Thursday, 29 September 2011

CSPP on the Fringe at the SNP Conference

The Annual Conference of the SNP takes place on the 20-23 October in Inverness (Eden Court Theatre). And as ever, we'll be running a series of interesting fringe events.

Here's a sneak preview:

Saturday 22 October - 12.30pm - First Circle, Eden Court Theatre, Inverness

The health of our nation and a tale of two countries - CSPP Debate with Health Minister Nicola Sturgeon MSP

The Scottish and UK Governments are on distinct and different policy paths. Nowhere is this more evident than in health.

The creation of the NHS revolutionized public policy. The core principle that healthcare should be free and available to all remains as relevant now as it did in the 1940’s.

Yet, fundamental challenges lie ahead for the NHS in Scotland. How will it cope with intense demographic changes? The desire for democratization and a preventative approach? Increasing budgetary pressures and an ever expectant public? Promote deeper service integration?

Join us at the CSPP fringe meeting to debate the future of the NHS in Scotland.

Saturday 22 October - 5.30pm - First Circle, Eden Court Theatre, Inverness

Closing the gap between aspiration and reality - CSPP Transport Debate with Transport Minister Keith Brown MSP

After the resounding success of our Dragons Den on Transport, we welcome back Keith Brown MSP, Minister for Transport to the CSPP fringe.

In the face of large cuts to capital budgets, the Scottish Government remains committed to investing significantly in Scotland’s transport infrastructure to improve connectivity and integration.

However, will this programme actually deliver a sustainable transport system that is accessible, affordable and more efficient?

Join us at the CSPP fringe meeting to debate the future of transport policy in Scotland.

See you there.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Supporting Scotland's Cities

CSPP Policy Director Ross Martin is at Holyood’s “Supporting Scotland’s Cities” conference. Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Health, Wellbeing and Cities Strategy, Nicola Sturgeon MSP, was the first keynote speaker.

Key Points
• Cities drive innovation and achieving sustainable economic growth depends on the performance of Scotland’s cities.
• Cities need to build stronger partnerships and work together (public, private and third sector) to make an even bigger impact.
• The Scot Govt will live up to its manifesto promise to: improve infrastructure and connectivity, give cities more freedom, enhance academia and develop city regions.
• Cities are central to the Scot Govt’s economic strategy and capital investment is of vital importance (context: 36% cut in Scotland’s block capital element).
• The delivery model for new capital projects will be NPD, along with Network Rail's funding mechanism.
• Cities need a strategy/action plan/route map to help them to support economic growth.

Six Cities Agenda
• The role of SCDI is to bring strategic leadership, not interfere or assume responsibilities of local government.
• Cities are not homogenous. This is not a one size fits all policy.
• Alignment has to take place between the Six Cities and relevant Scot Govt departments.

• Q1. On the issue of distinctiveness, the Cab Sec emphasised the sectoral specialisms in each city, e.g. gaming in Dundee. But, cities must learn "not to trip over each other" and recognise relative strengths.
• Q2. On the issue of sustainable economic growth, the Cab Sec said we need the proceeds of growth for public spending, but we do need growth to be sustainable (nothing on efficiency or effectiveness).

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

My Levy is Your Tax

Leigh Sparks - Stirling Retail

It might not have been in the manifesto, but it certainly made headlines. Wandering into the newsagent yesterday morning, John Swinney would have seen an almost uniform newspaper lead coverage on his new “Public Health Levy”.

Only, the words used were a little different – shop raid, smash and grab, price hikes, shopping bill tax, commitment breach. The only health issues involved were the collective raised blood pressures of the journalists, editors and the food retailers – oh, and the impotency of the opposition parties in the Parliament to do anything about it this time.

After suffering a bloody nose last year in the rushed, botched version one of the ‘Tesco tax’, John Swinney has come back for more. Only this time he’s brought his backbench majority friends to the (now one-sided) fight. Putting lipstick on the pig of the supermarket tax, we now have a ‘public health levy’ – and who could be against public health?

As ever, the detail will be revealing, not least for the legal wriggle room it offers and the operational reactions it will induce. But the idea of having food retailers (through a black hole, sorry hypothecated box) pay for health prevention activities seemed to go down really badly with the newspapers.

