The six hopefuls contesting the vacant seat in the Eilean a’ Cheo council ward gathered at Portree High School on Tuesday night for a hustings event ahead of Thursday’s by-election.
The event which was organised by the Portree and Braes Community Trust began on a sombre note as trust chair Donnie Nicolson paid tribute to the well-known local postman Mike McDiarmid, who died suddenly on Monday. Speaking with a lump in his throat, Mr Nicolson said he was thinking of Mike’s family and friends and said that everyone would like to send their condolences to his loved ones. Mr McDiarmid was delivery office supervisor in Portree, and in a long career with Royal Mail, he had become a friendly, familiar, and hugely popular figure to many throughout the island, particularly in the north end.
The hustings was chaired by Portree High School teacher Neil Burrows and began with the six candidates providing a bit of background information about themselves while outlining their key aims if elected.
After the candidates gave their introductory speeches, the floor was opened to members of the audience to ask the candidates questions. When asked what their priorities were, Liberal Democrat candidate Fay Thomson said that the roads were the top of her list as it was the only means of transport – she described the condition of the network as “absolutely shocking”. Independent Calum Munro agreed and said that they were “dangerous” and affected visitors and locals alike and that it was the subject on everyone’s lips. Conservative Ruraidh Stewart pointed to the housing crisis and said it directly affected both the wellbeing of families and the core services that were needed for the community to function. Green candidate Dawn Kroonstuiver Campbell highlighted the climate emergency declared by the Highland Council. She said it could provide an opportunity to attract investment to the area as well as a chance to build on some on the energy-saving projects that the council were already undertaking. Màrtainn Mac a’ Bhàillidh from the Gaelic campaign group Misneachd said that putting people over profit was his priority and that he felt that economic growth was being put ahead of community cohesion. Andrew Kiss of SNP said education was his chief concern. He said the children were the future and that everything should be done to give them quality education and as many opportunities as possible.
What are you prepared to cut?
Ronald MacDonald – the former incumbent of the seat up for grabs on Thursday – sought answers from the candidates as to what they would be prepared to cut to ensure that funds were available for their priority services.
In response, Ruraidh Stewart said that while austerity was over, the Scottish National Party’s torrent of cuts was not acceptable. He went on to say that electing someone from a major party who could stand up to the SNP would help ensure that more money was brought to the area, which would be a sustainable alternative to further cuts. Andrew Kiss said that loan debt such as Private Finance Initiative debt was money that could be spent on roads. He was critical of the £30 million spent on Inverness Castle and said people would much rather see a functioning ‘top road’ to Inverness than a castle paved in gold. Dawn Kroonstuiver Campbell felt that a lot of the money spent on the Highland Council’s estate management could be saved by allowing large swathes of the areas to rewild. She said it would allow the biodiversity of the area to flourish while reducing the spend on maintenance measures such as trimming and pesticide spraying.
Màrtainn Mac a’ Bhàillidh, meanwhile, attacked the ills of austerity deeming it as an ideological position taken by the Westminster Government. He described the action of borrowing as “mortgaging our future” and condemned the asset stripping of services such as the Royal Mail and the railways. He felt it was important to challenge that ideology. Fay Thomson said that cuts resulting in key job shortages such as classroom assistants and community officers were ruining communities. She believed the answer was to seek greater funding from the Scottish Government for local councils. She added: “ Pots of money are not coming here and we have to get a fair share.” Calum Munro said that making sense of the financial situation was “like shifting chairs on the Titanic.” He said efficiencies such as the use of technology and promoting clever management focusing on reducing cost and waste was key. He argued that the picture was not completely black – and believed that some of the councillors have been successful in putting pressure on the government to secure money such as the Bus Improvement Fund, the Rural Housing Fund and the Islands Housing Fund.
Towards the end of the hustings, Skye and Lochalsh Young Carers volunteer Joan Corrigall made an appeal on behalf of the charity. Addressing the candidates, she said: “We receive an annual grant from the Highland Council for around £12,000. We are having to fight for what is a very small amount of money. I would like to appeal to the successful candidate – could we have some sort of guarantee as it would take a lot of pressure off the officers?”
Assessing the cost versus the benefit of the funding for the charity, Ms Corrigall said: “There is not a penny wasted, every penny goes to good use. We get great results for a group of youngsters that tend to leave formal education with very poor results because of the other responsibilities they have and their poor school attendance – they leave with no qualifications. I feel that we really invest a lot in the children and the council taxpayers get great value for money.”
In response, Andrew Kiss said that no councillor should ably block the funding and that the service was “incredible value for money. Màrtainn Mac a’ Bhàillidh said that voluntary organisations should be supported, and Fay Thomson thanked Ms Corrigall for raising an important issue.
Calum Munro said there were two or three children where he taught who attend young carers. He said they were “absolutely bouncing the hour before they went.” He added that he would be a third sector champion if elected as a councillor.” Dawn Kroonstuiver Campbell said it seemed “absolutely reasonable” that there would be a rolling programme of funding. Ruraidh Stewart, who spoke about his own experiences working with third sector organisations, said he would ask his council colleagues if there was anything they could do for the organisation if elected.
Ashaig – a no-fly zone
While the candidates differed on what they felt were the most important issues as well as how they would circumvent the need to make further cuts, they appeared to be united on the matter of whether an air service at Ashaig on Skye should be re-established.
Andrew Kiss said that currently there were “no compelling arguments” to have an airport at Ashaig. He said that a net-zero greenhouse gasses means of propulsion would be needed – but added that he couldn’t sanction anything that would result in the desecration of ground or deny locals’ access to beach or amenities in the countryside. Dawn Kroonstuiver Campbell said that she couldn’t see any reason for the air service and didn’t believe that there was much will for it given the Highland Council’s climate emergency declaration. She added that there were many projects far more deserving of funding. Calum Munro said there was an economic case and an environmental case, and the environmental case was winning. He also advocated greater use of the Kyle to Inverness rail line.
Ruraidh Stewart was also against the idea, he stated that there was no justification for such spending given the current state of the existing infrastructure which he described as an “insult” to the local people. Màrtainn Mac a’ Bhàillidh was also against an air service and championed a joint approach aligning rail, bus and ferry services. He said that strategic thinking about transport could reduce the number of cars on the road. While Fay Thomson said that there was a case for the service as well as against it – on account of the distances some people were required to travel for medical treatments – she added that it was not a priority at present.
For more on the six candidates standing in the Eilean a’ Cheo by-election and Tuesday’s hustings, pick up your copy of the Free Press – out in shops on Thursday for just £1.
To view the candidate profiles – as previously featured in the Free Press – click here.
Article and hustings images by Adam Gordon