Saturday, 28 January 2012

Shocking prom damage raises rail safety fears

the3towns this week reveals the shocking level of damage caused to Saltcoats’ East Promenade during the storms that battered the Ayrshire coast last December 28.

The following day, North Ayrshire Council closed the prom in the interests of public safety.  However, the3towns understands a Saltcoats resident has now raised concerns with Network Rail in relation to the integrity of the main Glasgow-Largs railway line, which runs adjacent to the promenade, immediately behind the wall in the two photographs, above.

In response, Network Rail state, “As with many other assets the maintenance regime is fit for purpose, within the constraints of our funding determination.  Site investigation is underway including underwater inspections which unfortunately have also been hampered by the severe weather conditions but are now being concluded. We have a team of engineers and designers working on repair solutions and site work will commence in the coming weeks. However, repairs will depend on a number of factors including results from our site investigation and access in any further inclement weather. In the meantime the promenade will remain closed for safety reasons.”

In October last year, the3towns revealed North Ayrshire Council had set-aside £50,000 for repairs to the East Promenade after it became clear surface maintenance of the road and walkway was the responsibility of the local authority.  Prior to this, the Council had believed Network Rail was responsible for all aspects of the sea wall and promenade.   At the time, NAC’s Corporate Director (Education & Skills), Ms Carol Kirk, said “the damaged surfacing presents a considerable risk to public safety,” and stated repairs were required “as a matter of urgency.”

With the further significant damage caused in the December storm, the Council and Network Rail will now have to liaise to co-ordinate repairs.

Saltcoats & Stevenston Independent councillor Ronnie McNicol told the3towns, “The decision to close the prom in December was taken jointly by the Council and Network Rail.  The Council is only responsible for the surface of the prom, but clearly the entire structure needs rebuilt in certain areas before surface repairs can be carried out.”

Cllr McNicol has asked NAC officials to ensure Network Rail is made aware of the urgent need for infrastructure repairs, so that the period of closure at the promenade is kept as short as possible.  Ronnie McNicol added, “As the prom forms part of the Coastal and Cycle paths, I’ve also asked that signs are erected showing an alternative route.”

Concerns were also expressed this week that a lack of general maintenance may have exacerbated the damage caused last month.  the3towns has seen copies of minutes from meetings of Saltcoats Community Council, dating from May 2008, where it is recorded that a Community Councillor raised with North Ayrshire Council “the poor state of the promenade between Saltcoats Harbour and Stevenston Shore.”  the3towns understands the Community Council were advised there were “two main problems to upgrading,” namely a lack of money and the fact the prom is owned jointly by North Ayrshire Council and Network Rail.

At a subsequent meeting of Saltcoats Community Council, in September 2008, members again highlighted concerns over the condition of the East Promenade, with minutes recording the view that, “the close proximity of the railway to the sea mean that passing trains could become even more susceptible to the force from strong waves,” and posing the question, “Would this area benefit from more sea defences being put in place to break up the tidal force?”

In a response to concerns raised by a Saltcoats resident, the Office of the Rail Regulator this week stated they were “not in a position to comment” on whether or not the damage evident at the East Promenade “may ultimately pose a threat to the safety of the operational railway.”

Council budget plans schedule cuts for AFTER election

Figures seen by the3towns suggest North Ayrshire Council’s Labour administration is hoping to go into May’s election on the back of a budget showing a surplus, but with subsequent years requiring multi-million pound cuts to balance the books.

Councillors are due to set the local authority’s budget for the financial year 2012-2013 at a meeting on February 1, with the ruling Labour Executive expected to present figures showing that, with identified ‘efficiency savings’, the Council could operate a surplus of £137,000.  However, documents prepared by officers within NAC’s Finance Department indicate the total projected deficit covering the next three financial years (2012/13-2014/15) runs to over £23million.

A Council insider who spoke to the3towns on condition of anonymity said, “This is a brazen attempt to buy the election on the part of Labour councillors.  What they are doing is pushing cuts into the distance, hoping they can get re-elected and then slash services after that.  Of course, if Labour doesn’t get re-elected to run the Council, then it would be another party or parties that have to deal with the multi-million pound deficit in 2013/14 and 2014/15.”

