Brendan O’Hanrahan — Manifesto for Highland Council 2017
Independent Candidate for NW & Central Sutherland Ward
This is the first time that I have put my name forward for election, so some brief biographical background may be appropriate: I’m 51, Irish, but have lived most of my adult life in the north of Scotland.
My work — as a land management consultant and ecologist — takes me all across the Highlands and Islands, as well as further afield. I have been resident in Knockan or Elphin, in Assynt, for just under 8 years. Before that I lived in Rogart, Skye, Badenoch, Inverness and Lewis, with a short interregnum in Germany at the turn of the century. My time in Rogart gave me an opportunity to get to know east Sutherland well, and much of my work over the last few years has taken me to that side of the county. Over this time I have become increasingly involved in community organisations of various kinds, in particular Assynt Community Association (which is in the process of becoming the local development organisation), the community-owned Assynt Foundation, Lochbroom FM (where I DJ, organise schedules and do current affairs interviews) and, until recently, Elphin Ledmore, Knockan Community Association Ltd (ELKCAL), where I was one of the main organisers of our annual Music Festival. In addition I have been on the board or council of the Scottish Crofters Federation for over two years, where I mainly concentrate on agricultural support and Crofting Commission issues, particularly crofting development.
We need a more locally-sensitive and innovative approach to planning, particularly for housing, which will be more imaginative and enable communities to expand…and even return to areas long-abandoned.
The Council needs to provide stronger support for Community bodies which can take responsibility for projects locally — whether it be housing, community care, transport or tourism.
I would work with parents and the Council to strengthen and protect our fragile network of remaining schools.
There is a real danger that our road infrastructure (and other facilities such as toilets) deteriorates significantly under the pressure of increased demands from e.g., higher volumes of traffic from NC500 — I will work with TECS and national and regional partners to ensure this is not allowed to happen.
This is an era of change and challenge for our social care services — more work needs to be done to ensure that new proposals are in fact appropriate for our communities.
Planning, housing and crofting
When we look at the planning system as it currently operates in Sutherland, it’s clear that we need more flexibility for affordable housing, for crofters, for having the imagination to resettle back into areas formerly inhabited.
We have to make sure that the newly formed Sutherland Community Partnership results in more effectively targeted, and ‘joined-up’, provision of services and a genuinely community-led approach to planning issues. However, I confess to fearing that this new structure, dominated as it is by the usual cocktail of agency acronyms
and their associated bureaucrats (I should know, I used to be one!), may end up making decisions which are even remoter from people’s real needs. Whoever our new councillors are will have a major responsibility to ensure this is not what happens.
The almost finalised Caithness and Sutherland Local Development Plan
contains some laudable ideas and proposals for our ward, some encouraging housing proposals have been included, and yet I found engaging with the process to be an immensely frustrating experience — consultations seemed to be closed off at the convenience of council officials rather than local residents, there was what seemed to be a dispiriting refusal to entertain virtually any growth or development outwith the biggest settlements and I, who have dealt in various ways with planning for over 20 years, found that the whole process seemed to be designed to be as inaccessible as possible.
Highland Council’s record in supporting croft housing (and other aspects of crofting development) is easily the worst of all the crofting county local authorities, yet crofting is a major part of the fabric, culture and economy of NW & Central Sutherland (and many other wards). If elected I will strive to make Highland Council as engaged on crofting matters as Comhairle nan Eilean Siar or Shetland Islands Council, particularly in working with other stakeholders to ensure that crofting remains sustainable and vigorous for the 21st century.
One way or another, we have to break through the dispiriting logjams that seem to paralyse authorities, agencies and communities when it comes to actually moving beyond the universally expressed desire for affordable housing and convert that into ‘bricks and mortar’ (or hopefully more energy-efficient materials these days!). We have had some real progress recently in the area, e.g., in Ardgay and Kinlochbervie, but we need to do so much more. The demographic profile of most of our townships and villages is still disastrous in terms of any longer-term sustainability. If I had one over-riding priority, this would be it.
Supporting community organisations
The Council needs to do more to support local community organisations - and small businesses - take on projects which will lead to jobs, training opportunities, bring more money into communities. This includes being imaginative in using new opportunities enabled by Community Empowerment Act, including asset transfer. Much has been achieved here, e.g., Manse Rd houses, KLB, Assynt Community Care, the reborn Shin Falls visitor centre – but the Council needs to do much more to support these projects.
