Christmas in the Trenches

The guns fell silent and white flakes drifted gently down from a lowering sky. On one side, concealed within the deep scar of a trench, crouched the defenders –the Patriots – still reliving the last furious encounter with the enemy. On the other side of the desolate field, cratered with the remains of constant bombardment, the British Bombardiers Company (BBC) wondered whether yet another broadcast plea to the rebels was worth trying.

Then, quite suddenly, a head appeared at the lip of the little gully. Eyes peered through the billowing snow towards the Patriots. A ragged garment – was it a dirty cotton vest – broke surface tied to a splinter of wooden pit prop. Slowly, arms extended on either side, the green-clad figure emerged fully on the empty plain. The tattered flag hung limply from his hand. A whistle sounded and, clearly echoing in the stillness, a voice bellowed: ‘Enemy in sight.’ The ratcheting sound of weapons being cocked could be heard. Followed by more silence.

Instead of the exploding bedlam of frightened men firing erratically, the still silence persisted. On either side exhausted fighters lay in the cold mud, each praying to himself that it would continue. One whispered: ‘What’s written on the flag?’ Holding the binoculars steady his mate read slowly: ‘Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation.’

Down the line a Patriot climbed unsteadily out of the freezing earth tomb and moved stiffly towards the other man. Behind him, eyes widened at the sight of an unarmed man risking everything in a deadly arena where the slightest movement always triggered a fusillade. They approached each other carefully, eyes never leaving the other, until they were close enough to touch.

Each saw, not a combatant nor an enemy, but a mirror image of himself. As they stood, uncomprehending, irregular lines of uniformed men were converging slowly all along the trench lines. At first language was difficult but soon the sound of animated conversation and laughter resounded in the snowy air.

Cigarettes were exchanged, chocolate shared. A football bumped through shell craters.

Minutes later, without signal, the lines began drifting apart, reversing at first then turning their backs. One by one the figures disappeared back into the ground, to await the order to fire. The void of no man’s land was restored as if nothing had ever happened. The silence descended again with the snow, unbroken by birdsong.

Merry Christmas, one and all…

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From Our Correspondent

The retirement of Colin Blane after a lifetime in BBC radio journalism that took him from Beijing to Johannesburg to Brussels to Glasgow is a reminder of the contribution programme-makers have made to our lives. We hear them daily from flashpoints around the world, sometimes literally from a front line under fire, giving detailed analysis of perplexing events. Colin was with Nelson Mandela when he was freed. Jim Muir, a Scot from Lochaber, is a lifelong Middle East expert. Another, Alan Johnston, was kidnapped by the Army of Islam. I know journalists from other countries, often living in distressed societies, who cherish the sound of the BBC World Service bringing them valuable information they trust.

Our world has been shaped in many ways by the BBC through documentaries and debates, dramas and light entertainment. The breadth of output dwarfs anything else – 10 UK radio channels, seven ‘national’ outlets and 40 regional stations, a battery of television services from BBC America to BBC Persian. It gives us iplayer and Gaelic language. The scale and diversity makes it the world’s biggest broadcaster.

My personal pride was in connecting people in Scotland through a shared interest in our country and reflecting the wider world. For the first time in my life I felt part of the fabric of the country. Presenting for the BBC was the single most memorable job I had in 45 years.

Which is why I have become concerned at the direction taken by the BBC as it wrestles with a multi-channel digital environment on the one hand and state containment by insecure politicians on the other. I have been vocal on the shortcomings of the BBC in Scotland echoing the worries of many existing staff. And if there is a genuine desire to have a broadcaster we can be proud of we need to pressure it to change because the BBC isn’t going anywhere. Even after independence.

The idea that we opt out of consuming the BBC or not pay the licence fee is fine for those who don’t want to be part a diverse and multi-faceted public media. But it isn’t SNP policy to write off the BBC. There is no plan on the day after National Liberation to switch it off. Jackie bird won’t be getting her jotters.

