Like everywhere else in the country, the recent local election results were particularly fortunate for us in Highland Region. SNP councillors were returned in every ward bar one with the majority being returned on first preference votes and many successes with two candidate wards. The results were expected in one way as the campaigns had been positive with the candidates putting in a tremendous amount of work but unexpected in the sense that Highland is traditionally seen as Independent and the opposition parties and candidates had in some cases fought personal and hostile campaigns. As some councils were won outright by the SNP, others began the task of attempting to lead minority administrations or to build alliances to allow them to lead with various levels of success being achieved.
Highland had been run previously by an administration made up of the Independents, Labour and LibDems with the SNP in opposition. Over the last few years a more collaborative approach of working between the administration and the SNP was undertaken with the ultimate aim of the SNP leading the council after the next election. This approach did not go down well with all but it allowed the SNP input into the budget, agreements for outcomes they wanted achieved and future financial plans that they would be able to work with. Negotiations began immediately after the results were declared and soon after it was announced that the SNP Group Leader would now become Convener of Highland Council and the Independents would support the SNP in the governance of the region.
The SNP had produced a highly detailed, forward thinking and ambitious manifesto before the election with some exciting ideas and events that would place the Highlands firmly at the front of people’s minds along with the more mundane tasks that needed done and the basic running of the council One particular aspiration worthy of note is the bid for Inverness to become the City of Culture in a few years. The benefits and financial investment that this would bring to the region are incredible as all areas of the region would receive a spin off from this that would last for several years. This of course relies on making Inverness the centerpiece, a city that is all too often seen as the only place of importance in the Highlands and has the reputation of receiving all investment. The manifesto deals with this by committing to look at ways to differentiate between urban and rural Highland in every aspect.
One of these areas is transport where the difference between urban and rural is staggering. When you can have two busses a day to tie in with the school runs as your only transport option, it is hard not to compare your options with what somewhere else has and feel that you are being short changed. Wick John O Groats Airport is detailed in the manifesto as being supported by the council and the Scottish government. The two destinations available from here, Aberdeen and Edinburgh, were withdrawn a few years ago and there has been a great deal of work behind the scenes for these to be reinstated. The Aberdeen flight which was greatly used by those in the oil industry was very recently restored, this time under a public service obligation from the Scottish government. The availability of this flight has meant a 40 minute journey as opposed to a 4 hour car journey or in my case, an eight hour train trip, and the importance of this link cannot be underestimated. When the Edinburgh flight is reinstated, it will be a huge boost to locals and visitors alike to allow them travel opportunities where the travel time does not take longer than the time spent in the place.
The Scotrail temporary timetables have also had an unwelcome and devastating effect on the population of the North Highlands. There were many tweets of protestations from those further south complaining that they couldn’t access a train after 8 or 9pm but the situation up here is far worse. The last train departing Wick now leaves at 12:34 and the last train to Wick leaves Inverness at 2pm. No longer able to head off for the weekend if you work, for those that relied on the service to get them to and from their work in Inverness from Easter Ross, the impact is devastating. With many of our medical appointments now held in Inverness, I have found myself telephoning the booking system to explain unfortunately that we are unable to attend an appointment before 11 am and have to be guaranteed to be out by 1pm or we are stranded. I have no idea how this will be solved but the longer it goes on, the more harm that is done to an already fragile community that continually seems to have a new obstacle to overcome and is completely unsustainable. We are warned that there are further changes to come and I dread losing the sole Sunday train.
Our Tory leader in the Highlands who decided he would switch seats and stand in Wick rather than his own seat in Inverness and who then, falsely, stated in local media that he had moved to Caithness was unfortunately eventually elected. Apart from a media interview minutes after the result was declared, nothing has been heard from him since and he has also been replaced in his position as leader. It is democracy in action but how frustrating that despite having had a Tory Councillor for the previous five years who was conspicuous by their absence, we now have to suffer more of the same rather than somebody who will actually attempt to improve the area where they actually live.