Saturday, 29 September 2012

Council receives schools merger funding

Highly-controversial plans to merge Ardrossan Academy and Auchenharvie Academy took a major step forward today (September 26) with the announcement that the SNP Scottish Government is to provide North Ayrshire Council with £22.5m towards the £42m cost of the project.

the3towns revealed in June that the local Council’s new SNP administration planned to merge the Ardrossan and Stevenston secondary schools into one ‘Three Towns’ campus, which would also be the new home to pupils from two special needs facilities – Adrossan’s James McFarlane School and Haysholm School in Irvine.

At the time, a Council statement said no location for the new campus would be decided until Scottish Government funding had been confirmed – which it now has – and until all stakeholders had been consulted regarding the plans.  However, a timescale of the new campus being operational by August 2016 was also set-out in a Council report.

Reacting to the news that the Scottish Government would provide £22.5m to allow the merged campus plan to go ahead, Cllr Tony Gurney, SNP Cabinet member for Education, said “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a state-of-the-art new school.”

Mr Gurney added, “The opportunity to invest more than £40m in our young people is too important to pass up.

“Securing this funding is a major step in the proposal to develop a modern campus that will provide the best possible facilities in a modern learning environment.”

Now that the offer of Government funding has been confirmed, Tony Gurney said the Council will “speak to parents, pupils, staff and the wider school communities to listen to their views on this ambitious campus project before any decisions are made,” adding, “We want to make sure that the campus caters for the needs of the community and listening to people is the best way to ensure this happens.  There will be extensive consultation and plenty of opportunities for people to be involved.”

Of plans to include pupils from James McFarlane and Haysholm in the new campus, Cllr Gurney said a purpose-built facility for children with complex needs would include access to health and care support for the youngsters and their families.

Mr Gurney, who represents the Ardrossan & Arran Ward on North Ayrshire Council, reiterated his belief that the proposed mergers represent “an exciting project and a unique opportunity to access funding for a modern and inclusive schools campus [that will] create a real hub for the community as well as a learning environment designed to meet the aspirations of our young people as they grow up in a rapidly changing world.”

However, many local residents fear the creation of a Three Towns campus could result in the demise of Ardrossan Academy, which has a history dating back to 1882.  The idea of one ‘super-school’ for all non-denominational secondary pupils in the Three Towns area is also likely to see opposition on the grounds of educational attainment and the practicalities of pupils making their way from Ardrossan to Stevenston or vice versa. 

Following the controversial merger of St Andrew’s Academy in Saltcoats and St Michael’s Academy of Kilwinning into the St Matthew’s Academy campus, pupils’ overall exam pass-marks fell significantly. 

Although there is speculation that the most likely site for a new merged campus would be Council-owned land at Auchenharvie – with the Ardrossan Academy site sold-off for development – a Council insider told the3towns, “That decision has not been taken and there is as much chance of the new school being in Ardrossan as there is of it being at Auchenharvie.  No decision will be taken about the location until parents, pupils and staff have been fully consulted.”

Parents of pupils at Ardrossan Aacdemy have previously told the3towns that consultation should not be limited to where a new school is located, but should also include “whether or not the schools should be merged at all”.

Auchenharvie artwork unveiled

A new public artwork has been unveiled by North Ayrshire Provost Joan Sturgeon.

The piece - which incorporates seating and sculpture – was designed by local schoolchildren from Auchenharvie Academy and Ardeer Primary with assistance from professional artist Justin Wilson.  The project is intended to represent the Three Towns of Ardrossan, Saltcoats and Stevenston.

Provost Sturgeon said, “The creation of the artwork has been a real community project.  Hopefully it will become a local landmark – part of the community, designed by the community.

“The young people who were involved in the project have clearly been inspired by working with a professional artist, and it’s great for them to be able to see their ideas become a reality.”

The local pupils took part in workshops at their schools and visited Justin’s studio to help design the artwork.  Mr Wilson has previously created sets for stage productions, as well as working in TV and film.

The new piece of art forms a focal point of the Auchenharvie Leisure Centre, which re-opened last year after a £3.9m facelift by North Ayrshire Council.

A film created by the young participants showing the design process was screened as part of the unveiling ceremony.

Burgess rebuts Labour attack

Local MSP Margaret Burgess has slammed a Labour opponent over comments posted on a website.