On the contrary. ‘The SBS will continue to co-commission, co-produce and co-operate with the BBC network. The SBS will commission or produce a share of BBC network original productions reflecting the Scottish population share, in terms of both hours and spending. These arrangements will shift commissioning power and resources from the BBC to Scotland, while providing continuity for the BBC, consistent with its recent moves to decentralise from London’, says Scotland’s Future, the government’s Guide to Independence, and still the template for a post-Yes Scotland.

SBS, the Scottish Broadcasting Service, will be established not to replace the BBC but explicitly to work with it. ‘Under our proposals, a Scottish Broadcasting Service, providing TV, radio and online services, will be established as a publicly funded public service broadcaster, working with the BBC in a joint venture’, says the SNP. It will ‘initially be founded on the staff and assets of BBC Scotland, and will broadcast on TV, radio and online.’

Non-payers beware: ‘On independence, the licence fee will be the same as in the rest of the UK, and all current licence fee payment exemptions and concessions will be retained’ and ‘Existing licences for broadcasters in Scotland will be fully honoured.’ They won’t be ditching BBC programmes that drive nationalists mad. ‘Evidence also suggests that people in Scotland want more Scottish programming alongside access to the best from the rest of the UK and the wider world.’ And: ‘Scottish viewers and listeners should continue to have access to all their current channels’. When the document says SBS will ‘have the right’ to opt out of current BBC programming, it implies that services we currently know will be virtually unchanged. And remember, during the indyref how the Yes side scoffed at suggestions we might not get some programmes from the network…

In other words, the plan for independence is to rename the organisation the SBS and base it on the existing framework and arrangements. We will have a new channel in addition to BBC One but there is no suggestion that its news progammes will be served by anyone other than the existing newsroom, at least initially. There will inevitably be changes but there is no provision for wholesale clear-outs of staff. And in any case, recruitment won’t deliver what some critics seem to want which is supportive rather than critical coverage (As in the National). They’ll still get stories they don’t like. The way to eliminate bias is to hire professional staff with effective editorial oversight. Anyone praying for an age of McCarthy at Pacific Quay is in line for a let-down. The Greens are also against breaking up the BBC and instead prefer a federal structure.

The emphasis on commissioning will change over time with an expectation of more Scottish content. But the SNP recognises that it can’t just start again from scratch even if it wanted to. The BBC, for all its faults, can’t be reinvented and it certainly can’t be replicated in Scotland. What we can do is carve out a specialist service using the existing organisation and we can brand it as truly Scottish. We can scrutinise it at Holyrood and up the Scotland-focussed content. This is realism from the SNP, a typically pragmatic approach miles away from any string-em-up hysteria of the mob. BBC haters are heading for disappointment. Its elimination is a non-starter. And that’s official policy.

As I wrote at the time of the row over the roadside hoardings plan highlighting BBC bias, the constant raging about the BBC sounds scary to those not yet committed to Yes. It makes them wonder what kind of people nationalists are. That doesn’t excuse execrable journalism but it should give us pause about the impression we give to those we need to win over. We are each entitled to hold any view we wish but if we are truly interested in furthering the cause and ultimately in winning, we have to promote our case as rational and balanced. Some of the recent messages here stand in stark contrast to the measured and insightful contributions on, for example, land reform and crofting. There was me thinking we were better than that.

There is a window of opportunity here for Donalda MacKinnon but a short one. The new charter starts in January and yet here is a new Director for Scotland entitled to some leeway being new in post. She must have made her pitch in the job interview and if it included something radical – like a Scottish Six – she is entitled to claim it now. Let’s hope so.

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A Man Writes…

If I don’t mention my leather trousers, is it alright if I talk about women in power? I ask because I belong to a generation of hacks who wrote stories like ‘First Woman Bus Driver in Dundee’ or ‘Yes, Ma’am – New Top Cop is a Female.’ We were awestruck that someone who wasn’t a man might be put in control because, of course, the backgroundhought was: Imagine men being told what to do by a woman.

