25 Jan Kate Forbes in call for ‘national emergency’ to protect Highlands and Islands
The National – Laura Pollock
AREAS of demographic concern in the Highlands and Islands should be considered a “national emergency” by the Scottish Government in order to ensure successful intervention in rural population, language and community decline, according to Kate Forbes.
The MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch urged for Holyrood to focus on “immediate priorities” to retain population numbers in the north of Scotland, and not purely focus on relaxed immigration rules in hope of a population upturn.
Forbes said “urgently” retaining the current population of Highland communities was “vital”.
Two leading island campaigners have now reacted to Forbes, both agreeing that the population decline is “indeed an emergency” with a “lack of coherent planning” exacerbating several factors.
Forbes’s comments come after she demanded to meet with healthcare officials and ministers to discuss the Scottish Government’s decision to pause several major NHS Highlands hospital projects.
“We need really good education, better provision of courses, particularly in the west Highlands, and critically we need genuinely affordable housing,” Forbes told the West Highland Free Press.
“I think if these things are in place, then good jobs will naturally follow.
“But without doing this all of our public services will come under immense strain. It will be a vicious cycle where you can’t recruit to staff the public services, so you lose out on more people.
“And then people will choose to go elsewhere if they don’t feel they can access a sustainable health service, adequate childcare provision and good schools.”
Later, she called on public bodies in the region to do more with what powers they have, but said she was supportive of the transfer of additional purchase powers as part of new land reform policy.
When it came to affordable housing, the former finance secretary suggested that local governments could work with communities to build a few affordable homes – “say four” – in small areas that they are needed, when they are needed.
“Where a community is in grave danger, we should be looking at things like compulsory purchase (to secure land for homes). Affordable housing shouldn’t take seven or eight years for planning to be granted.
“If you wait too long you lose the young people you have. And if they go from somewhere like Elgol (for example), you’d then need to invest quadruple the amount of money again to attract others.”
Rhoda Meek, National columnist and founder of online Scottish islands small business directory isle20 from Tiree, said the sooner “the Disneyfication of the Highlands and Islands stops”, the better.
Meek reacted to Forbes’s comments stating she “couldn’t agree more” and that Scotland’s “current trajectory is deeply worrying”.
“Retaining our existing populations in the Highlands and Islands is absolutely key – not just when it comes to tackling depopulation, but also – as Forbes rightly points out – when it comes to protecting our vernacular Gaelic-speaking communities”, Meek said.
“Our current trajectory is deeply worrying on both fronts, and it should indeed be treated with the utmost seriousness.
“You can’t just throw people at these areas in an effort to solve the problem – we need to address the underlying issues with infrastructure and specifically housing.
“It is indeed an emergency”.
Catrìona Murray, a board member of the Stornoway Trust – a community landlord that owns the land Stornoway is on in Lewis – also agreed with Forbes and said among several policies governing “every aspect of our lives” there is no “economic or housing policy geared towards the retention of our indigenous population”.
Murray said: “I agree with Kate Forbes’ comments, not just in the Highland context, but in my own area here in the Western Isles.
“We have so many policies governing the Highlands and Islands, so many quangos for every aspect of our lives: our economy, our land use, even our language are subject to regulation. However, there is no integration to speak of.
“We are supposed to encourage the retention of Gaelic speakers, but we have no economic or housing policy geared towards the retention of our indigenous population”.
She shared that in Lewis, those moving to the island appear to largely be older, and that most local authorities’ initiatives on population building do not take demographics into account.
“We have an ageing population,” Murray said.
“This obviously puts pressure on social and health care services, and many of these are the roles we struggle to fill, precisely because we simply don’t have younger people to do those kinds of jobs.
“There is also an over-emphasis on self-catering tourism, and people are employed doing changeovers and in cleaning jobs, who might otherwise be recruitable into social care.
“It is rapidly becoming an emergency, and one that could make these communities unviable in the near future. However, it has got that way because of a variety of factors – including over-emphasis on tourism – exacerbated by a lack of coherent planning.”