The Editor of the De tha Dol? asked me to provide an update, for this month’s edition, about a variety of issues affecting the peninsula communities, It seems as though the rural areas in the West Highlands are facing many challenges, when it comes to the provision of vital public services. These are my thoughts on the subject as printed in the March De tha Dol?
Here in Lochaber, we all understand that there has to be an element of compromise living in a rural area. We accept that we have to travel greater distances to access a wider range of shops, to get to work or access some services. Yet, it seems our urban counterparts expect us to compromise even further by accepting the gradual erosion of many public services that are vital for rural areas. These fairly basis services allow remoter, rural areas to survive, remove them and we risk destroying these communities.
The last month, has highlighted four examples of this particular problem:
Corran Ferry Fares
By this April, passengers will be paying 23% more to cross the Corran Ferry after three fare increases in just a year. The Transport Committee, at long last received the so-called Social and Economic Impact Study, but debate was curtailed as the administration wanted it to go out consultation to the local community. It makes sobering reading; the impact of future rises could be devastating for residents and businesses alike. Yet it failed to assess the impact of the last set of rises, failed to identify any real effect on tourists and visitors (mainly because it was undertaken during the quietest winter months) and ignored smaller businesses like accommodation providers. Pointing out these defects, raised the hackles of the committee chairman, who accused those who question methodology of doing so because they do not like the results. We now get to debate the detail at the Lochaber Area Committee, let’s hope all councillors condemn unfair blanket fare rises.
Dail Mhor Care Home
I have asked for NHS Highland to confirm their intentions for the future of Dail Mhor Care Home in Strontian, and to respond to rumours it is set to shut. With extra beds now available at Invernevis House in Fort William residents are being offered the opportunity to move there. Some suspect Dail Mhor is being wound down, to allow it to be mothballed or closed completely. The response from NHS Highland dodges the question, giving details about the options for residents rather than confirming that the home will remain open. This time I have asked for a simple yes or no – is Dail Mhor planned for closure?
Schools in rural areas are finding it difficult to recruit, or are seeing a high turnover of teaching staff. A lack of continuity, or staff leaving as pupils prepare for exams, is not a stable teaching environment. At this month’s Education Committee I highlighted this problem, asking for additional support for schools when they are recruiting and to look at the revenue budget, so that rural schools are not disadvantaged. If we are able to provide assistance to help supply teachers travelling greater distances to rural schools, I hope we can be flexible with the school roll formula which decides staff allocation.
The Council’s crazy decision to close two-thirds of their customer service points, has provoked an angry response across the Highlands. Most of the closures are in rural areas, including Acharacle. Although the footfall may be low, they still serve people who are not confident accessing advice or services through the internet or via a telephone call centre. Just looking at the per customer visit cost, will make individual service points look expensive, but we already know providing services in rural areas is more expensive than elsewhere. The social costs and other alternatives haven’t been considered. If we based decisions on the per customer cost, we would probably lose many other services. By the time you read this, I hope that councillors have had some common sense and decided against this unwise move!