Following the promotion of Mrs Burgess to Minister for Housing in the SNP Scottish Government, West of Scotland Labour MSP Margaret McDougall used her website to demand more housing in North Ayrshire.  However, Margaret Burgess responded by pointing out the SNP’s impressive record on house-building compared with the period in which Labour was in power.

Referring to Mrs McDougall’s comments, Margaret Burgess said, “This is the usual unrelenting Labour negativity.  In this silly attack Mrs McDougall seems to want additional houses built in my first week in my ministerial post.  But, in reality, she knows full well that on housing this SNP Scottish Government has a solid record of achievement in the midst of a recession, and a record that is a massive improvement on the previous Labour administration.”

In the eight-years Labour led the Scottish Executive, between 1999 and 2007, only six council houses were built in the whole of Scotland.  Mrs Burgess noted that, during this period, not one council house was built in North Ayrshire.  Said the SNP MSP, “This was a time when Labour was in power in Edinburgh, in London and on the local Council – and Margaret McDougall was a Labour councillor in North Ayrshire.”

Since coming to power in 2007, the SNP Scottish Government has embarked on a nation-wide house-building programme, which, Margaret Burgess points out, “Has seen many-times more houses built in North Ayrshire than Labour constructed in the whole of Scotland.”

The Cunninghame South MSP continued, “Only this week the Scottish Government’s budget pledged a further £40m for affordable housing in 2012/13 and 2013/14.  That’s on top of the SNP Government’s proud record on housing - between 2007 and 2011 we invested £2.3bn in Scotland.”

 Mrs Burgess said, “If Labour really wants a Scottish Government to stop the damage from Westminster’s welfare reforms, they would join the ‘Yes to Independence’ campaign so that all the spending decisions affecting Scotland can be made here, in Scotland.”

Labour MSP Margaret McDougall was surprisingly elected to the Scottish Parliament in 2011 when the party received ‘top-up’ List members after its main candidates were defeated by the SNP in many West of Scotland constituencies.  During her time as a Labour councillor in North Ayrshire, Mrs McDougall claimed expenses for attending armistice parades held to remember those who gave their lives in time of war. 

Tense exchange over 'inaccurate' Council minutes

Last week’s meeting of North Ayrshire Council saw Independent councillor John Hunter take the highly-unusual step of declining to ‘move’ minutes of the committee he chairs.

Cllr Hunter is convener of the powerful Scrutiny & Petitions Committee and it is normal practice for full Council to approve minutes as being an accurate reflection of what took place at a meeting.  However, when the Scrutiny minutes were raised for approval last Wednesday (September 19), John Hunter sought clarification from Labour Group Leader Peter McNamara regarding comments made by Labour councillor Alan Munro at the Scrutiny meeting held on August 29.

The issue related to Cllr Munro having claimed to be speaking on behalf of the Labour Group when he challenged Cllr Hunter’s legitimacy and impartiality as chair.  The Labour councillor – notorious for claiming mileage for five meetings he didn’t actually attend – asserted that John Hunter, rather than being an Independent, was a supporter of the Scottish National Party.  Council rules state that the convener of the Scrutiny Committee must not be a member of the political party that forms the local authority’s administration, which since last May has been the SNP.

Despite being challenged repeatedly by Cllr Hunter to provide any evidence to support his allegation, Cllr Munro was unable to do so, and declined to withdraw his baseless attack.  In fact, compounding his outrageous behaviour, the Labour councillor demanded his outburst be minuted.

John Hunter has never been a member of any political party and since 2007 has represented the people of Ardrossan & Arran as an Independent councillor.

At the full Council meeting, Cllr Hunter said, “Cllr Munro, claiming to speak on behalf of the Labour Group, challenged the legitimacy of my appointment as chair of the committee and asked for his comments to be minuted.  What followed was a rancorous and groundless attack on my impartiality as chair.”  The Independent councillor then asked whether or not Alan Munro had, as he claimed, been speaking on behalf of the Labour Group when he made his unsubstantiated attack at the Scrutiny Committee, but Labour Leader Peter McNamara declined to answer.

Despite both Cllr Hunter and Cllr Munro requesting that the Labour man’s comments at the August 29 Scrutiny meeting were accurately recorded, the official minute simply read, “There was discussion on the appointment of the Chair prior to the commencement of business.”  Cllr Hunter made clear he considered the minute was therefore not a true and accurate reflection of what had taken place and, as such, declined to propose them for approval by Council.

