I wrote before about changes the Electoral Commission was proposing to implement in the Highlands and how there was a consultation ongoing into it. The initial proposals were insulting, reinforcing the belief that we carry up here that we dont matter and many objected including those not remotely interested in politics as it was seen as yet another attempt to erode services from the far north and into Inverness.
It was only a few years ago that the electoral commission altered the boundaries within Caithness moving it from 3 wards with 9 councillors to two wards with 8. Previously there had been representation for the towns of Wick and Thurso with the remainder of the county coming under Landward. The new proposals carved the county in half with the most awkward boundary line ever, dividing a rural village in half which did nothing to help politicians be easily accessible and understood. Over the years though the system has begun to work and has included the outlying areas of the county who had often felt removed from the towns.
The proposal this year was to reinstate the 3 ward system but to lose another 2 councillors creating a heavy workload on the county councillors who actually do things. The proposal was fought heavily on a local front and letters of objection from the residents whilst disagreeing with the proposals for the other areas, concentrated on Caithness itself whereas many other objections from different areas went in treating the proposals as a whole. The final proposal document that was published at the end of last week explains that the weight of opposition received relating to Caithness and Sutherland did indeed have an effect on the final decisions made.
The move to revert Caithness back to 3 wards and lose 2 councillors has been dropped. It was an outcome that I suspected would happen but could only hope for and it is a great relief that we will continue with the representation that we have already. We are not out of the woods in any shape or form however as we will be having a by-election in a couple of months as one of the hardest working councillors here will resign. An independent councillor but independence supporter, they have worked closely and collaboratively with our SNP councillor whilst the Tory is nowhere to be seen and the other independent, although a lovely person, prefers a photo opportunity to a caseload. We can only hope that the new member when elected shares the belief in the town of the SNP Councillor and continues the good work that has been started and the improvements that have been made to Wick.
The neighbouring county of Sutherland has unfortunately not fared so well. A county with a massive landmass compared to its neighbours, North, West and Central Sutherland are to lose 1 of their 3 councillors. There seems to be no practical or feasible way to accommodate the workload here; if they divide it between them geographically, one Councillor is going to have a massive area to cover with less inhabitants whilst the other will have their electorate in closer proximity to each other but a greatly enlarged number of them. It was already difficult to service with 3 councillors due to the uniqueness of the layout and the entirely different issues that the areas face but for the sake of parity of numbers, the residents of the county are being seriously short changed . The final proposal report states however that they have reacted favourably for this area yet it still doesn’t give a fair distribution apparently taking no account of time and distance.
I fully understand the need to try for equality across all areas but there has to be cogniscance taken of the unique makeup of our county. Why should those of us living in rural areas, already suffering from a lack of investment, infrastructure and services, be denied further representation due to a lack of population – in no small way arising directly from that lack of services. There have been investigations into trying to sustainably do up some of the abandoned houses within commuting distance of towns and larger villages to bring them back into life and repopulated by young families. This statement in itself seems to have caused a stooshie as some query why it has to be a young family, instead preferring to use their own demographic which is usually elderly. Whilst of course they are very welcome additions to the places they live, they will not increase the school roll or require jobs but will probably use health and social services more heavily and will obviously not continue to increase the population.
The final proposal document offers insights into the communication received during the original consultation. Unsurprisingly those living around the Moray Firth basin were in favour of the changes as it allowed increased provision for them and there were strong objections from Caithness, Sutherland and the west coast for the very same. The protestations received from those who live here did have an impact upon decisions which is incredibly reassuring in a time that you often think outcomes have already been decided far in advance and that the thoughts of those affected are normally ignored. Another area where the thoughts and feelings of those affected are ignored is once again the now infamous NC500. Having already reached unbearable levels of interest last year due to holidays abroad being cancelled, this year is gearing up to be well in excess of anything previously experienced. Videos are surfacing of roadside camper vans in laybys, passing places and blind corners, not to mention nose to tail outside folks’ houses in northern main street villages.
Outside my house is a coastal walk, part of the John o’ Groats Trail which last year was advertised on free parking websites as somewhere to camp for the night. Several vehicles used the pedestrian path night after night, all claiming to leave no trace of their visit so the churned up grass from tyre tracks and scorch marks left from the fires were obviously all done by somebody else. A local community volunteer group has spent the winter relaying the path, flattening the point, installing a seating area and information boards and, to protect the area, have blocked off where the road ends and the path begins with large blocks. Whilst this has undoubtedly deterred most right minded folk, some have felt it their right to move these – how I have no idea- and drive through to park on the path. One of the websites has removed this area from their listing but the other has now marked it as private with the details only available to paid up members – whilst displaying the location on the map. There seems to be a shift in attitude also; last year it was perhaps more the residents who were suspicious of visitors but this year the visitors seem far more suspicious of that welcome they will receive from the residents and a growing number appear to be on the defensive from the outset.
As Boris bids farewell to his visitors and begins to plan where he will go for his holidays this year, you begin to selfishly hope that his attention turns elsewhere. As he deigned to visit us last year, you would expect him to try South this year but because people wiser than he remind him that the Uk is actually 4 separate countries, I fully expect him to head west to visit Northern Ireland and show the people there just what he can do to improve their quality of life. Of course, he may not as that will pull into sharp focus exactly what the border issues are so then he probably will head north; perhaps in one of the many hundreds of camper vans so that when his top secret location is discovered – as it will be in a rural location- he can just move onto somewhere else and be lost amongst the crowds.