Their view was that the last people who will pay for this will be the retailers. The extra costs (£30m, £35M whatever per annum) will get passed on to suppliers and/or consumers. The idea of differential prices in England and Scotland as a direct consequence would seem peculiar however and even more costly for retailers; unless of course they really wanted to make a point – a retail equivalent of Stelios’ “fat bastards tax” on Luton airport perhaps. Maybe less “public health levy” and more “Swinney’s messages money grab”.

The issue is why tax the food retailers when the there is so much else that is possible or wrong? It is like taxing drug dealers whilst subsidising drug producers. There is much in this that is “illogical and discriminatory” to quote the Scottish Retail Consortium. That of course does not make the basic idea (prevention is cheaper than cure) wrong; but does open up the need for a full debate on what we should be doing and how.

Why tax large retail stores, when convenience and other small stores are so much more dependent on fags and booze for sales and in turn their local consumers are so much more dependent on these small stores for their supplies? Tax them, close them down and the supply in local areas is cut off. Why not tax bars, pubs, hotels, nightclubs, political, social and sporting clubs where alcohol and tobacco are every bit as significant and over-consumption is rife?

And if we really want to do something about health, then a “fat tax” on McDonalds and other fast food chains and local chippies ought to be on the agenda. Or maybe we could go the other way and have tax relief for spas and health clubs? What about those retailers who hit targets for anti-smoking promotion or product sales, or on healthy or low fat foods?

So why supermarkets and/or large retailers? Expediency perhaps, revenge for last year possibly? Or maybe it is because they believe the ‘chattering classes’ that supermarkets and superstores are evil and people hate them. But there’s the rub – even in the most vociferous of the places fighting new supermarket development, substantial numbers (often majorities) of local people are still in favour of such development.

And week in, week out, across Scotland people shop in, and feel well served by these stores. Supermarkets and superstores hit the consumer spot in far more cases than they miss. Forcing the daily and weekly shop to become more expensive or difficult is not really a vote winner with lots of people, despite what some of the rhetoric says.

Let’s have the debate on health and prevention and the environments we are all exposed to and the abuses they can create. But don’t pretend this is a “Public Health Levy” in a true thought out sense; it is an expedient money grab from businesses perceived to be able to afford it.

From the business perspective, all businesses need to be concerned about this tax, as logically it could be extended in many directions. The already known rapid rise in business taxes over the next few years in Scotland is going to produce real problems. Who knows what the trailed empty property (vacant shop) relief revisions will look like and do?

But for retailers, what would really concern me most is the certainty of falling real incomes for the next three years, due to pay freezes, pension costs increases, general inflation, probable spiking utility and other costs and all the other bad news out there,. Where are the sales going to come from in the next few years? And what new retailers are going to soak up these (and those still to come) empty premises?

Thursday, 22 September 2011

CSPP in the News

CSPP Board Member Richard Kerley was interviewed on GMS earlier today on the Scottish Government's spending plans. Professor Kerley said:

When asked if the Scottish Government had shifted the responsibility for delivering the council tax freeze onto councils, Professor Kerley said:

“There are a number of interesting developments within the documents the Scottish Government have produced. They have offered councils an incentive not to increase council tax and yet the amount of money offered for that policy remains at a level that was set 4/5 years ago. In real terms, this is a decreased amount of money, so yes he has shifted a lot of the burden onto councils”.

“One of the key areas that are going to be problematic in the next couple of years for both councils and the central Government is the issue of redundancies because it is the council that is the employer. “

On Local Government borrowing, Richard said:

“The borrowing is in effect for building and improving facilities. Now, there is a good case for doing that. Investing in capital projects, particularly those that can be achieved in smaller tranches and rapid succession, is a good way of sustaining activity and employment in a very hard hit construction sector.“

Click here to listen to the interview (7 days left to listen).

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

The Inevitable Plan B

Another day, another growth forecast downgrading UK economic growth.

The IMF are predicting UK GDP to grow just 1.1% in 2011, 0.4% reduction from its previous World Economic Outlook report in June. This is not the first time the IMF has cut their growth forecast for the UK economy. In April they predicted 1.7% and in January 2%.

If you take this with the OBR’s forecasting, it’s clear that no one really knows what’s going to happen. All we know is that we’re in for a bumpy ride. What we do know, however, is that the UK Government “remains committed to implementing the deficit reduction plan which has delivered stability”. Put simply, no Plan B for growth. Cue Ed Balls

“The IMF is saying very clearly that if slow growth continues in the UK the Government should change course and adopt steadier deficit plans… That’s why we need a real plan for jobs and growth, here in Britain and around the world, and we need it quickly.”