The minutes, unamended, were finally proposed by the Labour deputy convener of Scrutiny, Cllr Alex Gallagher, and seconded by Alan Munro.

McNicol nails Labour Town Hall claim

Sharp words were exchanged in the Council chamber last week when a Labour councillor claimed he would be looking for money for Saltcoats Town Hall.

Jim Montgomerie made the comment during a discussion over Council plans to spend millions of pounds on a new leisure complex in the centre of Irvine, which would include a substantial upgrade of the ageing Town House.

Saltcoats & Stevenston Independent councillor Ronnie McNicol had contributed to the discussion by raising concerns over the amount of public money being made available to Irvine, while the towns he represents continue to struggle for resources.  Cllr McNicol said, “I’m not against a new leisure centre, but there’s £16m for a new Magnum, funding for the Trinity Church and the Bridgegate, and now more to upgrade a dilapidated, crumbling, rotting building.  There is approximately £25m being spent in Irvine and you will be lucky if there is £6m for other towns in North Ayrshire.”

Following this, Cllr Montgomerie, who also represents Saltcoats & Stevenston, said, “We have another crumbling building in Saltcoats [the Town Hall] and I’ll be looking for money for that too.”

Cllr McNicol immediately responded, “I’ve been fighting for the Town Hall for years and managed to secure £1.9m.” Then, calling across the chamber to Cllr Montgomerie, Ronnie McNicol challenged, “How much did you get?”

Prior to the Council Election in 2007, Labour councillors promised a £3.1million refurbishment of Saltcoats Town Hall.  That sum was reduced in 2008 to £1.9million, and then to zero.  Labour closed the facility in 2009. 

At last February’s meeting of NAC, while the local authority was still being run by a Labour administration, Cllr McNicol, seconded by the SNP’s Willie Gibson, was able to secure a commitment – and an indicative sum of £1.9million – to refurbish Saltcoats Town Hall.

Initial works to address problems at the historic Countess Street building commenced in August, with the project to include re-roofing and an inspection of the internal ceilings.

Council passes pro-nuclear Motion

SNP-run North Ayrshire Council is to write to the SNP Scottish Government advocating a presumption in favour of a new nuclear power station at Hunterston – despite the SNP being anti-nuclear and the government already having stated it would use planning legislation to prevent any such development.

The ridiculous situation arose at last week’s Council meeting when a pro-nuclear Labour Party Motion scraped through with a majority of one-vote.

Proposed by North Coast councillor Alex Gallagher and seconded by Peter McNamara (Ardrossan & Arran), the Motion read:  “That this Council writes to the Scottish Government requesting that the presumption in favour of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) power generation at the Hunterston site be removed, and that a presumption in favour of Nuclear Power Generation at Hunterston (Hunterston C) be inserted into the NPF [National Planning Framework].”

Speaking to his Motion, Cllr Gallagher asserted nuclear was “clean power” and that “while renewable targets are admirable, they are not the answer.”  The Labour councillor claimed, “The answer to future energy needs is nuclear, and by creating a Hunterston ‘C’ we would b securing good-quality, high-value jobs.”

Supporting his Labour colleague, Peter McNamara asserted “Seventy-percent of the workers at Hunterston live in Ardrossan,” adding that the town has “high levels of poverty and deprivation, which would be made worse if the power station closed.”

SNP Deputy Group Leader, Cllr Alan Hill (North Coast), responded by accusing the Labour Party of “gesture politics”, pointing out the Council had no power to change the National Planning Framework.

Veteran SNP councillor Matthew Brown added that no energy company had any plans to build a new nuclear station at Hunterston, while “Japan has taken the decision to close all of its nuclear plants, and Germany is closing theirs as fast as they can.”

Adrossan & Arran SNP councillor Tony Gurney made the point that nuclear “can hardly be called green when it takes millennia for waste to be made safe”.

Concluding for the SNP, Council Leader Willie Gibson said, “There is no support for new nuclear stations.  Alex Gallagher’s Motion is simply an attempt to embarrass the SNP and even his own Labour colleagues looked bored while he was speaking.”

On a vote, the Motion was passed by 15 to 14: The 11 Labour councillors received additional support from the one Tory, Tom Marshall, and three independents - Liz McLardy, Robert Barr and Robert Steel.