Half a century later and we’re still doing it. No matter how many women enter the workplace and rise through the ranks, there is still a frisson when one emerges top of the pile. She breaks the glass ceiling – and doesn’t even bother to sweep up the mess. Huh! What are things coming to…

BBC Scotland has just appointed its new Director – what we used to call the Controller, in that mildly sinister lingo of the State apparatus so redolent of George Orwell (former staffer Eric Blair). And, as even feminist Lesley Riddoch pointed out, Donalda MacKinnon is the first woman to hold the post. Do we still rejoice at that? Will it make any difference that she is female? Some of the women I remember in executive roles in the BBC, far from having a more nuanced style than a male, were brisk to the point of rudeness, often snappy and demanding. Broadcasting was a leader in affirmative action to balance gender in the staff so there is a long history of women forging careers there. I have to say, in my experience, it was clear over time that there really was no difference between the sexes. Both could be either easy and creative or they could be brash and impatient. The fact is you get used to working with each other and stop thinking about differences. The same thing happened with your place of origin so that you were constantly working with people from Ireland, Australia, America, the sub continent or pretty much anywhere. Like a university, the BBC is a melting pot, the living proof that people rub along whatever their background.

Donalda is also a Top Gael. (The clue’s in the name, really. I always think it sounds as if they wanted a boy to work the croft but were landed with a girl.) She’s from Harris and takes over from Kenny the Gael who’s from Mull which makes an inspirational and possibly unique achievement with one Gael succeeding another in an English language organisation. That in itself is another mark of how affirmative action can bear fruit. The BBC has provided an employment gateway through the Gaelic language for generations from the Gaidhealtacht. It doesn’t mean, of course, they wouldn’t have made it anyway but it is heartening that there are successful examples to be emulated when there is a drive to broaden the use of the language.

A woman. A Gael. These are signals, but do they mean anything in real terms?

We have to hope so because I think the BBC is in historically poor shape. It is undergoing a transformation into a kind of publishing house for outside productions with the Beeb’s own programme makers bidding for contracts against independent companies. It can’t compete for the major sporting events. The new on demand studios like Netflix are entering traditional BBC speciality areas including costume drama. Its home-grown offer gets stolen (Top Gear, Bake-Off). And the sure-footed news and current affair offering on which so much of the respect is built, is floundering. Is Panorama a must-see? Does anyone take Newsnight seriously? Are right-wing millionaires (Neil, Dimbleby) really the best presenters we’ve got?

Then there’s Scotland. The referendum was a tipping point because it exposed just how limited the BBC’s resources had been allowed to become. The failure to nurture and retain talent. The deliberate removal of experience. The creation of the worst industrial relations the unions had known. Low morale and bullying management.

The main cultural organisation in the country and it couldn’t reflect the single greatest event in a century. Instead we had stagey debates with the usual suspects and, apart from an occasional incisive film, the BBC, with outposts in Shetland, Orkney, Stornoway, Inverness, Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dumfries and Selkirk, totally failed to convey the town hall phenomenon that swept the nation. While Scotland was in a democratic ferment, the Beeb sat with its headphones on, feet up on the desk, lost in its own bubble.

So will Donalda resolve this? Maybe. The trouble is that she was there all along. When the unions howled at the appalling news management team and its impact on quality, she was mute. When the redundancy programme, cunningly deferred everywhere else, was brutally front-loaded in Scotland to push staff out the door, she was there. When the women of the newsroom took their worries about bullying and intimidation to her, as the senior female at BBC Scotland, she rebuffed them.

Which brings me to my main argument. I’m glad she got the job out of the panel available and have hopes that she will impose a more responsive regime than her predecessor. But my information is that there were only three final candidates, all of them existing staff. Two men, who are both accountants, and Donalda…all of them long-term Pacific Quay insiders. What kind of choice is that? Three institutional figures who are part of the existing set-up which has performed so poorly?

This is the biggest cultural position in Scotland with a salary, last time I looked, of nearly £200,000 and there is not a single credible candidate from outside the existing staff structure of BBC Scotland. That is one tiny gene pool.