The more Labour press for a Plan B or the Scottish Govt call for a “Plan MacB”, the more the Coalition Govt dig in their heels. The reluctance is understandable from a political perspective in that they don’t want to be seen to be taking advice from the opposition.

But more fundamentally, their credibility as a Government is tied up with the deficit reduction strategy. Remember, this isn’t just an economic reaction to the UK’s mushrooming debt crisis but an ideological wish to create a smaller state.

If they admit they were wrong about this, the argument goes, what else were they wrong about? All of this creates uncertainty and indecision and breeds weakness. Or does it? I’m not convinced. Neither am I convinced that the Coalition is slavishly going to stick to a Plan A that is clearly not working.

Behind the scenes, the Treasury will be working on a Plan B (of course, they will have to call it something else). In fact, they might have it. I don’t have a source to validate this theory, but I do have history.

An excerpt from Bob Woodward’s “The War Within” (p85) illustrates my point. It’s August 2006 and slowly but surely it is dawning on the Principals that their current strategy in Iraq - “clean, hold and build” - is failing catastrophically.

National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley is leading a review of the strategy, while simultaneously the Administration publicly reaffirms their belief that the current plan is working.

“No, I don’t believe that it’s failing” said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

“But, is there not some discussion about what happens if it doesn’t work, a Plan B?” asked the reporter.

“What you want to do is settle on a plan and then press as hard as you can to make it work. And that’s where everyone’s energies are at this point, and I think this plan is going to work” replied Rice.

The Coalition Govt has, or are working on, a Plan B. What they need to find is an exit strategy to sell it.

Barry McCulloch, CSPP Policy Manager

Catching up?

Leigh Sparks - Stirling Retail

Just back from my latest travails. This time to Singapore where the IRS signed a new agreement for scholarships for our undergraduate retail degree. The Singapore Workforce Development Agency are sponsoring 90 scholarships over 3 years at an investment of S$3m.

I also took part in our University graduation ceremony which saw PhD, MBA and Retail marketing undergraduates graduate, and spent time teaching on our Diploma in Retailing programme (we offer Diploma. Undergraduate and MBA in Retailing degrees in Singapore).

So what happened when I was away? A couple of things registered via messages or emails:

* The August retail sales figures for Scotland confirmed the fears some (including me) have been expressing for a while now; the recession is nowhere near over. The figures were amongst the worst ever recorded (again) by the Scottish Retail Consortium series.

*The waste mountain generated supposedly by the confusion amongst sell by, use by, best before and other dates is all the fault of the retailers. I don’t quite understand this – there is confusion for sure, but is it really all the retailers’ fault? Consumers need education and clarity and a willingness to see, smell or taste if food is going off.

So that’s me caught up then. But, a figure from Singapore keeps intruding – recorded retail sales growth of c10% per annum is seen as normal and acceptable. And this from a country that is far from cheap these days.

So how do we catch up with that?

Well investment in education and the workforce might be a part of it (though I would say that wouldn’t I!). But it is about attitude and approach as well. Two instances:

*Foreign students are increasingly welcomed in Singapore, but only if they commit to stay and work in the country (thus ‘pay back’) for a couple of years after they graduate. And the UK government’s parallel policy – foreigners to go home days after they graduate.

*When the credit crunch hit a few years ago, Singapore expanded the numbers going into University and Polytechnics to seize the opportunity to add skills to the workforce (and to ‘mop-up’ youth unemployment). And the UK? Citing the looming deficit we decided to cut numbers and to raise costs and fees for students.

Let’s guess the economic and social impacts of these two approaches? Some way to go to catch up perhaps.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Return of a Mac can be a boost for schools

Published in the Scotsman, 14/9/11

Ok, perhaps many a Mc does a Mac make after all. Or at least one would be inclined to believe so given the schoolboy error of Scottish Labour's aspirant leader Ken Macintosh, misspelling Professor Gerry McCormac's name on their party press release while responding to his report into the future of teaching in Scotland's schools.

