Contentious Question Time highlights Lochaber’s strengths and areas of development

Panellists l-r - Angus MacDonald speaks to the audience, Councillor Allan Henderson, Host Laurence Young, Ross MacKenzie and John Hutchison. Photograph: Richard Mason

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Hailed as the best Question Time that Ideas Week has ever had, there was a wide range of opinions shared at what became a lively debate in The Moorings Hotel over a bright future for Lochaber.

The panel was missing one of its attendees as Highland Council’s chief executive, Donna Manson, did not want to comment on politics due to her role as returning officer for the General Election. In her place was vice-convener and Lochaber councillor, Allan Henderson.

There was little discussion about politics and barely a mention of the B-word with panel and audience wanting to focus on Lochaber.

The first question asked the panel what they would tell young people to inspire them to become entrepreneurs, posed initially to entrepreneur and businessman Angus MacDonald.

He said: ‘Scotland has one of the lowest entrepreneurship rates of any country. One of the big problems we have in the West Highlands particularly is that a lot of people who are very dynamic will go to university down south and don’t come back.’

Some audience members voiced frustration at the lack of tools to support new and developing businesses, but Mr Henderson pointed out that the council offers apprenticeships which give people tools to create their own business.

Director of The Highland Soap Co, Archie MacDonald, pointed out that businesses such as The Wildcat in Fort William are thriving, but High Street buildings are not being kept in good enough condition.

‘Landlords and tenants need to look after these beautiful buildings,’ said Mr MacDonald. ‘If they are going to be attractive to businesses, then they need to be maintained.’

Panellist and chairman of West Highland College UHI, John Hutchison, suggested young people could learn from successful business people and they should do presentations for schools.

The panel were next asked about what was being done to create a low-carbon economy, with Ross MacKenzie, area manager for NHS Highland, first to speak.

He said: ‘As one of the big employers, we pay a levy on our carbon emissions. There has been a great deal of investment in biomass schemes and LED lighting. We have tried to get involved in electric cars, but there is suspicion among staff as to how well they will run.

‘A lot of our buildings are old as well and, in designing new ones, energy efficiency is a priority.’

Mr Hutchison said they have video conferencing to avoid lengthy car journeys, and Mr Henderson mentioned that the council has a dedicated team working towards lower emissions.

Mr MacDonald called current planning rules ‘a load of tosh’, as in construction of his cinema he had to truck out 20 lorry loads of stone from the site to be replaced with similar ones from down the road.

The polarising topic of short-term lets came up, with audience members in support of the idea as it gives home-owners and seasonal workers an opportunity to make extra income, but others were opposed because of the lack of affordable housing.

Mr MacKenzie said the lack of homes for new NHS staff is a ‘significant problem’ for attracting people and NHS has to lease homes for recruits before they find somewhere permanent.

The final point of discussion concerned Fort William’s High Street, and a suggestion to have a glass cover for the street, so people could use it whatever the weather, was met with applause.

The feeling overall was that the High Street is improving and Lochaber is not just a one-trick pony with tourism but has much more to offer people who want to live and work in the Outdoor Capital of the UK.