Duke of Buccleuch
I have been campaigning on a number of fronts in relation to the Duke of Buccleuch’s sale of the so-called Evertown portfolio. Buccleuch Estates are disposing of this 9,000 acre portion of South Scotland, near Langholm, as part of a larger restructuring of the business.
Two of my constituents, Alison and David Telfer tenant farmers, have approached me as they have been threatened with removal from their land. They have lived and worked on their Cleuchfoot farm near Langholm for 20 years. They had a verbal agreement with the previous Duke that they could farm Cleuchfoot until they retired. However, the estate wants to plant trees on part of their farm and are taking it back in house. After protests from the Telfers’ and supporters such as myself, they were allowed to keep the rest of their farm, until next year – but that falls far short of what they had previously been promised. Now they find the farm has been put up for sale as part of the Evertown portfolio and the “planting potential” of the hill ground is advertised as a benefit. I support the forestry industry and the many jobs it creates. But I do not support large land owners like Buccleuch receiving forestry grants which will incentivise them to move tenant farmers off the land. I have asked the First Minister in parliament and was pleased she agreed with me that this was a human rights issue. As a result of lobbying from the Telfers’ suporters, the Scottish Land Commissions has intervened to tell the estate their behaviour is unreasonable. The SNP conference also passed a motion from myself, Rob Gibson and Annandale and Eskdale SNP supporting the Telfers and reiterating that public money should not be given to land owners like Buccleuch for these purposes. The Duke must see reason. There is also a petition supporting the Telfers online, which I would encourage everyone to sign - https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/let-the-telfers-keep-their-home-and-business
However, this sale affects more than one farm. Savills, the estate agents marketing the sale, have been advertising the Canonbie coalfields for its coalbed methane (CBM) deposits. I, along with the people of Canonbie, have long objected to any extraction proposals. Scotland is resolutely against unconventional gas extraction. CBM extraction is a messy process. The social and environmental harm caused by it would be catastrophic. The process requires fracking, injecting sand, water and chemicals into the ground at high pressure, the vast majority of the time. This highly controversial practice can lead to methane migration, contamination of the water supply, air pollution, increased carbon emissions, explosive levels of methane under buildings, the rupturing of utility lines, housing collapse due to subsidence and noise from truck traffic, heavy equipment, seismic explosions, drilling rigs and gas compressors. These effects can become more acute in a rural community like Canonbie. Added noise pollution can cause great harm to wildlife and livestock. Methane migration can lead to the death of crops and vegetation; this in communities reliant upon agriculture. In short, it is shameful to attempt to profit off the land by advertising its destruction.
I put a question to Roseanna Cunnigham MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, regarding the Duke’s advertisement of CBM in Canonbie.
The Cabinet Secretary made clear the Scottish Government’s opposition to any unconventional gas extraction. I will continue to campaign against this irresponsible disregard for the wishes of the local communities affected by the sale.
I was privileged to be welcomed to Dunbar Harbour, which is part of the South Scotland region, which I represent. The purpose was to hear about the Royal National Lifeboat Institute's plans for the lifeboat station there. This visit was a fascinating insight into the good work that the RNLI are doing. I met several of the volunteers who go out in all weather to help anyone struggling at sea. The work of the RNLI is entirely self-funded and they have come under particular pressure as a result of the UK Government closing Coast Guard stations. The type of work that they are involved with has changed from. Previously, their work mainly involved coming to the aid of fishing and merchant vessels; now, they are dealing with many more pleasure crafts and even holiday makers swept out to sea on inflatable devices.
Scotland’s Screen Sector
In my role as Convener of the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee (CTEEA), I lead a parliamentary debate on Scotland’s screen sector. The debate focused on the Committee’s report: Making Scotland a Screen Leader. The report received overwhelming support from key industry stakeholders and screen sector experts.
Since our report has been published, we have seen direct evidence of the economic impact on the screen sector in the premier of Outlaw King. This film It is very much a home grown production but it is the partnership with Netflix which will give it a global reach. Outlaw King is an £85m production and it more than justified the investment made in it by Creative Scotland.
The Committee’s report outlined a number of key concerns which we feel are holding the industry back in Scotland. We need a large film studio. Wardpark studios in Cumbernauld, where Outlander is made, remains Scotland’s only dedicated large site, however it is currently full. Added to that, the Committee feels strongly that the Scottish screen sector requires a stand alone screen agency to flourish. In fact, it was the stand alone agency in Northern Ireland that was instrumental to luring Game of Thrones to Belfast.
In the Screen Sector Leadership Group’s report, published in January 2017, the Group found that public sector support for screen was fragmented with a number of different bodies having some responsibility in specific areas. This meant that there was no over-arching screen strategy and a lack of leadership and accountability. They also made recommendations about increased investment from government and the group called for the BBC to spend 100% of the license fee it raised in Scotland, here in Scotland; in this respect we are far behind Wales and Northern Ireland.
