The contest for Argyll at the May 2010 Westminster election was a lively one. There was:
- a Labour resurgence against all the odds, under David Graham., who came third
- a 27% increase in the SNP vote, the party’s best result in Scotland, under Mike Mackenzie, who came fourth
- an increase in the Conservative vote under Gary Mulvaney, who came second
- a majority reduced by just 0ver 39% to 3,431 for Liberal Democrat, Alan Reid – but a victory nevertheless.
Now we’re we’re moving fast into the foothills of the contest for the Argyll and Bute seat at the elections to the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood in May 2011 and again this is looking like a face-off too close to call.
We’ve been looking at the constituency – the feelings, nuances and shifts we’re aware of at this particular reception point. We’ve looked at the candidates who may emerge to represent their parties, their respective strengths and weaknesses. We’ve looked at key issues in an Argyll that is starting to believe in itself and at last becoming – whisper it – demanding.
We’re starting this short analytic series by looking at the picture of the constituency and at some of the major issues that will determine the shape and focus of the campaign.
At the weekend, we will be looking at the impact of this picture on the decisions the parties have to take in selecting their respective candidates to represent them.
The first issue is that the Argyll and Bute boundary for the Holyrood election is different from that for the Westminster seat. The big difference is the absence of Helensburgh.
With a population of upwards of 30,000, Helensburgh is, by a very large margin, Argylls biggest town and alone accounts for about 30% of the electorate of the Westminster seat.
This means that the Holyrood campaign is necessarily more diffuse, much more a matter of scrabbling for votes where they can be found across this vast territory with its thinly dispersed population. There are the five modest-sized towns of Dunoon, Rothesay, Campbeltown, Lochgilphead and Oban – and there are the now legendary ’25 inhabited islands’, ranging in size from Mull to Easdale and in accessibility from Bute to Tiree.
Where, in the constituency for the general election, which included Helensburgh, urban issues carried real weight, in the Holyrood election, without Helensburgh, smaller community affairs are a bigger load carrier.
Cuts will of course figure large – this is the issue of the moment and the irresponsible will inflame the unwary. We feel, however, that the electorate is a great deal more informed and realistic than politicians have yet grasped and that such predictably transparent tactics might backfire. But for the specifics, the major generic issues include:
Argyll’s biggest private sector industry, tourism is critical to Argyll’s successful emergergence from the recession – and to its future growth. Activity tourism in particular is something for which Argyll is uniquely well placed across a wide spectrum of provision. Growing this to become the USP for the area it should be, will require better marketing than we are used to and serious and specific product development. At the moment a serious gap in business development support is the fact that not one agency has responsibility for product development in the tourism industry.
Renewable energy development
Planning consents; the saturation of the national grid; the provision of the vital interconnectors; community benefit; environmental concerns; community disruption – are central issues here, as highlighted in the picture Tiree is facing during the construction and operation of the offshore wind turbines of the Argyll Array.
Community buy outs
Argyll is witnessing a wide range of communities exercising the community right-to-buy conferred under the Land Reform Scotland Act. Issues around this phenomenon include significantly more confident and self-reliant communities; concerns about the degree of support available to communities on a steep learning curve in business planning and management – but well able to get to where they need to go; issues to do with forestry, since several community acquisitions are forest-based initiatives.
Argyll’s roads are in an appalling state and while works are sporadically in train at the moment, the roads network in the region is barely fit for purpose. The A82 and the A83 are particular – and major -worries. Both affect business and lifestyles, the A83 fundamentally so. The A83, of course, presents the intransigent problem seeing a main arterial road into and right through mainland Argyll passing through territory frequently prone to major landslides – and early on in its progress. Failures of this road, for whatever reason, necessitate diversions of very major proportions.
There are Argyll islands who feel strongly that they have been systemically disadvantaged by exclusion from the Scottish Government’s Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) pilot. Their argument is that this offers the included islands a thirty month period to establish enduring relationships with visitors first attracted by the far cheaper fares offered under RET.
Argyll has airports and airstrips in profusion, yet it has not developed the private flying market it is richly resourced to support. Nor has it developed the range of internal routes capable of countering the isolation of some island communities – and facilitating tourism, although Hebridean Airways is now energetically contributing in this sphere.
