Are we happy for remote corporations or executive bodies to decide things ‘on our behalf’?
Infrastructure is what makes society work; the physical structures that allow society to function. Some are as old as the hills - or at least the paths between them. Some are much more recent, like hydro dams and railways. Some are very new like broadband, and some are only just now being imagined.
The earliest infrastructure was created locally by communities living on the land: routes for trade, seaways to and between islands, paths up to the summer pastures. Ad hoc connections, changing as the people’s needs changed.
But much of the existing infrastructure in the Highlands and Islands was imposed on us by landowners and central governments deciding what is good for us, for profit, or to subdue rebellious populations.
In recent years, much of what was made and had become state-owned, has been sold off and asset-stripped, with decisions now made by corporations with little or no connection to the land or people of the highlands and islands.
Infrastructure is the glue that holds society together. But it also shapes society by what it does and does not do. Why does the railway go to Kyle not Ullapool? Why do we not have a national ferry network? Why do buses go where profit can be made instead of where communities want them to go?
Who decides what kind of society is created by these decisions?
Are we happy for remote corporations or executive bodies to decide things ‘on our behalf’? In days gone by, our communities were battered by clearances and emigration, or became bystanders as massive forestry or hydro projects smothered and flooded the land – things were done to our lands, and to our communities; but even now when communities and individuals expect to be involved in what affects them, empowerment is too often an illusion.
Who benefits from decisions made about infrastructure?
Who decides what is kept, what’s maintained, what’s developed, what’s allowed to rust or fade away? What criteria are used to make decisions - Profit? National Importance? Vanity Projects? It is rare to find local benefit as the top priority.
Who pays the cost of these decisions?
Communities tend to pay the cost. Rural and Island communities are small and often vulnerable, have had many knockbacks in the past, and so it can be easier to overwhelm them with the offer of jobs or the threat to go elsewhere unless we roll over. But why should we?
Individuals lose when we become physically or mentally ill from having to live with the loss of land or amenity or constant noise or pollution; and from having to live with the loss of control over their future, and the feeling of – once again – being dictated to by remote uncaring bosses.
And the environment usually pays as well; with habitats torn up or built on, landscapes ruined, seas polluted.
The people of the highlands and islands have for centuries had to live with other people’s chosen infrastructure; had to make the best of it and work around the limitations. This costs time and energy and has held us back.
Our Infrastructure is not future-proofed.
And then there’s climate change. Extreme weather events – storms, flooding, landslides, drought, wildfires – make much of our infrastructure much more vulnerable to risk of disruption and death: cancelled flights and ferries, railways washed away, causeway closures, the endless sagas of the Rest And Be Thankful and the Stromeferry road/rail blockages.
Much of our transport infrastructure follows the old lines and hugs the coast or glens, dependent on the sea remaining where it is. But the sea does not remain where we dictate, it always has and will encroach onto our roads & rail tracks and in our drains & sewers and under-road electric cables. This will only get worse and more common as Climate Change bites.
Damage isn’t ‘only’ financially expensive and especially in less-populated areas the ‘powers that be’ can decide they don’t want to pay the cost.
Constant threats of damage and disruption eats into community resilience and saps the human spirit. Will the bus get through to school? Will the ferry bring our food? Will I get my mum to hospital in time? It makes it harder to run a business if you can’t guarantee deliveries or stable internet connection or the safety of your workforce.
The Democratic Deficit
Across the highlands and islands the specific issues may be different, but the common thread is that people feel excluded, pooh-poohed to about the risks and threats, lied-to or misled; and generally feel that the existing or proposed infrastructure is being done to them rather than for them.
We do not have the democratic infrastructure that we need for communities to be true and effective stakeholders with a real say. Community Councils are toothless, local authorities (which are neither truly local or have much in the way of authority) have been hollowed out, and we see very little strategic rural and island development support – the support for development communities actually want.
It has been left to communities to create Development Trusts or to have to buy their own land in order to have any say in our own futures. Far too many people in the highlands and islands are excluded and ignored, ill-served by infrastructure which increasingly points inwards to Inverness or outwards to distant Boardrooms.
What are the solutions?
We need the major ‘life and limb’ infrastructure to be owned by the nation, designed and managed for users, where any profits serve communities not tax-avoiding shareholders. Ferries, Railways, Electricity, Telecoms, Ports, Airports must be governed by democratically-accountable bodies whose duties are to the welfare of the country, the needs of our communities, the re-peopling of the islands & our rural lands; and the absolute overriding need for our country, our people, our infrastructure to be ready to survive and weather all that climate change will throw our way. In short, public services, in public hands, serving the public interest.
We want more active travel, joined up with integrated publicly-owned fully fossil-free ferries, trains, and buses. We demand proper maintenance of vital rural roads, not wasteful new road projects. We want a fair, universal, postal and delivery service where communities do not pay massive extra tariffs for deliveries in the Highlands and Islands. We want communities to be fully consulted on any new renewable energy or infrastructure projects and for them always to benefit financially from these projects – at least as much as other investors.
We already create increasing quantities of electricity from hydro, wind, now tidal; yet we pay the highest standing charges in the UK! We need a National Grid that works to distribute more power locally as well as channelling southwards.
But how will we decide?
If something is obviously very damaging to the environment or significantly adds to greenhouse gas emissions, then there has to be a better way.
If something clearly harms the communities it sits within or passes through, then there has to be a better way.
If something makes profits for remote shareholders but not for locals, then there has to be a better way.
And if something costs so much that by doing so prevents the greener and pro-social opportunities, then there has to be a better way.
Very few infrastructure projects, structures, or systems are so obviously damaging or obviously beneficial across the board on all criteria but we want to have far better ways of deciding what and how and where and why; ways that prioritise our environment and our communities far far higher than at present. Sometimes the better way is not to do it at all.
So much anger and frustration and stress can be avoided if we have strong systems that give powers to communities and actually value the precious environment. We all need to build a resilient and vigorous network of communities who can separately and together adapt to and thrive in a rapidly-changing climate.
The alternative is more decline, more expense, more disruption, more fear and loss, more heartache, more centralisation, more waste of hope and opportunity.
Only the Scottish Greens are demanding the combination of accountable ownership, community empowerment, and climate change resilience that will build our collective fair green future.