Published: 10/04/2015 11:30 - Updated: 10/04/2015 10:20

North Coast needs jobs, not just birds says Gibson

Rob Gibson is concerned about future of north and west Sutherland.
Rob Gibson is concerned about future of north and west Sutherland.

FAR North MSP Rob Gibson has voiced serious concern over the future of communities along the north coast, after studying census data.

Mr Gibson is worried that some communities may not be sustainable in the long term because of low population levels and an aging population.

He has laid a large part of the blame for the fragile situation on conservation and environmental bodies.

He claimed groups such as RSPB Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage are standing in the way of developments that could create jobs and strengthen communities.

He is critical of the large number of land designations imposed in the north and north-west to protect land but which restrict the use of the ground.

Mr Gibson was speaking ahead of the start of a public inquiry later this month into controversial plans by SSE to build a £100 million-plus wind farm at Strathy South.

RSPB Scotland and other environmental bodies are opposing the 39-turbine development on the grounds that it would despoil an internationally important conservation area in the heart of the Flow Country.

Mr Gibson said: “Local people value their natural heritage but they also need homes and jobs.”

The MSP said he was basing his claims about population levels on census data from 2001 to 2011 as well as figures relating to job patterns on the north coast.

He said: “The census shows that, in the whole of the north, west and central Sutherland ward, there has been a mere 1.7 per cent increase in population in the 10 years since the 2001 census.”

And he said that while the birth rate nationally had increased since 2002, that was not the case for the north, west and central Sutherland ward, where there were fewer children aged under 15 than at the start of the 21st century.

His office’s research has led him to be principally concerned about the Bettyhill, Strathy and Melvich school catchments and community council area.

He said: “The total number of children aged under 16 in nursery, primary and secondary education in the area is estimated at 125.

“With between one and two children per family, there are around 75 families and sole parents with children of school age in the area. They make up only 15 per cent of households.

“Without doubt, couples of childbearing age have reached a critical level in the area that stretches 20 miles along the A836 between Bettyhill and Melvich.

“The economy and services rely on under 80 families of child bearing age. Meanwhile, the 56 to 68 age group is hitting a peak. People in this age group have more health needs than younger people.”

Mr Gibson added that local people themselves claimed that they were an “endangered species”.

He expressed scorn at the concern expressed by conservation organisations about the effect of the planned Strathy South development on birds, including the rare wood sandpiper.

He said: “Ahead of this public enquiry several large conservation organisations displayed concern only for breeding pairs of birds.”

He added: “While Scotland as a whole has 13.8 per cent of landscape protection designations, the north coast has around 50 per cent of its coasts and hinterland marked out with SSSIs and many other sets of special conservation areas.

“People cannot live on landscape designations alone. A reversal of the Clearances is needed to build sustainable communities with respect for a balance of nature.

“Certain major conservation groups have shown scant regard for this and their views have to be challenged.”

The public inquiry into Strathy South starts on Monday, 20th April, at Strathy Village Hall.

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