Another Mc, the fabulous character of Grange Hill's Mrs McCluskey, wouldn't have been impressed. Easy to mix up all these Macs and Mcs, given that the professor and his team were reviewing the impact of the McCrone report, originally commissioned by Jack McConnell under the direction of Henry McLeish.

In attacking key aspects of the review, the Labour Party rightly focuses on teacher numbers, but should be sent to the back of the class for their terrible line that "Teachers should be left to teach, not dish out school dinners or repair computers".

The review does not even come close to suggesting a change to teachers' conditions that would have them engaged in any activity other than teaching, or supporting pupil learning with other tasks. So, what about the meat of the McCormac review? Why was it necessary, and what does it actually say? Some time ago now everyone involved in teaching agreed that pay had fallen way behind many other professions, of equal or lesser worth to society. After more than a decade of ultimately fruitless negotiation, the Scottish Government established the McCrone review to sort out the squabbling.

Now, leave aside the fact that the prequel to McCrone, timeously entitled the "Millennium Review", had actually secured the support of the teaching union's negotiating committee before being junked without a ballot of the memberships.

Also ignore the fact that this earlier review included a range of reforms to the profession designed to "recruit, reward and retain" quality teachers, e.g. the inclusion of a sabbatical year for key members in the staff room and the integration of extra-curricular support such as coaching school sports teams into the standard public sector school teacher's contract.

The eventual McCrone deal was a classic political fix. McConnell had been handed the poisoned chalice of avoiding looming disruption in Scotland's schools by first minister McLeish. They rushed to sign a deal that gave everything and got nothing in return.

At a cost of around one and a half tram sets, that's £1.3 billion in ordinary money, teachers gained their rightful pay reward, but everyone else involved suffered as a result.

First to go were the after-school clubs, emptying bored teenagers on to the streets. Then parents' evenings were cut back as these often time-hungry sessions didn't quite fit into the box provided in "non-teaching time". Then followed Saturday morning sports coaching and many other aspects of what was previously seen as a normal working week, in the 40 that constitute a school year.

This was all part of a depressing attitudinal shift from one with high professional standards towards a clock-watching mentality more akin to manual workers on poverty pay. Far from introducing flexibility, the 35-hour week, a core element of the McCrone settlement, has conditioned teachers, and especially their unions, into a way of working that doesn't come close to be described as professional, never mind fit for the 21st century, the title on the McCrone tin.

Even more damning, standards in Scotland's schools did not improve. As the McCormac Review starkly puts it, teachers' pay and conditions need to "strengthen the quality of teaching and leadership" in Scotland's schools, because they have not been. In other words, we paid an awful lot of cash for little, if any, improvement in the classroom experience for a generation of pupils. This deficit needs to be addressed.

The McCormac review rightly recommends a more flexible approach, enabling teachers to lead their own profession, to develop, monitor and continuously improve standards. It calls for a "reinvigorated professionalism" with "all teachers embracing professional obligations which go beyond that which can or should be embodied in a contract". In other words, let teachers teach, and organise themselves in a manner which "is in the best interests of young people".

Patently, this is not the case right now. The school year, based upon the agrarian calendar is not fit for last century, never mind this one. Of course, the report doesn't deal with this wider issue, as it was not in its remit to do so. However, if we are indeed to move towards a system and structure which is in the best interests of young people, and by extension their parents, then surely a move to four equal terms of ten weeks each is inevitable?

As well as allowing for much easier planning of the curriculum, and all other aspects of delivering a quality learning programme, such a move would also open up our schools to a wide range of external influences, the kind of which McCormac rightly promotes. The current restrictive practice of allowing only GTC registered teachers in front of a class "risks denying access to potentially valuable experiences for children and young people".

The current practice is a dereliction of duty.

A simplified school calendar, brought into line with the way in which many of us organise our working lives, around the four financial quarters of the year, would make it so much easier for other professions to engage with the education of our children. Professions and trades have so much to offer both in terms of the learning experience and as role models for our young people; artists and architects, engineers and electricians, journalists and joiners, planners and plumbers… all have a part to play.

The use of other professions would have another benefit, a potential reduction in class contact time. On the importance of this issue I wholeheartedly agree with the teaching unions. Teachers cannot be expected to perform at their very best across a crowded teaching timetable and this is one way in which to take some of the pressure off. Of course, another is to reshape the school week.

In this age of asymmetrical federalism, whichever version (devo-max or indie-lite) we vote for, the asymmetric week is surely worth a mention. Why? Because it works.

