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When normal European Parliamentary business in Brussels and Strasbourg is suspended, during the six-week summer recess, I take the opportunity to get around local communities with my mobile office on an annual surgery tour, to attend local events such as agricultural shows and to conduct a series of fact-finding visits.
A highlight this summer was a tour of Scotland's Housing Expo in Inverness, a showcase of innovative modern house design with special emphasis on energy efficiency. Based on an established and highly successful model found in Finland and mainland Europe, the Expo set out a clear vision for Scotland and the Highlands as a centre of excellence in the design of Scottish housing for the future, demonstrating how new building standards can be met on energy efficiency and carbon reduction.
The mix of Housing Association homes for rent and low cost ownership, alongside private houses for sale, are distinctive in design, maximising the use of Scottish materials including sustainable local timber. Supported by the Highland Council and the Scottish Government, the Expo took a successful European concept and made it even better.
In Aberdeenshire, with local SNP Councillor Rob Merson, I visited the University of Aberdeen's Oceanlab, located at Newburgh on the coast just north of Aberdeen. Oceanlab is a unique organisation, specialising in exploration of the world's oceans, mainly using unmanned robot vehicles known as landers, and long-term undersea observatories.
Landers from the University of Aberdeen have recently set the world-record for a remotely controlled dive to 10.5km depth, in the Pacific Ocean, recording remarkable videos of the world's deepest living creatures.
Oceanlab has been instrumental in expanding scientific knowledge of aquatic environments, from the ecosystems of the Ythan Estuary on its own doorstep, to the discovery of new species of creatures living in the world's deepest ocean trenches. We still have much to learn about the marine environment, and the excellent work being undertaken by Oceanlab will be very useful to Scotland's interests in the Fisheries, and Oil and Gas exploration industries.
I also paid a visit to BITES - the Buchan IT and E-Learning Service, which is based at the Community Service Centre on the site of the former livestock mart at Maud. A social enterprise, BITES is a purpose built training centre that provides modern computer and IT learning facilities, aiming to allow everyone who wants to be online to get online. Students, many of whom have never switched on a computer before, are offered an eight-week course in basic computer skills, and can choose to advance into areas including digital photography, publishing, and the European Computer Driving Licence.
BITES is an outstanding example of a social enterprise, providing a very high standard of tuition, and it was obvious that the service users who were present during my visit were thoroughly enjoying themselves as well as learning new skills. The team of tutors also works with small and medium sized businesses, offering tuition packages to enhance computer skills and encourage professional development.
These tours and visits are a valuable means of keeping in touch with people and organisations, listening to their views and concerns, and learning more about the huge range of innovative and enterprising work which is going on around Scotland.