Donalda is the only one with any programme making experience and that’s a long time ago. Why are two accountants on the short list anyway? Accountants! This is the thriving hub of digital creativity making soaps, documentaries, comedy, drama, news and sport – and radio – and they seriously considered an accountant to lead it? Where are the heads of the successful independent production houses the BBC itself puts so much store by? Where the applications from broadcasters in Europe and Scandinavia or the English-speaking world of Australasia and the Americas? Where is even the faintest whiff of edginess or new thinking or aspiration and ambition…

Instead we get the predictable insider, BBC-savvy careerists already comfortable and unchallenged in their assumptions, limited in outlook and damned by their involvement with the previous establishment. What a contrast to the wailing over non-Scottish leaders in arts organisations occasioned by Alasdair Gray. If only…

She faces another institutional hurdle – the role of her predecessor Kenny MacQuarrie, who instead of taking a long overdue retirement, has been promoted to head of what the Beeb likes to call Nations and Regions (that’s Scotland and Cornwall for example). In other words, he is still her boss. He will still hold the cold hand of budget and executive control over her efforts as a kind of Witch Finder General for London and, given his known fealty to HQ, we can expect that to be enthusiastically pursued. He was no fan of a Scottish Six – as soon as the public went off the boil, so did he. If she wants to proceed down that route, she may have to content with his resistance.

Still, it’s up to her. She can either break with the past and force her way or go quiet and acquiesce. I think her first move should be to forge a relationship with two other women in power – Fiona Hyslop and Nicola Sturgeon. If there are battles ahead, they’re the best allies she could have to fight the grudging culture of London HQ.

The trouble with insiders though is that they learn that getting on depends on getting in – you stay in the good books and longer you last without rocking the boat the higher you rise. For two long that has been the priority in Scotland. It has been self-preservation over national celebration. Obedience and timidity cannot rebuild the respect the BBC has lost in Scotland.

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An Auld Sang

One of the satisfying aspects of running a blog is the quality of response it can elicit. It doesn’t matter if the replies agree or not with the original but that they are insightful and written to inform (I get plenty of the other kind). I have broken out this contribution to Alasdair Stephen’s blog because it lends perspective and analysis to the topic as well as a different outlook and optimism. My thanks to Steven Asaneilean in Skye. He writes:

Housing is a long-standing issue in Skye and elsewhere – as it was 20 years ago. I, like Alasdair, could no longer afford to buy the land and build the house that I did in 1998 (land cost then £18,000, now £70,000 for example).

But the problems begin when we look at these challenges to rural areas in isolation. We need an umbrella approach that looks at housing, transport, school, sustained (and well paid) employment, etc.

I am sceptical too about Alasdair’s faith in IT. My own interest is in healthcare delivery to remote communities. To quote a recent iScot article:

“The Dewar Committee Report of 1912 led to the formation of the Highlands and Islands Medical Scheme which itself formed the blueprint for the NHS over 40 years later.

One of the issues highlighted by the Report was the poverty of telecommunications in rural areas – “There is abundant evidence to show that liberal extension of telephone communication in connection with the medical service would be a great public boon, and pre-eminently in the case of insular and remote centres where a trained nurse is stationed. She could discuss a case with the doctor and take his detailed instructions. At present efforts are often made to communicate by telegraph, which for purposes of medical inquiry and advice, is cumbersome and unsatisfactory. The Committee were surprised to be told that the Post Office was contemplating the withdrawal of telegraph service from some of the remote Western Islands. We strongly deprecate any such action”.

Sadly 100 years later perhaps not much has changed. The Offcom report “Connected Nations 2015 (Scotland)” found that “it remains the case that the individual nations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as rural England, see lower availability of communication services”.

On every measure Scotland fares worse than the rest of the UK. For “old fashioned” 2G voice coverage Scotland stands at 95% compared to 98% in England and 97% for the UK as a whole. For outdoor 3G voice and data the figure for Scotland is 79% compared to 88% for the UK and 91% for England. And for superfast broadband coverage the figures are 73%, 83% and 84% respectively.

But when we “drill down” to rural Scotland the differences are even starker. The coverage for super fast broadband in rural Scotland is as little as 31% and whilst urban Scotland enjoys average download speeds of 31Mbits/sec in rural Scotland the figure is only 11Mb/s. Overall in Scotland only about 14% of premises are unable to get download speeds in excess of 10Mb/s. But in rural Scotland it’s 57%, with Argyll and Bute fairing even worse at 70% and the Western Isles at a whopping 90%.

