We were lucky enough to partake in an online video meet with the First Minister tonight to discuss aspects of the agreement that will see the Scottish Greens have shared governance, and answer questions that SNP members might have. It was very well attended but it was apparent that the members shared the same concerns and that these are not the concerns that those in the more populated areas of Scotland have. The agreement has compromises relating to manifesto commitments and affords the Greens two ministerial posts. Although in general the two parties share many similarities they are not the same and there is an undercurrent of thinking that this is not what people voted for. The continual closer working between the two parties is to be welcomed as it is shown over and over again that the public agree with this but a more formal footing is into unknown territory. Generationally it will no doubt be a vote winner as the Greens seem a more popular choice of party amongst the youth. I have no major concerns over the agreement. I am open to it but do have some doubts as to what it means, as is so often the case, for those of us in rural Scotland where policies invented for the central belt do not transfer easily.
The most contentious compromise seems to be over road improvements for the A96. Having been promised these for years, whilst the commitment still remains in principle, the reality is that these will not happen in their entirety. With years of road improvements already undertaken, the Green’s compromise was to halt these to move people onto public transport. As the majority of the roads in the central belt are suitable for the traffic on them, investment had been moved onto the north. Whilst the A9 appears to have escaped unscathed, the A96 has not. Running between Inverness and Aberdeen it is the only route between the two cities. Mainly single carriageway, it runs through the various towns and villages and caters not only for commuter traffic but also industrial. From a road safety aspect alone, the dualling of this route and the bypassing of the towns has been long needed and to see it removed at the last hurdle after years of promises will unfortunately cause a loss of trust and therefore votes in the north east. The reasoning given is to persuade people away from cars and into public transport and, whilst this is a fantastic initiative, the alternative has to be there already or for firm commitments to be in place and at the moment they are not. The A96 is extremely busy but the worrying thing is that the rail route is practically beside it with several trains a day and yet is always over subscribed. People have already made the decision to move to the alternative and the system cannot cope as it is. All trains South and East of Inverness are popular yet often you are unable to get a seat on a 3-4 hour journey; why then would people choose this over a car?
Further north we suffer more; our bus services are cut year on year and what is left is not always viable. When you can walk the 3 miles to the supermarket quicker than the bus would get you there on the two occasions a day when it passes, and when the taxi fare is cheaper than the bus fare, it is wrong. When you struggle to get to and from the next town after 2pm, it is wrong. When you reach the next town (22 miles away) for a 2pm appointment and you have had to leave at 12 noon, it is wrong. Until these are fixed, people will not move to public transport. I come from this from the point of view of a non driver, I have no choice but to use public transport yet question myself as to whether it is actually necessary due to the time that it’ll take. I used the train a lot especially when the children were younger as we could sit at a table, move around and there would be a refreshments trolley available compared to using the bus even though it took 4 hours rather than the 2 on the bus. To be fair, it takes 45 minutes before we leave Caithness; in the old days if you were going to Thurso you sat in one carriage and if you were going to Wick, you sat in the nether and the train would split at Georgemas. Nowadays you can sit where you want but you now get an additional visit to Georgemas as it first heads West to Thurso before returning to take the eastern line to Wick.
Over the last few years as some stations close to Inverness were reopened to alleviate road traffic, stations further north were removed or turned into request stops. Again, like the Aberdeen train, once you hit the more populated areas, it becomes extremely busy and you realise just how many cars are already being removed from the roads. As before though, if people cannot use it comfortably and have to wait hours between trains, they will stop using it. The connectivity and investment in infrastructure is vital for the north as energy investment increases and to see the much needed and promised lifeline upgrades slipping away to appease people who have no need of it is devastating. And of course, onward travel does not connect. The stop I would use on the train when going away at the weekend is not in use so I have to continue to the next town. The bus I need to take me back leaves 5 minutes before the train gets in so I have to wait 55 minutes for the next one. There are no busses heading south after lunchtime so the train is the only option and during covid, there were no afternoon trains either so, although it didn’t affect me as we were not supposed to travel for leisure during this time, it did impact drastically on those who needed to use it for work. The services do not connect with the ferry to Orkney and, for those heading further south, the departing trains only have minutes to spare. When the ticket barriers were first introduced in Inverness, instead of being able to go straight to your connecting platform, you were made to exit through the barriers and in again. Thankfully that practise has now stopped but there are still instances of hearing the announcement to those trying to connect that the train is at capacity and they cannot travel. At conference time, members from the central belt did not believe that I would not get home on Sunday night like they would as they could not compretend that there were no onward buses or trains from Inverness after teatime.
When I was a child, you could fly from Wick to Orkney or Inverness. These stopped and were replaced with flights to Aberdeen and Edinburgh. Used mainly by business travellers and those in the oil sector, these would frequently be cancelled and as our own previous MSP discovered, didn’t even allow her to travel home on a Thursday like the rest of her colleagues so she lost two of her constituency days each week to travel; unsustainable when you have such a geographically large constituency that you need to cover. The sooner the rural Highlands are given island status the better although that is the subject for another piece! These two flight destinations no longer exist anyway and the airport is used solely for private planes and helicopters whether from the windfarm or medivacs but there is a high amount of work ongoing to try to reverse this. If this vital lifeline and economic structure is also affected by the deal then it will be seen as another betrayal of the voters here and, once again, the knowledge that not all air travel is a choice has been ignored.
Not connected to the SNP/Green deal is the consultation that is ongoing into short term lets. Again, there does not seem to be the distinction made between urban and rural; the changes that need to be made to ensure that people have security of tenancy is vital as I know many people who will benefit from this, however there seems to be a blanket approach throughout the country when it comes to holiday accommodation. At least with that, people will use local facilities and shops and are often in places where there are no other forms of accommodation. Many hotels cannot cater for families larger than four and self contained units have been the holiday necessity for many people over the years. The bigger problem in the Highlands though is with second home ownership where the properties lie empty for much of the year and which this does not address. There is always much talk of people coming in and paying over the odds for a house thereby pricing out the locals but you never hear the complaints levelled at those who have decided to sell to them.
The First Minister spoke well and reassuringly but I fervently hope that the Highlands and Islands are yet again not going to suffer to meet the needs of the central belt. The suspicion is already rooted and growing that we are expendable and we do not want want lose the progress that has been made in turning the political maps from orange to yellow at the top.