There has been progress. There has been added Scottish Government support with significant new money invested for production purposes. Screen Scotland has now launched as a unit within Creative Scotland. Recent and upcoming successes such as Avengers: Infinity War, Outlander, Mary Queen of Scots and Outlaw King point to a positive future.
First Minister’s Warning on No Deal
I questioned the First Minister as part of a meeting of the Parliament’s Conveners’ Group. This is a gathering of all the conveners of the Scottish Parliament’s various Committees. I am Convener of Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee. I quizzed the First Minister on whether she thought that the Scottish Parliament would be expected to consent to any Withdrawal Agreement Bill should the UK Government manage to broker a deal with Europe. The First Minister pointed out that the legislative consent process was predicated on there being an agreement between the UK and the EU. She said the prospect of a no-deal has become more likely in her opinion. Her reply to me was widely publicised in the press, as it is the first time she has said that she thought a no deal was likely. The First Minister is normally cautious on this matter because she does not want to “talk up a no deal” - so her warning should be taken seriously. Notwithstanding, the First Minister asserted that should an agreement be reached, the Scottish Government will not consent to any Brexit related legislation that dismisses Scotland’s interests.
Glasgow School of Art Fire
The CTEEA Committee held an evidence session on the Glasgow School of Art (GSA). Kier Construction and Page Park appeared before the Committee to give evidence. Kier were the contractors and Page Park were the architects that oversaw the restoration of the GSA after the first fire in 2014. The revelations from the evidence session were widely publicised in the press.
My questioning of the witnesses revealed that the ventilation ducts responsible for the acceleration of the 2014 fire were not closed off at the time of the 2018 fire.
Many people were very surprised to learn that the ducts were kept open for pipes and wiring. These ducts acted like chimneys in the 2014 fire, according to the official report, causing the inferno to spread from floor to floor and destroy the library along with an irreplaceable collection of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s work – including the artist’s only oil paintings.
The risk posed by the ducts was identified as far back as 2008 when the Mackintosh Building was being refurbished with a £4.4m lottery grant. From 2008 to 2014 the GSA appears to have been at risk of fire when it was occupied every day by students (something Eileen Reid and others pointed out in an earlier evidence session)
Elsewhere in the evidence session, Kier's representative revealed that the fire alarm was temporary. He said it was sometimes disabled as dust from building work triggered it. I asked him if it had been disabled on the day of the fire. At first, he said that he did not know but later he said that he’d been told it was not disabled that day. Several witnesses have reported that the fire alarm did not sound on the night of the 2018 fire. Kier were not able to tell the Committee what happened that night - though they were responsible for fire checks on the building.
I then asked the architects, Page Park, if they had considered the damning report by construction expert Professor John Cole into Kier's work at DGOne, a leisure centre in Dumfries.
Prof Cole's report, published in April 2018, was highly critical of Kier's failures at DGOne and it pointed to problems with fire stopping measures in particular. The report was widely publicised but it was not discussed in the context of the GSA work. Page Park said the careful procurement process meant that Kier were rigorously chosen and the architects were happy the work was being done correctly.
There is a great deal more to hear in this Committee session. Sandra White MSP, who represents the constituency where the GSA is, asked about the PIR insulation fitted in the roof. It had been criticised as combustible. The architects said that the insulation met all regulations. There is so much more work to be done here and the Committee will continue to push for answers.
ANOTHER OFFENSIVE TORY
This week many people were outraged by the comments of Michelle Ballantyne, Tory MSP for South Scotland, when she said that people on benefits should have fewer children. She was not the only offensive Tory to hit the headlines last week. The leader of the Tories in the European Parliament, Syed Kamall MEP, made the disgraceful comparison of the European Parliament’s Socialist Group with that of the Nazi Party.
I raised concerns about his behaviour with Scotland’s Constitutional Relations Cabinet Secretary Michael Russell MSP who joined me in condemning the comments. My question came during Mr Russell’s Ministerial Statement. The full title of the statement in Holyrood was Scotland's Place in Europe: Our Way Forward. Comments like that, coming from the leader of the Conservatives in the European Parliament, represent regressive politics and betray the idea that society tries to move forward. Michael Russell was spot on in his response; that kind of rhetoric damages all of us.
Senator Neale Richmond
I was pleased to welcome Irish Senator Neale Richmond, Fine Gael’s European Affairs spokesperson, to Parliament. Neale has been a very good friend to Scotland and I met him just a couple of weeks ago during the SNP conference in Glasgow. Neale was very clear that the Irish Government is not willing to compromise on the backstop, which the UK Government signed up to almost a year ago. He said support for the EU in Ireland was stronger than ever, reaching around 88%. The EU has enabled Ireland to diversify its trading arrangements so in 40 years it has become far less dependent on trade with the UK. Interestingly, Neale said the Irish Government this year balanced its budget for the first time since the crisis of 2008. Readers might remembers some of the very negative publicity about Ireland from the time of the crash. However, the country has pulled itself back and now enjoys a far better rate of growth than the UK. Neale was interrupting his campaigning for Michael D Higgins who was at that point running for another term as Irish President. I was delighted to receive a campaign badge for the President who won convincingly a couple of days later.