Thursday, 28 February 2008

Audit Committee quizzes former Health Board Chiefs

Yesterday, February 27th, the Audit Committee from the Scottish Parliament heard evidence from the former Chief Executive of the Western Isles Health Board and from its former Chairman.

It may be of interest to certain people to read the official notes of this meeting on the website of the Scottish Parliament. I am not trained in financial management, but my understanding from 29 pages of questions is that the Committee was less than impressed.

I suggest reading through the minutes of the meeting and draw your own conclusions. In summary, attempts to gloss over past failings were not successful.

Monday, 25 February 2008

Western Isles Health Board

On Wednesday, 27 February, the Audit Committee of the Scottish Parliament will hear evidence from the former Chief Executive (Mr Dick Manson) and the former Chairman of the Western Isles Health Board (Mr David Currie) on the inquiry into the Auditor General for Scotland’s Section 22 Report on the 2006/07 Audit of the Western Isles Health Board.

This hearing will be relayed live on the Internet on this link. The Committee will sit in Committee Room 2 and proceedings will commence at 10 am. The deliberations of the Committee on the evidence by Mr Manson and Mr Currie will be held in private.

The Western Isles Health Board went through a turbulent period in recent years, after it ran up a £3.5m deficit and top management was presented with a vote of no-confidence from its staff. After intervention from the then Scottish Executive, a new management team was installed, but financial affairs have not improved. The vote of no confidence remains, apparently.

Saturday, 23 February 2008

Eishken Windfarm

This is the second major windfarm proposal on Lewis, and the metaphorical waters have been muddied severely in its case.

Beinn Mhor Power, the developers, initially submitted a planning application for 133 turbines on the Eishken hills. Following consultation, BMP agreed to slash the numbers to 53.

BMP subsequently submitted a proposal for 16 turbines, generating just under 50MW of power, as a subset of the larger project. The figure of 50MW of output is significant, as this means that Western Isles Council has the final say, not the Scottish Government as in the case of the North Lewis Windfarm.

Planning officials recommended the plans be reduced further by 3, and this was finally approved by Western Isles Council last Thursday. The proposal, under new legislation, is to go to the Scottish Government for final approval.

The 'piecemeal' approach is seen by some (including your blogger) as a way of sneaking in the large project bit by bit, circumventing the scrutiny of the Scottish Government.

Another added complication is the public inquiry, which is to be held into the whole Eishken Windfarm. There is a likelihood that the project will be commenced irrespective of the inquiry's outcome.

The Eishken Windfarm is seen as a threat to the visual amenity of the Harris Hills, which are part of the North Harris Area of Scenic Interest. They overlook the A859 Stornoway to Tarbert road from the tops of the hills on the other side of Loch Seaforth. The importance of this aspect was rubbished by some councillors. As were the claims by conservation body RSPB that the Eishken wind turbines were a threat to the resident population of eagles.

Friday, 22 February 2008

Road Equivalent Tarriff

I'll put my foot into another pan full of hot potatoes, this time good old RET.

RET means that ferry trips are charged according to the number of seamiles covered by the ferry, multiplied by 60p and augmented with a £5 surcharge. According to newsreports out today, this will cover all ferries TO the Western Isles. Note, not WITHIN the islands.

Although it is nice to anticipate that fares will be slashed by up to half, there is a sting in the tail. Calmac operates its ferries at an annual operating loss of £32 million. This is covered by government subsidies. If Calmac's fare revenues are decreased courtesy RET, you'd expect the subsidy to INcrease. Subsidies are ultimately funded by taxpayers, and, yes, that includes residents of the Western Isles.

I'm not totally sour grapes about this scheme, it should entice more visitors and businesses to the islands. And that might offset Calmac's reduction in revenue. Problem is that ferries have a limited capacity, and can carry only so many vehicles at a time.

