When I talk to people within the Highland constituency and within my Council meetings, I hear the same issues coming up regularly - those of a wider national nature - cost of living, economy, housing - but also those that relate directly to the SNP's historic lack of interest, effort or investment in the Highlands, and the detrimental effects their continual push to centralise services is having. These range from the terrible state of the Highland roads, to the closure of care homes and dentist surgeries, the stopping of buses during school holiday periods, the on-going ferries scandal, their tone-deaf approach to fishing communities and rural living in general, and a lack of leadership on renewable energy windfalls.
Scotland has seen £20 billion of infrastructure spend over the last 15 years. Within transport there's been a new Forth Road Bridge, the Edinburgh Trams, the M8, M73 and M74, the Dundee Waterfront and Aberdeen bypass, but only two of the ten sections of the A9 dualled. The Highlands desperately needs better transport infrastructure.
The A9 dualling was promised, a promise broken!
The A82 from Tarbert to Ardlui alongside Loch Lomond is the main access route to the West Highlands and Islands. It has been due to be re-constructed by the Scottish Government for two decades. This is a dangerous and frightening way for tourists to enter the Highlands, and unfit for buses or trucks.
The A82 through Fort William often has 90 minute+ delays to get through the town in peak summer. One possible solution would be a tunnel under the existing waterfront bypass, with the area above being given over to a landscaped promenade, residential, retail and hospitality buildings, giving the town its shore back. Tunnels are the norm in many countries - the Faroe Islands are connected by them. A June 2022 Sunday Times Freedom of Information request revealed that Transport Scotland had employees looking into tunnels, at a cost at £10 million per kilometer.
The rubbish you can see along Bear Scotland roads is terrible for locals and tourism alike. Many of our major roads are strewn with it - apparently Transport Scotland spends £40 million a year on collecting rubbish. Not in the Highlands it seems.
Highland Council roads are shocking - they are the number one complaint to me as a Councillor. The Scottish Government have cut council budgets year after year, yet the Green Party’s demands for ‘active travel’ gets massive funding.
Everyone at this point knows that Ferguson Shipyard agreed to build two new ferries for £90 million, and everyone knows the cost will exceed £300 million and be years late. The islanders also certainly know that our fleet is 10 years older than it was when the Scottish Government took over the responsibility for commissioning them from The Scottish Office at Westminster, they know that they cannot rely on the ferries to run, and that businesses on the islands are suffering significantly as a result. They know that campervans get the same ‘road equivalent tariff’ as islanders, which is why there is no room for islanders' vehicles. The procurement and funding of Calmac Ferries is a national embarrassment.
The Corran Ferry
The Maid of Glencoul is 47 years old, her younger sister the MV Corran is 23. It is hugely embarrassing to Highland Councillors that they were not long since replaced. Transport Scotland repeats that this is a Highland Council responsibility. However the current £50m proposal for a single electric ferry and shore infrastructure is well beyond the funding ability of the Highland Council, and would be amongst the highest sums yet awarded by the Westminster Levelling up Fund. We need a survey of the people in Morvern, Ardnamurchan and Nether Lochaber, probably followed by a tunnel or bridge over the 700 metre crossing.
What is absolutely clear to me is that, whether driven by NHS Highland or the Health Minister at Holyrood, a policy is being relentlessly persued to centralise hospitals, care homes and dental services in the cities. The closure of the Portree Hospital, the failure over 25 years to replace the Belford Hospital in Fort William, the need for expecting mothers to traipse many hours from Mallaig or Gairloch for scans and birth, as well as a recent decision that A&E is only available in Raigmore or Glasgow - there has been a clear policy decision to reduce health services in rural Scotland, with locals suffering the consequence.
Care homes are closing across the rural Highlands, with residents being taken to care homes elsewhere, often in Inverness. I certainly do not want my parents moved 100 miles away from their children, friends and community where they grew up.
Why is this happening? The privately owned care homes are often small and do not meet the new stringent requirements required by Care Inspectorate Scotland. Owners need to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds, sometime millions to upgrade their care home, and the industry is fundamentally unprofitable. Finding staff is a major issue due to low wages and limited available accommodation.
What does a perfect care home look like? A new insulated building with low cost energy, 50 bedrooms with large ensuite showers, space for outpatients to come during the day, a garden and accommodation block for staff.
As a Councillor I hear of many people who cannot find carers for their parents or partners. I have experienced this first hand with my father. I am determined to improve this situation.
You will be extremely lucky to find a dentist that will take in new NHS patients in the Highlands, if not all of Scotland, just now. The Kyle dentist practice has closed and so too has Ullapool. We must have dentists in our towns. If we do not, the cost in the future will result in a far bigger bill for NHS Highland.
