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Local matters

As we inch towards new normality, some parts of it reflect the past world.

This week sees the Program for Government which is generally delivered on the first day back after the summer recess. Previously that would have been the first day back in September. And this year despite our not really having had a recess, that's the date it happens.

After many months of physical absence from the parliamentary Chamber, my last attendance there was on Thursday, 12th March, I expect to take my seat for the first time in one hundred and seventy-three days. That is about three times as big a gap as any in my nearly twenty years in Parliament.

But while I have spoken in fewer debates than usual, only three since you ask, and these were all video contributions, I have asked six questions in the Chamber by that same means. My Committee appearances have increased over the previous norm with thirty-four dial-in participations. Last year over the same period saw my attending four fewer meetings over the same period.

While MSPs of all parties were engaged with the continuing Parliamentary business, the Liberal-Democrats seem to have allowed one of their number to have spent most of the summer in Italy. The individual concerned is one of the most technophobic in the Parliament but claims to have been dialling in. That opens up the question of what constitutes attending Parliament.

Does a person who is physically present in Holyrood, but who limits their interactions to those they have at the coffee bar or canteen, attend more meaningfully than someone regularly speaking and questioning from a rural location?

The question answers itself. It is the quality of the contribution that matters. The MSP who spent weeks in Italy could ultimately be shown by objective analysis to have been making as significant a contribution as someone who never missed a day in Edinburgh.

But in terms of connecting emotionally with the citizens of our country who have collectively and individually made enormous sacrifices, it was a gift to those who instinctively decry the work of politicians.

Today is reset day. Yes, the Program for Government will have to address the issue of the pandemic. But it must also set out strategic initiatives that build our future.

For my part, the days of big infrastructure investments are numbered. There are important projects like improving connections between our cities, Inverness and Aberdeen have obvious needs and must be completed.

Road improvements need to be driven by the removal of local pinch points, accident hot-spots and facilitating better connection for commercial traffic. The A9 has shown the benefit of raising the speed limit for commercial vehicles from 40 to 50 miles-per-hour; reduced congestion, accidents down, fuel economy improved. We should now look for other single-carriageway routes where we can safely deliver similar benefits.

During the pandemic, our health-service has adopted new ways of working, consultations using phone and video, for example, which help, especially in rural areas. We can't rest on our laurels and now need a national plan to allow areas relatively sparsely served by physically present local doctors, to be routinely and invisibly connected to centres of excellence which may be hundreds of miles away. The old hierarchies dependent on the all-powerful consultant need to be replaced by heterarchies which lock that huge experience and knowledge into a network of specialisms which reach all the way across the system to the care services. Our Community Health Partnerships are just an excellent first step.

The classroom too, has changed. But it seems more to be about logistics than yet about fundamental change. Remote learning doesn't happen just because you put a computer, or tablet, in front of a child and position a teacher at the other end.

Some change is serendipitous. It happens by chance rather than plan. The case of Mr Woo, a teacher of mathematics in Australia is a splendid example. A great-nephew is a teacher over there and could only get a position that required him to teach maths. This was neither what his education and training had fully equipped him for, nor his personal preference. It was he who, via his mother, put me onto Eddie Woo.

A pupil of Eddie's, in a very rural location, was dropping seriously behind as health problems were preventing her attendance at school. A single simple little video camera at the back of the classroom recorded a few of his lectures to his classroom. YouTube provided that publishing platform and his pupil was back with the class while being at home.

It's fair to say that broadcasters could properly deride the quality of his early videos. But it was the content, and the constant and engaging smile on teacher's face, that drew students into understanding the subject. Our great-nephew has learnt how to teach a subject into which he fallen by chance, not plan, by watching Mr Woo.

He is an inspiring speaker and it will take a mere eighty seconds of your time to be convinced. Watch the start of his Ted-Talk for just over a minute and I guess many of you will be hooked. It's at

My week will involve my attending to hear about the Program for Government. But it will also include my being present for four Committee meetings and asking an oral question on technology.

For the moment, the closure of rail lines between Aberdeen and Dundee and between Falkirk High and Edinburgh means that I am commuting by car. Within a month, I expect to return to my comfortable seat on a train.

We need to make sure that everyone else who has been working from home can have confidence in our public transport. We will simply destroy the world for future generations if we get back into our cars. Some of us will only visit our office occasionally.

So the infrastructure investments we need are definitely not about adding an extra lane to the M8, a politician's vanity project if ever there was one, but about improving public transport and facilitating even more effective local-working.

Notice that I wrote "local" not "home". Because communal activity is a contributor to the social aspects of human life and facilitates good mental health. But a local hub will keep money in our communities, serve our economic interests, and replace the impersonal mega hubs in our cities that drive too much polluting commuting.

So infrastructure investments that are locally focused are the way forward. Small local companies can bid to do the work; another benefit.

Local matters.


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