The loss of major dairy herds with the impossibly minimal farm-gate prices paid by the virtually monopolistic Tesco is a very real issue. Gone now is the last major herd in Cowal, the last in Gigha and some Kintyre producers are considering their futures. This development threatens traditional industries germane to Argyll and of course it threatens jobs, as Rothesay and Bute have already experienced with the closure of the Rothesay Creamery. A second farming issue is the damage the current operation of the EU’s Single Farm Payment is doing to the vital new entrants to the industry.
The fishing industry has constantly to deal with EU quotas; the obscenity of the discards or by-catches the EU quota regulations necessitate; conflicts with environmental concerns; almost constant revision of fishing practices with ever newer gear required by the EU in its necessary support for the creation of a sustainable marine environment; and invasion by European fishing fleets who do not respect either the local environment – because it is not their own, nor the equipment of those fishing for different species, like creelers.
Here the issues span leisure facilities and lifestyle support, skills development, employment opportunities, social and affordable housing…
There are serious concerns that cuts to the local authority budget will see the closure of some rural primary schools and possibly some secondary schools. Such closures directly threaten the sustainability of small rural communities.
There is growing unrest at risks posed to patients by unclean hospitals and a proportion of uninterested staff; transient locums; and GPs whose practice does not inspire confidence. In this last instance there may be a case for introducing the role of a voluntary community advocate to act, on both general and individual cases, as an intermediary between unhappy but intimidated patients and medical practitioners.
Care and respite care in the age and mental health sectors
Argyll cannot afford to provide what it is statutorally required to provide in these areas and this is a worsening problem. Carers are under increasing strain to the point that, in each micro-situation, if a carer becomes ill, there is an immediate emergency. A basic survival provision here is respite care. Carers want to do what they do for the sake of the person for whom they are caring – but they need regular breaks to protect their capacity to carry on. There is no general awareness of entitlement. Provision is currently going through a major change with the Council handing over to a new social enterprise company the responsibility for managing access to respite care.
The now definite sale of the Royal Mail will heighten fears of the loss to communities of the local post offices that are in so many ways, a rural life support system.
This is now recognised as an essential provision to sustain business and life in the sort of rural, remote and island communities that characterise Argyll. (Finland has just pronounced that broadband is a basic human right in the 21st century.) The provision in Argyll is literally not up to speed – poor at best, erratic across the territory and bedevilled by the fact that the expensive introduction of the Pathfinder North improved broadband project has not delivered the business and domestic access publicly promised. The system was initially made available to the public sector only – the Council, libaries and schools – an utterly unacceptable (and arguably unnecessary) privilege paid for by the taxpayer. Undertakings were given that access would be opened up to business and domestic users but there has been no follow through.
This list of generic issues is not exhaustive but it covers the spectrum of c.onstituents’ concerns that will inform the campaign in Argyll.
There are major specific issues affecting certain communities.
The Dunoon-Gourock vehicle ferry issue
The Dunoon community has consolidated itself around the ‘No boats No votes’ slogan. The publication, before the May 2010 general election, of the shortlist of competitors for the contract was, by the nature of those included, an early indication that the Scottish Government’s Transport Minister is planning a passenger-only ferry on this route. This leaves the community totally vulnerable to a hike in prices by what would then be the only vehicle ferry – a private sector operation – between Cowal and the east Clyde mainland. The Transport Minister’s refusal to publish the specification for the tender at the same time as the shortlist, on the grounds that it ‘might become an election issue’ when it is not a matter reserved to Westminster, begs the question why it has not yet been published. This, too, confirms suspicions that the decision is for the cheaper passenger-only ferry, regardless of the very real interests of this significant and needy community. It is certain that this will be an election issue in May 2011.
The Islay business banking issue
Both the Royal Bank of Scotland and, more recently, the Bank of Scotland, withdrew their business banking managers from the Isle of Islay, offering businesses there the services of remote and everchanging call-centre personnel whose experience and location is metropolitan and lack any insights into the nature of doing business in an island context. A vigorous campaign failed utterly to get any shift on this matter. The Bank simply pulled up the drawbridge and refused to budge. This too will be an issue in the coming election campaign and symbolises the vulnerability of communities whose location and size invites service withdrawal by private sector operators.
As with the list of generic campaign issues, this is far from an exhaustive account of community-specific issues that will come prominently into play – but it outlines the territory and highlights the minefields for candidates.
In our next article previewing the 2011 Scottish Election campaign, we will be looking at parties, candidates, choices and consequences. (Note: This material has been included in an article on the announcement of the first candidate to be officially selected.)