Argyll and Bute MSP Michael Russell says he hopes this week’s Argyll and Bute Council population summit will take “clear, decisive united action” on what he calls the “worst depopulation problem in Scotland”.
The summit takes place at the Queen’s Hall in Dunoon this Wednesday, October 29, when Mr Russell will be attending a debate on education in the Scottish Parliament.
It was originally due to take place earlier this year but was rescheduled after Scotland’s finance minister John Swinney was unable to attend on the original date.
“I am very disappointed not to be able to attend the summit, but unfortunately I have to attend the Education Debate in the Parliament,” Mr Russell said.
“Had Dick Walsh [council leader] and Ellen Morton [council depute leader] not unnecessarily cancelled the original event I would have been able to have taken part but that is water under the bridge now. John Swinney will be there and will have much to contribute in terms of positive thinking from a Governmental level.
“The summit needs to focus intently on what is the worst depopulation problem in Scotland and take clear, decisive and untied action to tackle the issue. If the council can grow the population base it will increase its own funding and restore viability to many communities in the area that are teetering on the edge.
“Three things are urgently required: Firstly the council need an opportunistic, entrepreneurial approach.
“An ideal first step would be to quickly complete the community purchase of the Toward Estate and by so doing not only help to create jobs in Cowal but also send out a strong signal that local assets are available for local communities to utilise to grow the population.
“Events like the botched sale of Kilbowie in Oban work against that aim and the council must also be very careful not to allow such a thing to happen again. Fifteen good jobs in the creative industries that would have brought in key workers were allowed to slip away because of bungled over-bureaucratic procedures and lack of information provided to councillors.
“Secondly the council must work with others, constructively and pro-actively. A major marketing exercise to those who come here on holiday would pay dividends if the council took the lead, bringing together tourist providers, VisitScotland and the economic development agencies.
“Telling people who enjoyed spending time here that there were ways they could settle here would be an obvious next step but the council would have to outline those ways and make sure they were achievable.
“Thirdly, every policy must be co-ordinated to ensure that the population in every part of the area is stained and expanded. There must be and end to any talk of school closures, planning decisions must be more positive and swifter, local services must be enhanced (including things like road repair and verge cutting which make a difference to first impressions) and the council must find a “can do” attitude to inquiries and requests.
“The Scottish Government and its agencies, especially HIE and Transport Scotland, clearly also have roles to play, as John Swinney will outline, but the lead body has to be the council and it needs to recognise that by appointing a senior official to oversee the programme of population recovery.
“That person has to be committed to growth, capable of working constructively with others, free of the dead hand of process driven delay which bedevils the senior levels of Argyll and Bute Council and willing to be judged by clear targets for stabilising the population first of all and then increasing it year on year.
“Finally we need to work on this together as an Argyll and Bute community. I noticed with dismay the attempt by Alan Reid to score some anti-SNP political points in the House of Commons with regard to the summit and the way in which those were taken up by Alastair Carmichael, the Secretary State for Scotland, who is also attending. Such an approach will achieve nothing and I hope they will have thought better of it by the time they get to Dunoon.
“I stand ready to work with anyone and everyone to help solve this crucial problem and I hope the summit comes up with a clear plan that indicates roles for all elected members to play in order to take the matter forward. I would be keen to help in any way I can. “