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Caithness News Bulletins May 2003

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Rob Gibson MSP Makes His First Speech In The Scottish Parliament

Deputy Presiding Officer, Members,
The success of this parliament will be measured, in the minds of the voters I was elected to represent, by reversing depopulation that blights much of the Highlands and Islands today. We lose most of our youngest and brightest despite the huge sustainable resources the area contains.

The First Minister acknowledged last year that emigration is a blight, just how much is revealed by the 2001 census. Caithness lost 4.5% in ten years, Sutherland 0.5%, Lochaber nearly 3%, Orkney 2%, Shetland 2.4%, Argyll 3.3% and the Western Isles over 7%. The true extent is disguised by the arrival of well-off retirees who are far less economically active.

Losing major employers, like Nigg oil fabricators and the tweed makers Hunters of Brora force the economically active to leave. This has to be reversed. Beyond Inverness, the Inner Moray and Skye it is the prime challenge because a growing population will then grow our economy.

During the election campaign Jack McConnell promised to focus on our needs noting a disengagement, particularly between the Highlands and Islands and the Scottish Parliament.  I disagree – it is disengagement with an Executive who refuse to see the need for more powers for the Parliament to build our future!

In-migration could help, asylum seekers with skills could fill many jobs, but success will be measured when the children of families raised in the H&I can find work there. Not unreasonably people want government to offer equal opportunities for their children to have the choice of work wherever they are raised. Compare this picture with the lives of families in rural Norway, Finland and the west of Ireland whose governments put them at the heart of of these small independent European nations. Cultural confidence, ecological diversity, buoyant economies and local democratic powers are far better than we experience.

Fundamental to rebuilding population is the availability of land for affordable housing. How often do youngsters seek in vain for a house site in a crofting community, or a building plot around a small town? Landlords, planning law and water authorities are the problem. So is the only alternative for the enterprising to leave?

The Partnership Agreement claims that the National Planning Framework will support area regeneration, enhanced powers of the Land Fund will assist purchase of land for community activity. It says rural and remote communities will have their distinctive needs reflected across the range of government policy and initiatives.

But will the Coalition bite the bullet and free up land for affordable housing? Will they beef up compulsory purchase powers for local authorities and communities to buy land at prices local residents and housing associations can meet?

In the last four years the Executive has failed to give this real priority in case they upset landowners. What about the people? If the First Minister’s programme means anything it must meet people’s needs. Yet the Partnership Agreement skates over urgent to make housing land available. Does the Coalition really care that the lifeblood of young and active citizens is draining from huge areas of Scotland as we speak? We have boundless green energy potential and acres of underused land. The government must back repopulation of the most endangered species in the north of Scotland, and let people build the modern homes that they need to kick start the economy there.