Wednesday 19 June 2013

The leader will see you now

Here's Kevin Toolis, the writer and director of "The Confessions of Gordon Brown", opening the door on his show last night at at the White Bear Theatre in Kennington.

The play is previewing in London before opening at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August, where I predict it will be a surefire hit.

So, no review here, save to say that say that Ian Grieve is the very embodiment of the former Prime Minister in the one man show. His opening night, in his first major stage role in 17 years, was a tour de force.

“It was terrifying going on, because the audience was full of people who know him. But when they started laughing in recognition I began to relax,” Grieve told me afterwards.

Grieve, 47, doesn’t just look the part, he’s getting under the skin of the former Labour leader too.

“Being Gordon Brown is quite comfortable. I come from a similar background, Perth isn't that far from Kircaldy and I think I get him.

"At heart, Gordon Brown wants to make a difference, he has a strong moral spine and I hang onto that as I play him.”

The play is not a biography of Brown by any means, it is more an examination by Toolis of leadership through the character of a politician who spent a lifetime seeking power and was then frozen in its grasp. 

Wednesday 5 June 2013

MPs to launch “who owns Scotland” investigation

Ahead of the debate on land reform in Holyrood today Scots MPs at Westminster have signalled they are to launch an investigation into the shady offshore companies that own vast tracts of land in Scotland.

The Commons Scottish Affairs committee is due to start an inquiry into land ownership and tax avoidance after campaigners slammed the SNP government’s lacklustre commitment to the land reform agenda.

Ian Davidson MP, the Labour chairman of the Scottish committee, said he hoped the inquiry would “establish who owns and controls the great landed estates in Scotland, in order to minimise tax avoidance”.

The move came as leading land reformer Jim Hunter launched a broadside at the Holyrood government for failing on the land reform agenda.

Professor Hunter, a respected academic and land reformer, resigned from the SNP's Scottish Land Reform policy group for personal reasons.

But in an outspoken attack, the Highland historian said six years under the SNP had left Scotland stuck with the “most concentrated, most inequitable, most unreformed and most undemocratic land ownership system in the entire developed world”.

He said the process of getting land into community hands needed to be simpler.

Tuesday 4 June 2013

Jim Hunter reads the Riot Act on Land Reform

An Suileachan, Bhaltos, Lewis on Friday 24th May 2013
"We’re now six years into an SNP Government which has so far done absolutely nothing legislatively about the fact that Scotland continues to be stuck with the most concentrated, most inequitable, most unreformed and most undemocratic land ownership system in the entire developed world.” -  James Hunter.

I was offline for most of the last week and didn't post my own piece on the opening of the Bhaltos land cairn. Andy Wightman kindly ran it as a guest blog on his own Land Matters site.

I went on a rare, dry Friday to the Atlantic coast of Lewis where the whole community of Bhaltos turned out to dedicate a monument to their shared past and future.

A brilliant stone sculpture, designed by Will MacLean and Marian Leven, commemorates land raids of a century ago and the recent community buyout of the island estate that will open a new door.

Places like Bhaltos, where the people own the land, are living proof that the land reform agenda is alive and matters.  Two of the prime movers of land reform in Scotland, Dr Jim Hunter and Brian Wilson, made speeches at the opening ceremony. They emphasised how land was the key to community development and empowerment and both shared their frustration about how progress has been stalled.

Hunter, who had to resign from the Scottish government's Land Reform Review Group for family reasons,  made clear in private comments his disappontment about the interim report the group produced.

Today, Jim, who is sympathetic to independence, has gone public with devastating criticisms of the SNP, telling Salmond and Sturgeon they must at least match Lamont's pledges on land reform if they are to be taken seriously on the issue at all.

Jim Hunter’s full statement :

“If the Scottish Government are serious about land reform, Ministers and the government machine more generally must be involved directly in the work of the group.

“The relevant Cabinet Secretary, Richard Lochhead, should himself chair regular meetings of the group and its advisers. And the group should include senior civil servants with expertise in shaping legislation. This would be to follow the highly productive precedent of the 1997 Land Reform Policy Group which paved the way for the Land Reform Act of 2003.