Meanwhile, the Scottish Socialist Party is demanding North Ayrshire’s councillors refuse to implement any cuts in February’s budget or in subsequent years of the next administration. Instead, the party insists councillors should set budgets to meet the identified needs of local communities.

The SSP began its ‘Defiance Campaign’ in Saltcoats last Saturday, where members of the public queued to sign a petition calling on councillors to stand up for local people and refuse to implement cuts to jobs and services.

Campbell Martin, the SSP’s candidate for the Ardrossan & Arran seat said, “The strength of support for our Defiance Campaign has been great.  Hundreds of local people have signed our petition and made clear they will not tolerate councillors imposing savage spending cuts.”

Mr Martin added, “Councillors are elected to represent local people, not to punish them by meekly accepting reduced funding from central government.”  

Reacting to the news that the Labour administration could be planning a relatively neutral budget with cuts to follow in subsequent years, Campbell Martin said, “On the back of last year’s Scottish Parliament Election, where Labour was hammered at the polls, the party’s councillors are facing a potential wipe-out.  This attempt to fool the public by kicking savage cuts into the distance won’t work.”

The former Councillor and MSP continued, “The SSP is calling on councillors to set ‘no cuts’ defiance budgets and to demand that governments in London and Edinburgh return to us the money they have slashed from budgets to bail-out failed private banks and financial institutions.”

The SSP ‘Defiance Campaign’ is set to continue, with street stalls in local towns over the next few weeks in the lead-up to North Ayrshire Council setting its budget.  Campbell Martin said, “We will continue collecting the signatures of local people demanding there should be no more cuts in this or subsequent years, and we will present the completed petition to North Ayrshire Council ahead of its budget meeting in February.  If councillors then ignore the voice of the people and pass a budget with cuts planned for 2012/13 and 2013/14, then they will have to face the consequences at the Council Election.”

In recent years, only local Independent councillors John Hunter and Ronnie McNicol have refused to back the Council’s spending cuts.  Both councillors recorded their dissent from budgets that have imposed spending and service cuts.

Unemployment rises - again

Unemployment in North Ayrshire is now so bad that official government figures show there are almost 32 local Jobseekers chasing every vacancy – the ninth-highest ratio in the UK.

The latest Labour Market analysis, published by the Office for National Statistics, reveals North Ayrshire continues to have the highest unemployment in Scotland, with 3,643 people on Jobseekers Allowance in December, a rise of 5.5 per cent in twelve months.  The number of local people unemployed for more than a year has increased by 35 per cent, with the figure for young people out of work rising by 10.7 per cent over the same period.

Local MP Katy Clark said the latest revelations show “just how much the Government’s cuts are hurting the people of North Ayrshire.”

Ms Clark continued, “For the vast majority of people out of work there are simply no jobs available.  Unfortunately, the damage being done appears to be long term with a frightening increase in the number of people out of work for over a year.  I have been warning the Government of the impact its economic policies will have for some time. Unfortunately, we are now seeing the human cost.”

Last week, Katy Clark raised the issue of North Ayrshire’s soaring unemployment during Questions to the Secretary of State for Scotland in the House of Commons.  With 1,060 young people (18-24 year-olds) out of work in the area, Ms Clark asked Michael Moore MP what steps he has taken to address youth unemployment in Scotland.

In response, the Minister said, “The Government have committed £1billion over the next three years to implement the youth contract. Our package of support includes wage incentives for employers to recruit 18 to 24-year-olds from the Work Programme and increased work experience opportunities for that age group. Other support is also available.”

In a follow-up question, Katy Clark said, “The Secretary of State is well aware of the rising levels of youth unemployment in North Ayrshire. What more does he think this Government can do at Westminster to increase public and private investment in North Ayrshire?”

