9 October 2003

(S2O-610) Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003

9. Mark Ballard (Lothians) (Green): To ask the Scottish Executive how much funding is being made available to local authorities to ensure that they are able to develop the core path network, as set out in the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. (S2O-610)

The Deputy Minister for Environment and Rural Development (Allan Wilson): The local authority settlement includes £6.5 million for 2003-04, £7.4 million for 2004-05 and £8.1 million for 2005-06 to enable local authorities to prepare for and to implement the new access legislation, including planning a system of core paths.

Mark Ballard: The consultants' report indicated that, if communities are to get what they expect out of the land reform legislation, a figure nearer £340 million over 10 years will be required. How does the Executive intend to close that gap to ensure that—as Jack McConnell said this morning—speedy progress is made in that area?

Allan Wilson: Mark Ballard has certainly identified a fairly significant funding gap. I think that he perhaps misunderstood my original response. The sums of money that I explained are available are for planning a system of core paths. When we come to establish the core path network, we will have to consider the financial requirement for that.

The core path network will not be the only means by which we will provide wider access to the countryside. Many other funders are involved in providing that, including Scottish Natural Heritage. The core path network is an important means of providing access for people of differing abilities, but it is only one means by which we will provide wider access.

Pauline McNeill (Glasgow Kelvin) (Lab): Will the minister indicate when Parliament might be able to see the final version of the access code that is so vital to the operation of the important Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003? Does he agree that it is important that the access code reflects the Parliament's intentions and that we get to debate the access code before it is finally agreed in its correct form? Does he further agree that it is important that issues that have yet to be resolved, such as passage around farmyards, are finally and properly resolved?

Allan Wilson: I agree with those points. It is important that the access code is subject to the fullest consultation. It is only recently that SNH has completed its consultation. The matter will then come to ministers for approval and from there to Parliament for its approval. I expect that some of the issues about disputes over access rights to which the member refers will be covered in the local authority access forums that will be set up and will be designed to facilitate dispute resolution.

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I welcome the £22 million over three years that the minister has indicated will be available. I take it that the money applies to the consultation and the publishing of maps and so forth. Will the minister tell us how many miles of core paths the money will provide and what proportion will be existing rights of way? What further funding will be available thereafter to develop new paths?

Members: Ask the mayor of Sligo.

Allan Wilson: No, but I will get on the case right away. We will get out the maps and the cartographers to check just how many more core paths will be introduced.

I repeat the serious point that the core path network is but one means of ensuring wider and more responsible access to our countryside. We expect that in due course the entire countryside—excluding Sligo—will be opened up to wider access. I know that Stewart Stevenson will support those aims.

(S2F-268) Land Ownership

4. Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): To ask the First Minister what plans the Scottish Executive has to establish a publicly accessible and complete register showing land ownership in Scotland. (S2F-268)

The First Minister (Mr Jack McConnell): Scotland has had a publicly accessible register of land ownership since 1617, which is being replaced by a fully computerised and plan-based land register of Scotland. Land registration is organised by reference to the old counties of Scotland and the new land register has been operational in all those counties since April this year. Registration first takes place when ownership is transferred.

Stewart Stevenson: Is it smart that our current land register conceals beneficial ownership of a huge part of our land? Is it successful to allow that concealment to be used to avoid effective tax collection? Should Scotland's people be able to find accountable owners when they need to? Smart, successful Scotland requires transparent land ownership.

The First Minister: Stewart Stevenson raises two issues. One is about having a complete land register, towards which we are working. The register is added to when land is sold or transferred. In time, that will be a good asset for Scotland.

The second issue is beneficial ownership of land, which the land reform policy group has raised. In the previous parliamentary session, the Executive researched the subject and found that a strong case could not be made for implementing the changes that Mr Stevenson advocates. However, we will keep the matter open for consideration; I am sure that the matter will be discussed in Parliament over a long period.

