Lochaber Question Time panel grilled over roads and internet

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The affect of poor broadband service on communities and businesses in Lochaber has been likened to another ‘Highland clearance’, as issues over transport and internet connectivity dominated the Question Time debate which kicked off Lochaber Ideas Week on Monday.

The Question Time panel, which included councillor Allan Henderson from Highland Council, Oliver Stephen, mill manager of BSW Timber, Charlotte Wright, the CEO of Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), Tim Allan, president of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, Duncan Mackison, CEO of Jahama Highland Estates and Kate Forbes, MSP for Lochaber, were also quizzed on housing, Brexit and the local economy during the debate.

A question on broadband speeds in rural Lochaber sparked a heated discussion at the public event as the panel were told of the problems facing remote businesses caused by bad internet connections. Moidart-based businessman Angus MacDonald claimed the lack of connectivity is driving young people and business away from the area.

‘It is the third Highland clearance,’ he said. ‘The glens are emptying. It’s the disgrace of Scotland, it’s just not on.’

Mr MacDonald went on to explain that the Glenuig community had to erect masts for their own internet service ‘with no help from the government’, despite its promises of financial support to help rural connectivity.

In response, Ms Forbes agreed that hers was the ‘worst constituency for connectivity’ and her colleagues in Edinburgh cannot fully understand the issues in Lochaber because of a ‘digital divide’ between rural areas and the central belt in Scotland.

Scottish Chamber of Commerce president, Tim Allan, said he was ‘disheartened’ by the fibre broadband rollout in the country and said BT have been ‘dilatory in getting 4G signals up the glens’ in rural areas.

The panel also debated the state of the A82 after a submitted question asked, in light of the recent construction of new Forth Road bridge and a major A9 upgrade, why the West Highlands is not benefiting from a better road system.

Caol and Mallaig councillor Allan Henderson warned that the £3 billion A9 dualling project will leave little money left for any major A82 upgrades in the next 10 years.

‘There is a queue and we are at the end of it,’ he said. ‘ I fear it will be a long wait but we need to keep rattling the can.’

Gregor Muir, who runs M&S Dental Care in Fort William, told the panel that the tailbacks and hour-long delays in the town during peak tourist season is a ‘real nightmare’ for the practice’s daily schedule.

‘When we have the congestion problems between June and September we have to make up the day as we go. We have to say: the person that appears next will be seen. That’s because people taking 45 minutes to an hour to through town. Our day goes to pot.’

Ms Forbes said a number of ‘quick fixes’ for the congestion problems were put in place before the summer but admitted that these have not worked.

‘If we are all about resolving congestion we all need to be vocal about it,’ she said. ‘If the quick fixes are not resolvable then we need to make faster progress on a realignment or an actual link road. The reason why there’s not a link road is for reasons, in terms of objections, from local businesses. To this day we have got to be agreed to set aside business interests for the benefit of Fort William.’

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The Question Time panel faced questions from the public on roads, internet, housing and Brexit. Photo: Iain Ferguson, alba.photos.