Mr Moore replied, “I acknowledge the work that the Honourable Lady has done and the fact that we recently met to discuss this very serious issue.  It is important that the youth contract, which my Right-Honourable Friend the Deputy Prime Minister visited Scotland to discuss on Friday, is taken advantage of by people across the country. I look forward to coming to the Honourable Lady’s constituency in the near future to meet those very people so that we can discuss how to implement it most effectively”

Katy Clark confirmed the Secretary of State for Scotland will visit North Ayrshire in February, following her request for a meeting to discuss unemployment in the area.  Ms Clark indicated she hoped to “persuade the Westminster Government that they need to do more to address the rising levels of unemployment in North Ayrshire.”

North Ayrshire location for Life Sciences Enterprise Area

John Swinney MSP, Scottish Government Finance Secretary, has announced North Ayrshire is to be the home of a Life Sciences Enterprise Area, part of four national Enterprise Zones created in an attempt to use Scotland’s “most dynamic industries to create new employment opportunities, stimulate private investment and boost economic growth.”

Mr Swinney made the announcement while visiting the Irvine base of pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline.  The Cabinet Secretary was accompanied by local SNP MSP Margaret Burgess.

Scotland’s Life Sciences industries have an annual turnover of £3billion, and the North Ayrshire venture will be joined by sites in Moray, the Highlands, Edinburgh and Midlothian to make up the Life Sciences Enterprise Zone.  John Swinney said, “As a Government we are doing all we can to support jobs and create the best possible business conditions to achieve sustainable economic growth for Scotland.  Enterprise Areas are another means to help us achieve this and form a key part of our Government Economic Strategy.”

The Finance Secretary explained the reason for taking a sectoral approach was “to make better use of resources and target investment where it will be most effective.”  Mr Swinney added, “The aim is to have Scotland’s Enterprise Areas operational from April.  Scottish Enterprise will work closely with local authorities, as well as with the business community, to maximise the economic value derived from each.”

Cunninghame South MSP Margaret Burgess was delighted with the announcement, saying, “This is fantastic news that will bring real economic benefits to both local communities and Scotland as a whole.

“I am looking forward to seeing the impact the investment in Life Sciences will bring to Irvine and the surrounding area – bringing jobs, skills and putting it on the map as being at the forefront of developments in this important employment sector.”

MP condemns 'legal loan-sharks'

Katy Clark, MP for North Ayrshire & Arran, has warned locals against using what she described as “legal loan-sharks”.

The Labour MP spoke-out after a company offering ‘payday loans’ opened a shop in Saltcoats.  Outlets offering short-term loans at sky-high interest rates are springing up in areas badly hit by the economic recession, such as North Ayrshire.  People struggling to make ends meet are encouraged to borrow money to see them through to their next payday.  However, if the full amount borrowed, plus interest, is not repaid immediately, the amount rolls-over and the extremely high interest rates – ranging between 1,000 and 4,000 per cent – continue to be applied.

Katy Clark is a member of the Westminster Parliament’s Business Innovation and Skills Select Committee, which is currently investigating issue relating to payday loans as part of its inquiry into the debt industry.

Ms Clark said, “I am very worried that the opening of a payday lender in Saltcoats is an attempt to take advantage of the high unemployment and levels of deprivation that we have here in North Ayrshire.

“The majority of people who use ‘legal loan-sharks’ are those who are struggling financially and feel they have no alternative.  Recent figures showed that last year one-million people across the UK used payday loans to meet their housing costs.  This is very worrying, and the biggest concern is that people end up in a cycle of debt, not being able to meet their repayments and taking out further loans to cover them.”

Katy Clark criticised the Tory-led Government, which she said was ignoring pleas for action from worried Labour MPs.  In addition, Ms Clark pointed to local Credit Unions as an alternative source of funding for families who might be struggling financially.  “Not only would I urge my constituents not to use ‘legal loan-sharks’ to make ends meet,” said the local MP, “I would encourage them to become a member of the local Credit Union.