Praise for pupils' exam passes

Cllr Tony Gurney, North Ayrshire Council’s Cabinet member with responsibility for Education, has welcomed “some of the best exam results ever achieved by local pupils.”

This year’s results saw 76 per cent of fourth-year pupils achieve five or more Standard Grades at general level or equivalent awards – the strongest-ever performance at that level.  In addition, 42 per cent of fifth-year pupils achieved one or more Higher or equivalent awards, which represented an improvement of 11 per cent over the past four years.

North Ayrshire Council Director of Education, Carol Kirk, said, “Performance has improved across all measures at Higher in fifth-year and the results are the best-ever in North Ayrshire.”

Ms Kirk believes this means local young people are now “better equipped to enter further and higher education or the workplace.”

Ardrossan & Arran councillor Tony Gurney added, “These results are positive and encouraging for the future.

“There is, however, no room for complacency.  We must continue to improve the prospects for all our young people by ensuring they have the skills to thrive in a very competitive environment.

“Increasing attainment and achievement leads to better qualifications for our school leavers.  This is vital in improving future prospects for residents of North Ayrshire.”

Cllr Gurney said the local authority is delighted “for the many young people whose hard work has been rewarded with good qualifications,” adding, “our pupils and school staff work incredibly hard and we will continue to support our young people to achieve the highest levels of attainment.”

Labour exposed over wages inaction

Labour councillors were caught-out at last week’s meeting of North Ayrshire Council when they proposed a Motion seeking to bring about a situation where private companies working on public sector contracts should pay the recognised ‘living wage’ of £7.20.

Responding, SNP Council Leader Willie Gibson indicated he did not intend to oppose the Motion, but pointed out that, back in February – while the Council was still being run by a Labour administration – SNP councillor Tony Gurney and Independent John Hunter had presented a Motion that included the statement “Many employers used by the council, including those employed to run the four PPP schools, have refused to implement the living wage for their employees. This is an invidious position and one which this Council cannot tolerate without challenge. This Council therefore resolves, using all means available to it, to encourage all suppliers and local employers to adopt the living wage as a matter of urgency and instructs officers to investigate and implement those means immediately.”

Cllr Gibson added, “The Labour administration amended the Motion to instruct officers to investigate the implications for the Council’s Economic Development and Regeneration Strategy, and to present a report to a future meeting of the Executive of North Ayrshire Council, but Labour then did nothing.  No further report was submitted to the Executive.”

Despite Labour’s previous inaction, the SNP administration accepted the terms of the Motion proposed by Peter McNamara and seconded by Joe Cullinane (Kilwinning), which means the Council will now formally acknowledge the proposed Living Wage (Scotland) Bill and will make a submission to the Scottish Government’s consultation, indicating the local authority’s support of the Bill.

Warning over whooping cough

NHS Ayrshire & Arran's Public Health department is encouraging people to be aware of the signs of whooping cough (pertussis), which has markedly increased across the UK this year and is currently circulating in Scotland. The local Public Health team has been dealing with an increased number of cases, most notably since July.

In particular, parents are being asked to make sure children are up-to-date with vaccinations, which is the most effective way to prevent spread of the disease.

Very young infants and unimmunised or partially-immunised children under ten years-old are most vulnerable to whooping cough.  Others who should be alert to the signs and symptoms include new mothers, pregnant women, and those whose work involves close contact with young babies.

Dr Gill Hawkins, Consultant in Public Health Medicine with NHS Ayrshire & Arran, explained, “Whooping cough spreads easily and can be very unpleasant for those affected.  Young babies can be more severely affected and are more likely to develop complications, which can require hospital treatment.”

Early symptoms of whooping cough are much like an ordinary cold, which then progresses to bouts of coughing that may be followed by vomiting.  A 'whoop' sound may be heard, although this is not always present.  The cough can last for several weeks.

An NHS spokesperson noted that good hand-hygiene and ‘cough etiquette’ are key to preventing infection, such as covering your nose and mouth with a disposable tissue when sneezing, coughing, wiping and blowing your nose.  In addition, all used tissues should be promptly disposed of into a waste bin, and hands should be washed with soap and warm water after coughing, sneezing or using tissues.

