Thursday 31 December 2015

Fishermen vs environmental colonialists - the unequal battle over Marine Protected Areas

My column for the Daily Record

What do Fisheries Minister Richard Lochhead, an American Insurance charity and a board member of broadcaster BSkyB have in common?

Read on for an insight into how political power is wielded in the new Scotland.

Last week while the rest of us were mulling the choice between prawn cocktail and smoked salmon fishermen on the Clyde coast and Western Isles were scrambling to save their industry and way of life.

That was because Richard Lochhead, the SNP Fisheries Minister, delivered an early Christmas present by extending consultation over plans for a network of Marine Protected Areas by a mere month.

Announcing a short consultation over the festive season smacks of cynicism. Fishermen's leaders say these conservation zones would ban trawling and dredging for shellfish and so destroy fishing communities.

With politicians of every stripe representing on the west coast telling him he is wrong, who is telling Richard Lochhead he is right to press ahead with MPAs?

Well, ranged against the fishermen are a well-financed and well-connected network of conservation organisations.

Stunning amounts of money are used to cherry pick science and lobby politicians with a slew of data that portrays fishermen as plunderers.

A web of inter-connected environmental organisations ply the waters of Scotland and the corridors of Holyrood.

The Marine Conservation Society had £10 million at its disposal over the last four years. 

Scottish Environmental Link, the umbrella organisation for conservation bodies,  raised over £400,000 in the last three years. Revive the Clyde, closely linked to SIFT, a similar amount in two years.

The BSkyB connection comes through Nick Ferguson, chair of corporate governance at the broadcaster and a noted philanthropist who supports projects that benefit young and old in Argyll, where he has a holiday home.

He was also on the advisory board of SIFT, the Sustainable Inshore Fisheries Trust, that has applied for Regulating Order covering the Firth of Clyde. Such an order would grant power over who fishes and who does not. 

No prize for guessing how the "community" interest would stack in that situation. But prizes galore for one side of the debate.

The Goldman Foundation, funded by the legacy of a wealthy family of American insurers, gave their annual prize of  $175,000 prize to Coast, a self-appointed group campaigning for the South Arran seabed to become an MPA. Coast had an income of over £500,000 in the last three years, charity returns show.

Let's be honest, some fishermen are greedy rogues that took some species to extinction. However, regulation and voluntary participation in conservation measures, like increased mesh sizes, have taken the industry and stocks back from the cliff edge.

For me the jury is out on prawn trawling and scallop dredging. Dredging the seabed for shellfish was once described to me as cutting down orchards to pick apples.

Objectors say it destroys everything, fishermen say it renews the bottom, just as ploughing enriches the soil in an onshore field

The science and effectiveness of conservation zones is hotly disputed but the fishermen are right in one respect.

Whatever the damage to the seabed by fishing, that will be as nothing compared to the damage done to coastal communities if a whole sector of the fishing industry is banned.

Sterilising the west coast as a playground for the gin palaces of the rich and for rigid inflatables is not a viable plan to replace working communities.

After the thin varnish of consultation next month expect the pretence of "community" control of these protected areas.

But follow the money and you will see ultimate control of a campaign to effectively kill off our fishing communities rests in America and in London.

It is the kind of colonial environmentalism that, were it being targeted an the fragile population of an  Amazonian jungle, would have Scotland's right-on brigade indignant with fury.

Instead all that power and finance is being brought to bear on closing down the prawn fishery, the only major fishing industry left on the Clyde and west coast.

All this is all being done with the complicity of a government whose main selling point is self-determination and standing up for Scotland. Exactly which part of Scotland, fishermen ask?

Thursday 10 December 2015

East to west, Scotland's transport system needs a reboot

For today's Daily Record

AS a totem of a nation at a standstill, the empty decks of the Forth Road Bridge can only be matched by that list of delayed and cancelled flights to and from the islands of Scotland.

The east coast has suddenly discovered, as the west coast islands already have, how failing transport links quickly become an economic stranglehold.

The closure of the Forth Road Bridge now looks as inevitable as the rusting stanchion on which the excuses hang.

There was the populist abolition of the £1 bridge tolls, which meant £12 million had to be found from somewhere as the maintenance list grew.

A new bridge was commissioned, an obvious step, because the current one was already beyond the expected lifespan.

There were the engineers’ warnings that more maintenance was needed, and somewhere in the middle of this Nicola Sturgeon had a spell as cabinet secretary for infrastructure.

With all ministerial eyes distracted by their role in the nation’s destiny, tenders were drawn up and dropped amid budget cuts. Trying to cross the river to a nationalist Jordan, it looks like the SNP government neglected the country’s basic infrastructure.