“Credit Unions do amazing work and I am very lucky to have one in my constituency, which is staffed by passionate and dedicated workers.  Credit Unions are owned by members and provide great help to those who are so often ignored by the traditional banking sector.  Their interest rate on loans is very competitive, they offer Christmas and Summer savings clubs and a fully functioning Current Account with no hidden charges.”

Ms Clark continued, “1st Alliance (Ayrshire) offers a great alternative to payday lenders and I would urge any of my constituents who need financial advice or assistance to go along to the Credit Union.”

Mary Ann Robertson, a Director of 1st Alliance (Ayrshire), added, “If people need a quick loan then we are a real alternative.  Our rate of interest is more affordable at 26.8 per cent and members get to save as well.  As a Credit Union we have settled payday loan accounts, resulting in savings in terms of interest and weekly repayments.”

The 1st Alliance (Ayrshire) Credit Union is based at 147 Main Street, Kilwinning, but staff also visit Saltcoats Library every Tuesday from 10am till 11.45am.

Students' mental health drama wins praise

Health professionals have praised a play that tackles the stigma associated with mental illness.

The drama, Inside Out, was written and performed by students from Ayr College and recently drew audiences to shows at the Harbour Arts Centre in Irvine.  Support for the work was provided by the Ayrshire Anti-Stigma Group and the Ayrshire Panel of Reference, a group comprised of mental health service users and carers.  The national mental health campaign group, See Me, helped fund the project.

The young writers, studying for HNC and HND qualifications, put together five short acts, which were described by NHS Ayrshire & Arran as “powerfully illustrating the experience of what it is like to live with mental illness and the stigma that many people may suffer”.   While working on the play, students met with service users, carers and mental health-related organisations in order to put together the scenes.

In addition to the run at the Harbour Arts Centre, the play has also been performed in schools across Ayrshire, receiving positive responses and feedback.

Commenting on the work, Lindsay Thorburn, Lecturer in Performing Arts at Ayr College, said, “Inside Out has proved itself to be a useful product and an excellent way of educating people in a non-traditional way.” 

The gritty portrayal of living with mental illness and the struggle to challenge the associated stigma has been supported by NHS Ayrshire & Arran, with the organisation’s Health Promotion Officer, Maggie Dhinsa, saying, “We need people to be able to talk about these issues and their experiences, to tackle the misconceptions and myths and support the road to recovery.  We must tackle this issue directly and this play is a starting point for an open and honest discussion.”

Katy meets with Palestinian leader

North Ayrshire & Arran’s Katy Clark was part of a group of MPs that last week met with Mr Mahmoud Abbas, President of the National Palestinian Authority.

Mr Abbas’ visit was part of a tour of UN Security Council countries as Palestine pursues membership of the United Nations.  Also on the agenda was a possible resumption of ‘official’ peace talks between the Palestinian Authority and the State of Israel, which currently occupies much of Palestine.  Previous high-level discussions were halted almost a year ago after Israel sanctioned further Jewish settlements on Palestinian land.  At the time, most members of the UN Security Council backed a resolution condemning Israel’s actions, but the motion was vetoed by the United States.

Speaking after the meeting at the House of Commons, Katy Clark told the3towns. “It was interesting to hear what Mr Abbas had to say on the prospects of peace in the Middle East.  Unfortunately, I fear that no lasting agreement can be found until all settlement building stops in the West Bank and Israel lifts its blockade of Gaza.”

Labour MP Ms Clark continued, “I believe the United Kingdom and the wider international community have a duty to speak up for the Palestinian people.  Unfortunately, a historic opportunity appears to be slipping away as the Government continues to refuse to back the Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations.”

However, Katy Clark believes a change of approach by the UK is still possible, including “tough measures to emphasise opposition to violations of international law by the Israeli Government.”  The change in Britain’s actions, said Ms Clark, should also include “an end to all preferential trade agreements with Israel and an immediate suspension of the sale of weapons to the Israeli Government.”

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Difference of opinion on independence referendum

The political divide between Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond and UK Prime Minister David Cameron over the proposed referendum on Scottish independence has a local dimension, with the SNP’s Margaret Burgess and Labour’s Katy Clark backing different options.