While whooping cough can be treated with antibiotics, vaccination is the most effective way to prevent spread of the disease.  Children are offered pertussis vaccine as part of the 'five in one' vaccine at two, three and four months of age as part of the routine childhood vaccination programme, which also protects against diphtheria, polio, H. influenzae type b and tetanus.  A booster dose of vaccine is given when children are around three-years old.

Dr Hawkins said, “I would encourage parents to make sure their children are up-to-date with their routine vaccination schedule to protect them and others they come into contact with, especially younger children.   Babies can start their vaccinations from the age of 8 weeks.”

The number of cases of whooping cough reported in Scotland since the start of the year now stands at almost 1,100 – with the NHS bracing itself for the worst outbreak since the 1980s.
Anyone concerned about symptoms, such as severe coughing fits in young children, or a prolonged cough in older children and adults, should contact their family doctor (GP) or NHS 24 on 08454 242424.

Local court could close

North Ayrshire’s Justice of the Peace Court (formerly known as the District Court) could be closed under plans being considered by Scottish Court Service (SCS).

Some Sheriff Courts are also being considered for closure, although as one of the busiest in Scotland Kilmarnock is believed to be safe.

The SCS confirmed the Justice of the Peace Court currently located at the Town House in Irvine is being looked at as part of the ongoing rationalisation exercise.  Others on the ‘at risk’ list include Annan, Coatbridge, Cumbernauld, Motherwell, Portree, Stornoway and Wick.  Any that are subsequently closed would have cases redirected to courts in nearby towns or cities.

Eric McQueen, SCS Executive Director, said a structure was needed “that was accessible for people and with the facilities and services the public would expect.”

Mr McQueen added, “Many of our court buildings were built in Victorian times and are both expensive to maintain and difficult to adapt to modern needs.  Fewer court buildings would allow SCS to target future investment to ensure that the best possible facilities and level of service is available for all court users but more particularly for victims, witnesses, and vulnerable people.”

The SCS Executive Director sad it was accepted that having fewer court buildings would mean longer distances to travel for some people.

Justice of the Peace Courts were created under the Criminal Proceedings etc. (Reform) (Scotland) Act 2007 and replaced District Courts, which themselves had taken the place of Burgh Courts in 1975.  Courts, such as the one in Irvine, deal with relatively minor offences, including breach of the peace, minor assaults, theft and offences under the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982.  Justice of the Peace Courts have the power to sentence offenders to imprisonment for a period not exceeding 60 days, impose a fine not exceeding level 4 on the court system’s standard scale, and can disqualify a person from driving.

Salmond and O'Neill support capital spending

The former Labour Leader of North Ayrshire Council has joined with SNP First Minister Alex Salmond in an attempt to protect and create jobs through capital investment aimed at promoting economic recovery.

In his capacity as President of the Confederation of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA), Cllr David O’Neill has co-signed a letter with Mr Salmond that has gone to all 32 Councils in Scotland, asking them to review whether they have any further ‘shovel-ready’ construction projects that could begin at short notice – if the UK government were to release funds.

Earlier this week the First Minister joined the leaders of the other devolved administrations in calling jointly on the UK Government to unlock funds for capital investment to boost the economy.

The joint letter from the First Minister and Cllr O’Neill states, “We understand that Councils will be exercising their ability to borrow sensibly now at current low interest rates, to maximise capital investment at a time when it is particularly needed.  The question is whether more can be done and whether there is anything that can be done nationally to support you in making optimum use of your borrowing powers.”

The Scottish Government and COSLA believe “There is potential that either additional or accelerated capital funding will become available through Budget Consequentials at the time of the UK Autumn Budget, and we would want this to be used wherever its impact on the economy will be maximised, whether through Councils or Scottish Government.”
  
The Salmond’O’Neill letter concludes, “We would therefore strongly encourage you to review now whether you have any ‘shovel ready’ projects that could be progressed quickly in your Council area, in the event that further funding becomes available at fairly short notice.”

David O’Neill remains a North Ayrshire councillor, representing Irvine West.  North Ayrshire Council is now run by an SNP administration under the leadership of Saltcoats & Stevenston councillor Willie Gibson.

Katy's call to end Arctic drilling

Katy Clark MP has called for an immediate halt to drilling in the Arctic following the publication of a Parliamentary Report on the subject.