Rhona Brankin (Midlothian) (Lab): Does the First Minister agree that, although compiling lists and directories of land ownership may be interesting, what really matters to people in Scotland is access to the countryside, regardless of who owns the land?

The First Minister: How the land is operated is just as important as how it is owned. It is also important that everyone in Scotland can enjoy the new rights of access that Parliament has created and of which we should be proud. One obligation that the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 created was on local authorities and others to create and maintain a system of paths throughout Scotland. We want to make speedy progress on that in order to ensure that everybody, regardless of their income, background or community, has access to the countryside and the open spaces of Scotland so that they can exercise and enjoy their country.

Colin Fox (Lothians) (SSP): The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations argues that the fact that vast areas of Scotland are owned by a few wealthy individuals, many of whom live abroad as tax exiles and refuse to free up land for housing, is a substantial and serious obstacle to providing social housing in rural areas. Does the First Minister agree with the federation and, if so, what does he intend to do about the situation?

The First Minister: One of the most significant things that Parliament has achieved is a shift in the balance of power, particularly in rural communities, by giving people new rights of ownership of the land on which they live. That measure has had opponents, but I am proud of it. Those rights, which have been overdue for many decades, now exist in Scotland.

I am not in favour of the compulsory transfer of land ownership; the right time to transfer ownership is when the land has been put up for sale. However, where ownership of estates has not been transferred and is in private hands, an important part of our strategy must be to achieve access to those estates to build homes. The new money that Margaret Curran announced this week in Stornoway for rural housing developments will be part of the package that will be considered for that strategy. The money will not be used only for new housing association and local authority developments, but for new developments on private and Forestry Commission Scotland land.

Donald Gorrie (Central Scotland) (LD): In addition to compulsory registration of land when ownership changes, will the minister consider looking back? I understand that the present register is seriously defective because existing owners have not registered. Could the law be extended to make such people register their land?

The First Minister: I have no doubt that there will come a point in the process at which that measure will be required for the last few pieces of land that will not have been registered. The process of moving from the old register to the new one in Scotland has been successful. The move has been done stage by stage, county by county and property by property during the past two decades. We must now look to escalate the process and ensure that property is registered whenever it changes hands. We must also consider a medium-term voluntary agreement by which people can register land, whether or not it has changed hands. Subsequently, at the end of the process, we must consider dealing through a compulsory scheme with the few remaining individuals who have not co-operated.

Brian Adam (Aberdeen North) (SNP): Does the First Minister agree that the option to purchase land ought to be registered, so that the potential beneficial ownership of land, particularly land that might be available for development, is clear and transparent?

The First Minister: We should try to ensure that things are as clear and transparent as possible, but we also need to act in a way that is seen to be reasonable by the public and which is reasonable in relation to the rights that people have over land that they own. That is why we have taken the absolutely right and radical—but not crazy or extreme—step of ensuring that when people sell their property, in certain circumstances they must give the community the first option to buy it.

I disagree fundamentally with the Scottish nationalist party and others, who insist that there should be a compulsory purchase scheme, under which the original landowners would have no rights whatever. That policy is fundamentally wrong, whereas our policy achieves the right balance between community engagement and the rights of those who own the land in the first place.

29 May 2003

(S2O-3) Scottish Ambulance Service

6. Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): To ask the Scottish Executive what progress has been made in reducing the amount of on-call work carried out by Scottish Ambulance Service staff. (S2O-3)

The Minister for Health and Community Care (Malcolm Chisholm): Last year, the Scottish Ambulance Service converted stations at Dunoon, Fraserburgh and Stranraer from part-time to full-time working. The service has a programme of reducing on-call work wherever possible and constantly monitors on-call hours worked.

Stewart Stevenson: Is the minister aware that the Scottish Ambulance Service's chief executive wrote to me on 10 April last year to give the commitment that Peterhead station would be upgraded to full-time working? Staff were told on 22 April 2002 that 10 staff would be recruited in the year ending April 2003. On 28 February 2003, the then Deputy Minister for Health and Community Care could not give me a date for full-time working at Peterhead. When will the Executive fulfil its commitments, give me a date and give the people of north-east Scotland the service that they need?