Around 20% of premises in Scotland are complete or partial “not spots” for indoor voice and outdoor data coverage. But in rural Scotland the figure is 73%.

Dr Andrew Inglis, a Consultant in Emergency Medicine who works for Scotland’s Emergency Medical Retrieval Service, says “a modern reliable mobile phone network across remote and rural Scotland would benefit the NHS in terms of improved quality of healthcare and reduced costs. The use of phone, camera, video and computer technology can enhance the delivery and sustainability of locally delivered care with savings in time and cost. Rural general practice is challenging with recruitment and logistics difficulties. Communication is a key issue. Out-of-hours cover for remote general practice can be problematic and many rural areas have concerns regarding emergency ambulance provision”. He distributes regular updates on communication issues but hasn’t done so now for about 11 months. When asked why recently he said it was because nothing had really changed in that time.

There is a growing body of evidence from across the world as to the value of out of hospital photographic and video links e.g. with road traffic accidents and other case of trauma, dermatological conditions, etc.

In addition, the ability to transmit data remotely can be invaluable – a ECG in someone with chest pain or the home monitoring of someone with a chronic medical condition – reducing the need for costly and time consuming visits to hospital clinics and allowing early intervention from local primary healthcare teams. A project in the Western Isles showed that the use of such technology reduced appointment cancellations and as a result reduced travel costs for visiting consultants.

A poor rural mobile network prevents communities from taking advantage of these advances in technology and ends up costing the NHS more.

In 2015 the Scottish Government, working in partnership with COSLA, BT, Highlands & Islands Enterprise and the EU Regional Development Fund, launched an ambitious £412 million project aiming to extend high speed broadband to around 95% of Scotland by the end of March 2018. But a target of 95% of the population still excludes quarter of a million people.

And there are major challenges for delivering such services to rural Scotland compared to other rural parts of the UK. For example, longer line lengths and longer distances from exchanges results in serious signal deterioration between the fibre cabinet and the end users of the service.

The Scottish Government’s programme is being monitored by Audit Scotland who published their latest update on 18th August 2016. It talked about the “good progress” being made but acknowledged that “extending coverage to rural areas remains a challenge”. So far the Government scheme is ahead of target but “the remainder of the roll out will be more challenging”.

Caroline Gardner, Scotland’s Auditor General said “It’s encouraging to see good progress being made in rolling out fibre broadband. However, there is a lot still to be done by the Scottish Government if it is to achieve its vision of a world class digital infrastructure, particularly in improving download speeds in rural areas. It’s important that it continues to monitor the cost and progress of broadband roll out so that these communities aren’t excluded”.

There is also another potential “dark spot” on the horizon over which Scottish Government has no control.

The Emergency Services Network (ESN) is the means by which emergency services communicate within and among themselves. The UK Government put the current Airwaves service up for tender and awarded the contract for providing a new system to EE – a company which recently advised some customers in rural Scotland to switch to alternative providers as they could no longer guarantee a service in their locality. It’s clear that if EE are to match the existing Airwave service they will have to significantly improve their current level of remote rural coverage.

Those of us working in remote rural healthcare can look with some degree of envy at other parts of the world. The following was gleaned from a recent email exchange with international colleagues.

In Labrador, Canada telehealth via 3G wireless is provided to all remote communities and between a general hospital in Goose Bay and a specialist hospital in St Johns, Newfoundland. This service is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The emergency department in Goose Bay uses telehealth to support the management of cardiac arrest or major trauma by remote teams on the ground. The Labrador telehealth system also supports primary care in the management of acute and chronic disease and provides access to specialist opinion. The service is felt to save money and save lives.

Meanwhile remote rural healthcare workers in Queensland, Australia use telemedicine as a routine part of their medical practice. Tiny Thursday Island in the Torres Strait routinely uses telemedicine to link with specialist centres over 1000Km away.