The cross-party Environmental Audit Committee, of which Ms Clark is a member, recently conducted an inquiry on protecting the Arctic and has highlighted that, at present, oil companies are being granted permission to drill in the area despite there being very limited provisions in place to recover oil in the event of a significant spill.  The report also emphasised the impact that climate change is having on the Arctic.

Katy Clark told the3towns, “The report from the Environmental Audit Committee has clearly demonstrated the threat to the Arctic from a potential oil spill.  Should a spill occur shortly before the Arctic winter, it could have catastrophic consequences from which the environment could take up to a decade to recover.  Unfortunately, at present, the oil companies do not have sufficient contingency arrangements in place to prevent such an environmental disaster from occurring.”

The Labour MP added that, “until this state of affairs changes, all drilling should stop immediately.”

Ms Clark, who represents North Ayrshire & Arran, said she hopes the UK Government responds positively to this report and uses its observer status at the Arctic Council to ensure “the most stringent rules are put in place to safeguard the Arctic’s long-term future.”

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Independent councillors back young workers

Two local Independent councillors will this week seek to win a wage rise for North Ayrshire Council’s lowest-paid workers.

As revealed last week by the3towns, Modern Apprentices employed by NAC are currently paid the bare legal minimum of just £2.60 an hour.  The Scottish Socialist Party has collected over 2,000 signatures on a petition demanding the local authority stops exploiting its young workers, and at the Council Meeting on Wednesday (September 19), Independent councillors John Hunter and Ronnie McNicol will move a Motion proposing Modern Apprentices receive a 50 per cent increase in the next financial year.

The Motion in the name of Cllr Hunter (Ardrossan & Arran), seconded by Cllr McNicol (Saltcoats & Stevenston), states: “While accepting that apprentices have traditionally been paid at lower rates than other employees, the hourly rate for the overwhelming majority of North Ayrshire Council's Modern Apprentices is unacceptably low and not befitting one of the few local authorities which have implemented the Living Wage.”  The two Independents then propose that in the 2012/2013 budget-setting process, “consideration be given for an indicative 50% increase for those on the lowest hourly rate of £2.60 per hour.”

Campbell Martin of the Scottish Socialist Party said, “It is an absolute disgrace that in 2012 employers expect young men and women to work full-time hours for what is a scandalously low wage.

“Being a public sector organisation, funded by taxpayers, the Council should be setting a good example to encourage other local employers, so I hope all councillors will support the Motion tabled by John Hunter and Ronnie McNicol.  Personally, I would argue Modern Apprentices, like any other worker, should receive the recognised ‘living wage’ of £7.20 an hour, but the Motion from Cllr Hunter and Cllr McNicol is certainly a significant step in the right direction.”

UK Parliament constituencies to change

The UK Boundary Commission has announced it does not intend to change controversial proposals that will see some North Ayrshire towns lumped into a new parliamentary constituency with parts of Renfrewshire.

the3towns revealed in October last year that the Commission planned to create two new constituencies – one retaining the name ‘North Ayrshire & Arran’ and consisting of Ardrossan, Saltcoats, Stevenston, the Isle of Arran, Kilwinning and with the addition of Irvine from the current Central Ayrshire constituency.  The other proposal, for a ‘Renfrewshire South & Largs’ seat, would see West Kilbride, Fairlie, Largs, Skelmorlie, Dalry, Beith and Kilbirnie removed from the North Ayrshire & Arran constituency and linked-up with Renfrewshire’s Elderslie, Kilbarchan, Bridge of Weir, Lochwinnoch, Howwood and Linwood.

In November 2011, North Ayrshire Council wrote to the Boundary Commission, setting out their reasons for wishing to retain the two existing constituencies that fall wholly or partly within the local authority’s area of responsibility – North Ayrshire & Arran and Central Ayrshire.   In addition, the Council stated that, if the Commission was “not minded to reconsider its position”, then it would suggest changes to the proposed names for the new constituencies.

The Boundary Commission has now made clear it intends to press ahead with reorganisation, but has accepted the Council’s suggestion regarding constituency names.  As a result, the latest proposal will see the current North Ayrshire & Arran seat – minus the towns listed above - renamed ‘Ayrshire Central & Arran’.  The other seat, previously listed as Renfrewshire South & Largs, is now to be called ‘Renfrewshire South & North Ayrshire’.