Malcolm Chisholm: That decision is properly for the Scottish Ambulance Service's chief executive. One of the service's priority stations for conversion from part-time to full-time work is Peterhead, but Mr Stevenson should remember the other significant changes that have taken place in the service in his area recently, such as the start of priority dispatch, joint working initiatives with the national health service and full-time working at Fraserburgh, to which I referred. He should also remember the significant developments in the service throughout Scotland, most notably the recruitment of 200 extra emergency ambulance staff in one year—last year—throughout Scotland.

Stewart Stevenson: That is a no, is it, minister?

The Presiding Officer: Order.

13 March 2003

(S1F-2575) Emergency Planning (Support)

4. Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): To ask the First Minister what additional support is being given to local government emergency planning officers to assist in responding to emergencies following the relocation of military personnel from Scotland. (S1F-2575)

The First Minister (Mr Jack McConnell): Emergency planning in Scotland is kept under constant review to ensure that Scotland is able and ready to deal with any emergency that might arise. When circumstances change, plans are adjusted by those who are responsible for them.

Stewart Stevenson: In an earlier answer, the First Minister said that several exercises had taken place in councils throughout Scotland. I understand that most of them were desktop exercises. I draw the First Minister's attention to the fact that the budget for emergency planning in local authorities is only just over half what the Executive spends on advertising. Does that not show that the Executive's electoral future has a higher priority than the safety of people throughout Scotland?

The First Minister: Apart from the fact that additional funding is available for emergency planning, quite frankly that was a silly question. It is nonsense to suggest that the Executive's road safety advertising and other such advertising has anything to do with the election. To say so demeans Stewart Stevenson and others who make that argument.

Dorothy-Grace Elder (Glasgow) (Ind): In the event of war with Iraq, has the national health service in Scotland made plans for the hospitalisation of wounded troops?

The First Minister: We all hope that that situation will not arise. If it does, Scottish hospitals will, as Dorothy-Grace Elder can imagine, play their part in providing the appropriate services that are needed as part of the national health service across the UK.

6 March 2003

(S1O-6568) Learn to Let Go

7. Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): To ask the Scottish Executive what the achievements of its learn to let go campaign have been. (S1O-6568)

The Deputy Minister for Enterprise, Transport and Lifelong Learning (Lewis Macdonald): The learn to let go campaign is designed to encourage people to consider a wider range of options when undertaking their daily journeys. Recent independent research indicates that it has been successful in raising travel awareness for significant numbers of people throughout Scotland.

Stewart Stevenson: Does the minister agree that, having spent £1.1 million over recent times, it is disgraceful that only now is he getting round to evaluating the research? Is he aware of research, commissioned by his own department, which states that advertising, however well designed, is unlikely to impact upon behaviour and that there is no evidence of it having such an impact? Does he recognise that the Executive has a serial addiction to spending our money on promoting its benefits and that it is the minister's party that must learn to let go over the next eight weeks?

Lewis Macdonald: An attack on advertising by the Scottish National Party is a fascinating political initiative.

I will set some of the facts straight, because Stewart Stevenson is clearly not aware of them. The research to which I refer includes research conducted by two different agencies; it was conducted in February 2001, October 2001, December 2002 and January 2003. I am sorry that he has only now got round to reading that research but, now that he has, he will appreciate that the campaign contributes significantly to our strategy of raising awareness about the availability of public transport throughout Scotland.

Mr David Davidson (North-East Scotland) (Con): Does the minister agree that the best way in which to get people to give up using their cars is to provide adequate public transport choices, particularly in rural Scotland? To that end, will he further the progress of the petition to reopen Laurencekirk station in Aberdeenshire?