Ms Clark, MP for North Ayrshire & Arran, has urged her constituents to respond to the consultation published last week by the UK Tory-Lib Dem Government, which seeks views on the nature and timing of a referendum, what question or questions should be asked, who should be eligible to vote and which body should oversee the poll.  Meanwhile, Mrs Burgess, MSP for Cunninghame South, has welcomed the announcement by the SNP Scottish Government that the referendum will be held in the autumn of 2014, and has urged her constituents to join the debate on Scotland’s future.

Of the referendum, Mrs Burgess said, “This is a great opportunity to ensure the decisions about Scotland are taken by the people of Scotland.

“The last few days have seen the Tories, the Lib-Dems and Labour all try to muscle in on the referendum, so I welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to a referendum made in Scotland by the Scottish people and Scottish Parliament.”

The former leader of the SNP Council Group in North Ayrshire added, “It is also right that 16 and 17 year-olds should be allowed to vote in the referendum.  I have long shared the SNP belief that people who are entitled by law to work full-time, get married and pay taxes should have a say in how their country is run and in the future of their country.

“Our 16 and 17 year-olds should have a say in the biggest single decision for Scotland in 300 years. Our young people are our future, and they have a right to express their view at the ballot box.”

Concluding, Margaret Burgess said, “Above all, this is a matter for Scotland.  The people gave the SNP a mandate to run this referendum.  The Tories, Lib-Dems and Labour would do well to come to terms with that fact and respect the people’s decision.”

However, Labour’s Katy Clark believes local people should make their views known on a range of issues relating to the proposed referendum by responding to the consultation launched by the UK Government, which has legal responsibility for matters affecting the constitution.

Said Ms Clark, “The question of whether or not Scotland remains in the United Kingdom is one of the utmost importance. The outcome of any referendum will have a lasting impact on every single person living in Scotland.  It is therefore vital that everyone is able to voice their opinion on exactly how any referendum is carried out.

“I would urge anyone living in North Ayrshire and Arran who has strong feelings on this matter to respond to the Government’s consultation so that their views can be taken into account when decisions about how the referendum is to be conducted are made.”

The UK Government consultation will run until March 9th. Anyone wishing to submit views can do so by visiting the Scotland Office web site at http://www.scotlandoffice.gov.uk/scotlandoffice/16424.html

Controversy over Labour candidate selection

the3towns understands the Labour Party’s selection process for May’s North Ayrshire Council Election could be thrown into disarray after allegations that one selected candidate subsequently voted to de-select a sitting councillor.

A Labour insider has confirmed that former MSP Irene Oldfather took part in the vote that effectively de-selected Cllr Tom Barr.  Mrs Oldfather had already been selected as one of the Labour candidates to contest the Irvine East seat currently represented by Cllr Barr.

Speculation that the long-standing councillor might consider contesting the election as an Independent were dismissed at the time, with Cllr Barr publicly stating he would support those chosen to represent the party in his place.

However, the new revelations regarding Mrs Oldfather’s part in de-selecting Cllr Barr appear to open up an avenue of appeal for the man who is currently North Ayrshire Council’s Environment portfolio-holder on the ruling Labour Executive.  The party activist who spoke to the3towns said, “There is no dispute that Irene Oldfather’s selection was legitimate, but once she was chosen as a candidate she should not have had anything to do with selecting further candidates. 

“This is a matter of party rules and Tom has a very strong case for the vote that de-selected him to be re-run.”

Following the meeting that de-selected Tom Barr, the Labour Party announced it would field three candidates in the Irvine East seat which returns four councillors.  In addition to Irene Oldfather, the party also selected John Easdale, formerly Mrs Oldfather’s agent, and David Logan, who was a shop-steward at the Glaxo Smithkline chemical plant.

Current Irvine East Labour councillor John Moffat has decided to stand down in May.

The Council ward’s other two councillors are Joan Sturgeon of the SNP, and Ruby Kirkwood of the Liberal Democrats.