There will be a further eight-week consultation on the Boundary Commission’s latest proposals, with final recommendations expected to be presented to the UK Government by October 1st 2013.

Overall, the changes will mean Scotland’s representation at Westminster is reduced by seven seats.

Local public meeting on 'Independence for Scotland'

The North Ayrshire public will have the chance to hear the Scottish Socialist Party’s vision for an independent Scotland, and ask questions on the subject, at a public meeting in Irvine’s Volunteer Rooms next Monday (September 17) at 7:30pm.

The meeting will be addressed by former local MSP Campbell Martin and David Mackenzie of the No2NATO campaign.

Campbell Martin said, “The Scottish Socialist Party supports the creation of an independent Scotland, but our vision of what independence should look like differs greatly from that being proposed by the SNP.  For example, while the SNP’s independent Scotland would retain the Queen as Head of State, would continue to allow the Bank of England to set monetary policy and would simply recreate the failed capitalist economic system, the SSP’s vision is for a democratic republic where the interests of ordinary people come before the profits of multi-national corporations.”

Mr Martin added, “I would urge everyone to come along to the Volunteer Rooms.  The decision we take in the 2014 Independence Referendum is the most important we’ve faced in 300 years.  It’s vitally important that those of us who support Scotland re-taking the status of a normal, independent nation are prepared to address any questions the public has about the issue.  Equally, it’s vital that we refute the scare stories being peddled by the British Unionist coalition of Tory, Labour and Liberal Democrats.”

Campbell Martin concluded, “Only by re-taking our political independence will we have the powers we need to radically transform Scottish society and deliver a better, fairer country.”

David Mackenzie of No2NATO will speak about the SNP’s current plans for an independent Scotland to be a member of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation), a nuclear-armed group of nations that retains the ability to launch a first-strike nuclear attack against unnamed other countries.  The Scottish Socialist Party is totally opposed to nuclear weapons and would not support an independent Scotland becoming a member of NATO.

Council support for ending Right to Buy

North Ayrshire Council is expected to support the ending of legislation that allowed tenants to buy their homes.

Right to Buy was introduced in 1980 by the Tory Government of Margaret Thatcher and was widely seen as a political tactic – Ministers believed selling-off publicly-owned housing would diminish the role of Councils and would lead to new home-owners being more inclined to vote Conservative.  In Scotland, the second part of the strategy never materialised.

However, since 1980 thousands of houses built for the social rented sector were sold to sitting tenants, often at a discounted price.  This meant fewer homes were available for rent, which added years to the time applicants remained on housing waiting lists before receiving an offer.  Councils also found they were still servicing debt used to build houses, despite many of them having been sold to tenants.

In the 32 years since Right to Buy was introduced, North Ayrshire Council has seen its housing stock drop from 24,817 to 13,236, which equates to an overall decrease of almost 47 per cent in local authority houses available for rent.  As the legislation currently stands, almost 50 per cent of Council tenants still hold the ‘preserved Right to Buy entitlement’, which offers a generous discount on the sale price.

In June of this year, the SNP Scottish Government launched a consultation on Right to Buy, which presented three options for consideration.  Option 1 proposed a reform of legislation that would retain Right to Buy in certain circumstances, with a reduction in the available discount. 

Option 2 would abolish the right to buy scheme, ending all entitlements.  Scottish Government figures show that if the scheme ended in 2015, around 10,000 additional houses would be available in the social rented sector across Scotland over a 5 year period.
Option 3 related to withdrawal of Section 69 of the 1987 Housing Act, which allows landlords to refuse to sell homes provided for tenants of pensionable age who have special needs.

North Ayrshire’s SNP Cabinet last week received a report from senior officials, which recommended the local authority should respond to the Scottish Government’s consultation, indicating support for Option 2 - that Right to Buy should be removed for all tenants and the change should be implemented within one year of Royal assent being given to the amended legislation.

Abolition of Right to Buy would see an increase in the availability of social housing within North Ayrshire and, in the medium to long term, would help address the Council’s identified shortfall of approximately 2,700 affordable homes.

The full Council, meeting on Wednesday (September 19), will be asked to ratify the Cabinet’s decision.

North Ayrshire still unemployment blackspot

Latest figures, released by the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS,) show North Ayrshire retains the unwanted title of Scotland’s worst unemployment blackspot.

