremunerated Chairman of Gills Harbour Ltd, owned by c. 600 Canisbay electors, a key sheltered facility providing safe 24/7 access to the neighbouring seabed sites for generating 'tidal stream' electricity.

The body aims to provide (or enable) job opportunities 'at or in the vicinity of the harbour' for the benefit of local folk and those from a much wider area. It has enjoyed a fruitful 12-year relationship with Pentland Ferries Ltd, which has led to Gills Harbour's transformation. It is now the terminal of Scotland's most successful island-link year-round service; the Pentalina carried over 100,000 passengers last year without a single penny of taxpayers' money; the state-owned NorthLink Ltd ferry carried 130,000, but could not do so without a massive 13 million yearly subsidy (100:00 per passenger) on its Pentland Firth crossing.

I am a member of Dunnet & Canisbay Community Council. I am semi-retired so have the time to devote to local public affairs.

The Council is the arm of Government that provides a wide range of services and facilities that most of you make day-to-day use of. You drive on its roads or use buses, with many rural runs being supported by the Council. Your children or grandchildren (perhaps teenage first-time voters) attend the Council's High Schools and 'feeder' primaries. Elderly or disabled electors are often assisted to stay in their own homes with the help of the Council's Social Work staff, a backbone of rural communities. The Council also provides residential care homes locally and has recently embarked on a route pioneered in Orkney, of jointly delivering of some social services with the NHS; integration that in principle I welcome.

And many of you may live in Council houses, not to mention use libraries, compete on its sports fields; your kids enjoy its play-parks.

Although planning has long been a function of Central (now Scottish) Government, which lays down its background legal operating framework, it has for decades been 'devolved' to Councils.

As well as individual permissions, Development Planning is important in shaping the future of our local communities. The so-called 'Highland-wide Local Plan' has some local implications, while interested electors can soon participate in revising the out-of-date Caithness Local Plan.

The Council is a major employer, with 9,500 jobs, many of which are modestly paid. It has a revenue (i.e. running costs) budget of c. 600 million, parts of which help sustain contractors locally.

I remain extremely wary of those candidates with un-costed slogans stating that they will 'bring democracy home to Caithness'.

But I believe that the Council invited 'centralisation' claims by not moving a whole department (e.g. finance) to Caithness, where office-costs are cheaper than in Inverness.

In my role as Gills Harbour (GHL) chairman, I've been taken aback at the wide divergence between what certain official bodies promise in public, but actually do in practice. Gills's site allows sea-safety to come 'first'.

In the 1940s and 50s, my home area sacrificed its major internationally-known resource the 2.5 mile white shell-sand beach at John O'Groats as agricultural lime initially for the Wartime 'Dig for Victory' but continued Post-war in line with national policy to help the UK's 'balance of payments' by substituting food produced on Highland farms & crofts for earlier food imports. The few short-term jobs came at a cost of tens of millions of pounds to the local economy. I applaud the current investment of City money at John O'Groats, aimed at a partial redress.

Today, our 'in demand' natural resource is those self-same swift, but complex, 'tidal streams' of the Pentland Firth's Inner Sound that took millennia to deposit the carted-away shell sands; it has been dubbed the 'Crown Jewel' of British marine 'renewables'; exciting yes, but not yet fully proven as a reliable & affordable means of providing electricity.

The UK and Scottish Governments have made a 'pot' of scarce taxpayers' cash available for upgrading ports to meet the needs of new industry. That's meant to help meet their global 'climate change commitments' and it's disbursed via 'Government jobs agency' Highlands & Islands Enterprise. There should be a role for the Council.

In Caithness, nearly all has gone to the port formerly chaired by Liberal MP Lord John Thurso; not a penny to Gills Harbour, lying just a mile from a major Crown Estate seabed 'lease' and in-between the two notorious 365-day 'white-water on every cycle' tide-races, the Merry Men of Mey & the Bores, where breakers can swell up to 12 metres in winter.

In mid 2011, the Scottish Government indicated that, following lengthy consultations, it was inviting an 'open to all ports' bid for the coming 6-year so-called 'lifeline' trans-Pentland ferry contract.

But it did a U-turn following an intervention with the Transport Minister led by local SNP MSP Rob Gibson, acting without consulting either the Gills body or Pentland Ferries Ltd. The firm had been meaning to build a second new ship, and base her at Gills Harbour, not Orkney.