And a conference held in Inverness earlier this year heard how a community-led health service uses telecommunication to support healthcare assistants to provide services to remote Alaskan communities sometimes with as few as 20 households; in northern Sweden the remote area of Norrbotten, an area larger than Scotland but with only quarter of a million people, has universal 4G coverage; the Peruvian part of the Amazon basin mobile phones, charged with solar energy, are being used to help local women to provide healthcare in their own villages; in Kenya nomadic people are using mobile phones to access healthcare consultations remotely; and in Rwanda they are aiming to provide 4G coverage to over 95% of their population to allow a new generation of doctors and healthcare workers to work in remote parts of that country.

British Telecom seems to be aware of the challenges. They have recently launched a trial project covering only 20 household in the Township of North Tolsta in Lewis. A new technology, Long Reach VSDL, aims to overcome the loss of speed caused by the long distances from the fibre cabinet to the end users.

Other rural communities in Scotland are taking matters into their own hands. The local community development trust on the island of Coll have teamed up with the Scottish Futures Trust and Vodafone to have a community-owned mast providing 3G and 4G signals for the island as an alternative solution to the provision of broadband.

In Argyll a community-led and community-owned project, GigaPlus Argyll is being supported by Highlands & Island Enterprise in their attempts to download speeds from 2Mb/s to as much as 50Mb/s in Colonsay, Mull, Iona, Jura, Islay, Lismore and Craignish.

So whilst the doubts of Hollyrood’s opposition parties and the caution expressed by Audit Scotland are undoubtedly justified there are definite glimmers of hope out there. And perhaps by 2020 we here in rural Scotland can have the kind of telecommunications network that other remote parts of the world already take for granted.

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A Highland Home

I know the SNP are at fault for rail delays and that Humza Yousaf puts on a uniform every day and drives the train to Edinburgh but keeps making mistakes and lets it break down. I even know it’s the government’s fault when a landlord kicks a tenant farmer off his land. Indeed, it’s clear to me that letting Donald Trump build a golf course here led directly to his election as President. Thank you, Mr Salmond.

But there’s another couple of things I believe the SNP is responsible for and which require prompt action. The second of my ‘things’ I’ll come to in a later post. But first, the following plea reveals a dearth of pro-active thinking and smart action that lets down the record of our government – genuinely. This is not a contrived partisan moan designed to turn people against them but rather a desperate appeal for the kind of rapid, flexible thinking that should be the hallmark of a smart, successful government. It is written by a pro-independence friend and neighbour who runs an architectural company and is reprinted with his permission. It first appeared in the West Highland Free Press….

On Saturday evening I met the contractor who built my house on Skye 20 years ago. I pressed him for two figures: How much would that house cost to build now to the same specification? £150,000 he replied. How much to meet modern building regulations? £250,000 he answered. The next morning this was the basis of my ‘update’ on Facebook. I contrasted this with the costs of my house 20 years ago.

Land valued at £9,000.

Construction cost of £35,000.

A Rural Home Ownership grant from the government covering a third of my costs. My contribution; £22,000. That was two and a half time my income – the expectation at the time as to what the limit of your mortgage should be.

Today’s figures: £80,000 for a plot in Sleat (although some sell for well over £100,000).

£220,000 to build the house (I though £250,000 was a bit high).

No Government grants.

Two and a half times a typical salary of a 26-year-old? Perhaps £50,000.

Money required to build a house as I did? £300,000.

I outlined the consequences of such arithmetic…young people leaving…schools losing children…young people being internally displaced on Lewis to find accommodation in Stornoway…communities and Gaelic dying. The reaction to the post was telling. Almost immediately it went viral. By the next day it had been shared 500 times, liked 1.2 thousand times with hundreds of comments. It had revealed an anger and a sadness from the younger generation. They wanted to stay in their communities. They wanted to have jobs and families and homes. But that chance was not there for them.

The situation is worse than the bald numbers suggest. Self-build mortgages for young people who – as they often did in the past – construct their own houses with their own labour, help from friends and favours from local tradesmen – have almost disappeared. Even if you have family land from a croft, the figures still make it almost impossible to build. Areas like Lewis are in a worse predicament than Skye. Land may be more expensive on Skye but house values are much higher. Build on Lewis and you are immediately into huge negative equity. What bank will lend on that basis?

