Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Wind Of Change Among Trump Backers?

At the launch of the Menie development Trump claimed to have "the support of local, regional and national business leaders."

In light of the Very Rich American's increasing outbursts on the important Scottish renewables sector, and his failure to deliver large elements of the original resort proposal, I contacted these "business leaders" to see if they're still the best of friends...


"We recognise the significant economic impact it will have on the north-east, and indeed to the wider Scottish economy. Tourism will always be strong in the north east, but this development will help refresh Scotland’s profile through the publicity it will generate and the potential for ancillary businesses. This development will allow us to really raise the bar in terms of the tourism product we have to offer and ensure the area remains a must see, must return destination."

"VisitScotland understands and supports the drive for renewable energy and recognises the economic potential of Scotland’s vast resource, including the opportunities for wind farm development.

"VisitScotland’s latest study suggests that wind farms have a limited impact on tourist views, however the organisation would encourage all future development to continue to be sited sensitively."

Scottish Enterprise

"I welcome the progress on Trump International Golf Links' development in Aberdeenshire. The overall aim of Scottish Enterprise's Tourism strategy is to achieve higher value add through the development of such premium resorts and experiences for visitors.

"We value the commitment which the Trump organisation is demonstrating by commencing work on the site at Menie, as this type of new resort development, will deliver modern, high quality accommodation and facilities to Scotland. This is critical to our ambition to help Scotland realise more value from our tourism assets. The development will attract higher spending visitors from across the UK and overseas and will further support Scotland's position in the global market as the Home of Golf."

"We work closely with a number of high profile and international business leaders throughout our activity and Mr Trump is one of 750 Globalscots. We recognise that not all of them will agree on what we do."

Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce

"The Chamber of Commerce is re-assured that the project is proceeding. A resort of this profile, scale and quality is a critical component ... to position Aberdeen City and Shire as a place to do business, and a place to visit. It gives an international message that Aberdeen is open to business."


Monday, 23 April 2012

Let The Wind Blow High, Let The Wind Blow Low For Donald

You know those job interviews where you’re asked to list your top personal achievements? Invariably faced with such an Apprentice-like scenario my mind goes blank. I think the last time I was asked about a significant and satisfying achievement I babbled something about sewers and CCTV. (Testament to my varied and illustrious career path.)

This week’s hullabaloo over The Donald makes me realise how proud I was when we screened You’ve Been Trumped, an award-winning documentary about his idiotic golf resort in Aberdeenshire, at Cinema Nairn. It involved getting the OK from the director himself, negotiating a fee and arranging to personally collect the film on BluRay along with a BluRay player from Inverness. (I am indebted to Impresario Paul at Eden Court for the loan of the machine and cables.)

In the end it was a great success and certainly awakened a number of golf-loving SNP-supporting folk to a horrendous situation on their doorstep. Both at the Nairn and Inverness screenings the chat afterwards was a sense of disbelief that the development hadn’t prompted protests, people chaining themselves to bulldozers and furious letters to editors. Maybe if it had been closer to the central belt the media coverage and political reaction would be have been different.

The dunes of Menie have now been wrecked. I was looking at photos of the golf course the other night and they looked like CGI. The flawless green greens seem so unreal you expect a James Cameron avatar to slither out and start putting.

Fans/Sufferers of Green Dad will know I can’t stand wind farm NIMBYs and climate change deniers so I look forward to this week’s media circus being over and done with. Of course whatever happens Trump is unlikely to shut his frighteningly large gob. And the wind farm NIMBYs will continue to show up at planning meetings with badly composed placards, photocopies of Daily Mail and Telegraph articles and googly eyes from having sat up all night reading conspiracy theories about ‘global warming’ on the internet.

At the root of all this is the need for renewable energy to replace finite, dirty and dangerous sources of fuel. The NIMBYs want a moratorium on wind but when you jab them about an alternative the best they can suggest is thorium which is decades away from being thinkable. In the meantime they presumably want us to mine more coal, drill more oil and gas and keep churning out nuclear waste that lasts longer than humans have been around.