Moving to one half-day, by slightly increasing the length of the other four teaching days, is something which we know improves both teaching quality and school standards. When we introduced this in West Lothian in the 1990s it allowed an enrichment of the education programme with a wide range of other activities, such as sports, arts, crafts, music and outdoor education on that half day, supporting an overall improvement in all measurable educational outcomes.

Another aspect which McCormac promotes in seeking to bring teaching into the real world, recognising the budgetary pressure which we all face, is to put a stop to the dubious political initiative of smaller class sizes. The report recognises that there is scant evidence to demonstrate any benefit from marginal reductions in class sizes and that these nationally driven targets set by the SNP, before they knew they would win an outright majority in the parliament, "should not be pursued at the expense of overall teacher quality".

Above all, however, and this is a theme that runs through the McCormac review, local circumstances must be allowed to shape the way in which Scotland's schools are organised and run. Not all schools are the same - and neither they should be. Some decisions are appropriate for local authority level, others for schools themselves, but teaching as a profession must take control and drive up standards for all.

• Ross Martin is the policy director of CSPP and a former CoSLA Education Convener who was involved in the pre-McCrone negotiations.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Just Magestic

Leigh Sparks - Stirling Retail

Drafting legislation must be a thankless task. All those lawyers, double meanings, wriggle room, my version of certainty against your version … and that’s before the MSPs get their hands on it. What a job … cross fingers and hope it all hangs together, I suppose.

The Scottish Government’s campaign against alcohol abuse in Scotland is well known. More is to come, despite previous shenanigans around the proposals for minimum pricing per alcohol unit. Unfinished business doesn’t come into it. And that’s even before the latest legislation comes into force.

Life is too short to detail the Alcohol Scotland Act 2010 which comes into force on October 1, 2011, or the wriggle room that will be exposed in the coming months. If you are desperate then see a lawyer … but be prepared, you might need a drink afterwards. And if you are a retailer and have not thought through the implications for your business yet, then get a defence lawyer … time is not on your side, unless you fancy time “inside”.

The intention is clearly laudable; responsible behaviour around alcohol. It is hard to argue against the sentiments behind some of the suggestions and remedies. Given the data on alcohol and Scotland we need to do something … but that’s where consensus breaks down. Nonetheless the Act brings in restrictions on multipack sales and quantity discounts amongst other things, so as to discourage (too) cheap pricing and binge buying.

This all sounds fine, but let’s consider a moment. If we are really interested we can consider the official guidance to the Act. The law says that multipacks need to be priced in multiples of the single unit price. So if a retailer doesn’t sell single items, or if the multipacks are of a different size product (44oml versus 500ml say), then what is the base price?

Even more interesting may be the banning of quantity discounts, to cut price discounting and so-called “incentives” for bulk buying (Let’s ignore the issue of whether loyalty card points are incentives or “irresponsible promotions” – the official guidance says this may be an issue for the Courts).

Having just received their recent leaflet, this is where Majestic comes in.

Majestic have responded to the change in the law by pricing single bottles of wine in Scotland at the equivalent of the two bottle price in England. So a headline figure on a bottle of wine on the 30th September in Scotland is £7.99 (but is £5.99 if you purchase two, and remember that the Majestic minimum buy is a mixed half case). On on the 1st October this will become £5.99 on the bottle in Majestic in Scotland.

Magic isn’t it … headline wine prices down. Just what the legislators wanted – I think not.

And that’s the problem with legislation. Drafting something is the easy part; drafting something to cover all eventualities and not to look stupid is much harder. So that’s where the lawyers come in (again).

I know this is really an oddity created by the marketing and promotional approach used by Majestic, but it does illustrate that the Scotland/England divide will raise issues. And that’s not even going into the guidance which says online sales based in England but delivered to Scotland are not covered by the Act – thereby providing an incentive (irresponsible promotion anyone) to English internet sales and against Scottish based shop jobs, and driving a rather large articulated vehicle through a small part of the sustainable Scotland programme. Finding a sensible way forward on promotion and marketing of alcohol in Scotland may not be not as straightforward as some seem to think it is.


