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Sutherland is not on the radar of either Holyrood or Westminster

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The Way I See it by Councillor Jim McGillivray

Highland Council’s external debt as of this month stands at £829 million. That’s a lot of money but a fair bit less than March’s figure of £963 million. At some points last year it topped the £1 billion mark. Senior council officers have brought sound financial management to bear.

Councillor Jim McGillivray.
Councillor Jim McGillivray.

The problem lies not with council officers but with councillors. Heartened by the reduction in debt, Inverness councillors in particular are looking at every possible way to re-mortgage our existing liability to find the funds to splash out on upgrading and extending their Inverness secondary schools and building their new Inverness primary schools.

To give some idea of scale, you don’t get much change out of £15 million for a new primary school, and the extension to Culloden Academy is priced at £7 million.

Although these people want to use what is in part our money for their specific benefit, they do have a point. The constant expansion of Inverness continues relentlessly and the population rises inexorably. There has to be somewhere to educate the bairns.

It seems to me that this is development which is headlong and out of control, with Highlands Council rushing behind the curve trying reactively to provide the necessary social infrastructure.

This has to be contrasted with the Sutherland situation where depopulation, though hardly out of control, is pernicious and pervasive. Preoccupied with the Inner Moray Firth as it is, Highland Council is aware of the plight of rural areas, but is either powerless, or not inclined, to address such issues to any great extent. It is an even more forlorn hope that national governments at Holyrood and Westminster are greatly bothered either. We are not important.

The progress of the Sutherland Space Hub at A’Mhoine, however, is a cause for some modest optimism, especially as it has advanced without further legal challenge from the environmental lobby.

One would hope that there is an acceptance in that quarter of the economic needs of the local population, the people from the area who are doing their best to continue living there.

But, as was pointed out very expressively at the most recent Sutherland Community Partnership meeting, there must be affordable housing available to encourage incoming workers with families to come to the area and make homes there.

That is a challenge to which all local politicians must rise with urgency, but we face the problem of inflated land prices, with plots currently advertised at £60,000 upwards.

The free market in northern property has been skewed by an influx of southern money, either for retirement, lifestyle, fleeing from Covid lockdown, second home, or short term holiday let.

And that brings back bitter memories. From 2006 to 2010 I assisted the Embo Trust in a National Forest Land Scheme bid to purchase the Fourpenny Plantation to create 12 woodland crofts to be assigned to local young people. This ultimately failed when Alex Salmond replaced the Land Fund with BIG Lottery. Not clever. Not helpful. Totally discouraging.

Jim McGillivray is a Highland councillor representing East Sutherland and Edderton.

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