Crucial Time on the High Street

by Peter Peacock MSP

05 December, 2008

This article first appeared in the Ross-Shire Journal

SO it is almost Christmas again, an increasingly commercial occasion I regret to say.

It has become one of the biggest spending periods of the year, perhaps the biggest by far and as such it has a big effect on our high streets and wider economy.

The evidence of those economic facts could not have been clearer in last week's Pre-Budget Statement which far more resembled a full budget than a pre-budget.

The Chancellor set out to and did put money back into people's pockets to try and stimulate the economy, and recognised that the Christmas spend period is vital to annual viability for some businesses.

I have no doubt the package of measures set out is necessary, the alternative of just letting the economy slide as the world economy enters recession is too awful to contemplate.

The lessons of mass unemployment of the early 1980s under Margaret Thatcher are etched deep into the minds of my generation of politicians.

Ross-shire was badly affected by the then mismanagement of the economy with unemployment in Easter Ross reaching well above 25 per cent, with some housing schemes having over 40 per cent unemployment.

I well remember those days from my then involvement in the Alness Citizens Advice Bureau which for a period during that time was the busiest Bureau in Scotland per head of population served.

Taking measures to try and avoid a repeat of the damage caused to a generation and more of our young people by unemployment is certainly worth the effort and I applaud the Prime Minister and Chancellor for their efforts.

Only time will tell just how successful the measures will be, but the Conservative economic policies of the 1980s should never be repeated, that is for sure.

Around that time the Enterprise Zone in Invergordon and Alness was developed.

The policy was controversial and it was never clear the extent to which they simply displaced jobs from around and about into the zone, as opposed to creating additional jobs.

It was from those days that a strong Highlands and Islands Enterprise presence developed in Invergordon and has lasted until recent weeks, when HIE revealed a significant scaling down of their presence in Invergordon.

HIE are undoubtedly under huge pressure with budget cuts and a reduction in the number of projects they are able to support these days.

The SNP Government now try to count roads and transport spending as economic development. Well, of course it always was, but that should not hide the reduction in the HIE budget which is both regrettable and damaging just at a time the economy needs stimulating.

I recently met with the chair of Highland Council's social work committee to discuss the need for continuing support for adults with learning disabilities.

The previous Council administration (the one the SNP ran) had decided to cut the budget for this group of vulnerable adults.

I had been involved in campaigning against the cuts and visited the Isobel Rhind Centre earlier this year to meet staff and users and discuss the impacts of the cuts.

I am pleased the new council administration has seen sense and has stopped the cuts that were planned.

This gives this service time to stabilise before any future changes in the way services are delivered are thought through and agreed.

I have since the meeting written to the Health Minister arguing for additional bridging finance for the Council to support this group of our fellow citizens, to ensure that the new services that might be envisaged are not developed at the expense of the existing ones.

 

I also had the chance in recent weeks to visit Struan Apiaries in Conon Bridge and listen to concerns they, and amateur beekeepers, have about the threat to bee numbers.

The humble bee is facing huge challenges and that is important to all of us. Something like one third of all the food we consume is pollinated by bees.

If bee numbers decline further not only do we lose a great honey product, we lose a vital part of how our eco-system works.

There is a need for more research and advice for bee keepers to help combat the challenges, and I shall be campaigning for that too over the coming period.

 

Campaigning is a large part of an MSPs activity and another campaign my Labour colleagues and I have underway is to try and save the Crofters Bull Hire scheme.

This is a scheme which has lasted for over 100 years, but the present government have decided to end it.

Crofters in Ross-shire and much more widely are very alarmed about where that leaves them.

Keeping a bull full time is expensive and can be a dangerous occupation.

Previously the Crofters Commission kept the bulls, had them health checked and guaranteed and then hired them and transported them to crofters right across the region during the summer.

The government have made a significant mistake in ending this sensible scheme and they need to think again.

Christmas greetings to all Ross-shire readers. Despite the commercial pressures Christmas is a time for family and friends and I hope you enjoy your family time this year and good fortune for the coming year.

 

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