Carolyn Leckie: A revolution is needed for us to properly serve …
ACHILTIBUIE is one of the places that most of us have heard of but many would struggle to pinpoint on a map. Strictly speaking, it’s a village on the beautiful Coigach peninsula north of Ullapool – though most local people use the name Achiltibuie when referring to the wider community with its smattering of tiny villages clinging to the wild Atlantic coast. This is remote, rugged territory. From the central belt of Scotland1, it’s a longer drive to Achiltibuie than it is to Birmingham. Even the capital of the Highland Council, Inverness2, is a two-hour drive away. In the 21st century, distance should be less of a barrier than ever before. In Europe, we have trains capable of travelling at 170 miles an hour, the equivalent of a three-hour journey from Edinburgh3 to London. One airline company is about to launch a supersonic jet with a top speed of 1450 mph. We can watch live TV from the other side of the world, and send photographs in seconds to relatives abroad.
But the communications revolution has so far bypassed large areas of Scotland, including Achiltibuie. The UK Government4 has pledged to provide superfast broadband to 95 per cent of premises by the end of the year. The problem is that the excluded five per cent are in the places that need it most. And they need it not just to break down social isolation, but to make a living. If it were left to the big telecoms companies, much of Scotland would remain forever in the technological twilight zone.
Fortunately, local people are taking things into their own hands. In the areas around Ullapool, they’ve established a community-owned broadband company that will put in place the necessary infrastructure to provide broadband in Achiltibuie within the next few weeks. According to Julia Campbell of the Coigach Community Development Company, local people are increasingly forced to rely on their own resources to get things done. The development company has just built a community-owned wind turbine, which is feeding into the National Grid and is forecast to bring over ?2 million into the community over the next 20 years – ?100,000 a year to improve local services, improve infrastructure, fund training and support new businesses. Coigach Community Development Company – which works with local nature conservation organisations such as the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the umbrella Coigach-Assynt Living Landscape Partnership – also recently purchased and refurbished a derelict schoolhouse and converted it into two affordable homes.
That might not seem much – but it’s a big step forward in an area where the total population is just 300. In contrast, 13 local councils failed to build a single house last year – and for the last three years of the Labour-Lib Dem coalition at Holyrood5, a grand total of 12 local authority houses were built in the whole of Scotland. Like high speed broadband, affordable housing is vital if areas such as Achiltibuie are to survive and thrive as vibrant communities. Right now, the population is ageing. Over three quarters of the residents are over 40, with a disproportionate number of over-60s.
Campbell, who grew up locally, points out that the last spike in population, and growth in the number of local school pupils, took place around the early 1970s. She reckons that it’s no coincidence that it began to decline after 1975, the year the last council house was built on the peninsula. Statistics tell us that the population of the Highlands is growing. Some areas, especially around Inverness and the most popular tourist hotspots such as Skye and the Cairngorms, are clearly forging ahead. But other areas are being left behind.
The example of Coigach raises wider questions. Not least – is our current local government set-up fit for purpose? The Highland Council area covers almost 26,000 square kilometres. That’s one fifth larger than the land area of Slovenia, a small EU country which has 211 municipalities, elected by proportional representation and with extensive powers over schools, local roads6, libraries, planning, economic development and a range of public services.
Each of the Slovenian municipalities raise their own revenues, which are then subject to a system of equalisation to iron out geographical economic inequalities. These genuinely local authorities also guarantee a high degree of gender equality, with a legal requirement that the balance between men and women cannot exceed 60-40 either way. The former war-torn Balkan state, incidentally, is no backwater but the most economically successful of the Slavic countries – with growth rates higher than the UK. It is also recognised as the European-wide leader on protection of the natural environment. INTERESTINGLY, while Scotland’s local government units have become ever larger and more unwieldy over the decades, Slovenia, together with other European countries, has moved in the opposite direction, towards decentralisation and an increasing number of smaller, more localised municipalities.
Our local government structures are rooted in a different century. They were brought in back in 1995 by the John Major Tory Government to replace a 20-year-old two-tier system which had been devised by another Tory Government, under Edward Heath. So, for the past 43 years, including 17 years of devolution, we’ve been forced to live with Tory local government structures dictated by London. No wonder turnouts for council elections are dismal even in these highly politicised times.
Right now, we’re in a time of turbulence. But after the next independence referendum is out the way, we really need to think about initiating a democratic revolution, from the bottom upwards. Our community councils have no power, no budgets, and negligible participation. And our local government structures need to be brought closer to the people. The dynamism of Achiltibuie, along with Eigg, North Harris, Knoydart and other areas where local communities have successfully combined economic regeneration with protection of nature and landscape, show us glimpses of a better future, beyond the huge apparatuses of centralised authorities which are local in name only.
And they highlight too the failure of big companies to deliver for local people unless there’s handsome profit to be made. Broadband, renewable energy, affordable housing in Coigach are being driven, not by big business, but by local people. And that’s a lesson we should absorb as we strive to build a new Scotland, fit for the 21st century.