Am Bratach No. 255
January 2013


Development and a’ that
by George Farlow

A Happy and Prosperous New Year to all. That’s well meant but I am reminded frequently that happiness and wealth often do not “gang thegither”, especially in the teeth of double dip recessions. Probably for many in the remote and rural Highlands 2012 was not one of the best years for employment or for reducing the poverty gap, as most of us struggled to maintain our existing life style. The difference between the rich and the poor is increasing and some with the most seem to want to prosper from that. The richest 10% in Scotland has incomes equal to the earnings of the poorest 50%. Money begets money.

It’s customary for the media at this time of the year to review the past twelve months. Readers generally like lists and the analyses fill column inches and generate debate over the turkey curry and the like. So instead we’ll look ahead optimistically and see what the Highland Council can do to assist in correcting matters in the public sector.

The employment figure in the Highland Council area has remained fairly steady except amongst the young where it is disproportionately high. The council’s programme for the next five years has chiefly focussed on economic growth and, therefore, employability for young folk. My efforts as vice-chairman of the planning, environment and development committee (PED) will be targeted to remote and rural areas, principally areas like North West Sutherland. A briefing note from PED services indicates that if the trends experienced during the period from 2005 to 2010 continue, the population of the council area will grow by 15% to 255,835 in 2035. The number of children will rise in all areas apart from Sutherland and so the population will rise in all areas except Sutherland, where a 5% fall is forecast.

The number of working age people will rise in Inverness and Badenoch & Strathspey but fall in all other areas. This is really caused by inward migration rather than an increase in births over deaths. Whilst it’s good that people like me live longer, we need more children to stop schools being mothballed in remote and rural areas, as in the case of Achfary Primary last year.

When I was born, in 1949, it was expected that I would not collect my pension for too many weeks after the gold watch at 65. Soon grandparents like me, who can say they have three grandchildren in the Highlands, will be few and far between. The figures from the 2011 census seem to confirm all this but I look forward to more local information (data zones as they are called).

In Portugal in September 2012 when the president of the European Union opened the Conference of the Global European Geoparks he highlighted the EU’s 2020 vision for the next seven years: sustainable and responsible economic growth, science and research and social inclusion, with particular emphasis for me on the retention of young people in mountainous regions. As the council’s representative at Euromontana, I must work with other partners across Europe to encourage European funding for sub-regions like the Highlands, and places like the Geopark territory in Sutherland.

The Highland Council has good relations with Europe and the Scottish Government, so we need to maximise this benefit whilst working with any other agency where jobs and growth can be achieved. The first thirty actions of our programme are focussed on the economy and all the remaining have issues for employment as we seek to provide better education, improved infrastructure and housing and empower communities. So, how do we do this against a flat budget i.e. roughly the same money from government, approximately 80% of expenditure, and static council tax income, without taking into consideration any inflationary uplift — a cut then of 3-4% from over £600 million requiring savings of about £30 million over the next two years.

With Britain’s borrowing teetering around the one trillion pounds mark, there is no spare cash for core-funding, and worse still, the far-reaching nature of Welfare Reform changes proposed by the UK Government in a bid to find savings of £18 billion by 2014/15, look like dealing an intolerable blow to our communities. So, the future is in identifying government funding to correct unfairness, to finance our public services and projects and to achieve our visions and aspirations. State Aid by any other terms.

The PED Service has really only the income from planning applications and building warrants, although it also lobbies for increased funding from Europe via the State Member, the UK Government, and the Scottish Government as a regional member, in devolved areas like a new Less Favoured Area Subsidy Scheme, a new Common Agricultural Policy and a new Common Fisheries Policy, all from 2014. The PED Service Plan for the next five years is an interesting read and can give direction to those looking for funding.

The European Fisheries Fund (EFF) programme, for example, is targeted to assist with capital investment in the aquaculture, fishing and the fish processing industries. This funding can also support fishery-dependent communities, like Lochinver and Kinlochbervie, and amounts to as much as €23.49 million for the Highlands and Islands in total. Individuals, companies, trade and public bodies that have a direct interest in fishing can apply for this funding. But it is state aid and with that comes huge responsibility, bureaucracy and indeed legal compliance. As with all public sector funding, there are real issues where competition and fair trade are threatened. Those folk involved with LEADER, which aimed to increase the capacity of rural communities and commerce, will be well aware of moving goalposts and the inspectorate’s ability to turn a St Francis into a demented John McEnroe. There is likely to be slippage in the completion here such is the attention now drawn to the possibilities of economic displacement. Rules are rules, even though in most remote communities, Philadelphia lawyers are few and far between. But that last LEADER round has encouraged many more to come out fighting.

PED’s Vacant and Derelict Land Fund (VDLF) produced a highlight at the tail end of 2012. £600,000 of Scottish Government funding, administered and agreed by the Highland Council, prepared the site at Nigg for further investment and the creation of another 400 jobs at Nigg, half as many again. The Global Energy Group are currently recruiting.
The EFF Axis 5 might produce an additional job based in Highland Council’s Fishery Harbours’ Board Headquarters in Lochinver. Against that background are the attempts to create jobs in Assynt, Eddrachillis and Durness just shifting the decks chairs around on the Oriana?

In small communities, competition issues seem larger. These are easily lost and seem insignificant in urban areas. People on witness protection programmes and Richard Hannay would stick out in the more remote Highlands. Those in favour of development need to take all with them as they progress the tortuous route of acquiring funding, and those for the status quo need to remember that it’s often a long way to travel to see your nearest and dearest that have become the farthest and disaffected as they search for fairer life opportunities.

I am happy to support sustainable and responsible development in 2013.

George Farlow represents North West and Central Sutherland Ward on Highland Council. He is vice-chairman of the council’s planning, environment and development committee and is also SNP rural affairs spokesman.

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