Time to get behind Argyll and Bute Council

Argyll and Bute Council is currently contesting two decisions, both vital to Argyll and the Isles.

In each case it is right to do so. In each case it must win – for the sake of the future of this place.

This is an occasion where the council needs the full support of its constituency – NOW; and an occasion when it could not be more important for the constituency that the Council wins – because Argyll and the Isles is in a bad way and worse is coming.

The first dispute is with the Scottish Government, which the Council is asking to review the validity of the annual funding awarded for what is unarguably the most challenging council area in Scotland to manage. Argyll and Bute’s revenue funding is a long way short of the demands and needs of this specific territory.

The second dispute is with the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland. The Commission has proposed to reduce the council from 36 to 33 councillors on account of a falling population. It has also substantially redrawn the boundary of Oban North and Lorn from northeast to southwest, breaking long standing affinities between rural communities, defying geographical logic and making a nonsense out of a ward known as ‘Mid Argyll’.

In both of these cases there is a fundamental failure of governance – the classic one of imposing a bureaucratic template upon a territory it cannot accommodate. The centralising urge is to make everywhere and everyone the same, so that they can be funded, counted and managed in the same way. Life, in its ‘infinite variety’ is not like that. And when it comes to ‘infinite variety’, we’re talking about Argyll.

In its appointed senior executive management and in its elected chamber from where the political management comes, Argyll and Bute Council has neither adequate ability nor  acceptable integrity. Audit Scotland says it has seen worse – which is why it doesn’t bother to do its given job in this part of the world.

But here we are, in a genuine crisis, represented by our unable and untrustworthy council which is what we’ve got. In practice, the reality is that no other variation of this council would be any different – so let’s get on with it.

These are our battles and it is Argyll and the Isles itself that will win or lose. In the old style of battle, the Council is the champion that goes forward into hand-to-hand fighting on our behalf.

  • We must support it in this stance.
  • We must make that support public.
  • We must do all do what we can to help by providing local facts and information on how the nature of Argyll and the Isles dictates more expensive management than in other places.

No one should consider  playing party politics of any kind in this situation. It is far too serious.

We are fighting for Argyll and the Isles here, let’s not forget, by getting behind the council and by helping to arm it for the contest.

If all else fails – ask to be put into Special Measures

The current initiative is not about asking for a sub for a year or so to let Argyll get back on its feet. This is asking for a fundamental structural change in the way Argyll is assessed for funding – to get to the point where the funding awarded is adequate to deliver the necessary spectrum of services across this very specific territory.

Some councillors have been putting it all down to ‘Tory austerity’, which is tribal politics at ts silliest. This is nothing to do with Tory anything. It is to do with the Council Tax Freeze introduced by the incoming minority SNP Government in 2007 and maintained since then. This has been a wholly constructive measure which has brought much needed self discipline to financial management in local authorities and has seen substantial reduction in waste and superfluity. It would seem now though, as if progressive annual reductions may be cutting into connective tissue and vital organs.

The case for Argyll is unarguable – as can be seen below. If the council is now in a position where it has to withdraw essential support services in schools and largely to abandon its maintenance responsibilities for roads and property, the decline of Argyll will be accelerated further, making it irrecoverable.

If the government is unable and unwilling to address this situation intelligently and for the long term, continuing to insist that Argyll & Bute is adequately funded and that the problem is a management one, then, in our view, Argyll & Bute Council should ask to be put into Special Measures.

This would require the government to put in a team to run the council until it is back on its feet. If such a team can manage Argyll responsibly in the acceptable delivery of services and maintenance, without any additional resources provided for the job [since these would have been denied the council] – then the current council can learn from that and everybody wins.

If the incoming team is unable to do the job with the resources available, it will be the QED moment at which the government  will have to change position.

Council management’s job in this period would be to monitor the work of the incoming team to learn from it and to monitor the resources at its disposal.

The worsening situation

We said above things are shortly to get worse for Argyll & Bute.

Finance Secretary, John Swinney, announced at the recent SNP conference that he is to devolve the setting of local business rates to the Scottish local authorities, so that they can start developing strategic local economic development plans – and start competing with each other.

Argyll? Compete? The place can hardy stand.

Lowering business rates to attract new businesses to come in or start up from within doesn’t mean they will. Businesses are very glad of lower costs. They also need a good population catchment for jobs and local markets. They need good infrastructure – a good, well maintained roads network, good area-wide connectivity. These are not the strengths of the thinly populated, dispersed and underinvested Argyll. It means that the six main towns in Argyll are likely to have to be the focus of any strategic deployment of business rate variation.