Shocking child poverty figures

New figures have revealed that almost 1-in-4 children in North Ayrshire are living in poverty.  The finding comes just weeks after the charity Save the Children found the local area now has Scotland’s second-highest level of children living in severe poverty.

The Campaign to End Child Poverty’s research, based on the number of households in receipt of tax credits, found 23 per cent of North Ayrshire children are experiencing poverty.

Broken down to Council Ward areas, the new figures reveal the area of North Ayrshire with the highest level of families experiencing child poverty is Saltcoats & Stevenston, at a shocking 35 per cent.

Local MP Katy Clark expressed her deep concern at the new figures, saying, “The number of children who are having their life chances jeopardised by living in households on low incomes is unacceptable.  Labour made real progress in bringing down child poverty during their time in Government but the economic approach by the current UK Government is only likely to make things worse by putting more people out of work.”

Ms Clark concluded, “I hope the Government now takes a long look at the impact their cuts are having on communities across the United Kingdom.  Unfortunately, up until now, they have not been prepared to listen to those affected by their policies.

“I am very worried that if a change in policy is not pursued, lasting damage could be done to the many young people forced to live in poverty.”

John Dickie, speaking on behalf of Scottish members of the Campaign to End Child Poverty, added, “It is shameful that in almost every part of our country there are children who are missing out and seeing their future life-chances seriously harmed.

“With public spending budgets under severe pressure, the need to invest to prevent a spiraling in the number of children living in poverty is greater than ever.”

SSP call for new Ardrossan railway station

Following last week’s revelation that Ardrossan Town station could be under threat as part of a Transport Scotland ‘reconfiguration’ process, Campbell Martin of the Scottish Socialist Party has called for the facility to be retained, and for consideration to be given to a new station serving the north of Ardrossan.

Ministers in the SNP Government have said the Rail2014 consultation does not include plans to close stations ‘at this stage’, but Transport Scotland documents accompanying the review indicate stations within one mile of another may be considered if closures are required.  Ardrossan Town is within a mile of Ardrossan South Beach and Ardrossan Harbour, both of which have higher usage.

Reacting to the news of a possible threat to the local station, Campbell Martin said, “I have responded to the consultation, pointing out that the two stations nearest Ardrossan Town serve two different routes.  The station at Ardrossan Harbour does not actually serve the town, it is used by people travelling-on by ferry to Arran, while South Beach is the only Ardrossan station on the Glasgow-Largs line.

“I’ve also made the national transport body aware of the fact that South Beach is more accessible for parts of Saltcoats than much of Ardrossan.”

Mr Martin, a former MSP and councillor, added, “Ardrossan Town is the closest station for hundreds of people living in the south of Ardrossan, but if they are travelling to West Kilbride, Fairlie or Largs, then they have to go to South Beach.  Both stations provide a distinct service and make public transport more accessible.”

Continuing, the SSP candidate for Ardrossan & Arran said, “In my response to the Rail2014 consultation, I’ve suggested that rather than considering the possible closure of Ardrossan Town, Transport Scotland should be looking at the possibility of creating a new station on the Glasgow-Largs line, to serve people living in the north of Ardrossan.  There is land near Dalry Road that could possibly accommodate a platform.”

Mr Martin concluded, “If Transport Scotland is looking to increase the number of people using the train, then they need to make it easier for people to get to stations.  South Beach, Ardrossan Town and Ardrossan Harbour serve different routes and areas of population, and all should be retained.  In addition, to serve the large population in the north of Ardrossan, rail authorities should look at providing a new stop, even if it only comprised of a platform rather than a full station.” 

1-in-4 households have no work

Hot on the heels of new figures on the level of child poverty in North Ayrshire, a trade union has found a staggering 12,700 households in the area now have no-one in employment.  The figure translates to 27.6 per cent, compared to the Scottish average of 20.9 per cent and 18.9 per cent for the UK.

