Not too splendid isolation
As storms and high winds ripped through Scotland this month there was an all too familiar headline.
While the total number of homes without power ended up as more than 100,000, one of the first to be confirmed and hardest-hit areas was in Scotland’s North West.
It was not the first time in the year extreme weather had left the country’s more rural communities struggling – in April, power company SSE faced a mammoth task to reconnect homes after heavy snow caused a generator to fail.
What the incidents highlight is the extra challenges that face the more remote and rural parts of Scotland – and nowhere is this more evident than on the issue of poverty.
Kinlochbervie in the north-west of Sutherland is a typical rural community.
On the northern shore of Loch Inchgard, it was traditionally a crofting community which had its numbers boosted by people fleeing the clearances in the 19th century before seeing a dip once again following an outbreak of potato blight.
A boom in fishing followed the Second World War and the area is now a popular location for tourists, enticed by the stunning scenery.
But like everywhere, it has people who are struggling on low incomes.
Joan MacKay manages the local Citizens Advice Bureau. Just like colleagues across the country, the main reason people come in is for advice on welfare and benefits.
But unlike more urban areas, her office is the only CAB for the whole of north and west Sutherland. Many appointments are over the phone or home visits, meaning she can be making a three-hour round trip to Lochinver or further afield.
“Like most citizens advice bureaux, it is welfare benefits that is our most common issue. It could be they are unable to pay their bills, or their benefits can be delayed for all sorts of reasons – maybe they haven’t sent a sick note in on time.
“There is no job centre near us – the nearest is in Wick, which is at least 100 miles away.
“Everything has to be done through the postal service or online, which isn’t easy because a lot of people don’t have access to the internet – there is no library, just a mobile library that comes every three weeks.”
Issues for the area, and other rural parts of Scotland, include a lack of full-time employment – a lot of work is seasonal, hotel work for the tourist boom in the summer; higher costs for everything from food to fuel and the colder temperatures which, combined with rising energy bills, mean higher proportions of people in fuel poverty.
While there have been many reports carried out to try to assess rural poverty, it has proved difficult to define.
The Scottish Government produces its own figures to assess levels of economic inequality across the country in its Index of Multiple Deprivation, breaking down areas into separate datazones. But these zones are often better at highlighting poverty in urban areas with more concentrated populations, than they are of the wider spread rural areas.
In July this year, Highlands and Islands Enterprise published a report – A Minimum Income Standard for Rural Scotland – aiming to establish exactly what it requires to ensure people living in rural communities are able to live at a socially acceptable standard.
It estimated that food budgets in rural areas of Scotland are typically between 10 and 20 per cent more than parts of rural England and can be up to 50 per cent more in some island communities.
Household goods and clothing can cost up to 30 per cent more because of extra considerations like delivery charges and with higher petrol costs, transport costs as much as £40 more per week.
Keeping homes warm in the winter is one of the big focuses, with costs between 50 and 90 per cent higher even in rural towns.
Even though HIE’s report does not attempt to set out the level of rural poverty, it shows the additional challenges that come with rural life.
John Finnie, an independent list MSP for Highlands and Islands, and a former councillor in Inverness, grew up in Lochaber and has spent most of his life in the Highlands.
He said: “The local authority once again is building council houses and has been doing so for a few years now. There’s a long way to go to pick up an issue which isn’t only related to the Highlands and that is the sell-off of former local authority stock under ‘right to buy’ – it is particularly crucial if there’s a village with half a dozen houses that have all been effectively disposed of, then you have no social housing.
“The quality of the private housing stock is often poor and that’s compounded by the fact that the weather can be harsher as well.
“Fuel is more expensive and you are in a really nasty, vicious circle of poor, damp quality housing, excessive cost to heat – what employment is available is not well remunerated and often might be some distance away.
“There are significant challenges – another of which is the simple isolation, because you can be isolated from other public services.”
The Highlands has one of the highest suicide rates in Scotland, in 2009/10 there were 103 probable suicides in the region, with a rate of 16.6 deaths per 100,000, level with Greater Glasgow and Clyde and second only to Shetland.