This is fine but will do little for rural economies, rural depopulation and rural infrastructure – but then, perhaps nothing will.

It does leave the council with the option of working to make the towns competitive and attractive to business, becoming local economic engines which, if successful, throw various forms of economic spin off around their hinterlands.

A tactic many local authorities will use is to vary downwards town centre business rates, in an effort to see boarded up town centre retail properties brought back to commercial life.

Unless new businesses are brought in, though, those who take up empty town centre retail spaces are likely to be current traders in more peripheral locations – who will shut up business there to move to the centre, leaving no net gain to the Argyll economy or to the council

And all existing businesses will simply pay less in business rates, which will not help the council’s revenues.

If Argyll & Bute does not lower its business rates where other local authorities do,  it may face a degree of outward migration of businesses and jobs. And if it does deploy business rate reductions, the net result may be less net revenue from that tax.

The long and continuing decline in Argyll has not just been from a council with no intelligent strategic planning ability whatsoever and poor management. It has been from long term underfunding resulting from a systemic inability to calibrate the costs endemic to the very nature of this place.

Comparative evidence of underfunding

The fact of the underfunding of Argyll and Bute can be seen by comparison with the funding allocated to Angus Council.

In the 2015-16 Revenue Allocations:

  • Angus was awarded a total of £197.694M
  • Argyll & Bute was awarded a total of £197.000M

In the light of the evidence detailed below, we do not see that this is a remotely defensible allocation to Argyll and Bute.

While the overall picture of the two areas is very different, they share, although in very different degree, a signature advantage that is also a problem – territory of special scenic beauty – but with access roads to maintain, with public transport, schools and other services to deliver to small numbers in these remote places. Ignoring its 23 inhabited islands, Argyll’s mainland has 17 peninsulas and two inland territories [all described below for those who like the detail].

Virtually all of the sprawling water-riven mainland of Argyll and its islands know nothing of straight lines; and bridges are expensive so have never been built.. The northern half of Angus is the same – glen-riven, with some of Scotland’s most scenic glens in Glen Isla, Glen Prosen, Glen Clova/Glen Doll [a personal favourite] and Glen Esk, with its series of side glens.

Angus has 32% of Argyll’s land mass, no islands and no peninsulas – but the northern half of its land mass is this remote rural area of the lovely Angus Glens. It is a compact area, with its southern half a busy suburban and urban network embracing the separately governed City of Dundee, with the economic and social advantages of that proximity. It has a larger population than Argyll, with around 108,561 as compared to Argyll’s 89,590. More people in a much smaller and more compact area means lower costs in service delivery.

Argyll is the second largest local authority area with the 25th largest population of the 32 Scottish local authorities. Angus is the 10th largest area with the 19th largest population. Where Argyll has 1,617 miles of roads to maintain, Angus has 1,100 miles of roads and footpaths. Given the relative size of the two territories, these figures demonstrate the sparse dispersal of Argyll’s roads and the concentration of those of Angus in its southern domain.

Argyll and Bute Council has 71 primary schools including Parklands Special School; and 10 secondary schools – a total of 82 to staff, heat and maintain. Angus has 53 primary schools and 8 secondary schools – a total of 61.

Angus has the major business presence of global pharmaceuticals giant, GlaxoSmithKline [GSK] in Montrose in its north east, employing around 325 people and with a £25 expansion actioned in 2013, supported by £4 million on local infrastructural development from Angus Council and Scottish Enterprise. It also has its renowned soft fruit growing sector. Otherwise it is centred on agriculture and fishing, where Argyll is focused on tourism and forestry.

Argyll has six main towns: in population size order, Helensburgh/Rhu [15,430], Dunoon [9,400], Oban [8,180], Campbeltown [4,810], Rothesay [4,750] and Lochgilphead [3,560.] Of these six towns, four are classified as ‘remote rural towns’; one – Lochgilphead/Ardrishaig, as a ‘remote rural area’; and one, Helensburgh/Rhu as ‘other urban area’, which means not a large urban area, although it is Argyll’s largest.

The total of 46,130 living in the Argyll towns listed above represents 51.5% of the current population. Over 17%  – about 15,500 – live on 23 inhabited islands and the other 35%  – around 31,350 are widely dispersed across a sprawling and intriguing mainland that defies straightforward access to anywhere.