In an ironic twist for an avowedly left-of-centre government privatisation saw the bridge authority cease to exist.

This privatisation agenda runs like a stain across the whole transport brief. Who is pushing it?

On the west coast, Transport Minister Derek Mackay is hawking Caledonian MacBrayne to private sector buccaneers in preparation for the next transport fiasco.

On the east coast, he has to take the brunt of motorists’ anger over the bridge closure.

Being a Minister isn’t such fun when things go wrong. Mackay strains every political sinew to achieve the look of an underweight Atlas, mythically holding up the globe all on his own.

He is left defending the past while firefighting the present. With no sign of back-up you have to worry about his own long-term structural integrity.

There are calls for an investigation into what went wrong, who knew what when.

Engineers, professionals who can be relied on not just to read what is written on the tin but test the contents too, gave ample warning of defects. Ah, but not the exact defects that emerged last week, respond the government, though that tune is whistling like the wind in a cable stay.

In a Scotland of two truths, empirical evidence versus political certitude, I doubt the worth of any inquiry.

An investigation would not move a single vehicle across the crippled Forth crossing.
For my tuppence, all that political energy would be better spent turning a crisis into an opportunity.

The bridge collapse, if it has done anything, has exposed the glaring inadequacy of Scotland’s public transport system.

Yes, Scotrail have pulled in extra carriages so Scottish commuters can get the sardine tin experience of the crowded south-east, minus the property prices and the milder weather.

There are expanded bus services, a sudden interest in car-sharing schemes and forlorn demands for featherweight cyclists to be allowed to zoom across the Forth (of course they should be).

So, if there has to be an inquiry it should be into the massive rethink Scotland needs to move dormitory commuters permanently onto public transport and off the roads.

Out road addiction shuts our eyes and ears, though not our lungs, to the carmaggedon of pollution and climate change.

Labour, in a search for 21st century principles, should be less consumerist, more conservationist and take the lead, especially if the Greens in Scotland remain a client state of the big oil party.

Just as in health and in education, it should be possible for a nation of five million to devise public transport policies that match the needs of the country. Big task, no easy answers, but put the engineers on the job.

That would require a bit of a political cease-fire to take place, a bit of bridgebuilding if you like. The Forth Road replacement might be falling into the water before we get that.

Wednesday 2 December 2015

Hilary Benn - "What we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated"

From the Commons, for The Record

After a long day of speeches, some distinguished ones by backbenchers, and mediocre ones by the main party leaders, Hilary Benn arrived at the despatch box.

The speech by the Shadow Foreign Secretary was always going to have some drama to it. He stood at odds with his party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, but his rousing words left everyone in the shade.

In a short speech the son of the late Tony Benn elevated himself to the ranks of the parliamentary greats.

He showed principle, loyalty and what many moderate Labour MPs had been crying out for - leadership.

He told MPs in the Commons: “Although he (Corbyn) and I will walk into different division lobbies tonight, I’m proud to speak from the same despatch box as him.

“He is not a terrorist sympathiser. He’s an honest, a principled, a decent and a good man and I think the Prime Minister must now regret what he said yesterday and his failure to do what he should have done today - which is to simply say ‘I am sorry’.”

Of course Benn was for striking ISIL, and he laid out the case in detail and with rigour. The packed Commons listened in rapt silence.

Chancellor George Osborne leaned out of his seat, watching intently a politician who might one day be a direct rival.

His case for Syria was made, but it was his closing remarks, addressed directly to his own party, that distinguished Benn.

Fascists need to be confronted, he said. Labour has always stood up to them. We must now confront this evil, he said.

This is what he told Labour MPs: “As a party we have always been defined by our internationalism. We believe we have a responsibility one to another."

“We are here faced by fascists; not just in their calculated brutality, but their belief they are superior to every single one of us."

They hold us in contempt, they hold our values in contempt... they hold our democracy, the means by which we make our decision tonight, in contempt. 

"And what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated and it is why, as we have heard tonight, socialists and trade unionists were just one part of the international brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco. 

"It’s why this entire House stood up against Hitler and Mussolini. It’s why our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and for justice and my view, Mr Speaker, is that we must now confront this evil."

Slowly, he concluded: “It is now time for us to do our bit in Syria and that is why I ask my colleagues to vote for this motion.”

The Commons had been silent throughout. Corbyn was stonyfaced behind him.

But when he finished MPs broke into applause. In extraordinary scenes, MPs roared and waved their order papers. The SNP, who have been banned from clapping, pointed to the Speaker in outrage. Mr Bercow let the applause run, and the electric atmosphere drain from the chamber.