“The Government should commit right now to legislating in 2014-15 on community land ownership. What needs to be done in this area is clear from lots of evidence already available to the LRRG. The process of getting land into community hands needs to be simpler. And there have to be powers – of the sort to which Johann Lamont has committed the Labour Party – to ensure that moves to community ownership can’t be blocked by existing landlords.

“Beyond that, Government needs to tell the group to explore how council tax and business rates might be replaced by a land value tax – something the Scottish Parliament could introduce with existing powers. Such a reform would benefit Scots right across the board by reducing greatly the cost of land for housing and other development.

“And the Scottish Government has to get serious about giving tenant farmers a right to buy their farms. That’s been basic to land reform all across Europe. Danish farmers got a right to buy more than 200 years ago, Irish farmers more than 100 years ago. How much longer are Scottish tenant farmers to be denied a similar right?

“The SNP Government says over and over again that it’s committed to social justice. But there’s precious little that’s socially just about a Scotland where fewer than a thousand people own more than half the country and where tenant farmers, as the LRRG have discovered, are frightened to speak out for fear of repercussions from their lairds.

“Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said recently of Denmark that ‘it gives us a glimpse of the kind of country we might be’. Well, if she and her colleagues truly want Scotland to be more like Denmark, a country where big estates were long ago confined to history books, then land reform is where they need to start.

“As it is, we’re now six years into an SNP Government which has so far done absolutely nothing legislatively about the fact that Scotland continues to be stuck with the most concentrated, most inequitable, most unreformed and most undemocratic land ownership system in the entire developed world.”  

Monday 3 June 2013

Harris quarry plans are not dead

On the west Harris hills looking south over Luskentyre

Back to Westminster after a week of blazing sun in the Hebrides. I met great people and heard many good tales on my travels. This is from my Daily Record column today, download the Record app for a full read.

They wanted to remove a mountain. It seems staggering now, but almost 20 years ago the idea of quarrying out Roineabhal, a huge mountain on the coast of the Isle if Harris was a real runner.

Redlands Aggregates, and later Lafarge, wanted to take ten million tons of rock a year away from the island for use on roads across the UK. The hole left in the landscape would have been visible from space.

After the longest public inquiry in Scottish history and much delay Ministers rejected planning permission in 2000 for the Lingerbay site. Lafarge walked away and the idea of a superquarry in south Harris was stone dead. Or is it?

I can reveal that Ian Wilson, the mining engineer with the original vision for the Harris superquarry, is back on the scene and hoping to open up for business again.

This time, he promises me, quarrying would be on a much smaller scale.

Speaking from his home in Scotland he said: "Very small scale mineral extraction might be possible but it needs to be tested. It would be nothing in terms of aggregate production if it went ahead. We are talking thousands of tons, not millions of tons. "

Wilson and partners are exploring the possibility of extracting a mineral called zoisite from the mountain which may, or may not, have a bizarre application.

He said: "It is a mineral which could have industrial uses in terms of being a natural fertiliser for asparagus. It has unique properties but it has a long way to go to be proved - so don't hold your breath."

The quarry was one of the last hopes for manual work in Harris. A decade on a different kind of economy has emerged. The population hit rock bottom but developments like community land ownership are encouraging.

In Northton, one of the villages most directly affected, half the houses are emptied. But there are four thriving micro-businesses involved in food, textiles and heritage.

They are experiencing a tourism boom which will expand on the back of the BBC Scotland nature series, "Islands on the Edge"

Each of these businesses is female-run and, given the lack of women and children on the islands, these are the kinds of jobs that point to the future.

Ian Wilson is a genial businessman trying to turn a buck from a place he invested considerable time and money in. There may be room for him in a shared future.

He said: "The site is open and the jetty is still there but it would be on a small scale that would leave no one unhappy."

For the communities living under the shadow of the mountain these reassurances will sound like an exploding stick of quarry dynamite.