Angus has seven main towns, in population size order: Arbroath [23,902], Montrose [19,015], Forfar [14,048], Carnoustie [10,561], Monifieth [8,220], Brechin [7,199] and Kirriemuir [5,467]. The total of these – 88,412 [almost the entire population of Argyll and Bute] is 81.4% of its total population of 108,561, with the rest, around 20% – dispersed largely across the rest of its busier southern territory and thinly across its remote glen-riven northern territory.

These population statistics themselves demonstrate the relative degree of difficulty in serving Argyll and Bute.

Challenges in deprivation – Argyll and Bute and Angus

The 2012 Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation highlights the range and degree of deprivations afflicting Argyll and Bute and Angus.

In terms of overall deprivation, Argyll is substantially more deprived than Angus. A reflection of this is the fact that Argyll has 10 of its datazones amongst Scotland’s 15% [976] most deprived – all in its main towns [3 in Dunoon, including Hunter’s Quay; 2 in Helensburgh East; 2 in Rothesay Town; 2 in Campbeltown; and 1 in Oban]; where Angus has 3 zones at this level of deprivation.

In Access Deprivation, Argyll has 53 datazones – 43.4% of them – amongst Scotland’s 15% most access deprived. Its most access deprived datazone is not only amongst the 5% most deprived in SCotland, it is ranked 1, the worst: Mull, Iona, Coll and Tiree.

Angus has 35 datazones amongst Scotland’s 15% most access deprived, 24.6% of its datazones. Its most access deprived zone, unsurprisingly the Angus Glens, is ranked 18th and amongst Scotland’s 5% most deprived.

In Housing Deprivation, Argyll has 7 datazones in Scotland’s 15% most housing deprived zones. Angus has none, where Argyll’s 7 deprived zones represent 5.7% of Argyll’s total. Its most deprived zone is in Helensburgh East. Angus’s most housing deprived zone is Letham and Glamis, ranked 1384 and amongst the 25% of Scotland’s most housing deprived.

In Health Deprivation, Argyll has 12 of its datazones [9.8%] amongst Scotland’s 15% most health deprived. Its worst is in Dunoon, ranked 167, amongst Scotland 5% most health deprived areas. Angus has 1 datazone in Scotland’s 15% most health deprived.This is Arbroath Warddykes, ranked 777.

In Education Deprivation, the two areas are fairly similar, each with 5 datazones amongst Scotland’s 15% most educationally deprived. Angus’s worst is Arbroath Warddykes, ranked 208 and amongst Scotland’s 5% most educationally deprived. Argyll’s worst is in Helensburgh East, ranked 530 and in Scotland’s 10% most educationally deprived zones.

In Employment Deprivation both Argyll and Angus are below the Scottish average of 12.8% for employment deprivation; and each faces a fairly similar situation. Argyll has 10.7% of its 16-64 age group unemployed; Angus has 10.6%. Argyll’s most employment deprived zone is in Rothesay Town, ranked 124 and amongst Scotland’s 5% most employment deprived. Angus’s most employment deprived zone is in Arbroath Warddykes, ranked 550 and in Scotland’s 10% most deprived.

In Income Deprivation, Argyll and Angus are again below the Scottish average of income deprivation and again in a broadly similar situation. Angus has 11.1% of its population income deprived; and Argyll 10.7%. Angus’s most income deprived zone is in Arbroath Warddykes; and Argyll’s is in Dunoon.

In the domain of Crime, we have to assume that SIMD has gone on autopilot in its descriptions here and that when it talks of ‘crime deprived’ datazones, it really means ‘crime afflicted’.

Within Scotland’s 15% most crime afflicted datazones, Argyll has 17 zones [13.9% of its total]; and Angus 13 [9.2% of its total]. Argyll’s worst zone is in Campbeltown, ranked 49 and in Scotland’s 5% most crime afflicted zones; Angus’s in Arbroath Harbour, ranked 118 and also in Scotland’s 5% most affected zones.

The reality of Argyll

The north east of Argyll is moorland and mountain and the rest, including the northwest, is shredded by sea lochs and major freshwater lochs into a series of actual and virtual peninsulas – 17 of them. With the northeast and another inland territory behind the headwaters of Lochs Fyne and Long, that is a total of 16 distinct territories defined by a clear topography.

Dividing Argyll into topographically logical ‘areas’, as below, shows the distribution of the peninsular territories.