This is Scotland. Land of wind, waves, water and occasionally the sun. We owe it to forthcoming generations to make the most of what we’ve got and not be distracted by vested short-term interests and the misinformed.

Soup-er Appetite

Purple sprouting broccoli? Angus down the road grows it. Lovely and fresh. All organic stuff you know. Just gently steam it. Super stuff.

Ah, the perils of the hard sell at the farm shop. As a result Toddler and I are now hooked on purple sprouting broccoli. Top tip: buy it from a farm shop. It was pennies, local, fresh and organic. The stuff I’ve seen in the supermarkets is from far away, overpackaged and overpriced.

Bizarrely, it tastes of cauliflower. Speaking of which, I’ll be making cauliflower soup this week. Not terribly newsworthy you’d think but au contraire...

Toddler now eats soup! This is seriously a major development for us. We’ve tried on and off over the years to get her to sup a wee bowl of easy-on-the-tastebuds homemade broth, leek and tattie, carrot, etc but with no joy. But thanks to a good friend – Auntie Yogo JoYo – paying a visit and making a butternut squash soup Toddler took to it with gusto. We’ve kept at the soup strategy and it seems ‘dipping’ with bread to begin with followed by soaking bread to make ‘soupy bread’ mouthfuls works a treat.

Of course if she had her way Toddler would live on Empire Biscuits and Luca’s strawberry ice cream. I’ve always had a sweet tooth so I blame me. In solidarity we try to restrict sweet treats to weekends.

Interestingly the last time I was in a gargantuan supermarket I noticed separate aisles for ‘healthy’ breakfast cereals and those for children. Why aren’t they the same thing? I shudder when I think back to how many bowls of Frosties I must have consumed as a nipper. Both my folks had false teeth so from an early age I was terrified into looking after my gnashers. Toddler is very much in a routine of brushing first thing and last thing.

Oh, and we negotiated our way through choc-o-tastic Easter without any worries. Wife-features happened to be paying her dentist a visit and his advice was brilliant, if somewhat counter intuitive. Apparently the damage is done to your teeth during the first few bites of chocolate. Once they’re coated any more chocolate you gorge on just goes down your gullet. If you try to restrict kids by spacing out their eggs and buttons over a few days it’s worse than allowing them to binge in one or two sessions. After all, they will fill up and often not finish what they’ve got.

So there you have it. Fill your face with as much chocolate as you can stomach. As recommended by an expert. I forget his name. But it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s Wonka.   

A Kid That Doesn't Cheat? No Kidding!

So it was Toddler’s 3rd birthday the other day and my Gran – that is Toddler’s Great Gran – gave her lots of lovely gifts including a very simple game: Snakes and Ladders.

It is often the simple things that occupy little people best. For example, Toddler has recently gone crazy for games of ‘driving’ that involve holding a plastic plate and being told to respond to imaginary road conditions. Speed bump! Red light! Pigeon poo on the windscreen! Inadequate reinstatement by utility contractor!

She also occupied herself for about an hour the other day putting tissues in a box, bringing them to us to see, taking them away to be removed from the box only for the whole scene to be repeated many, many, many times.

Toddler has perfected her Snakes and Ladders game – she now blows on the dice for luck before rolling it.

A recent game was taking ages thanks to several trips down a snake but eventually it looked like I would win. Fearing a wobbly bottom lip from a losing Toddler I hatched a cunning plan to give her a chance to get ahead. During a moment of distraction and after she’d just taken a turn I handed the dice back to her and said confidently it was her go. She looked at the dice, then me. The dice was pressed into my hands. No, Daddy. (Complete with a scrunched up face clearly implying my thickness.) It’s your turn. Come on!

No sign of corruption yet? Can she really be the daughter of someone who works in politics?