Lewis Macdonald: I agree with Mr Davidson's point about the importance of rural public transport. I am glad to put on the record the Executive's contributions in the past few weeks, such as another £150,000 towards rural community transport in Aberdeenshire alone. Our contributions to scheduled rural bus services in Aberdeenshire are significant and, at the end of last year, we agreed to provide a further £2 million for the consideration of bus access from Aberdeenshire to Aberdeen.

The appropriate body, which is Aberdeenshire Council, is considering Laurencekirk railway station, and I look forward with interest to the council's conclusions.

20 February 2003

(S1O-6468) Aquaculture

3. Tavish Scott (Shetland) (LD): To ask the Scottish Executive when it last met representatives of the aquaculture industry and what matters were discussed. (S1O-6468)

The Deputy Minister for Environment and Rural Development (Allan Wilson): The Scottish Executive meets regularly with representatives of the aquaculture industry to discuss a wide range of issues. The last meeting took place on Monday, when the working group, which I chair, discussed the strategic framework for aquaculture.

Tavish Scott: I understand that the minister plans to publish the framework document in March. Will he confirm that he is looking at two specific areas, namely, a one-stop-shop approach for the industry for making applications and the need to bear down on costs as a result of the incredibly intense competitive pressures that exist, given the nature of salmon farming at the moment?

Allan Wilson: I confirm that both matters will be the subject of future consideration by the industry, the regulators and all the public bodies that are associated with it. On Monday, the working group agreed that in developing the framework, the issue of a one-stop shop should be revisited in around two years, after the transfer of planning powers to local authorities has been implemented. We are also in the process of developing research into costs to the industry and comparing costs and regulatory and other burdens with those in competitor countries.

Robin Harper (Lothians) (Green): Does the minister agree that, in the document in question, the time scales for the revision of locational guidelines are unacceptably long?

Allan Wilson: The strategic working group considered time scales, to which we are making a number of amendments. The locational guidelines are reviewed approximately every 18 months and have recently been reviewed. In the circumstances, I do not consider an 18-month time scale for further review to be unreasonable.

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): Does the minister recall that last year, the Danes caught 1.5 million tonnes in their pernicious industrial fishery and that a significant part of that catch was for the preparation of food for aquaculture? While I recognise that the feed sustainability study is already under way, will he tell us what progress is being made to develop alternative supplies of food so that white fish in the North sea do not starve and neither do our farmed fish?

Allan Wilson: We debated that matter at the most recent meeting of the Transport and the Environment Committee. It is critical that the sustainability of feed stocks for acquaculture expands as we hope it will. The problem with the science to date is that scientists have been unable to replicate the omega oils that make salmon in particular so nutritious. Research and development is under way at a global level to address such problems so that sustainable feed stocks from renewable sources can replace the wild stocks that are currently used.

30 January 2003

(S1F-2462) Fishing Communities (Support)

3. Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab): To ask the First Minister what measures are being introduced to support communities affected by the cuts in the fishing industry. (S1F-2462)

The First Minister (Mr Jack McConnell): On Tuesday, Ross Finnie announced the biggest ever package of transitional and structural aid for the Scottish fishing industry. Up to £50 million will be allocated to secure a sustainable long-term future for the Scottish fishing industry.

Rhoda Grant: Does the First Minister agree that we must protect conservation-led fisheries, such as those in Alasdair Morrison's constituency in the Western Isles, and in many more areas throughout the west coast of Scotland? Will he ensure that the west coast fisheries will be protected from ruinous displacement from other areas in the UK?

The First Minister: Yes. That is an important objective, which Rhoda Grant has raised with me on a number of occasions. We are working to ensure, preferably in agreement with the industry, that conditions are placed on the aid so that those who currently fish elsewhere do not move their catching to the western fisheries. It is important that we put that condition on the aid, because there is little point in our providing aid if the fishing effort simply moves west and causes problems elsewhere. The western fisheries are critical in the overall equation, although the package that was announced this week is largely for the north-east.