The GMB union, which compiled the figures, called on local politicians to demand action from the UK Government.  Harry Donaldson, GMB regional secretary for Scotland, said, “The areas with the highest levels of households without work are those that were first devastated by the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s. They have never properly recovered.”

Mr Donaldson continued, “It is high time Scotland’s politicians at local and national level demanded a change of approach.

“The first step is to stop the public sector job cuts that are already in the pipeline.  Policies that increase employment are the only surefire route to recovery.  The sooner we start on a new course the better.”

Burgess slams 'payday' loan companies

Local MSP Margaret Burgess, a former manager of Citizens Advice Bureau Scotland, has called for UK Government action to tackle the scandal of ‘payday’ loan companies who charge interest of as much as 4,000 per cent.

Mrs Burgess spoke-out after leading a Scottish Parliament debate on the damage done to families and communities by loan companies who charge sky-high rates of interest.  The debate, on a motion lodged by Mrs Burgess, saw cross-party condemnation of ‘payday’ loan practices.

Payday lending involves the borrower giving authority to a loan company to make an automatic withdrawal from their bank account as security for what is advertised as a ‘short-term’ loan repayable with interest on the borrower’s next pay day.  However, if there are any problems and the full amount, including interest, is not repaid as scheduled, the loan rolls-over, and can continue rolling-over again and again, with the very high interest rates leading to costs steeply rising.

Speaking to the3towns, Margaret Burgess said, “We all know these companies are targeting the vulnerable and low-paid.  In my view, that is usury and exploitation.

“The advice to people thinking of a pay day loan is this: do not take it out.  We cannot allow people to be trapped in a system that offers them little protection and inadequate access to affordable credit.  Regulation is needed and it is needed now.”

Mrs Burgess added, “We need to protect financially vulnerable people from this type of high-interest borrowing and unmanageable debt, while at the same time ensuring that they have access to good money advice and affordable credit.”

As an example, the SNP MSP cited local credit unions as an excellent source of financial advice and support, saying, “I give the example of the 1st Alliance (Ayrshire) Credit Union in Kilwinning, which, like other credit unions, encourages saving and offers a range of services including current accounts, bill paying, low-cost credit and emergency loans.  It also works innovatively with the local authority and money advice services in tackling rent and mortgage arrears, thus preventing eviction and homelessness.”

Council tenders for Business Gateway services

Figures produced by North Ayrshire Council, ahead of the local authority tendering for ‘Business Gateway support to pre and post start-up businesses’, show the yearly number of new companies formed in the local area has dropped by over 100 since 2008/09.

Four years ago Business Gateway helped 264 entrepreneurs start new ventures, but by 2011/12 that figure had dropped to just 160.

In 2006 the SNP Government instructed Scottish Enterprise to revise the Business Gateway service and subsequently awarded a five-year contract to deliver amended services from October 2007 until September 2012.
Responsibility for delivery of the Business Gateway contract transferred from Scottish Enterprise to local authorities in April 2008.  Since then, on behalf of the three Ayrshire authorities, North Ayrshire Council has been responsible for the management and delivery of the Business Gateway operation.

A report for this week’s meeting of NAC’s ruling Labour Executive will hear officers have held meetings with other lead councils and the Confederation of Scottish Local Authorities (CoSLA) regarding re-tendering business start-up and support services in Ayrshire.  Councillors will be told, “During recent difficult economic times, a number of measures have been implemented to provide extra support to companies in order to survive and potentially thrive beyond this current recession.  These measures have included the implementation of additional aftercare support which provides companies with advisory support in order to carry out a business review that will assess their current position and highlights areas for improvement or development.”

An area giving cause for concern relates to the number of VAT-registered companies operating in North Ayrshire.  In the last year (2011/12), Business Gateway had a target of creating 60 such business, but delivered just 18.

Monday’s meeting of the Labour Executive will be asked to approve a tendering process for the procurement of Business Gateway Services in collaboration with East Ayrshire Council and South Ayrshire Council.

Ardrossan to pilot new rail barriers

Ardrossan is to pilot new barriers at railway level-crossings.

