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Cllr Rosie: The Highlands is teetering on the brink

THE situation is clear – the Highlands is teetering on the brink, held together only by the resilience of its people.

Fergus Ewing, a political stalwart, distinguishes himself by placing the needs of his constituents above all else. His unwavering loyalty to the Highlands transcends party lines, earning him admiration as a beacon of integrity in the tumultuous world of politics.

For me, he is an inspiring political hero, who deserves better than the treatment being administered by the party he has loyally served for decades.

Across the Highlands, the concerns voiced by Fergus Ewing resonate deeply, reflecting the shared experiences of communities grappling with myriad challenges.
From crumbling road networks in desperate need of repair to the exodus of young talent seeking opportunities elsewhere, the Highlands face a litany of issues that demand attention and action.

The lack of progress in digital connectivity, coupled with escalating energy prices in a region with abundant natural resources, further exacerbates the plight of Highlanders.

I recently received a letter from a community council in Caithness which painted a poignant picture of the struggles faced by residents. With a dwindling population and a dearth of affordable housing, many young Highlanders are forced to bid farewell to their homes in search of better prospects.

In August 2017, the region pulled off the impossible – a political and community consensus in favour of an ambitious redesign of health and social care services. This, despite thousands of people protesting on the streets mere months before.

The redesign was shaped by local stakeholders and project-managed to an advanced stage by NHS Highland, only to be taken out at the knees by the sudden withdrawal of funding by the Scottish Government.

The delay in the completion of the A9 dualling project, initially slated for 2025 but now postponed by a decade, poses a grave threat to the safety of Highland motorists. Daily near-misses and a staggering accident rate underscore the urgent need for infrastructure investment.

Meanwhile, the abysmal state of the train network means that a journey from Edinburgh to Wick takes as long as reaching Paris from the capital, rendering essential hospital appointments in Inverness an all-day affair for many.

The population of the Highlands, once vibrant and thriving, has dwindled to half its 1850 figures, a stark contrast to the exponential growth experienced by the rest of Scotland. Deliberate neglect, marked by reckless centralisation and underfunding, has precipitated a housing crisis of epic proportions. Spiralling costs, driven by outside investors snapping up properties for tourist rentals and second homes, have left many Highland communities hollowed out, with locals priced out of the market.

Centralised policies, enacted without consultation or consideration for local needs, have stoked widespread unrest among Highlanders. Proposals such as the Highly Protected Marine Areas and the Deposit Return Scheme have outraged many. Reminiscent of historical injustices, they have sparked a unity of displeasure across the Highlands and islands.

Both of these ludicrous policies were only dropped begrudgingly after widespread protest, and not in the spirit of a new leader seeking to reprioritise his government’s objectives.

In response to these challenges, the Alba Party emerges as a beacon of hope for the Highlands and islands. I joined the party not just to take a stand against ill-conceived policies, but because I have been given the opportunity, along with others, to create a bespoke manifesto tailored to address the unique challenges facing the region.

By empowering Highlanders to take control of their own destiny, Alba seeks to forge a path towards a brighter future, where every voice is heard and every community thrives.

Key to this vision is the devolution of further powers, ensuring that decisions affecting the Highlands are made by Highlanders, not dictated from distant capitals.
Communities ravaged by the scourge of second homes must be given the tools and resources to reclaim their housing market, while coastal communities must be empowered to manage their own waters, safeguarding the future of the fishing industry and preserving our pristine marine environment for all recreational users.

Highland Council requires urgent reform. By radically empowering its diverse area committees it can grant communities greater autonomy over planning, enterprise, taxation and social housing, revitalise our towns and villages, and ensure that no Highlander is left behind.

A sensible plan to achieve net zero, decarbonising and balancing the needs of our oil and gas sector with the imperative of expanding renewable energy sources, is essential to securing a sustainable future for generations to come.

In the Highlands and islands, we could be on the cusp of a new revolution, not seen since the first days of oil and gas 50 years ago, with renewable energy powering a safer future.

While our fellow European neighbours of Denmark, France, Germany, Spain and Italy collectively design, manufacture and produce the vital components of our wind sector industry, our own lack of a credible industrial policy leaves us at the bottom of the league tables.

There is little sign of the ambition one might expect from a modern and progressive democracy.

We need to act with urgency to unleash our full renewable potential, ensuring we create local opportunities for our young people and hope for our communities.
We have to create certainty for our businesses and attract investment into the region so we can prosper.

 

[This article was first published in The National 11.03.2024]

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