Wednesday, August 22, 2012

East Nairnshire Community Concerns

Perhaps the downpours added to the list of apologies (11) but the there was still a good turn out in the Glenferness Hall last night (Tuesday), very good indeed compared to some of the low attendances that can be seen in Nairn where thousands of members of the public within walking distance of Community Council meetings. A cup of tea and a choice of cake and biscuits got everyone chatting before the event but the subject matter soon became serious as the meeting proper began. The chair, Debbie MacBean, began by asking the three Highland Councillors present (Liz, Laurie and Colin) how they saw Council rural policy developing over the next couple of years. 

Liz said that it would be important to work with the Community Council and listen to their concerns and take on board any ideas the council had for their community, she thought also that roads and transport issues were an important concern. Liz said there would be particular issues in the forthcoming cuts consultation that would have relevance for rural areas.

Colin said he thought it was about being responsive to individuals where ever they were in the Nairn ward and to individual community councils and that shouldn’t make a difference whether they were in the town or whether they were rural. If it was council specific and council action required then he saw it as his job. “Your agenda is our agenda,” said Colin.

For Laurie
it was about trying to preserve employment in rural areas he was also concerned about the level of housing in rural areas. To him, if housing is done in small isolated pockets it could put pressure on council services, things like school transport.  He didn’t have a problem with farms converting steadings and creating small community groups. He realised roads were a problem and acknowledged the low levels of cash available for repairs and improvements. He mentioned broadband and how it was unlikely there would be much immediate improvement in availability.

The chair pointed out that broadband in East Nairnshire came from the Forres side and was onlly a small exchange and with hardly any numbers left so residents would get split lines and only 0.5 was available for broadband and most of the time you were getting less. The realities of what some of us might consider an idyllic country life are often not apparent. 

The meeting then moved onto planning issues and how a recent decision that went to planning review had given a serious blow to morale of the East Nairnshire team and particularly John Rawlinson who had done a massive amount of research and had worked with the planners to bring about the best outcome for the community concerning in relation to a housing development. In the end a compromise had been reached with 2 of the houses in the project having been rejected, only to be overturned at a review meeting of non-local councillors. One of those councillors paid very little attention to the material presented according to John and made a comment that to him belittled the process. The members present at Glenferness last night thought that had been very unfair and were looking for assurance from the three Highland Councillors present that their input would be taken seriously in the future. With Tornagrain events looming over the day’s proceedings, that was a hard assurance for them to give to this observer’s perceptions. Planning in the Highlands still faces challenges at macro and micro levels.

Overall there is concern that there is not enough infrastructure in the rural hinterland of Nairnshire to cope with the demand for development or could you be as bold to say, re-population of the countryside? If you look at Census figures towards the end of the nineteenth century it is ironic to consider that the population of East Nairnshire was more than double/triple what it is now. Then almost everyone worked on the land, a situation that is long gone and today as people move into the Countryside to live, many of them commute to work elsewhere or have retired to the area but will still need to make almost daily trips into town. Their children need transporting into town for schooling and the new country way of life finds itself in the front line of dwindling provision. In reality will they ever have the power to shout loud enough to compete with the towns (and city) of the Highlands for a fairer share of those services? Will some townies even be bothered that some country folk think they are not getting a fair share? Rural problems are out of sight out of mind to the average urban dwewller?

For us in the town in the winter it is a case of even the able bodied being in danger of coping over on the ungritted High Street pavements but up in the Country it can be just as dangerous or life threatening. The 3 Highland Councillors heard how the snow plough across the Dava to Carrbridge only goes as far as Lochindorb before it turns back, another one comes up from Carrbridge to finish the job. So in the winter if wishing to travel south that way to catch a train in Carrbridge or Aviemore to continue south (this observer knows folk in Nairn who like to do that too given the parking problems in Inverness), drivers can travel on a safe gritted road for half of their journey only to have to decide whether to risk the rest of it or cancel their journey and return home.

The dial-a-bus is accused of being a less than perfect service  to some and there seems to be legitimate complaints about the bus not being available at times when it is being used on a school runs etc or as the later end of the daily service availability nears. Something that is half-taxi, half-bus, that has to sort out routes on a daily basis to meet ever changing demands is always destined to be a service that would not please everybody but the three visitors from Nairn went away with specific complaints to follow up. 

School transport or to be more exact safety issues around school transport was discussed too. Finding safe pick up spots on the country roads and turning points for the vehicles too was something that looks as though it has exercised the minds of the community councillors on many occasions. When travelling back to Nairn this observer noticed a bus stop that had been discussed, thousands of drivers passing that way would probably never give it a second thought but then you try and imagine 20 children waiting there around a bus stop 2ft back from the road. A bus stop too, that fills up with snow as the ploughs pass by too, thus you can visualise the dangers. Even within the confines of the paltry sums available surely these accidents waiting to happen can be fixed. Issues like that seem to be reasonable demands to this observer. There was a suggestion too that the buses should be made to fit winter tyres as part of their contract conditions. Again Liz, Colin and Laurie will look at that. Laurie urged those present to report any other safety defects on the buses to the police however, given that they ordered an unsafe bus immediately off the road in the past after observing a fault. 

“We have the same problems we had 10 years ago,” said one councillor. Sadly the likelihood is that East Nairnshire will still have some of these problems in ten years time just as in the town, we too, will still be talking about some of the problems we face today. The volunteer Community Councillors of East Nairnshire are working hard for their patch and their Highland Council representatives are listening but dark clouds still loom over local government financing. What can be done? Maybe a certain vote coming up in 2014 offers a different and more optimistic future for rural and urban areas of Scotland alike.


Spurtle said...

East Nairnshire and all other Community Councils have every right to feel angry and disenfranchised at the laughable state of the current planning system.

Each of the recent 'improvements' to the way that planning is processed has resulted in less public involvement, in spite of each and every 'improvement' being lauded as the one that does the exact opposite.

Anyone expecting planning officials to take notice of Community Council opinion, however well researched and valid , is living in la-la land.

Community Councils are no longer even statutory consultees, so they don't automatically get informed of a planning application in their area, unless someone deems the application worthy of their attention.

Community Councils presented with planning documents for their opinions may as well write 'Do as you will' on them, & send them back to Inverness , because however much effort is put in to producing a well balanced , democratic response , that's exactly what the planners will do.

As has been seen this week with the Tornagrain application, even elected Highland Councillors have been engineered out of the equation in some cases.

Dem O'Cracy said...

As Spurtle says, rural Nairnshire communities and the people of Nairn town are all victims of the current high-handed approach of Highland Council planners.

The planning officials pay lip service to a process of consultation, but then ignore all local comment or opinion, however well-founded.

The Tornagrain discussion was only the latest example of how officials manipulate the process to prevent elected Councillors from raising legitimate and genuine concerns about planning proposals. It was shocking to observe how official "advisers", legal or otherwise, sought to muzzle elected representatives.

The solution lies in the hands of our elected councillors. They are best placed to require their own officials to rewrite the rules so as to permit proper debate, rather than allowing themselves to be so comprehensively stitched up.

When the planning process is so blatantly abused, it is we - the local communities - who suffer.