City v Region

Keith Brown MSP, Cabinet Secretary for the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work was in Invergordon last week where he was one of the signatories of the £315m Inverness City Region Deal along with Lord Dunlop from the Scottish Office and Margaret Davidson, Leader of the Highland Council which is run by the minority administration of the nonsensically named “Independent Group”.  Lauded as investment to significantly enhance and improve the lives of all Highland residents when the proposal was first mooted hence its original name, the City and Region Deal, in a time of financial restraint, many Highland causes and groups welcomed potential investment into their local areas.

When the confirmed deal was announced nearly a year ago, there was disbelief however that there were no projects listed outside of Inverness and some queried whether the deal should in fact be known as a City deal only and if not, was it sticking to the terms of agreement?  The response from The Highland Council however appeared to suggest that as practically everybody in the region had to visit Inverness at some point, then of course the whole of Highland Region benefitted from investment into Inverness itself. It was stated that all listed projects and concepts would bring direct economic benefit to Inverness and would bring accumulative benefits of to the wider area through outward investment from those businesses attracted to the region from the initial deal offer.

Consisting of £135 million from the Scottish Government, £127 million from The Highland Council and £53 million from the UK government over a ten year period, this was significant investment into an area historically disadvantaged because of its geographical rurality and the decision was taken to focus on the city of Inverness to allow it to compete for and attract business investment on the same terms as other cities in Scotland more advantageously sited.  The problem is that although Inverness may in the future have the same business opportunities and facilities as cities in the central belt, the majority of towns and villages linked to them are within half an hours travelling time allowing all residents equal access to facilities.  As many people who live in the Highlands face journey times of two hours or more, Highland Council have to be extremely careful that they do not end up with a them and us situation where those living furthest from Inverness pay the same council tax yet receive less benefit.

With Highland Council facing significant budget cuts that they wholeheartedly blame on the Scottish Government, this money was seen as a partial solution to their problems that would allow them to continue the investment in Inverness.  As the only major infrastructure hub in the area and a vital staging post south, then yes – the majority of Highland Council residents will benefit occasionally but as those living and working in Inverness on a daily basis will benefit continually, it was asked why the money not have been divided up even with half of the money going directly to Inverness projects and the remainder being divided out between different areas or different needs that would encourage outward travel from Inverness instead.

The much needed improvements made to traffic bottlenecks in Inverness caused by daily commuter traffic is being proclaimed a pan Highland benefit as these roundabouts are situated at the access points into the city and so will benefit those from north, south, east or west passing by even if not stopping!  Investment will allow free super fast wifi throughout Inverness city centre and a 4G mobile signal yet many locations in the wider Highland area cannot access even a moderate wifi speed and don’t yet receive a 3G mobile signal.  Further investment will go towards clinical research and teaching centres as well as developing a Highland Science Academy with future associated “hubs” at other locations within the region.

It is planned to build 6000 new homes over the next 20 years and a particularly interesting concept of this is the assisted living design.  Being developed by Carbon Dynamic and Albyn Housing Society, the modular units have flexible living space and storage walls for medical equipment.  Technological advances mean sensors capture data relating to the health and wellbeing of residents and allow the elderly to live at home rather than having to go into residential care.  In a region where the only available bed may be more than 100 miles from your family and community, these units would potentially save on nursing and residential costs and allow people to stay where they may have lived all their life.  This will only work however if the infrastructure and connectivity is put into place in the areas where it is needed – the rural parts of the Highlands – and not concentrated on the city and suburbs of Inverness where ample facilities already exist.

As well as blaming the Scottish Government for all its financial woes, Highland Council have taken the decision to impose a further rise of 3% on all council tax bands within the region in addition to the increase on bands E-H proposed by Holyrood.  Their final budget proposals next week will be interesting although not as severe as threatened at the end of last year.  It has long been believed up here that many of the Councillors are Tories in Independent’s clothing and whatever is passed, it is safe to assume that the SNP will continue to be the reason for all ill.