Diary of an MSP
Alex Fergusson

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Farming despair

As a former farmer, you know things are not good when lorry loads of hay, straw and silage are still being carted round the country in mid-April. In terms of grass growth – a must for every stock farmer at this time of year – I can’t recall a later spring than this.

Mrs F and I visited our family in the USA for 12 days over Easter and would normally expect a frantic lawn-mowing exercise on our return. I don’t believe the grass had grown even a millimetre in our absence. In the farming world, that spells disaster.

And so it would seem. I get report after report of desperately thin ewes not having enough milk for one lamb, never mind two; of ewes “dropping” their lambs and just walking on and of countless numbers of stillborn lambs. The winter was bad enough, but the late snows in Galloway have been the final straw locally – not just for the stock, but for many farmers and shepherds for whom there is also now a growing personal welfare issue.

The Scottish government has announced some support measures. Given the scale of the problem in this part of the country, I am not sure it can be enough and, in this instance, I do not envy the Cabinet Secretary one bit.

Court closures

The Scottish government has accepted a report which proposes to close 20% of the sheriff courts in Scotland, along with 13 justice of peace courts. Having stated in parliament that he would study the report, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice waited a mere three days before announcing the government accepted the recommendations in full. If implemented, which seems likely, the courts in Kirkcudbright and Annan will cease to exist. How that squares with another statement by the Cabinet Secretary – that he believes in local justice – I don’t know.

Through constituency cases, I am very aware that victims of, and witnesses to, crimes are already put to considerable disadvantage and expense to play their part in the justice system, and I know of constituents who would be reluctant to participate in court processes again. So I was pleased to be able to take part in a recent debate on this subject and ask the Scottish government just how these closures would assist in delivering local justice. Answer came there none!

So hope now rests with the Justice Committee, which has the power to reject the proposals. Two speeches by SNP members of that committee in the debate suggested rejection could be on the cards. The outcome will be an interesting test of backbench resolve against government discipline. Time will tell.

Wild land and national parks

I was interested to see a report published by the Scottish Campaign for National Parks and the Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland calling for a national park strategy. The report states correctly there was never any recommendation that the two existing national parks should be the end of the process. I was convener of the Rural Affairs Committee which scrutinised the original legislation, and can confirm that. So it is calling for an agreed strategy, and recommends a further seven national parks be created, one of which should be in Galloway. Having pushed for that in 2003, I cannot possibly disagree.

What interests me further, however, is the increasing call for the protection of Scotland’s “wild land” – land untouched by man-made structures, which has reduced from 42% to 28% in just a decade. Even the First Minister has acknowledged that such a call has merits, although he seemed to confine his areas of interest to the Highlands.

National parks would at least provide some core areas of our stunning countryside with a measure of protection that does not currently exist. It is worth another look at this proposal.

Local investment and employment

European procurement processes too often result in large capital projects being undertaken by contractors with no local ties, with the result that the economic and employment benefits of the projects are lost to our region.

I was, therefore, delighted to be informed by Scottish Power that it is reversing that trend by recruiting local young people, who will be given appropriate training at Dumfries and Galloway College before becoming part of a local employee network that will undertake the massive infrastructure investment coming to Galloway over the next 25 years. No doubt some of the infrastructure change will be controversial, but I applaud this policy of providing local training for a local workforce.

Arts, culture and the environment

Since the demise of the Dumfries and Galloway Arts Association, there has been a certain amount of local turmoil surrounding the governance of this sector, which has been mirrored nationally by the unhappy birth of Culture Scotland. I can, therefore, only welcome the recent Place Partnership announcement by the Scottish government. It is a recognition that our region is innovative and leading-edge in this field and a significant grant, match funded by the council, will allow the development of a new local structure to take place. That is good news.

So, too, is the idea of a biennial festival linking arts and culture to the environment – surely a link we are ideally placed to forge here in Dumfries and Galloway. It can only make a positive addition to existing initiatives such as the Spring Fling and the Big Burns Supper, and enhance the growing reputation of the region. In this age of the internet, this will bring more people to experience it for themselves. That is a win-win.

School clusters

When the idea of clustering smaller schools to share a head teacher was announced, most people could see the sense in the proposal. However, a recent consultation by the council on clustering has taken many parents by surprise, as schools with rolls well in excess of 100 pupils and with good future prospects have been included. Not only that, but the exercise appears to be a fait accompli. Small schools that are in close proximity – yes. Others – no. I can understand the anger of many parents who feel they are being bulldozed into this change.

Stranraer development

So Nicola Sturgeon has visited Stranraer as chair of the task force and announced that Stranraer, with its derelict waterfront, has “great potential” and this is an “exciting time” for Stranraer. I have great respect for Ms Sturgeon’s abilities as a politician, but I think most people in Stranraer will find those remarks to be patronising. What Stranraer needs from the Scottish government is action – positive action that will result in investment in the town and the waterfront. Talk of excitement and potential is five years out of date.