  • Lomond – bounded by Loch Lomond to the east and the inner Firth of Clyde to the west, with the Rosneath peninsula hanging off its shoulder between The Gare Loch and Loch Long;
  • Cowal – a five peninsula hand, held together by Glen Kinglas and Glen Croe, bounded by Loch Fyne to the west and the inner Firth of Clyde to the east – with peninsulas at: Ardgartan/Lochgoilhead, between Loch Long to the east and Loch Goil to the west; Strone to Drimsynie, between Loch Long/Loch Goil to the east and the lovely freshwater Loch Eck to the west; the Toward peninsula between the inner Firth of Clyde to the east and Loch Striven to the west; the Colintraive peninsula, between Loch Striven to the east and Loch Riddon to the west, with the East Kyle of Bute to the South; the Glendaruel peninsula from Ardlamont Point to Strachur, with the West Kyle of Bute and Loch Riddon to the east and Loch Fyne to the west;
  • Kintyre – bounded by Kilbrannan Sound and the entrance to Loch Fyne to the east, the Atlantic to the west and the  north Irish Sea to the south, the Kintyre peninsula runs from the Mull of Kintyre in the south to the north at West Loch Tarbert, which vitually severs it into an island;
  • Knapdale – running from West Loch Tarbet to the Crinan Canal, with Loch Fyne to the east and the Sound of Jura to the west. The Knapdale peninsula is itself deeply cut into three distinct peninsulas by two major sea lochs – Loch Caolisport to the south and Loch Sween to the north.
  • East Loch Awe – from the Crinan Canal and Loch Gilp in the South to the head of Loch Awe, with this loch, Scotland’s longest freshwater one, to the west and the upper section of Scotland’s longest sea loch , Loch Fyne, to the east;
  • West Loch Awe – from Loch Craignish and Easdale in the south to the Pass of Brander and south Loch Etive to the north, bounded by Loch Awe to the east and the Firth of Lorn and the Sound of Kerrera  to the west, cut from the west by the sea lochs of Craignish, Melfort  [creating the Ardfern peninsula between them] and Loch Feochan;
  • Benderloch  – bounded by Loch Etive to the east and south and Loch Creran to the west, with a small secondary peninsula at South Shian, between Ardmucknish Bay and the Lynn of Lorn;
  • Appin – bounded by Loch Creran to the east and Loch Linnhe to the west.

There are two belts of inland mainland, one from the head of Loch Awe in the west, eastwards behind the headwaters of Lochs Fyne and Long and to upper Loch Lomond, riven northeast-southwest by Glen Shira and Glen Fyne, hosting the Arrochar Alps and the upper Loch Lomond eastside strip of settlements from Tarbet to Inveroran.

The second such inland belt is directly northwest of this and contiguous, running from Loch Etive in the west, over Glen Strae to Glen Orchy and Glen Lochy in the east, hooking in a portion of Rannoch Moor with Loch Tulla and the Water of Tulla, dropping down to including the signature mountain of Beinn Dorain. It’s most westerly section, between Loch Etive and the north-south Glen Strae, features a ladder of east-west oriented glens climbing to the approaches to southern Glen Coe.

All of this underlines the way you have to think about Argyll and to think in moving around it and in planning services for it. Life and work here are constitutionally inefficient.

Of the 17 peninsulas, a few have circular roads, most have far less than that and all have inaccessible cores. Looking at a road map of Argyll is looking at a sparse system of roads, each lassooing a great lump of inaccessible territory and with small and scattered peripheral settlements. Its a long way from anywhere to anywhere in Argyll. Just look at where the main towns of Helensburgh, Dunoon, Rothesay, Campbeltown, Lochgilphead and Oban are on the map; and at how you get from one to the others. [And try getting from Dalavich to Portsonachan; or from Strone to Carrick.]

The number of distinct territories you have go through to get from one place to another – most of them with their individual access issues – speaks to the complex issue of management and maintenance as much as it speaks to the pleasure of even everyday travel – long and slow, yes but with the conscious richness of passing through so many characterful and specific local cultures.

Every single one of these territories has people living in it, needing maintained road access, public transport and waste collection services, as well as the rest.

And then there are the inhabited islands, currently down from 25 to 23.

The bottom line is that Argyll is a place physically denied a centre and is therefore a place whose access and services can never work in the normal distributed model. It is dream bonded to nightmare.

If the current and clearly future Scottish Government has neither the capability nor the will to put this situation right, it is not competent to govern a country like Scotland.

Message to Argyll and Bute Council: Do not give up on this; and if you can get nowhere, say you just can’t do it and ask to be put into Special Measures to be shown how. That would be interesting.

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