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): Does the First Minister recall European Council regulation 1263/1999? The regulation states:

"Community financial assistance may be granted for the implementation of measures in support of ... revitalising areas dependent on fisheries".

It also states that such assistance can be used for "innovative actions". Will the First Minister accept that fishing communities across Scotland are bitter about his redundancy plans for them and his manifest failure to tap into Community funds, while Spain gets money to build new boats that will be used to fish out our fish in years to come? Will he now ask for European money to save our communities?

The First Minister: I thank the member for his question and for welcoming me to Peterhead on Sunday afternoon—even if it was from behind the barrier. It was good to see him there.

There are a number of important points to make about the fishing industry. First, we must dispel the myth that there is some European Union money floating around that could have been applied for. That is simply not true. Had SNP members listened at all over the past fortnight, they would be aware that any reallocation of money within Scotland's overall fishing structural funds for the purposes that Mr Stevenson outlined would simply have led to a reduction in money for the fish processing industry. That would have been wrong.

This week, we announced the allocation of money over and above the amount that the European Commission was prepared to allocate for the Scottish fishing industry. That positive move compares favourably with the so-called recovery package that the SNP proposed this morning. The SNP says that it would scrap plans to spend money on decommissioning. However, that would simply result in a reduction in the number of days at sea for those in the north-east from 15 to nine, as outlined by the European Commission.

The SNP also says that it would maintain the industry's critical mass, but that would simply ensure that the North sea fishery stocks were depleted more quickly, thereby threatening the long-term sustainability of the industry. Moreover, the SNP says that it would provide fishery-related firms with rates relief, which it would take from the £50 million. We have made it clear that that money will be in addition to the £50 million. The SNP's recovery plan would not help the recovery of the Scottish fishing industry but lead to its decline. That is why the SNP plan will be rejected by fishing communities across Scotland.

Mr Jamie McGrigor (Highlands and Islands) (Con): First, I notice that £40 million of the £50 million on offer is for decommissioning. In other words, it is a redundancy package for the Scottish white-fish fleet. Does the First Minister honestly think that the £10 million left over will be anything like enough to cover the losses of the affiliated fishery workers and processors? Secondly, what is to happen to the boats that carry on? They will labour under 50 per cent cuts in their quotas and 50 per cent cuts in the number of fishing days. What will the First Minister's Government do to help those fishermen who are bravely trying to soldier on against the most appalling odds?

The First Minister: I will preface my remarks by saying that the cuts in quota are too deep and the impositions on days at sea are too severe. At the same time, it is vital to be honest about the matter, to face up to difficult decisions and to take the actions that will lead to a long-term future for the fishing industry.

The reality is that, if decommissioning does not take place, the majority of European Union member states will vote—it will happen automatically—to reduce the number of days at sea, possibly to even less than nine. If we do not reduce the take from the stock in the North sea, the long-term future of the industry will be less viable.

We need a balanced plan that ensures the industry's short-term future through aid, decommissioning and more days at sea than were originally proposed, attached to long-term action that will secure a more sustainable fishery. That is the right plan. Ross Finnie's announcement on Tuesday was right for the industry.

George Lyon (Argyll and Bute) (LD): Have discussions with the fishing industry begun? How will the £10 million of traditional aid be delivered to the fishing industry? When will the money begin to flow to hard-pressed fishermen who are faced with tying up on Saturday?

The First Minister: We will make the money available as quickly as possible. The Parliament will have to make the right approvals over the coming weeks. Discussions have been under way since December and those discussions will now become more detailed, because we know the overall scale of the package. I hope that we will be able to provide the aid in the near future, so that we can secure the temporary provisions that are required to see us through such a difficult period. I hope that, at the end of the day, we will have not only a stronger fishing industry, but a better set of decisions in Brussels.

The Presiding Officer: Because of the earlier interruption, I will take question 4.

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