The housing situation is therefore grim. But if it is solved the rural economy could be utterly transformed. Why? The simple answer is the IT revolution and tourism. This summer saw a record numbers of tourists flock to Skye and across the Highland and islands. There are countless opportunities for small businesses to be set up and offer high end tourism experiences.

The best people to do this are the locals within the crofting communities. A few years ago I remember the Highlands came second to Norway as the best tourist destination in the world in a Lonely Planet survey. What marked the Highlands down? People wanted to hear Gaelic. They wanted to see crofting. They wanted traditional music in pubs. The wanted to interact with real local life. This cultural tourism could transform the Western Isles especially. There is a huge market waiting to be tapped. But who will exploit it if the young cannot build their own homes let alone build their own businesses?

Likewise, the Highlands and island should be given broadband. Not mediocre broadband but the internet as fast as London, Hong Kong or Singapore. This infrastructure investment is more important than any new road, bridge, ferry or airport. Countless businesses could be established and could thrive providing a mind-boggling range of services. Ok, the petrol is more expensive, as is the local shop. The roads are not very good but you are living in the most beautiful place on earth!   But again, to do this there needs to be access to housing, not just for the business owner, but also for staff.

Because I built my house 20 years ago I could start a business with my brother. It now employs 20 people. We are lucky enough to be able to rent an office at the Sabhal Mor Ostaig. In the same building is Young Films, a previously London-based company that moved to Skye partly because they have access to super-fast broadband and talented graduates from the university – an example for the rest of the Highlands. But half of our staff are in Glasgow. That is simply because of a lack of suitable housing on the island.

So what is to be done? First of all vision and leadership is required from Nicola Sturgeon (this is not an issue for a junior Housing Minister). The vision is the thriving, dynamic economy that could be created. The leadership is in making it happen. That is the difficult bit. I have some ideas.

Firstly, the approach now and of the past will not work. There are lots of great people involved in charities, housing associations and cooperatives who have been working for years to provide social housing. It is scratching the surface. This requires massive state intervention.

The government should build the biggest cross laminate timber (CLT) factory in the world. This new construction technique – houses built from a solid wood laminate made from the pine forests of the Highlands – will be an incredibly green form of construction. It will also be a new industry for Scotland, linked to research at our best universities such as Napier, and one that will also transform the economics of forestry. CLT kits should be modular and cutting edge, developed in tandem with changes in building regulations that will allow these to be built cost effectively, providing high quality, well designed housing. The kits should be provided free to young people who qualify. Local tradesmen and contractors can erect and complete.

The fundamental purpose behind crofting should be to keep people on the land and to allow communities to grow. If you are a crofter you should be obliged (or forced even) to provide a small plot of land for any family member who wants to stay. Children at the local school are more important than sheep. Likewise a portion of common grazing in each township should be set aside for housing for the wider community. Younger brothers, older and younger sisters (as well as other locals) should not be denied the opportunity to build a home just because they did not inherit the croft.

Crofters should be given something very important in return. That is access to loans so they can diversify their crofts into tourism. That could mean money to renovate blackhouses, or to build modern sheilings – holiday homes on the crofts that can provide income and employment and an authentic cultural tourism experience for the visitor. This will also take pressure off the existing housing stock, much of which is being used as holiday homes when it could be rented as family homes.

Land reform, Land Value Tax, compulsory land purchases, council housing, changes to planning and building regulations could also help as well as some limited grants to service sites.

This is not a problem that will be addressed by devolving more power to local communities. It is not a problem that will be solved by giving more power to crofters and community councils. Unfortunately, people argue, fall out and become unreasonable when it comes to housing. This requires Big Government to say, I am sorry, but a generation has been let down. We will not stand by and watch them be betrayed any longer. These amazing young people that the Highlands produce every year should be given the chance to live, love and prosper in their own communities. We will make it happen.

Alasdair Stephen, Director of Hebhomes, Glasgow and Skye.

http://www.hebrideanhomes.com

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