Perhaps the Sunday sailings will now be introduced on the Ullapool to Stornoway route to make up for that deficit, yes, I can now see the reasoning behind this.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Windfarm application

Hebrides News tells us that Lewis Windpower, who want to build the North Lewis Windfarm, have been granted a few days' grace to further argue their case. Planners apparently will take a decision within 4 weeks. Don't think it's going to take 4 weeks to decide on the current staggered approach, which to me reeks of staggering desperation.

I do hope the Scottish Government hold their nerve and stick to their guns.

If their position remains the same and the application is turned down, I'd be interested to hear of the political repercussions. These should come in the shape of thinking caps being donned at Sandwick Road [Council Offices] to churn out alternatives to salvage the Western Isles' economy. Some ideas I just come up with on a Monday evening before supper.

1) whisky distilleries
2) investment in tourist amenities
3) support to help the Harris Tweed Industry back on its feet
3a) take the Harris Tweed industry into public ownership
4) call centres
5) tidal and wave power generators for local supply
6) take the Arnish Fabrication Yard in public ownership

With the amount of money already sunk into the Yard, it practically is in public ownership. And taking the Harris Tweed industry in hand gives the opportunity to supply the man from Keighley with the tweed he needs for his 5-patterned jackets at a competitive price.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Great Bernera

Visited Great Bernera last Wednesday, and returned with more than 170 pictures. I'm not going to put them all up, but here is a choice selection.

Fog drifting west out of Loch Leurbost, as seen from Cameron Terrace

Fog at Kirkibost

Rope and mussels on the pier at Kirkibost

House and boat at Valasay

Old and new, Hacklet

Valasay and Tobson from Hacklet

Anyone missing a float? It's on the beach at Tobson

Tobson Beach, choked with boulders

Landraiders' Memorial, at the Tobson junction

Little Bernera from Bosta Beach

Iron Age House at Bosta


It is reported that Lewis Windpower propose to mitigate the environmental impact of their windfarm by building it in stages. They would construct 30 to 80 turbines, then wait for a couple of years to assess the environmental impact. If it is not too bad, more turbines will be put up. This has apparently happened in the Thames Estuary, where the RSPB have pressed for a phased development.

To me this proposal does not make sense. It is like saying: "We all know stones sink if you throw then into a pond. If you let them in gently, they will sink, but perhaps not as harshly". The RSPB have declared that the Lewis Windfarm would be rejected anywhere in Europe, and is backed in that assertion by the EU Commissioner for the Environment.

Western Isles Council is set to approve a windfarm on the Eishken Estate, 25 miles south of Stornoway. The windfarm, numbering 16 turbines, is a subset of the 53 turbine windfarm currently subject of a planning application in front of Scottish Ministers. A local public inquiry is entangled in a row, after interested parties were not notified of a hearing into the proposal. Although the 16 turbines are subject to the same inquiry, legal advice appears to suggest that Western Isles Council can still give the go ahead.

I cannot comment on legal matters, but the way the Eishken Windfarm has been split up and subdivided (aye, a double positive) looks like a crude attempt at avoiding closer scrutiny by the Scottish Government, by proposing a windfarm which will generate less than 50 MW. Any windfarm below the 50MW threshold can be approved by the local authority, and Western Isles Council has shown itself to be unreservedly in favour of windpower, at all costs.

Friday, 15 February 2008

Windfarm application

Soaplady pointed out to me that today was the deadline for the windfarm developers to make further representations about their project. This follows an announcement on January 25th that the Scottish Government were minded to reject the application. A final decision is indeed not due today, but in about 2 or 3 weeks' time.

AMEC had their discussion with the Scottish Government earlier this week, describing it as positive.

