Cllr Andrew Jarvie is a councillor for Inverness South and the Leader of the Conservative Group on the Highland Council.
Whilst many English Local Authorities consist of a mix of single-tier unitary and multi-tier councils, in April of 1995, all of Scotland’s district and county councils were merged into single unitary authorities. This was meant to bring about spending efficiencies, deliver better services, and make it clearer to residents who ran what and where to go if they had an issue.
For the Highland Council, covering an area nearly ten times that of Luxembourg, and a third of Scotland, this experiment of a monolithic Council has completely failed. It must be broken down into smaller, more local Local Authorities to meet the diverse needs of the different communities which make up the Highlands.
Our area can often be forgotten as just being “up there”. But many Highland areas were once industry leaders on the global stage. Two sites on the Moray Firth were central to the fabrication of North Sea oil structures, whilst Caithness hosted the Dounreay experimental reactor and the Royal Navy’s test reactor. Any one of those four is something for an area to proudly boast of, but for an area of little over 200,000 people, it was phenomenal.
The Highland Council was created at the same time Dounreay was taken offline and the timeline for the decommissioning of the site and the end to 3,000 jobs was known decades ahead. The McDermott’s fabrication yard also wound down at the same time.
At the same time as these large industrial centres began closing, the looming demographic shift across all of the Highlands became apparent. Every corner and community in the Highlands has faced huge sustainability concerns.
You would be forgiven for thinking that the formation of a new Council and the establishment of a Scottish Government, at the same time as the Highlands was going through all this change, would have been a gift to help the area transition? Well, the answer to that depends on where you live.
Inverness became the fastest growing City in Europe; Caithness and the Far North are staring down the barrel of a 30 per cent population decline. In this time, throughout the whole transition, this Council has been run by so-called “independents” (who have a Leader, a party line, and vote en bloc), the Lib Dems, and even the SNP. All have a hand in overseeing the unequal decline in the Highlands.
This is where the second and most critical point comes in the failure of gigantic Unitary Authorities; the disparity.
Just how can one Council adequately respond to the needs of people and communities so very different? How can just one Council realistically deliver for North West Sutherland, a ward half the size of Wales and a population of 7000 – and a City of 70,000 people 100 miles to the south?
There are no winners. The school estate across the region is sub-optimal, but for different reasons. In the City, the schools are generally newer but are pushed beyond capacity because of the huge housing developments. Outwith the City, over half of the schools are older and rated in ‘poor’ physical condition. Because of the lack of new development, too many of these schools are miles down the list for replacement.
But the biggest gripe of residents across the Highlands is the abysmal state of the roads, with the 2021 national roads survey ranking the Highland Council fifth worse in the country. In the City, we tolerate potholed roads and ever growing traffic from continued development – but if you take the rural areas, the lower spend per mile on roads maintenance really shows. The lower spend is justified by lower use, but completely ignores the reality of worse weather and the enormous tourism boom. Caithness gets 76p per road mile compared to £1 for Inverness. But it is no exaggeration to say that many of these rural roads can be confused for farm tracks. Last year one was so bad it caused £2000 worth of damage to my own car, these are not just the odd pothole.
Not only does the centralised bureaucracy in Inverness rarely venture out to see the reality faced by rural residents; when decisions are made to eventually make repairs it’s on such a piecemeal approach. One member of staff complained to me that his roads’ workers are only allowed to paint the white lines on the verges; there is a separate team who paint the white lines in the middle of the road and they are based in Inverness.
Whilst the culture of senior Leaders who rarely venture outwith their own areas far from helps matters, it doesn’t get over the geography. You would argue that surely it’s the job of local councillors to report this and champion their areas, but in such a self-defeating move the idea has seeped in that to be a senior Councillor, you must live in the City. This has resulted in all bar two of the Strategic Committee Chairs living within 30 minutes of the City. Trying to represent your area is a real challenge.
For all these reasons, in recognising the simple reality, and nearly three decades of experience, the core Highland Conservative policy for the forthcoming Highland Council election is to make it the last. We are standing up resolutely to the calls of many for a review of local democracy to break up the unworkable Highland Council into smaller Councils which would actually represent and dedicate themselves to meeting the needs of their local residents.