Overall, unemployment in North Ayrshire stands at 7 per cent – more than 3 per cent higher than the mean figure for the whole of the UK.  The area with the next-highest level – 6.5 per cent – is West Dunbartonshire.

A continuing worry is the rise in youth unemployment.  In addition to the confirmation that the overall unemployment rate in Scotland is now higher than the UK average, official statistics showed almost 25 per cent of 16-to-24-year-olds are out of work - a total of 105,000 people - which represents an increase of 2.8 per cent over the year.

Jobcentre figures for August also revealed that 7,400 men and women in the same age group had been claiming Unemployment Benefit for more than a year, up from just 2,100 twelve-months ago.

The new ONS stats brought differing reactions from politicians.  Secretary of State for Scotland, Lib Dem Michael Moore MP, acknowledged “the scale of the challenge we face in these difficult economic conditions,” adding, “Any fall in the number of people working in Scotland is a serious issue and has a critical impact on the households and individuals affected.”

However, Scotland's SNP Finance Secretary, John Swinney MSP, attempted to paint a rosier picture by stating, “The employment rate in Scotland has continued to climb and... our youth employment rate remains above that of the UK and our female employment rate is the highest of any nation within the UK.”

But Mr Swinney did accept his positive highlights were “offset by a rise in unemployment,” which, he said, reinforces SNP calls for “an economic stimulus from the UK Government to boost jobs and promote growth.”

MP backs pensioner carers

Local MP Katy Clark has tabled an Early Day Motion (EDM) in the UK Parliament calling for Carers’ Allowance to be paid to pensioners.

Currently, Carers’ Allowance is withdrawn once a person becomes eligible for the state pension, although some senior citizens do continue to receive limited additional support depending on their financial circumstances.  It is estimated there around 2.8 million carers over the age of 50 in Britain, with research from Age UK suggesting that around a quarter of all carers provide 50 or more hours of informal care every week.

Katy Clark said, “Carers often face higher costs of living than the rest of the population due to having to spend higher amounts on household costs like heating and electricity, as well as having to purchase specialist equipment for the individual they care for.

“Older pensioners who have cared for some time may also have had less of an opportunity to build-up a private pension pot due to their caring responsibilities.”

The Labour MP for North Ayrshire & Arran added, “Carers provide an incredible contribution to society, allowing disabled people to live their lives with dignity.  Often carers have to make an immense personal sacrifice when undertaking their responsibilities.  This is even more the case in relation to older carers.”

Ms Clark says the contribution made by older carers is “currently going unrecognised, with the vast majority going without the support they both require and deserve.”

Katy Clark’s Early Day Motion, which has received cross-party support, calls on the UK Government to either expand the eligibility criteria for Carers' Allowance, so that pensioners are entitled to receive it or to introduce a new cash benefit for pensioners who are carers.

Union says ferry decision delayed for 3 years

Just a week after First Minister Alex Salmond told the Scottish Parliament that Clyde ferry routes would not be ‘unbundled’ and tendered separately, a Government statement has cast doubt on when the issue will be resolved.

Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) is in the final 12-months of a six-year contract to operate Clyde ferries - including Ardrossan-Brodick and Largs-Cumbrae - and the First Minister’s statement of last week indicated that all Clyde services would be re-tendered as a single network.  The Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) accepts that position, saying it had received ­assurances ferry services will not be privatised and the routes would not be ­unbundled, but also believes it could be another three years before the tendering process begins.

The union said its dispute with CalMac would remain live until it received written assurances that pensions and workplace rights would be protected – ferry workers represented by RMT voted last Wednesday (September 12) for strike action should the outstanding issues not be resolved.

RMT general secretary Bob Crow said, “The three-year delay on the CalMac tendering is a massive victory for the RMT campaign against privatisation and in defence of jobs and working conditions.

“There is no question that our campaign of political and public pressure, alongside a massive mandate for strike action from our members, has helped force the pace on this momentous ­decision.

“We now want the long-term assurances on pensions and rights that we have been seeking, and until we have that in writing, our dispute remains live.”

Mr Crow concluded, “RMT will also continue to campaign for the expensive and disruptive tendering of services to be scrapped for good so that we can all focus on the delivery of these essential lifeline services long into the future.”
However, in his comments to Parliament last week, First Minister Alex Salmond said tendering of Clyde and Hebrides lifeline ferry services was needed “to protect them”.