Friday, 9 September 2011

Police & Fire Reform Plans Annouced

Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill announced the Government's plans to create single police and fire services against a backdrop of growing opposition from Local Government, COSLA and the Scottish Police Federation. Crucially, however, there was widespread support for the plans within the chamber with only the Lib Dems criticising the move. Mr MacAskill said:

"The status quo was not sustainable - we cannot afford to keep doing things eight times over. To do nothing would [lead] to massive reductions in police numbers and an attack on terms and conditions."

"A regional model would have been cumbersome, bureaucratic and would not have delivered the same benefits as a single service. The worst of both worlds. That left the single service option as the best way forward for the services."

The creation of single police and fire services is the Government's first serious foray into structural reform in public services. During its first term, the Government's PSR plans were consigned to rationalising public bodies and establishing a new concordat between central and local government. According to the Government, these plans will:

- Deliver estimated savings of £130 million a year and £1.7 billion over 15 years.
- Reduce duplication and overheads across eight police and eight fire & rescue services.
- Establish a strong, formal relationship between each service and each of Scotland's 32 local authorities, creating designated local officers for each council area who will work with the Council and other partners to meet local priorities and needs
- Ensure clear separation between Ministers and the operational responsibilities of services.

You can watch coverage of these plans on Newsnight Scotland which includes an interview with CSPP board member Richard Kerley (4minutes in).

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Honesty in a leadership contest? Surely not

I never thought the Tory leadership content would be the event to knock me out of my recess induced political coma, but it has. Even more unexpected is the source of this surprise - Murdo Fraser - and the hard hitting and strong speechhe delivered to launch his leadership bid.

“Change is no longer an option, but a necessity. Now is the time to face the truth [that] the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party is failing...and it will never succeed in its current form”.

“If I am elected as Leader of the Party, I will build a new and stronger party for Scotland”.

Fraser’s speech was a brutally honest evaluation of the Tories performance in the last 15 years which saw them reduced, despite a well-run campaign from Annabel Goldie, to just over 12% of the regional vote in the recent SP elections and losing key people like Derek Brownlee.

Whenever politicians talk about honesty my suspicions are usually aroused. It’s usually vacuous window dressing, but this time it was different. Why? The reason is simple: as the establishment figure Fraser was the overwhelming favourite for the vacant post. He had everything to lose, so it follows that he would run a safe campaign.

Yet by questioning the fundamental existence of the party and how it operates, he implicitly criticises his own performance in a failing enterprise. Numerous questions come to the fore: why didn’t he air his feelings sooner? Why now?

Curiously, he has acted in a way that is anathema to a rational political actor pursuing his self-interest. He has set out his stall, his vision, which may well see him (if he doesn’t win) kicked out of the party. The only conclusion we can draw from this is, shock horror, he actually means what he’s saying.

Disappointingly, both the Herald and the Scotsman decided to lead with negative front page stories with the latter saying "division deepens over plan for Tory divorce”. In contrast, the opinion pages were awash with praise.

But here’s the thing: it could well be that his plans for a new centre-right party resonate more strongly with people outside the party than those within it, which is problematic considering the former can’t vote.

Following Fraser’s speech, I and a colleague remarked on how stale and sterile Scottish political debate had become; in effect, it is wedded to a left of centre ideology. The prospect of a new centre right party, then, should be welcomed because it would generate alternative policy discourse and provide a rejoinder to the social democratic soup. Every democracy needs healthy opposition and Scotland is no different.

Murdo Fraser is taking a huge gamble in more ways than one. Not only is he putting his political career on the line, but he is gambling on a supposition that there is an appetite for a new centre right political party amongst the Scottish electorate.

He may be right. He may be wrong. In fact, he may never find out. But one things for sure: his speech will stimulate debate in a leadership content we all thought would be dull and uneventful.

Good luck to all the candidates. You can follow them via twitter - @murdofraser2011 , @Carlaw2011 and RuthForLeader


P.s. apologies for the lack of links - blogger is playing up.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Free the fife one

Leigh Sparks - Stirling Retail (original blog has a number of images to complement the story)

A few posts back I made some comments about farm shops and shops on a farm. The response directly to me was fascinating. Which is how I came to spend a day last week in Fife – and no, contrary to some of my colleagues views of the Kingdom, I was not kidnapped or held against my will.

Instead I spent a fruitful day looking at varieties of farm shops in the vicinity of Cupar (itself a market town of some interest). Starting and finishing at the excellent Fisher & Donaldson bakery/coffee shop in Cupar, we spent time in four different farm shops and had great conversations and discussions about farm shops, authenticity, localness and its meaning and business generally.