The Owl Has Landed

Not content with being the sort of Scottish Dad who says “put a jumper on” when Wife-features reaches for the thermostat and who mutters “it’s like Blackpool illuminations in here” when an empty room or hall is discovered bathed in light, I have installed an Owl.

It’s a simple gizmo that shows how much power your house is consuming. You attach a logger to the electricity meter (almost certainly in a place where you’re never likely to see the numbers going round) and can view the results on a device like a digital clock you can sit somewhere prominent like the mantelpiece or next to the telly. I hinted at one for Christmas and the missus duly delivered. I’ve only just got round to installing it and already I’m slightly obsessed.

To begin with I ran round the house turning things on and then off to see what difference they made to the Owl monitor’s readings. You can have it display whatever format you prefer so I’ve punched in our main tariff so it shows how many pence per hour we’re guzzling. Or not guzzling as it turns out.

The other morning I ended up stripping the Owl down, piecing it back together and scratching my head. Zero? Really? We can’t be consuming nothing I thought. But then it dawned on me – and it was dawn so my brain was a bit fuzzy – it was accurate. The radio in the kitchen uses batteries. Breakfast was cereal and orange juice so no toaster and kettle required.

Of course all that changed sharply when Wife-features jumped in the shower and I made a pot of coffee. (In the kitchen, not the shower. I'm not that water efficient.) Just boiling the kettle wheechs the monitor up to 61p per hour compared to about 1p for a lightbulb and 4p for the computer. It’s fascinating to see how the power varies during the washing machine cycle. That final spin it does really sucks the juice.

We recently got a new router (seems to be called a hub these days) for our broadband after a series of problems. It turns out I’m a doofus for not leaving our internet connection constantly switched on. I insisted that I’d rather not do this as it would consume unnecessary power. But the BT boffin assured me it would consume next to nothing. And indeed the Owl confirms that.

Without a doubt the big cost in our house is gas rather than electricity, especially over the winter. (And for the record, Daily Mail-reading Panorama-watching NIMBY climate denier nitwits, the rising cost of gas is due to the, er, rising cost of gas and nothing to do with incentives for renewables.) I wonder if you can get an Owl for the boiler?

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Dualling The A9 – The Downsides Being Swept Under The Tarmac

I’ll be hitting the road, Jack, next week. I’m hoping my trip up and down the A9 will be one of my last. Now we’re on a decent bus route and Toddler is a confident walker we really don’t have any need for the family jalopy. Next week’s trip involves the lugging of garden gear so the boot will come in handy.

There’s a mantra that if you live in the Highlands you need a car, and by extension if you want to get to and from the Highlands you need to dual the A9.

Latest estimates are the Scottish Government intends to spend £3bn on this bold promise.

And why are they doing it? To improve safety and boost the economy. Or at least that’s what supporters of the scheme tend to say.

But where is the evidence that an extra lane here and there between Inverness and Perth will ‘boost the economy’? And what does that mean anyway? Boosting the economy isn’t the same as closing the increasing gap between the least well off and the rich. Boosting the economy isn’t the same as ensuring sustainable skilled employment. And boosting the economy isn’t anything to do with protecting the fabulous environment through which dozens of miles of tarmac will be ploughed.

Safety? What’s wrong with average speed cameras? They’ve been used elsewhere with dramatic life-saving results.

I appreciate it’s going to be impossible to stop the dualling and in fact it’s heresy to hold a position other than agreeing the dualling is great news.

Even the Cairngorms National Park Authority is quietly in favour of it – at least they haven’t objected. This is the same authority that came out against the Beauly-Denny replacement pylons. If you look at the National Park’s Draft Plan it states: “The National Park will be a leader in sustainable rural transport. Infrastructure and provision will meet the needs of residents, businesses and visitors and strengthen the regional interaction of the Park. Barriers to transport and dependence on private car use will have reduced, helping to facilitate sustainable development.”