I responded to the consultation on Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) on behalf of the Highland Liberal Democrats, and had a letter published in the press about it too. Thank goodness our Central Belt SNP Government has finally bowed to pressure from many of us in the Highlands recently, and scrapped their foolish new HPMA proposals. These were yet another ill thought out plan arising from the SNP / Green Bute House agreement. I will continue to work with others to urge the Scottish Government to engage properly with local communities before taking action on environmental issues.
Scotland already has 37% of its seas included in a network of Marine Protected Areas. With no real environmental driver, and as a result of a political trade-off, a further 10% of Scottish seas (at least) was proposed to be designated as a Highly Protected Marine Area by 2026, with an overwhelming 430 page consultation document that our fishing based communities were expected to respond to.
Those new proposals would have banned commercial fishing, seaweed harvesting and recreational fishing in the selected areas within 12 miles and probably beyond. The West Coast of Scotland would have borne the brunt of it, and it's certain that creelers, scallop divers, mussel farmers, trawlermen and others connected to the industry would have lost their livelihoods. The fish farming industry, the biggest employer in the West, would have had to abandon some sea lochs for certain.
Small towns such as Mallaig, Portree, Kyle and Ullapool that were founded around the fishing industry would be in grave danger of losing the few men, and they are invariably men, still following this traditional career. Fishing in these now tourist areas is one of the few jobs left that is not seasonal.
There was no talk of compensation for fishing boats being decommissioned, no consideration that remaining fishing boats would be crowded into other areas, and apparently no discussion about overall food security in Britain and no consideration of small scale rural fishing communities who provide sustainable local food.
The quantity of fish off the coast of Scotland is not the issue. Most of the commercial stocks are now fished sustainably, with a 2022 Nature Scotland Statistics report showing an increase in abundance of several marine species, including ray-finned fish up by 95%, sharks and rays up by 301%, and a number of bivalves and crustaceans up by 99%.
This foolish new HPMA plan was originated as a result of the political agreement between the SNP and the Greens, supported by Green MSP Ariane Burgess, and driven forward by Central Belt SNP Minister Mairi McAllan, with little regard or engagement with local communities that rely on fishing.
The Highlands has strong and consistent wind and plenty of water - we are amongst the best places in the world to generate renewable energy. A Scottish Government minister even described us as ‘The Saudi Arabia of renewables’. Great, doesn’t that sound promising! However, the turbines are made in Denmark, Germany or the States. The wind farms are often owned by international utilities or infrastructure funds... and the truth is, we suffer the construction of the projects and impact of the industrialisation of our landscape, yet very little of the profits remain in Scotland.
A decade ago the Scottish Government issued ‘guidance’ that £5,000 (plus inflationary increases) per installed megawatt should be paid to communities in the vicinity of windfarms. Since then, the price of electricity has soared, and those now much more profitable windfarms are still paying the same amount.
On the 8th December 2022, I had a Motion passed at the Highland Council, and at the Scottish Liberal Democrat Spring Conference. I have taken up the issue with Liam McArthur, the LibDem Energy spokesman at Holyrood, and Alistair Jack, the Secretary of State for Scotland at Westminster. My call is for legislation that 5% of Gross Revenue of all new renewable energy projects should be paid out to local communities. This would triple the community benefit - think of the affordable housing that could be built and community services that could be funded with this income.
Fundamentally, we need the Highlands to prosper. Only then will depopulation reduce and local people live healthier and happier lives.
Due to the internet (for those lucky enough to have fibreoptic speeds), many are now in a position to compete remotely for business with those in the cities. We need our children to study subjects that will help them stay in the Highlands and thrive. I have an eight year old cousin in Washington DC who’s chosen key subject is computer coding - her 11 year old brother has chosen engineering - both subjects that are barely touched on in the UK until College / University level. We are also desperately short of plumbers, electricians, joiners and other trades, so a greater emphasis on these subjects and opportunities such as apprenticeships is needed.
There are many great local businesses in the Highlands - Kishorn Port; Skye Candle Co.; Ferguson Transport; MacGregors; HIS; Baxters; Gaelforce; Highland Soap Co.; Highland Stoneware; Tulloch Homes; and many others. We need more successful companies like these that can employ and pay people well, and an environment that encourages folk to want to launch businesses of their own in the Highlands.
My vision is for the Highlands to be a well off area, where children get an excellent education and wish to stay and work, benefitting from fantastic internet speeds and the ability to work remotely. Massive local renewable revenues would transform our economy, and communities would decide on what projects they wish to spend the locally generated funding. Our quality of life would be much talked about, with clean spaces, active and healthy people, and longevity of life in excellent accommodation, with Scottish and Westminster Governments that finally invest in Highland infrastructure.
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