So what did I learn or conclude?

There are first-class businesses out there run by passionate people with love of what they do, the produce they grow and the place they are in. They deserve to succeed. Perhaps this is not new, but seeing these, sometimes hidden, gems reinforces the point.

Farm shops span a huge variety from the authentic, this farm only, approach, through to the shop on a farm with mainly bought in product, whether local, national or even international. We should not decry any of these, as they all have some degree of local in them, most certainly local employment and they appeal to different groups of consumers and visitors.

These farm shops need to tell their stories; about the place, the produce, the rhythms of life on the farm/land and the excellence of what they do. Not all do this well enough or consistently enough yet. And we need to link these shops up to engage those who want to seek out this variety and difference. This also requires the (council) authorities to help promote these great resources on their doorstep, and not to hinder them.

People use (and love) the farm shop for various reasons, but mainly because they are meeting places for food, coffee and in some cases localness. They provide learning experiences and a sense of exploration of our natural larder. They are far more than simply a place to buy stuff (as good as that may be).

Some of the produce was exceptional – in quality, price and in environmental terms. Good seasonal, local produce, grown or produced on the farm, with no food miles and often at a price cheaper or comparable with large stores. What is not to like? We need to get closer to seasonality and authenticity of product.

We have to cherish and promote our produce and our heritage of great Scottish food. Farm shops are one element of this (we will return to farmers markets at some time). Get out and try them soon – hopefully you will be pleased and inspired by what they are trying to achieve.

Thanks to all for the time, discussion, coffee and fruit!

For the record I visited:

Fisher & Donaldson, Ceres Road, Cupar, KY15 5JT

Muddy Boots, Balmalcolm Farm, Balmalcolm, KY 15 7TJ

Cairnie Fruit Farm, Cairnie, Cupar, KY15 4QD

Pittormie Fruit Farm, Dairsie, KY15 4SW

Balgove Larder, Strathtyrum, St Andrews, KY16 9SF

Friday, 2 September 2011

Tram network just needs a driver

Published in the Scotsman, 2/9/11

A directly elected leader in Edinburgh would have ensured that the capital's tram project was completed long ago.

ON MY return to Edinburgh from visiting a few other great European cities this summer, I struggled with my suitcase, once more, up the steep slope fromWaverley station to Waverley Bridge. Emerging from the gloom, blinking into the sunlight and looking straight ahead over the tops of the multi-coloured tourist buses, there it was, against a brilliantly steel-blue sky, that magnificent edifice, Edinburgh Castle perched atop its broodingly black volcanic plug. "I'm home."

As I turn to gather in a full 360ยบ view of this wonderful place, I am struck by the many contrasts that contribute to the complexity of this, and indeed, many other great cities. Contrasts between old and new, between tired and energetic, between functional and aesthetically pleasing, Edinburgh has them all. These physical, visual differences represent and indeed demonstrate the diversity that makes cities the great, active places that continue to attract people to live, work and play in them.

In Edinburgh the picture is constantly changing. Some elements, such as the Castle, are a constant feature. Others, for example, the grand old lady of Waverley station, are given an occasional facelift, rebalancing the internal contrast between featureless functionality and the need of any place to be attractive, comfortable and relaxing.

As the jewel in the crown of Network Rail's Edinburgh Glasgow Improvement Programme (EGIP), Waverley's refurbishment will reset this classic beauty in her proper context. The station's modernisation will remove what had become an unflattering contrast between journey and destination. The arrival and entrance to Edinburgh, following the installation of the long awaited escalator to effortlessly lift commuters, leisure travellers and tourists alike up to Princes Street, will be transformed. EGIP will result in the electrification and modernisation of much of central Scotland's rail network, bringing faster, more energy-efficient and environmentally-friendly rail travel, between three of our six cities.

Improving the links between our capital city, our largest city and the original choice of many for the Scottish Parliament building, Stirling, this complex project is being undertaken with minimal political fuss, and even less public attention. In contrast, compare this to Edinburgh's trams.

