The proposed mainland fuel discount is welcome, but still imperfect
It was always going to be difficult to extend the 5p-a-litre fuel discount scheme from the populated offshore islands to selected remote parts of the British mainland.
Some of the problems faced by Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander when he announced at the end of last week the latest proposed roll-out, which must now be approved by the European Union, reflected that difficulty. He offered the discount to Achnasheen, where the pumps closed down five years ago. He was accused of favouring his own party’s LibDem constituencies.
He was blamed for including some genuinely remote communities, such as Gairloch and Acharacle, but neglecting other obvious candidates such as north-west Sutherland.
Much of that criticism was unreasonable. Liberals have traditionally represented in the UK parliament many of the large areas of rural peripheral Britain which need help with fuel prices. Mr Alexander could hardly ignore those regions just because they vote for his party.
The discount offer to pumpless Achnasheen was no worse than clumsy. Somebody confused the postal code with the township. It was intended, it appears, for nearby Kinlochewe, which happily still has a filling station.
But the problem persists of how to decide that one remote community is needier than another, especially in so huge an area as the Highlands. Why Strathpeffer but not Lochcarron? Why Carrbridge but not Applecross?
The island discount scheme which was launched in March 2012 was relatively straightforward. Islands are easily distinguishable. They are also burdened by automatically-inflated maritime delivery charges. Including all of the Scottish islands and the Isles of Scilly in the fuel discount scheme was relatively easy both to plan and execute.
And the good news, for islanders and for Danny Alexander, is that it has worked. Before the fuel discount scheme was introduced last spring, islanders were paying an average of 9.68p more than mainlanders for a litre of petrol, and 9.72p more for diesel.
According to a Treasury report, since the scheme came into practice those differentials have reduced to 5.96p and 5.39p respectively. Motorists in Stornoway and Balivanich are still paying more than motorists in Inverness and Fort William, but they are not paying so much more. Useful cost-of-living savings are being made.
Those savings, as we have argued before, should also be offered to parts of the mainland where petrol and diesel costs as much as it did in the islands.
The difficulties inherent in that were highlighted yet again by one glaring absence from Mr Alexander’s proposals. Nowhere in Lochalsh is included. Skye, because of its historical identification as an island, is included.
The West Highland Free Press has spent all of its life in Skye and is not about to argue against a fuel subsidy being available here. But just as the Treasury confused Achnasheen and Kinlochewe, civil servants seem also to have failed to notice that a road bridge connects Skye to Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland.
Kyle still has no prospect of a fuel subsidy. Just across the bridge a 5p subsidy has been in place for 18 months.
Whatever the technical reasons for that anomaly, it makes no sense. The answer is not to remove the subsidy from Skye. The answer is to offer the fuel subsidy to all of the north-western mainland. With due respect to our friends in Strathpeffer and Carrbridge, it is needed more on this side of the east-west divide.
Kishorn approval was right for more than one reason
In approving the redevelopment of the Kishorn yard, Highland councillors took a responsible decision. The implications of a rejection of the application would have been ominous.
We do not yet know the type and number of opportunities that Kishorn Ports Ltd will bring to the north-west coast. We do not know whether they will create their target of 2,500 jobs in Wester Ross. We do not know how successful they will be in attracting contracts from the renewable energy sector.
But we do believe that the developers should be given an opportunity to revive the moribund Kishorn yard. A mere hundred jobs there would be better than none at all. Opportunities for young people in particular, who presently desert the western Highlands en masse in search of rewarding employment, can only be encouraged.
There were many objections to this proposal, and some came from influential sources. Highland Council was right to consider them, and then equally right to overlook them. The West Highlands are big enough to accommodate tourism, wildlife and industrial developments.
The alternative — to turn down such a promising opportunity — would have sent the wrong messages to the wrong people. It would have suggested that this whole region is to be regarded as a sterilised zone, suitable only for tourism and holiday homes. It would have shown the white flag to those conservation bodies who prefer depopulated scenery to thriving communities.
We, and thankfully also Highland Council, would prefer to think that the north-west of Scotland is open for business.