I cannot gauge which way the decision will go. There have been forceful statements from industry in Scotland, saying that a rejection of this scheme will portray the country as closed for business. Another line was that environmental designations would stand in the way of any economic development. The first line has been borrowed from Donald Trump's proposal for a golf course in Aberdeenshire, and was used to lean on the Government at Holyrood. The second line was toed by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, who appear to have adopted the Special Protected Areas in the interior of Lewis without realising the full implications. Thirdly, the Comhairle have consistently hailed the windfarm as the one and only solution to their area's economic woes. The word diversification does not appear to feature in their dictionary.

Scottish Ministers have not shown great enthusiasm to the exhortations of the business community in this matter.

As I said, a decision will appear in 2 or 3 weeks' time; sorry I got the timeline wrong.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Two sleeps

and we will know our fate. Will Lewis be the foundation stone for 180 turbines, each standing 450 feet tall, stretching over 40 miles from Port of Ness to Bragar to Stornoway? Or not.

I am keeping an open mind, and await the final decision - with interest. The signals are interesting. The Chambers of Commerce were silenced by the Minister for Energy, for complaining that Scotland could not be seen not to be open for business. Unhelpful, was his verdict.

The business community as a whole has rallied behind the project. BBC News appeared to come from Cuddy Point on Tuesday evening - I passed the BBC vans on the way over the Bragar that afternoon.

Went to visit the War Memorial there, and was sorry to note that the lettering had already started to fade - quite badly, actually, at the top of some of the panels.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

War Memorials

Today, I had the opportunity to go round the West Side of Lewis, and took the chance to visit Tolsta Chaolais. This is a village between Breasclete and Carloway, tucked away off the main road. It has a war memorial.

As I was photographing it, a local man pointed out to me that the memorial features the names of 18 villagers who had laid down their lives in the First World War.

Why did 18 men from this tiny village have to die because an Archduke got shot dead in Sarajevo?

Need I say more?

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Visit to Borve

It was a cold but still afternoon, when I jumped off the Galson Motors bus at Borve to visit the War Memorial. This encompasses the villages between Galson and Ballantrushal, and even includes a casualty from the 1899-1902 Boer War in South Africa.

When you go there, you may experience a little difficulty reading parts of the memorial, as the lettering has deteriorated somewhat under the influence of wind and rain. Hint to the local community perhaps, to also do up the lettering on the memorial after they have finished the new Glen MacQuarrie centre nextdoors.

The name Glen MacQuarrie is taken from a ship that was thrown on the shore near the village on 31 January 1953, during a hurricane. This same storm infamously sank a ferry in the Irish Sea, claimed hundreds of lives through flooding in southeastern England and 2,000 lives in southwestern Holland after the dykes broke. The ship's crew were all rescued by breeches' buoy. One of the crew even married a local girl.

Taking the pictures only took a minute or two, so I ambled down the road in the village, which presented a pretty but wintry aspect. I also went down to the seashore before I headed back to the main road to rejoin the bus back to town.

Blackhouse at Borve
Blackhouse at Borve
Croftland between the village and the sea
Croftland between the village and the sea
Sheep in croftland in the village
Sheep in croftland in the village
Sheep along the Borve River
Sheep along the Borve River
View of the village from the river
View of the village from the river
Croftland along the river
Croftland along the river
Mealabost Borgh from the river, near the sea
Mealabost Borgh from the river, near the sea
Near the seashore
Near the seashore
Anyone for a paddle?
Anyone for a paddle?

Sunday, 3 February 2008


Friday's and Saturday's snow was gone by about 8pm on Saturday, and we're back to wind and rain. Here is a memory of the beauty of snow, as captured on Saturday on a walk around Stornoway Harbour.

Woodlands Centre
View over Cuddy Point
Tree in the Castle Grounds
At Cuddy Point
Cromwell Street

Friday, 1 February 2008

And there be light

I am unashamedly blogging out of area, by congratulating the people of Eigg for getting their own mains electricity supply sorted out. After decades of running to the genny in the middle of a hurricane, snowstorm or heatwave, there will now be a couple of wind turbines, solar cells and hydroplants that do the job. All 85 residents will benefit from the scheme.