How is it that Network Rail can be set to deliver this £1 billion project, along more than 200 miles of track, involving major refurbishment of both Haymarket and Waverley stations (and the Gogar interchange with the trams) on time and on budget? Equally, how can Transport Scotland deliver the M74 extension, with its own set of complexities and myriad engineering challenges, crossing a number of administrative, never mind physical boundaries, in a similarly efficient manner?

Then ask the same question of Edinburgh's trams. Exactly. What has gone wrong? Why? Who is responsible for this debacle? How can it be put right? Is there anything that could have been done differently? What lessons can be learned for the future? Is there an issue about democratic accountability, about power and responsibility? What is our capital city lacking?

Let's examine the evidence. There exists a political majority within the council chambers in support of the tram project. Labour commissioned it, the Tories supported it, the Lib Dems inherited it and the SNP are stuck with it. However, at every junction when a decision was required, when our elected representatives were called upon to demonstrate the vision, clarity of purpose and leadership that delivered previous improvements to infrastructure, such as Waverley station, they were found collectively wanting.

The Lib Dems led the localised campaign against the Southern line out to the new hospital, and effectively turned the trams into a singular replacement for the No 22 bus. The Tories sought last Friday to kill off the project entirely and with it Edinburgh's reputation. Labour's spoiling amendment to truncate the route at Haymarket not only caught their opponents on the hop, but took themselves by surprise, in the event.

The SNP, for their part, have rightly been forced to perform a hasty retreat and help to save the project, and our capital city, from international ignominy. All in all, this has been a pretty sorry spectacle, dominated and damned by democratically elected members, each seeking to squeeze maximum party political advantage from a project that the population effectively rejected when it said a resounding "no" to the introduction of a congestion charge, its principal funding source.

There are no winners in this. There is no political glory. There is only, presently, despair, anger and frustration. At least it would appear that the realisation is dawning on our councillors that they have managed, through the fog of political war, to steer the trams down a very expensive dead-end. For many, this could be their own political terminus, time when their grannies kick them off the electoral bus. May 2012 approaches.

So what's to be done? How can our capital turn around this looming disaster and save the nation from yet another embarrassing episode, like the Holyrood building project? Well, it has already started.

The citizens are revolting. Not quite riots on the streets, or setting up the gallows in the Grassmarket, but across the blogosphere a sound akin to the screeching of a tram wheel on metal track is approaching. The populace, whatever viewpoint it had before last Thursday's vote, is united in its vocal condemnation, determined that a better solution is found.

Now a few basics. The trams must travel along Princes Street and link to Edinburgh's main rail and bus stations. It simply cannot be other than this. Wall-to-wall double-deck buses detract terribly from the world-renowned attractiveness of Princes Street, choking it to economic death and environmental destruction. Most buses don't need to travel its length, and could easily turn around at either end; think of the 31, the 26 or even the 22 itself. Trams will transform this thoroughfare, at last affording an opportunity for us all to take maximum advantage of its truly spectacular natural assets.

A well-designed interchange at Haymarket could also shift commuters from packed rush-hour trains with limited capacity, onto regular running, hassle-free, mass transit, modern trams. This particular modal switch, with integrated, all-through ticketing, on the level where the tram line sweeps down to the station platforms, would transform the travel experience.

This movement of people across a platform onto frequent, fast and environmentally efficient trams would exponentially add to their peak-period revenue flow, whilst benefiting the ScotRail franchise, by increasing its effectiveness with the removal of its biggest blockage. The same could happen at Waverley now that we are seeing the modernisation of that station, with a little bit of integration and imagination.

Another obvious benefit from this type of integrated thinking would be the removal of many of the remaining diesel trains from the rails below beautiful Princes Street Gardens, leaving space aplenty for the intercity fleet. A double benefit then, clearing Princes Street of double-deck diesels and clearing the gardens of diesel trains. Edinburgh could breathe more easily. Where has this joined-up thinking been? Other European cities manage to integrate their different modes of transport. What's different from Edinburgh?

A mayor. In the great European cities I visited this summer, from Barcelona to Venice, from Dubrovnik to London, an elected mayor, call them provosts in Scotland if you please, drives the development and regeneration of their cities.

They lead them in times of trouble and they set out their stall to deliver growth. If Edinburgh had a directly-elected provost, with executive power akin to counterparts all over the world, we would have had a tram network in place long ago, linking the entire travel to work area that provides the fuel for this engine of our economy. Come on, let's get on board!

Ross is CSPP Policy Director