OPINION: Is this the beginning of the new Clearances?

Written by Stewart Graham, founder and managing director of Gael Force Group

"Never in our history have we seen such an economic shock as we have seen since the onset of the Covid Pandemic. I am certain that we have not yet seen the full effect of the unemployment and hardship that will be caused by the impacts of the pandemic and the measures taken to tackle it.

What is also very clear is that the impacts of the pandemic are extremely unequal, with the young having their prospects most severely impaired and those working in the private sector suffering the most severe economic consequences, yet to be felt in full, while the elderly and those with underlying health issues bearing the most risk to life, which has been tragic.

Many people working in the “front line” have worked heroically. Of course, this includes those in the health service who have had to battle to save lives, but it also includes those who kept the boilers running, the ambulances and delivery vehicles on the road and the PPE arriving where required.

Pictured: Stewart Graham

That includes those in supply chains up and down the country, drivers, engineers, and tradesmen keeping our homes and critical facilities operational. It also includes those who have produced our food and those who distributed it and indeed those who kept the wheels and machinery of production and distribution of life’s essentials turning. Not least in the supply chain required to put food on our plates.

A great many of our population, however, which is a blessing for them, whether wealthy, retired or working in the public sector or in government, local or national, have neither had their economic situation nor their future employment prospects impaired, though of course, everyone has suffered the social deprivations and mental health challenges of lockdown.

Many of our population are not economically active and are secure in their financial position, no doubt hard-earned. For those fortunate enough to be working in secure public sector employment or retired, perhaps on a secured pension, they do not have the financial concerns of those in the private sector whose jobs and livelihoods depend on viable economic activity.

This imbalance of the bearing of the economic consequences of the pandemic is not given coverage or widely recognised, though our politicians at a national and local level are actively involved in formulating policy, actions, and funding programmes to sustain the economy and build back greener, better and more fairly. Never has it been more critical for government at all levels, locally and nationally, to do everything possible to create and support sustainable jobs across our nation.

How difficult is it to understand that we need a strong and growing economy, to fund and support the social justice agenda most of us aspire to in Scotland? At the moment, our economy is neither strong nor growing and even pre-pandemic in Scotland, we needed to enable significant economic growth to fund the Education, Health and Care and Social agenda we have in Scotland and we all hold dear.

We all have an obligation to recognise and understand this fundamental fact and do what we can to support economic growth and sustain people in, as well as create, new jobs. The lack of a job and the want of it, is fundamentally one of the most damaging situations to the long-term prospects, an individual, their family and therefore society at large can suffer from.

Yet how many people in our society object to job creating or job sustaining development at a whim? How many people in local and national Government either object to, or fail to support development without considering the consequences for others? The very development that supports and funds existing jobs, often including their own jobs. The very development that creates new jobs and creates the economic income we require to fund our critical public services.       

Economic growth and development, if we are to sustain ourselves as a society, must be front and centre of government policy and action at national and local level.

Local Authorities and local politicians have a duty and an obligation too, not only to support development, but make sure that they actively seek out and promote economic development opportunities within their areas of responsibility as a minimum.

There needs to be some maturity in decision making and joined up thinking in policy and action. You simply cannot have development without some impact, but neither can you have social progression without economic development. 

How can we call for building back our economy and protecting jobs, yet fail to support compliant job creating planning applications?  For example, the recent decision to refuse planning for an organic sea farm in Skye, which was recommended for approval, was in my view a dereliction of responsibility. It was to create nine new jobs directly. However, the consequential cancelling of the equipment orders required by this development and to be built here in the Highlands by our company, Gael Force Group, has caused the redundancy of over twenty people immediately and directly, just in this one company alone. This is a shocking narrowness in consideration and a failure of process and joined up thinking.

We have become anti-development, anti-business in this country, yet we want all the benefits that depend on a strong, successful, and growing economy. We need to unclog the barriers to economic development ingrained and institutionalised in some of our processes and agencies who themselves feel no negative impact of a fragile economic position and who it seems, have Enterprise Prevention in their very DNA, despite it taking tens of millions of public funds to run these agencies, organisations, and government departments.

It seems that we are prepared in this country now to tolerate someone dying from hunger and homelessness and the lack of a job, but not prepared to tolerate “our” view or environment being altered. In the view of some people all other forms of nature now have precedence over their fellow human beings. 

Like the Clearances, once again the welfare of the local people who work the land and the sea is being considered as secondary to the narrow interests of a minority, often not rooted in the area, who care not for the economic wellbeing of other local people. We need to put people, their livelihoods, and their wellbeing first. 

Enough is enough and we must all put the greater good first, recognise that you cannot “bake a cake without breaking some eggs” and realise that saying “no” to development not only prevents jobs, it costs jobs. Directly.

We should ask ourselves, how selfish are we being? How irresponsible are we being? How can we, by stifling economic development not only bite the hand that feeds us but shut off its blood supply.

The depressing familiarity of narrow interest groups’ objections to developments, often by an outspoken, sometimes fanatical, minority, often prejudiced on misinformation fuelled on social media, but not supported by the scientific facts, is reaching a crisis across the Highlands and Islands and needs to be addressed.

It requires local and national political leadership to speak out and stand up for the greater good, for the peoples of the Highlands and Islands welfare and livelihoods and retake the economic development agenda that has made the rural Highlands and Islands such a turnaround success over the past thirty to forty years. A success that I, as a native Hebridean, have witnessed first-hand over nearly sixty years of living and working in the Highlands and Islands and a success so ably supported by HIE and HIDB before it.     

If we do not see a change of behaviour in the support of development and growing the economy by all of us, we will be a failing nation, with rural areas becoming very largely inactive economically; a playground for tourists, who are very welcome but who come and who go. A place again, where the will of the few suppress the opportunity of the many. If we do not change direction, we will leave no fine place, which in rural Scotland it should be, to raise a young family as our legacy. Shame on us."