I wonder how creating a dual carriageway through the middle of the park is sustainable and how it will reduce dependence on the private car. Perhaps by ‘helping to facilitate sustainable development’ they mean open up land for more housing? 

Anyway, let’s examine the economic case. Research was conducted by the consultants Scott Wilson for HIE and Hitrans, in theory to support the dualling. But the fine details of the research are never mentioned. Here’s what they say:

“The stress of driving” on the A9 is a common complaint. (So why not make it easier for people to not drive? There is no guarantee a dual A9 will be stress-free!)

The research warns there may be some centralisation in major centres of local trade and retailing such as Inverness, causing smaller towns and villages to lose out.

Dualling may also drain low skilled employees south, harm the environment and discourage people from switching to rail in contrast with national policies which say we should be encouraging people to get out of their cars and use public transport.

Settlements bypassed may lose passing trade, rail is a real alternative if priced/timed competitively and there is a perception by some local companies that there is no need for dualling.

In the end the scheme is expected to reduce journey time between Inverness and Perth by 22 minutes by 2025. £3bn for less than half an hour? Is that value?

It is also worth pointing out this research only surveyed businesses not households. Interestingly businesses say the A9 is a minor consideration when it comes to where they locate.

95 per cent of business people surveyed travel by car and business travel accounts for a quarter of trips on the road. (In short, the £3bn is being spent on guys in suits who drive BMWs. Maybe we should ask them to chip in.)

The research also says the life science sector (Inverness Medical, etc) needs excellent access for international travel and the A9 and Inverness airport are critical for this. (In short we are spending £3bn to encourage driving and flying. How does this fit with our ambitious carbon reduction targets?)

But I keep coming back to the theme peppered throughout the research – the stress of driving. I know the A9 like the back of my white-knuckled hand and I can testify it’s an incredibly stressful road at times with idiots playing Wacky Races and sudden snarl ups caused by tourist coaches and caravans in the summer.

Surely the smarter answer is to crack down on the genitally-challenged speeders who do the dodgy manoeuvres and make it easier, more affordable and more pleasant for people to let the train take the strain.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Honest Toun’s Fair Trade Status Is Fairly Perplexing

Musselburgh’s proving to be a great place to fetch up. I am an East Lothian lad (specifically a Belter) so I’m a bit biased. Since moving here at the end of January we’ve been finding our way around and trying hard not to live off Luca’s ice cream. I may have to give in and start wearing elasticated breeks though – a branch of Mellis’ cheesemongers has opened a few doors’ down from us. The forces are conspiring I tell you!

There’s a great greengrocer on our street although sadly it seems to shut at 5.30 prompt. I got off the bus after work the other night at 5.45 and tried frantically miming “All I want is a bulb of garlic” through the window but was still asked to go away. I’ve long said the fight against the relentless march of the supermarkets would be slightly easier if some High Street shops stayed open during that crucial heading home from work period, even just till 6.30.

I had to trek all the way to the other end of town to the Tesco Monster to buy some garlic. (It was worth it – Wife-features’ pasta with garlic, crème fraiche and veg is super tasty.)

There are two butchers near us – bizarrely one stocks baskets of chocolate biscuits at the front door and has pre-packed Dutch bacon in the window, and was unable to supply a chicken pie when WF popped in the other day. The other butcher by contrast seems to be staffed by a young cheery lad who can tell you where the meat comes from in Scotland. Their pies look fresh and buttery-pastry-tastic and their pork bangers hit the spot with Toddler. That’s the one we’ll be returning to.

The aforementioned cheese emporium (actually it’s a fairly small concession but stocks possibly the tangiest richest Stilton I’ve ever had) also doubles as a posh wine and beer shop. I now live with a minute’s walk of cases of Black Isle Red Kite and Blonde, which is an improvement on the situation in Nairn which as far as I know still has no off licence.

I’ve also found myself popping into Earthy in Portobello on a Friday on the cycle home from work in Edinburgh. They stock brilliant bread. Of course the main thing you notice when you try to buy organic or Fair Trade is it can be a bit more expensive and these days money is tight.