Is spending at least 60 million of taxpayers money, from the Scottish Government's 'transport revenue budget' to avoid losses on the longer, slower and regularly rougher seaway to Orkney, justified as a real priority?

Is it not money being 'poured into the Pentland Firth' for no long-term gain? And cash being removed from other transport priorities, such as fixing potholes, replacing culverts and preventing road-surface floods?

No criticism here is being aimed at Highland Council officials, nor at tidal stream developers holding Crown Estate seabed leases locally. But 'good governance' depends on public bodies working together for the 'benefit of all'; an example is Orkney's admired 'three ports' strategy.

It also depends on jobs-creating entrepreneurs getting suitable rewards, not facing state-sponsored 'protectionism'. And it needs participation from those with deck-experience & detailed knowledge of potential Firth sea-hazards, if marine renewables is to provide much-needed local work. Or are we observing a repeat of the 1940/50s sacrifice, as above?

In four decades in observing and participating in local government in Caithness, I had never come across anything like this before.

And that's why I'm standing as a Council candidate, to do my best to ensure fairness for rural Caithness, but from the 'inside track'.

And that's why I'm respectfully asking you to consider;

Here are a number of ways that I aim to assist local folk.

1) Always work closely with rural voluntary groups (village hall committees, sports clubs etc.), hopefully to advantage.

2) Use the Council's planning process to ensure available sites in major villages are 'zoned' for self-build or 'shared ownership' new homes.

3) Ensure that 'sheltered homes' are available in communities for persons who could not otherwise live independently.

4) Support the imaginative programme of energy-related apprenticeships being started by North Highland College.

5) Learn from what's happening in neighbours such as Orkney and Shetland and don't be too proud to adopt their best ideas locally.

6) Sustain the range of rural bus services + encourage their use.

7) Recognise that 'tourism' cannot be our main industry, but encourage private investment by ensuring that potential attractions become real.

8) Encourage archaeology 'digs' and interpretation, learning from examples in Orkney, to help boost local economy.

9) Work towards achieving a long-distance 'Caithness Coastal Way'.

10) Endeavour to see that all attractions meet 'international norms'.

11) Encourage sensible 'start-up' self-employment for young persons with a tourism slant (e.g. cycle-hire, musicians, artists etc.)

12) Keep calling for the Council's 'transport revenue money' to be spent on improving roadside drainage and filling potholes to cut accidents.

13) Ensure that all of the Council's working harbours are maintained.

14) Endeavour to see that other smaller piers are not allowed to fall into useless ruins.

15) Revive annual Caithness creel-fishers 'get-together' so that issues of mutual benefit or concern can be addressed.

16) Periodically meet crofters common grazing committees regarding opportunities. Urge C. Commission to keep full absentee lairds' details.

17) Always encourage 'doers' before 'talkers'.

18) Recognise that, if marine renewable electricity is to fully succeed, affected local farmers, crofters and fishers need to be always treated with respect.

19) Insist that there must be a substantial number of 'sustainable longer-term' jobs in coastal areas adjacent to the tide-stream 'resource'.

20) Encourage 'research & development' work on local use of the power.

21) Support Dounreay against scaremongering attacks, but remembering that the establishment has only 10-12 years of life as a major workplace.

22) Campaign to return to local democracy by reviving individual Council rural wards and dumping the complex, confusing, PR system.

23) Remove the closure threat to long-established local primary schools, as far as is possible.

24) Learn from, not ignore, the lessons of history when planning the future.

25) Encourage our High Schools to provide courses that help the next generation compete at international skills levels.

26) Encourage the maintenance of the tradition of scattered homes in the traditional crofting areas when it comes to planning consents.

27) Seek easing of planning rules for individual farmers or crofters wanting single small aero-generators on their 'arable land or grazings'.

28) Maintain strict planning controls on major wind-farms, but encourage locally-based maintenance jobs for a nation-wide market.

29) Encourage all 'utilities' to seek local or community partners when contemplating onshore 'renewable electricity' investments here.

30) Try and see that the other statutory bodies that the Council deals with serve the interests of the public, not their own staff.

31) Put Council pressure on mobile-phones companies to honour their years-old pledges to improve reception 'black-spots'.

Published and promoted by Bill Mowat, The Flat, Seaview Hotel, John O'Groats KW1 4YR. Printed by Speedprint, Lotland Place, Inverness, IV1 1NZ

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