Council urged to go the extra mile to halt rural decline

BY LISA FALCONER
lisa.falconer@whfp.co.uk

Highland Council have been urged to invest “almost disproportionately in rural areas” rather than let them decline further.

East Sutherland and Edderton councillor Graham Phillips made the call as the council’s planning, environment and development committee discussed the 2011 Census results last Wednesday.

The results show that while there has been overall population growth in the region of 11 per cent to  232,132 people since 2001, many rural areas have seen a decline including villages in Skye, Lochalsh and Wester Ross.

Presenting an analysis of the results, council planning and development research officer Cameron Thomas said  that the council were “unfairly” accused of being Inverness-centric and said that there was a “patchwork of growth and decline” across the region.

Councillor Phillips said: “The fragile areas that we are looking at are not, in my view, being adequately catered for. It seems to me we have fragile areas which are on a Highlands and Islands Enterprise map and have been for some time – the map doesn’t seem to change much. We have a strengthing communities programme which is doing very good work, particularily in Helmsdale in my ward, but it is not creating the step change in rural communities that we need in terms of economic growth. And I think that unless we make it our council policy to invest almost disproportionately in rural areas it will inadvertently become council policy to let them decline further.”

Councillor Jimmy Gray, represent­ing Inverness Millburn – one of only four wards in the Highlands to show population decline – said he had “very strong reservations” regarding the proposal. He said that a policy of this sort would impact on services in areas which have higher populations and that there was “no clear link” to explain why some rural areas were thriving while others declined. He added: “I think one of the big issues right across the piece, irrespective of where we are, is wages. We don’t have huge unemployment issues in relation to the rest of Scotland but our standard of living is poorer right across Highland and I think it’s an area we need to consider and think long and hard on. How we raise the overall standard of living, how we improve things so that people can actually live on the wages they have got. I think that is a key issue for us.”

In an attempt to explain why some areas have seen growth while others have declined, Mr Thomas said: “If you take Strathcarron across to Auchtertyre and Dornie and back to Kyle, you have an area of about 2,000 people with population declining. Plockton is a bit of an oasis in the middle of it where the population is actually going up. It’s a picture postcard area, quite attractive to live in, but so is much of the rest of the area, and it’s very possibly to do with the appeal of the secondary school.”

Wester Ross, Strathpeffer and Lochalsh councillor Dr Audrey Sinclair responded: “Personally I would say the fact that there were 26 houses built not so long ago in Plockton will have made a significant difference. It has a knock-on effect on the schools and things.

“Shieldaig is another one. I can quote the size of the school – it had two pupils in 2008 and since new houses went in at Baile Shuas the population of the school is now up at 14 with a healthy nursery school as well. Houses makes a big difference to population.”

Mr Thomas also used the example of Duirinish and Dunvegan on Skye, reporting that Duirinish had seen “modest growth” while Dunvegan had slightly declined. Both areas had seen similar rates of house building, he said, before raising the possibility that the “economic success” of the Three Chimneys restaurant was to be thanked for Duirinish’s growth.

Councillor George Farlow of North, West and Central Sutherland added that it was important to find out why young people were leaving the region. He believed improving broadband was “the essential ingre­dient” for increasing population in the area.

Meanwhile, Black Isle councillor David Alston said it was “vitally important” to welcome incomers to the region. He said:  “Ten years ago we had real concerns that we might be facing a declining population in the Highlands, but that has not been the case — and it has not been the case due to the movement of people and the arrival of new Highlanders and the ability to welcome these people into our communities. The nature of our communities is changing and we need to embrace that and not fight it, as this is where the future lies.”
More detailed analysis of the Census results will be presented to the council’s five area committees.