But when I can I try to choose the ethical option, especially if it’s something I can’t get locally such as coffee or bananas. This may explain why a recent motion tabled in the parliament stood out for me…

Our new local MSP (I will miss bumping into Fergus Ewing on the streets of Nairn even though I spot him buzzing around the corridors of power at Holyrood several times a week) is Colin Beattie, whose constituency is Musselburgh and Midlothian North. He regularly puts down motions in the parliament praising all sorts – from cheering on the local rugby club and charity walkers to congratulating Dalkeith and Monktonhall Brass Band on winning second place in the first section competition at the Scottish Brass Band Championship.

It sounds like he has his finger on the pulse or at least would like to give this impression. But then I spotted a motion from him congratulating Musselburgh on achieving Fair Trade status. He went on to list “stores in Musselburgh that offer fairly traded products”, wishing them “success in growing their businesses.” I’d never heard of them but having only lived in the town for a couple of months thought I’d look them up to see what I was missing.

Here’s what I found. The six shops he mentioned were: The Small World, Just World Shop, One World Shop, Holy Tea Club, Equal Exchange Trading and Earth Squared.

Four of them are in Edinburgh city centre, one’s in Portobello, one’s in Prestonpans and the other is in Haddington.

I’ve asked the Scottish Fairtrade Forum how Musselburgh got its status. I’d love to see a variety of ethical retailers in my new hometown but at the moment the only place I can think of that stocks Fairtrade is the Tesco Monster, which rather defeats the point! I wonder what Mr Beattie was thinking? (Have you seen the motions your MSP is tabling on your behalf? The Better Nation blog often have fun with them.)

On a positive note I’m delighted to learn Burgh folk have been bitten by the Transition Town bug. Now that’s something worth celebrating.

Profits Galore! Is Whisky Growth Good For Scotland?

It seems hardly a week goes by without some good news about Scotch whisky to cheer us.

But for quite a while I’ve been nursing my dram and furrowing my brow and wondering why no-one seems interested in the reality. The quaint image marketed to the world bears no relation to what’s going on.

Whisky may be a simple blend of water and barley made in historic buildings in hidden glens and islands but it’s pretty much completely owned by foreign firms.

The figures that get trumpeted are usually export values – this is the price being paid, not the volume and not the value to the Scottish economy or local communities.

Today we learn annual profits for Pernod Ricard, owners of the Chivas brands, have remained steady at around the £200m mark. They own twelve distilleries including the wonderful cutie-pie Strathisla in Keith and one of my favourite sherry-Speyside malts Glenlivet.

Directors’ pay and bonuses went up by over half a million pounds, with one lucky chap (I’m assuming it’s a chap) getting a bump from 900k to £1.2m. Trebles all round!

As this recent excellent investigation by Colin Donald in the Sunday Herald showed only 16 per cent of the whisky industry is owned by Scots; the majority is split between a handful of multinational drinks and luxury brand firms. Jobs in the industry fell by six per cent in 2010 and volume of sales was down two per cent.

And there’s plenty of haziness (not induced by distillery vapours) around what these massive corporations pay in tax.

By contrast there’s increasing interest in craft beer, real ale and the idea of the local pub as a community asset worth protecting. Today’s news included a story about a wee Shetland brewery doing well. And we’re in the midst of community pubs month, organised by CAMRA.

Why do we make life easy for big business and not for small firms, who are more likely to support local supply chains, have a smaller environmental impact and recirculate profits in the local economy?

Here’s a cider producer in East Lothian making great stuff on a modest scale but facing a massive tax hike.

I for one will be considering who benefits from my choice of refreshment. It’ll always be hard to say no to a wee Glenlivet when offered but when it comes to lining my own drinks cabinet (younger readers should ask a grown up what that is) I’ll be trying to do it with products that don’t just line the pockets of multinational conglomerates.