Around Lochaber with Angus MacDonald – 21.5.20

The A82 into Fort William is regularly congested in the summer, with drivers having to queue for anything up to an hour to get into the town. Photograph: Iain Ferguson

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The Forgotten West

Never in my lifetime has there been such a marked advantage to living in rural Scotland as there has been over the last 10 weeks. Fantastic weather, easy access to wide open spaces and comparatively safe from COVID.

When things return to normal it would be fantastic if the Scottish Government were to consider this article – for 50 years and more we have seen low salaries, poor transport infrastructure and emigration from the west. We need to see a balancing across Scotland.

Boris Johnston swept to a sizeable majority of MP’s in late 2019 largely on a swing of support from the traditional Labour seats of northern England to the Conservatives. Talk of the northern powerhouse, moving civil servants out of London, HS2, even proposing the House of Lords sits in Leeds while the Palace of Westminster gets refurbished has attracted considerable support. London is the financial and commercial centre of England, but there is a real move at Westminster to spread that wealth around.

In Scotland, wealthy Edinburgh is the equivalent of rich London. A Fraser of Allander report shows London had growth* of 99 per cent over the last 20 years but Edinburgh topped that with growth of 105 per cent, meanwhile in the same period muted growth of 85 per cent was achieved across Scotland as a whole. Since 2010 the population of Edinburgh has grown by 23 per cent, while in Argyll and Highland regions the population has actually fallen. And the gap is getting increasingly wide, not least in salaries, with Edinburgh accelerating away.

The central belt has had massive infrastructure spend over the last decade, widening of the M8 and M74, a second Forth Road Bridge, the Edinburgh Tram, and major new hospitals. Aberdeen has had its ring road and Inverness will benefit from the dualling of the A9.

In the year 1999, when Fergus Ewing was campaigning to be elected as an MSP for the Scottish Parliament, he told the assembled audience in the Fort William Nevis Centre that he had two commitments that he would deliver on if elected, firstly the replacement of the tired and outdated Belford Hospital, and secondly considerable improvements to the A82. Twenty years later, we are still waiting. In the Scottish Government Budget in February, Kate Forbes announced a sizeable increase in health spending, finally our new hospital may be built. Perhaps, however the year long delay of the opening of Edinburgh’s Sick Kids Hospital or the accident prone new Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital in Glasgow has knocked the confidence of Jeane Freeman our Health Secretary so much so that she is reluctant to sign off another significant hospital build.

Last November Kate Forbes said at Fort William’s Ideas Week that the A82 being repositioned along Loch Lomond was planned for 2025, although I suspect that that is the start of the process rather than cutting the ribbon. The Loch Lomond stretch is incredibly dangerous and a shocking welcome to visitors to the west highlands and Hebrides. Here in Fort William there can be up to an hour long queue of cars trying to get into Fort William in a normal summer, an alternative route is agreed, but the budget is never available.

The Scottish budget also saw £270m of expenditure on rail services being announced. Let the train take the strain? er, it takes three hours 45 minutes to travel the 108 miles between Glasgow and Fort William at a meandering 32mph and a good hour slower than travelling by road. (Point of interest here, the HS2 trains will travel at 250mph.) The west highland line was opened in 1894, has there been any upgrade since?

I regularly need to go to Skye on business, so from my home near Arisaig it made sense to take CalMac from Mallaig to Armadale, however on the winter timetable there are only two trips a day during weekdays and only one on Sundays. Really! The current £250m cost of the two new ferries that were to be built by Ferguson’s shipyard for £97m is well known, as is its ageing fleet which desperately needs replaced. These ferries are THE major concern of our island communities, for example Islay has serious concerns about freight capacity for shipping its whisky off the island.

I have wondered for some time how many of our young remain in the west highlands after finishing their education. Unless we have a good transport network, broadband and well paid jobs, then to the central belt they will continue to go.

The Scottish Government has voiced its support for ‘regional inclusive growth’, but there are precious little signs of financial commitment to improving our west coast infrastructure that was unfit for purpose 20 years ago when Scottish Parliament was born. Unless Holyrood decides to throw us a lifeline, unfortunately we are destined to continue to see slow growth and a declining population

*Growth here is defined as gross value added, the measure of the value of goods or services produced.