BY MICHAEL RUSSELL
Candidates for the UK parliamentary seat of Ross, Skye and Lochaber laid out their stalls at a hustings held in Portree Community Centre last week.
Present were Anne Thomas for the Green Party, Charles Kennedy for the Liberal Democrats, Ian Blackford for the Scottish National Party, independent Ronnie Campbell, Chris Conniff for the Labour Party and Lindsay McCallum for the Conservatives. In the chair was Free Press columnist and chair of MG Alba, Maggie Cunningham, and the whole event was broadcast live on Cuillin FM.
Making her opening statement, Anne Thomas urged people to vote Green because they are the only party to have a long-term view of resource depletion. As far as the economy is concerned, she said the “rich have got richer” under the coalition government.
“We’ve had to feed this monster that’s the deficit but the national debt has doubled while the rich stash their money in tax havens,” she added.
Charles Kennedy said he was the “most appropriate person” to send to Westminster. “The voters have had quite a few years to get used to how I do business,” he said, referring to his seven election victories since first entering the House of Commons in 1983. He referred to the ongoing uncertainty over the Ministry of Defence’s plans for the Raasay Range, his calls for an independent inquiry into health service redesign on Skye, and his opposition to the abolition of Northern Constabulary as reasons why people should vote for him.
Ian Blackford also raised the MoD’s planned expansion in the Inner Sound. This must not undermine the livelihoods of the local fishing community, he said. Recent meetings he’s held with NHS Highland have yielded a positive outcome for Portree Hospital. “There will be care beds in Portree staffed by the health service,” Mr Blackford added. “Surgery must also be brought back to Skye and Lochalsh.”
Austerity has not worked, he said, and quantitative easing has only benefited the financial sector, which precipitated the economic downturn in the first place.
Seventy-odd-year-old Lochaber crofter Ronnie Campbell, standing as an independent, said crofters had been getting a “very raw deal” from the Scottish Government, and all the support for agriculture was “going to the wrong places”.
Standing for Labour, Chris Conniff from Inverasdale in Wester Ross voiced her anger about the bedroom tax and the inquisition her disabled son was subjected to by Atos, the French company that assessed disability benefit applicants. Policies must be rural-proofed, she said, and she highlighted the lack of such an approach in her own community, which has lost its post office and primary school in recent years.
Conservative Lindsay McCallum said Scotland was the “most centralised economy” in the developed world. She highlighted the creation of Police Scotland, the hundreds of under-12s subjected to stop and search, and the routine carrying of firearms by the police as examples of the heavy-handedness that accompanies centralisation. The threat to hospital services in Portree and the need for better broadband were also touched upon.
During the question and answer session, Moira Scobbie, Lochalsh and Skye Housing Association’s energy advice officer, asked the candidates about an “affordable warmth manifesto” they were each sent last month.
Ms McCallum could not recall receiving such a document, but she did agree that fuel poverty was a serious issue in the Highlands and Islands. The big six energy companies have too much power and may well be acting as a cartel to fix prices, she said.
Anne Thomas wanted to see the scrapping of the standing charge; Charles Kennedy said what caused such anger in the Highlands was that the area was a net contributor to the UK energy market through hydro and wind power. Chris Conniff said one of the solutions was to build lots of well-insulated affordable homes, while Ronnie Campbell said in exchange for crofters giving up water supplies in the 1950s, when hydro dams were being constructed, was the promise of “cut-price electricity”.
Ian Blackford said the Highlands paid a 15 per cent premium compared to the Central Belt, which the Lib Dem energy minister Ed Davey had done nothing about.
Sarah Marshall of campaign group SOS-NHS asked all the candidates if they’d support an independent inquiry into the downgrading of Portree Hospital. Only Mr Blackford did not immediately agree to do so. However, when pushed, he said that if the current level of threat to the hospital could not be resolved he would support an independent inquiry.
“I am not prepared to accept losing Portree Hospital,” Mr Blackford said. “But a review will put back for a number of years the new hospital in Broadford.”
Councillor John Gordon asked the candidates to comment on the state of the roads.
Anne Thomas said she came by bus, and reminded the audience that a third of Highlanders don’t have a car. “We also need better cycle paths so people can take the low-carbon option,” she added.
Lindsay McCallum said the roads were the “number one issue” no matter where she went in the Highlands.
Ian Blackford said the roads were a “disgrace” but highlighted the cuts in capital budgets, originating from London, and the dualling of the A9 by 2025.
Mr Kennedy said roads were a devolved matter and some of last year’s Scottish Government underspend of £424 million could be spent on the roads.
Chris Conniff said she had no choice but to drive three hours from Inverasdale as there was no public transport option. “Nobody on this platform can promise building new roads because it is a devolved issue,” she said.
Crofter Murdo Macphie from Struan, who was involved in the Glen Ullinish wind farm, said 10 more turbines would give Skye an additional income of £5 million per year. However, he said one of the big problems was that Scottish and Southern Energy were not going to upgrade the line until 2020/21.
Lindsay McCallum thought SSE were going to upgrade the line quicker than that.
“It is incumbent on them if they want more renewables to upgrade the line,” she said. “But this is thinking ahead not just to onshore but to offshore as well.”
Chris Conniff said every community should have micro-renewable capacity, and more attention must be paid to carbon-neutral passive houses. She also said that wind turbines were beautiful.
Mr Blackford was very happy to back the Glen Ullinish wind farm.
“We have to look at emergent technologies,” he said. “There is another issue here and that is the Crown Estate. I want to make sure that if there are benefits to come the Crown Estate is not taking those into its own coffers.”
Mr Kennedy said the questioner had provoked a “rare outbreak of unanimity”.
He added: “This is a real problem with SSE that we are going to have to return to, because there are a lot of dependent schemes along that powerline that could be affected as well.”
Ronnie Campbell said it was very important to harness the power of the waves, which was much cleaner than nuclear. Anne Thomas said there were “increasing constraints” on the electricity grid that SSE had to address. “That is up to the big boys to do,” she added.
Other issues discussed at the hustings included the centralisation of the police, public transport, Trident, Scottish independence, and the House of Lords.