Finnie says, however, that he doesn’t want to “paint a picture of bleak misery” and that plans to further develop renewable energy have huge opportunities to boost employment and populations across the region.
He says: “There isn’t a corner of the globe that isn’t full of people from the Highlands.
“It would be great to see some of these people working in Brazil, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, etc, coming back and living with their families, because there is a range of skills that people have and we’ve yet to see the skills harnessed locally.”
He adds: “The other thing to be positive about is the University of the Highlands and Islands.
“Of course, people are enriched by moving and I’m not trying to have a little bubble in the Highlands, but there are people who have had to move away for higher education who hopefully, will have the option of staying in the Highlands – similarly, having a university in the Highlands will attract people in.”
But Finnie wants to see an improvement in infrastructure for the region particularly on transport links and housing and “a recognition that people have an entitlement to public
services regardless of where they live” such as access to healthcare and education.
“I am not suggesting that there should be a high school and hospital in every village, but there has to be a recognition of the additional cost connected with the infrastructure and an understanding that one size certainly doesn’t fit all.”
His former colleague on Highland Council, George Farlow, warns the depopulation in some areas can become “almost an economic clearance” and says that in one community, three families left over the summer – meaning a loss of eight children at the local school, not much for an urban school, but in a rural setting, it can be far more serious.
“Say, for instance, a policeman gets a promotion and his wife is a doctor or a school teacher.
“If the teacher goes, where on earth do you get another school teacher to fill that gap? “And if the number of children reduces below 20, a teacher loses their job.”
Alastair Nicolson, Head of Planning and Partnerships at Highlands and Islands Enterprise, said the minimum income report was about moving from anecdotes to evidence and would allow public services to ensure there was “equity of opportunity and provision” across the country.
HIE, in partnership with BT has confirmed a £150m project to bring high-speed broadband to the Highlands and Islands will mean 84 per cent of the homes and businesses will have good quality internet access, seeing speeds jump from 2MB, or maybe no connection at all, to 30MB.
In addition, he said the agency was investigating district heating schemes and what sort of business model would be needed to develop them to help heat communities, or what improvements could be made for people in more scattered communities who would not be within reach of a scheme.
He added that the Highlands still was an attractive place to live and work and census figures showed more people were moving there.
“People vote with their feet and these are places that people want to come and live, so there are lots of very attractive features to living in these parts of the country.
“What the public sector needs to do is make sure there is equity across all parts of the country.
“The Government’s strategy makes that very clear, the purpose is for all of Scotland to flourish to [promote] continuing sustainable economic growth so this piece of work was essentially to say what are the main challenges in remote rural Scotland and what are the things that the public sector can do to support it.”
The issues of rural poverty are by no means restricted to the Highlands though.
In the Scottish Borders, the council has brought out a new five-year strategy –Tackling Poverty and Financial Exclusion – which includes the challenges of rural poverty.
Lib Dem MSP Jim Hume, who represents South of Scotland, and was a former member of Scottish Enterprise Borders, said one of the big challenges for the area was transport.
The UK Chancellor George Osborne announced in his Autumn Statement that a 2p rise on fuel was being scrapped, which Hume said could benefit people in the region.
“That will be about £11 every time you fill up your car. For a lot of people in rural areas a car is not a luxury it’s a necessity.
“You fill up every week, you do big mileages and £11 each time soon adds up.”
The £300m Borders Railway is predicted by Transport Scotland to draw in £33m of benefits to the Scottish economy and inward investment to the local community.
He said: “There’s a perception the Borders is a million miles away from Edinburgh and the central belt but it’s not, in 30 minutes you can be in Peebles, in an hour you can be right into the middle of all of it.”
While investment is important to ensure rural areas are not left behind – it is not just about the money.
Finnie says: “No matter how much money you put towards something, it’s not going to take Kinlochbervie or Lochinver any closer to Inverness geographically.
“People value their public services, they value their school teachers and cleaners and they value the people who keep the roads open in the winter. It’s terribly important we don’t turn the Highlands into a playground – that we have living, vibrant communities.”