I believe that what the Northwest Highlands Geopark has achieved since it attained UNESCO recognition is very impressive – this is a genuinely community-based and led initiative which does an excellent job with very sparse resources in highlighting much of the best of the landscape and natural heritage of the northwest. For me, this is a model of the kind of bottom-up initiative which we need much more of – far too often we see such heritage or environmental projects led by government agencies or powerful NGOs which too often distinguish themselves by imposing priorities which may not be consistent with local needs and culture. Yet, whereas millions and millions of pounds have been sunk into national parks further south – with the most obvious consequence simply being that property prices have soared beyond the reach of most locals – the Geopark has found itself scrabbling for its very existence. Something’s not right here...
It’s vital that the quality of care and a geographically appropriate distribution of provision are maintained; but first priority must be to ensure that where people wish to remain at home that this is made possible. The current proposals to replace Sinclair Court and Caladh Sona with a single social care hub on the north coast do not seem to meet the clearly expressed needs of most of the north coast communities – the council has much more work to do before it comes up with a final proposal to address residential social care needs for the north coast.
Strategic issues, infrastructure, roads
The NC500 has been a great boon, and may become even more successful, BUT with its tremendous success come serious demands on our transport infrastructure. In addition, the perennial issue in recent years of the communities of Lairg, Rosehall, Ardgay and Bonar Bridge being left high and dry - we need to lobby so that tourists are encouraged to explore beyond the 'main drag' of the NC500 and thereby spend more time in the county.
I will work with the Ward Manager and the Community Works Manager to ensure that communities' needs for road maintenance and local traffic management are properly delivered by the Council; after many delays and increasing exasperation, the Council has finally started to follow up on its commitments to the community of Knockan-Elphin to reduce speeding, but much remains to be done: I will maintain pressure on the council's officials to ensure that they meet ALL of their commitments in this regard.
I was one of those who fought most energetically, both on social media and by encouraging local organisations to lobby councillors and officials, to stop the council's announced plans (two years in a row!) to disband our countryside ranger service. While some may regard this as an unaffordable luxury in these days of austerity, those who work in the tourist industry realise what a vital role the rangers play in giving visitors 'added value' by deepening their experience when they pass through our area.
Non-council services, partnership
Although the NHS is not a council responsibility, we are in a part of the Highlands where the depth and breadth of coverage and services is being significantly altered - and often eroded. Councillors have a significant role to play in making sure that community concerns and priorities are heeded by NHS Highland, especially when it comes to key areas such as patient transport, adequate out-of-hours cover. There seems to be an inexorable drift towards delegating as much as possible to NHS 24, but as many of us know from our own experience this is simply NOT an adequate replacement for good local GPs and nurses.
Although the council has, perhaps unfortunately, no formal role in delivering broadband, both the Council and elected representatives may be able to apply pressure to keep the likes of BT and HIE's Community Broadband team up to the mark, or, where appropriate, to support locally-led broadband delivery schemes, such as that which will hopefully reach Knockan, Elphin and Ledmore in the next few months. I have been engaged on broadband issues on behalf of my community in Knockan-Elphin since 2010 and would hope to bring some of that experience to bear if useful.
The southeast of the ward has been hit hard by the recently announced closures of Bank of Scotland branches in Lairg and Bonar Bridge: I will work with these communities, the banks and local businesses to try and ensure that 24-hour ATMs can be provided for these villages, perhaps after the model that I believe has been agreed for Lochinver (with the RBS).
The council-owned harbours in Lochinver and Kinlochbervie are key drivers and hubs for their local economies. I would work to explore if more could be done to upgrade and maintain these critical facilities for the future.
Principles, wider political context
Our area is vast, often dismissed as ‘remote’ by those in Edinburgh or Inverness, but we have shown time and time again that there is plenty of dynamism here – some great projects have already happened or are about to happen, see some of the examples mentioned above, to which could be added Northwest Highlands Geopark, the North Highland Bus Timetable project, various local community bus initiatives (e.g., KLB, Assynt), the Lady Ross housing proposals – but my experience working at ground level in community development shows that without critical early support from the council and other agencies, many great initiatives can remain stillborn.
Some of the political parties may choose to try and run this campaign as a precursor to a possible 2nd Independence Referendum – I think that would do a very poor service to the people of NW and Central Sutherland: the local authority has more than enough urgent issues which affect residents directly on its plate, which deserve representatives’ full attention, without being diverted into fighting constitutional battles. As it happens, I personally support independence, but despite this, I simply do not feel this issue has much relevance to the business of selecting representatives we entrust with crucial responsibilities in administering local services, and maintaining a functioning local democracy.
In conclusion, I ask for your vote to fight energetically and tirelessly for the interests and priorities of the people of this ward. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org, 0776 6462844.