Network Rail has announced the trial, which could see barriers fitted to 23 level-crossings across Scotland, at an average cost of £100,000.  The two Ardrossan sites – where tracks cross Princes Street and Harbour Street – are the only ones located outside of the Highlands.

Last July the3towns revealed an investigation into the safety of open level-crossings protected only by traffic-light signals had recommended upgrades, including the fitting of barriers at the two Ardrossan sites.

The enquiry, carried out by the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB), followed a 2009 accident at an open level-crossing near Halkirk, Caithness, which involved a collision between a car and a train.  All three occupants of the car were killed.

In Ardrossan the railway level crossings were formerly fitted with automatic barriers, but they were removed in the early 1990s.  Flashing traffic-signals and klaxon-type alarms now warn road users of an approaching train.  The crossing at Princes Street has seen a number of collisions between vehicles and trains, including in 1998 and 2001.  In addition, following the fitting of cameras, a number of local motorists were reported to the Procurator Fiscal for driving through the crossing after warning signals had commenced.

Commenting on the decision to fit barriers to the Ardrossan crossings, Network Rail route managing director for Scotland, David Simpson, said the organisation was committed to enhancing safety on railways, adding, “We are also investing in other additional safety measures such as police CCTV monitoring vans and additional fixed cameras for level crossings to deter driver misuse."

Saturday, 14 January 2012

100mph winds cause Three Towns havoc

The Three Towns were again battered by severe storms over the past week, with winds approaching 100mph recorded.

Last Monday (January 2) the Met Office issued an ‘Amber’ warning of impending wind and rain.  The colour-coding was recently introduced by the National Severe Weather Warning Service (NSWWS) to make the level of danger easier to understand for the general public.  An Amber alert means the public should ‘be prepared’ for possible disruption caused by the weather.  However, it appears the Met Office underestimated the strength of winds heading our way from the Atlantic – the warning was hurriedly upgraded to the most severe ‘Red’- meaning action was required to stay out of danger -  at 8:30 on Tuesday morning, by which time severe storms were already battering the Ayrshire coast.

The fact Tuesday was the last day of the New Year holidays helped reduce the risk to the public, with most people able to stay at home rather than have to travel to work.

By late afternoon on Tuesday the worst of the wind and rain had moved on from Ayrshire, but the storms returned again on Wednesday evening, with reports of gusts topping 90mph and causing further damage in the local area.

In the calm of Thursday morning the full extent of the storm’s impact became apparent.  Many houses in the Three Towns suffered damage to roofs, while road-signs and trees were blown over.  Exposed areas, such as Ardrossan Harbour, saw severe damage to walkways and railings (see photos below).


Fears for Ardrossan Town station

SNP Transport Minister Keith Brown has denied there are plans to close the Ardrossan Town railway station. 

Fears emerged after the local station was flagged-up for consideration of possible closure in a Transport Scotland document called Rail2014.  As part of an ongoing public consultation, the national transport body has highlighted stations that are within one mile of another. 

Reacting to concerns, Keith Brown said, “There are no plans to close any stations, at this stage, and the consultation provides options, not proposals.” 

Transport Scotland added, “Rail users and stakeholders are being asked to play their part in shaping Scotland's rail services with passenger interests at the heart.

“In 2014, both the current contract for rail passenger services (ScotRail) and the funding arrangements for Network Rail in Scotland are due to come to an end and new arrangements have to be in place. This consultation is a crucial part of our considerations.”

The Rail2014 document highlights Ardrossan Town is within one mile of stations at Ardrossan South Beach and Ardrossan Harbour, and records the Princes Street facility has no car park, no taxi rank, no bus service directly linked to train times, no ticket office and no self-service ticket machine.

John Hunter, Ardrossan’s Independent councillor, told the3towns he will strongly oppose any plans to close the Town station, saying, “Ardrossan has lost so much already.  We need an increase in facilities and infrastructure, not a reduction.”

Local people can respond to the Rail2014 consultation by visiting the Transport Scotland website or e-mailing rail2014@transportscotland.gsi.gov.uk